Exodus 14:19–31 is part of the lectionary readings for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which is September 13th. We learned last week that after the deaths of all the firstborn in Egypt, Pharaoh yielded to the Lord’s demands and ordered the Israelites to leave his land (5:2–12:31).
God did not lead the Israelites on the shortest route between Egypt and Canaan. The shortest route to the promised land would have been along the Mediterranean Sea and would have taken only a few weeks.
Essentially a military road of the Egyptians, this route went through Amalekite and Philistine country. Along this route were many Egyptian military outposts.
God knew that if the Israelites began to encounter Egyptian soldiers in battle after battle, the Israelites might lose confidence and decide to return to Egypt (13:17). So, God led His chosen people farther out into the desert lands of Etham.
Even though the Lord guided the Israelites away from Egyptian fortifications, they were armed for battle. They probably traveled in formation so that they were ready to encounter any potential enemies. The armed men—perhaps carrying spears, bows, and slings—may have led the way, while the others followed.
At this time, one of the most precious items in the Israelites’ possession was the remains of the patriarch, Joseph. Moses was honoring Joseph’s request that his bones be taken from Egypt (v. 19; see Gen 50:25).
Joseph had known the Israelites would not permanently settle in Egypt, for God had specifically promised Abraham that the Israelites would occupy the promised land. According to Joshua 24:32, Joseph’s bones were eventually buried at Shechem.
When the Israelites left their first encampment at Succoth, they apparently traveled southeastward to the edge of the desert of Etham, where they set up their second encampment (Exod 13:20). During the Israelites’ journey, God led them in a visible and reassuring way.
The Creator provided a pillar of cloud to lead His people during day travel, and a pillar of fire for night travel. Also, because the pillar of cloud or of fire always remained in front of the Israelites, they were assured that they were being guided by God’s own sacred presence (vv. 21–22).
Cloud and fire are often used as symbols of God’s presence in the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai amid smoke and fire (19:18).
Fire symbolizes God’s holiness in Deuteronomy 4:24, His protective presence in 2 Kings 6:17, His wrath against sin in Isaiah 66:15–16, His glory in Ezekiel 1:4–13, and His righteous judgment in Zechariah 13:9. Clouds symbolize God’s mystery and hidden glory in 1 Kings 8:10.
After the Israelites had been encamped at Etham for perhaps a few weeks, the Lord gave Moses an instruction that must have seemed strange at the time (Exod 14:1). The Creator told Moses to lead the Israelites back toward Egypt.
To encamp near Pi Hahiroth (v. 2)—“directly opposite Baal Zephon”—would place the Israelites within striking distance from the city of Rameses, the headquarters of Pharaoh and his military. God explained to Moses why He wanted the people to make this change in direction.
The Lord said such a rerouting would lead Pharaoh to believe the Israelites didn’t know where they were going. From Pharaoh’s perspective, the Israelites would seem to have come to a dead end. The sea would block them at the front and the desert at all other sides (v. 3).
Because God continued to harden Pharaoh’s heart, he would begin his pursuit of the Israelites in the desert. This was according to the sovereign plan of the Lord, who would prove once more to Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the Israelites that He is the one true God.
In agreement with God’s directive, the Israelites moved north and set up their third encampment near Baal Zephon (v. 4). God had set the stage for the Israelites to be trapped by the Egyptians on one side and the sea on the other.
All was going exactly according to God’s redemptive plan. Even the deaths of the Egyptians’ firstborn were not enough to deter Pharaoh and his officials.
When Pharaoh learned that the Israelites had fled Egypt, he and his officials decided they should not have let the Israelites depart. Pharaoh remembered that the Israelites had been an incredibly valuable work force. The loss of the Israelites’ slave labor would be devastating to Egypt’s economy (v. 5).
Thinking more about monetary losses than about the power the God of the Israelites could unleash against him, Pharaoh prepared his army and stormed into the desert after the Israelites. Or perhaps he reasoned that since the Israelites were confused and didn’t know where they were going, the God of the Hebrews must not be leading them or protecting them anymore.
Either way, Pharaoh decided to make one last attempt to attain victory. The Egyptian forces caught up with their former slaves at the Israelite encampment opposite Baal Zephon (vv. 6–9).
