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The Controversial (and Phenomenal) Parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14

It doesn’t matter what is in your way; God’s salvation cannot be thwarted.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 14:13-28

The final deliverance for God’s people—after 10 plagues on Egypt—is the destruction of an elite part of Egypt’s army. Now, the Hebrews will not have to look over their shoulder—they are free! Like the Hebrews, we are supposed to follow God where He leads us and trust Him when He directs us (and praise Him for it all).

So the waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground (14:22)

[It's totally out of place here, but I've always loved this comic. I do not know and cannot find an illustrator or an original source.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Miracles. Teach the Story for What It Is. This week, we come to the always controversial “parting of the Red Sea”. I encourage you to teach the story for what the text says. The story is very familiar and the text is very straightforward. Your leader guide walks you through the basics, and I think you should focus on that. In this article, I will go through the questions about maps and miracles and Pharaoh’s army. You may not need them at all.

The Power of God in Nature. You guys have heard the amazing stories about how Irma’s storm surge was so unbelievable that entire bays “dried up” (see pictures below; fyi - September 2017). I would show some amazing pictures and say, “We’re reading the passage where God parted the Red Sea; there’s a lot of debate about what exactly these verses mean, but does anyone want to say that God couldn’t drive the water back?”

Other Amazing Natural Phenomena. In this story, we’re also introduced to the presence of God as a pillar of cloud and fire. You might also start your group like this: “In our passage, we see God performing incredible miracles of nature. What are some things you’ve seen in nature that you had to see to believe?” Do a Google search for “rare natural phenomena” and bring in your favorite results. Here are pictures of waterspouts and fire whirls and morning glory clouds and lenticular clouds. God is amazing.

[Editor's humorous note: When I created this article in 2017, I included a photo that I found out later to be faked. It was my first experience with a photo that fooled me (not my last). People will go to any length to get you to click on their website or video!]  

This Week's Big Idea: The Exodus and the Red Sea

The iconic image of Moses parting the Red Sea comes from The Ten Commandments. (If you haven’t seen the old Cecille de Mille’s 1956 classic movie, shame on you!)

Ridley Scott made an odd but visually stunning version a few years ago called Exodus: Gods and Kings. Those grand miracles are what most of us have in our head when we think about the parting of the Red Sea. So you can imagine the stir it created when biblical scholars said that the Bible didn’t say “Red Sea” at all but “Sea of Reeds” (which is true)! The term yam suph was translated “Red Sea” in the Septuagint and has been treated as such ever since. The Bible clearly refers to multiple locations as yam suph; in Ex 10:19, it appears to be the Gulf of Suez; in 1 Ki 9:26, it is the Gulf of Aqaba. I think it is safe to say that yam suph could refer to any of the waters around the Sinai Peninsula. Reeds are still commonly found in all of the lakes between the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. This has led scholars to propose all kinds of routes for the Israelites to take—starting with their journey across the “Red Sea” (commonly Lake Menzaleh and Lake Ballah). Here’s where the controversy comes in: some of the proposals are for areas that must have been rather small and shallow lakes; it is impossible to see how Pharaoh’s army could have drowned in them.

The problem: we don’t know where the place names mentioned in the Bible are. The Israelites traveled from Rameses to Succoth, then to Etham “on the edge of the desert”, then they turned back to Pi Hahiroth “between Migdol and the sea” across from Baal Zephon, and that’s where the waters parted. “Migdol” is the word meaning “tower”, so it may not even be a proper name. We are not told how many days and nights march the Israelites took to get to any of them.


The solid line on this map is the traditional route of the Exodus; it is dependent on Mt Sinai/Mt Horeb being on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. [I will talk more about Mt Sinai in two weeks!] Some scholars believe that Mt Sinai is in Midian; the middle dotted line represents the path of the Exodus they propose. They point out a natural land bridge on the Gulf of Aqaba that could easily be exposed by a strong wind. That bridge is next to a large beach with a narrow entry that well matches the description of the Hebrew campsite and choke point for God’s pillar of fire.

