“Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.”
All three statements in verse 19 are statements of fact, but only one opens a mystery.
Lord, even though the path you led us upon through the sea, with mountains of water walled-up beside us, and even though we knew we were at that moment in the very eye of a miracle, through all of that, we never saw a thing of you, only your power.
There was nothing there to document what happened, save our experience. Like some diligent tree-hugger in a national forest, you didn’t leave a footprint. Nothing. Amazing.
When Moses encounters an angel of the Lord in a startling burning bush, the bush, miraculously, speaks. Moses has a fine Egyptian education, but it doesn’t take an MBA to know something strange has begun, and he catches on quickly. He sees the bush and leaves the path he’s on; he sidetracks, then takes off his sandals on command. Credit him all of that—and more: when the bush starts speaking, he hides his face.
That desert encounter is a substantial discussion too, some say. Ancient Hebrew texts make claims the burning bush encounter lasted a week. However long it actually was, it’s was hardly just an ecstatic moment. When finally Moses accepts the mission he’s been assigned, he asks the bush who he shall say sent him.
That answer echoes through all of scripture and has been translated a hundred different ways by linguists far more learned than I. Recently I heard an interesting take on the answer, a slight shift in verb tense: “I will become what I will become.”
The unseen footprints of verse 19 remind me of that burning bush definition because “I will become what I will become” offers a view of God that is ever-changing, that will change, that must change, perhaps, because his people, his beloved, his chosen, will continue to see him in different ways, as they always have.
I’m not arguing for a God who has no fixed nature, who is not forever the same; but “I will become what I will become” suggests something that even a rudimentary assessment of life in this world makes unmistakable: God’s people not only have seen him, but continue to see him in remarkably different ways. Zambian Pentecostals, Greek Orthodox, Opus Dei Roman Catholics, evangelical Presbyterians, Baptist independents—you make the list; all of them, all of us, worship God, but no two of us see or describe or define this “almighty other” in quite the same way.
And how wide is the tent finally? Isn’t that an interesting question?
In Psalm 77, Asaph sings the joy of remembering one single story from Israel’s grand narrative, a story passed along, even in his day, by generations of story-tellers. What happened at the shore of the Red Sea gives him courage to face the day—that’s what the psalm is about. What happened at that moment is not debatable. God was with us, Asaph says, with me, as he always has been. That’s his joy and his resolution.
But the footprints aren’t there because something unseen about this God of liberation and joy and endless love remains beyond us, forever mysterious, even unknowable, all of that even to those who love him, who do his will.
And these very words, my paltry attempts to draw nearer to him, won’t get wholly there either precisely because he is God and I am not. For some of us at least, it’s not easy to admit we aren’t in control of our lives and our destinies. But in the face of one whose gargantuan miracles leave no footprints, we are left on our knees before the mystery.
That may well be the point. That, and this simple resolution: because we’re his, he loves us.