Chariots traveling across desert terrain kick up a tremendous amount of dust and sand. So, perhaps the Israelites saw a dust cloud in the distance and realized the Egyptians were approaching.
Seeing that an army was after them, the Israelites became panic-stricken. First, they cried out to the Lord, probably complaining that He had not protected them (v. 10).
Then, the people turned to Moses in accusation. The Israelites charged Moses with deceiving them by leading them into the desert to die.
The questions the rabble hurled at Moses were laced with sarcasm. Perhaps alluding to the Egyptians’ preoccupation with death, the Israelites asked Moses whether it was because there were no graves left in Egypt that they had been brought to the desert to die (v. 11).
The mob also used the old I-told-you-so line on Moses: “Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’?” Faced with the prospect of brutal death, the Israelites apparently forgot the desperate situation from which they had been delivered (v. 12).
The Israelites had witnessed at least 10 incredible miracles of God. Yet now, with the way of retreat cut off by the Red Sea, they resorted to complaining. Soon they would learn that God can provide a way of escape even when there seems to be none available.
Moses did not react with a quick temper or agitation. Instead, he responded with patient instruction, ignoring the Israelites’ accusation.
The lawgiver commanded the people not to be afraid, but to trust in the Lord. By doing so, the Israelites would “see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today” (v. 13).
The Israelites surely knew they would be annihilated if they faced the Egyptians in their own strength. Moses tried to calm their fears by telling them that the divine Warrior would fight the battle for them. Moses said the only thing required of God’s chosen people was to be still and watch what would happen (v. 14).
Next, the Lord responded to the Israelites’ complaint by addressing Moses, their leader. The Creator asked why the people were crying out to Him for help (v. 15). In essence, the Lord said, “Since I’ve promised to lead you to the land of Canaan, you had better stop all your whining and get a move on!” (v. 15).
In front of Moses and the Israelites stood a body of water, and behind them were the charging Egyptians. So, the divine Warrior directed Moses to part the waters by raising his staff and stretching his hand out over the banks of the sea. God promised to do the rest.
The Creator revealed to Moses that the Israelites would cross the sea on “dry ground” (v. 16). God also pledged to Moses that He was about to “harden the hearts” (v. 17) of the Israelites’ antagonists, the Egyptians. Put another way, the divine Warrior would make the pursuers so stubborn that they would charge into the Red Sea in order to overtake the Israelites.
The demise of “Pharaoh and all his army,” along with “his chariots and his charioteers,” would be an unmistakable victory for the Lord, one in which He would obtain glory, honor, and praise. In that moment of triumph for God and His people—as well as utter defeat for the enemy—the Egyptians would finally realize that Israel’s God is the sovereign and eternal Lord (v. 18).
The Egyptians and the Israelites were apparently in close proximity. Throughout this episode, the “angel of God” (v. 19) had been going before “Israel’s army.”
Undoubtedly, to protect the chosen people, the Lord’s messenger relocated from the front to the rear of the Israelites. In short, the angel, who had been a guide, now became a guardian.
Likewise, the pillar of cloud, which had guided the people by day, moved from the front to the rear of the Israelites. At night, it settled between the Egyptian and Israelite camps. Then, “throughout the night” (v. 20), the cloud made it dark for the Egyptians, but gave light to the Israelites. This prevented the two camps from approaching each other.
No natural phenomenon fits the description given in Scripture. This was a divine manifestation in a form well-defined enough to be called a pillar.
In accordance with God’s instructions, Moses held out his hand “over the sea” (v. 21). This indicated to the Israelites that what was about to happen was not a natural phenomenon.
Throughout the night, the divine Warrior drove apart the Red Sea. This caused great walls of water to bank up and turned the seabed “into dry land.”
The Creator’s dividing of the “waters” (v. 21) enabled the chosen people to walk through the middle of the “sea on dry ground” (v. 22). The water formed a wall for the Israelites “on their right and on their left.”
Despite the efforts of some interpreters to offer a natural explanation for this phenomenon, a straightforward reading of the biblical text indicates that it was a miraculous work of God that created a dry path through the Red Sea. By some estimates, the path was as much as half a mile wide to accommodate all the chosen people and their livestock.
