Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31
CW: pregnancy loss.
When we arrive at Exodus 14:19-31, we are at the culmination of a long stretch of narratives demonstrating God’s power to save the people of Israel. Their freedom as well as God’s very identity are on the line. If you tune your heart to the strains of the Hebrew Bible, this is the defining moment in the history, literature, and liturgy of ancient Israel.
Fittingly, the commentary on this text is vast. The text is clearly a composite, but it is also highly allusive, with threads of connection running between its smaller units as well as across the larger span of narrative.1 Much ink has been spilled over the precise nature of the phenomenon that allowed the Israelites to walk on dry land through a body of water—was it a natural phenomenon that became mythologized in the retelling or was it a straightforwardly supernatural one? And which body of water are we talking about anyway?2 Additionally, the text is difficult or corrupt in a few key places, providing no help to interpreters seeking clarity on exactly what happened at this pivotal moment. Many of these questions remain unresolved—or unresolvable.
However interesting they may be, those questions are not the beating heart of this story. The very character of God and the nature of God’s relationship with the people is on display, seemingly in a new way. Creation imagery is most certainly present in this experience of redemption. This exodus event not only lays the foundation for the covenant at Sinai (see Exodus 19:4; 20:2), it seems to reframe both the divine and human understanding of who God is. Both God and the people will refer to God as “the one who brought [you/us] out of the land of Egypt” dozens of times throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible.3 It is present in all of the major lines of thought represented in the Hebrew Bible, and in all sections of the canon. Who is this God who gives laws and ordains festivals, who is zealous for our allegiance, who sends us into and brings us back from exile? It is the God who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who parted the waters, who accompanied us in the wilderness, and who brought us to a land where life is abundant. A list of all of the times this moment is recalled would be truly exhaustive (and exhausting)!
It makes sense that who God is would be front and center here. Over the preceding chapters, this has been a matter of concern, and it has been coming into clearer focus:
…If they ask me, what is [God’s] name, what shall I say to them? (Exodus 3:13)
…If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign (Exodus 4:8)
…But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should heed him and let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2a)
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh…” (Exodus 6:1)
And so on and so forth. Plagues, passover, release, pillars of cloud and fire—the dramatic demonstrations keep piling up. So central is the matter of God’s reputation here that as the tension heightens in the verses immediately preceding our text, here is what God says:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 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. 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. 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.” (Exodus 14:15-18).
Our text is essentially the story of how this comes to be. Somewhat counterintuitively, in this decisive moment—during an event that is taking place because God heard the people’s cry and knows their suffering (3:7-8), the Book of Exodus also states plainly that this is not about the people. God does things for the sake of God’s name, for the sake of the divine reputation.4 While the people’s experience of being liberated is more often the focus of commentary, this text ultimately seems more concerned with God’s reputation. In the end, the people are merely swept up in the nature and character of God, an insight that can be disturbing and/or comforting.
There is no question here of God’s power. We see this through repeated use of the Hebrew yad which means “hand”, but also, by extension, “power”. When Moses and Aaron arrived in Egypt, it was surprisingly easy to convince the people what God was up to in freeing the people mi-yad mitzrayim, “from the hand of Egypt,” but it takes a good deal more effort—or at least more narrative—to convince the imperial powers. Still, there is a sense that liberation is messy work, requiring sustained effort, and that there will be casualties. God works through agents—be they human, natural, or supernatural—but is also presented as actively involved in hurling (vayyinaer) the retreating Egyptian chariots back into the water, leaving no survivors (lo nishar bahem ad-ekhad).
Note also the military imagery: the Israelites and Egyptians are referred to as makhanot, camps; time is marked by the ashmoret ha-boqer, the morning watch; the strategy of the malakh ha-elohim (the messenger of God) who had been leading to now follow behind, standing between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The story begins with a promise and ends with the recognition that God is doing the fighting (14:14, 14:25). In short: this is war. Many of us can only imagine what such situations feel like—our impressions cobbled together from movies. Similarly, most readers of this commentary are not likely to have an experience of forced labor. We are more likely familiar with a sensation of profound and God-given relief—which we might call redemption or liberation—or with how quickly fear and despair can rear their ugly heads, especially when our resources are depleted. It doesn’t really matter how wide the body of water on whose shores you find yourself is—it feels wide enough.
It can be easy to read these familiar stories of God’s decisive acts and lose sight of how massive a moment this is. It can also be easy to scoff at the people who lapse into despair and derision of their leaders, seemingly at the drop of a hat (see verse 11: “were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die?”) when they have just been dramatically liberated. They are “hard-hearted”, they are people of little faith—we wouldn’t respond like that! But for his part, Martin Luther understood the human emotions of this moment, calling on his impression of Moses’ lack of certainty as the people reached the shore when writing his 1542 letter, “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage.”
…even though Moses couldn’t whisper, so great was his anxiety and trembling in the terrible troubles that beset him. His sighs and the deep cry of his heart divided the Red Sea and dried it up.5
Granted, Luther’s concern may not be the same as that of a contemporary minister—the focus of the grief having to do with the fate of the infant’s soul—but the point remains: he can recall Exodus 14 to speak to a moment of human doubt and despair. We do more justice to the magnitude of this redemptive moment in the biblical tradition if we sympathize with the people rather than criticize them. But also, we do well to remember that this text isn’t really about people—it’s about God. As the Israelites come to the shores of this water, pursued by their oppressors, there is chaos ahead, chaos behind—the only way out is through. And God makes the way.
- Consider “go forward” (vv. 15 and 19), three clauses in a row ending with “night” in vv. 20-21, “the LORD is fighting for you/them” (vv. 14 and 25), and the recall of the Hebrew root k-b-d which is used for God’s glory, the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and the wheels of the Egyptian chariots (v. 25).
- The Hebrew calls this body of water the Yam Suf, literally “the Reed Sea” which suggests freshwater while the Red Sea is saltwater. Still, there are other passages where this name apparently does refer to the Red Sea (1 Kgs 9:26; Jer 49:21). Additional suggestions include the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Sarbonis on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. It is likely that the entire network of lakes in the northeastern Nile delta came to be known collectively as the Yam Suf, in much the same way as Egyptian literature calls multiple bodies of water the “Green Sea.” One scholar notes that nine different bodies of water between Egypt and Syro-Palestine have been identified as the location for this event, just as up to thirteen different mountains have been suggested as the Mount Sinai (Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, New York: Schocken Books, 1986. Page 108).
- Several versions of this formula appear using, most of which use a causative conjugation of the verbal roots for “to go” (see Num 20:5, Judg 2:1, Ezek 20:10, 2 Chr 7:22), “to go up” (see Deut 20:1, Josh 24:17, Amos 2:10, Mic 6:4, etc.), and most commonly “to go out” (Lev 19:36, Deut 5:15, 1 Kgs 8:21, Jer 7:22, etc.).
- Isaiah will put an even finer point on this: lema’ani, lema’ani eh-eseh, “for my sake, for my own sake, I will do it” (see Isaiah 48:11).
- Martin Luther, “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage” in Luther’s Works, edited by Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press and Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House), vol 43.2, p. 249.