Jan Johnson

Wisbit - July 2015

What About Those Drowning Egyptians?

Someone who recently saw the movie Exodus:  Gods and Kings asked me how a good God could drown the Egyptian soldiers in the sea. Here are a few thoughts that came to me.

  • God weeps over the destruction of people who choose to do evil - not just over those who do good.  In the Old Testament, God sobbed over nations as a grieving parent would sob over an erring child: “Therefore I weep with the weeping of Jazer. . .I drench you with my tears, . . .” (Isa 16:9,11). And whom was God weeping for? Moab and later Babylon, even though these countries oppressed Israel. “Look away from me, let me weep bitter tears; do not try to comfort me for the destruction of my beloved people” (Isaiah 22:4). When anyone rejects the truth and beauty offered to them in the kingdom life into which we are all invited, the Trinity takes to weeping. All this fits well with what Talmud scholars wrote about God:
     
    • Our rabbis taught, “When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation.  God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”

    (For more ideas and references about this, see my article “A God Who Weeps.” It includes ideas and quotes from the excellent book, The Suffering of God.)

  • The destruction of the Egyptian army was not God’s first choice, or even tenth choice. God gave Pharaoh many opportunities to free the Israelites whom they had unjustly enslaved. Even worse, the Egyptians committed infanticide against the Israelites: “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile’” (Exodus 1:22). How could a good and just God let enslavement and murder continue?
     
  • So God (through Moses) gave the Egyptians warnings - ten, in fact. What kind of parent gives ten warnings? Our merciful God works hard to avoid destruction. Yet people make evil choices and God is indeed a just parent who allows logical consequences to follow. And yes, the tenth plague involved the death of children  but not all the male children as the Pharaoh had murdered, but only one per family. At this point, God did not use the “eye for an eye” standard of judgment.
  • The deadly consequence of the destruction of the Egyptian army was a choice they made when they decided to pursue the fleeing Israelites into the miraculously – made pathway through the sea. The Egyptians presumed that the miracle performed for the Israelites to escape their tyranny was also intended for them. They could have avoided their own destruction if they had not been so determined to capture the fleeing Israelites. Their own thirst for brutality caused their destruction.

The Talmud quote above points out that giving or even allowing logical consequences for our actions doesn’t seem to be any easier for God than it is for a human parent. God’s will is for humans to act with love and justice, which is echoed in God’s frequent cry throughout the prophets: “Return to me!” Add to that plea the image of God with hands extended as God pleads: “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name. I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people” (Isaiah 65:1b-2a). Author Thomas Fretheim comments, “God’s hands are extended all day long in invitation, even to a rebellious people; but they would have none of God. Judgment must fall, but again it is accompanied by a heart full of grief.” In the same way, God experiences anguish and misery when we engage in self-destructive behavior. This is a God who desperately wants our best, a God we can trust to be and do good.

    Grace and peace,
    Jan Johnson

I highly recommend research on the Ancient Near East culture to see that the brutality was so harsh that the simple “eye for an eye” was a huge improvement. In ANE culture, it was a life for an eye. And the lives of your children for an eye.

www.JanJohnson.org

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