BUT that location is hundreds of miles away from the palace—as far as a week of heavy riding. That doesn’t seem to fit the urgency of the passage. The northern route is proposed by those who believe that God turned the Israelites back from the land of the Philistines because they must have been very close to it. But the passage indicates that He never let them get that far in the first place.

This area was completely altered by the building of the Suez Canal in the 1850s, so we don’t have effective imagery of how many or how large the lakes were for certain. For example, the Great Bitter Lake (the one in the middle) is several miles across and extremely deep, but its depth has been changed through dredging. Lake Menzaleh (farthest north) is only 4-5 feet deep, but it is close enough to the Sea that a tidal wave/tsunami could explain the army drowning.

The long and short is this: we don’t know where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea (“Sea of Reeds”). We do know it was wide enough and deep enough to trap and destroy the Egyptian army (see below). And the comment about the “wall of water” does seem to imply something more than tidal effects like that of Irma I mentioned on the front page. This event does not have to be as “dramatic” as that in the movies to be true, but something miraculous happened here.


Aside: Pharaoh’s Army

You might remember that the Hyksos—foreign invaders—had conquered and humiliated and ruled Egypt from 1800-1550 BC. When Egypt got its act together and repelled the foreigners, it became a very militarized society determined never to let that happen again. This is the time period when Israel’s slavery became very harsh. The man I think was pharaoh during the Exodus, Thutmose III, was one of the greatest pharaohs of history. He conquered large sections of Canaan with daring military tactics, even taking ships on oxcarts across the desert so he could surprise enemies from rivers.

The Pharaoh was Egypt’s general, and many led their armies personally. (The biblical account makes it seem like Pharaoh died in the Red Sea, but it doesn’t necessarily say that, and Egypt’s records discount any pharaoh dying in battle during this era.) We know that Rameses II had an army of at least 20,000 in 4 divisions. In the Hebrew era, the army was based on speed—light infantry, chariots, and archers. Armor was a leather/metal combination, and the bows were composite. Chariots were not armored—their attacks sent the enemy forces into terrified retreat (Egypt did not defeat Greece or Rome in battle because they were too disciplined) that was easy to kill. They often attacked very quickly, even recklessly, to press their psychological advantage. They never developed siege warfare. They highly prioritized reckless courage. This, of course, led to their undoing when they charged after the Israelites into the sea, only to discover that God was not frightened by them. They were easily drawn into a trap.


Part 1: The Setting (14:13-18)

But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that he will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you must be quiet.” The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to break camp. As for you, lift up your staff, stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. . . .

Here’s what we skipped: after the final plague, the Egyptian “escorted” the Hebrews out of town. They had been in Egypt for 430 years (we are not sure if there is significance to that number, and we’re also not sure exactly when that clock started). On their journey, they consecrated the firstborn males that had been passed over, and Moses gave that as an everlasting mandate. Each firstborn male livestock and human was to be sacrificed or redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb. And God physically led them as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He led them on a slow, winding route that enticed Pharaoh to chase after them, and his army caught them on the shores of a sea (see below).

This is the first of many cycles where the Israelites inexplicably lose all of their faith in God. After He had just performed multiple miracles and was leading them as a pillar of fire, now God will be powerless to prevent the Egyptians from killing them all?!!? You might ask your group how quickly they tend to lose faith. Anyway, Moses now plays the role of the strong leader, calming them down. (My guess is he took too long, though, because God has to get him moving.) The key phrase here is “the Lord’s salvation” which means a lot more than winning the battle—the Exodus is a picture of rescue from slavery to sin, and “salvation” refers to the whole process.

When God says that He will “receive glory” by destroying Pharaoh’s army, that sounds harsh, but we have to remember that Pharaoh stands for the entire human rebellion against God. This is a picture of a long-standing cosmic battle between God and evil, and the Exodus is a key strike that continues God’s plan to bring Jesus into the world. Keep the big picture in everyone’s minds here.

