'Studies in the Old Testament'

Moses and the Nation of Israel - 4

August 2009

(Continued from page 489)

The Crossing of the Red Sea

As dawn breaks the people of Israel, led by Moses and Aaron, begin the journey to Mount Sinai.  They start out as a rather loosely organized group of refugees from state slavery.  Soon they shall come to know what it means to be the "sons of the covenant," the people of God.  The shortest route to the land of Canaan lay along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, through the area later settled by the Philistines.  Some historians speculate that there were Egyptian outposts all along this road and the Israelites were not ready for a pitched battle with trained soldiers, but it seems more likely that God purposely led them along a more difficult and challenging route because of a chain of events that only He knew would occur.  Led by His pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night (verse 21) we read, in Chapter 13, how they set out toward the wilderness to the southeast - towards a seemingly geographical journey to a dead end.

After a short period of thinking about what the loss of the slave force would mean to the economy of Egypt, the Pharaoh decided to try to recapture them.  We learn something of the nature of the Israelite men at this stage, because we learn that a group of 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37) were terrified of perhaps less than a thousand charioteers (14:6-9).  Certainly, at this stage, we know the Israelites lacked organization and had no recent experience of fighting.  In any case, when the Israelites saw they were pinned between water and the advancing Egyptian army, they turned their fear into an angry attack on Moses (Exodus 14:11-121):

Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the  wilderness?  What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt?  Is not this what we  said to you in Egypt, 'Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'?  For it would have  been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.

We will see that this grumbling which began so early in their journey continues throughout the ensuing years. When Moses asked the Lord for his help, he was told that this was but another opportunity to convince the exiles of his power, sovereignty and majesty as He was honoured through Pharaoh, his chariots and horsemen (Exodus 13:18).  Then, as Moses stood with his hand stretched out over the sea, God drove the waters back with a strong east wind and enabled the people to cross over on dry ground.  The picture of this famous crossing that most of us have in our minds will be based on the Biblical film epic,
The Ten Commandments. Special effects in the film showed that the parting in the Red Sea was very narrow and the Israelites went through in a fairly thin line. But we must remember that 600,000 men on foot, plus women and children, came out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:37 - compare the 603,550 fighting men spoken of in Numbers 2:32).  This was a crowd of about two, or even three, million people.  If there were two million of them and they crossed in rows, with each row only fifteen people wide,  they would have had 133,333 rows. If those rows of people were three feet apart, there would have been 400,000 feet (75 miles) in the column proceeding through the Red Sea. This means that by the time the tail end of the column got out of the land of Egypt and through the Red Sea, the head of the column would have been in the land of Canaan.

When we consider these facts it puts the greatness of the miracle in even sharper focus for the Red Sea was probably opened up at least a mile wide so that the people were able to go through in a very short period of time.  Critics and sceptics have long argued that men have seen the waters of this region pushed back by such a wind from time to time and that this was therefore merely a fortuitous occurrence.  However, the Word of God makes it clear that an act of God caused the water to be driven back all night so that the sea was turned "into dry land" (Exodus 14:211).  This was not an earthquake or a tidal wave, for neither would have allowed the children of Israel to walk through on dry land. 

