Pharaoh's army got drownded

We hear the words from Exodus and whether we like it or not, fragments of clips begin to play in our imagination. For some of us the scenes are from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) where Charlton Heston stands on the rock above the sea, with arms stretched out wide, staff in hand, declaring, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us,” and then thick clouds gather and the wind makes a way in the sea. Others will remember the scene from “The Prince of Egypt” by DreamWorks (1998), where Moses walks a few feet into the surf, staff in hand, and he pushes it down on the ground he stands on and the waters part and draw back, opening a path for God’s people to escape Pharaoh’s army. On dry land they cross over, between enormous walls of water on their left and on their right, protected from the chaos and death of the sea. Pharaoh’s army follows them, warriors on foot, warriors in chariots, but then the walls of water begin to collapse behind the Israelites and violent waves wash over the Egyptians.Not one of them remained, the Bible tells us, and at dawn the Israelites saw the bodies of their former masters washed up dead on the seashore. The chariots, cutting edge military technology: gone. Pharaoh’s elite warriors: perished. The house of slavery: dismantled.

Walter Brueggemann comments, “The narrative invites silence before this stunning reversal of the processes of power.”[1] In the DreamWorks version of the story the people look across the sea, wide-eyed, and no one makes a sound for seconds, which is a long time in an animated musical. You can see awe in their faces.

In the Bible, the chapter is followed, not by silence, but a song:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (…) The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; (…) the floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.[2] 

Was it necessary? Wasn’t there already a heaven-sent pillar of cloud and fire holding back Pharaoh’s chariots so that the Israelites could pass through the divided sea? Could not that pillar have kept them at bay a little while longer, until the waters had returned? Did they all have to be covered by the sea, sink like lead in the mighty waters? I wonder—don’t you?

Whatever you make of it, the violent ending is not random violence. Much is at stake here, everything is at stake. It’s Pharaoh’s oppressive sovereignty clashing with God’s. It’s Pharaoh’s vision of a house of slavery competing with God’s vision of God’s people on God’s land. Noone was going to look back and say, “Well, if that odd cloud hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have gotten out. There’s no way they could have outrun the Egyptian military.” They did and the outcome was decisive and clear. After that night, no situation of human oppression could ever be justified as somehow being part of God’s plan for creation. “Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep,” slaves in this country sang, knowing in their bones that God is a God of freedom and that they and their children would be free some day.

Victory songs on the seashore are not the end of the story, though. The rabbis noticed a phrase that opened a window to heaven. When the angels saw the drowning Egyptians they were about to break into song, but God silenced them saying, “How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying?” [3]

Pharaoh and his warriors are no less the work of God’s hands than the children of Israel, and while humans may sing after the yoke of oppression has been lifted from their shoulders at such a cost, the angels may not. That song will have to wait.

In the book of Proverbs, the ambivalence appears in two sayings, one stating, “When the wicked perish, there is jubilation” and the other, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall.”[4] If we don’t sing when slavery has come to an end and God’s people are on the way to freedom in the promised land, then we are not in tune with God’s will and purpose; but if we are not saddened by the loss of life, our knowledge of God’s heart is still very fragmentary.

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways,” we read in Ezekiel (33:11). In a bold rabbinic reading of the story of the parting of the sea, Pharaoh did not drown with his army. He is mentioned explicitly only at the beginning of the chapter, and with great interpretive skill Rabbi Eliezer showed that Pharao did not die but fled to the east. Eventually he became the king of Nineveh, and when the prophet Jonah showed up, it was Pharaoh who led the repentance movement in the city and throughout the land.[5] You may think that the ancient scholars were a little too creative in their interpretive work, but I look at it as yet another way of composing a song of hope inspired by God’s mercy. Who would have thought that ole Pharaoh could end up serving as the poster child for repentance?

Some of us, I believe, still struggle with the violence of God in this story, and not all of that struggle can be explained by pointing to the different sensibilities of the writers of those days and today’s readers. The tension between God’s fierce justice and God’s equally fierce mercy is part of the biblical witness, not just something we bring to it.

Terence Fretheim points out that God’s violence is never an end in itself, but is always exercised in the service of God’s saving purposes for creation under threat: it serves the deliverance of slaves from oppression,[6] the deliverance of the righteous from their antagonists,[7] the deliverance of the poor and needy from their abusers,[8] and the deliverance of Israel from its enemies.[9] And violence in the service of God’s saving purposes for creation under threat is not just a matter of the end justifying the means. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we understand the violence assigned to God as counterviolence, which functions primarily as a critical principle in order to undermine and destabilize other violence.

“Israel lives (as do we) in a threatening world of many competing powers, all of which struggle for control. Thus the violence undertaken by [God] as warrior is not characteristically a blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power.” He also points out that “this rhetoric of violence is characteristically on the lips of those who otherwise have no effective weapons,” that is, not on the lips of the mighty.[10] If there were no human violence, if there were no human disregard for the image of God in another human being, there would be no divine wrath or judgment, which may take the form of violence.

Abraham Heschel wrote, “[Our] sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?”[11]

I can’t begin to imagine what our history had been, not to mention what our hope would look like, had the Hebrew slaves simply slipped out of Egypt under the cover of night, without the clash of the two very different visions of freedom, land, and life represented by Pharaoh and the God who hears the cries of the poor. Would we even care about continuing forms of slavery and human trafficking? Would we care about domestic violence? If God is not angry, why should we be? We may struggle with the violence of God, but indifference with respect to those who have suffered human cruelty, indifference is not an option. The God we encounter through the witness of scripture is a passionate God.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.”[12]

God does not simply give people up to experience violence. God chooses to come down and deliver so that evil will not have the last word. Again and again, God takes the side of those afflicted by violence. And in another exodus, again creating a way out of no way, God in Jesus entered deeply into the abuse, the ridicule, and the scapegoating we engage in with each other. And God bore the full weight of it, the whole, oppressive yoke of our sin, all of it, and cast it into the depths of the sea.[13]

At dawn, Mary came to see the tomb and the angels in heaven sang, “O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn, O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn, the power of sin got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.” The angels sang, Mary’s mourning was turned into dancing, and the song will never end.


[1] Brueggemann, Exodus NIB, 795.

[2] see Exodus 15:1-18 and Miriam’s song in 15:21

[3] Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b

[4] Proverbs 11:10 and 24:17

[5] Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer vi. Ch. xl.-xlvi.

[6] e.g., Exodus 15:7; Psalm 78:49-50

[7] e.g., Psalm 7:6-11

[8] e.g., Exodus 22:21-24; Isaiah 1:23-24; Jeremiah 21:12

[9] e.g., Isaiah 30:27-33; 34:2; Habakkuk 3:12-13

[10] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 244.

[11] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 284-285.

[12] Exodus 3:7-8

[13] See Micah 7:19