You can get a copy of "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here: my collection of retellings of the miracles of Jesus, published under my pen name, C.A. Gray
Today's podcast is a meditation/retelling of the first Passover, and Moses parting the Red Sea found in Exodus 11-14.
Here's the transcript:
It was evening. The people of Israel had just finished the meal as prescribed by the Lord, of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. I knew the meal was heavy with symbolism, but I didn’t understand what it symbolized—and quite frankly, I didn’t care. I was too nervous about what was to come for curiosity.
Aaron and I wandered amongst the Israelites and supervised as they completed the last and most important portion of the Lord’s instructions: each family dipped bunches of hyssop in a basin containing the blood of the Passover lamb they had just slaughtered, and painted the blood across their doorposts. I wanted to make very sure that every single Israelite family did this, and did it thoroughly. If there were over 3million people I wonder how Moses could have watched every house?
Beside me, Aaron chuckled darkly and smacked me on the arm. “Are you seeing all this plunder?” he murmured, and I followed where he pointed to a pair of Hebrew sisters, arms so laden with Egyptian family heirlooms of gold and silver that they could hardly walk. Then he called out to the sisters, “Did you leave anything in their house at all?”
“Not much,” one sister grinned back. The other added, “I’ve served this family my whole life, and I’ve always admired their silver bowls and this golden diadem—so I asked for them, and they just-- gave it to me! They practically begged me to take all the rest!”
I offered the giddy sisters a distracted smile. “Have you painted your doorposts?”
“Yes of course, we completed that first,” one replied, sobering up. I glanced down at their clothing: all the Israelites already wore the prescribed belt around their waists, sandals on their feet, and those who had a hand free carried their staffs as well. I glanced up at the darkening sky.
“Everyone get inside!” I bellowed, and those outside scampered to obey. Aaron gave me a slight reproving look.
“The Lord said midnight,” he murmured, “it’s barely dusk. No need to scare them.”
“You saw the last nine plagues,” I returned under my breath. “I am afraid of the Lord. Aren’t you?”
It was a rhetorical question, and Aaron took it as such. We made our way back to the hut where my siblings Aaron and Miriam grew up, and I noted that Miriam had already painted our doorway with the blood of our Passover lamb. With one last look around to verify that the rest of the Israelites were safely shut inside their homes under their banners of blood, I ducked inside and closed the door.
Aaron’s wife Elisheba and his four sons stood in the middle of the hut, staffs in hand. Elisheba watched me with wide eyes: anxious, but not quite frightened, which was how I felt. Miriam paced.
“Should we try to get some sleep? A few hours at least?” Aaron suggested, putting an arm absently around his son Eleazar’s shoulders.
We all looked at each other. None of us felt like sleeping.
“I suppose we should try,” Miriam ventured.
The hut was small for all of us. The boys, now in their late teen years, lay on the ground back to back. Aaron put his arm around Elisheba, and they leaned up against the wall and closed their eyes, staffs leaning upon the wall beside them. Miriam and I chose opposite walls and did the same. I stretched my legs out in front of me and closed my eyes. A few minutes later, I bent my knees. Then I leaned forward against my legs instead of against the wall. Then I folded my arms and tried to rest my head against them. Every few minutes for what felt like hours, I changed position—but it was no use. What time was it? I wished I could peer outside to tell. Was the Angel of Death passing over now? Were the firstborn children all over Egypt even now breathing their last?
Then the wailing began. Someone had awoken in the night. One cry became several, and then a chorus. Miriam, Aaron and I looked at each other: it was a discordant choir. Surely every man, woman, and child in Israel had been awakened by the sound, and knew what it meant.
Some time later, a fist pounded on the door of our hut. I was already on my feet, and answered mid-knock. One of Pharaoh’s officials stood at the threshold, his face ashen. He looked not at me, but at the blood painted upon the lintel. Then his haunted eyes met mine. He and I had never spoken before, as Aaron always spoke directly to Pharaoh on my behalf, but he had seen me in the throne room many times since the whole ordeal had begun. The official swallowed.
“None… have perished… within this house,” he said, his voice quavering. “Have they?”
“Of course not,” I replied, matter of fact. I held on to the outside of the door, waiting for what I knew he would say next.
