Studies in Exodus 13:17-14:31


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Exodus 13:17-14:31

After a lengthy excursus on the regulations for the annual commemoration of the Passover we return now to the history of the exodus itself, picking up the account from 12:42.

Text Comment

13:18   The most natural and direct way to Canaan from Egypt, especially from the Nile delta was along the Mediterranean coast, along what amounted to the coastal highway through what is nowadays referred to as the Gaza Strip.  However, because it was also the most likely route for invaders, it was heavily fortified by the Egyptians.  So taking that route would have confronted the Israelites immediately with the prospect of battle.

That the God of the Passover and of the plagues before it should be deterred from sending the Israelites by a certain route because of his concerns over their fighting spirit is a striking illustration of the way the Bible is always setting side by side the sovereignty of God, his omnipotence and omniscience, and the real freedom, accountability, and responsibility of man.  Here is God who just laid Egypt in the dust changing Israel’s route because he doubted she would stand up to the challenge of Egyptian fortifications.  So he changed the route and sent her into the Sinai somewhat to the south.

“Toward the Yam Suph”, as your NIV margin tells us, means “Toward the Sea of Reeds.”  The words do not mean Red Sea, but Sea of Reeds or Sea of Rushes.  “Red Sea” as a translation comes from the LXX, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek some 200 years before Christ. Yam Suph does sometimes in the OT refer to the body of water we now call the Red Sea, at least the gulfs of Aqaba and Suez that continue the Red Sea proper north on both sides of the Sinai peninsula.  In antiquity the Yam Suph also referred to the Bitter Lakes region of the delta along the line of the present Suez Canal.  Proof of that comes from several sources, most notably the geographical detail of the Book of Exodus itself.  If you consult your maps of the exodus in the back of your NIV or your ESV you will see that either likely route of the exodus takes Israel into the Sinai north of the northernmost tip of the Gulf of Suez.

Now, I need to pause at this point because I am concerned that this may sound to some of you like a retreat from a fully biblical and faithful interpretation of the data.  You have long heard that Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land and here your pastor is telling you that, in fact, she crossed a lesser body of water and it isn’t even the body that we call the Red Sea.  I want to assure you on this point because I heard after the fact that some of you were concerned to hear me say that, at the first plague, the Nile River did not turn into actual blood and that the eight following plagues were all timely intensifications of natural phenomena known to be present in the Nile delta.  It sounded to you as if I were downplaying the supernatural.  I apologize for not anticipating that reaction and making a more aggressive effort to forestall it.  So, before anything more on the Yam Suph, another word on the first nine plagues.

I confess that I was caught unawares by this concern that I was “naturalizing” the text because the interpretation I offered has been a staple of evangelical, inerrantist biblical interpretation for more than a generation.  That is, it is taught by virtually everyone nowadays who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and is fully convinced of the historical character of biblical miracles. I was taught that interpretation of the plagues, and not as a controversial view, at Covenant seminary in the 1970s.  It is, in fact, the only interpretation I have ever heard taught or preached.  It is found in all the standard evangelical works of commentary and reference (e.g. New Bible Dictionary; Samuel Schultz’ standard evangelical history of the Old Testament, The Old Testament Speaks, R.K. Harrison’s standard evangelical Introduction to the Old Testament, etc.) It is also the view offered in Jack Collins’ book on miracles, a book that is designed to defend a supernaturalist view of miracles and of the biblical narrative of miracles.  Ironically, the research that has led to this interpretation — that is, that the first nine miracles are all to be explained as timely intensifications of phenomena known to the Nile river valley (no less miraculous for that – because God is obviously wielding those phenomena in an unprecedented way, concentrating them and intensifying them so as to achieve his purpose) – , I say that research on the plagues that has now been incorporated into the standard evangelical interpretation of the plagues, has been hailed by evangelical scholarship as dramatic support for the historicity of the biblical narrative, offering as it does the kind of information regarding Egypt and conditions there unlikely to be known or understood by a later writer writing in Palestine.  Only someone who was there, someone who had experienced the plagues themselves, would have written the narrative as it was written.

