The Splitting of the Sea: The God of War
What is God?
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Everybody who knows anything about the Bible knows that the Red Sea miraculously split when the Israelites crossed and equally miraculously returned when the Egyptians chased after them in the dry sea bed. This much is established Biblical fact. For details see the 14th chapter of Exodus. The important thing is that the event happened more or less as described, so the paintings and the movie can be deemed faithful renditions.
The setting behind all this follows the Israelites leaving Egypt on Passover morning and making their way toward the Promised Land. They are inexorably heading toward the Sea of Reeds and history. Hashem then gives Moshe the advance plans for the fateful clash of destinies: ‘I have hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he will chase after them, and I will weigh down Pharaoh and his army, and Egypt shall know that I am Hashem’ (14:4). Sure enough, upon hearing that ‘the nation fled, Pharaoh’s heart and that of his servants was reversed and they said, “What have we done in sending away the Israelites from servitude?”’ (v.5). The chase is on. But here Moshe assures them: ‘Do not fear, stand and see the salvation of Hashem that will be done for you today…Hashem will battle for you and you shall be silent’ (v.13-14).
It’s reaching a crescendo. At this point ‘Hashem moves the sea by a strong eastern wind all night, and the sea was made into dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites came in the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were a wall for them on the right and left’ (v.21-22). The Egyptians follow after, as planned, into the sea bed. They are weighed down in the mud and their chariot wheels start falling off. Pharaoh finally declares, ‘Flee from the Israelites, for Hashem fights for them in Egypt’ (v.25).
Hashem then tells Moshe to raise his staff against the sea and the waters will return and drown the fleeing Egyptians. The waters crash back and cover the chariots and horses down to the last man. The chapter concludes with the dramatic statement: ‘And Israel saw the great hand that Hashem acted against Egypt, and the nation feared Hashem and they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant’ (v.31).
All this is spontaneously celebrated in the famous ‘Song of the Sea’, sung by Moshe and the Israelites to Hashem. ‘I will sing to Hashem who is exceedingly mighty, horse and chariot He threw into the sea. God is my strength and my song and is salvation for me, this is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my ancestors and I will exalt Him. Hashem is a man of war, Hashem is His name’ (15:1-3). It goes on in this theme, recalling the dramatic events in dramatic fashion. ‘Who is like You among the gods, Hashem, who is like You, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, doing wonder?’ (v.11). It ends with a resounding, ‘Hashem will reign forever and ever’ (v.18).
The first question anyone should be wondering about all this is why was it necessary to pull off this amazing miracle to begin with? If Hashem had not hardened Pharaoh’s heart after the Israelites were kicked out then none of this would have happened. Is Hashem just generating his own highlights reel? Why is Hashem playing around inside the mind of a perfectly normal person who made a few wrong decisions and now realizes his mistake and is ready to go own in life? Granted we get the greatest miracle in history out of it, but it does seem like a forced miracle.
This question can be asked all the way through this story. The Israelites’ praising Hashem to high heaven for saving them from the Egyptians could have all been avoided. The Song of the Sea, with all its elaborate praise – ‘Who is like You, Hashem, among the gods’, ‘Hashem will reign forever and ever’ – these seem a bit excessive or even unnecessary when the entire picture is taken into account. It’s a little disconcerting to ask these questions, since they poke a rather large hole in the entire edifice of God’s greatness.
Another question is the old one about the mixture of different images. First we have Elohim leading them on a longer route. Then we have Hashem dishing out instructions and doing all the dirty work. How are the two images working together? This leads us to the general image question itself – what is the image that comes from this story? Is the ‘Man of war’ image another of Hashem’s many manifestations? How does this image fit in with the general tenor or Judaism as a peace-loving, spiritual, and cerebral religion? This rather prominent expression seems to burst that bubble wide open.
First we’ll deal with the different images of God. Elohim, the Guide, is indeed guiding the Israelites. The Israelites, perhaps unknowingly, were on a path to destiny. What would the world be without this remarkable nation? It seems impossible that they could have fully appreciated the watershed moment of human history that they were in the midst of, yet there they were. This moment had to happen. It could not be left to the fickle whims of human emotions. There could be no turning back.