And if you can, show that clip of The Ten Commandments!


Aside: Archeological Evidence

This is one of the arguments against the factuality of the Red Sea crossing. If Pharaoh’s army was crushed in the sea, shouldn’t there be all kinds of remains somewhere? Surely there are thousands of chariot parts under a sea bed or lake bed somewhere in Egypt! Of course, those remains have not been found. Interestingly, a chariot wheel has been found in the Gulf of Aqaba, but reports of mass findings of Egyptian remains are hoaxes. This has led many liberal scholars to conclude that the Exodus did not happen. It is a myth from post-exilic times made up to give the remaining Jews a sense of superiority over the Egyptians who were fighting them at the time. In fact, some of these scholars go so far as to say that the Jews never came out of Egypt at all!

Look, I would be very happy if there were all kinds of evidences for the Exodus. But not having archeological evidence doesn’t cause me to lose much sleep. Of course the Egyptians wouldn’t make a record of such an embarrassing event. They never recorded any losses of any kind! What about the remains of the Egyptian chariots? Two possibilities: we just haven’t looked in the right place yet (it’s not like the region is small and safe), or the washout from the sea was so dramatic as to bury the evidence much deeper than we’ve searched. Or this was early enough in the Egyptian technological buildup that there wasn’t much metal used yet—wood and leather and bone would long be disintegrated underwater if this happened 3500 years ago. So in summary, we have to take seriously the argument that we have no physical evidence for the Exodus. But I’m sticking with the Bible.


Part 2: Act 1: The Separation (14:19-20)

Then the angel of God, who was going in front of the Israelite forces, moved and went behind them. The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and stood behind them. It came between the Egyptian and Israelite forces. There was cloud and darkness, it lit up the night, and neither group came near the other all night long.

Just as God made a distinction between Jew and Egyptian for the plagues, so He would for the sea. This is not unlike God preserving Noah’s family through the flood. Some people like the crossing point of the Gulf of Aqaba because there is a beach with a narrow entrance, making it easy to see how the entire Egyptian army could be held still. But my guess is that a pillar of fire can defend a wide area. The Hebrew text is confusing. One scholar said it is as if the pillar of cloud and fire is one and the same, with light for the Hebrews and darkness for the Egyptians. Whatever, it means that God kept the Hebrews safe before the crossing.


Part 3: Act 2: The Crossing (14:21-22)

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back with a powerful east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry land. So the waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with the waters like a wall to them on their right and their left.

The ugly debates happen here because people want to know exactly how God parted the sea. If the wind came from the east, how was there a wall of water on both sides? Some Christians look for a more naturalistic explanation (tsunami, tidal wave; see below), which is fine, but the language is clear that the water divided. I don’t think there’s a way we can look at this except as a miracle. And the use of a miracle here should be fine! After all, it is actually a picture of the greatest miracle of all—that salvation could come to sinful humanity in God the Son.


Aside: Dangerous Flooding / Water Depth

I know we have the image of 40-ft high walls of water on both sides of the Hebrews in the sea, but we are never told how deep the water was. Just 6” of fast-flowing water is enough to knock you off your feet, and water just 1’ deep can push a car off a road! But the real issue is the weight of the water displaced by the wind. Water weighs 62.4 pounds per cubic foot. Let’s say you’re in a chariot that’s just 4’x4’. If just 10’ of water drops on your head, that’s 5 tons of water. No matter how strong you are, you’re going to be knocked out and drowned by that kind of force, not unlike being hit by a giant wave. All of this to say—the water didn’t have to be very deep at all for it to devastate the Egyptian army. It just looks cooler in a Hollywood film . . .


