The Victory at the Red Sea

Enns stresses that this chapter marks out a new beginning for God’s people: ‘This passage tells not only of the end of Israel’s servitude to Egypt and the beginning of her servitude to Yahweh, it tells of the beginning of Israel itself, from a band of slaves to a nation.’

The identity (and therefore the location) of the ‘sea’ which the Israelites crossed is subject to some uncertainty.  Heiser (The Bible Unfiltered, ch 14) notes that in the present chapter it is simply referred to as ‘the sea’.  But in many other places in the OT it is called yam suph.  This phrase actually means ‘sea of reeds’ (not ‘red sea’).  Few reeds grow along the Red Sea, due to its salt water.

Heiser comments:

‘It’s possible that when the Israelites emerged from Egypt that they crossed a smaller body of water adjacent to the Red Sea—possibly one of the Bitter Lakes or Lake Timsah—rather than the Red Sea itself.’

According to Heiser, another interpretation is possible:

‘Since biblical Hebrew words were originally written without vowels, the phrase yam suph could be read as yam soph. The odd-sounding result would be “the sea of the end” or “the sea of extinction”—a phrase that refers to an ancient cosmological notion that the world was flat and surrounded by a water boundary. In this view, the Israelites would have thought they were approaching the end of the world, venturing out into the desert wilderness and straight into the primeval waters where no one could live.’

Fretheim rightly stresses that the passover and the sea crossing are two sides of the same act of divine deliverance.

Alexander notes some themes that the present narrative shares with the earlier part of Exodus:-

    1. ‘The twofold reference to Pharaoh’s heart (vv. 4, 8; cf. v 17, which speaks of the ‘heart of the Egyptians’) recalls how this motif comes in all of the earlier ‘sign’ episodes, with, in particular, the Hebr. verb hzq, ‘to strengthen’, occurring in Ex 4:21; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10. Twice YHWH states his intention that ‘the Egyptians will know that I am YHWH’ (vv. 4, 18), echoing a motif that comes previously in Ex 5:2; 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:10[6], 22[18]; 9:14; 10:2.
    2. ‘Pharaoh’s remark that ‘we have released Israel from serving us’ (v. 5; cf. v. 12) recalls the frequent request that the Israelites should be released in order to serve YHWH (Ex 4:23; 5:1–2; 6:11; 7:2, 16; 8:1–2[7:26–27], 8[4], 16–17[12–13], 24–25[20–21]; 9:1–2, 13; 10:3–4, 7).
    3. ‘The association of God’s presence with the pillar of fire and cloud (v. 24; cf. Ex 13:21–22) is reminiscent of his appearance as a flame of fire in 3:2…
‘All of these links convey strongly the impression that the account of the destruction of the Egyptian army should be viewed as a natural sequel and climax to the story recounted in the preceding chapters…’ (Numbering and formatting added)

According to Thomas W. Mann (Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 2)

‘Exodus 14 combines several literary sources, producing numerous inconsistencies. In one scenario God makes the sea bed dry with a wind, moves in a cloud between the Israelites and the Egyptians, leads them to the other side, and then the sea returns, drowning the Egyptians, whose chariots had become mired in the sand. In another, the sea is divided, with walls of water making a corridor, through which Israel and the Egyptians pass, until the walls collapse on the troops. Not only is it impossible to know “what actually happened,” but we should read the story as historical fiction—more an interpretation of an event than a report of the facts.’

We think, with Alexander, that a good case can be made for the essential literary unity of the chapter.

Ryken reminds us that the crossing of the Red Sea may be the single most celebrated event in the entire Old Testament.

‘Anyone who knows anything about the Bible knows that the children of Israel passed through the sea. This miracle has been acclaimed by composers like George Frideric Handel, actors like Charlton Heston, preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr., writers like Leon Uris, cartoonists like Charles Schulz, animators like Walt Disney, and even singers like Bob Marley: “Send us another brother Moses! From across the Red Sea … come to break down ’pression, rule inequality, wipe away transgression, set the captives free.”’
It’s not over yet!

‘We would have thought that the Israelites’ escape from Egypt meant the exodus story was over. All they need do now is to march to the promised land. Taking Joseph’s bones fulfills the wishes of the whole ancestral family: that is, to know that one day they will have their rest in the promised land as a place that belongs to the family and not merely one where they live as aliens. But it transpires that neither God nor Pharaoh is finished. God encourages Pharaoh not to give in quite yet.’ (Goldingay)

14:1  The LORD spoke to Moses: 14:2 “Tell the Israelites that they must turn and camp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea; you are to camp by the sea before Baal Zephon opposite it. 14:3 Pharaoh will think regarding the Israelites, ‘They are wandering around confused in the land—the desert has closed in on them.’ 14:4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them. I will gain honor because of Pharaoh and because of all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So this is what they did.

“They must turn” – Apparently, from an east southeast direction (Ex 12:37; 13:20) to a roughly northward direction.

“Pi-hahiroth…Migdol…Ball Zephon” – The location of these sites (be they geographical features or places of human habitation) is unknown.

“Camp by the sea” – Presumably, the Red Sea in meant.  A potentially dangerous place, cutting off (so it would have seemed) their escape route.

