How do you picture the Red Sea crossing from the book of Exodus? If you were making a movie about the Exodus, would the parting of the Red Sea (or “Sea of Reeds” if you prefer) look like something clearly miraculous, in the style of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments? Or would it look like something with a natural cause or causes; something that, if one were inclined, could be chalked up as an incredibly fortunate coincidence for the Israelites?
I’m not talking about whether God parted the sea. I accept that as a given. What I’m talking about is this: assuming that God was the ultimate cause of the sea parting, is it acceptable to propose that there may have been secondary causes involved? Before you answer, take a look at a couple of passages from the book of Exodus. First, from chapter 15:
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. (Ex 15:8)
This may well be the earliest layer of Old Testament tradition about what happened when the Red Sea parted. It involved a “blast” of God’s “nostrils.” Is that figurative language for wind? It would seem so, since two verses later, describing the fate of Pharaoh’s army, we read, “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them…” (Ex 15:10).
Exodus 14 gives us the prose version:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:21)
Once again, and here quite explicitly, God is depicted using a secondary cause‚Äînamely, a “strong east wind” blowing “all night”‚Äîto part the Red Sea. But what if we didn’t have these details from Exodus, but instead were left with Psalm 78?
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap. (Ps 78:13)
There’s nothing about a “strong east wind” in that verse. If that were all anyone had to go on, it would be natural to presume there was no secondary causation in the Red Sea parting: God did it “directly” in a strictly supernatural manner.
If the report in Psalm 78 were all we had, I can imagine some Christians getting very upset that anyone would even suggest that, just perhaps, something like a strong wind were involved in the parting of the sea. Wouldn’t such a theory diminish the sovereignty of God? Is it a devious way of denying that God performs miracles?
Well, some people might very well propose the “wind” theory of the Red Sea crossing with exactly those motives, but that doesn’t mean the theory is invalid. On the contrary, since we do have Exodus 14-15, we can categorically state that the “wind” theory is precisely how God did it!
It seems God usually keeps a low enough profile that, if we really want to, we can find alternative explanations for his mighty deeds. Isn’t that the story of Elijah? He finally heard the voice of God not in the wind or the earthquake but in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Ki 19:12). We may wish for burning bushes, angelic visitors, or theophanic earthquakes, but they are few and far between.
Isn’t that the story of Jesus? The Bible says he cast out demons. The Pharisees argued it was only because he was in league with the devil himself (Mk 3:22)! Scripture seems fairly clear that, even if we see a miracle with our own two eyes, it’s still no guarantee that we will accept it as “proof” of anything. Here is some wisdom from one of my former teachers, Dr. Harold Songer:
To label an event as a miracle requires faith in God because a miracle is more than a mysterious unexplainable wonder. A miracle is God acting in history outside of what would be the expected outcome of events, and this event which is not understandable by natural explanation is perceived as God acting. A miracle is then a faith understanding and does not compel belief. The miracles of Jesus did not force all the observers to believe he was God’s son (Mark 3:22). The disputes about the credibility of miracles are not, therefore, confined to the modern or scientific age; and the Christian need not be surprised that what she or he attributes to God will be assigned by others to unknown or other causes. (“Miracles,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 579 [emphasis added])
When it comes to miracles, it is often the case not that you have to see in order to believe, but that you have to believe in order to see.
Lord, open our eyes to notice when you pass by.
I wrote a paper on that little Markan portion. The thesis being that a linguistic and logical analysis of the passage makes the startling theological assertion that Satan’s kingdom had the power to continue standing.
“When it comes to miracles, it is often the case not that you have to see in order to believe, but that you have to believe in order to see.”
Great post! I’m suggesting it to some folks I know. 🙂