The Crossing of the Red Sea marks the culmination of the story of the Plagues and the Passover, which distinguishes the Israelites from the Egyptians, and inaugurates the wilderness journey so central to the Exodus and to the ethical education of the people of Israel. This week in Chapel students read and heard the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea and the provision of manna to the people of Israel in the wilderness. Both stories speak to the enterprise of education and its challenges.
The Passover story ends with the question which reverberates down throughout the ages, “what mean ye by this service?” It complements the greater question raised by Jesus that introduces the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. That greater question is “how readest thou?” How do you read? How do we read the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea? My point is that we easily mis-read it if we remove the story from the way in which the story has come down to us in the coming together of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole as well as the coming together of the Christian Scriptures. In other words, these stories belong to a rich and profound reflection about an ethical education, about the principle which defines and informs our lives with respect to what is good and right, to what is true and beautiful. The Exodus belongs to a tradition of ethical reflection.
Thus Philo of Alexandria, the great Jewish theologian writing at the time of Jesus, sees Moses in terms of Plato’s Philosopher/King, as Lawgiver, and as Prophet. The stories of the Exodus are part of a moral and ethical education about how to think and live. It is about living towards and with a principle which by definition cannot be defined by anything prior to it but upon which all else depends. This counters the mistaken view of fundamentalist and atheist alike to read these stories in a literal manner and to attempt to explain them or to explain them away by reference to some sort of empirical phenomenon; in other words, to look for a naturalistic explanation, for example, the east wind, rather than recognising the theological point about God as beyond and above nature who uses the forces of nature for his will and purpose. This is the main point of the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea through which Israel is finally and completely freed, at least externally, from Egyptian domination. At issue is a clash of principles.
Even more, what is at issue is whether Israel herself gets the instruction. The story of the wilderness wanderings is as much about the ‘kvetching’ (to use a good Yiddish word about our complaining) of the Hebrews as it is about God’s providential provision of manna - bread - from heaven. The lessons of the Exodus are entirely about how our humanity might come to learn about the very principle upon which the being and the knowing of all things depend. That requires, initially and constantly, our being still and looking at God, a point which the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea amply demonstrates. The simple point made over and over again is that Israel is delivered by God’s will and power and not by virtue of any human power considered in itself. All truth and power derives from God. The lessons of the Exodus are about how we begin to discover the truth of our humanity as grounded in our participation in the life of God. This was Philo’s concern and one which he bequeathed to Christians and Muslims long after him. It also draws upon the rich philosophical traditions of Plato and Aristotle and the dogmatic schools which followed them.
Crossings. We are all the products of various sorts of crossings of which the Crossing of the Red Sea provides a most powerful and explanatory metaphor. There is the crossing of the Bering Strait which led to the populating of the Americas with humans. There are the many different crossings of the Pacific to one extent or another. There are the crossings of the Atlantic in many different iterations which belong to the history of the Americas. There are the various crossings to Australia both pre-historic and more modern. There are the crossings of desert and jungle, of seas and rivers, of mountains and valleys, in Africa, India and China. There are the many crossings of the Mediterranean Sea which have shaped so much of the later cultures of the European West. In a way, all these crossings are like the equally proverbial crossing of the Rubicon. Once it is crossed there is no going back; at least not in the same way. The crossings that belong to the cultures of our world belong to the constant discovery of what belongs to our common humanity, to the possibilities of a deepening of our understanding.
Some of you have crossed many continents and many seas to come to King’s-Edgehill. Others of you have simply had to cross the Avon River! Yet the historic culture of the Maritimes and of Canada, in general, is entirely about various kinds of crossings. The paradigmatic crossing is the Crossing of the Red Sea, a crossing which influences profoundly the Christian liturgy of the Easter Vigil and of Christian baptism, for instance. The greater crossings are always about our spiritual and intellectual education: the crossing over from ignorance to understanding, from sin to righteousness, from death to life. All belong to the themes of the Exodus, to the idea of education. It is all a kind of crossing.
It comes down to how we read. In the twelfth century, the remarkable and scholarly Hugh of St. Victor wrote his Didascalicon: De studio Legendi, a treatise on education. It is really on how to read. He points out that there are three things to be considered: what one ought to read; in what order one ought to read; and in what manner one ought to read. That is, I should think, at the heart of your learning, a crossing from ignorance to erudition and learning.
“God provides” is one of the strong lessons of the Scriptures but that provision has to be grasped and willed by us. We cannot be passive in relation to the truth. We are only able to be educated to the extent that we can encounter our faults and failings and not acquiesce to them but seek what is prior and primary; namely, the truth and goodness of God in whom all our good is found. Such is the exodus of the soul in the journey to God upon whom all our good depends. It is all about the crossings from ignorance to understanding. Such is education.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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