THE PENTATEUCH PART II: EXODUS
Lesson 8:
Exodus chapters 14:1-16:36
The Miracle of the Parting of the Sea and the Desert Journey to Mt. Sinai

Almighty Father,
In days gone by You led the children of Israel on their journey to salvation. It was not an easy journey but through trial and terror You guided Your people every step of the way. As we continue our daily journeys, Lord, we need to be aware that You are guiding our steps. May the prayer of Your servant St. Patrick be our prayer: As I arise today, may the strength of God pilot me, the power of God uphold me, the wisdom of God guide me. May the eye of God look before me, the ear of God hear me, the word of God speak for me. May the hand of God protect me, the way of God lie before me, the shield of God defend me, the host of God save me. May Christ shield me today... [..]. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me. Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand, Christ in the heart of everyone that thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that seems me, Christ in every ear that hears me. Guide us now, beloved Holy Spirit, as we study the lessons You taught Israel on their journey to a holy nation, as we pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Egypt was glad at their leaving, for terror of Israel had seized them. He spread out a cloud to cover them, and fire to light up the night. Psalm 105:38-39

They did not bear in mind your countless acts of love, at the Sea of Reeds they defied the Most High; but for the sake of his name he saved them, to make known his mighty power. At his rebuke the Sea of Reeds dried up, he let them pass through the deep as though it were desert, so he saved them from their opponents' clutches, rescued them from the clutches of their enemies. The waters enveloped their enemies, not one of whom was left. Then they believed what he had said, and sang his raises. Psalm 106:7b-12

For I brought you up out from Egypt, I ransomed you from the place of slave-labor and sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead you. Micah 6:4

Firstborn of Israel were ransomed by the blood of the Passover victims on the night of the tenth plague. Like the substitutionary sacrifice of the ram for the life of Isaac, son of Abraham (Gen 22:13-14), the blood sacrifice of the Passover victims prefigured the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ who died to ransom the lives of men and women of every ethnicity and of every generation.

God had fulfilled what He had promised when He told Moses: I shall lay my hand on Egypt and with great acts of judgment lead my armies, my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. And the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I stretch out my hand against the Egyptians and lead the Israelites out of their country' (Ex 7:4-5). His proud, hard heart broken by the death of his firstborn son and heir and by the pitiful wailing of his people over the deaths of their children, the Egyptian Pharaoh released the Israelites and asked for Moses to pray for him to Yahweh his God. The Egyptian king finally knew the answer to his first questions concerning the God of the Israelites when he asked: Who is Yahweh and why should I obey him ? (Ex 5:2). Thus, began the Israelites' journey out of slavery and to the promised rendezvous with God at Mt. Sinai to fulfill the sign promised to Moses: I shall be with you, God said, and this is the sign by which you will know that I was the one who sent you. After you have led the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.'

Numbers chapter 33 contains Moses' record of the journey to Mt. Sinai and the journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promise Land. Every stop along the journey was recorded. The account begins with a re-statement of God's judgment on the false gods of the Egyptians and notes that journey began on the 15th of Abib/Nisan, the day the Egyptians were burying their dead: These were the stages of the journey made by the Israelites when they left Egypt in their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded their starting-points in writing whenever they moved on at Yahweh's order. The stages, from one starting-point to another, were as follows: They left Rameses in the first month. It was the fifteenth day of the first month, the day following the Passover, when the Israelites confidently set out, under the eyes of all Egypt. The Egyptians were burying those of their own people whom Yahweh had struck down, all the first-born; Yahweh had carried out his judgment on their gods (Num 33:1-4).

A significant question is how long did the Egyptians take to embalm and bury their dead in mass funerals before they began to pursue the Israelites? Scripture does not give us an answer to this question but Egyptian customs suggest that the embalming and the necessary ceremonies could have taken a month or more in the case of the Pharaoh's heir (Davis, Studies in Exodus, page 178; Egypt). In his grief, it may also have taken the Pharaoh a while to realize the Israelites were taking longer than agreed upon three days to journey into the wilderness, make their sacrifices, and three days to return. Initially he may have felt secure in the knowledge that the Israelites did not seem to be returning to Canaan since he would have known they did not take the shortest route towards Canaan along the northern trade route. He also would have known that any other of the routes across the Sinai would have taken the Israelites months to cross to exit Egyptian territory into Midian.

Please read Exodus 14:1-4: The First Leg of the Journey from Etham to the Sea
14:1Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 2 Tell the Israelites to turn back and pitch camp in front of Pi-Hahiroth [mouth-the-gorges] between Migdol [tower] and the sea, facing Baal-Zephon [Baal-destroyer]. You must pitch your camp opposite this place, beside the sea, 3and then Pharaoh will think, The Israelites are wandering to and fro in the countryside; the desert has closed in on them. 4I shall then make Pharaoh stubborn [hard hearted] and he will set out in pursuit of them; and I shall win glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and his whole army, and then the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.' And the Israelites did this.

At first God led the Israelites out into the desert, but then God told Moses to make them turn back and to camp beside the sea.

Question: Why did God want the Israelites to turn back and camp in such a vulnerable site with their back against the sea and with deep gorges in front of the camp?

Answer: The pharaoh, who was at first broken and contrite on the night his son died, had recovered his hardness of heart. God knew it was his intention to make war upon the Israelites and so God tempted the predator with a seemingly vulnerable prey, boxed in by gorges and the sea.

What transpired would be the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army's final judgment. From Exodus 13:20-15:22 seven significant place names are recorded on Israel's route out of Egypt (Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, pages 633-641; Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon):

Unfortunately, none of the place names have been positively identified.

The place name Pi-ha-chirot/ Pi-ha-hiroth literally means mouth of the gorges but there are no significant gorges on the western side between the Egyptian delta region and the Sinai. There are, however, a series of gorges in the south at the tip of the Sinai across from the Gulf of Aqaba. For the site of Israel's encampment to be this far from the Delta fits geographically; however, there is a problem with the Jewish tradition that it was on the 7th day, the 21st of Abib, that the miracle of the parting of the sea took place (the far southwestern side of the Sinai Peninsula is a much longer journey), and the designation of the miracle of the sea taking place in the heart of Egypt (Dt. 11:4) is also a problem.