‘If even an act of God must have seemed unloving this was it, for all too soon they found that they had apparently been led into a trap, which rapidly closed upon them (Ex 14:9).  And it was God who had put them there!’ (Motyer)

‘What had happened was that a complete reversal of direction had landed the Israelites somewhere along (as is most likely) the Red Sea coast, looking as if they were afraid to head out into the actual wilderness.’ (Stuart)

“Pharaoh will think…” – ‘Like a master chess player, God induces Pharaoh to move his king into checkmate, and he doesn’t even realize it.’ (Enns)

“I will gain honour…and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” – This sentiment is important, for it is repeated in v18.  Fretheim observes that there is no mention of the liberation of the Israelites here.  That will happen, of course, but God’s primary purpose is to bring honour to himself.  What do we make of that?

This honouring of God is given voice in chapter 15.

‘This episode may seem like a superfluous show of strength after the plagues, but the persistence of the pharaoh is shown to be unrelenting. God’s final demonstration of counterforce brought an end to all negotiations and clearly established the Lord’s reputation for the world. In the ancient world, the name of Yahweh was not known. The witness of the text is that the Lord came down at this point in history to reveal who God is in a unique and unequivocal way. God’s identity was greater than simply being the “God of the Hebrews, who wanted the people freed.” God’s purpose was not limited to manipulating a specific Pharaoh for one specific purpose. The scope of the Lord’s action and self-revelation is, at once, historical and cosmic.’ (Bruckner)

The God who plans

‘The narrative shows us that God is a God who carefully plans. This has been apparent throughout Exodus 1–14 and through Genesis as well. Such planning will continue to be seen as the Bible’s story progresses: God is a God who plans so that his will is enacted. Often in the Bible we hear him telling his prophets about those plans, and then he goes about fulfilling them in accord with his word to those prophets. The prophet Isaiah indicated that such pronouncing of God’s plans ahead of time, and then fulfilling of them, was the mark of a genuine deity (Isaiah 14:24; 25:1; 41:21–29).’ (Reid)

God has a purpose

‘Let us learn the lesson: it is the will of God that gives purpose to life. There is always the ‘bigger picture’ of which he is aware and we are not. There are dangers and menaces, unknown to us, from which he is guarding us, and, above all, there is his conflict with Satan, within which, in ways we cannot possibly know or understand, the joys, sorrows, battles and testings that come upon us are playing their part. Had Israel not been caught – baffled, terrified and helpless – at the Red Sea, there would have been no final defeat of the power that had enslaved them.’ (Motyer)

14:5 When it was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled, the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people, and the king and his servants said, “What in the world have we done? For we have released the people of Israel from serving us!” 14:6 Then he prepared his chariots and took his army with him. 14:7 He took six hundred select chariots, and all the rest of the chariots of Egypt, and officers on all of them.

When it was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled – Enns comments that Pharaoh probably expected the Israelites to go on a three-day journey, which is what Moses had originally asked for.  Now he realises that the three days are up, and the Israelites have just kept on moving.

‘The number of days or weeks that had transpired since the night of the Passover cannot be determined from the narrative. Supposing that a week or two had gone by, it is not difficult to imagine that the leaders of Egypt were beginning to receive reports related to work stoppages of all sorts on important defensive building projects in the northeast delta,33 by reason of the absence of Israelite brickmakers and construction workers.’ (Stuart)

“What…have we done?” – ‘Note, It is very common, but very absurd and criminal, for people to repent of their good deeds; their justice and charity, and even their repentance, are repented of.’ (MHC)

‘From the perspective of the Israelites, their departure from Egypt has been divinely accomplished. From an Egyptian perspective, the Israelite slaves have been driven out (Ex 11:8; 12:31, 33).’ (Alexander)

He prepared his chariots – Note the accumulation of terms describing the Egyptian army: an indication of the unevenness of the contest.  The Israelites have no chariots and were not equipped for warfare (Alexander disputes the usual translation of Ex 13:18).

‘Every chariot (fourteen references in chaps. 14–15!) and every horse/horseman (twelve times), indeed the entire Egyptian army, is thrown into the fray. Egypt devotes its brightest and best to the chase. This is no minor military maneuver from the Egyptian perspective. Yet, given God’s announced involvement (v. 4), the reader knows that all this bravado will finally be in the service of Israel’s God and God’s mission in the world.’ (Fretheim)

‘In every period, professional armies tend to have some weapon which smite terror into the untrained man’s heart, however brave and strong he may be.  With the Egyptians at that time it was their chariot force.  Horses were not used for riding – the horsemen of the story are charioteers – but they were used in chariors, in which there would be a driver and a fighter, normally armed with bow and arrows.  the infrantry, through well trained, served on such occasions mainly to defend the chariots, if they got into trouble on difficult ground.’ (Ellison)

‘Even though he witnessed the signs and wonders, and the death of the Egyptian firstborn males, Pharaoh’s actions reveal that he still has not grasped the truth regarding YHWH. The same, however, may also be said of the Israelites, in the light of their reaction to the advancing Egyptian chariot force.’ (Alexander)

He took his army with him – lit. ‘his people’.  Stuart infers from this that Pharaoh and his advisers went a certain distance, leaving his army to press ahead into their watery graves.

“We have released the people of Israel from serving us!” – This defines what the Israelites had been released from.  They had been slaves.

14:8 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he chased after the Israelites. Now the Israelites were going out defiantly. 14:9 The Egyptians chased after them, and all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh and his horsemen and his army overtook them camping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-Zephon.

The Israelites were going our defiantly – or, ‘boldly’ (Bruckner).  Or, again, this may be a reference to their organisation into regiments of fifty men apiece (Ex 12:17, 41, 51; cf. Ex 13:18).

Alexander, however, supports the idea of ‘defiance’: ‘While there is no suggestion in the present context that the Israelites are blaspheming YHWH, this brief remark may possibly imply that they considered themselves, rather than YHWH, to have won the victory.’

