The Israelites leave Egypt after the tenth plague amidst the panic of the Egyptians and a destroyed country mourning its dead. God has clearly demonstrated His power over Egypt and its gods and humiliated Pharaoh. Amazingly, however, God isn’t done glorifying Himself at Pharaoh’s expense. As a result, even though Pharaoh ordered Moses to go because he feared for his life, he has second thoughts and decides – completely irrationally – to chase after the Israelites. God uses Pharaoh’s pursuit to bring about a miraculous event and show once and for all that He is greater than Pharaoh, greater than Pharaoh’s gods and greater – in this case – than Pharaoh’s army.
God leads the Israelites out of Egypt. The most direct route to the Promised Land is through the land of the Philistines, but God knows the people will become disheartened by the war that would be certain if they go that route. Thus He leads them on an alternate route through the wilderness to the Red Sea. The Red Sea route isn’t simply to avoid the Philistines, however; it also sets up one last confrontation with Pharaoh and one more opportunity for God to show His glory and power.
It’s interesting that God avoids the Philistines because of war when one of the reasons He’s taking the people to Canaan is to utterly destroy the Canaanites through war. God’s choice likely shows His understanding of the people and that He knows they won’t ultimately conquer the land. This is the generation that He will eventually say He loathes and will swear that they’ll never enter the Promised Land (Ps 95:10-11).
It’s important to understand that starting with the description in verse 18 of God taking Israel around by the way of the wilderness that no one really knows what route the people take from Egypt to Canaan. There is reasonable certainty over the location of Rameses – the starting point – and Kadesh-barnea – the last stop before entering (or not entering) Canaan. Every place in between, however, is up for debate. This includes Mount Sinai and the location of the Red Sea crossing. Historically Mount Sinai is thought to be at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula (hence the name) but there is no way to be certain. And as for the point at which the Israelites cross the Red Sea, there are as many theories as there are points on the map. One notable thing to pay attention to throughout this text is that more than once it says the people go through the wilderness to reach the Red Sea (13:18, 14:11-12). That seems to call into question any crossing point inside or near Egypt proper (or what we think of as Egypt today). That said, there’s ultimately no way to know where or even what they cross and it doesn’t pay to spend too much time trying to nail down something that can’t be defined.
Moses takes the bones of Joseph as they leave. He honors Joseph’s last request that was based on Joseph’s confidence that God would lead the people back to Canaan. We ultimately don’t know for certain how long the people have been in Egypt but it’s notable that the people are aware of Joseph’s request perhaps hundreds of years after he made it.
God doesn’t just lead the people through Moses; He leads them personally. He goes before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He continually reassures them of His presence. They never have to wonder if they’re alone or if God is with them. This is vital to remember as we go through the rest of this story and the record of the events to come. The people will lose faith WHILE looking at the visible representation of God’s presence and power.
There is no way to know how much time elapses before Pharaoh starts his pursuit. It’s interesting, however, that verses 21-22 explain how God leads the people in the day and the night and explains it in terms of more than one day. It could be that this simply is a description of how things are for as long as the people travel to Canaan. But it also could mean that the people travel several days before Pharaoh decides to follow. This could be another indication that the people travel farther to the Red Sea crossing point than is traditionally thought.
After the Israelites leave Egypt and make some progress away from the country, God instructs Moses to turn back and camp by the sea. By doing this, it will make Pharaoh think they are lost and hemmed in by the sea. God wants to make sure Pharaoh pursues his ex-slaves.
It’s amazing that after ten plagues – including the death of all the firstborn in the land – God isn’t satisfied that Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been punished enough. He wants to make one more demonstration of His power and glory at their expense. The last symbol of might and prestige they have is the army. Since the land is destroyed and the firstborn dead, it’s the one thing that still shows Egypt to be a great country. God now takes direct aim at it and does it by hardening Pharaoh’s heart again and causing him to make a decision that’s completely irrational in light of all he’s witnessed and what the land’s been through.
Notice God’s reasoning for what He’s about to do – “I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” Is it possible they still don’t know? Remember how Pharaoh asked who Yahweh was when Moses first appeared before him (5:2)? God wants to answer that question for an ELEVENTH time. As we mentioned at the end of the last lesson – it’s a terrifying thing to fall under the wrath of God.
