After studying with savants of myriad religious denominations, and after teaching teenagers and adults in church schools and otherwise for approximately 50 years, I never fail to rejoice when the Revised Common Lectionary directs our attention once again to the account of the Exodus of our forebears in faith from slavery. (See especially Exodus 14:19-31 and 15:1-11, 20-21.)
So it is that we can leap over and beyond Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 cinema masterpiece, “The Ten Commandments” — even though it acknowledged important Talmudic material among its sources — plus two successful books of 20th-century historical fiction and DeMille’s silent 1923 film, also titled “The Ten Commandments.”
Here are a few important theological nuances that movie viewers and some readers miss:
• From start to finish, the Exodus (the set of events) was the work of God, not Moses. For example, the RCL’s recommended verses begin by detailing God’s saving grace in certain acts of God’s messenger. (“Messenger is an English translation of what in Hebrew meant “angel” — malach Elohim” or “angel or agent of God,” often referring to the actual presence of the Divine, as at the Burning Bush. (Exodus 3:2, 4, and 6.)
• And the recommended verses in chapter 14 end with this: “The LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians. And Israel saw ... the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. And Israel feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” (Exodus 14:13-15.)
• In the Exodus, the Egyptians are bedeviled by 10 plagues, natural phenomena traceable to the Israelites’ Divine Creator. They faced a pillar of fire -– blazing, perhaps even blinding sunlight on the horizon, making it impossible to see ahead. A pillar of thick cloud ahead also suggested the advent, presence, or imminent departure of heaven-sent torrential rain. The Egyptians probably sensed it to be heavy precipitation that in the end might drown them or clog their iron chariot wheels in mud.
• The important theological theme is triumph of faith-filled hearts over humans’ material accomplishment. It was already seen in the collapse of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). It is often symbolized by chariot wheels of iron that warriors trusted, to their detriment, in contrast with God’s devout people who trusted in God’s intervening grace. Just a few centuries later, Israel would experience this again when the faithful judge Deborah and her military champion Barak vanquished the Philistine general Sisera at Mount Tabor, despite his “900 iron chariots.” (Judges 4:12-16.)
• The nature of our God is to save, and this is celebrated in what many scholars believe to be the earliest passage of Hebrew Scripture handed down to us in oral and written forms: The song of Moses’ sister Miriam and the other women at the conclusion of the Exodus. It is a two-line exultation with tambourines and dancing.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., J.D., LL.D., D.Min., K.St.J, is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain, and he previously served churches in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.