But their confidence will soon turn to consternation.

His army overtook them – In v10, we read that the Egyptians were ‘marching after them’.  It may be, as Humphreys suggests, that the horses and chariots took a longer (but, for them, faster) route around the Israelites, and that the foot soldiers marched behind them.  They were caught in a pincer movement.

God’s unusual strategies

The Israelites are being pursued, and they are trapped.  Merida notes that, throughout the Bible, God uses unusual strategies: giving Abraham and Sarah a child in their old age (Gen 21:5), using Gideon and his little army (Judg 6-8), Jehoshaphat’ s battle with the Ammonites and Moabites (2 Chron 20), the demoniac and the pigs (Mk 5), and, of course, Jesus Christ going to the cross.  ‘Satan, like Pharaoh, must have thought that he had Jesus trapped, that he was about to die.  Yet in his unusual strategy, God brought deliverance for us and glorified himself.’

14:10 When Pharaoh got closer, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians marching after them, and they were terrified. The Israelites cried out to the LORD, 14:11 and they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the desert? What in the world have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 14:12 Isn’t this what we told you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians, because it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’ ”

The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt – Alexander quotes the puzzlement of Gowan: ‘If God could harden Pharaoh’s heart, why did he not instead soften his heart, and thus avoid all that suffering and death? Christians believe that by the work of the Holy Spirit, God can and does bring about radical changes in human personalities; would it not have been far better to treat Pharaoh as he treated another persecutor of his people, the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1–22).’  No doubt the complete resolution of such questions does not lie within our reach.  But we should at least recall that, in the account of the plagues, the general tendency was for Pharaoh to harden his own heart before God hardened it.  Part of the answer, then, lay in the direction of what some call ‘judicial hardening’, of God, in the end, confirming the uncoerced decisions of those who repeatedly resists him.

The Israelites cried out to the Lord – They soon forget the reassurances of vv1-4.  They had first cried out to the Lord in Ex 3:6, and subsequent events had shown that he had heard and responded.  As Enns says, ‘The sudden reiteration of that cry, so soon after they have witnessed God’s mighty acts in the plagues, is nothing less than capitulation to the appearance of their immediate circumstances, of which the events of the previous thirteen chapters should have cured them.’

Enns comments further that this complaint is the first instalment of a grumbling theme, hinted at in Ex 2:11-14, and characteristic of Israel’s behaviour throughout their desert wanderings.  In Ex:16:3; 17:3 they speak again of preferring to serve and die in Egypt.  Israel’s grumbling is remembered in Psa 106:6f.

‘At the first sight of trouble, they are willing to march straight back to Egypt, ignoring the mighty acts of God that have brought them out in the first place. With Pharaoh in hot pursuit, they do not give a second thought to the promise God made to the patriarchs. They still have not learned that God’s purpose for bringing them out of Egypt is not simply to save them, but to maintain his covenant tie to all his people, past, present, and future. They have still not learned that their circumstances are not the final standard on which to view the work of God.’ (Enns)

‘The people’s lack of trust in both Moses and YHWH becomes a recurring motif in the account of their wilderness journey, often involving a yearning to be back in Egypt (cf. Ex 15:23–25; 16:3; 17:3; Num. 11:1–6; 14:1–4; 16:13–14; 20:2–5; 21:4–5).’ (Alexander)

Trouble on every side

‘On the one hand was Pi-hahiroth, a range of craggy rocks impassable; on the other hand were Migdol and Baalzephon, which, some think were forts and garrisons upon the frontiers of Egypt; before them was the sea; behind them were the Egyptians: so that there was no way open for them but upwards, and thence their deliverance came.’ (MHC, although I cannot vouch for the details of his geography!)

MHC adds: ‘We may be in the way of our duty, following God and hastening towards heaven, and yet may be in great straits, troubled on every side, 2 Co. 4:8.’

Inexcusable distrust!

‘How inexcusable was their distrust! Did they not see themselves under the guidance and protection of a pillar from heaven? And can almighty power fail them, or infinite goodness be false to them? Yet this was not the worst; they quarrel with Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, and, in quarrelling with him, fly in the face of God himself, and provoke him to wrath whose favour was now the only succour they had to flee to. As the Egyptians were angry with themselves for the best deed they ever did, so the Israelites were angry with God for the greatest kindness that was ever done them; so gross are the absurdities of unbelief.’ (MHC)

Judge not…

‘These verses introduce the disappointing pattern of Israel’s behavior during their march from Egypt to Canaan. As long as everything was going well, they usually obeyed the Lord and Moses and made progress. But if there was any trial or discomfort in their circumstances, they immediately began to complain to Moses and to the Lord and asked to go back to Egypt. However, before we criticize the Jews, perhaps we’d better examine our own hearts. How much disappointment or discomfort does it take to make us unhappy with the Lord’s will so that we stop believing and start complaining?’ (Wiersbe)

Ten provocations apiece!

‘They had as soon forgotten the miracles of mercy as the Egyptians had forgotten the miracles of wrath; and they, as well as the Egyptians, hardened their hearts, at last, to their own ruin; as Egypt after ten plagues, so Israel after ten provocations, of which this was the first (Num. 14:22), were sentenced to die in the wilderness.’ (MHC)

14:13 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand firm and see the salvation of the LORD that he will provide for you today; for the Egyptians that you see today you will never, ever see again. 14:14 The LORD will fight for you, and you can be still.”

“Do not fear!”

