In college, I had a conversation with a Mormon woman. We discussed God and the Bible, weaving different ideologies for one another to look over, hers’ based on Mormonism and mine from Protestantism. As we dove in, she told me that Mormons do not believe the Bible to be inerrant.
“For example,” she said, “the Bible says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why would He do that?”
In that moment, I wondered, too. Why make that kind of trouble?
There’s a famous moment in Exodus when the Israelites are drawn up against the Red Sea. In movies, or storybooks, we might see the people running straight to the sea from their captivity, when Pharaoh thrusts them out with a pointed finger, his iron-clad will broken, doubled over the still figure of his firstborn. But after the people are released, having completed the inaugural Passover, they first travel to Succoth, and then move on to camp at Etham (Exodus 12:37, 13:20). From there, the LORD has the people go back the way they’d come, to Pi-hahiroth, which is by the Red Sea (14:1-2). The LORD tells Moses,
“For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (14:3-4).
This means that the Israelites were backed up against the sea almost conspiratorially. It was intended. God boxed His people in, and not Pharaoh. He explains His rationale for this, saying that He wouldn’t take His people straight into the land of the Philistines, because they’d be put off by war and run back to Egypt (13:17). So He takes them to the sea. There, they are hemmed in by the water’s line. The Egyptians are approaching, at first a fuzzy black line cresting a sandy plane; then small, individual forms, tiny glinting swords and helmets, speeding chariots; a wave of war-cry rushes over them like a sonic boom in front of the fray; their chests feel the feet of the warriors crushing over the distance between them; finally, the band is close enough for the people to see spraying froth from the mouths of racing horses.
The Israelites almost die from fear. I imagine them screaming and struggling to breathe through panic attacks, heads swiveling around as they look for an escape. They are screaming at Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Mothers hold their children in vise-grips. They see their firstborns, alive, by a miracle, about to be slaughtered. “What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” Helpless eyes look to their parents. Babies wail at the breasts of their wailing mothers. “Is this not what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Moses is assuring the people, screaming above the noise: “Fear not! Stand firm! See the salvation of the LORD! He will fight for you! You need only be silent!”
And then, like a heavy fog, the angel of God moves the pillar of cloud between the Egyptians and the Israelites, obstructing their view of one another. No one could cross the divide. And then God sent a powerful wind to form in the sea a hallway, lined with watery walls. In the morning, the Israelites are saved, and the Egyptians are washed away.
That was a moment all unto itself, but it was meant for people forever, to look back on and be amazed. To know that God is almighty. To know that God might bring us to trouble on purpose. To know, amid the frenzied fear of it, that salvation is coming like a welcome wind, and that, heaven help us, we should know that salvation comes from One hand alone.
I keep thinking, uncertain, “brought to trouble on purpose?” Not an unnatural thought – or an original one. Didn’t the disciples chastise Jesus when He spoke of His death? “Brought to trouble on purpose?”
But yes, of course; how else could it be for such a stubborn people? Brough to trouble on purpose, and saved on purpose, too.