Identifying the body of water called the Yam Suph isn't any easier. The 3rd century BC Jewish scholars who wrote the Septuagint identified the Yam Suph as the Red Sea; however Bible scholars have suggested other bodies of water as candidates:

  1. A bay of the Mediterranean Sea north of the Delta.
  2. Lake Timsah (crocodile lake): a large, shallow, fresh-water lake halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.
  3. Bitter Lakes: a series of lakes to the south of Lake Timsah.

Lake Timsah, a marshy lake only a few feet deep, was too shallow to be a candidate for a body of water that drowned an army. Some geologists have suggested that these lakes did not exist at the time of the Exodus and that the arm of the Gulf of Suez extended farther north than the present shoreline. The discovery of an ancient site in the vicinity of these lakes that predates the Exodus has eliminated that possibility, but there may have been an ancient series of cannels that extended north intending to link the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean; Pi-ha-chirot/ Pi-ha-hiroth can mean mouth-(of ) the-gorges or possibly mouth-(of) the-canals, a suggestion made by biblical scholar Fr. R. de Vaux (there is a record of an attempt to dig such canals during the reign of Pharaoh Nebo). Today the Suez Cannel links the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean through these ancient lakes.

The popular theory that the crossing of the Yam Suph was somewhere in the Bitter Lakes region was proposed by Father F. M. Abel, a professor at the French Dominican School of Jerusalem, who suggested that the marshes and reeds in this region could be the suph of a body of water called Sea of Reeds. Fr. Abel's theory is strengthened by the fact that a crossing at this point would have given the Israelites immediate access into what scholars believe is the Wilderness/Desert of Shur (Ex 15:22), but the problem with his theory is that there would not have been a sufficient body of water to create a wall of water on each side of the pathway to freedom (Ex 14:22, 29; 15:8).

The problem with the theory that either of these lakes were the sea is that it would have been just as easy for the Israelites to go around them to continue on their journey, an impossibility if the sea was either the Gulf of Suez or the Gulf of Aqaba, both arms of the Red Sea, and then too one must take into consideration that the word suph, meaning reeds is according to Scripture not limited to fresh water plants but also refers to seaweed.

Supporting the theory that the body of water that was miraculously parted was either the Gulf of Suez or the Gulf of Aqaba is the Scripture notation in 1 Kings 9:26 that identifies the shore of the Yam Suph at Ezion-Geber, which is beside Eloth in the land of Edom on the Gulf of Aqaba, as the port for Solomon's naval fleet. This identification seems to support the tradition that the Yam Suph is the Red Sea, known for it prolific red seaweed. The Gulf of Suez and the Sinai were Egyptian territory at the time Solomon ruled, as it was in the period of the Exodus. Solomon's navy was located on the Gulf of Aqaba in Edomite territory that his father, King David, had conquered (2 Sam 8:14). That the word suph, reeds, of the Yam Suph is also seaweed is supported by the use of the word in Jonah 2:4-6, which obviously refers to seaweed: For you threw me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods closed round me. All your waves and billows passed over me; then I thought, I am banished from your sight; how shall I ever see your holy Temple again? The waters round me rose to my neck, and the deep was closing round me, seaweed [suph] twinning round my head (for suph see Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English vol. 3, page 2121).

Most of those who support a Red Sea crossing believe the crossing took place on the arm of the Red Sea that is called the Gulf of Suez, but there are others who suggest the children of Israel traveled the pathway south of the Bitter Lakes and north of the Gulf of Suez, traveling deep into the southern Sinai and crossing at the narrowest point of the Gulf of Aqaba where the Sinai Peninsula is closest the Arabian desert of Midian. In this area, on the Sinai side of the water, there are a series of deeply carved gorges that lead down to the water of the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba where the gulf meets the Red Sea. It has been reported that chariot wheels of 18th Egyptian dynasty design have been discovered in the waters between the southwestern side of the Sinai and point of land that extends from the Arabian side of the water (this theory would of course place Mt. Sinai in Midian territory on the eastern side of the Gulf of Aqaba).

It is intriguing how many times the location of the Yam Suph is mentioned in Exodus in the description of the journey out of Egypt:

We cannot positively identify the crossing of the sea, but we do know from Scripture that the journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai took nearly two months. The children of Israel left Egypt on the 15th of Abib, they crossed the sea, entered the desert of Shur where they could not drink the waters of Marah, next they came to Elim, leaving Elim and entering the desert of Sin between Elim and the Sinai one month after they started on the 15th of the second month (Ex 16:1). They arrived at Mt. Sinai on the first day of the third month (with the rendezvous with God three days later on the fiftieth day after leaving Egypt (Ex 16:1; 19:1). We also know that Mt. Sinai was eleven days journey from Kadesh-Barnea Dt 1:2), a site which scholars believe has been identified as an oasis in northern Sinai. It is a site which figures prominently in the biblical narrative (see Gen 14:7; 16:14; 20:1; Num 13:26; 14:21-35; 20:1 [Miriam was buried there], 2-13; 32:8; 34:1-5; Dt 1:2, 14, 19-21; 2:14; 9:23; Josh 10:41; 14:6, 7; 15:1-3).

Please read Exodus 14:5-8a: The Pharaoh and his Army Pursue the Israelites
14:5When Pharaoh king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, he and his officials changed their attitude towards the people. What have we done,' they said, allowing Israel to leave our service?' 6So Pharaoh had his chariot harnessed and set out with his troops, 7taking six hundred of the best chariots and all the other chariots in Egypt, with officers in each. 8Yahweh made Pharaoh king of Egypt stubborn [hardened the Pharaoh's heart], and he gave chase to the Israelites.
[..] =
literal translation (Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 177-78).