Further, no evangelical biblical scholar of any note, for a very long time, has thought that the water of the Nile actually turned to animal or human blood in the first plague.  The use of blood as a metaphor for “red” is well established in the Scripture (e.g. Joel 3:4 “the moon will turn to blood” and, still better, 2 Kings 3:22 “To the Moabites across the way, the water looked red — like blood.  ‘That’s blood!’ they said.”).  [The blood of the sacrificial animal in the tenth plague is plainly real blood and no scholarship that I am aware of has ever thought otherwise.]  What is more, to take the narrative as teaching that the river water turned into literal blood violates the context, the historical character of the narrative.  If it were the intention of the text to teach that the Nile actually turned to literal blood, the first plague — which seems little more than a major annoyance to the Egyptians — would have been unquestionably not only the most spectacular of all the ten plagues, but the most deadly.  It alone, of all the plagues, would produce an effect utterly unknown to human experience.  It would be, in this way, utterly unlike the frogs or the gnats or flies or boils or even the death of the firstborn.  Strikingly, even most liberal scholarship doesn’t think the biblical narrator meant to say that the water actually turned into animal or human blood.  It has been a very long time since anyone has taken that view in a serious evangelical commentary.  Keil and Delitzsch, the standard evangelical Hebrew text commentary on the Old Testament for generations of evangelical pastors and teachers, was written in the mid-19th century.  Yet already there we read:  “The changing of water into blood is to be interpreted in the same sense as in Joel iii.4, where the moon is said to be turned into blood; that is to say, not as a chemical change into real blood, but as a change in the colour, which caused it to assume the appearance of blood (2 Kings iii. 22).  According to the statements of many travellers, the Nile water changes its colour when the water is lowest, assumes first of all a greenish hue and is almost undrinkable, and then, while it is rising, becomes as red as ochre…”  In the mid-19th century, they had not yet discovered the sources of the Nile and the commentary goes on to say, “The causes of this change have not been sufficiently investigated…  This natural phenomenon was here intensified into a miracle…”  It is precisely the nature of the first nine plagues that sets the tenth apart and makes its effect so dramatic and so immediate.  The others produced effects that were known and had been experienced before, even if not to such an extent, never in such concentration, and never at the behest of the prophet of some other god.  But the tenth stands apart and it becomes, in this way, the focus of the revelation of redemption.

Now I say all of this again about the plagues so that you will not be concerned to hear that Israel did not cross what we nowadays refer to as the Red Sea.  It has been a long time since any believing scholarship thought that.  One proof of this conclusion is that Israel crossed the Yam Suph into the Wilderness of Shur.  But the Wilderness of Shur is opposite the Bitter Lakes area not the Gulf of Suez.  There are other geographical notices that further confirm the identification of the Yam Suph, in its usage here and in the following account of the parting of the sea, with a body of water that lay to the north of the Gulf of Suez.  It will not make the parting of the sea any less miraculous, but it will make sense of the geographical notices describing Israel’s march.  Israel left Egypt by almost as direct a route as possible that would not encounter armed resistance.  [Durham, 186]  In the ancient world there was more water between the Mediterranean coast and the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez than there is now.  That made routes into and out of Egypt more predictable and easier for the Egyptians to defend.  As we will see, Israel did not take an entirely predictable route.

Now, I’ve taken a long time on that single point, but I thought it important. If you have further questions, be sure to ask me.  In any case, Israel left Egypt in battle formation, with an armed vanguard and her more vulnerable dependants behind.  She was not leaving in a panic but, as we will read in 14:8, “boldly,” literally “with a high hand.”

v.19     The report that Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, not only confirms that Israel left Egypt calmly and in an orderly manner [Cassuto, 157], it repeats the request that Joseph made in Genesis 50:25 and reminds us that all that is happening is in fulfillment of God’s promise and the expectation of the faithful patriarchs of Israel.

v.22     The Lord was with his people and directing their march.  They saw a pillar of cloud during the day; at night it was a pillar of fire.  Israel now as a nation was seeing something of what Moses had seen at the burning bush.

14:2     The nature of these instructions suggests that this next stage of the route was not obvious.  It amounted, apparently, to a turn back toward Egyptian territory.  None of these places can be identified with certainty so it is not possible to tell precisely how the natural route was altered.  But the narrator mentioned these places because they were known to him and to his readers and would indicate to them precisely that this was not the way Israel would be expected to go.  She was being put in harm’s way, not continuing her escape.  But the point will now be made clear that the Lord put Israel in this precise location because he intended to demonstrate his glory to Israel and once more to Egypt.

v.3       Pharaoh would be emboldened by the intelligence he received, thinking that Israel had allowed herself to be pinned against the sea.  She will be easy to defeat and recapture.

v.5       Practical considerations are used by the Lord to harden Pharaoh’s heart once again.  Suddenly the horror of the deaths of the firstborn is forgotten and the loss of cheap labor and the humiliation of Israel’s departure are all that matter.

