Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. -Exodus 14:26-28 NIV
When we encounter Bible stories like "The Ten Plagues" and "The Crossing of the Red Sea" it is hard not to question the severity of judgment issued by the Lord. I recall leading a Bible study at a church I ministered to in Montreal. We were looking at the final plague story where the Lord passes over the homes of the people of Israel (who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb) but strikes down the firstborn of every Egyptian home. Seen from the perspective of Israel this was a horrible but necessary act to break the will of Pharaoh who had thus far refused to release God's people. However for the Egyptian mother in our study group this action was utterly horrific. "What about all those mourning mothers, who had lost their children?" she questioned.
It was a good question. Especially for people who have been raised with a strong sense of indivdual responsibility. For us it may seem right that Pharaoh should suffer personally for his stubborn refusal to let go of God's people. But where is the justice in one of Pharaoh's servants losing her only son? In the same way we might inquire why the entire Egyptian army was drown in the sea. We can imagine that many of those soldiers were simply following orders and had no ill-will or malice towards God's people.
These stories of judgement suggest that individual responsibility isn't the only factor in God's deliberations, but that collective responsibility plays a role as well. That is, Pharaoh wasn't alone held responsible for the injustice experienced by Israel, but that the whole nation shared responsibility. There is a certain wisdom at play in this. We can understand that every society that enslaves another enjoys certain benefit from this arrangement, even if those benefits are indirect. This idea of collective responsibility is expressed in reparations exacted following wars. And it undergirds the redress that sought by groups that have suffered disadvantages and descrimination in previous eras.
I wonder whether the judgement demonstrated in these stories is something we might not just celebrate or question but might spur us to action. If God has held societies of the past responsible for the injustices committed to their neighbors, shouldn't we be concerned that we will be held responsible for the people among us who suffer injstice or abuse?
I remember former Prime Minister Paul Martin talking about his interest in reconciliation with the aboriginal peoples in Canada. He said "I can’t answer for what happened 50 years ago, but if my grandchildren ask me what I did in my life in terms of this issue, and there hasn’t been an improvement, then I certainly should feel guilty, and I don’t want to…”.