I haven’t seen it, but Ridley Scott’s epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings received poor reviews last year and was even banned in Egypt due to historical inaccuracies. The censors objected to claims that the Pyramids were built by Jews and opposed suggestions that an earthquake caused the parting of the Red Sea, even though Scott had an explanation for his depiction.
You can’t just do a giant parting, with walls of water trembling while people ride between them,” said Scott, who remembers scoffing at biblical epics from his boyhood like 1956’s The Ten Commandments. “I didn’t believe it then, when I was just a kid sitting in the third row. I remember that feeling, and thought that I’d better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation.”
Scott’s solution came from a deep dive into the history of Egypt circa 3000 B.C. After reading that a massive underwater earthquake off the coast of Italy caused a tsunami, he thought about how water recedes as a prelude to such disasters. “I thought that logically, [the parting] should be a drainage. And that when [the water] returns, it comes back with a vengeance.”
However it has been depicted in film, the story of the Israelites in the book of Exodus is a remarkable tale, from Moses’s relationship with Pharaoh, the the ten plagues (7:8-13:16) the first Passover (ch. 12), to the guiding of the people to Sinai (13:17-18:27), receiving the Ten Commandments (19:1-24:18) and to the building and dedication of the tabernacle of the Lord (35:4-40:38). Exodus is a book of redemption in which God delivers His people out of bondage and brings them into a special relationship with Himself.
The part of the redemption story that we heard this evening finds the Israelites stuck in the wilderness, tired and very hungry and complaining ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’
But it is only in the previous chapter that there has been the great victory of their flight from the Egyptians through the parted red sea. That was a completely different story. Then there was rejoicing and singing: Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. 2 The Lord is my strength and my might,* and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3 The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.
Likewise, the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’
If you know your Handel Oratorios, then you will know his joyous, even aggressively victorious, setting of these words in his great choral work: Israel in Egypt.
Indeed, the connection between the salvation history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, has long been associated with music. Isaiah 26:19, for instance, connects the notion of resurrection with song: ‘Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy.’ In addition, there are many verses of the psalms which refer to singing at times of salvation, rescue, or victory (33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 114:9, 149:1) and these are themes also witnessed in New Testament scenes of salvation, such as Revelation (15:2-3):
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!”
Michael O’Connor opines that, from the Biblical evidence, ‘Singing is what redeemed people do and in doing so they anticipate a consummation of their song in a future glory.’ New songs represent redeemed people who live in a new covenant as narrated in the New Testament, as Augustine preached:
So anyone who knows how to love the new life knows how to sing the new song. So for the sake of the new song we need to be reminded what the new life is. All these things, you see, belong to the one kingdom – the new person, the new song, the new testament or new covenant. So the new person will both sing the new song and belong to the new covenant.
It is the same theology, or soteriology, that we heard expressed in this evening’s anthem:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Which according to His abundant mercy, hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
It is remarkable then how soon, after this redemption from slavery, the Israelites come to be despondent. Even when Moses turns undrinkable water into sweet water at Marah, and God gives them twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees to camp under, they seem fearful and alone. In the desert of Sin, between Elim and Sinai, they cry: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
We too have, of late, been singing redemption songs, songs of freedom, salvation, resurrection. For this is the season of Easter, when we have time to reflect upon the good news of our freedom, bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. And yet, how difficult this is to see in a world where thousands of refugees flee north Africa only to be drowned in the Mediterranean, people are mindlessly slaughtered by terrorists, and Christians are burned alive or machined gunned down just because they are Christian. If God’s kingdom has come, on earth as it is in heaven, then surely something has gone wrong. What does the gospel have to say to us about such times and about God’s love for us?
Yesterday was the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, author of the shortest, and most dramatic of the gospel narratives. The original ending of his gospel depicts the women at the tomb discovering that Jesus is not there but has risen. Mark uses these words: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’
The reality of resurrection, which heralded a new era of revolution, was, apparently, as shocking, terrifying and amazing in first century Palestine as it is today, and human reaction to it is equally flawed. And yet, the events of Christ’s life and death have transformed the lives of millions throughout the generations. Mark would never know the impact of his gospel upon Augustine, Aquinas, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, or countless unknown saints of the faith who have been transformed by God and thus enact the redemptive work of God in the world.
The story of the flawed people of God in Exodus continued with the story of the flawed early Church to which John wrote in the book of Revelation, and it continues with us today. The greatest story ever told has not yet finished. How it ends will depend on how we play our part in it.
 Revelation 15: 2-3, New Standard Revised Version, cited in O’Connor, ‘The Singing of Jesus’, p. 440.
 O’Connor, ‘The Singing of Jesus’, p. 440.
 Augustine, Sermons, The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Part III, vol. 2, trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 1990), Sermon 34, p. 166, quoted in O’Connor, ‘The Singing of Jesus’, p. 440.