‘Note, It is our duty and interest, when we cannot get out of our troubles, yet to get above our fears, so that they may only serve to quicken our prayers and endeavours, but may not prevail to silence our faith and hope.’ (MHC)

“The Lord will fight for you”

“I am baptised”

‘There was a period of his life when Martin Luther, the great Reformer, was in hiding in a castle. He spent his time translating the Bible into German, but it was a dark time for him. He struggled with doubt and discouragement. He felt attacked by the devil—on one occasion, he famously threw an inkpot at him. But his more successful strategy was this. He was heard shouting in the grounds of the castle, “Baptisatus sum”: “I am baptised”. How Luther felt was up and down. His circumstances looked bleak. But his baptism was a fact and it was a fact that embodied the promise of God. He felt he had little fight left, but the truth was that, in all the ways that eternally mattered, the fight was not his—God had already fought for him, and won for him.

‘In his Large Catechism, Luther wrote: “Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptised; but if I am baptised, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” (Part Four)

‘When we are afraid—when we feel the weight of our sin or the power of the enemy, we can say, “I am baptised”. In other words, I have received a promise from God. God is for me. And if God is for me, who can be against me? I will not be afraid. I will stand firm. I will be still.’


“You can be still” – Enns says that this is not a word of comfort, but rather of impatient command: “Shut up!”

Chester invites us to imagine what it must have felt like to be commanded to ‘be still’ when the most powerful army in the world was bearing down on you!

Fretheim agrees that this ‘is not a call for passivity, as if angels will now come and carry them across the sea (see Ex 14:15). It is a word calling for silence. What the people might have to say, whether in lament or battle cry (see 2 Chron. 13:14–15), will have no bearing on what is about to happen. Neither Israel’s words nor deeds will add to what God is effecting on their behalf (cf. Ps. 46, highly pertinent for this setting).’

For Alexander, this means that ‘whereas YHWH will do the fighting, the Israelites are to be calm and silent. They are to be witnesses, rather than participants in the battle. Their salvation will come from YHWH, who without assistance will overthrow the Egyptian army, ensuring that the glory for the victory will be God’s alone.’

The attributes of God

Stuart observes that Moses alludes to a number of divine attributes:-

  1. God is a dispeller of fear, a comforter of those who are afraid.
  2. God is a deliverer from distress.
  3. God invites and expects his people to trust in him (“Stand firm … you need only to be still”).
  4. God removes danger.
  5. God is a warrior against the forces of evil.
14:15 The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 14:16 And as for you, lift up your staff and extend your hand toward the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites may go through the middle of the sea on dry ground. 14:17 And as for me, I am going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will come after them, that I may be honored because of Pharaoh and his army and his chariots and his horsemen. 14:18 And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I have gained my honor because of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

“Why do you cry out to me?” – Rather puzzling, in this context.  Some think that this verse belongs after v12.  But it is possible that Moses had participated in the general complaining recorded in v10, or that he had been busy ‘crying out’ in pray on behalf of the people, but the Lord wanted him to stop praying and start leading. (Bruckner)

“As for you…” – ‘Moses is given a central place as agent for the saving work of God (Ex 14:16, 21) and is given recognition for this in later tradition (Isa. 63:12). This does not in any way stand at odds with the tradition that speaks solely of the dividing of the waters as the work of God (see Ps. 78:13; Neh. 9:11). This dual involvement was announced initially by God (Ex 3:8, 10), and it is recognized as such by the people on the far side of the event (Ex 14:31). This is consonant with God’s ways throughout the Scriptures and beyond, from those who preach and teach the word of God to those who preside over the sacraments. Salvation is no less the work of God because God uses human beings (or nonhuman entities such as the wind) as instruments in and through which to work.’ (Fretheim)

In v16, ‘three phrases allude to the creation: as God’s spirit hovered over the waters (Gen. 1:2) so Moses was told to raise his staff over the sea; as God separated the water (Gen. 1:7) Moses’ action divided the water; and as God made dry ground (Gen. 1:9) so the people would go through the sea on dry ground.’ (Bruckner)

“So that the Israelites may go through the middle of the sea on dry ground” – There is uncertainty about precisely which body of water is meant.  Clearly, it was large and dangerous.  The Apologetics Study Bible summarises the biblical evidence: ‘the waters were deep (Is 63:13), but that God split them and made them stand “like a wall” (Ps 78:13) on either side of the fleeing Israelites (Ex 14:22, 29). When the waters returned to their original position they covered the Egyptians’ chariots, horses, and soldiers (v. 27; 15:1; Dt 11:4; Jos 24:7; Ne 9:11; Ps 78:53), thereby killing all the enemy (Ex 14:27–28, 30; Ps 106:11). In the NT, Stephen, the apostle Paul, and the writer of Hebrews referred to the body of water as a sea (Acts 7:36; 1 Co 10:1; Heb 11:29).’

I am going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will come after them – Stuart comments that this would have been against the Egyptians’ better judgement: no sensible commander would have taken his chariots into a muddy area.  But God had strengthened their resolve to follow the Israelites.  Moreover, they would have been under strict orders to recapture the Israelites, and it would have seemed a lame excuse to say that ‘they simply walked across the sea.’

“The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” – ‘Many in the future would honor Yahweh as the God who created, who creates new realities, and who redeems those who cry out to him.’ (Bruckner)

How can God gain ‘honour’ by killing his enemies?