Pharaoh hears that the people have left Egypt and almost immediately has a change of heart – he and his servants. Even though he demanded that Israel leave and even asked Moses to appeal to God for him so he wouldn’t die (12:32), he now regrets it and wants the people back. “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” “Who’s going to do all the work now? Why did we let them go?!!”
The only way any people who’ve lived through what they’ve lived through would say this is because God blinds them and hardens them. They actually say that they want the people who caused the destruction of the land and the death of their firstborn to come back. “Why’d we let Israel go?? Now who’s going to cause death and destruction to repeatedly plague us?”
Pharaoh in his God-ordained fog saddles up and chases after Israel. He orders his 600 select chariots along with other chariots and men to go after the escaped slaves. Per Josephus, the army includes the 600 chariots and 50,000 horsemen and 200,000 men on foot. The numbers are somewhat hard to believe but it makes sense that the military might of the most powerful nation on earth is formidable. Notice that the text says the entire army goes after Israel – if the numbers are correct it makes for a terrifying sight for the people. The army catches up to Israel next to the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s confidence likely soars when he sees the vulnerable ex-slaves trapped by the water and left alone to face his trained military (Per Josephus, the Egyptians think since Yahweh’s been placated by allowing Israel to leave Egypt that He will no longer help Israel).
The people see the Egyptians coming and panic. Later it will be easy to condemn them for their repeated lack of faith, but this time it’s perhaps understandable that they become frightened as they see the military might of Egypt marching down on them. They cry out to God for help and then turn on Moses. In their fear they lash out and question his motives. They say they’d rather be slaves in Egypt than dead in the wilderness. They also – and there’s no record of this and it goes directly against their original acceptance of Moses when he came back from Midian (4:31) – say, “Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’?” The people appear to engage in some revisionist history to suit the needs of the moment. Things are going bad so they claim to never have wanted to come out in the first place.
Moses responds perfectly. This is his second exposure to the volatility of the people (the first was after his first appearance before Pharaoh when Pharaoh cut off the supply of straw to the brick-makers – 5:21) and he handles it exactly as the servant-leader he is. He doesn’t defend himself at all, he simply points to God. He knows the people are scared and so doesn’t take what they say about him personally. He doesn’t worry about his reputation or their respect – he simply acts to reassure them and point them to God. This is the clearest example yet of all that God’s done in Moses’ life. Moses is no longer the faithless doubter of the burning bush; he’s a confident servant of God selflessly leading God’s people to God.
Moses tells them not to fear and to sit back and watch God take care of them. He likely doesn’t know the details of what God’s about to do, but he knows that God said He’d demonstrate His power one more time to the Egyptians so he knows the people will be safe. He also knows this is the last time the Egyptians will cause them trouble – he tells the people they’ll never see the Egyptians again after today.
It’s interesting that Moses tells the people to stand by and see the salvation of the Lord. Paul will later point to what’s about to happen and compare it to baptism (I Cor 10:1-2). This is the final act of God’s deliverance. He redeemed them by the blood of the lamb and now he makes them His own through the water.
Moses also tells the people that God will fight for them while they keep silent. They are to stop complaining and trust God.
God tells Moses what He’s about to do. Moses is to command the people to march toward the sea and he’s to stretch out his staff over it and divide it. God will enable the people to cross the sea on dry land. He will also cause the Egyptian army to follow them into the sea and He will be honored through what happens to Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen.
After He tells Moses what’s going to happen, God causes the pillar of cloud that’s been leading Israel to move behind them and come between them and the Egyptians. He also – though the text isn’t exactly clear in its description – apparently gives light to the Israelites while keeping the Egyptians in darkness (He may also just cause light to shine generally). Thus He keeps both camps separate and further reassures Israel. The Egyptians can’t get to Israel as long as the cloud separates them and the people see God visibly protecting them. He not only tells them to trust Him, He shows them why they can. He’s their leader and protector.
The timing and details are somewhat hard to understand in this narrative, but apparently once the cloud moves between the camps – during the night – Moses stretches his staff over the sea (note how God makes sure the people see Moses acting on God’s behalf – God wants there to be no doubt as to who His ordained leader is) and a strong east wind comes up and blows all night and causes the sea to back up and leave a dry channel for the Israelites to cross. The Israelites cross through the sea on dry land with walls of water on either side.