Part 4: Act 3: The Victory (14:23-28)

The Egyptians set out in pursuit—all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen—and went into the sea after them. . . . So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal depth. While the Egyptians were trying to escape from it, the Lord threw them into the sea. The water came back and covered the chariots and horsemen, plus the entire army of Pharaoh that had gone after them into the sea. Not even one of them survived.

Note that Pharaoh didn’t actually go out with his army. Note also the devotion/recklessness the Egyptians had in charging  into the sea after the Hebrews! Next week, I will start talking about numbers of people. But just throwing out ideas, if there were 2,000,000 people with livestock, that column could easily be 50 miles long. Throw in the elderly and children and uncertain terrain, and there’s no way they were walking more than 2mph. It should have taken them all day just to get everybody across even one of the smaller lakes in the region. Think this would make everyone antsy? (This also knocks out a number of crossing points where the Egyptians could just ride around the shore and catch them on the other side! It had to be a wide body of water and long enough for the entire Egyptian force to be trapped within.)

Here are the main points: what God did to the Egyptians was in keeping with what they had done to the Israelites for generations. They reaped what they had sown. And more importantly, the Hebrews did nothing. God fought for them. The Hebrews had no combat experience and demonstrated little courage. God took care of this.

What you want to do is get to a big picture. The New Testament makes it clear that the story of Israel is a picture of the story of humanity—slaves to sin (Egypt) and rescued by Almighty God, but they keep rebelling against God and bringing sorrow on themselves. Jesus, then, is the “new Israel” who goes through everything Israel did except never sinning against God. And then Jesus makes a way for salvation for all people. The parallel between Passover and the Lord’s Supper shows that Christians can look to the Exodus as an encouraging illustration. The same God who saved them from slavery and death is at work in your life today, saving you from sin and hell.

Ask your group what their favorite “good vs. evil” stories are. Mine is The Lord of the Rings. I love the buildup, the tales of great sacrifice, and the joy on the other side of victory. Your favorite can be a grand, sweeping tale, or just a little one about just a few people. If we take any courage from those stories, we can be completely encouraged by the true story of the Exodus! God wins! And because of Jesus, we can and will see those victories in our life today. End with these statements: God places us where we’re supposed to be, not necessarily where we want to be. God’s direction for us is not always the direction we would choose for ourselves. God’s commands always require faith—especially when it looks like God has taken us in a big circle. God does not want us to be afraid but to trust Him in all things. Let’s do that!


Closing Thoughts: Is the Book of Exodus Trustworthy?

The parting of the Red Sea points out a big divide in Christianity (you like that?)—those who believe that Red Sea literally parted, and those who don’t. The question from those who do believe it is “can we trust and partner with people who don’t believe it?” The thought is that if someone rejects the parting of the Red Sea, do they really believe the Bible at all? The answer is: it depends. It depends on what this person believes if they do not believe this event literally happened.

Some people who calls themselves Christian reject Genesis and Exodus as myth—a story made up to make the Jews feel unique and important. I think that’s a big problem. Essentially, they are saying that they will decide for themselves what of the Bible is true and what isn’t, making them god of their little world. There is no end to the trouble that this approach can bring.

But here are three other approaches I have heard to this event. (1) God intended this whole event to be an allegory for salvation, so it is beside the point if it really happened or not. The reason I am not comfortable with that explanation is the Bible doesn’t present the story as an allegory. (2) The authors exaggerated the extent of the event. Something happened, just not quite as grand as we are led to believe. There is certainly what we would call hyperbole in the Old Testament, but I am leery of any explanation that makes the Bible authors less than trustworthy. (3) The readers (us) are reading more into the event than the authors intended. In other words, the error is with us and not the text. These are people who say that God used simple or natural means of rescuing the Hebrews and that the big Hollywood stuff is all in our imagination. Of all of the other approaches, I am least uncomfortable with this one. I just want to know that the person who feels this way is taking every verse seriously. Someone should not have to interpret the Bible the same as you for you to be able to be church members together.


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