v.7       This use of a vanguard of the finest troops is consistent with what is known of ANE warfare.  The point is that Egypt was coming after Israel with a powerful force.  The chariot would have a driver and a soldier, usually an archer.  If infantry were present, it would be used to defend the chariot force.  In the ancient world it was the chariots that struck fear into opposing armies, like the arrival of tanks do to an army without them.

v.10     The panic would have been increased by the understandable assumption, indulged for some days now, that Israel was rid of the Egyptians.  To have a large Egyptian army suddenly appear in their rear was a terrible shock.  What is more, militarily speaking they knew that they were no match for Egypt’s professional army.  They were a rag-tag group of slaves.  At least they did the right thing:  they cried out to the Lord.

v.12     Unfortunately, their true attitude was revealed in what they said to Moses.  It did not occur to them, apparently, and will not in future instances of their complaining because of the difficulties they face, to think:  “the Lord who brought us this far and with such stupendous power will not fail us now.”  They are the same querulous and faint-hearted people they were at the beginning of this narrative.  The psychological realism of the biblical account is another evidence of its seriousness and accuracy.  The fickleness of the masses – who willingly obey their leaders when things are going well and turn on them in an instant when troubles appear – is so true to human life and experience, as any politician can tell you, that we know we are dealing with a sober account, not the sort of account one typically finds in mythology.

v.14     Moses is unruffled.  The Israelites need do nothing but watch.  The Lord will do the rest.

v.15     Moses’ own prayer to the Lord is not recorded.  Perhaps we are to understand that he had joined the prayer of v. 10.  In any case, the Lord tells him that the time for prayer is past and the time for action has come.  [Cassuto, 164]

v.16     Israel is instructed to continue her march, even though she is facing deep water.

v.20     The angel of the Lord has not yet been mentioned, nor is it said precisely what it was that he did to keep the Egyptians at a safe distance from the Israelites as they prepared to move.   But the pillar of cloud also moved and created a barrier between the two forces.

v.22     Moses stretches out his hand, in obedience to the commandment of v. 16, but the text makes it clear that it is the Lord who divides the waters.

v.23     Remember, the Lord had hardened Pharaoh’s heart into this present unreasoning state.  Obviously, the divided waters of the sea should have given them pause.  It was not as if this were the first time Yahweh had acted dramatically on Israel’s behalf and against the Egyptians.  I guarantee you that there were some Egyptian chariot drivers who were muttering under their breath as they entered the sea bed, “I have a very bad feeling about this.”

v.24     The last watch of the night was from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.  So the Israelites had crossed the sea at night – the night was lit up for them, as we read in v. 20 – and the Egyptians would have met their doom in the early hours of the morning.

v.25     No sooner is the Egyptian army in the trap than Yahweh moves to keep it there, allowing it neither to catch up the Israelites nor to escape back the way they came.  It is hard to tell but the means of discomfiting the Egyptians may be the beginnings of the water returning to its place, making the sea bed muck and sticking the chariot wheels in the mud and breaking their axles.  The NIV’s “they had difficulty driving” is literally “he made them to drive heavily.”

v.28     Too late the Egyptians realize their peril and attempt to fall back but it is too late.  They rush toward the Egyptian shore but the water meets them flowing back to its place.  The text does not say that Pharaoh himself went into the sea with his army, which it is almost certain to have done had Pharaoh himself been killed, and there is no historical record of a Pharaoh who died by drowning.

v.30     Here is the theology of the exodus in a nutshell:  the Lord saved Israel.  And he saved her to the uttermost.  Her enemies lay dead behind her.  The Promised Land lay before her.  The nation that had sought to drown the baby boys of Israel has seen her vaunted army drowned instead.  [Alter, 395]

v.31     This statement anticipates those, for example, in the Gospel of John, about people putting their faith in Jesus.  It was faith of a sort, but events would prove how shallow, superficial, and temporary it was.  Doubt was banished only for a time.

The biblical narrative of the miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds – at one and the same time salvation for Israel and doom for Egypt – functions here and in the rest of the Bible on two levels.

