When we were last in Exodus the Israelites had been literally kicked out of Egypt in the middle of the night. As the angel of death passed through Egypt, he struck down the firstborn male of every family and every flock. Even Pharaoh’s firstborn son was killed. Pharaoh would not wait until daylight to summon Moses and the exodus began immediately.
Today we encounter the first of many obstacles for the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land. Before the Israelites can get on their way though, God needs to finish with Pharaoh. One would think that Pharaoh was through after the death of his son and sending the Israelites away. But God still has to complete his example of Pharaoh.
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.
Sometimes I think we wonder if God really understands us or if He expects us to be perfect all of the time. Obviously God understands that we are sinful and He wants us to lead holy lives but does he expect too much of us? These verses show us that God is well aware of our flaws and that He understands our human nature.
The Israelites were in northern Egypt and the most direct route to the land that they were going was to travel northeast. Not only this, but there was a regularly traveled trade route along the coast that would have been easy to travel and would have taken them exactly where they wanted to go. But instead God sends the Israelites to the southeast. Why?
We’re given the answer in these verses. If the Israelites head directly to the Promised Land they will face war and the Israelites will be discouraged and want to return to Egypt. This still happened when the twelve spies went into the land and gave a bad report regarding the inhabitants but since they are so close to Egypt the inclination would have been to return. There may have even been a group that would have decided to leave and deserted.
God knows that the Israelites are weak and He knows what they can and can’t handle. They are not ready for what is in store for them. In the same way, God knows what we can and can’t handle. Sometimes we face problems because we should be mature enough to handle them and are not. Other times God spares us problems until we should be strong enough to handle them. The Israelites will eventually face war and they will fail the test the first time because they had not matured enough. But for now God knows that they are not strong enough to handle the difficulty.
19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.”[b]
20 After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. 21 By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Psalm 119:105 is a well known verse that says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” In this instance, God is literally a light for the path of the Israelites. It says that the Lord went ahead of the Israelites. It is widely understood that this is a physical manifestation of God that is in the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire. This is not just a guiding light like a lighthouse, this is God walking in front of the Israelites.
Where the Israelites camp is important. Etham is on the border of Egypt but it is also just north of the Red Sea. All the Israelites need to do is travel just a few miles east and they are out of Egypt and officially away from Pharaoh’s reach. But this is not what God does.
1 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. 3 Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” 6 So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. 8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly.9 The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen[a] and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.
God does two things here. The first is that He appears to send the Israelites in the wrong direction. Instead of just heading east where they would be home free, they head south where they are stuck between the desert and the Red Sea.
God also hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time. God had previously told Moses that because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, all of the world would know that He is God. This is the time. Pharaoh has already lost his son, the wealth of Egypt, and the Israelites as slaves. Just as Babylon literally fell in one night, Egypt will cease to be a world superpower in the course of one day. The United States would do well to remember that we are not guaranteed to keep our lofty position and that we don’t need a decade or even a year to collapse, it can happen overnight.
Pharaoh believes that the Israelites are confused and that they are trapped. He sends his entire army out to pursue them and quickly catches them. The Israelites respond in a fashion that will be repeated many times in Exodus.
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
13 Moses answered the people, “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. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
It’s easy to pick on the Israelites for their lack of faith. It seems so foolish given all that they have witnessed in the plagues and their deliverance from Egypt. But the reality is that we are just as bad. Perhaps we are not quite so dramatic but despite all of the things that we have witnessed and the power of God on display time after time, we quickly fall to pieces when something doesn’t go our way. When money gets tight, we worry. When a health problem arises we fear the worst. We are no better than the Israelites. But God is going to rescue the Israelites just like He takes care of us.
15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”
I find God’s response to Moses strange because I don’t read that Moses was crying out to God. What I believe is the point though is that God is telling Moses that he has already been given the power to need what he needs to do. It probably never occurred to Moses to part the Red Sea but God is telling him that he has the power to do whatever is needed.
A number of times we cry out to God asking for help and I believe that God’s response is similar. He’s already given us all that we need, we just haven’t looked around to find it. He’s given us talents, He’s given us time, and He’s given us wealth. Many times we just don’t use these things correctly and instead expect God to allow us to win the lottery if we just pray really hard.
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25He made the wheels of their chariots come off[b] so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 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.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
The final result of this story is that the Israelites cross the Red Sea on dry ground. Because there are 2 million or more of them, plus all of their flocks, this isn’t a quick trip. As the Egyptian army pursues them into the Red Sea, the walls of water collapse. They are drowned, every one of them. Although certainly not everyone believes this biblical account of events, history records that the Egyptian nation was no longer a world power after this time. Their army was decimated and they did not have the sway over world events that they did before.
The events of the Red Sea are used for more than just the decimation of Egypt however. It also secures Moses’ leadership of the Israelites as the people fear the Lord and place their trust in Moses.
1 Corinthians 10 tells us that what the Israelites experienced was a spiritual baptism.
1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
What is baptism? We associate baptism with water and most often with immersion but it is more than that. To be baptized means to be identified with something. The Israelites were baptized into Moses according to 1 Corinthians 10. This meant that they identified with him and entered into the same situation with him. They agreed to go through the same trials as Moses and enter on the same journey as they passed through the Red Sea.
As Christians we are baptized into Jesus Christ. We practice baptism as a symbol that we identify with Jesus. It is not a ritual that saves nor is it a required part of salvation. It is an outward expression of what has taken place in the hearts of Christians already. In Luke 3:16, John responds to the crowd, “John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
John the Baptist baptized with anticipation of Jesus and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Today we baptize in water looking back at the work that is done in the heart of a believer at the moment of salvation.
In baptism we are identified with Jesus. Like the Israelites were baptized into Moses, we agree to follow Jesus. We go along our journey with Jesus. In our case, Jesus has already led the way and that is symbolized in baptism. In immersion the death and resurrection is depicted as a person is lowered into the water and then comes back up.