< September 13, 2020 >

Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31

 

This text describes one of the Bible’s strangest military engagements.

To the fight, Pharaoh brings a swarm of chariots and soldiers. The text tells us that “He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them” (Exodus 14:7). The Israelites are in a much more precarious position, having camped alongside a body of water without any means of escape. Their vulnerability would prove too tempting a target for the stiff-hearted Pharaoh (14:3), who concludes that they were boxed in and ripe for conquest. In terms of armaments, the Israelites have nothing more than a promise: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still” (verses 13-14).

There are, in fact, two battles in play. The first is Pharaoh’s conflict with the Israelites and the second is the fight to believe God’s absurd command that “the Lord will fight for you.” And it is here that our story begins, with Israel on the verge of military defeat, wielding mere words as weapons.

The angel of God now places itself between the Israelites and Pharaoh’s army, creating an impenetrable wall of separation that shields God’s people from Pharaoh’s rage (verses 19-20). The action recalls God’s actions during the 10th and final plague, in which the Egyptians and Israelites are distinguished from one another (11:7). While separated, the Lord transforms Israel’s vulnerability into an opportunity for escape: “the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (verse 21).

The creational themes are important here and elsewhere in Exodus, as Terence Fretheim points out in his groundbreaking commentary.1 They remind us that Yhwh’s conflict with Pharaoh is not simply between two rulers. The true conflict is between forces of creation and chaos. Nothing less than cosmic order—the state in which life can flourish and abound—is at stake. From the outset, this pharaoh’s policies of enslavement, domination, and violence have been anti-creational (1:8-22), threatening God’s fructifying promises to Israel and its descendants. God’s decision to confront Pharaoh represents a decision to give the forces of creation a chance again to flourish, bringing them out from underneath the suffocating chokehold of pharaonic oppression.

By means of a “strong east wind” (beruach qadim ‘azzah, verse 21; see also Genesis 1:1-2), God separates the waters of the sea, exposing dry ground (yabashah, see also Genesis 1:9-10) and an escape route. Moses plays an important role in all of this. He holds out his arm for the entire night (verse 21), as Yhwh drives back the waters and splits the sea. After a long, laborious night, day breaks and the Egyptians are defeated. How their defeat actually happens is difficult to explain, due no doubt to the text’s lengthy and complicated history of interpretation. According to verse 26, Moses extends his hand so that the waters will fall upon the Egyptians (see also verse 28). In verse 27, however, the Lord sweeps the Egyptians into the sea. Whatever the case may be, they are defeated and the Israelites are delivered (verse 30).

The density of creation language indicates that something more than military victory has been achieved: a new creation has occurred, offering Israel a future that is free from the dominating reign of Pharaoh. Drawing on prototypes from both the Bible and the ancient Near East, Exodus 14 assumes that creation and chaos are in conflict. The flourishing of the former is dependent upon defeat of the latter. Even in its most grandiloquent expressions of peace (for example, Isaiah 11), the establishment of God’s “peaceable kingdom” must follow upon the defeat of evil and chaos (Isaiah 11:4). God’s peaceable reign is not primarily an ethical ideal, but rather a byproduct of the Creator beating back the ever-present, ever-threatening forces of chaos.

Despite its many connections to the Chaoskampf tradition,2 Exodus 14 does stand out in one significant way. God’s victory over the Egyptians isn’t simply a matter of defeating primordial chaos monsters. Human costs are involved: “The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived ... and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore” (verses 28-30).

The rabbis were particularly insightful in naming this reality. In b. Sanhedrin 39b (commenting on verse 20), ministering angels desired to sing a song of praise before God in response to the decisive victory over the Egyptians. God, however, said to them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” These observations illuminate Exodus 14’s ethical sophistication.

A cursory reading might suggest that Exodus 14 is nothing more than a tribalistic, us-vs-them story. But in highlighting the impact of pharaonic policies on the bodies of Egyptian soldiers, the story shows that the Israelites are not the only victims of Pharaoh’s hard(ened) heart. The Egyptian system of domination and violence also drew Egyptian soldiers into its orbit, as enforcers of the pharaonic will.


Notes

  1. Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: WJK, 1991).

  2. The Chaoskampf motif depicts the struggle between a culture's deity and forces of chaos. The tradition has traces in both Hebrew texts (see passages from Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and several psalms) and texts from the Ancient Near East.