Exodus 14: At the Sea

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Boxed in between the Egyptians and the sea, the Israelites believe they are about to die. Moses, however, knows that God has authored this situation. He answers their three rhetorical questions with three firm sentences, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm. Be still!” They are intended to assure the people that their fears will not come to pass. God is present and will work for them. He isn’t asking them to do anything, other than stand and watch. Nothing that they can say or do will affect this outcome.

Their only job is to watch and see “the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.” It is a breathtaking moment with Moses acting as the intermediary between the people and the Lord. And while his words are strong, he still garners a rebuke from the Lord who says, “Why are you crying out to me?” It is unexpected. Some scholars argue that perhaps Moses complained to the Lord (though unrecorded in the text), hence, earning a rebuke. Others claim that Moses and the people are so closely identified that their complaints become his complaint. Both of these explanations are fairly speculative, showing that scholars really don’t know what to make of the Lord’s words. And, indeed, the story moves right along without allowing Moses any time to respond.

The Lord continues, “Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” This, too, is completely unexpected. Scholars all agree that a fuller understanding of this phenomenon is dependent upon knowing where it is taking place. Even the specificity of the names along their route are not helpful. According to the text, they are camped at Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon. No one really knows where those places are today. Keep in mind that these events are occurring roughly 3500 years ago, give or take a century or two. It is also possible that not only has the shoreline of the Nile shifted over the centuries, but also other bodies of water as well. So the size, depth, and location of the “sea” is simply unknown, despite scholars’ best efforts to identify it.

The Lord, however, continues that “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” These two verses virtually echo what has already been said earlier in verse 4. (See last month’s commentary regarding hardening Pharaoh’s heart and gaining glory.)

Without further ado, the angel of the Lord “who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moves from in front and stands behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.” Reading it literally, the “angel of the Lord” seems to be a second figure. Up to this point, the Lord has been in the pillar of cloud at the front of this group. It is also true, however, that the “angel of the Lord” has been mentioned earlier without any additional explanation. The initial scene at the burning bush began with an angel of the Lord. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is the Lord speaking to Moses. This leads some to argue that this angel is actually a concrete manifestation of the Lord, visible to the people. On the other hand, another word for angel is messenger. This angel is the messenger for the Lord, bringing the Lord’s message to his people. It would not be correct to say that they are interchangeable. They are two distinct entities, but in many situations, the angel of the Lord is a precursor to the Lord’s presence.

The amazing thing about the cloud is that it not only separates the Israelites from the Egyptians, but it also “brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.” The images this conjures up are stark. Imagine the Egyptians stymied in their tracks, confronted by a wall of total darkness. It must have occasioned many memories of the ninth plague – when darkness reigned for days. They could also recall that following that plague was the night of death for the firstborn. No doubt they are spending a very anxious night.

And on the other side is light. Scholars have been unable to offer a natural explanation for this phenomenon. The Israelites, however, need light. Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”

Could any of this have happened? The question has tantalized scholars forever. A small group of scientists are now saying, “Yes,” and claim to have the scientific evidence to prove it. Using computer models, they have been able to replicate a “strong wind” moving upon water. Estimates are that this could have been a tropical storm with winds up to 63 mph. People would still have been able to walk into a wind of that force. In their models the wind blows across the water and, literally, piles it up at the other end. It is called a “wind set-down.” If this type of wind blew all night, there would be 4 ½ miles of dry river bed – plenty for the Israelites to journey across. This model requires a bend in the waterway, where a river merges with another body of water. Then when the wind starts, the water is pushed into both waterways, leaving dry land at the bend. This lasts until the wind stops blowing; then the water rushes back. Again, speculation abounds as to its ancient location.

Scientists doing this work say it is all about fluid dynamics. The moving of the water by the wind has to operate in accordance with physical laws. Computers show that this is theoretically possible. Wind literally blows the water away. On the one side is a wind set-down; on the other side is a storm surge. While there have been brief instances of this occurring, it should be pointed out that it has never been fully replicated in nature. But for many, that fits with its divine origin. Scholars also caution about assigning historical facts to the Exodus texts, which primarily tell the story of God’s saving acts.

There is also another aspect to this event. Throughout the plagues, it has been pointed out how God is undoing creation, bringing chaos upon the Egyptians. This event raises even more comparisons. In Genesis 1:9, God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let ‘dry land’ appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” Here, the waters are parted to reveal the “dry land.” In the Genesis story, the dry land produces all the plants and trees and seeds. Here, the “dry land” allows the Israelites to produce a new life. This is a restoration of creation – for the Israelites. The Egyptians are still in the throes of chaos.

Come morning, the Egyptians see what has happened and pursue them, and “all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea.” In the final early morning hours, “the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.” This confusion is not based on not knowing what to do. This confusion is rooted in the fact that nothing is going according to plan.

If the wind blew the water away, it is likely that the river bed is slightly soft. It need not have posed any problems for the Israelites walking across, but horses and chariots are another matter. While it says the Lord “jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving,” it is very likely that their chariots, literally, are getting stuck in the mud. It is also possible that there are reeds on the river bed, crushed down by the many walking Israelites. But the chariot wheels could be getting entangled in them, leading to a similar result of being stuck. Scholars have suggested that the wheels might have come off, leading to even more confusion. This, then, becomes the greatest irony. Egyptian chariots were a fearful machine to the Israelites, wreaking danger and havoc to those in their way. Now, however, they are getting stuck in the mud, and their horses are flaying to keep moving. No doubt, the whips are being used without results, leading to even more confusion and chaos.

Suddenly, the Egyptians seem to understand what they are up against. They say, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Realizing the odds are against them, the Egyptians would like to retreat, but in reality, they are still stuck in the mud. They finally admit that this is a holy war, and their gods are no match for the Lord. The final resolution is moments away.

Then the Lord says 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 does this and “at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea.” It is unclear why the Egyptians are going toward the sea, but in any event, they are caught in the water, and “the Lord swept them into the sea.” As it turns out, they really were no match for the hand of the Lord. “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.” It does not say that Pharaoh is among them. There are no Pharaonic annals that indicate a Pharaoh perished by drowning. But these fighters are surely the best Egypt has to offer, and their loss would be devastating to their nation.

The Israelites, however, have safely traversed the dry land and “saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.” When they saw what the mighty hand of the Lord was capable of, they “feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses, his servant.” With this sentence, the promise of the Lord to his people has been fulfilled. They no longer are in service to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and they are ready to begin their service to the Lord. Their story is just beginning. They will soon arrive at Mount Sinai and learn what it means to be God’s chosen people. Along the way there will be murmurings and misgivings, but also victories and insights. Throughout it all, it becomes evident that God has a plan, and nothing they can do will foil that plan.