Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
by Gary Simpson
Exodus 14:19-31 (KJV)
19 And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: 20 And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. 21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. 23 And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24 And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, 25 And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians. 26 And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. 27 And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28 And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them. 29 But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. 30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore. 31 And Israel saw that great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses.
Exodus 15:1-11, 20-21 (KJV)
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. 2 The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him. 3 The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name. 4 Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea. 5 The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone. 6 Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. 7 And in the greatness of thine excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sentest forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble. 8 And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. 9 The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. 10 Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. 11 Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? 20 And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. 21 And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
The two passages in Exodus relate a little of the history of the Israelites, but we may need to back up to put things in context. Life for the children of Israel in Egypt was not easy. The Biblical story tells us the children of Israel "sighed" and "cried" because of the bondage and God heard them cry. They appear to have had reasons to sigh and cry. The Egyptians imposed labor on the children of Israel, subjecting the Israelites to governmental oppression. The Pharaoh decided one way to reduce the perceived threat posed by the children of Israel was to add to the workload placed on the Israelites and the Pharaoh asked that the male Israelite children be killed.
Bible scholar James Moffatt, in his translation of the Bible, refers to Egypt as a "slave pen." Even the Hebrew name for Egypt has some negative meanings. Egypt contains the meaning of a "besieged" place and such it was for the children of Israel.
God calls Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. A war of wills seems to take place between God and Pharaoh, with the Biblical narrative depicting God as afflicting the Egyptians with progressively worse plagues, as the Pharaoh consistently refuses to let the children of Israel leave Egypt. Finally, the Pharaoh lets the children of Israel go. He changes his mind and decides to send his army after the Israelites. And that is where our readings from Exodus pick up the story.
I can think of times when I felt like I was between the devil and the deep blue sea - helpless with the sense that there was no good direction to turn. At times, problems in society leave me feeling like I am between the devil and the deep blue. One of those times was after the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay college student who was murdered due to his sexual orientation. The resulting soul searching was painful, as was the sense of hopelessness in trying to combat the oppression of homophobia.
As a general rule, I tend to avoid talking about the news when I speak in churches. Even though one of my seminary professors recommended composing sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand, I struggle with the idea of dragging news into the sacred, into the sanctuary. In church, I prefer to discuss what is more permanent than a passing news story. I feel compelled to discuss some recent events, because advocacy is strongly linked to my spirituality.
Exodus is an important spiritual book for oppressed communities, such as Black Americans and gay, bisexual and trans people of faith, as well as being the basis of liberation theology for Latin Americans and other revolutionary spiritualities. So using a passage in Exodus as a context to look at Black and First Nation communities seems fitting.
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is haunting. Some churches are talking about his death and others are silent. An adjunct seminary professor I know tweeted frustration that nothing was mentioned about Michael Brown in the progressive congregation she attended.
Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old Black man, was killed by a policeman. There are reports Michael Brown was shot when his hands were in the air. I watched the news stories and the overwhelming outpouring of grief and anger on Twitter. A picture that may stick in the collective memory of a nation about Michael Brown is people going into his funeral with their hands in the air.
The news about Michael Brown and the resulting social unrest took me back to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old unarmed Black teen, who was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. My memory of the situation might not be completely accurate. As I recall the facts, George Zimmerman was on neighborhood watch. He saw somebody he thought was "suspicious" and the police instructed him not to get out of his car and not to approach the person. Zimmerman disregarded the police instructions, approached Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman ended up in some altercation with Trayvon, which ended when Trayvon was shot and killed. In a trial George Zimmerman was found innocent.
I cannot imagine the depth of loss suffered by the families. The shattering loss will last for many years. Every Thanksgiving and every Christmas there will an empty chair around the family dinning room table.
I wish I could say, "I am a Canadian. These are American stories." There is no room for me to feel above racism. Canada is facing a serious problem too. Amnesty International cites a Royal Canadian Mounted Police report as stating "1,017 Indigenous women and girls were murdered" between 1980 and 2012. Amnesty International expresses concerns that gaps in government reporting could mean the true numbers of Aboriginal women and girls murdered could be "much higher." To put this in perspective, if the same percentage of the population was murdered in United States the number would be around 10,000 murdered Indigenous women and girls. Indigenous women seem to be more likely than non-Indigenous women to be murdered by acquaintances, friends, colleagues, neighbours and other men who are not intimate partners or spouses. The murderers of Canadian Indigenous women are both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
Amnesty International calls for the following plan of action:
• A culturally-appropriate national plan to end violence targeting women, addressing the root causes of violence and holistic, ways in which to prevent violence.
