The story of the Exodus is a poignant, gripping story that speaks to us, draws us in, and—if we will allow it—changes us. It paints for us a grand mosaic of redemption through various images of tragedy and victory. Recently, I was talking about the Exodus story with some friends of mine and how we can see our own stories in the narrative of the Exodus. While we were talking, an image of a scene from the Exodus came to mind, and I was struck by how absolutely tragic it was.
How is it that a story can have such an affect on us? What is it about a narrative that can speak to us in ways that other forms of communication can’t? I want to explore those concepts a little, and then talk about the tragic image I found in the Exodus story.
We are story-shaped people. When something happens to us that is meaningful one of our first instincts is to tell someone else. Our cultural identities are wrapped up in our cultural stories, forming who we are. We are who we are today largely because of who we have previously been, and what we have previously been through. Thus, our own lives are little narratives. Stories help us make sense of the world around us, whether they be historical, folk-lore, myth, legend, allegory, or whatever other category we can think of.
While thinking through this blog post, I noticed three articles from The Gospel Coalition appear in my blog reader, each of which focused on visual story-telling and what advice people would give to Christians who wanted to be filmmakers: Don’t Discard the Drama for Words by Brian Godawa, Create Culture, not Subculture by Mike Cosper, and Unsolicited Advice from a Failed Filmaker by Joe Carter. What was interesting about each of these three articles is that each had a focus on the role and necessity of story-telling. Godawa included this quote from Kevin Vanhoozer: “Narratives make story-shaped points that cannot always be paraphrased in propositional statements without losing something in translation.”
Just as music offers a way of seeing truth that one cannot get from sermons, and both offer something different than poetry, story-telling offers us yet another inroad to truth, beauty, and meaning that is different than any other form of communication. At the same time, however, each form of communication can itself be a form of story-telling.
Exodus and Story-telling
The Exodus story is great story-telling. It is formative precisely because it draws us into the story itself, as my friends and I were discussing. There are many elements to the Exodus story that does this. Primarily, it does so by presenting us with shared yearnings, common truth, and graphic imagery.
First, it manifests some of our shared yearnings or desires. One example of this is our yearning to be in a place that is home, a place where we feel a connection and a sense of belonging. The Israelites started off in Egypt, where all they knew was oppression and slavery. They were delivered from this oppression and given a vision of freedom, and a home, by God himself. The only problem was that between slavery and home existed a great wilderness. The Israelites spent forty years in this wilderness, feeling the pain of being displaced. We all have felt, at times, what it is like to be disconnected, continuously on the go, and unsettled. We all know what it’s like to be so close to home, but feel impossibly far away.
The Exodus also presents us with our desire to be taken care of and loved. The Israelites went from a place of having their needs met without question, despite their oppression, to a freedom where they would question where their next meal would come from. They struggled with the anxiety of whether God would meet their needs or not. Again, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have been there, too. Of course, God promises to meet our needs, but it’s much easier to believe that truth in the feast rather than in the famine. We’ve all asked, with the Israelites, “does God care?”
Which leads us to the second way that the Exodus story draws us in: common truth. In the unbelief of the Israelites we find our own unbelief. Of course God promised to take care of his people, but in the midst of the wilderness heat, the guaranteed food of the Egyptians seemed like a much better reality. God remained faithful, but not in the way Israel imagined he should. So, they grumbled. We, too, grumble in the midst of God’s grace to us. We, too, seeing the difficulty of the wilderness we find ourselves in desire to run back to the oppressive familiarity of Egypt. In the Exodus story, we see the truth of Israel’s sin and are confronted with our own.
Third, the Exodus story gives us graphic images which speak to us, not in propositional truth or even mere words, but by capturing our imagination. The parting of the Red Sea, the waves towering over the Israelites as they pass through, and the eventual crashing of the waves and bloated corpses of Egypt’s elite army washing up on shore—the story paints a picture for us. We can picture the delight on their faces the first morning that the hungry Israelites woke up to find manna covering the ground. We see the tragic silliness of an entire nation-worth of people, gathered around a golden calf (not even a bull!), and saying to God, “we melted down our jewelery, and all of the sudden this calf came out!” The Exodus story paints us a lot of pictures, providing our imaginations with images of the beauty of God’s grace and the tragedy of our sin.
The Most Tragic Image in the Exodus
So, all of this talk of story-telling and image painting to get to this, what struck me as the most tragic image in the Exodus story is the death of the entire generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt.
Why this image? For me, it captures in an incredibly tragic way both the grace and goodness of God, and the sinful rebellion of the Israelites. Because of their rebellion at the beginning of the Exodus Israel was made to wander around the wilderness for forty years with the specific intent that an entire generation of people would die. So here it is at the end of forty years, and the corpses of men, women, and children lay rotting in the sun. Perhaps the corpses were bloated, or perhaps shriveled from the harsh climate. Whichever the case, the scene is indescribably horrorific—bodies covering the desert as water covers the sea. Unbearable stench. Everywhere you look is death, and a reminder of the Israelite’s sin and rebellion.
Everywhere, that is, but in the very clothing that adorned each corpse. You see, even in their punishment, God graciousy cared for, and met each need, of every rebellious Israelite. There was no want of food or water, as God provided each. There was no need to fear other tribes and peoples, as God himself protected them along the way. And, there was no need to worry about clothing, because God acted in such a way that their clothes “never wore out” (Deuteronomy 8:4).
The Israelites died wearing the very same clothing that they wore forty years prior crossing through the Red Sea. Do you see the contrast? Among the disfigured, decaying bodies of rebels were the perfect, spotless garments testifying to the grace and mercy of God. What a tragic picture. They were wearing the testimony of God’s grace on their very own bodies, as they began to drop dead because of their rebellion. The reality of God’s grace is all around us, and yet we reject that testimony and continue grumble and rebel.
Can you picture the scene? What about in your own life?