A further objection raised by some people is the very identity of the sea that was crossed.  Critics argue that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament has the words
yam suph, which mean "Sea of Reeds," and this was mistranslated as "Red Sea" in the third century B.C. when the Hebrew text was translated into the Greek translation, the Septuagint.  They argue further that maps show that even the northernmost portion of the Red Sea is so far south that it would have taken several days to get there.  In addition, geographical references in the story fit much better with a location to the north of the Red Sea.  For example, Baalzephon, the place where the Israelites camped before crossing the sea (Exodus 14:1) has been identified by archaeologists and is located only a short distance to the east of Rameses, far north of the Red Sea.  Thus they consider that the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, which is identified with a swampy area on the eastern section of Lake Timsah, an extension of the present-day Gulf of Suez, because this section of the lake fits the geographical requirements of the story.  Also, it is filled with papyrus reeds and could justly be called yam suph whereas the Red Sea does not contain such reeds.  To believe this to be true we would also have to believe that the inspired New Testament accounts at Acts 7:36 and Hebrews 11:29, which are unequivocally translated "Red Sea" from the Greek eruthros thalassa, are in error.  Since we don't know why the Red Sea is so-called, and can only speculate as to the possibility of the "Reed Sea" being part of the Red Sea and therefore sharing the name at the time of the Exodus, we can be content in knowing that a "Reed Sea" would have nonetheless required a miracle to become deep enough to have drowned the army of Pharaoh! An old sermon illustration emphasises the problems with searching for alternative explanations to the miraculous: On being informed that the sea in this area was often naturally reduced to only a few inches in depth, a believing Christian leapt to his feet shouting, 'Alleluia!, an even greater miracle - my God drowned the Egyptian army in only a few inches of water!'" No explanation of man can avoid the facts recorded in God's Word - the ground was dry when the Israelites crossed and the water had been built up into a "wall" - but when the Egyptians attempted to cross the waters rolled back together and engulfed men, horses and chariots.

The wondrous events connected with the Exodus showed the Covenant God of Israel to have supreme control over man and nature.  As a result of this miracle, the people knew to fear the Lord (Exodus 14:31), yet to appreciate that He was a God who could use the weak and downtrodden to defeat the powerful and haughty.  He was a God who showed redemptive love and grace to a people unable to offer rich gifts in return.  It is no wonder that throughout her history Israel looked to the Exodus as a source of comfort and inspiration.  It is no wonder that she interpreted the rest of her history in terms of this event.  Israel's awareness of the importance of these events is reflected in the two songs of victory contained in Exodus 15, the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam.  Moses' song is a balanced literary composition praising God and recounting the main features of his victory over Pharaoh.  The last section (verses 13-18) describes the fear of the inhabitants of Canaan and expresses confidence that the Lord will "plant his people on the mountain."

Then in verse 21, Miriam begins to answer back antiphonally. The Song of Miriam, only two lines long, fully captures the spirit of the Israelites as they stood on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, thinking about what the Lord had just done.  Unable to restrain the joy that was bursting within them, Miriam and the other women snatched up timbrels, instruments something like our tambourines, and began to dance.  From earliest times, religious emotions have been expressed in ecstatic dance and, as we read through the Old Testament, we can see that the Israelite women frequently celebrated the victories of their armies in this manner (Judges 5:lff; 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6).  In the midst of this noisy celebration, Miriam sang (Exodus 15:211):

"Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea."   

Years before, a little girl had watched over her infant brother as he lay in utter vulnerability in a straw boat which served as a bed and protection from an evil ruler who would destroy him.  Now that same sister, grown to maturity, celebrated the victory for which the Lord had nurtured that same brother.  She had witnessed God's majesty, His sovereign power, and might and joyfully sings praises to her God, and is thankful and grateful for what God has done through her brother. Yet, only a short time later we find the devastating effects of jealously described in  Numbers 12, where Miriam speaks out against Moses and God strikes her with leprosy.  Because of the leprosy she was placed outside the camp for seven days. What a change came into the life of Miriam because of the jealously that ate away at her because her brother Moses was greater than her in the eyes of the people.

The trip from the sea to Mount Sinai (Exodus 15:2 -18:27) was difficult.  Existence as Egyptian slaves had been rough, but it had offered a good deal of security.  There had been sufficient food and water, and the threat from hostile people had been negligible because of the power of the Egyptian nation.  Now, food and water were in short supply, and native tribes were understandably hostile at the intrusion of such a huge crowd of potentially threatening strangers.  The Israelites were free from the Egyptians, but they were not free from the moral and physical struggles which trouble all men. 