“Of course not,” he repeated in a whisper, eyes cast down to my feet. Then he swallowed again, and said, “I bring word from Pharaoh. He says, 'rise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel. And go, serve the Lord as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and... bless me also.’” The official ended his statement with a whispered plea, and then turned those haunted eyes back upon mine, as if begging for himself rather than for his sovereign. I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, bowed my head, and prayed silently to the Lord for him. Then I turned to find my family already on their feet and ready to go, staffs in hand. Miriam and Elisheba had each bound up their kneading bowls under their cloaks, containing the unleavened bread, while the boys distributed their share of the plunder from their Egyptian neighbors among their things.
The Israelites came out of their homes at the ready, as their neighbors either knocked or called. The nearby Egyptians heard the commotion and came out of their homes, every last face streaked with tears and horror. We assembled too slowly for them.
“Go!” shrieked one grieving mother at our growing ranks. “Get out of here, go!” Another man added, “We shall all be dead if you linger a minute longer! Go!”
I ignored their shouts, waiting until Aaron could verify for me that all the Israelites were alerted and assembled. I saw Miriam wiping tears from her cheeks in empathy for their Egyptian neighbors, but I could muster no sympathy for them. Had I not warned them? Had I not told them how to protect themselves from the Destroyer? After nine previous plagues, did they not think I meant what I said? In fact there were a few Egyptians who had heeded my warning, who had been circumcised, eaten the Passover meal with us and who had taken refuge inside our blood-painted homes with their families. Those few proselytes had seen and feared the power of the Lord and decided to join our ranks, to leave Egypt with us and go with us to the Promised Land. These grieving men and women could have done the same, had they chosen to do so.
I looked up at the sky, estimating that it was perhaps an hour after midnight when we finally began our exodus out of Egypt. Just before we left, Aaron handed me my cargo wrapped in linen, and I tied it between my shoulders. While the others took treasures from their neighbors or their kneading bowls of unleavened bread, I carried the exhumed bones of the patriarch Joseph. He had exacted a promise at his death that his descendants would take his bones back to the Promised Land upon our exodus, which he knew would occur based upon the promise the Lord had made to his great grandfather, Abraham.
“So…” Miriam whispered to me, “none of us have ever seen this Promised Land before, including you. How exactly do we know where to go?”
I had just been wondering this myself, when Aaron nodded to me that the people were all accounted for: six hundred thousand men, plus women, children, flocks, and herds. We would not be moving quickly. Staff in hand, I turned back to begin our hike, and startled to see a pillar of fire hovering in midair, blazing and crackling just far enough ahead of me to keep the heat from becoming uncomfortable. My mouth fell open. When I’d recovered myself, I turned to Miriam, gesturing at the pillar.
“There’s your answer,” I told her.
The Lord, as the pillar of fire, led us from Rameses to Succoth, some eight miles away. When dawn came, the pillar began to fade away, and I wondered if the Lord meant to lead us only by night. But in its place, a pillar of cloud appeared, guiding us on. It vanished in late morning, once we had reached Succoth. I took that as our cue to give the children and elderly a rest. We were all exhausted, though, both emotionally and physically: few of us had slept at all before our journey began. But miraculously, of the millions of people in our group, there was not one feeble person among them. The women unwrapped their kneading bowls, heated coals, and baked unleavened cakes from the dough for the morning meal, while as many as were able napped or rested.
Aaron sat beside me as we ate, looking out in the direction of the now fabled Promised Land, the land that the Lord had told us flowed with milk and honey.
“That way is Philistine country,” Aaron murmured unnecessarily. I nodded.
“The Lord has already spoken to me that He will not lead them that way.”
Aaron shrugged. “It is by far the shortest route…”
“I know that, but the Lord is concerned that if we immediately lead the people into war, they will change their minds and retreat back to Egypt. He will take them to the wilderness and toward the Red Sea.”
Aaron looked back over his shoulder at the mixed multitude, including many women, children, and elderly, and pursed his lips. “That’s true. Soldiers, these are not.”
“It doesn’t matter if they are soldiers or not,” I retorted, perhaps a bit more harshly than I’d intended. “The Lord fights our battles for us, regardless. We do not even need weapons. But the people do not understand that yet. They have seen the Lord’s works, but they do not understand His ways, as we do. They do not know His character, and so they cannot predict what He will do next. They cannot trust Him, as we can.”
Aaron was a bit taken aback by this, catching my emphasis. “Yes, brother,” he repeated at last. “As we can.”
When the people were refreshed enough to continue, the cloud reappeared. Aaron and I again took the lead, and the cloud took us from Succoth to Etham. At dusk, Aaron, Miriam and I watched in appreciative amazement as tendrils of flame licked through the cloud at dusk, transforming it to the pillar of fire before our eyes. The pillar stopped at Etham, where we camped that night at the edge of the wilderness.