Some questions and observations about the crossing:
- While at first it seems odd that a wind blowing one direction can cause the sea to back up in two directions to form walls on either side of the people, what appears to happen is that the wind blows through the sea and essentially tunnels the water. The wind blows from east to west and the walls of water are on the north and south of the people.
- If this is true, it does bring up another question – assuming the people walk east, how do they walk against a wind strong enough to back up the water?
- The text specifically says the water forms walls on either side of the people and uses a Hebrew term that typically refers to city walls. That calls into serious question theories of a crossing through shallow marshes or small lakes.
- We have no idea how long the distance through the sea is so we don’t know how long it takes the people to cross. The text refers to God looking down on the Egyptians in the morning watch and it also says the east wind blows all night and that the sea returns to normal at daybreak. All seem to imply that the crossing takes one night. If that’s the case, is it reasonable that a group of over two million people consisting of families and possessions and animals can cross in just a matter of hours? Might this again call into question the actual number of Israelites?
At some point the cloud lifts and the Egyptians see the Israelites escaping through the sea on dry land. They decide to pursue with all the chariots and horsemen (nothing is said about the men on foot – perhaps the chariots and horsemen lead the way because of speed and the footmen either come after them or don’t get a chance to move before everything goes horribly wrong). God sees the Egyptians pursue and does either one or two things (the text isn’t clear). He either brings the army into confusion and causes something to happen to the wheels of their chariots such that they can’t drive, or He brings confusion by causing the wheels of the chariots to mishandle. We don’t know if there are two acts or one. And is there significance to God’s look (perhaps some kind of cosmic display – see Ps 77:16-20) and could that cause the confusion? Regardless of what exactly happens, the Egyptians are stymied in their pursuit and realize that God now fights for Israel and so decide to get out of the sea (reality finally becomes apparent).
It’s another measure of God’s hardening that the Egyptians decide to pursue Israel into the sea and then are surprised by God fighting on Israel’s behalf. They see the dry land and DON’T make the logical assumption that a God who can do that – and who caused the ten plagues they just lived through – is a God who can take care of His people. They just blindly give chase and suffer the consequences. God orchestrates everything about this event – the wind, the sea, the protection of the people and the irrational actions of the Egyptians.
Once the Egyptians pursue Israel into the sea, God tells Moses to stretch his hand over it and cause the waters to come back. Note again the very public display of Moses’ leadership. Moses stretches out his hand and the waters return and drown the Egyptians. The Egyptians try to flee once they see God working but in their flight they ride directly into the returning waters. All the Egyptians drown; no one escapes (thus repeating what God did to the locusts when He ended that plague – He drove both into the Red Sea and left no survivors – 10:19). The text doesn’t say if the dead include Pharaoh.
Verse 29 either means the Egyptians drown while Israel continues to march through the sea – meaning that part of the sea returns to normal while part remains swept back – or it’s simply a restating of what Israel did in contrast to the Egyptians. It’s not clear if the Israelites are completely out of the sea before God causes it to return and destroy the Egyptian army.
Thus God miraculously saves Israel. He shows the people His power in their dry crossing through the sea, in His destruction of the Egyptian army, and even in the Egyptian remains that wash up on shore (Josephus says the people arm themselves with the weapons they pick off the dead).
When the people see all that God’s done, they believe. They believe in God and they believe in His servant Moses. The most powerful nation on earth and the most powerful army on earth were no match for their God. They are free and protected and on their way to the Promised Land.
God has now done exactly what He told Moses He would do when Moses complained to him after the first disastrous appearance before Pharaoh. He’s reassured the people, judged the people’s enemies, shown His great power through mighty acts, and delivered the people out of slavery. Through His power and mercy and love He’s made them His own.
“Say therefore, to the sons of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (6:6-7).
This is who God is. This is who we serve. A merciful and mighty God who fights for and takes care of the people He’s redeemed. His people. He reassures us when we need it, He judges our enemies (ultimately), and He delivers us with an outstretched arm. Nothing is too big an obstacle. Nothing is greater than His power. And nothing is beyond His mercy. God lovingly leads and protects those He redeems.