Exodus and the Cosmic Battle (Again)
In my previous two posts, we have seen that Israel describes the act of creation as a cosmic battle. You find this in Psalms, Job, prophetic books, and echoes of it in Genesis 1.
Last week we began looking at how this theme is also present in the exodus story, the story that recounts Israel’s origins as a nation. Israel’s beginnings are a cosmic battle story, as well. In this post, we will continue with the book of Exodus by looking at two more elements that echo the cosmic battle: (1) the plagues are a reintroduction of chaos into the created order, and (2) the crossing of the Red Sea.
1. Plagues Reintroduce Chaos.
As we have seen, the plagues describe a battle scene between Yahweh and the gods. But there is another side to this coin. The plagues are also a reintroduction of chaos into the created order. Once you are in tuned to the cosmic battle motif in the Old Testament in general, you can see how that theme provides the theological “oomph” of the plague narrative.
To see more clearly the plagues as a reintroduction of chaos, we need to step back and be reminded of the flood story. This is not off-topic; it all hangs together.
The flood is not a really bad spell of rain. It is God reintroducing chaos. God established order by sheer force, keeping the waters separate and allowing land to appear (Genesis 1:6-10). When God opens up the windows above and the springs below (Genesis 7:11), his is allowing the “waters of chaos” to come crashing back in on an ordered world. God releases his grip, so to speak, and the world returns to its “pre-ordered” chaotic state.
Establishing order means separating the elements of creation and putting them where they belong. When we see the elements of creation overstepping their boundaries, we know something big is happening. The flood is the first example.
The plagues are the second example. These are not just inconvenient ecological disturbances or random acts of divine muscle flexing. They are pockets of chaos crashing in on the Egyptians.
Look back at the creation language we saw in Exodus 1:7, that the Israelites were to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Israelites were fulfilling their “creation mandate” to fill the earth, what the creator-God blessed them to do. This is what Pharaoh was intent to put a stop to (1:9-10).
So, think of the plagues as payback. Pharaoh sets himself up against the creator Yahweh, and Yahweh says, “I can play that game, too.” It is fitting for Yahweh to respond to Pharaoh by unleashing chaos against him: water turns to blood; frogs leap out of the water and invade the land; dust turns to gnats and blanket the land, as do swarms of flies; soot from furnaces turn to boils; thunder and lightning come out of a clear sky; the sun darkens. The created order is being undone.
There is more. Yahweh reintroduces chaos selectively. He makes a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians (e.g., Exodus 7:22-23; 9:4, 26). The Israelites remain in a habitable place. They are safe amid the chaos.
Another thing: Yahweh is not just able to reintroduce chaos at will. And he is not only able to shield the Israelites from it. He shows his absolute might by being able to re-establish order by making the plagues stop. This is extremely important. Notice the exchange between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court in the first two plagues. Even the magicians can introduce a little chaos (they turn water to blood [7:22] and multiply frogs [8:7]).
But their power was limited. They are only able to reproduce the first two plagues. And more importantly, the real limitation of their power is that they were not able to make the chaos stop. Here is where Yahweh really makes an impression. In the plague of hail, Pharaoh learns that “the earth is Yahweh’s” because Yahweh can make the hail stop (9:29). With the plague frogs, he even gives Pharaoh the choice of when he would remove them (8:9). Only the true and mighty God can re-establish order.
These ideas are continued in the Red Sea episode.
2. Red Sea.
The parting of the Red Sea is not about Yahweh swooping in and flexing his muscles—like Dudley Do-Right showing up in the nick of time to untie Penelope from the train tracks. It is the final stage of the cosmic battle in Exodus.
The entire narrative up to this point has been a series of mini-battles between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt. Yahweh has been reintroducing chaos all over the place and re-establishing order. And all along he has been keeping the Israelites safe and sticking it to the Egyptians. Indeed, Yahweh prolonged the agony for the very purpose of showing the Egyptians—and the entire world—who is boss (9:15-16). The plagues have been one long, deliberate movement toward a climax, the last stage of the battle—the parting of the Red Sea.
And here is where some of the elements we have seen above and in earlier posts tie together. In a word, in the exodus, Yahweh once again conquers the “sea.” He is “creating” a new people out of another “cosmic battle.”
Note that the waters of the Red Sea are divided (14:16, 21). And this allows the dry land to appear (14:21). This is an echo of the cosmic battle motif in Genesis 1, where dry land appears once the waters have been moved to the side (the Hebrew word for dry land, yabbashah, occurs here and in Genesis 1:9). “Creating” dry land amid the water describes both creation and exodus. Here again we have a “habitable” place for the people of God, a place where they are kept safe from the chaos.
Some ancient Jewish interpreters even described the bottom of the sea as an “herb-bearing plain” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:7). A Targum (Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Old Testament) describes it as filled with “sweet springs…edible trees, herbs, and fruit.” These descriptions call on the imagery of the habitable land in Genesis 1:11 (vegetation, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees; see also Genesis 2:9). The parting of the Red Sea is another act of “creation.”
God’s people are kept safe from chaos, but what happens to the enemies of God’s people? For them, the chaotic sea, held at bay by the power of God, comes crashing back in on the Egyptians. Just as in the plagues, a distinction is made where the people of God are safe in the created order, but the enemies of God suffer the forces of chaos.
It is also important that we hear an echo of the flood story here (which, as we’ve seen, is itself an echo of Genesis 1). In both the exodus and the flood, those who are opposed to God are drowned, while God’s people are kept safe. Moses and the Israelites are like Noah and his family.
If you need some convincing on this point, think about this. In Exodus 2, Moses’ mother saves him from Pharaoh’s edict to drown the male infants (another watery fate). She puts him in a reed basket and floats him down the Nile. Note that the basket is lined with tar and pitch (2:3), just like the ark (Genesis 6:14). And there’s more. The Hebrew word for “basket” in Exodus 2:3 occurs only in one other place in the Bible. Guess where: in Genesis 6:14 where it refers to the ark. Moses is floating to safety from a watery threat in an “ark.” (I trust bells are going off right about now.) What happened to Noah, would later happen to Moses, and then again to Israel at the Red Sea. The exodus story is another “rescue from water” story like the flood.
I realize there is a lot of information here, but these themes are wonderfully interconnected from Genesis through Exodus: cosmic battle, separation of elements, and deliverance from watery fate. Creation, flood, and exodus are almost versions of the same story: the victory of Yahweh and the salvation of his people.
The Red Sea is the final battle in Exodus, but there is one more scene we need to look at: Mt Sinai. This scene takes up nearly the entire second half of the book. This is what all of this has been leading to, and it is the final echo of creation and the cosmic battle in Exodus.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.