The book of Exodus tells about the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt (1:8-22), and Moses’ early life (chapter 2). Then follows the burning bush episode where Yahweh told Moses that Yahweh has heard the cry of the Israelites and has decided to deliver them—and that Yahweh has chosen Moses to confront Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (3:1-12). Pharaoh refused to let the people go, so Yahweh brought ten plagues on Egypt (chapters 7-12).
Following the death of the Egyptian firstborn (the tenth plague), Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron to take the people of Israel and leave Egypt (12:31-32). As the people prepared to leave (12:33-40 – 13:2), Yahweh gave Moses instructions for Passover (12:43-51)—and Moses instructed the people concerning the Feast of Unleavened Bread (13:3-10) and the consecration of the firstborn (13:11-16). Then the people departed from Egypt, led by pillars of cloud and fire (13:17-22).
But then Yahweh hardened pharaoh’s heart, and pharaoh led an army of “six hundred chariots chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt” (14:7) to pursue the Israelites. “The Egyptians pursued after them: all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his army; and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pihahiroth, before Baal Zephon” (14:9).
EXODUS 14:10-18. YAHWEH WILL FIGHT FOR YOU
In these verses, the people of Israel see the Egyptian army pursuing and complain to Moses that he has led them to their destruction. However, Moses calls them to trust Yahweh, who is their salvation.
Yahweh commands Moses to stretch out his rod to divide the waters of the Red Sea so that the people of Israel might escape the Egyptians–and so that Yahweh might bring a disaster upon the Egyptians who pursue the Israelites through the waters.
EXODUS 14:19-20. THE ANGEL OF GOD AND THE PILLAR OF CLOUD
19The angel (Hebrew: mal∙ak) of God (Hebrew: elohim), who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them, and stood behind them. 20 It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness, yet gave it light by night: and the one didn’t come near the other all the night.
“The angel (mal∙ak) of God (elohim), who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them, and stood behind them” (v. 19). A mal∙ak is an angel or messenger. The word translated “God” in this verse is not YHWH (Yahweh) but elohim, a more generic word that is sometimes used for Yahweh, but is also used for other gods (Exodus 12:12; Joshua 24:15; Judges 6:10; 10:6).
Yahweh has been going in front of the people of Israel “by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, that they might go by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). The pillar of cloud, then, is not just an ordinary cloud, but is the visible symbol of God’s presence in the midst of these people.
The angel and cloud, which have been going before the Israelites to guide them, now shift behind them to protect them. Until now, the pillar of cloud was the manifestation of God’s presence during the day and the pillar of fire was the manifestation of God’s presence during the night. Now, however, the cloud persists through the night.
Waldemar Janzen sees the angel and cloud, not as separate entities, but as two ways of expressing God’s presence. Stuart agrees that “the angel of God and the pillar were the same thing: God’s manifestation of himself in the visible presence of the Israelites.” However, mal∙ak (Hebrew) and angelos (Greek) usually refer to part of the created order rather than to the Creator. Angels are messengers of God, sent by God to convey a particular message or to perform a particular task. I prefer to think of the cloud as the visible presence of God and the angel as the messenger who accompanies God and acts on God’s behalf.
“It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness, yet gave it light by night: and the one didn’t come near the other all the night” (v. 20). The positioning of the cloud between the Israelites and the Egyptian army accomplishes several things.
• First, it obscures the visibility so that the Israelites can no longer see the Egyptians. This is significant, because it was the sight of the Egyptians advancing on them that caused the Israelites to be afraid (v. 10).
• Second, it obscures visibility for the Egyptian army, which cannot see where they are going or where the Israelites have gone.
• Third, it testifies to the Israelites that God is taking an active role in Israel’s defense.
• Fourth, although the Egyptians have been slow to acknowledge this, the cloud is a sign that God is for Israel and against Egypt on this particular day.
“yet gave it light by night: and the one didn’t come near the other all the night” (v. 20b). This part of the verse is difficult to understand. The most likely explanation is that this cloud, which until now has been benign, is lighting the sky with lightning bolts—light intended not to light the Egyptians’ pathway but to warn them of God’s displeasure.
EXODUS 14:21-25. YAHWEH CAUSED THE SEA TO GO BACK
21Moses stretched out his hand over the sea(Hebrew: yam), and Yahweh caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22The children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall (Hebrew: homath) to them on their right hand, and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea: all of Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24It happened in the morning watch, that Yahweh looked out on the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and of cloud, and confused the Egyptian army. 25He took off their chariot wheels, and they drove them heavily; so that the Egyptians said, “Let’s flee from the face of Israel, for Yahweh fights for them against the Egyptians!”