It is first an objective account of divine sovereignty in the outworking of salvation.  Nothing could be clearer or more emphatic in this narrative.  In fact, the run-up to the crossing of the sea is explicitly designed to make unmistakable God’s hand in the deliverance of his people.  Israel is sent intentionally along a route that, far from being an obvious way out of Egypt, exposed her to defeat and capture by the Egyptian army.  That is, she was put, by the Lord’s own orders, in a position where she could neither flee from the advancing Egyptian army nor maneuver to repel an attack – which, humanly speaking she could not have done in any case.  She had no chariots; she had an amateur army, while Pharaoh brought his best, the finest and best-equipped army in the world.  It was the Iraqi Army vs the U. S. Army with its superior equipment, training, and morale.  And, then, we hear Moses telling the people in vv. 13-14 that she need do nothing; that the Lord would fight for her and win the battle himself.  And so it happened.  Israel did nothing but follow orders.  She did not lift a hand against the Egyptian forces.  She did not hurl a spear or draw a sword. She did nothing but show her backside to the advancing Egyptian army, and yet the result was a devastating military defeat, the loss of an entire army in the sea.  The facts confirm the narrator’s concluding assessment in v. 30:  The Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians.  The Lord put Israel in the most unpromising situation imaginable and then delivered her in the most astonishingly powerful way.

As an account of salvation it could not be clearer as to whence comes our deliverance from sin and death.  We are, in ourselves, without hope.  But God intervened in the most remarkable, the most powerful, the most conclusive way imaginable and left our enemies:  our own guilt, the world, the flesh, and the Devil, utterly defeated, their bodies, as it were, floating on the sea or strewn on the desert sands.  Paul reminds us in the opening verses of 1 Cor. 10 that the passage through the parted waters of the sea is a picture of salvation by the grace and power of God.  That is the theme of Psalm 78 as well.  This is the great act of redemption in the ancient epoch, the anticipation of all that God would do to redeem his people from bondage and bring them into the Promised Land.  And it is all God’s devising and all his doing.  His people are delivered, but he does the delivering!

But besides being an objective account of Israel’s deliverance by the mighty hand of God, the narrative is also an account of the subjective struggle of faith.  Before deliverance comes, the people of God are led into situations that seem perilous in the extreme; they are made to cry out to God.  They feel their helplessness keenly and fear for themselves before the deliverance comes and sweeps away their fears.

The Lord who parted the sea could certainly have kept the Egyptian Army far from the Israelites.  He could have penned them in by the pillar of cloud and fire; he could have turned Pharaoh’s heart to realize the preposterousness of attempting to attack a people whose defense Yahweh had mounted already so many times and at such terrible cost to the Egyptian people and nation.  But he hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would follow Israel, he led Israel on a route that was bound to strengthen Pharaoh’s optimism that the Israelites could be caught, defeated, and recaptured, he backed Israel up against the sea inviting the Egyptian army to attack, and he left the sea divided long enough to tempt the Egyptian army to follow the Israelites.  The narrator makes it clear from the beginning that the Lord was setting Egypt up for one final, catastrophic defeat to make clear to the Egyptians and to his own people that he was the Lord and that there was no other God but Yahweh!  But the effect of that divine orchestration of events was that, for a time, Israel was terrified in the face of an enemy much more powerful than she was.  The demonstration that the Lord intended to make could not have taken place apart from a series of events that terrified Israel.  The narrative is precisely intended to show us this, as we read in vv. 2-4, and 17-18, and, especially, v. 31.

I don’t know how many times I have said to myself, or one or another of you has said to me something along the lines of “Well, I found myself in a situation in which I had no alternative but to trust the Lord” or “It was impossible for me to do anything about it, so I gave it over to the Lord,” or “Only the Lord can do anything about that.”  Well, exactly!  That is the fundamental principle of our lives: “salvation is of the Lord.”  So we should not be surprised that time and again the Lord sees to it that this principle should have its demonstration in our lives over and over again.  He has made sure that we never stray far from this conviction, basic as it is to everything:  we cannot and so we must trust in him who can!

This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he said,

“The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which
is written across the whole world in letters too large for some to see.”  [God in
            the Dock, “Miracles,” 29.]

The dividing of the waters, the salvation of Israel thereby and the destruction of the Egyptian army, is a small picture of what is always and everywhere true.  We are always saved by the power of God; we are always delivered from our enemies by his grace and his action and not by our own.  We always depend upon what he can and will do for us and not what we can do ourselves.  It is this conviction that gives life; it is the lack of it that kills the soul!

If you want to know why there are so many troubles in life, so many difficulties, the largest part of the reason can be found on the shore of Yam Suph.  It isn’t obvious, after all, is it, why God’s people should struggle over so many things, should be afraid so often, should feel so helpless and hopeless as often as they do?  We might well think that God’s people, the people who trust in the Lord would live their lives in untroubled inner peace and tranquility because, trusting in God as they do, he would make the mountains low and the rough places plain.  But it is not so and everyone knows it.