The next several days were much the same: walking through the wilderness at a very slow pace behind the pillar of alternate cloud and fire, stopping to rest and camp for the night. I did not need to know where I was going, so I was surprised when the Lord spoke to me on the third day.
Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea, He said. For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.’ Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.
I pictured the land the Lord meant, puzzling over His instructions silently: mountains on two sides, and the Red Sea on a third, with Pharaoh’s army blocking our only route of escape. It must have shown on my face.
“What is it?” Aaron asked me. “You’re frowning.” I told him what the Lord had said, and my brother’s eyebrows shot up. “Pharaoh is going to… pursue?” he balked.
“Shh!” I looked around this way and that, to make sure none of the Israelites had overheard. “Yes, apparently. Remember I originally asked him to let us journey three days into the wilderness only? Only a fool would expect us to return after all that has happened, but perhaps he still does. Clearly Pi Hahiroth is not on the way back to Egypt, and it will signal to Pharaoh that we’re not coming back… but it sounds like the Lord also wants to entice him to follow us by making us look like easy prey.”
Aaron let out a puff of air through pursed lips, and dragged his hand across his face and beard. “Yes, but then what? We will be easy prey.”
“No,” I said fiercely, pinning him with my gaze. “We will not, because the Lord is on our side!”
“So, what, you think He’s going to mow down Pharaoh’s army for us?” Aaron demanded. “You think he’s going to—what, part the sea so we can walk through it?” His tone of scoffing incensed me.
“I do not know how He is going to deliver us, but yes, after the ten plagues, and the pillar of cloud and fire, and the willing plunder of our captors? I do believe He is going to deliver us. As should you!”
Aaron blinked at me, looking at once skeptical and chagrined. He held up his hands.
“We do as the Lord commands. Of course.”
So I went and told the Israelites where we were going, but not why. No one asked. They blindly trusted that I knew best—until anything appeared to go wrong. Then they all turned on me, as I knew full well. I wasn’t looking forward to that part.
When we arrived at Pi Hahiroth, and some of the men of Israel saw the tactical disadvantage of such a camp, I could feel their restless energy, and thought I overheard some of their rebellious grumbles. None had the courage to directly challenge me, though a few approached Aaron. I saw him speaking to them in low, earnest whispers. Still, they went away looking dissatisfied. Dusk fell, and the pillar of cloud became a pillar of fire. It hemmed us in against the sea.
Then we heard the hoofbeats, and the rumble of chariot wheels. My heart beat faster. This was it.
At first, before the Israelites admitted to themselves what it was, they simply seemed to grow more agitated. But as it grew louder, and when at last they could see the Egyptian army beyond the pillar of fire, the wailing and the pandemonium began.
“Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?” they cried out, and “Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?” and, “Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” Women cried out and tore their clothing. All around us the people wept and trembled and raged. I had never had a strong voice; that was why I had pleaded with the Lord to allow my brother to be my mouthpiece. Fortunately, he did so now.
“SILENCE!” Aaron thundered, his rich baritone suddenly amplified and echoing with such supernatural authority that the stunned people actually obeyed. In the brief lull that followed, Aaron turned to me, and gave me a small nod of his head.
I cleared my throat, and raised my arms. Then, with more confidence than I had ever heard in my own voice before, I cried out, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace!”
Then silently I added as I watched the army approaching, Okay, Lord. Now would be a good time.
The Lord responded to my spirit, Why do you cry to Me?
I blinked, watching as the army drew closer. I should think that is obvious, I told Him.
I gave you the rod, did I not? The Lord replied. My power is in your hand. Use it! Tell the children of Israel to go forward. But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.
So the Lord did indeed intend for us to go through the sea! I wondered if that had been His intention all along, or if He did that just because Aaron had mocked the idea. It otherwise certainly never would have occurred to me.
The army halted before the pillar of fire that divided them from us. I had the impression that the Lord had hidden us from their sight, though fire should have illuminated us instead.
“What are you doing?” Aaron hissed as I marched toward the Red Sea.
“Exactly what you suggested,” I hissed back.
“Which is what?”
“Parting the Red Sea.”
Aaron gave a short snort of laughter. Then he saw my face in profile, hard as stone. “You’re serious.”
I held up the rod with a quick glance at my brother. “Watch me.” Then I stopped at the edge of the waters, and did as the Lord commanded: I stretched out my hand over the waters.