Within three days of the triumph at the sea, the Israelites had "murmured" against Moses over the lack of good water (15:22-25), but God had graciously provided an immediate source of water and they had pressed on toward the south (v27) to an oasis where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms. They camped there and by the time they began their journey again, forty-five days had elapsed (16:1).  However, they soon began to complain again (v2).  The immediate cause of their complaint was the scarcity of food, as the food they had brought with them ran out.  Now, they began to complain in earnest.  The old life in Egypt looked good to them now.  It had been a few weeks since they had worked in the brickyards and already they had forgotten how cruel the taskmasters could be.  All they could remember were the times when they "sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full." On an empty stomach this seemed quite appealing, so they accused Moses and Aaron of having brought them out into the wilderness to die of hunger.  Although the surface complaint was about food, this was just a smokescreen (v3) behind which lay a deep bitterness toward God.  Now God declared that He was going to test whether or not they would walk in His ordinances (Exodus 16:2-4).

God provided the solution to their complaints about cuisine by miraculously supplying meat, in the form of a cloud of quails which descended on the camp in the evening.  These "covered the camp" and so were easily caught and gave the people enough meat to satisfy their desires.  The next morning, when the layer of dew disappeared, a fine, flake-like substance lay as fine as the frost on the ground.  When the Israelites saw it they asked, in Hebrew, "Man hu?" or "What is this?" from which the name "manna" is derived.  Moses explained that this was the bread (called  ‛bread of heaven' in Psalm 105:40) that the Lord had promised for them to eat and which is also called the 'bread of the angels,' or ‛angels' food,' in Psalm 78:25.  Manna is described as having looked like a flat white seed, with a taste something like that of a wafer made of honey.  A number of efforts have been made to provide a naturalistic explanation of manna.  None of them is  satisfactory.  The tamarisk tree, which is native to that area of the Sinai, produces a small droplet of honey-like substance when it is pricked by insects. However, there are only a few districts in the area that have this kind of tamarisk plant. Besides, it gives its honey-like substance only in small amounts and only for about three months out of the year whereas we read that the Israelites survived mainly on manna for forty years (it is worth noting that, contrary to what we often think, manna was not necessarily the sole article in the diet of the Israelites and numerous passages from the wilderness period mention other sources of food - Exodus 24:5; 34:3; Lev. 8:2, 31; 10:12 - although at the early stages of their exodus these would not have been plentiful).  Those who seek to explain away the miraculous nature of manna claim that the same natural produce is available still and that Arabs consider it a real delicacy to this day.  They say that, as in the Biblical account, it disappears shortly after the sun rises, not because of melting, but because it is carried away by ants and that the Arabs refer to this substance as
man es-simma (‛the manna of heaven').  Unfortunately people who try and explain away this miracle forget that the product of the tamarisk tree cannot be baked (as described in Exodus 16:28) and that the entire Sinai is apparently capable of producing less than seven hundred pounds of it annually. Manna was therefore not a natural product of the area, but a God-given provision.4

At Rephidim, the grumbling of the people intensified because there was no water to drink and Moses, who feared for his life (v4), warned them that their quarrel was not with him but they were testing God (Exodus 17:2-71):

2 "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?" 3  But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, "Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?"  4  So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, "What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me." 5  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  6  "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink." And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.  7  And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us, or not?"
Moses was able to quiet them temporarily by miraculously bringing water from a rock as instructed by God, but his feelings are mirrored in the name he gave to the place - Massah (Faithlessness) and Meribah (Faultfinding).

1 Corinthians 10:4 states that the smitten Rock, from which the miraculous water flowed, was Jesus Christ:

And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

This important evidence for the pre-New Testament existence of the Lord Jesus Christ is welcomed with joy by believing Christians - but is a thorn in the flesh to the cult of Jehovah's Witnesses who have replaced "was Christ" with
"meant Christ" without warrant in their Greek Interlinear in an attempt to dilute this powerful witness to Christ's pre-existence.

(Continued on page 491)

'Moses and the Nation of Israel!'

Moses parentage

God changes Moses during forty years in Midian

The Ten Plagues in Egypt

The Crossing of the Red Sea

God uses Joshua to bring victory over the Amalekites

Moses on Mount Sinai

Aaron and the priest's garment

Leviticus 26 and God's future Judgments on Israel

The Three Divisions in the Book of Numbers

Levites not to be part of the "numbered men"

Twelve Spies report on 'the land of Canaan'

God's Judgement of Israel's failure to enter Canaan

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