In this passage we reach the climax of the Israelites’ release from slavery and escape from Egypt. Last week, in chapter 12, God gave Moses the instructions for the Passover. Since then the people have done what they were told to do, with terrible consequences for the Egyptians, and Pharaoh has agreed to let the Israelites leave - in fact the Egyptians want them to get out as soon as possible.
In this passage we reach the climax of the Israelites’ release from slavery and escape from Egypt. Last week, in Exodus 12, God gave Moses the instructions for the Passover. Since then the people have done what they were told to do, with terrible consequences for the Egyptians, and Pharaoh has agreed to let the Israelites leave - in fact the Egyptians want them to get out as soon as possible (Exodus 12:33). There’s an interesting bit I’ve never noticed before in chapter 12 verses 35 and 36 - the Israelites plunder the Egyptians and take their gold, silver and clothing. All of this happens before the passage we’re looking at today. Finally, after 430 years in Egypt to the very day (Exodus 12:40-41), the Israelites set off into freedom. God leads them on a roundabout route as God is concerned that they may wish to return to Egypt if they face war so soon, but still, they are prepared for battle as they take their first experience of freedom (Exodus 13:18). God warns Moses that Pharaoh will change his mind (at God’s direction (Exodus 14:4)) and gets Moses to set up camp near the Red Sea.
We pick up the story in verse 19 just as the Israelites are about to cross the Red Sea. This is Israel’s rite of passage - through making this crossing they cease to be an oppressed people and they become a nation. Behind them is Egypt and slavery, and ahead of them lies the wilderness and freedom. Israel enters the channel that God has carved out for them by the strong east wind (v.21) as a terrified and panicking group of refugees. They are fleeing for their lives and are probably on an emotional rollercoaster - after all the times they’ve thought they might be on their way but then Pharaoh changes his mind, finally they seem to have a glimpse of real freedom, and almost straight away they see that they are not safe at all, but still pursued by the Egyptians. By the time they leave the channel through the Red Sea they are in awe at what God has done, and they have an attitude of faith in God for this miracle of salvation (v.31). So what God promised Moses at the burning bush has now been proved to be true - God is Israel’s saviour and redeemer.
We do get a lot of detail about the horrific fate of the Egyptians, and many of the troubling questions we considered last time about God bringing death are just as applicable here. But there are other emphases too which are important. One of these concerns the weakness of Israel. Just as the moment approaches when their freedom is in sight, the Israelites panic and are terrified at the thought of their own helplessness. They cry out to God (14:10) and they complain to Moses about leading them into this mess. They accuse him of not listening to them and not allowing them to live out their lives as slaves. They think they would be better off in Egypt than dead on the edge of freedom (14:12-13). So we can see here that Israel’s salvation has nothing to do with their strength or their cleverness. If God had left them alone, and if Moses had left them alone, they would never have emerged from their shackles. Israel’s salvation is completely and entirely the work of God, whose revelations to Moses showed God’s concern for the oppressed and God’s passion to bring them justice and mercy. The walls of water that hold back the sea can be seen as a metaphor for God’s love and grace which protects and shelters the enslaved and oppressed.
So alongside emphasising the weakness of the Israelites and their inability to help themselves, the passage also highlights the power of God. In verses 19 and 20 God positions the symbols of divine power - the angel of God and the pillar of cloud (which also seems to be a pillar of fire that lights up the night; and the fire is mentioned in verse 24) - God positions these things between Israel and the pursuing Egyptians. They hold back the Egyptians so they can’t catch the Israelites. And of course, the major symbol of God’s strength and power in this passage is seen in the rolling back of the water to enable the Israelites to cross safely. In this passage, even the drowning of the Egyptian army is seen to be an example of God’s might if you look at verse 18 and then verse 27 in which we read that “the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea.”
This passage shows us that what Israel could not do for itself was accomplished by God. Israel did not have the strength, courage or even inclination to do anything about the situation they were in. But God acted for them in their weakness and rescued them from slavery. God didn’t do this because Israel deserved to be saved or had anything to contribute to its own redemption, but simply because God is a God of mercy and justice, and God chose to act for them. Later on, in Deuteronomy 7:8 we can see this quite clearly: “It was because Yahweh loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that Yahweh has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeem you from the house of slavery, from the land of Pharaoh.”
But Moses has an important to play in all this. It’s plain to see that what happens is God’s work and action, but God doesn’t work in isolation or from a distance. God works through the special person God has chosen to act on God’s behalf. So in verse 21 we read that “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea” and the east wind opened a path of safety. And again, in verse 27, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea” and the waters returned and the channel closed. The result is seen is verse 31: “the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” This is important in showing God’s activity in human life in general. God rarely chooses to act independently, but often chooses to act through a person who is willing to put themselves at God’s disposal. And it helps Moses too. It confirms in the Israelites’ minds that Moses is able to lead them. They may forget about this when Moses doesn’t do what they want, or when they feel dissatisfied with their current circumstances, but at this point in the story it shows them (and probably encourages Moses too) that God’s promise to Moses which was made all that time ago at the burning bush has been proven to be true. God has chosen Moses, and God has not let him down.
For further reflection…