The realization that the Delta was essentially depopulated with the departure of the Israelites and probably desiring revenge for what Egyptians had suffered because of the Israelite god, the Pharaoh and his ministers again hardened their hearts and decided to pursue the fleeing Israelites. The 600 chariots were probably an elite unit that led the Egyptian forces. This was a period in Egyptian history when Egypt was the most powerful military power in the region. The question is often asked: Where did the horses come from after the devastation of the livestock in the plagues of disease and hail? However, according to Scripture, only the animals in the open fields died of the plague of the livestock and the hail (Ex 9:3, 19-21). Archaeologists have discovered huge stable complexes in Egypt where the Pharaohs kept their valuable chariot horses.

Please read Exodus 14:8b-18: The Egyptians Pursued the Terrified Israelites
14:8bThe Israelites marched confidently away, 9but the Egyptians, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, his horsemen and his army, gave chase and caught up with them where they lay encamped beside the sea near Pi-Hahiroth, facing Baal-Zephon. 10As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up "and cried out to Yahweh for help. 11To Moses they said, Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you had to lead us out to die in the desert? What was the point of bringing us out of Egypt? 12Did we not tell you as much in Egypt? Leave us alone, we said, we would rather work for the Egyptians! We prefer to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert!' 13Moses said to the people, Do not be afraid! Stand firm, and you will see [ra'ah] what Yahweh will do to rescue you today: the Egyptians you see [ra'ah] today you will never see again. 14Yahweh will do the fighting for you; all you need to do is to keep calm.' 15Yahweh then said to Moses, Why cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to march on. 16Your part is to raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites can walk through the sea on dry ground, 17while I, for my part, shall make the Egyptians so stubborn [harden the hearts of the Egyptians] that they will follow them, and I shall win glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and all his army, chariots and horsemen. 18And when I have won glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and his chariots and horsemen, the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.'
[..] =
literal translation ((Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 179).

The Israelites began their march out of Egypt feeling victorious and triumphant "they were overconfident and probably somewhat defiant as they began the journey; it is a confidence that faded at the first sign of trouble.

Exodus 14:9: but the Egyptians, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, his horsemen and his army, gave chase and caught up with them where they lay encamped beside the sea near Pi-Hahiroth, facing Baal-Zephon. The Israelites were trapped between the sea, the gorges (or canals) and the cultic site/ mountain(?) of Baal. If the Pi-Hahiroth were gorges, the narrow gorges would have worked to the Israelites' advantage in that the chariots could not launch an all-out attack over terrain that was rocky and narrow. The charioteers would have had to proceed through the gorges slowly and perhaps in single file. If there were a series of canals, that would still slow the attack since the chariots would have to cross through each canal. The draw back for the Israelites, however, was that there was no maneuver room and they were trapped. Believing their enemy was trapped with no way of escape must have made the Egyptian reckless.

Exodus 14:10-12: 10As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up "and cried out to Yahweh for help. 11To Moses they said, Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you had to lead us out to die in the desert? What was the point of bringing us out of Egypt? 12Did we not tell you as much in Egypt? Leave us alone, we said, we would rather work for the Egyptians! We prefer to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert!'

Question: When the people beheld the terrifying site of the mighty Egyptians forces they cried out to God, but what did their lack of faith cause them to do next?

Answer: Their lack of faith caused them turn against Moses.

This is the first of many times the people turned against Moses during a crisis, conveniently forgetting all he and Yahweh had done for them. Their words dripped with bitter sarcasm and irony as they berated Moses.

Question: What two charges did they level against Moses?

Answer: (1) That he force them against their will to leave Egypt, and (2) that he brought then into the desert to die.

Exodus 14:13-14: 13Moses said to the people, Do not be afraid! Stand firm, and you will see [ra'ah] what Yahweh will do to rescue you today: the Egyptians you see [ra'ah] today you will never see again. 14Yahweh will do the fighting for you; all you need to do is to keep calm.'

Instead of berating the people for their poor memories, their lack of gratitude and their lack of faith, Moses responded to their sarcasm with calm dignity, a display of his spiritual maturity and complete faith in God to do what He promised. How much he had matured from the man who had such little confidence and was so fearful of speaking in front of crowds of people! He promised the people that they would see God rescue them, with a play on words by telling them they would never see the army of their enemy again. The verb ra'ah means to see or behold with the eye. This is both a physical and a spiritual deliverance and verses 30-31 repeat that Israel saw the Egyptians dead and they saw God's work of salvation.

Question: What five statements did Moses make to the Israelites to encourage them?

Answer:

  1. Don't be afraid
  2. Stand firm (don't panic)
  3. You will be rescued
  4. Yahweh will fight for you
  5. All you need to do is to keep calm

Exodus 14:15-17a: 15Yahweh then said to Moses, Why cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to march on. 16Your part is to raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites can walk through the sea on dry ground, 17while I, for my part, shall make the Egyptians so stubborn [harden the hearts of the Egyptians] that they will follow them, and I shall win glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and all his army, chariots and horsemen.

Question: Why did Yahweh admonish the people for crying out to Him? See Ex 14:4.

Answer: God already told Moses the plan; for their part they must follow that plan while God provides the victory.

Exodus 14:17b-18: 17while I, for my part, shall make the Egyptians so stubborn [harden the hearts of the Egyptians] that they will follow them, and I shall win glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and all his army, chariots and horsemen. 18And when I have won glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and his chariots and horsemen, the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.'

Also see 14:4; the literal Hebrew text is unclear whether "to win glory" is the goal or is the consequence of the destruction of Israel's enemy (JPS Commentary, page 71). Either way, God is glorified in His victory over what was intended as an evil act, and that victory reaffirms the concept that God is sovereign over the moral order of man and that His justice must ultimately prevail. The just destruction of the wicked is a fundamental biblical principle from Genesis to Revelation (Rev 19:2).

