Exodus 14: 1-9 The LORD of Hosts and the Army of Pharaoh
Then the LORD said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. 3 Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” 4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. And they did so.
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” 6 So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; 7 he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. 9 The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
The hardening of the heart of Pharaoh comes up again before this final conflict between the LORD the God of Israel and Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt. I have dealt with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which is an important theme and interpretive decision, both in chapter seven and more fully in chapter ten. I’m not going to revisit that discussion here other than to say our modern views of free will or divine causality would present us with an either/or choice. Either the person has free will or their actions are controlled by something externally. The Hebrew scriptures, and the worldview of the ancient Jewish people have far less problem than we do with these two principles existing together at the same time. Perhaps an analogy to addiction might be helpful at this point: an addict certainly makes choices that impact their life and the lives of those around them but addiction has many components (including genetics, family of origin issues, reinforcing behaviors, etc.) that make the choice to deny the addiction much harder. Regardless, in the story Pharaoh’s heart is again hardened and once again he places his forces in conflict with the people of Israel and the LORD.
In verse five the cost of Israelites’ freedom is realized by Pharaoh and his officials. The suffering of the signs and wonders is eclipsed by the future suffering of the loss of their source of forced labor. Ultimately this conflict is about slavery. Pharaoh and the officials of Egypt have benefited from the economic exploitation of the Hebrew people and imagining a new economy without their laborers proves to be a challenging task. It is far easier to mobilize the military might of the empire to reclaim the fleeing Israelites and return them into bondage in Egypt.
Six hundred picked chariots, this represents the elite military technology of the day. In an era prior to people fighting from horseback, chariots represented a quick and devastating force, especially on the open ground. The chariot provided the rider a platform from which they could use a bow or spear. Chariots became a key part of the army of Egypt and later the Israelites would adopt this weapon in the time of King Solomon, “Solomon gathered together chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.” (1 Kings 11: 26) Yet, Deuteronomy 17: 16 insists that ultimately technology, horses and chariots are not to be what the kings of Israel rely upon, but rather they are to rely upon the LORD their God and to fear the LORD and trust in the deliverance of God.
Exodus 14: 10-30 Deliverance at the Sea
10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”
19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged1 their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
The approaching Egyptian army achieves its desired effect upon the host of Israel, they immediately fear the approach of the chariots of Egypt. In comparative size the Egyptian’s 600 picked chariots (in addition to other chariots and forces) comes upon the 600,000 men of Israel (see chapter twelve, verse 37) and if these were truly two armies the mass of the Israelites could repel the Egyptians but despite the military language used in relation to the movement of the Israelites they are still mentally slaves. They have not been trained for combat nor would they be able to match the equipment of the Egyptians. The people panic but Moses exhorts them to stand firm and that the LORD will deliver them.
The history buff and former military officer in me cannot resist the tactical piece of this narrative. Technology in warfare can often be decisive, but not always and frequently terrain may play a key role in neutralizing an advantage in maneuver, firepower or speed. On open terrain, which there is a lot of in the area the people would have to traverse, a chariot gives a decisive edge in maneuver. Yet, like all wheeled or tracked instruments of war in areas or dense forestry, urban landscape, mountainous terrain or swampland these vehicles become mired and unable to move (and conversely relatively easy targets for lighter infantry type forces). Here the chariots and chariot drivers, their horses and riders become ineffective because their wheels have become clogged. They are unable to move where the people previously passed on foot. The technology that provided a decisive advantage on the clear plain where there was easy traction becomes a liability unable to be freed from the soft ground.
Although it would be easy to rest on the tactical piece of the narrative and to discount the action of the hand of God in making the waters form a wall for the people to pass through on dry land in addition to the pillar of cloud and the angel of God taking place behind the people to prevent the Egyptians from being able to overtake them, that would be to miss the primary point of the narrative. It is not because Moses was a military tactician that the Israelites were delivered from the army of Egypt. Through the Exodus we have a God who intervenes, the LORD of hosts (literally LORD of armies) who conquers the Egyptian army, and who allows the people to pass through the waters of the Red (or Reed) Sea. This is a narrative about the LORD’s triumph over Pharaoh, the gods of Egypt and the army of Egypt. The LORD stands on behalf of these former slaves and repels and destroys those who would return them to slavery. The LORD the God of Israel is not an uninterested prime mover or a God who does not become engaged in history, but instead the point of the Exodus narrative is that God does become involved: sees, hears, chooses a side and acts decisively. As children of the Enlightenment, living in our secular and disenchanted world, it may be hard for us to imagine a time when God intervenes this directly in life. Even for the people of Israel they would have to wrestle with times in their story where God seemed uninvolved or to be silent, and yet here at the beginning of their story as the people of Israel they are constituted by the action of God to free them from slavery.
We often refer to tornadoes or earthquakes or floods as acts of God. Here and frequently in the bible God does act specifically through natural actions. All throughout the signs and wonders the river, the frogs, the bugs, the boils, disease, hail, and even the east and west wind (used previously with the locusts and here with the water) are all means by which the LORD showed power. The God of Israel is a God who can use the creation and manipulate it to overcome the power of humanity and the empires they create. Unlike the cinema versions of this story the narrative of Exodus moves more slowly, the wind from God blows through the night drying and then reverses in the morning covering up the Egyptians. The pillar and angel provide time and space for the large and probably disorganized Hebrew people to pass through the waters on the beginning of their journey from slavery into freedom.
The passing through the sea becomes a powerful symbol for both the Jewish and Christians who would continue to tell this story. For the Jewish people it becomes a marker of hope and power and a resonant image for what their LORD can do. In Joshua chapter three now the ark of the covenant becomes a marker of the LORD’s presence with the people and the river Jordan parts so the people can pass through. Centuries later in their exile in Babylon the words of the prophet Isaiah would poetically reference this previous crossing of the waters in preparation for what God would do in their time:
But now, thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43: 1f.)
For Christians, this would become a part of the references to the times water was used to set apart a people as a part of the baptismal service. As, “through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 230) So, Christians understand baptism as a way in which God delivers them to their freedom and calling as children of God as well.