‘It may be difficult for people living in the modern world to understand how God can be “glorified” by killing his enemies, but this sentiment should not obscure what is clearly the case here. In fact, passages such as this have led many to think of the God of the Old Testament as a God of “wrath” while the God of the New Testament is a God of grace and love. Of course, even a cursory knowledge of both Testaments quickly dissolves such a view, since there is plenty of grace in the Old Testament, even toward the enemies of God (e.g., Isa. 19:16–25), and a good bit of wrath in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 8:12; Rev. 14:14–20). God is not as tame as we would like him to be.’ (Enns)

14:19 The angel of God, who was going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. 14:20 It came between the Egyptian camp and the Israelite camp; it was a dark cloud and it lit up the night so that one camp did not come near the other the whole night. 14:21 Moses stretched out his hand toward the sea, and the LORD drove the sea apart by a strong east wind all that night, and he made the sea into dry land, and the water was divided. 14:22 So the Israelites went through the middle of the sea on dry ground, the water forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Fretheim thinks that there is a historical core to this account, but that multiple sources are responsible for this

‘kaleidoscope of images: divine messengers, pillars of fire and cloud, alternating light and darkness, a strong east wind, the sea cleft in two, walls of water standing up and lying down, a dry sea canyon pathway, bogged-down Egyptian chariots, a lonely human hand twice stretched out, and a shore strewn with dead bodies…Trying to sort it out in a literal fashion, or suggesting that Israel considered the detail to correspond precisely to reality, is like retouching Renoir’s paintings to make them look like photographs.’

We think, rather, that the theological points that Fretheim wishes to draw from the text lose much of their power if the historical basis for them is watered down to that extent.

The angel of God – would appear to be a manifestation of God himself, for in Ex 13:21 the Lord himself performed the same function.

The pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them – That which had been their guide now becomes their guard.

In Humphrey’s view, it was not the pillar of cloud which moved behind them, but rather that the Israelites changed direction (see v1), such that the pillar of cloud was now at their rear.  However, this does not explain v20, according to which the cloud came between the Egyptians and the Israelites.

The pillar of cloud – Dark and impenetrable from the Egyptian side; lighting up the night on the Israelite side.  ‘Just as events of the Passover night had differentiated Israel from Egypt to the disadvantage of Egyptians, the events of this night similarly worked against Egypt’s interests.’ (Stuart)

Stuart says that the sense is, ‘…so the pillar of cloud moved…’, making it clear that the angel of God and the pillar of cloud are the same thing.

Moses stretched out his hand…and the LORD drove the sea apart by a strong east wind – As Ryken points out, three elements – the natural, the human, and the divine – are brought together in this one verse.

‘Again, judgment takes the form of un-creation. Water and land un-separate, just as they did when God sent judgment during the time of Noah. Judgment takes the form of water. In 10:19 the Spirit-wind of God carried away the locust army into the Red Sea. Now the Spirit-wind of God carries away the Egyptian army into the same sea.’ (Chester)

The mediator

‘As the mediator between the people and God, Moses takes on characteristics of both. As we have noted regarding 14:15, he “participates” in their grumbling, even though he himself rebukes the grumbling. Elsewhere he is clothed in glory, as when he commands the elements, thus highlighting his more “divine” attributes. He is even called “God” in 4:16 and 7:1. The ambiguity is not a result of poor writing or sloppy thinking. It is a window into the manner in which God has brought Israel back to himself. Indeed, it is a hint of how God will once again, more than a millennium later, save “Israel” through one who identifies both with the people and with God.’ (Enns)

The Lord drove the sea apart…and the water was divided – As Enns remarks, the plagues represented a reversal of creation.  So it is with the parting of the sea: whereas in Gen 1:9 the seas are gathered, and separated from the dry land, here they are split open to reveal the land beneath.  ‘In Genesis 1, the dry land brings forth the myriad of creatures who will live there. So too in Exodus, the dry land will give life to the Israelites. For the Egyptians, however, this act of “creation” is reversed, for it brings death, not life. As such, it is not just a creation reversal, but the ultimate payback for Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the Israelite firstborn in the waters of the Nile.’

A strong east wind – As with the plagues, this raises the question, in many minds, of whether such mighty works were achieved through natural, or supernatural means.  As Enns remarks, such an either/or approach is alien to the thinking of the ancient Israelites.  Mention of this strong wind clearly indicate that natural forces were responsible, at least in part, for what happened.

Reid notes the following echoes of the creation narrative in Genesis: ‘First, there was the presence of a spirit or wind (the same Hebrew word is used for wind and S/spirit; rûaḥ), connected with water (Genesis 1:2; Exodus 14:21). Second, ‘dry ground’ appears out of a watery mass (Genesis 1:9, 10; Exodus 14:21–22).’

Ellison thinks that other references to the Exodus, in Judg 5:4f; Psa 77:16-19; 114:3-6 and Hab 3:3-6 – all poetic in style – suggest the additional force of an earthquake.  This might have led to sea-bed being temporarily lifted, and then returning to original level after the Israelites had crossed.

The water forming a wall for them on their right and on their left – Ellison says that the popular idea of a wall of water piling up on either side is due more to the poetic language of Ex 15:8 than to the more descriptive wording of the present verse.  Instone-Brewer (Science and the Bible: Modern Insights for an Ancient Text) notes that the expression is used figuratively in 1 Sam 25:16, where David’s men are said to form a ‘wall’ of protection around the shepherds.  Bruckner agrees that the key point here is that the Egyptians would not be able to perform the usual outflanking manoeuvre.