Question: If the Israelites had 600,000 fully armed men and the Egyptians only had 600 elite charioteers in addition to other chariots and fighting men, why were the Israelites terrified of a fighting force that they outnumbered?

Answer: It isn't numbers that gives the advantage in battle so much as discipline and experience. The Israelites were armed but they were not trained and even though they were facing a much smaller force, the Egyptians were professional soldiers who were experienced in battle. The Israelites were also hampered by the women, children, the livestock and being boxed in where there was no maneuver room to fight. The Egyptians were probably anticipating an Israelite massacre, as were the Israelites.

Notice the prominence given to the Egyptian chariots in these passages. The chariot was the height of military technology. The Egyptian 18th Dynasty had adapted their chariot design from the Hyksos who first introduced chariots into Egypt. The kings of the 18th Dynasty standardized the chariot design and formed elite chariot units within their army. Several fully equipped chariots of this period were discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The typical military chariot was open in the rear with a wooden semicircular platform positioned as a standing-board. This platform was encircled by a rim that stood approximately two and a half feet high. The chariots had two leather rimmed wooden wheels strengthened by four or six spokes, were drawn by two trained horses, and usually carried two men: a driver and a warrior armed warrior with bow/or spear.

Please read Exodus 14:19-25: The Miracle of the Sea
14:19Then the angel of God, who preceded the army of Israel, changed station and followed behind them. The pillar of cloud moved from their front and took position behind them. 20It came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. The cloud was dark, and the night passed without the one drawing any closer to the other the whole night long. 21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and Yahweh drove the sea back with a strong easterly wind all night and made the sea into dry land. The waters were divided 22and the Israelites went on dry ground right through the sea, with walls [a wall = homah] of water to right and left of them. 23The Egyptians gave chase, and all Pharaoh's horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea after them. 24In the morning watch, Yahweh looked down on the army of the Egyptians from the pillar of fire and cloud and threw the Egyptian army into confusion. 25He so clogged their chariot wheels that they drove on only with difficulty, which made the Egyptians say, Let us flee from Israel, for Yahweh is fighting on their side against the Egyptians!'
[..]
= literal translation (Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 179).

Exodus 14:19a: Then the angel of God, who preceded the army of Israel, changed station and followed behind them.

This is the second time the angel of God has been mentioned in the Book of Exodus. It was the angel of Yahweh who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush in Exodus 3:2, an appearance which the Fathers of the Church believed was a vision of the pre-Incarnate Christ in concert with the other two persons of the Most Holy Trinity: God the Father, the voice from the bush, and the fire that never consumed the bush, God the Holy Spirit.

Exodus 14:19b-20: 14:19Then the angel of God, who preceded the army of Israel, changed station and followed behind them. The pillar of cloud moved from their front and took position behind them. 20It came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. The cloud was dark, and the night passed without the one drawing any closer to the other the whole night long.

The Septuagint reads: there was a cloud and darkness; and it lit up the night. At night it was the pillar of fire that provided light for the children of Israel. But on this night the angel of God, who has appeared as the presence of the Trinity in the pillar of cloud and fire, has repositioned the pillar of cloud to give the Israelites protection from the Egyptians, moving between the Egyptian army and the Israelites. The cloud was light on the side facing the Israelites but dark on the side facing the Egyptians. This phenomenon is explained in Joshua 24:7: They then called to Yahweh, and he spread a thick fog between you and the Egyptians...

Exodus 14:21-23: 14:21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and Yahweh drove the sea back with a strong easterly wind all night and made the sea into dry land. The waters were divided 22and the Israelites went on dry ground right through the sea, with walls of water to right and left of them. 23The Egyptians gave chase, and all Pharaoh's horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea after them.

At sundown the east wind drove back the waters into two walls with a corridor between that formed a pathway to salvation. The Hebrew word homah (wall) appears to be used in the sense of two perpendicular masses with a passageway through the middle (Davis, Studies in Exodus, page 175). The Israelites passed through this corridor on dry ground, another part of the miracle of the parting of the sea. We have no idea how wide the corridor was, it could have been a mile wide, but apparently from sundown to dawn, for approximately twelve hours, the Israelites passed through the one pathway to salvation. If the pathway was wide enough, this was enough time for 2 million people and their animals to cross to the other side (consider the time it takes a large sports arena to empty out about 25,000 people "normally under an hour).

Exodus 14:24-25: 24In the morning watch, Yahweh looked down on the army of the Egyptians from the pillar of fire and cloud and threw the Egyptian army into confusion. 25He so clogged their chariot wheels that they drove on only with difficulty, which made the Egyptians say, Let us flee from Israel, for Yahweh is fighting on their side against the Egyptians!'

This verse reveals that the pillar of cloud and fire was one and the same. Apparently the fiery presence of God within the Glory Cloud was only visible at night. Sometime before sunrise God threw the Egyptian army into disarray. At this time in the history of the children of Israel the hours of darkness were divided into three watches of five hours each as the ancients would have counted them, but four hours each as we count:

These were of course seasonal hours, which means the hour varied according to the seasons of the year "longer hours in summer and shorter in winter with the day evenly divided between hours of light and hours of darkness.(1)

The Israelites passed through the corridor on dry ground but in the morning when the Egyptians attempted to pursue them the ground was muddy and the mud clogged their chariot wheel, slowing their progress and giving the Israelite stragglers enough time to escape.

Question: According to Psalm 77:17-19 how was it that the previously dry pathway was suddenly so muddy the Egyptian attack was slowed and the Egyptians were thrown into confusion?

