Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31
Just as the central New Testament story of Jesus’ death and resurrection comes to us in four different versions (the four Gospels), so the central Old Testament story of the exodus and Red Sea event in Exodus 14-15 comes to us in three different versions that have been woven together and placed alongside one another.
The first, and probably earliest version, is the so-called Song of Moses in Exodus 15. Exodus 15 retells the Red Sea event in the poetic form of a hymn of praise. The preacher may want to begin preparation by reading Exodus 15 as background to Exodus 14:19-31.
Two Prose Versions of the Red Sea Event
The other two versions of the Red Sea event are not poetic but prose or narrative retellings, one earlier and one later. These two prose versions have been combined to form the present form of Exodus 14, with the presence of these two strands being suggested by certain doublets as well as distinctive motifs, themes and vocabulary that distinguish these different traditions elsewhere in the Pentateuch. The inclusion of three different versions together in Exodus 14-15 testifies to the importance of the exodus event in different traditions in ancient Israel over a long period of time. Different perspectives on the same event needed to be included to understand the full theological significance of the Red Sea event.
In Exodus 14:19-31, the earlier prose version roughly consists of vv. 10a,c; 11-14; 19-20; 21b; 24-25; 27b; 30-31. If you read these verses alone, you have the elements to make a coherent story. The other verses belong to a second and later so-called Priestly version which also can be read as its own coherent version of the story (vv. 10b; 15-18; 21a,c; 22-23; 26-27a; 28-29). Once separated out, a summary of the two accounts would look like this:
Early Non-Priestly Version
−The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites
−The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)
−Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned
Later Priestly Version
−The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD
−The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide
−A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides
−The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side
−After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians
The Theologies of the Two Versions
In the earlier non-Priestly text, God is the subject of all the action. God is intimately involved in defeating the Egyptian army, while Israel watches passively on the sidelines. God uses common elements of nature (the cloud, the pillar of fire, the east wind, the sea), as well as the Egyptians’ own psychological vulnerability (“panic”) to overthrow the Egyptian army. In the later Priestly version, God appears more removed from direct intervention. God uses a human being, Moses, as God’s special mediator of God’s saving action. Moreover, the people actively cry out and then actively march on dry land through towering walls of sea water on either side until they reach the other shore.
Resulting Theological Polarities
The end result of this blending of two prose versions of the Red Sea event is a fruitful set of theological affirmations and tensions that need to be held together as we reflect on and proclaim this text.
1) God is intimately involved in the details and forces involved in the struggle of God’s people, intervening at times directly on their behalf against forces of bondage and oppression. God can “get down and dirty.” At the same time, God may sometimes work in more indirect and mediated ways. God may at times rely more on human action, working in, with and through the human agency and decisions of God’s own people to achieve God’s purposes in the world.
2) God uses “natural” means of creation for both judgment and salvation. Egypt’s long history of human injustice and oppression against the Israelite slaves resulted in a climactic “ecological disaster” at the Red Sea, a disaster preceded by a series of ten warning signs of growing ecological disruption in the ten plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-13).1 At the same time, God also uses “hyper-natural” wonders and signs, uses of nature that seem out of the ordinary. Moses raises his special staff, and the dramatic walls of water rise up almost magically to form a pathway of dry land that opens up through the sea. God working through the ordinary world of science and nature is held together with God working through the wonders of dramatic signs and wonders, miracles of God’s direct intervention that may be seen by the eyes of faith.
3) The Red Sea event is portrayed as happening at one historical moment in a particular location known from ancient history (whether it is the relatively larger “Red Sea” or a smaller and marshy “Reed Sea,” as some scholars argue). At the same time, the use of the sea imagery resonates with other more cosmic creational traditions in the Bible. These cosmic traditions portray God as a cosmic and heavenly Divine Warrior who struggles against and defeats the forces of chaos and evil embodied in the sea and waters of chaos that are hostile to God’s rule in the world (Psalm 77:16-19; 114:3-6; Habakkuk 3:8-11). The New Testament stories of Jesus and the disciples in a boat on the stormy sea and Jesus’ ability to calm the winds and the waves draw from this same set of cosmic and creational images (Mark 4:35-41; Matthew 8:18, 23-27; Luke 8:22-25). The Red Sea story assures us that the relatively small and mundane acts of ministry done by God’s people in particular times and locations participate in a larger cosmic drama involving God’s defeat of evil and redemption in the world (see Luke 10:1-20).
1Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 105-132, 152-161.