“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea (yam), and Yahweh caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (v. 21). A yam is a sea, whether a saltwater sea, such as the Mediterranean or Dead Seas, or a freshwater sea such as the Sea of Galilee. In either case, yam indicates a substantial body of water—deep water. Some scholars have suggested that this sea was a shallow, marshy area rather than a deep sea. But by trying to explain supernatural phenomena as the product of natural causes, they do the scriptures a disservice. This yam is not a marsh. It is a sea.
Moses, staff in hand (see v. 16), stretches out his hand over the sea. It is not Moses, however, who drives the sea back and divides it, but Yahweh. However, Yahweh does not act until Moses does. It is the Lord who saves, but the Lord requires Moses’ to obey before bringing about the salvation of these people.
“a strong east wind” (v. 21). In this part of the world, east winds blow from the desert. They are hot, dry, and can be destructive—often reaching 60 miles per hour (100 km/hr). People today call them a sirocco wind. People who live in areas where sirocco winds are common quickly learn to hate them, because their heat and dust make people miserable and often cause health problems. Also, dust and sand driven by the sirocco winds can strip the paint from buildings and cars and ruin glass windows.
But this “strong east wind” spells salvation for the Israelites. It is a destructive force only for the Egyptians. It is one more sign that they are opposing God’s will.
“The children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall (homath) to them on their right hand, and on their left” (v. 22). The Israelites require no invitation. They know that the Egyptian army is close behind. Now that they are able to see an open pathway to their front, they move quickly to escape.
The pathway before them is “dry ground.” In most cases, the ground below a sea will be sandy in some places but muddy in others. These people encounter no mud to stop their progress. Their pathway is solid.
“a wall” (homath). A homath is a substantial wall. This word is used most frequently in scripture to refer to a city’s walls—large walls intended to protect citizens from enemy soldiers or marauding thieves. The use of this word here reinforces the meaning of “sea” (yam) as a substantial body of deep water.
“The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea: all of Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen” (v. 23). Nor do the Egyptians require an invitation. As an army in pursuit is wont to do, the Egyptians plunge ahead even though even a quick assessment would counsel caution. It could be that the cloud is obscuring their vision to the point that they fail to see the danger.
But the Egyptians are acting on Pharaoh’s orders. If they plunge ahead, they risk disaster in the sea. However, if they fail to plunge ahead, they can count on Pharaoh citing them for cowardice—a capital offense. As the old saying goes, these soldiers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
“It happened in the morning watch, that Yahweh looked out on the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and of cloud, and confused the Egyptian army” (v. 24). The morning watch would be “the last of three watches, from 2 a.m. to dawn, about 6 a.m. This, the darkest hour before the dawn, was traditionally the time for attack, when men’s spirits are at their lowest” (Cole).
Until now, we have read only of a cloud separating the Israelites and the Egyptians. Now, however, we read again of a “pillar of fire and of cloud.” Even before the walls of water begin to fall, Yahweh looks down and inspires panic in the Egyptian soldiers. Some scholars have suggested that this might involve a thunderstorm. It would not be difficult to imagine brave men panicking in the midst of a storm at sea. Even in a boat, a storm at sea can be terrifying. Caught between these walls of water, it would be even more so.
“He took off their chariot wheels, and they drove them heavily” (v. 25a). Perhaps Yahweh turned the dry ground into mud—or perhaps the chariot wheels just mired down where people could pass easily on foot. In any event, the Egyptian chariots quickly become a liability in this sea of mud.
Mud is one of the curses with which soldiers often find themselves accursed. As a chaplain in Vietnam, I visited Camp J.J. Carroll on Thanksgiving Day 1969. We took Thanksgiving dinner to the soldiers and tried to wish them a happy Thanksgiving. What we found, though, was a sea of knee-deep mud. It took enormous effort to move even ten feet—and no wheeled vehicle could move at all. That tiny taste of the mud-curse made me appreciate the enormous difficulty of trying to move military forces through mud.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, his soldiers made good progress until October rains turned the unpaved roads to mud. The Germans were highly mechanized (although they still used horses extensively—just as Pharaoh’s army did), and the mud brought their armored vehicles and logistical support nearly to a halt, giving Soviet forces time to re-organize. A bitter winter followed, with cold causing many German casualties. That was followed by the spring thaw, where mud continued to impede the Germans. The war continued for another three terrible years, but most historians consider that fall-winter-spring of 1941-42 to be the turning point of the war—the time that converted Hitler’s prospects from victory to defeat.
