With something like the explanatory potency of Genesis’ account of human origins, the story of the Hebrew slaves fleeing their ‘house of servitude’ in the book of Exodus strikes the hearer with stunning immediacy. We recognize our own terror in theirs, hemmed in by the sea ahead, besieged by the tromping of Egyptian boots, driven near to madness by the neighing of Egyptian horses behind them.
The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon. As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD.
It is too familiar, this trapped-ness, these dashed hopes of freedom, these adrenaline regrets.
So too, the acid which rises frictionless to their dry tongues:
They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?’
These fears are ours, this turning on our liberator bears our impress, this mirror shows our faces at almost zero distortion. At moments of what presents itself as terrified lucidity, we know exactly what can and cannot be done for us, with us, in us. We wonder what we were thinking when we lapsed into dreams of things better than what now appears as the good life of serving our damned, whipping Egyptians. Back then, nobody was crazy enough to speak of freedom.
Those were the days.
Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!
Before all else, YHWH’s people are liberated slaves. Biblical ethics flow from the experience of slavery and liberation, YHWH becomes enshrined as the One of Sinai, his remembered deliverance becomes both strength and song. The paradigm forged from the panic of slaves and the liberation that YHWH would effect for them is a deep and shaping construct, strong and flexible like finest steel.
It all starts here, on the edge of an unyielding sea, pursued by death-dealing Egyptians, bitter with the inflexibility of a closed, asphyxiating system where good things cannot happen because safe slavery is the best that can ever be.
Then YHWH parts the waters.