But Hashem is conducting the front end of this drama. Hashem put a strange bug into the mind of Pharaoh that he should reverse his clear decision and chase after his runaway slaves. Why? The Torah has a clear answer to this question. It was so that ‘Egypt shall know that I am Hashem’. Why is this so important? It appears that it wasn’t just the Israelites who were the participants in this divine drama. It was also the Egyptians. They also needed to know the nature and power of Hashem. Letting them wallow in their own false gods may have been fine with them, but it wasn’t part of Hashem’s plans. The Egyptians, evil and oppressive as they were, also needed to know this essential truth. This entire miracle of the sea, however it was masked in natural events, had to happen in order to establish the fundamentals of the divine-mundane relationship. Hashem engineered all this as a permanent lesson in the history of God.
This brings us to the final question, the image displayed in this story. Unquestionably, anybody looking for an image will be drawn to the ‘man of war’ description. Sometimes destiny can only be forged with war. Sometimes people have to die in order that those crucial turns in human history are made. Perhaps it would seem better if things didn’t have to be this way, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the way that things are. Is this an imperfection in God or in God’s plan? Who is to say? We all want peace, but it seems that all we get is war. This has been the way of the world since the very origins of civilization, as far as anybody knows. Is this a fault of God or a fault of man?
Images of God are manifestations of God as seen through the eyes of human beings. They do not necessarily reflect the absolute true essence of God, but they do portray how people imagine God to be. The image portrayed in these verses is a classic example of this. God may not be the least bit interested in war. War may seem like the pettiest thing imaginable to the divine and infinite mind of God. But it sure is important to human beings. We are, and always have been, pretty infatuated with war. Even today, with the fairly universal dread of war, there is nothing that gets a nation as worked up in the spirit of patriotism and righteous indignation
as a military campaign. Is it so surprising that the ancient world, including the Bible, should see in military victory the supreme revelation of the greatness of their deity?
We do not know if God really wanted to be called a ‘Man of war’. What is known is that these expressions found in the Song of the Sea, for better or worse, have been the classic ways that people have found the source of their strength. The Israelites did indeed see the ‘great hand that acted against Egypt’ during these glorious moments of victory and salvation. But is this really an image that we want to worship?
Perceiving the Image
This is a tough one. On the one hand, this is a classic image of God. Is Hashem just one more ‘war god’ to be worshiped in times of victory and abandoned in times of defeat? One would hope that somehow Hashem can rise above this monolithic and very physical image into a more universal and spiritual image. Without question, during the bulk of most of Jewish history, the universal and spiritual were sought after and the physical and subjective were not. But this was not always the case.
During Biblical times, war was one of the most direct means of accessing one’s god. The Israelites were no exception. Military victory was just as much a sign of divine approval as the seasonal rainfall. Nowadays, with the exception of religious wars, which are largely limited to one religion, this scale of measurement is seen as outdated and primitive. Does this mean that they were wrong and we enlightened ones are right? Possibly, but not necessarily. The definition of a deity is often determined by how people see their most important goals in life.
If people today have trouble relating to God through victory in war, they can still perceive that image through actions that stimulate parallel emotions. We all get charged up about personal ‘victories’ in life. An emotional hurdle that simply could not be overcome, and by some miracle is overcome, is a victory of the spirit that is every bit as great as the splitting of the sea. It may not have anybody writing songs about it but that’s just window dressing. The important thing is that it happened.
This is an opportunity to exult in the spontaneous joy of triumph, of vanquishing an enemy, of watching that enemy sink into the depths. It may be a personal victory for the will or it may be entirely attributable to ‘outside’ forces. Either way, there is cause for recognizing the ‘hand of Hashem’ in one’s own life, and for asking ‘Who is like You among the gods, Hashem, who is like You, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, doing wonder?’ These moments may be rare. They may come once in a lifetime. But when they do come, it is cause to sing, cause to proclaim whether privately or openly, that ‘God is my strength and my song and is salvation for me’. Who is your song, who is your strength? Is it yourself, your luck, your fate, or is it your God?
No matter how we spin it, this image is still disturbing. We all know the revolting consequences of dressing one’s deity in the guise of a ‘man of war’. Can this image still be called kosher?
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