“so that the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s flee from the face of Israel, for Yahweh fights for them against the Egyptians!'” (v. 25b). The Egyptian soldiers have seen sign after sign (plagues, the cloud, the walls of water, and the mired chariot wheels) that God is the power behind the Exodus—and that God fully intends to save the Israelites. However, it is difficult for soldiers to admit that they are fighting a losing battle. They fear letting down their fellow soldiers, and they also fear disgracing themselves. However, the mired chariots are the final straw for these Egyptian soldiers. They now acknowledge what has concerned them for some time—that they are fighting, not flesh and blood, but God. Their cause is therefore hopeless, and their lives are in terrible danger.
EXODUS 14:26-29. THE WATERS RETURNED, AND COVERED THE CHARIOTS
26Yahweh said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come again on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” 27Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it. Yahweh overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28The waters returned, and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even all Pharaoh’s army that went in after them into the sea. There remained not so much as one of them. 29But the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left.
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come again on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen'” (v. 26). Verses 26-29 are a companion piece to verses 21-25. In those earlier verses, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea to set in motion a series of events that enabled the Israelites to escape—while, at the same time, setting a trap for the Egyptian soldiers. In verse 26, Moses once again stretches out his hand over the sea, and this time sets in motion a series of events that will destroy the Egyptian army.
“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it. Yahweh overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea” (v. 27). It is not clear whether the Israelites have completed their journey to the far shore. If not, Yahweh continues to protect them (see v. 29) while trapping the Egyptian soldiers. A soldier’s boots and armor, an advantage in battle, become deadly weights in deep water.
“The waters returned, and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even all Pharaoh’s army that went in after them into the sea. There remained not so much as one of them” (v. 28). This verse confirms the fate of the Egyptian soldiers. They all died in the turbulent waters, and their equipment was lost as well. If these soldiers comprised a significant part of the Egyptian army, Egypt has been transformed into a nearly defenseless nation.
“But the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left” (v. 29). While the Israelites were walking on the pathway through the sea, the waters formed walls on the right and on their left. This verse makes it sound as if they were still crossing the sea as the Egyptians were being drowned at the other side, but it does not specifically say that. This verse is not intended to convey the sequence of events, but the fact that Yahweh was the force behind the salvation of the Israelites and the destruction of the Egyptians.
EXODUS 14:30-31. THUS YAHWEH SAVED ISRAEL THAT DAY
30Thus Yahweh saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work which Yahweh did to the Egyptians, and the people feared Yahweh; and they believed in Yahweh, and in his servant Moses.
“Thus Yahweh saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians” (v. 30a). A literal translation of this verse would be “That day the Lord saved Israel from the hand (Hebrew: yadh) of the Egyptians.” In Hebrew scripture, the word “hand” often signifies power or dominion, and that is the case here.
We should also note some of the previous uses of the word “hand” in this book:
• At the burning bush, Yahweh said, “I know that the king of Egypt won’t give you permission to go, no, not by a mighty hand. I will reach out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in its midst, and after that he will let you go” (3:19-20).
• When Yahweh was ready to set the Exodus in motion, he said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for by a strong hand he shall let them go, and by a strong hand he shall drive them out of his land” (6:1).
• When the Egyptian army threatened to overtake the Israelites, Yahweh told Moses, “Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground” (14:16).
• Then Yahweh told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come again on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen” (14:26). When Moses stretched out his hand, Yahweh saved the Israelites and destroyed the Egyptians.
Now we hear that Yahweh has saved Israel from the hand—the power, the dominion—of the Egyptians. Yahweh’s hand is mighty, as is the hand of Yahweh’s servant, Moses. The hand of the Egyptians, once so powerful, lies defeated at the bottom of the sea.
“and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore” (v. 30b). It is possible that the Israelites were far enough in front of the Egyptians that they did not see the waters trap the Egyptian soldiers. However, the bodies of the Egyptians, washed up on shore, bear mute testimony to their fate.
“Israel saw the great work which Yahweh did to the Egyptians, and the people feared Yahweh; and they believed in Yahweh, and in his servant Moses” (v. 31). This verse makes four points.
• First, it was Yahweh who did a great work against the Egyptians. The power and the initiative came, not from Moses—and certainly not from the rest of the Israelites—but from Yahweh. What happened on this day was a mighty demonstration of Yahweh’s power.
• Second, the Israelites witnessed what Yahweh did to the Egyptians. They saw how Yahweh made a pathway through the sea for the Israelites, and they also saw how Yahweh turned that pathway of salvation into a pathway of death for the Egyptians.
• Third, the events that they witnessed have inspired the Israelites to faith in Yahweh. They both fear Yahweh and believe in him.
• Fourth, these events also brought about faith in Moses. The Israelites fear Yahweh and believe in him, but they also fear Moses, Yahweh’s servant, and believe in him.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
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Newsome, James D. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan