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Shemot/Exodus 14:10 And the Children of Israel lifted their eyes and behold! Egypt ... and they were very frightened
Well on their way out of Egypt and approaching the shore of Yam Suf - the Sea of Reeds - the Israelites have been overhauled by Pharaoh and the Egyptian chariots that have been pursuing them. Hearing the thundering on the ground, the cry of the charioteers and their horses, our people look up to see what is happening and there, right in front of their eyes, is the thing they most dread: Pharaoh and his army, coming to recapture them and take them back to slavery in Egypt.Hirsch comments that the phrase - to lift the eyes - is "an intentional looking out for something. The Israelites heard in the distance of the approaching Egyptian army, which of course made them look in that direction." In looking, they believed what they saw rather than what they had been told and took their eyes off the L-rd; they were overcome by their circumstances and became greatly afraid. Losing contact with G-d, they lost their faith and fell prey to fear and terror.
TheRamban tries to find an alternative explanation that doesn't involve not believing in G-d. "It is also possible that the people did believe in G-d and prayed to Him to save them, but a doubt entered their hearts concerning Moshe lest he took them out of Egypt in order to rule over them himself. Although they had seen the signs and wonders he did, they thought that he did them through some manner of wisdom. Perhaps G-d brought the plagues upon the Egyptians on account of their wickedness, for if G-d had desired their going out, Pharaoh would not have pursued after them." This latter thought is all too common among G-d's people when encountering opposition or challenge in obeying Him: If G-d had wanted us to do this, then that bad thing wouldn't have happened. Reasoning that G-d can permit or forbid anything - which, of course, He can - the occurrence of something adverse is taken as a sign of having misheard or disobeyed Him in stepping out and adopting a new course of action, particularly by those who weren't terribly keen about it in the first place!
Where did the Israelites go wrong in this case? What did they do or not do that caused them to fear so much? The rabbis in theMekhilta were prepared to grasp the nettle; they suggest that this is question of trust - namely, who did the people trust? They cite the verses, "Thus says the L-RD: 'Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the L-RD. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed is the man who trusts in the L-RD, whose trust is the L-RD'" (Jeremiah 17:5-7, ESV), as if to say that the people's hearts had turned away from the L-rd and so encountered the curse of disbelief; they were trusting either in Moshe, in Pharaoh or in themselves, rather than in the L-rd. The Mekhilta quotes David as an example of a man who trusted in G-d: when he fought Goliath, he refused to be cowered, either by size of the giant and his armour, or by his boastful and arrogant talk; instead he rebuked and challenged him by saying, "You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the L-RD of hosts" (1 Samuel 17:45, ESV). David didn't go by what he saw, the evidence of his eyes, but by his faith in the G-d who had preserved him through his years of fighting wild beasts as a shepherd. Later on, the sages point out, the same David wrote, "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we praise the name of ADONAI our God. They will crumple and fall, but we will arise and stand erect. Give victory, ADONAI! Let the King answer us the day we call" (Psalm 20:8-10, CJB).
When we stumble or encounter difficulties, where do we look? Oftentimes, our first thought will be to look down at our feet either to see what we have tripped over or to check the surface over which we are walking; is it rough or smooth, flat or broken, clear or covered with loose materials? Mountain walkers have to learn to test the surface of the rocks and paths over which they climb to make sure that their footing is secure, lest they should slip and perhaps fall hundreds of feet. Nonetheless, they always have more than half an eye on their target or destination, the point at which they are aiming, so that they do not lose direction and wander aimlessly about without heading for their goal. Tightrope walkers need to be very sure of where they place their feet so that they maintain their grip and balance on the rope that stretches between one side and the other - perhaps even of Niagara Falls - but always keep their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon so that their muscles can make the many micro-adjustments needed to keep the body perfectly aligned and their centre of gravity vertically above the wire. Yet these two are only special cases of us all; when walking or running, apart from the occasional look down, now and again, we all look where we are going in order to set direction, hold balance and even to enjoy the scenery. Our feet just seem to know where to go and the glimpse of the ground surface that we get at the bottom of our normal front-facing vision is enough to alert us to trip hazards, steps or uneven terrain.
But if we are not looking where we are going, if we are distracted to look in another direction or our eye is caught by a sudden flash of colour so that we turn our head to stare at something unusual, then quite rapidly our steady automatic walking becomes erratic and we can easily collide with obstacles, stumble and fall. Even on a flat surface, if looking in another direction, we veer off course and instead of walking in a straight line, we follow a curve or circle. Our grasp on the absolute has been broken.
This is surely the explanation for the Israelites' behaviour in the text above. Following Moshe out of Egypt and walking within the promises of G-d - "I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G-d" (Shemot 6:6-7, JPS) - we walked a pretty straight line towards freedom. The pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud went before us and showed the way so that we could travel both by day and night. Then we reached the sea, with no obvious way forward. Next we started to hear the rumble of the chariot wheels and looking up, we saw Pharaoh and his army approaching. We were distracted from where we were supposed to be going and in our panic we stumbled and fell, at which point we sat up and howled: "This isn't what we thought we had signed up for; get us out of here!" We had no faith because not only could we not see where we were going, but we saw that the enemy was right on our tails and bearing down upon us at full throttle.
The writer to the Hebrews - who explains many things about the Israelite wanderings and attitudes in the desert - exhorts us to make sure that we keep looking in the right direction: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Yeshua, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of G-d" (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV). He reminds us first of all that we are running a race; that is, we have a goal and a target to reach. That objective is not unknown or unclear; it is clearly marked out along the way that we travel so that we should not get lost or be unaware of where we are going. He explains that we are being constantly watched by a countless number of people; some are those who have gone before us in the faith and are cheering us on towards the finishing line, others are in the world around us, perhaps watching to see what we are doing and what happens to us or, in some cases, jeering and criticising our performance. It is our witness to the latter that may be part of G-d's call on their lives assuring them that if we can do it, they can do it too; they too can run and win the race of life. He also stresses the need for endurance (CJB, ESV, NASB) or perseverance (NIV, NRSV) so that we keep going and do not give up before we reach the end of the race.
Then the key point: "fixing our eyes upon Yeshua"; this is our horizon, our balance point, our reference to the absolute. It is Yeshua that keeps us on track and lines us up, just as He - when on this earth - was centered and focused on the cross. When we are clearly fixed on Him, we know where we are going and we do not stumble for He gives us our line and balance to the end of the road.
Further Study: Isaiah 31:1; Micah 7:7; Titus 2:11-13
Application: If you have lost your way or feel that you are stumbling over innumerable obstacles in your path, lift your eyes to the horizon and get a clear sighting on Yeshua to resynch your HPS (Heavenly Positioning System) receiver today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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