Who is the First to Cross the Sea? Faith is spelled R-I-S-K!

   Psalms106: 7  “But they were rebellious at the sea, at the Red Sea…

For most of us the miracle of the Exodus is the improbable scenario in which a sea splits apart at just the right moment, allowing a group of slaves to walk on dry land and to escape their wicked taskmasters. This spectacle seems to have been made for film. Some people understand this narrative as a powerful example of miraculous intervention in natural law. Others, more skeptical, try to reconcile possible natural occurrences with the extraordinary event, suggesting that a strong tide or wind might have accounted for the phenomenon of the dividing waters. The supernatural explanation for the Exodus creates a clear disconnect between science and religion. The naturalist understanding sees nothing more than a favorable weather report. Neither approach gets to the heart of the story. In the Midrash (rabbinic interpretation) the rabbis focus neither on geology, meteorology nor on theology. They wonder instead: what would allow a generation of slaves, who had learned subservience and dependence, to risk safety for freedom? In the Talmud (rabbinic commentary about God’s Word), the rabbis are not writing only about the generation of the Exodus; they are addressing their own generation and ours. They understand the biblical name for Egypt, Mitzraim, to be related to the Hebrew word for narrow places, metzar. They base this on a phrase from Psalm 118: “Out of the narrows [metzar] I called to God.” When the rabbis refer to Egypt, they are also talking about the narrow places where we get stuck, as the Hebrew slaves got stuck in Egypt.

In the text message…”But they were rebellious at the sea, at the Red Sea. (Psalms 106: 7)”… Why does the text repeat “at the sea” TWICE? Well…there were TWO reasons…

1.      Jewish teachers and historians tell us that their ancestors rebelled FIRST at the sea when they refused to cross. It was only the tribe of Judah who induced them to cross by plunging in first and sanctifying the name of the Holy One of Israel, as it is stated (Psalm 114: 1): “When Israel came from out of Egypt . . . Judah became his sanctuary…”


2.      And Jewish teachers and historians tell us that their ancestors rebelled a SECOND time at the Red Sea…When they had plunged into the sea bed, they found it was full of clay, because it was still wet from the water, and so it formed a kind of clay, as it is stated (Habakkuk 3: 15): “You have trodden the sea with Your horses, through the clay of mighty water.” Apparently, on that occasion the tribe of Reuben said to the tribe of Simeon: In Egypt we had clay, and now, in the sea, once again we have clay. In Egypt we had mortar and bricks, and now, in the sea, once again we have mortar and bricks. Hence: But they were rebellious at the sea, even at the Red Sea. (Exodus Rabbah 24: 1)

Rabbi Judah Ben Rabbi Il’ai further expounded: When Israel stood by the Red Sea the tribes stood contending with each other, one saying, “I will go in first,” and the other saying, “I will go in first.” At that moment Nahshon [of the tribe of Judah] leapt into the waves of the sea and waded in the waters. In allusion to this act of his ancestor Nahshon, David the King said, “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul (Psalm 69: 2).” Rabbi Judah Ben Rabbi Il’ai reminds all Israel that at this time when Nahshon of Judah jumped into the waters, the God of Israel REBUKES Moses: “My beloved is drowning in the sea and you stand praying??? So now…Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward” (Exodus 14:15). This explains Psalm 76:2: “By Judah is God known…” For this reason the Lord made great the name of Nahshon in Israel (Numbers Rabbah 13:4)

These rabbinic commentary further address the question of what happened when the people of Israel encountered the Red Sea. Fresh out of slavery and afraid, they saw the waters raging before them. Behind them were the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s warriors with all their chariots and horses. The people of Israel could not go forward because of the sea, and they could not retreat because of the advancing Egyptian army. The rabbis imagine that they must have quarreled about the proper course of action.

