Sunday, January 28, 2018

The land of the sun

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left (Exod 14:21-22).

It's common for theologians to cite this text as a paradigm example of extraordinary providence. How God can use natural means do something miraculous. 

Now there's no doubt that God sometimes employs natural mechanisms in miraculous ways, but I'm dubious about that interpretation of Exod 14:21-22.

i) That passage is prefaced by something clearly supernatural or preternatural: 

19 Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20 coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night (Exod 14:19-20).

So it would be artificial if a "strong east wind" is the one natural element. 

ii) Moreover, does that make any sense as a natural explanation? Can wind action have that effect? 

iii) I think it more likely that ruach is a double entendre in this passage. It trades on wind as a metaphor, but the actual agent is the Spirit of God. It's the same studied ambiguity we have in Gen 1:2 and 8:1. And, indeed, the parting of the Red Sea account is crisscrossed with allusions to the creation and flood accounts.

iv) I think theologians and commentators are thrown off by the adjectives. If the text just said ruach was the cause, they might be more likely to identify the Spirit as the referent, but the adjectives ("strong east") dispose them to think it's a natural phenomenon: wind. 

v) Yet I think that's dubious. For one thing, it overlooks the emblematic significance of the "east" in Scripture. Sunlight originates in the east. And light is an elemental theological metaphor. 

That's why the tabernacle faces east. Why the Garden of Eden is located in the East (Gen 2:8). Why it has an eastern entrance/exist (Gen 3:24).

vi) The ruach is strong because the Spirit is powerful. A mighty agent.

vii) Some people might consider it incongruous to suggest that the Spirit comes from the east. Isn't the eastern orientation more suited to a natural phenomenon?

But consider the Shekinah, which departs from the east gate, heading eastward (Ezk 10:18-19; 11:22-23). Conversely, the Shekinah will return from the east (Ezk 43:1-5). 

The direction plays on the emblematic significance of the east, as the symbolic source of divine light. And that can have a literal exemplification. 

vii) So the Spirit comes from the east in Exod 14:21 due to the emblematic connotations of that compass point. 

This is not to deny that it plays on associations with wind action. And there may have been wind action on that occasion. But that's not the ultimate cause. Rather, that's a token of the Spirit's agency. 

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