The parting of the Red Sea ‘was the terror of the Canaanites (Jos. 2:9, 10), the praise and triumph of the Israelites, Ps. 114:3; 106:9; 136:13, 14. It was a type of baptism, 1 Co. 10:1, 2. Israel’s passage through it was typical of the conversion of souls (Isa. 11:15), and the Egyptians’ perdition in it was typical of the final ruin of all impenitent sinners, Rev. 20:14.’ (MHC)

‘Note, God can bring his people through the greatest difficulties, and force a way where he does not find it. The God of nature has not tied himself to its laws, but, when he pleases, dispenses with them, and then the fire does not burn, nor the water flow.’ (MHC)

‘This march through the sea was in the night, and not a moon-shiny night, for it was seven days after the full moon, so that they had no light but what they had from the pillar of cloud and fire. This made it the more awful; but where God leads us he will light us; while we follow his conduct, we shall not want his comforts.’ (MHC)

14:23 The Egyptians chased them and followed them into the middle of the sea—all the horses of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen. 14:24 In the morning watch the LORD looked down on the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw the Egyptian army into a panic. 14:25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving, and the Egyptians said, “Let’s flee from Israel, for the LORD fights for them against Egypt!”

The Egyptians chased them and followed them into the middle of the sea – forgetting that his magicians, after the first two plagues, had been helpless against the Israelites and their God, Pharaoh pursues them, thinking to overcome them.  ‘Note, The ruin of sinners is brought on by their own presumption, which hurries them headlong into the pit. They are self-destroyers.’ (MHC)

In the morning watch – ‘It is ironic that the Egyptians were defeated at daybreak because that is when their sun god was supposedly rising in the east. But Ra could not save them.’ (Ryken)

He jammed the wheels of their chariots – or, ‘He made the wheels of their chariots come off’ (NIV).  Alexander says that the Heb. is difficult, although the main point is clear – the chariots became difficult to manoeuvre.

If we take Psa 77:16–20 as our guide, the east wind was accompanied by torrential rain, which would have turn the pathway to mud – impossible for the chariots to negotiate.

‘We should not lose sight of the fact that this tactic hits the Egyptians at their symbol of power—their mighty chariots—which earlier struck fear into the Israelites. It is precisely that element that God mockingly derails. There they are, stuck in the middle of the sea, unable to proceed or retreat, and it finally dawns on them that they are, literally, in over their heads. In what is an almost comic confession in light of the preceding fourteen chapters, their wooden brains finally draw the obvious conclusion, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt” (v. 25).’ (Enns)

“Let’s flee from Israel” – Words not attributed to Pharaoh, but to his army.  Is this mutiny?  Throughout the narrative, the people have been more favourably disposed towards the Israelites and their God, than Pharaoh.

‘They might have let Israel alone and would not; now they would flee from the face of Israel and cannot.’ (MHC)

The LORD fights for them against Egypt! – This remarkable confession fulfils v4, and vindicates Moses’ promise in v14.

14:26 The LORD said to Moses, “Extend your hand toward the sea, so that the waters may flow back on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen!” 14:27 So Moses extended his hand toward the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state when the sun began to rise. Now the Egyptians were fleeing before it, but the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. 14:28 The water returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the army of Pharaoh that was coming after the Israelites into the sea—not so much as one of them survived! 14:29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground in the middle of the sea, the water forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 14:30 So the LORD saved Israel on that day from the power of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. 14:31 When Israel saw the great power that the LORD had exercised over the Egyptians, they feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Not so much as one of them survived! – ‘This may seem harsh to us, but the men of Egypt are drowned for drowning the boys of Israel (Ex1:22). And they are drowned at daybreak (Ex 14:24)—which is when Ra, the sun god, should have risen to their aid. But Ra was unable to save them.’ (Chester)

The Israelites walked on dry ground in the middle of the sea, the water forming a wall for them on their right and on their left – Durham cautions that such language does not lend itself to naturalistic explanations.  This is the language, he says, ‘of confession. This victory, like the victories in Egypt, is declared to be Yahweh’s victory, Yahweh’s alone. What we may make of that is our problem. The compositor who set these lines together was speaking from faith and attempting both to address faith and to stimulate faith…Every tradition employed and virtually every word used are to that end.’

The Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea – ‘The Egyptians were very nice and curious in embalming and preserving the bodies of their great men, but here the utmost contempt is poured upon all the grandees of Egypt; see how they lie, heaps upon heaps, as dung upon the face of the earth.’ (MHC)

Did Pharaoh himself drown?  The text seems to suggest so, and this is reflected too in Psa 136:15.  According to Alexander this does, however, create a problem if the exodus is to be dated to around 1447 BC, which would be in the middle of the reign of Thutmoses III (1479–1425 BC).  Ellison thinks that there is ‘no suggestion’ that Pharaoh accompanied his chariots.  Nor, he says, is there any evidence of a Pharaoh of that period meeting his death by drowning.

