Growing up, every year during Easter week, my mom would turn on the TV and we would watch the publicly broadcasted movie The Ten Commandments. I’m talking the 1956 larger-than-life technicolor production of the dramatic scenes of the book of Exodus. Does that ring a bell for anyone? Anyone seen this? Every year my family watched this, and for me it brought to life the harrowing experience of the Israelites. I will never forget the piercing eyes of Pharaoh, or the incredible sight of the Red Sea parting.
What the Israelites experienced in their escape from Egypt is almost beyond comprehension, whether portrayed in movie or read in the pages of the Bible. Even now when I reread this portion of Exodus, I am awed by the majesty of God’s actions, how terrifying and yet thrilling it must have been to watch the sea spread and a tornado-like cloud of lightning lead the way through this wall of water.
As I read Exodus this week, however, I had a new thought. There is a character in this portrayal that goes unnoticed. I’m sure when we all imagine the parting of the Red Sea, we think of the waters lifting as the grand event. But I think it’s the dry land that is the unsung hero of this story! Think about it: in order for the Israelites to escape from the Egyptians, two things need to happen. First, the waters must part. But second, they must have dry, passable ground on which they can walk. Imagine, if you suddenly had the technology to dredge a deep lake instantaneously, what would the bottom of the lake look like? Have any of you had the experience of accidentally walking beyond the area of a lake where sand as been artificially filled in? Yeah, it’s unpleasant, and I don’t imagine the Israelites crossing that.
What is as amazing as the waters part is that the land that is revealed is dry! It’s because the land is dry that the Israelites can cross. Truly, this dazzling escape wouldn’t be possible without the one thing we can so easily take for granted: land on which to walk. What a grace from God!
This week in our Creation series for the month of September, we are talking about the topic of “land.” It just so happens that our Old Testament Scripture from Exodus involves this very topic. This passage gives us a sneak peak at the very complex and involved relationship that the Israelites have with the land. In fact, to the ancient Israelites, land is everything. Land and theology go hand in hand. The entire arch of their story as a religious people is all about land.
Land, for the Israelites, is the location of their relationship with God. The land represents many things, but among them is where themes of sin and punishment, obedience and grace, play out. The land is the place where the Israelites receive the gifts from God. One prime example is the one we have just mentioned—that in the Israelites’ escape from Pharaoh, God enables Moses to part the sea and create a path of dry land for them to cross. But that is just the beginning. In the uncompromising desert, when the Israelites grumble and cry out out of hunger and thirst, God rains down manna from the skies as an act of mercy. And of course, we all know that God’s great and anticipated gift is the land of milk and honey that God has promised the Israelites and their descendants. When the Israelites are faithful to God’s commandments, God rewards them with prosperity through the land—good yields in their fields, safe and sovereign territories, and abundant flourishing of their people.
But the land is not only a place of beneficence. God also responds to the Israelites’ infidelity and disobedience to God through punishment, and again the land becomes the stage in which that punishment is enacted. Throughout the books of the prophets, the prophets warn of the consequences of wrongdoing. Jeremiah in particular warns of wars, famines, and plagues that will rain down upon the Israelites if they don’t repent for their sinful ways. And of course, the ultimate punishment is the Exile, the total loss of their beloved land. The Exile is a terrible scene of plagues and utter destruction, warfare and violence, and then cutoff from the promise of land that God had made to them.
The interrelationships of God, the Israelites and the land may seem far removed from our experience of the world today. When we pray to God, we don’t necessarily ask for or expect benefits and punishments to be played out via land. And yet, the good and bad things that happen on the land are still very, very real to us. The people living in California and Oregon right now know what a hellscape the land can be. The people who have seen floods carrying away their belongings after a hurricane understand how terrifying it is when one’s land is no longer dry, but covered in four feet of water. A corn farmer in Iowa understands how land can be a place of devastation when extreme winds can wipe out all his crops, and thus his livelihood.
At the same time, we also know how the land can be a place where we experience God’s grace. That we can simply plant seeds in the ground and then have food to eat just a few months later is a grace indeed. To see the monarch butterflies flitting through the air and drink nectar from beautiful flowers is like watching heaven manifest on earth. We remember that God’s goodness exists in the natural world.
In the view of the ancient Israelites, whether God bestowed blessings or punishments upon them through the land depended on one important thing: right relationship. God cared an awful lot if the Israelites were conducting themselves in right relationship to each other, to God, and to Creation itself. If any one of these was out of balance—if the Israelites neglected to care for the widow and the orphan, if they made idols to other Gods, and if they refused to practice Sabbath rest for the land, this was grounds for the land to be a place of misery. Pharaoh is a perfect example of this because his relationship to his fellow human beings was so distorted, it took ten gruesome plagues before he would agree to release the Israelites from slavery.
Even though God did enact punishments for broken relationships through the land, if the relationships would be restored, then the benefits of the land could be as well. The prophet Jeremiah, who in one breath foretells of a terrible fate of exile later gives hope to the people who were indeed exiled. He shares good news of a day when the Israelites may return to their land. He says, “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”
Today we would indeed be wise to heed the message from the ancient Israelites, for it is not absurd to draw a connection between the quality of our relationships and the way we experience the land. It seems all too clear that raging fires in the West, the increasing number of heat spikes in the summer, and the growing instability in the climate are prime indications that we may indeed be out of right relationship, with each other, with God, and with Creation. When we are out of right relationship with each other, it results in some people being exposed to environmental hazards while others remain safe. When we are out of right relationship with the land, it means we destroy habitats until our creaturely brothers and sisters have nowhere to go. When we are out of right relationship with God, it means that we ignore our call to be responsible stewards of this planet.
To be in right relationship would require a radical rethinking of how we live on this planet. Last week Libby shared about some of the steps that our Berkshire communities have taken towards sustainability, like banning the use of plastic bags in the grocery store. There is no doubt that this is a huge and important step. And yet, it’s not enough. Just like we can do our part to personally be anti-racist in our lives but understand that the entire system of how people get treated is broken, so can we also take pride in the ways our community moves towards sustainability while also realizing that our relationship with the land is fundamentally broken.
Like with racism, the problem and the solution are much bigger than any one of us. That being said, there are things we can do. For one, we can educate our young people to love the natural world, to learn about how an ecosystem works and why its important to be conscientious of our impact on the ecosystem when we move about our lives. I am proud to say that this is something our church has invested in. With the interns this summer at Gideon’s Garden, we talked about the various aspects of the natural world, the soil, the microorganisms, the plants, the animals, and the climate, and on our last day, we discussed what would happen if any one of those things were out of balance. As a team, we decided that the end result was always that there would be less for us to eat. It’s important to learn that when the environment is harmed, we are inevitably affected. The concept of ubuntu, your well-being is tied up in mine, applies to the natural world as well.
There are other things we can do. We can hold our institutions, corporations, and governments accountable to operating in a way that cares for the land. For a local example, this Tuesday there will be a public hearing about the process of cleaning the Housatonic. Many years ago, General Electric used the river to dispose chemicals called PCBs, which now we know to be cancer-causing agents. The EPA has proposed a method for cleaning the river and is receiving public comments. This is an example of how we can effect change in our local community, actions that will alter the well-being of our community and the landscape for generations to come.
Like the ancient Israelites, we must understand our deeply intertwined relationship with the land. If we are out of right relationship, we will face the consequences. But, restoration is also possible. God calls us toward right relationship so that we can experience Creation as a precious gift and grace. God has offered us this one beautiful world, may we learn to take care of it so that it may be a place of goodness for each generation to come.