Answer: According to Psalm 77:17-19 a sudden fierce rainstorm accompanied by thunder and lightning muddied the previously dry pathway. The rain clogged the chariot wheels with mud, threw the Egyptian army into confusion, probably by terrifying the horses, and hampered the surge of the Egyptian forces in pursuit of the Israelites: The clouds pelted down water, the sky thundered, your arrows shot back and forth. The rolling thunder was heard, your lightning-flashes lit up the world, the earth shuddered and shook. Your way led over the sea, your path over the countless waters, and none could trace your footsteps. You guided your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Please read Exodus 14:26-31: The Salvation of Israel and the Destruction of the Egyptians
14:26Then Yahweh said to Moses, Stretch out your hand over the sea and let the waters flow back on the Egyptians and on their chariots and their horsemen.' 27Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and, as day broke, the sea returned to its bed. The fleeing Egyptians ran s raight into it, and Yahweh overthrew the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. 28The returning waters washed right over the chariots and horsemen of Pharaoh's entire army, which had followed the Israelites into the sea; not a single one of them was left. 29The Israelites, however, had marched through the sea on dry ground, with walls of water to right and left of them. 30That day, Yahweh rescued Israel from the clutches of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the sea-shore. 31When Israel saw the mighty deed that Yahweh had performed against the Egyptians, the people revered Yahweh and put their faith in Yahweh and in Moses, his servant.

When Moses raised his rod a second time the waters returned to their natural flow, and the Pharaoh and his army were drowned. God could have saved the Israelites any number of ways, but to have saved them passing through the waters of salvation has special theological significance.

Question: How did the miracle of the parting of the sea and the salvation of the Israelites become another creation narrative ? Compare this miracle to Genesis chapter 1 when the earth was born out of the waters of chaos and to the experience of Noah and his family in the Great Flood. How are they the same and how are they different? See CCC 1218-1225.

Answer: The miracle of the Yam Suph became another creation story like the first Creation narrative in Genesis when the earth was born out of the waters of chaos, and like the re-birth of the earth together with Noah's family coming to salvation and new life through the chaotic waters of the Great Flood. The difference is that in the miracle of the sea it wasn't a world that was re-born but an entire people were re-born out of the waters of the Yam Suph "waters of salvation for Israel but waters of chaos and judgment for the Egyptians.

Question: What did St. Paul write about the protection of the Glory Cloud and the miracle of the parting of the sea in 1 Corinthians 10:1-3?

Answer: He wrote that the cloud and the sea became for the Israelites a form of baptism by: I want you to be quite certain, brothers that our ancestors all had the cloud over them and all passed through the sea. In the cloud and in the sea they were all baptized into Moses... (1 Cor 10:1-3).

Question: Why did St. Paul call this experience a baptism for Israel? How did the Israelites' experience compare to Christian baptism? See CCC 1094, 1213, 1221

Answer: Like Christian baptism the Israelites went down into the waters of death as Hebrew slaves but they emerged to new life as a free people. Through water and the Spirit the Christian is baptized in the name of the Most Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the regenerating waters the believer dies to sin and is resurrected with Christ to new life. The Israelites were led by the Most Holy Trinity in the Glory Cloud and they passed through the waters of the Yam Suph to a renewed life, no longer slaves of Pharaoh but as the servants of God.

As the Israelites were saved through the waters of the Yam Suph (Red Sea), so Christians are saved through the waters of Baptism. As the Church Father's noted, like the Red Sea the waters of baptism are symbolically red , since they are tinged with the blood of Jesus Christ: Just as the Jews were saved and extricated through the waters of the Red Sea, so we are delivered from the land of Egypt, that is, from the sins of the flesh, and reborn through regeneration by the sacred water. The very name of the Red Sea is not superfluous. Just as it is known as Red, so the baptismal water can be labeled red, for it came forth mixed with blood from the Lord Savior's side (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, vol. III: Cassiodorus, Exposition of the Psalms 80.6, page 71).

Exodus 14:30-31: That day, Yahweh rescued Israel from the clutches of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the sea-shore. 31 When Israel saw the mighty deed that Yahweh had performed against the Egyptians, the people revered [feared] Yahweh and put their faith in Yahweh and in Moses, his servant.

Question: Experiencing the miracle of the Yam Suph crossing and witnessing the destruction of their enemy brought forth what three-part response from the Israelites?

Answer:

  1. They had a healthy fear of Yahweh's power.
  2. Their faith in God's power to protect and guide them was renewed.
  3. They accepted the ministry of His servant Moses.

Please read Exodus 15:1-21: The Victorious Song of the Sea

1It was then that Moses and the Israelites sang this song in Yahweh's honor:
I shall sing to Yahweh, for he has covered himself in glory,
Horse and rider (driver)* he has thrown into the sea.
2Yah is my strength and my song,
to him I owe my deliverance.
He is my God and I shall praise him,
My father's God and I shall extol him.
3Yahweh is a warrior;
Yahweh is his name.
 
4Pharaoh's chariots and army he has hurled into the sea;
the pick of his officers have been drowned in the Sea of Reeds [Yam Suph].
5The ocean has closed over them;
they have sunk to the bottom like a stone.
6Your right hand, Yahweh, wins glory by its strength,
Your right hand, Yahweh, shatters your foes,
7and by your great majesty you fell your assailants;
you unleashed your fury, it consumes them like chaff.
8A blast from your nostrils and the waters piled high;
the waves stood firm as a dyke;
the bed of the sea became firm ground.
 
9The enemy said, I shall give chase and overtake,
I shall share out the spoil and glut myself on them.'
I shall draw my sword, my hand will destroy them.'
10You blew with your breath, the sea closed over them;
they sank like lead in the terrible waters.
11Yahweh, who is like you, majestic in sanctity,
who like you among the holy ones,
fearsome of deed, worker of wonders?
12You stretched your right hand out, the earth swallowed them!
13In your faithful love [hesed] you led out the people you had redeemed,
in your strength you have guided them to your holy dwelling.
 
14Hearing of this, the peoples tremble;
pangs seize on the people of Philistia;
15the chieftains of Edom are dismayed,
Moab
's princes "panic has seized them,
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
16On them fall terror and dread;
through the power of your arm they are still as stone
while your people are passing, Yahweh,
while the people you have purchased are passing.
17You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain which is your heritage,
the place which you, Yahweh, have made your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Yahweh, prepared by your own hands.
18Yahweh will be king for ever and ever.
 