Suddenly a howling gust of wind seemed to blow from my staff, straight down into the waters to the sea floor. The waters peeled back layer by layer, as if they had been cut with a knife, rising like pillars to the right and to the left. The land at the bottom of the sea appeared, filled with coral and seaweed and mud. An instant more, and the sea bed dried up completely.
I stood there gaping for a moment, forgetting to breathe. What a sight! Was it real? Was it possible?
Then I remembered I was far from alone. With a quick glance over my shoulder, I beckoned Aaron with a gesture of my head. He practically had to scrape his jaw off the ground, but he recovered himself, in turn beckoning the people to follow.
I led the people through the sea, looking in amazement at the sight of the pillars of water on either side of us. A few unfortunate fish flopped on the dry ground at our feet. Miriam took pity on the ones she came across, and picked them up with her fingers, tossing them back into the walls of water. I overheard some of the delighted squeals of the children as they found starfish and lovely pieces of coral. The sound brought tears to my eyes, as I pictured those same children as adults, telling their own children, “Yes, this is a very special starfish! I found it on the dry seabed of the Red Sea, when the Lord led us through and delivered us from our enemies!”
All night we crossed, as the wind continued to blow, whipping our hair and robes all around us. I glanced back behind us several times, and saw that at the far back of our company, the pillar of fire brought up the rear, hiding and guarding the people from Pharaoh still. Beyond that, I thought I saw that, incredibly, Pharaoh had pursued us.
“They’re actually coming after us,” Miriam said to me under her breath. “Pharaoh and his army! He sees that the Lord parted the Red Sea for us, and he’s still pursuing! How stupid is he?”
Behind me, I heard the people’s shrieks of terror. “They’re going to catch us!” women cried, and men shouted at me, “Should we go back and fight? Moses! Moses!”
I gritted my teeth, ignoring them and staring straight ahead. The sea floor had already begun its sloping ascent to the shore, though I estimated that shore was probably another hour’s march ahead, given the speed and number of the Israelites. It was true: we were incredibly slow, and on foot. Pharaoh’s army rode chariots and horses.
In the distance, behind the pillar that guarded us, I heard the whinnies and neighs of the horses, and the sounds of battle. I whirled around now in dread, and blinked at what I saw. The wheels of Pharaoh’s chariots had popped off! The army was in pandemonium. Many of the chariots were overturned, or piled up upon one another. Aaron let out a short laugh of glee.
“Come on!” I shouted, picking up my pace to the shore. I suddenly knew what I had to do.
For some time, I outstripped the people by a considerable margin. Aaron and Miriam hurried to catch up, along with Aaron’s family, who tried to bridge the gap and urge the rest of the Israelites to make haste.
These people are insufferable, I thought in amazement, but did not say.
The thought was not meant to be directed to the Lord, but the Lord answered me anyway. Oh. You don’t know the half of it yet.
When I’d reached the shore and the last of the straggling Israelites climbed up beside me, I looked back over the Red Sea, waters still parted from shore to shore, with a pillar of fire standing between us and the Egyptian army. The army had made no progress from the time the Lord began to trouble the wheels of their chariots. It looked like they were trying to flee back in the opposite direction, but they couldn’t seem to do that either. The first glimmer of dawn appeared on the horizon.
Stretch out your hand over the sea, the Lord said to me, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.
Staff in hand, I did so. With a mighty thunderous crash, the walls of water collapsed, as if the invisible hands holding them in place had been removed. We heard not so much as a cry from our pursuers. They simply vanished before our eyes in the sea.
For a long moment, I could hear nothing but the thunder of the waters. When the waves calmed, I heard the shouts of the people behind me. I closed my eyes, stinging with tears, a lump in my throat.
You did it, Lord, I told Him. You are… incredible!
Tell the people, He replied. Lead them in a song of praise. Memorialize this moment, and mark every detail. For they will soon forget.
How can any of us ever forget what wonders you have done for us this night? I thought. You are so good, so powerful, so righteous!
Tell the people, He said again. They will follow your lead.
So I did. I was not much of a speaker, and even less a singer, but my skill did not matter. I turned around, let the people see my tear-streaked face, and raised my hands. Then I opened my mouth in song. It came to me fully formed, in perfect verse, and with a melody simple and catchy enough that the children picked it up at once. Miriam had brought her timbrel, so she danced among the people, encouraging all the young women to join her. The children did too, making up all their own steps as they went. Even the most stoic of the people clapped their hands and learned the words. We laughed, sang, danced, and rejoiced before the Lord with all our hearts.
They will soon forget, the Lord had said. But for this moment—for this moment, they were thankful.