The Lord of Hosts

‘As the displeasure of a king draweth many enemies with it, so the displeasure of God setteth all His creatures against us; therefore He is called the Lord of hosts, as though He came with an army against us, Isaiah 1:24. When He fought with the Aranites, the sun took His part, Joshua 10:13; when He fought against the Sodomites, the fire took His part, Genesis 16; when He fought against the Egyptians, the water took His part, Exodus 14; when He fought against the murmurers, the earth took His part, Numbers 16; when He fought against the idolaters, the lions took His part, Daniel 3, when He fought against the mockers, the bears took His part, 2 Kings 2:24.’ (Henry Smith, in A Puritan Golden Treasury)

They feared the Lord

‘Hebrew uses the same word for being afraid and for revering, for a negative fear and a positive submission. At the beginning of the story the midwives feared God in a good sense rather than fearing Pharaoh and doing what he said. At the end of the story Israel gives up fearing the future and fearing Pharaoh in a bad sense because it has seen the reason for fearing God in a good sense. That it is a good fear is indicated by the fact that it goes along with trusting in Yahweh. The Israelites have caught up with the midwives.’ (Goldingay)

They believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses – ‘How much more should we, when we see our deliverance in the cross and resurrection, put our trust in God, by putting our trust in Jesus his servant.’ (Chester)

‘Salvation and destruction came together. The sea of protection from evil was also the sea of destruction for evil forces.’ (Bruckner)

Chester quotes Donald Bridge, who tells the story of ‘a liberal preacher visiting an African-American church. As the minister talked about the crossing of the Red Sea, someone shouted, “Praise the Lord. Takin’ all them children through the deep waters. What a mighty miracle!” The minister, who did not believe in miracles, was annoyed at this intervention. So rather condescendingly, he told the congregation that the Israelites were probably in marshland with an ebbing tide, so they were simply wading through six inches of water. In response to this, the same voice as before shouted, “Praise the Lord. Drownin’ all them Egyptians in six inches of water. What a mighty miracle!”’ (Signs and Wonders Today).

‘Isaiah repeatedly speaks of a coming new exodus (Isaiah 4:5-6; 11:15-16; 35:6-10; 40:3-5; 43:14-19; 48:20-21; 50:2; 51:9-11; 63:11-14; see also Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:7-8; 31:31-33). And this coming act of liberation is described as an act of new creation (Isaiah 25:6-8; 42:5; 44:24; 45:11-12; 65:17-25).’ (Chester)

‘The drowning of the pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen is unequaled in the history of OT revelation. It demonstrates that the Lord is God over all chaotic and oppressive forces that rule in the created world…The lordship of Yahweh means more than release for slaves; it means the coming end of the principalities that twist the world. The luring of Pharaoh into the heart of the sea revealed the Creator’s move to redeem creation and restore it to the Creator. Escaping the pharaoh was not enough. His power had to be broken in such a way that the entire world would know who the Lord is and what God’s sovereignty can mean.’ (Bruckner)

This is not about our own personal ‘Red Sea’

For some, the Red Sea ‘symbolizes obstacles that stand in the way of our dreams.’

As Ryken remarks, ‘some preachers would invite their congregations to identify their own “Red Sea” experiences and trust God to bring them through. One thinks of the scholar who wrote, “Every age has its Egypt, its force of oppression, just as every age has its children of Israel who long to be free” [Quoting McGrath].  However, this misses the point. Israel’s passage through the sea is not primarily intended to teach us what to do when we are in spiritual trouble, any more than it serves as a how-to lesson on what to do when we come to a large body of water. Rather, it is meant to teach us about coming to God for salvation.

The Exodus is not about our deliverance from suffering

‘We do not see New Testament authors enlisting the Exodus paradigm when speaking of intense personal suffering: “God will deliver you from your suffering as he did the Israelites from Egypt.” Such suffering is not something so much to be gotten out of as to be patiently endured—and even something to be thankful for (e.g., Col. 1:24; James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 4:12–19). This is not a “get out of suffering at all costs” mentality. We pray for suffering to end, of course, but, when it is over, it is not as if the Exodus has happened personally for us.’

The Exodus ‘is not a story that will be duplicated in the lives of individual Christians anytime they get into trouble, but a story that gives us a glimpse of the underlying battle between God and evil, well beyond our circumstances, a battle that has eternal ramifications. The fact of the matter is that whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, we must remember not that we are awaiting God’s deliverance, but that that deliverance has already come, in Christ. We are not to say, “What I am going through is like Israel’s Egypt experience,” but “My Egypt is behind me. I am on the other side of the sea, so how am I expected to behave?”'(Enns)

Liberation theology?

Enns quotes Croatto: ‘Israel grasped a liberating sense of God and an essential value in its own vocation, namely freedom.… We are now enjoined to prolong the exodus event because it was not an event solely for the Hebrews but rather the manifestation of a liberative plan of God for all peoples … an unfinished historical project.’

But this is, says Enns, ‘a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Israel’s liberation from Egypt was a religious statement; God was claiming his right over Israel, to take his people out from under Pharaoh’s rule and put them under his own rule. Exodus is not the story of Israel’s release from Egypt, as if they now can go their merry way and build a Marxist-like utopia. Rather, they have left one form of slavery in order that they may be free to enter another form of slavery, to Yahweh. It is a journey that does not merely take them out of Egypt, but to Mount Sinai and the law. Liberation theologians’ use of the Exodus to support a wholly unshackled political freedom runs contrary to the story they are attempting to appropriate.

‘The Exodus is not a story of liberation in the sense in which many use it today, but a story of salvation…The Exodus…is not the story of mere politics any more than it is a story of our own personal troubles. It is, rather, the foundational event in Israel’s existence as a people before God. The means by which God brings them into existence is one manifestation of God’s pattern of conduct that extends well beyond any specific historical instances. It is a pattern of conduct that is given its most concrete manifestation in the death and resurrection of the new Moses and the countless numbers who have and will follow him across the sea.’

Jesus, the new Israel, the new Moses, and the new Exodus

As Enns remarks, the Exodus serves as a paradigm for salvation as wrought by Christ.

Matthew 2:15, for example, uses Hos 11:1 to draw an analogy between Christ and the Israelites.  God called Jesus out of Israel just as he had called Israel out of Egypt.  He is the new Israel, the ultimate Israel.