19For when Pharaoh's cavalry, with his chariots and horsemen, had gone into the sea, Yahweh brought the water of the sea back over them, though the Israelites went on dry ground right through the sea.
20The prophetess Miriam, Aaron's sister, took up a tambourine, and all the women followed her with tambourines, dancing,
21while Miriam took up from them the refrain:
 
Sing to Yahweh, for he has covered himself in glory,
horse and rider (driver)* he has thrown into the sea.

* Scholars dispute whether the Hebrew word rokeb means rider or driver. The root rkb refers to mounting a chariot in Gen 41:43; 1 Kng 18:45; 2 Kng 9:16; 10:16; Hab 3:8; and 2 Chr 35:24 (Exodus: Anchor Bible Commentary, page 510).

This beautiful poem/song will take a central place in Old Covenant worship and liturgy, becoming the first great song in Scripture and the oldest piece of sustained poetry in Old Covenant liturgical worship (JPS Commentary, page 75). This spontaneous outpouring of the peoples' joy and thankfulness is called The Song of Moses but in Hebrew it is called Shirat ha-Yam, Song of the Sea. In this first singing of the song of victory 1st century AD Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria suggested the Israelites formed two choruses with Moses leading the men and Miriam the women (Philo, Life of Moses 1.32). In the Second Temple period a Levitical choir sang the Shirat ha-Yam during the Sabbath offering of the afternoon Tamid lamb, with the choir divided into two parts. After the destruction of the Temple Jewish communities perpetuated the custom of singing the Shirat ha-Yam in their Synagogue services during daily worship. The song is also the scriptural reading at the worship service on the seventh day of the Passover holy week in the annual Jewish lectionary cycle (JPS Commentary, pages 76-77).

The Fathers of the Church like Origen and Augustine, pointed out that this love song prefigures the song that the bride sings to Christ her husband (Origen, Commentary on Exodus VI, pages 285-287), and that God will also cast the horse and rider into the sea for us when we submit to Him in Christian baptism. In the miracle of Christian baptism the waters will part for us as they parted for the Israelites and like them we will emerge cleansed and whole having been freed from all our past sins that had been pressing down on us like the Egyptians pursued the Israelites, threatening to overtake us and enslave us (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture vol. III, page 80, Augustine, Sermon 223E.2)

The Shirat ha-Yam can be divided into three parts or stanzas which celebrate God's mightily works for Israel in the past, the present and the future:

Exodus 15:1: It was then that Moses and the Israelites sang this song in Yahweh's honor: I shall sing to Yahweh, for he has covered himself in glory,

The first line of 15:1 is the introduction, which is followed by the first line of the song. According to verses 20-21 this opening verse was sung as an antiphonal arrangement with Miriam acting as Israel's first cantor and the women participating as the chorus singing the refrain.

Exodus 15:2: Yah is my strength and my song, to him I owe my deliverance.

"Yah" is a shortened form of the divine name YHWH.

Exodus 15:13: In your faithful love [hesed] you led out the people you had redeemed,

in your strength you have guided them to your holy dwelling.

Hesed, faithful, merciful covenant love, is a key word in the Old Testament. It is first used in the expression of Isaac's married love for Rebekah (Gen 24:69). The Decalogue (Ex 20:6) and other Scripture passages (i.e., Ex 34:6-7) specify hesed as one of God's supreme attributes (JPS Commentary, page 80).

Exodus 15:16: On them fall terror and dread; through the power of your arm they are still as stone while your people are passing, Yahweh, while the people you have purchased are passing.

Yahweh hasn't just saved His people; he has purchased, or a better translation may be he has ransomed them ). The Hebrew word kantita in this passage literally means you acquired (by purchase) as though God ransomed Israel from the Egyptians to be His own servants (JPS Commentary, page 81). Other Scripture passages like Micah 6:4 (quoted in the introduction Scripture verses) and Psalm 74:2 also refer to the concept of God ransoming or redeeming Israel: Remember the people you took to yourself long ago your own tribe which you redeemed...

Exodus 15:17-18: You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain which is your heritage [the mountain of your possession], the place which you, Yahweh, have made your dwelling, the sanctuary, Yahweh, prepared by your own hands. 18 Yahweh will be king for ever and ever.

This last verse contains a promise for the future. In Hebrew har nahalatkha, literally means -the mountain of your possession (JPS Commentary, page 82). It is a unique phrase in Scripture and points to the one place on earth where God will bring His people into His rest, to a home for His name, and where His Divine Liturgy will be established for the covenant people of Israel.

Question: Where is the mountain where Yahweh will plant his people and their Sanctuary where He will be king forever? See Dt 12:9-12; 1 Kng 8:56; 11:36.

Answer: On the mountain ridges of the city of Jerusalem and His Sanctuary Temple will be on Mt. Moriah, the highest point in the city.

King Solomon's speech at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple in 1 Kings 8:56 echoed the fulfilled promise God made to Moses of the people entering God's rest to worship in His Sanctuary: 'Blessed be Yahweh,' he said, 'who has grated rest to his people Israel, keeping all his promises. Of all the promises of good that he made through his servant Moses, not one has failed.' The building of the Temple marked the completion of the Exodus promises God made to Israel.

Exodus 15:19-21: 19For when Pharaoh's cavalry, with his chariots and horsemen, had gone into the sea, Yahweh brought the water of the sea back over them, though the Israelites went on dry ground right through the sea. 20The prophetess Miriam, Aaron's sister, took up a tambourine, and all the women followed her with tambourines, dancing, 21while Miriam took up from them the refrain: Sing to Yahweh, for he has covered himself in glory, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

This section concludes with a brief summary of the reason for the celebration and records the refrain sung by Moses' and Aaron's sister Miriam and the women of Israel.

Question: What significant role did Miriam play in the history of Israel and why is she called a prophetess? How is she an inspiration to all women "young and old? See Ex 2:4-8; 7:7; 14:20; Num 12:2; Micah 6:4.