• A national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women that focuses on the violence and on ensuring governmental and police accountability for an effective response.
• Regular collecting and reporting of statistics on violence targeting Indigenous women.
There might be better ways to address the issue and people of faith are not obligated to either follow or lobby for any one specific plan to help reduce the problem.
While I'm not to blame for all racism, there are elements of racism in my life that I may need to address. And I may need to step forward as a person of faith, as a person who cares and as a person who is committed to try to reduce the oppression that stems from old personal attitudes, old societal attitudes, and old governmental attitudes and policies. I believe God is calling a people of justice to search to create justice for members of visible minority groups.
I want to speak directly to those who have experienced oppression, because of their identities, to those who have been oppressed due to race, color of skin, ethnicity, ability, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation.
Oppression can leave us feeling powerless. Gunther Plaut, who is one of my favorite Jewish commentators, cites Ibn Ezra, who comments about the children of Israel. Years of oppression and slavery may have left the children of Israel with what he calls "slave mentality." Ezra notes that 600 thousand men "did not stand up and fight the Egyptians." He observes the children of Israel feared the Egyptians and they Israelites had not "learned to stand up to their masters." Oppression can also be an enemy of faith. People who live with oppression can struggle believing there is a caring God. The story is told of a woman asked a Jewish sage to help by praying. The sage asked her if she had adequate faith. Her response was wonderful. "'In the Torah it is written that God rescued Israel and then they believed.'" God acts and we believe. Fortunately, God moves to give oppressed peoples a reason for faith.
Speaking out against oppression takes guts. There are times when just the time we feel we are going to be overcome by the evils of oppression that the sea opens up for us. An ancient Hebrew commentary, the Midrash, observes that the waters did not divide, exposing 'dry ground', until the Israelites entered the sea and were "up to their very nostrils" in water.
Exodus Chapter 15 looks very unique in a Torah scroll. The Torah scrolls are not mass produced; they are painstakingly copied by hand. In the Torah scrolls, which contain the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the writing tends to be very traditional. With Chapter 15, the text is divided, so it looks like there are three columns. Some Jewish people believe the two outside columns represent the water and the middle column represents the children of Israel crossing the sea. Centuries ago, when the scribes of the Torah scroll reflected on the children of Israel crossing the sea, they chose to write the passage in a way that represented what happened. The focus in the Torah, set out in a way that visually captures one's attention, is on the delivery, on the positive, not on the oppression, not on the fear of the advancing army of the Pharaoh.
As individuals, we can focus on past injustices, daily reliving the oppression, making oppression our past, our present and our future. Or we can focus on the achievements on the moments of miracles and we can bring those feelings into the present, to give us the courage and the energy to face the future. The choice is ours - slave mentality or liberation celebration. I call on you to join me in liberation celebration.
Advocate God, give us the power to know who should advocate, to know when to advocate and to know how to advocate. You brought the sense of hope, courage and self-worth entire nation. As you enriched an entire nation, we ask you to enrich our lives, free us from the self-hate and self-doubt and self condemnation that comes from oppression and give us the ability to live lives that illustrate the power and love of the resurrected Jesus. Amen.
 Exodus 2:23-24.
 Exodus 1:10-11.
 Exodus 1:15-16.
 Exodus 20:1-2.
 James Strong. "A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible."Complete Word Study Old Testament. (Iowa Falls, Iowa: Word, 1994), 71.
 Exodus Chapters 3-4.
 Exodus Chapters 5-13.
 Exodus Chapter 14.
 Rebecca Alpert. "Exodus." The Queer Bible Commentary. (London: SCM Press, 2006), 62.
 Mark Berman. "Video Appears to Show Witnesses Reacting to Michael Brown’s Death." Washington Post. 11 September 2014, 12 September 2014..
 "Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts." CNN. 22 February 2014, 12 September 2014. .
 "Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts."
 "No More Stolen Sisters." Amnesty International, Canada. 04 October 2012, 12 September 2014. .
 "No More Stolen Sisters."
 "No More Stolen Sisters."
 "No More Stolen Sisters."
 Gunther Plaut. "Exodus." The Torah: A Modern Commentary. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 485.
 Plaut, 486.
 Plaut, 484.
 "The Song of the Sea, Sung with a Moroccan Nusah by R' Hillel Hayin Yisraeli-Lavery." The Open Siddur Project. 30 March 2013, 08 September 2014. < http://opensiddur.org/earth-cycle/daytime/morning/שירת-הים-the-song-of-the-sea-sung-with-a-moroccan-nusaḥ-by-r-hillel-ḥayim-yisraeli-lavery-2/>.