Commentary on Exodus 14 (Parting of the Red Sea)

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In chapters 12 and 13, the Israelites escaped from Egypt due to the mighty hand of God, and have traveled some distance to the southeast, but not out of Egyptian territory. Chapter 14 begins the account of one of the most famous miracles performed by God for the Israelites, the parting of the Red (or Reed) Sea.

In verses 1-4, God tells Moses to stop their progress and turn back. They are to park themselves right on the coast of a sea. The purpose for their turning around, traveling back the way they had come, and then stopping, is to make Pharaoh believe that they are confused and unwilling to travel into the desert (which is the only way for them to escape Egyptian territory). This will cause Pharaoh to pursue them with his army.

The exact location of the Israelite encampment by the sea is unknown. The very northern tip of the Gulf of Suez, which is part of the Red Sea, could be where the Israelites camped and crossed, or the other options are Lake Balah or Lake Timsah, which are two larger bodies of water further north. In any case, from the text it is clear that it is a body of water that is deep enough to drown men.

God’s purpose is to invite Pharaoh to attack Israel so that, once again, God can demonstrate his power over Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods. “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” The Egyptian gods don’t exist, and the Egyptians must come to understand that the God of the Hebrews is the only true God.

In verses 5-9, Pharaoh does exactly what God said he would do. Pharaoh and his officials regret the fact that they have lost the Hebrew slaves, and so they decide to dispatch chariots to bring the Israelites back to Egypt. At least 600 chariots are sent and this hastily gathered army quickly catches up to the Israelites who have stopped their progress by the sea.

Why would Pharaoh chase after the Israelites after witnessing the ten plagues brought on by God? Is he crazy? Douglas Stuart, in his Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary), explains:

The answer requires appreciating Egyptian religion in its ancient Near Eastern context. To all the ancients (except those Israelites who were beginning to understand the only true God) the gods and goddesses that controlled the world were arbitrary and capricious, quick to change their actions and attitudes, constantly vying with one another for power, not omnipresent but manifesting themselves at given locations and then leaving those locations unpredictably. . . . Likewise, the Egyptians’ gods were considered beings who might not always be present among their people. Accordingly, Yahweh knew that it would be natural for Pharaoh to think that he, Yahweh, after having expended great effort to demonstrate his power to the Egyptians, might now no longer be directly involved in helping the Israelites so that he, Pharaoh, could once again assert his power over them unhindered.

Seeing the Egyptian army advancing upon them, the Israelites, in verses 10-12, cry out to Moses that he should have never brought them out of Egypt to die at the hands of Pharaoh’s chariots. They were better off as slaves. Douglas Stuart notes that

this was the first of the postexodus declarations by Israelites that they should have stayed where they came from. The others (e.g., Num 14:1–4; Josh 7:6–9) share considerably the theme of this one: when hardship is encountered, the miserable past suddenly looks like the good old days.

Moses, however, is confident that God will save them. God tells Moses, in verses 15-18, “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” God promises that the Egyptians will follow them so that God “will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army.”

In order to give the Israelites time to break camp and prepare themselves for crossing the sea (the remainder of the day and almost the entire evening were used in the process of getting the Israelites out of their camp and across the sea), the angel of God, who was in the form of a pillar of cloud, moved from the front of the Israelites to the rear, as a barrier between the Egyptian army and the Israelite camp. The Egyptians cannot attack with the angel of the Lord protecting the Israelites.

When Moses held out his staff, God caused a strong east wind to blow back the waters and clear a dry path for the Israelites to cross the body of water. There were walls of water on the right and left of the people as they advanced.

In verses 23-28, as God predicted, the Egyptian chariots, with the angel of God no longer impeding their progress, followed the Hebrews into the sea. God, however, caused the chariot wheels of the Egyptians to get stuck and come off, throwing their drivers into confusion and chaos.

Douglas Stuart elaborates on the problems with the chariot wheels:

The sea floor was soft and sandy/silty so that even though it was dry, it was not a suitable surface for narrow, metal-bound chariot wheels bearing the weight of a chariot and two or three armed men. The horses pulling the chariots, like the Israelite goats and sheep, would have been able to get through satisfactorily; the chariot wheels, however, effectively sliced deep into the soft ground and bound so that the horses could not pull their own weight and that of the fully loaded chariots.

Once the army of chariots had advanced far enough into the sea, God instructed Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea, and the walls of water collapsed and drowned the army of Pharaoh. Not one of them survived.

Verses 30-31 summarize the lesson the Israelites learned that day: “That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.”