Answer: Together with the Egyptian princess she was the savior of Moses, the savior of Israel (Ex 2:4-8), and she was Israel's first cantor and first prophetess. She took up her mission as God's servant when she was in her late eighties or early nineties.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Miriam also spoke the words of God to the people and along with her brothers Moses and Aaron, led God's people on their journey to salvation (Num 12:2; Micah 6:4). In a man's world and at the age of about ninety (she was older than both Aaron and Moses who were 83 and 80 respectively) she became obedient to God's plan for her life and His role for her in the liberation and salvation journey of her people. In her ministry as prophetess and mistress of song, the Fathers of the Church saw the virgin Miriam as prefiguring the Old Covenant Church just as the Virgin Mary/Miriam prefigures the New:

[Quotes from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament vol. III, pages 82-83].

The Song of Moses / Song of the Sea is the first great hymn of praise to Yahweh recorded the Scripture. The next will be the Song of Witness of Moses and Joshua (Dt. 32:1-43), which God instructs Moses to teach the children of Israel just prior to his death and the conquest of the Promised Land (Dt 31:19-22). The Song of Witness also became part of the liturgy of worship at the desert Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple. Another great hymn is the psalm of Asaph (Ps 78), which recounts God's past mighty works and then describes God's continuing mighty deeds through His servant David. All these great hymns prefigure the final hymns in Scripture found in the Book of Revelation.

Question: One day the Song of Moses will be joined to a new song. What is the name of the new song and the name of the final and everlasting hymn and what are their themes? See Rev 14:1-4; 15:1-4; 19:1-10.

Answer: Like the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 the Hymn of the Lamb is a song of deliverance, salvation, and the triumph of the Lord and those who belong to Him. The Song of Witness was given to the Old Covenant Church and like the final song in Revelation has the themes of both God's just judgment, His victory over the wicked, and His warnings to the Old Covenant Church to remain faithful and obedient. The Song of Witness is a prelude to the song of the Wedding feast of the Lamb which praises God's justice and glorifies the reign of the Lamb and His Bride the Church.

For other Scripture references to the miracle of the crossing of the sea see: Dt 11:4; Josh 3:16; Is 63:12-14; Ps 18:15; 66:5-6; 77:16-21; 78:13; 105; 106:11; 114:5; 136:13-15; Wis 10:18ff; 1Cor 10:2; Heb 3:8-9; 11:29.

Please read Exodus 15:22-27: The Journey through the Desert to Marah and Elim
15:22Moses led Israel away from the Sea of Reeds [Yam Suph], and they entered the desert of Shur. They travelled through the desert for three days without finding water. 23When they reached Marah, they could not drink the Marah water because it was bitter; this is why the place was named Marah. 24The people complained to Moses saying, What are we to drink?' 25Moses appealed to Yahweh for help, and Yahweh showed (taught) him a piece of wood (a tree). When Moses [he] threw it into the water, the water became sweet. There he laid down a statute and law for them and there he put them to the test. 26Then he said, If you listen carefully to the voice of Yahweh your God and do what he regards as right [what is straight in his eyes], if you pay attention to his commandments and keep all his laws, I shall never inflict on you any of the diseases that I inflicted on the Egyptians, for I am Yahweh your Healer [Yahweh Rapha].' 27So they came to Elim where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees; and there they pitched camp beside the water.
[..] =
literal translation; () = either meaning (Interlineal Bible:Hebrew-English, vol. I, pages 182-83; Exodus: Anchor Bible Commentary, page 573-4).

After crossing the Yam Suph the children of Israel traveled three days. As you may recall, any mention of threes, especially three days, is a sign-post that signals the next event is important in God's plan of salvation.

Question: What happened when they found a watering hole after three days? What did Moses do and what name did the place-name mean?

Answer: They could not drink the water because it was bitter. The people complained Moses who prayed to God for help. The site was called bitter /Marah because the water was bitter.

The word marah in Hebrew means bitter (Brown-Driver-Biggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, pages 597) and this word is repeated four times in verse 23 and emphasizes Israel's plight. As a place-name Marah is mentioned in Ex 15:23 [3 times] and in Num 33:8-9.

Question: What did God tell Moses to do to make the water sweet and drinkable? Answer: God showed/ taught Moses a piece of wood. Then he threw the wood into the water it became sweet.

Notice that God Himself chose the wood/ tree to heal the bitterness of Marah as He will later choose the wood/ tree that will be a sign of healing and salvation for the world. We do not know from the text if it was Moses or God who threw the wood/ tree into the water, but the healing of the waters of Marah are a foretaste of the prophecy of Ezekiel's vision in 47:1-12 which will be fulfilled in St. John's vision in Revelation 22:1-5 of the healing baptismal waters of salvation that flow from the true Tree of Life: the Temple of Christ's Body. The prophet Ezekiel saw a river flowing out of God's holy Sanctuary with healing trees on the banks of the river: I saw an enormous number of trees on each bank of the river. He brought me back to the entrance of the Temple, where a stream flowed eastwards from under the Temple threshold, for the Temple faced east. [..] He said, This water flows east down to the Arabah and to the sea; and flowing into the sea it makes its waters wholesome. Wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live. [..]. Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails; they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal (Ex 47:1, 8-9a, 12).

Exodus 15:25-26: There he laid down a statute and law for them and there he put them to the test. 26Then he said, If you listen carefully to the voice of Yahweh your God and do what he regards as right, if you pay attention to his commandments and keep all his laws, I shall never inflict on you any of the diseases that I inflicted on the Egyptians, for I am Yahweh your Healer [Yahweh-Rapha].'

Question: If the Israelites are obedience to God's commands what promise does He make to them? What new title for Himself does He give them?

Answer: He will never inflict on them any of the Egyptian plagues. God emphasizes that He isn't only a destroyer of the wicked but He is also Yahweh their Healer.

The Hebrew verb rope to heal applied to Yahweh as rapha (Your healer) implies that no one else is to heal and restore Israel except Yahweh and His representatives; see Elijah's condemnation of King Ahaziah for seeking healing from a foreign god (2 Kng 1:2-4) and Scripture's censure of King Asa for consulting pagan healers (2 Chr 16:12).

The journey to Mt. Sinai was a period of testing and instruction for the children of Israel. It was a courtship journey in which Yahweh's future Bride had to learn to trust and obey her Bridegroom and to submit to the leadership of His appointed ministers: Moses, Aaron and Miriam (Micah 6:4). The people had to learn that it was God's intent to provide for their needs and they in turn had to learn to depend upon His provision. The people's experiences on this journey was meant to prepare them for the covenant formation at Sinai where the entire force and blessing of the Law will be focused on trust in God and obedience to His laws so they can live as a holy people. At that great rendezvous Moses will tell the people: Do not be afraid; God has come to test you, so that your fear of him, being always in your mind, may keep you from sinning.

Question: How was Israel's test on their journey the same as the test on the faith journey of every New Covenant believer? What should be our 3-part response like the 3-part response required of the children of Israel?

Answer: The test for Israel in their journey and for us in our journey is the willingness to be take instruction, to be obedient to God's commandments, and to submit to the leadership of His ministers.

Exodus 15:27: So they came to Elim where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees; and there they pitched camp beside the water. Elim is plural and is from the Hebrew root meaning strength, and can mean anything strong. Elim can mean strong like a mighty oak or strong like a ram, or a pilaster, or a leader (Brown-Driver-Biggs Hebrew-English Lexicon pages 17-18).

Question: Did the Israelites have the same misfortune in their visit to the next oasis? Why not?

Answer: No, Elim had twelve springs of sweet water and seventy palm trees for shade. The children of Israel and Moses were rewarded for their obedience and faithful response to God's instructions at Marah.

Question: What theological connections do you see in these two events of the bitter and sweet oasis waters?

Answer: There can be various answers.

The Fathers of the Church saw a theological connection between the bitter water of the pool of Marah made sweet by the wood/ tree God commanded be thrown into the water, the abundant waters and shade of the Oasis of Elim, and God's plan of salvation. Some Fathers saw the wood/ tree that restored the life-giving water to sweetness as a type of Christ (Tertullian and Ambrose). Those Fathers wrote that the waters of baptism are meaningless unless the Cross of the Savior gives life to those waters (St. Ambrose). Other Fathers saw the bitter water as the law of the Old Covenant that only offered judgment and temporal salvation and which needed to be made joyful and eternally redemptive by the Cross of Christ (Maximus of Turin). The Fathers also saw a contrast between the one bitter pool of Marah and Israel's rest at the twelve sweet springs and seventy palms of Elim being a contrast between the harsh Old Covenant Law of Moses with its negative prohibitions defining sins with the sweetness of the positive New Law of the Gospel of salvation which fully forgave sin and offered a multitude of blessings including the gift of eternal rest. And finally, some Fathers saw the twelve sweet springs and the seventy palms as referring to the Gospel preached by the spiritual strength of the twelve Apostles and the seventy disciples Jesus sent out into the world to call all men and women to the sweetness of salvation (Jerome, the Bede).

Questions for group discussion

In Exodus 14:11 the people turned against Moses, accusing him essentially of betraying the people and leading them to their deaths. Their statement that it would have been better for them to serve the Egyptians as slaves than to die in the desert exhibits a remarkable short memory and shocking lack of gratitude to both Moses and Yahweh. This is an attitude that the people will continually return to every time they experience some crisis of suffering in the journey "they have presumed what God's plan should be for them and when their presumptions are not realized, the fall into a crisis of faith.

Question: The reaction of the Israelites is typical of people whose spiritual perspectives are conditioned by only living in the now. What was the cause of the Israelites' spiritual malaise? How does the attitude of only living in the present and a lack of gratefulness for past blessings endanger one's salvation? Why does God sometimes allow His people, including the innocent righteous, to experience suffering? See CCC 164, 307, 618, 1508, 1521; Rom 14:7-8; 1 Cor 6:20; 2 Cor 1:5; 1 Pet 2:21.

Question: Why is a biblically historical perspective necessary when in the midst of crisis we stop to review our sufferings against the backdrop of our blessings?

Answer: If we do not have knowledge of salvation history presented to us in Sacred Scripture, we cannot be appreciative of God's definitive plan for man's salvation and the redeeming work of Christ in His Passion, death, and Resurrection. Without this perspective we cannot truly be grateful for what God has done for us personally in bringing each of us the gift of salvation. This perspective of God's mighty works on our behalf helps to diminish the burden of our temporal suffering when balanced against Christ's sufferings and the eternal rewards He has promised us.

Question: Often our suffering leads to a crisis of faith or a crisis of expectation when we presume what should have been God's plan for our lives. What promise has God given us concerning the suffering of the righteous? Why is it important for us to claim this promise when we are in the depths of suffering that borders on despair. Why are both presumption and despair sins against hope and faith? See 1 Cor 10:13 and CCC 2091-92.

Endnotes:

1. In the 1st century AD, during Jesus' ministry under Roman occupation, the Jews adopted the Roman system of four night watches:

2. Jacob, as the father of Egypt's Vizier, was given a forty-day embalming preparation (Gen 50:2-3). The more time to prepare the body of the dead person, the greater was the expense. Herodotus described three different fees depending on the length of embalming preparation (Histories, 2.85-90).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2009 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references for this lesson (* indicated Scripture paraphrased or quoted in the citation)

Suffering

CCC 164, 307, 618, 1508, 1521

Ex 15:2

2374

Sins of presumption and despair

CCC 2091-92

Ex 15:5-6

762*

Ex 14:19-20

697

Ex 15:5

146*, 288*

Ex 14: 22

1094, 1218-1225

Ex 15:6

146*, 2571*

Ex 15:2-3

2570*

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2009 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.