Perhaps there was a contest among the tribes, each wishing to have the distinction of being the first in the sea. Rabbi Judah Ben Rabbi Il’ai imagines a great deal of talking and boasting but little action, until one person, Nahshon from the tribe of Judah, tires of all the bickering and posturing and musters the courage to leap into the waves. More likely, as the Midrash from Exodus Rabbah suggests, the people were reluctant to walk into the waters before knowing what would happen, with no guarantee of safety. After all, how could they know that a miracle would occur…that the sea would split???

Intellectual reasoning would have dictated the people surrender to Pharaoh, risking Egypt’s wrath rather than certain death by drowning in the sea. Such quarrels might have mirrored similar arguments in the rabbis’ own day concerning how to act in dangerous times. The risks for independence have been equally treacherous in later generations, even in our times! In fact, it is easy to see debates, disputes and posturing among politicians of our own time over how to respond to dangerous threats in our society. ..Especially in an election year J

Now back to our story…

While the leaders of the tribes of Israel are debating about the fitting response to the crisis before them at the Red Sea, one individual takes action. Nahshon Ben Amminadab from the tribe of Judah walks into the waters. It is said that it was not until the waters reached his nose that the sea split. So the Midrash (rabbinic interpretation of the Bible) understands the verse from Psalm 76:2, by Judah is God known, to mean that God is made known through the deeds of Nahshon, a member of the tribe of Judah…God is made present through the courageous acts of human beings.

The Midrash goes further in emphasizing the role of human responsibility in changing the course of history, in bringing redemption. The Midrash sees Moses standing at the sea at the head of all the people of Israel, praying, calling out to God to save him. And God responds, not by immediately splitting the waters so the people can walk on dry land and escape the pursuing Egyptians, but, surprisingly, by REBUKING Moses for lengthening his prayer at such a critical time. When Moses wonders what else he could possibly do but pray, God responds simply, “GO FORWARD!” In other words, God is saying, “I will be with you…to believe in ME is to ACT upon my WORD because EVERYTHING depends upon ME… it really does!!!” According to the Midrash, the first rebellion was when all the people except Nahshon refused to walk into the sea…and God had to correct them (Exodus 14:15)

The second rebellion was of a different nature… It was a result not of fear but of INGRATITUDEEven as the sea split and the people were able to walk through the waters, some still complained. The Midrash tells us that the tribes of Reuben and Simeon could not see the miracle that had just occurred. The sea may have split, but they saw only the clay that formed at the bottom of the sea. Now they had to trek through mud, just as in Egypt they had to make bricks out of mud. For Reuben and Simeon there was no difference between Freedom and Egypt. Freedom didn’t feel all that different from slavery. The tribes of Reuben and Simeon saw what they expected to see: the hardship of that improbable journey. And they were most likely accurate in their assessment. After all, it couldn’t have been all that pleasant to walk with a group of men, women, and children, some so young they needed to be carried, some so old they required assistance. They may not have had all that much to take with them, but whatever they brought had to weigh heavily on their shoulders so that their backs ached. Their feet were covered with wet earth, their only shoes were ruined, and the hems of their clothes were soaked with mud. Reuben and Simeon gave an accurate description, but not a correct one. Something extraordinary had just happened, but their eyes were closed to the miracle. Nahshon realized it; he leaped, eyes open, into the waters of the sea. Miriam saw it; she lifted her tambourine and danced with songs.

Perhaps the rabbis were attempting to encourage the people of their own time to look beyond the daily drudgery of their situation to recognize God’s presence in their midst, to find the courage of Nahshon and the joy of Miriam…to jump into the pathway God is paving for us….When Moses raises his arms, no enemy can triumph over Israel. Nahshon walks straight into the sea, enabling a frightened people to trust the waters that become their passage to freedom. In our own lives, the Lord’s arms will carry us, lift us up, and embrace us, teach us the most about bravery, trust, and faith. In the arms of a parent, a loved one, a friend, and yes, even a pastor; we experience the outstretched arms of God. I think of God as the arms that carry me over the waves until I am able to walk on my own. I think of God as the arms that hold me and coax and prod me to do much more than I ever imagined I could.

Reference:    God's Echo by Sandy Sasso Eisenberg