There are two very different theories of personal pain, or fear, or trouble in this world.  One is that our pain – from whatever source it comes, our alienation as a result of our upbringing, our disgust with ourselves, our loneliness, our disappointment in marriage, in family, in work, our failure to achieve whatever it was we had our hearts set on, whatever it may be – our pain is just our bad luck.  We should do all that we can to escape that pain and do what we can to avoid feeling it.  Much of modern psychological and therapeutic thinking takes this view.  They may say that troubles can do you good, but really they don’t see what good they do.  You would be better off without them.

Take hitting your thumb with a hammer.  Those of you who have done that know how much it hurts.  Many a counselor will say – not all I’m happy to acknowledge – but many will say,

“It’s too bad you smashed your thumb.  That was careless of you.  [Or, perhaps more often] …that was careless of your parents for not [teaching] you proper hammering. But once you become fully aware…you’ll find that type of thing won’t happen anymore.  Let’s see if we can’t organize your life to avoid those mistakes.”

What that means, in effect, is that your suffering was worthless.  The only good it has done, perhaps, is to drive you to the psychologist’s office.  [William Kirk Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction, 182]

But suppose the pain was not that of a smashed thumb resulting from careless hammering.  Suppose the pain was from an injury sustained in breaking down a door to rescue a child from a burning building.  The pain perhaps is much greater and longer lasting, but instead of cursing your dumb luck you would be inclined to say, “It’s nothing, really” because you see your pain as a necessary part of something very important and precious.  That is the Bible’s view of pain.  It has a point; it is an essential ingredient in the saving of life, in the ennobling of life, in the achievement of life’s purpose.

And so it was here.  We have here a great example of a fundamental biblical reality and theme.  Israel’s terror was the result of careful calculation on the Lord’s part.  He placed her where the approach of the Egyptian army would produce the maximum effect.  He sent on a route that made little sense except as a means of putting Israel in maximum danger and to make her feel that peril.  If the Lord had been interested in nothing else but alleviating Israel’s difficulty and psychological unrest, he would not have guided them as he did.  He had another purpose.  And the result was that when he intervened, when he delivered her from danger in the most spectacular way, the lesson was unmistakable, powerful, and glorious.  God revealed himself to Israel cowering before the advancing Egyptian army in a way he could not have done and never to the same effect had she left Egypt uneventfully and never saw the Egyptians again.

And if this truth, this conviction is more important than any other in the human heart, if the living knowledge of our own helplessness and God’s mighty power to save is what separates those who live forever from those who fall under God’s wrath, then surely we need to be placed between the Egyptians and the sea, we need to fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones, so that we will certainly believe in the Lord when he acts on our behalf.  Indeed, we will say that we don’t care what it takes, what must be taken from us, what pains we must suffer, what troubles we must endure, what disappointments we must bear, if only all our lives in this world we live with a conviction of the glory of God as the Savior of needy sinners, if only all our lives in this world we never doubt that God can do and will do for us what we cannot do ourselves.

If Israel’s passage through the Sea of Reeds is a picture of our salvation in Christ, then it is also a picture of the redemptive purpose of our troubles and trials and fears.  They are the backdrop to the revelation of God’s glory in our lives.  Israel could have walked into the Sinai over dry land and never even known that God had kept the Egyptians from following her.  But huddled in fear on the shore of the Yam Suph she saw what she could not do and what Yahweh could and would do for her.  And that is all any human being ever needs to know.

Some of you will have read of the recent pressure put on some Christians and Christian churches in China.  At this moment, as I speak, there are brothers in jail in China for their loyalty to Christ.  Why, for goodness sake?  To what end does the Lord allow this?  Because it is the most important thing in all of life that they and the Chinese church know what God can and will do for his people when they look to him.  Everything depends on that.  And so, over and over again, God’s people find themselves backed against the sea with the Egyptian army bearing down upon them.  And over and over again, in one way or another, the Lord parts the waters, rescues his people, and discomfits their enemies.

Every time in your life that some trouble appears that causes you to wonder once again if God can cope with this situation for you and deliver you, you remember Israel terrified before the advancing Egyptian army, remember how she got there with her back against the sea, and then what the Lord did for her in her distress.  To the extent that you see your life in those terms you are a Christian; and to the extent that you are that Christian, you are where you ought to be and precisely where you need to be and where you have to be if you are to cross the sea on dry land.