Much debate exists as to the exact location where the Hebrews crossed the “Red Sea” (13:18; 15:4) when leaving Egypt. Many argue that the correct rendering of the Hebrew name for “sea” is not the “Red Sea” but the “Sea of Reeds.” That name suggests waters that bordered freshwater marshes where papyrus and reeds would grow, which is not true of the modern-day Red Sea.
Some scholars suggest that the Hebrews escaped Egypt through one of the lakes that existed to the east of Rameses, somewhere in the region of the present-day Lake Ballah, which is north of the present-day Red Sea. Yet, whatever the identification of the Hebrew terms, the body of water had to be too large for the Hebrews to go around and deep enough to crush and drown a large contingent of the Egyptian army. It was certainly not a marshy area with only a few inches of water covering it.
The Egyptians could see that the Israelites were escaping. This prompted the antagonists to chase God’s people into middle of the sea. This included all the horses of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his charioteers (14:23).
Then, during the morning watch (about 2 a.m. to dawn), once all the chariots of Pharaoh’s army were between the walls of water, confusion struck. Verse 24 vividly states that the divine Warrior looked down in wrath from the fiery cloud at the Egyptian army and threw their troops into total confusion.
According to verse 25, the wheels of the chariots twisted off, perhaps because they got jammed and sank into the soft ground. Suddenly, the whole army of Egypt became incapacitated, throwing the troops into disarray.
Perhaps the Egyptians now remembered how the Creator had fought for the Israelites by sending 10 plagues on the land. The would-be adversaries began shouting to each other things like, “Let’s get out of here!” and “The Lord is fighting for the Israelites against Egypt.”
As panic broke out among the Egyptians, the Israelites made it safely to the other side of the Red Sea. The divine Warrior again told Moses to stretch his hand over the banks of the water (v. 26).
Moses did as the Lord had instructed him, and as the sun was rising, the supernatural phenomenon ended. Walls of water crashed down on the Egyptians, who were trying by every means possible to make it back to shore (v. 27).
Despite the efforts of the antagonists, the “waters flowed back” (v. 28) and inundated all the “chariots” and chariot drivers, along with all Pharaoh’s troops who tried to overtake God’s people. In fact, not a single soldier or chariot survived the devastating rush of water.
Exodus 14:29 reiterates the amazing miracle the Creator had performed on behalf of the Israelites. He enabled them to cross the Red Sea on “dry ground.” The Lord brought this about by creating a “wall of water” on both sides of the Israelites.
When the Israelites reflected on the powerful deed that the divine Warrior had accomplished on their behalf—made even more vivid when the bodies of dead Egyptian soldiers began washing up on the “shore” (v. 30)—the Israelites gained a new respect for God and His love for them.
Just as the Lord had intended, the Israelites’ trust in Him reached a new height. They also learned that they could depend on their faithful leader, Moses (v. 31).
Key ideas to contemplate
Do not try to rationalize or explain away the remarkable escape the Israelites had from their Egyptian taskmasters. While there may be other explanations for the parting of the waters, the Bible makes it clear that God, Israel’s divine Warrior, had acted decisively to rescue His chosen people and destroy the enemy.
1. Surviving and seasoning. The deliverance from Egypt was God’s way of continuing His redemptive work. His providential care continues to be with His people, namely, those of us who have trusted in the Messiah for salvation.
2. Shining and showing. The divine Warrior went before the camp of Israelites to disclose the way. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night signified His sacred presence and guidance.
Through faith in the Son, we know that the Father is always by our side throughout our life journey. He is also with the church, the body of Christ, in its pilgrimage through history.
3. Scaring and shocking. The appearance of the Egyptian imperial forces terrified the Israelites. Nevertheless, Moses ordered them to walk through the Red Sea on dry ground.
At times, doing God’s will might seem either scary or shocking to us. Yet, we can step out in faith, for we know that our sovereign Lord will watch over us, as Hebrews 13:5 makes clear. Consider also the promise that is recorded in 13:6, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
4. Saving and praising. The Creator brought the Israelites safely through the waters. Just as the divine Warrior intervened on their behalf, so too now He continues to act on behalf of the faith community. What are some instances you recall in which the Lord has intervened for you or others?