Sunday, September 10, 2017

Exodus 14.19-31: God and Nations

Moses stands with the people on the edge of the water. The angel and the pillar of cloud have moved from in front of the people to behind them - between the people and the army of Pharaoh. What happens next shows the power of God, even in the face of a powerful nation. It's the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 19(24)/Pentecost 15A (Exodus 14:19-31, with the alternate reading being Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21). The alternate reading follows the actions of the Hebrew reading and are the focus of this essay.

The texts are at a moment in Israel's history when they are a nation without land. While they lived in Egypt they were loyal to the pharaoh, but as times changed and leaders changed and their status in the land changed, they realized that the nation of Egypt would not provide for them. When God leads them to freedom, they are meant to understand that God provides in ways that an earthly kingdom cannot.

So it's a little ironic that this story of God's people untangling from an earthly nation gets retangled centuries later. The manuscript illustrations shown here are from an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript. In the illustration, Miriam and the women dance in a circle around eight musicians.

You may have to look twice to see the outer circle as people. The circle looks like an abstract pattern on first glance. Each of the knob-like shapes on the outside of the circle is actually the hat of one of the women. Further abstract shapes (in gold) are created as the ground between each figure and the sleeves of their garments.

The long sleeves are one of the signs that God's people have become entangled again with an earthly government. Byzantine people believed that the emperor was given his power by God and represented God on earth. The emperor's court, then, was the earthly image of God's heavenly court. The women in the circle here are shown in the style of court dress in the late eleventh century. Here the elite dance in a circle.
In other eleventh-century Byzantine manuscripts, this same exaggerated court sleeve is worn by David as he dances before the ark.

The stories of Miriam's dance and David's dance are often intermingled. Here there are musicians who are not mentioned in the Exodus text but are identified in the story of the ark coming to Jerusalem (I Chronicles 13-15). The artist has provided more details for Miriam and her company of dancers than the writer of scripture did.

How do we consider this illustration? One way is to understand that women throughout history have metaphorically and actually danced their joy when God's plan saves. They have worn the clothes of their day, circled up and danced with each other to celebrate and acknowledge what God has done. This happens to be an illustration from Constantinople in the eleventh century.

A second way to look at this is that once again, humanity has tangled itself up in conflating their government as God's government. The Israelites were not to put their trust in Egypt (no matter how much they missed the food). They were to understand that as God's people they followed God, relied on God, trusted God, looked to God. They were not to put their trust in earthly powers, even (especially?) their own. But they have, no doubt encouraged to do so by the Emperor.

The Byzantine Empire, like the kingdom of Egypt, like all earthly governments, will one day come to an end. But the dance of God goes on.

(Top) Miriam Dancing. 1059. Written in Constantinople. Vatican Graeci 752; folio 449v. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticani.
(Bottom) The Most Eminent Ladies of the Court, Tenth and Eleventh Century. Plate 17 from By the Emperor's Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Romano-Byzantine Empire by Timothy Dawson and Graham Sumner. 2016.
For thoughts on the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 18:21-35), click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: the parable of the unmerciful servant. Click on the link below.

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