The setting is perhaps one of the most famous in the entire Biblical narrative: the side of the Red Sea, a crowd of fleeing Hebrew salves anxiously looking over their shoulders at the approaching army of the Pharaoh. According to rabbinical commentary, however, Moses doesn't just simply the raise his staff and part the waters -- more has to happen first, and the more that happens is hugely influential in shaping the new relationship that the Hebrews are forming with God, and the new role for man that this creates.
The Biblical narrative as it currently stands tells the story in the following manner: the people, trapped between the sea and the approaching army, begin complaining to Moses, "What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 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!'" (Exodus 14: 11-2). Moses tells them to trust in God, "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground'" (Exodus 14: 15-6). The text certainly suggest an exasperation on God's part, and a desire that Moses and the people try to do something to help themselves instead of solely and automatically turning to God.
This sense of God's desire for man's more active involvement in shaping his future is borne out by rabbinical commentary, which states that a man named Naschon ben Aminadav, hearing the bickering all around of him of who was to test the crossing first by taking an ultimate leap of faith into the waters of the sea, jumped in and began to sink. It is at this point that God tells Moses to stop praying and to see what is going on, and it is not until Naschon ben Aminadav is "up to his nostrils that the water was actually parted" (Peretz, par. 6). God was unwilling to help until man helped himself, and until man showed a proactive faith in assistance rather than a reactive faith of retribution. Naschon ben Aminadav did not act out of a fear of punishment, that is, but rather out of a hope of redemption.
The story of Exodus as a whole is, of course, one of redemption, as the Hebrews are taken from a foreign land where they have been slaves for generations and returned to their homeland where, for a time at least, they can live life freely and under their own book is itself largely indicative of the changes that take place throughout the rest of the journey through the wilderness, however, and makes an excellent closing case for this analysis. Like much of Exodus, the fortieth and final chapter is largely concerned with details of laws and procedures -- in this case, the building of the Tabernacle. When completed, "the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" and "the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels" (Exodus 40:34, 38). Instead of a removed source of fear, God has become a more benevolent (though admittedly still feared) force hat dwells amongst the people, instructing them when to move forward and when to settle in one place for awhile, guiding them in their completion of righteous acts and not simply punishing them for failures in this regard. Though not quite the emblem of endless compassion and love that the New Testament puts forth, this God is not wholly focused on retribution.
The view of God held by the Hebrew people in the Hebrew Scriptures or "Old Testament" is not as static nor as entirely fear-based as if often thought. Though there is a basis for this generalization, it does not persist throughout the entirety of these scriptures, nor even through the entirety of a single book. Exodus provides an excellent example of the transitions of faith and perspectives on God that are travelled through by the Hebrew people.
Binz, Stephen. The God of Freedom and Life. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1993.
Exodus. New International Version Bible. Accessed 27 September 2010. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus&version=NIV
Fretheim, Terence. Exodus. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991.
Peretz, Rabbi Cheryl. "Miracle of Miracles: Exodus 13:17-17:16."…
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