In Lk 9:31, Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about his ‘departure’ (exodos) which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  He is the new Moses, leading his people to a  new life.

In Heb 3:16, the writer asserts that Jesus is a new and better Moses.  This is clarified in Heb 4:1-13: ‘It is through Christ (the new Moses) that we as the church (the new Israel) gain entrance into heaven (the new Promised Land). Christ has come to complete what the first Moses could not do and what Joshua had to do in his stead: not only deliver the people out of Egypt but bring them into Canaan. The writer of Hebrews does not extend the analogy to its fullest extent, but the possibility is attractive: Jesus is the new Moses who has come to deliver his people from a country more oppressive than Egypt (the present world order characterized by sin, death, and eternal separation from God) and governed by a ruler far worse than Pharaoh (Satan).’

In 1 Cor 10:1-13, Paul recalls that ‘that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.’  This appears to be a reference to Christian baptism, which expresses the move that the believer has made from the old life to the new life.  ‘In other words, Christian baptism is the process whereby we undergo our own Exodus, leaving this world and joining another way of life under Christ’s leadership and authority.’

In Revelation, the symbol of Egypt as standing for the oppressive godlessness of this present world is replaced by that of Babylon, scene of Israel’s exile.  The destruction of God’s enemies is marked by a series of events strongly reminiscent of the Egyptian plagues.  The enemies of God and his people will, in the end, be thrown into the sea (Rev 18:21).  Then will be ushered in the new heaven and the new earth, from which the sea (symbol of chaos) is absent (Rev 21:1).

We have ‘crossed over’ from death to life’ (Jn 5:24)

‘When Jesus spoke these words, he was not likely thinking of the Exodus, but the image is still appropriate. As Christians, we have crossed over from our slavery to sin and death to a new beginning as God’s people, in subjection to him. We who are in Christ have moved out of one country and into another (or more accurately, we are moving toward another country), which itself is a preview of our entrance to the heavenly country that awaits us. The application of the Exodus theme to our lives could not be more central.’ (Enns)

The significance of the Exodus for us

The significance of the Exodus for us is not found in what we do with it, but in what God has done for us already. We have missed the theological point of the story if we reduce its grand theological message to a number of moral lessons, such as “Be faithful in a tight fix,” or, “Don’t fear tough times, just ‘be still’ and let God take care of you.” Of course, these are good things to remember (and difficult to do!), but the question here is whether the point of the Exodus story is to teach us these things. I think not. The Exodus story is not a pep talk for when we go through trying circumstances, to teach us that God will win our battles for us. Rather, if anything, it is a pep talk to remind us that God has won the battle. All of our daily battles, which are real and matter to God, should be seen in this overarching context. (Enns)

Who are you?

Tim Keller writes:-

‘I’ll never forget nearly forty years ago sitting in R. C. Sproul’s living room in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania. Alec Motyer, a British Old Testament scholar I had never heard of, was visiting. I was on the floor with a bunch of other college and seminary students, and Sproul said to Motyer, “Tell us about the connection between the Old and New Testaments.” Motyer replied something like this:

‘Think about it. Think of what an Israelite would say on the way to Canaan after passing through the Red Sea. If you asked an Israelite, “Who are you?” he might reply, “I was in a foreign land under the sentence of death and in bondage, but I took shelter under the blood of the lamb. And our mediator led us out, and we crossed over. Now we’re on our way to the Promised Land, though we’re not there yet. But he has given us his law to make us a community, and he has given us a tabernacle because we must live by grace and forgiveness. And he is present in our midst, and he will stay with us until we arrive home.

‘Then Motyer added, “That’s exactly what a Christian says—almost word for word.”’

Saved by faith

‘Not only does this verse [v31]…identify the point of the story of the deliverance at the sea for all generations (all should learn from it that the Lord can be trusted to deliver his people, no matter what their plight) but adumbrates the New Testament emphasis on salvation by faith. What was important for Israel was not merely that they were safe and the Egyptians were not; what mattered was that faith saves, and God had shown them how faith in him could pay off to their lasting benefit.’ (Stuart)


Merida (based on the teaching of Keller) notes that the crossing of the Red Sea is a paradigm of salvation throughout the rest of the Bible.

1. What we are saved from: bondage.  This is mentioned in v5 and v12.  But, as this latter verse indicates, ‘you can take the Israelites out of slavery, but you can’t take the slavery out of the Israelites.  It is all too easy to prefer our old slavery to our new freedom, to prefer ‘the pleasures of life for a season’ than to follow God’s often-mysterious path, to fall back from grace to law.  We have been objectively delivered from slavery to sin, but do we subjectively feel and experience that to be true?

2. How we are saved: crossing over by grace.  ‘The Lord will fight for you’, v14.  In fact, Moses told the people to be still and quiet and to wait for the Lord to act.  It is not our good intentions, or our praying, or our almsgiving, or our pilgrimages.  It is sheer grace.  I remember being asked, as an 11-year-old, “Are you a Christian?”  My stumbling answer was, “I try to be.”  It would be another 8 years before I came to realise that it’s now ‘Try’, but ‘Trust’; not ‘Turning over a new leaf’, but ‘Receiving a new life.’  Note: we are not saved by the strength of our faith, but by the object of our faith.

3.  Why we can be saved: the Mediator.  There was one who stood between God and the Israelites: Moses.  When he was obedient to God’s command, by raising his staff, then God acted to deliver his people.  So there a ‘man in the middle’ – one foot in heaven, as it were, and one foot on earth.  All that we have by way of God’s grace is through him, and by him, and in him.