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Parting the Red Sea

Date: Sep. 5, 2021

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Exodus 13:17-14:31

Key Verse: Exodus 14:13-14

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. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still."

In 1940, the British appeared to be alone in the world. Most of mainland Europe had been conquered by the Nazi regime and an invasion of the British Isles looked imminent. The Nazis bombed the nation on a regular basis, and they were expected to come on a moment’s notice. Children were sent from the cities to the countryside so that they wouldn’t get caught in the air raids. The Americans had not yet entered the war and the Russians made a treaty with the Nazis. On top of that the French had fallen and become a puppet state. Britain was all alone and some of the politicians wanted to sign a treaty with the Nazis and become a puppet state like France. It looked bleak and they felt hemmed in on all sides. Many just wanted to give up because the Nazi victory looked inevitable. The odds seemed insurmountable, but the Prime Minister Winston Churchill would not give up and inspired his nation to fight on to achieve total victory, not to acquiesce to those who would oppose the freedom and rights of others. In five years, the tide had turned and the British were a part of the largest invasion ever accomplished the invasion of Normandy, and, a year after that, the Nazis surrendered and Europe was liberated. There are many times where we face what appears to be insurmountable odds. We are in the eighteenth month of this pandemic. Just about two months ago, it looked like we had turned the tide against the disease, but now the delta variant of COVID-19 is surging in many parts of the country. Daily infections and deaths are on the rise once more, with over 200,000 new cases daily in the United States. Getting out of this predicament may seem insurmountable, but there is one who can help, and he likes to help in ways that we never expect. In today’s passage, the newly liberated Israelites face two insurmountable obstacles, but the Lord sees them through.

After a few passages of explanations and regulations, our passage today picks up the narrative, once again. After the final plague, the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh let the Israelites go. The Egyptians were predisposed to be willing to give the Israelites gold and silver and much wealth. The Israelites left Egypt in haste, but with somewhere around two million people, it was no small task to get going and they moved on from Goshen to Sukkoth. Our passage, today, begins with a bit of an explanation of why they were taking the route they were taking. ‘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.’ So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.” (13:17-18) The most direct route would be to follow the road by the Mediterranean Sea, but that would lead them into Philistine land. The Philistines were a fierce group, who after the Israelites took the land of Canaan, became a thorn in their sides for generations. They may have even thought themselves strong enough to hold their own against the Egyptians. The Philistines also wanted to take control of Canaan, so the Lord thought that if the Israelites encountered the Philistines so soon, they would become fearful and want to go back to Egypt. This wasn’t so farfetched as we will see in just a bit. Instead of taking the northern route, God decided to lead the Israelites to the south along the desert road toward the Red Sea. While this route would be longer, it would be better for this fledgling nation to handle.

At this point, there is a parenthetical in the passage. “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites 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.’” (13:19) This kind of looks out of place, here, but it really shows the foresight that Joseph had. He knew that the Israelites would need help and that God would provide it. He also knew that the Israelites would return to Canaan and requested that any Israelites would take his body back to the promised land to be buried there. Joseph wanted to be a part of his people. He identified with them and did not want to be associated with the Egyptians. It was over 400 years since Joseph died, but his words and request were remembered. Moses took his body with the Israelites as they fled Egypt.

The passage continues, “After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. 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. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” (13:20-22) The Israelites moved on from Sukkoth and moved to the edge of the desert. They had to prepare for their trek across it, so they did not enter it yet. But to guide them, the Lord manifest himself in a cloud that was like a pillar that went in front of them. It wasn’t a cloud that covered over them and gave them shade. The cloud led them and at night, the pillar of cloud glowed like fire to give the Israelites light. In this way, they could travel by day or night, as required. It was always in front of the nation, leading the way, like a shepherd leading a flock sheep. But where were they being led?

We find out at the beginning of chapter 14, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘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. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ 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.” (14:1-4) The Lord led them around in a seemingly random way. Their path was like someone who was lost and not sure where to go. They went from place to place, looking like they were going to go into the desert, but afraid to do so, or they were trying to figure out how to get around the sea. The towns mentioned in these verses are not well known, they were probably small towns that never had their location written down, otherwise. They looked like they were lost and confused, but that was all a part of God’s plan. Since they were still in Egypt, the Egyptians probably had scouts out, observing the movements of the Israelites. They knew every move that the Israelites made and reported it back to Pharaoh. When they saw the Israelites wandering around, the scouts probably made fun of them and their ridiculous movements. The Israelites were going every which way, except for the way out. The Lord was going to use this supposed confusion for his purpose. He was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart once again, so that he will send an army after the Israelites. The Lord wanted to do this to show his superiority over the mightiest army in the world. The Israelites were going to need to fight to claim the promised land and they needed to trust that God would help them in their conquest. If the Lord can handle the strongest army, he should be able to take care of his nation under any circumstances.

“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!’ Once again, Pharaoh changed his mind. This time, the Israelites had already left. The grief of losing his firstborn son had worn off and Pharaoh, wanted to have the Israelites back as slaves. We are not sure of how much time had elapsed from when the Israelites left and when Pharaoh changed his mind. It could have been weeks of time, but the Israelite absence was probably affecting the Egyptian lifestyle. They may have come to a gradual decision that letting the Israelites go was not the best idea for them. However they came to that decision, it was actually the result of the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart to get him to pursue them.

“So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.” (14:6-9) In order get the Israelites back, Pharaoh took his whole army with him. It wasn’t just some small contingent, but the best of his army. The passage mentions that Pharaoh took along with him six hundred of his best chariots and all of his other chariots. Chariots were best suited to flat, hard ground and would swiftly overtake the Israelites. While the Israelites were camped at Pi Hahiroth, the Egyptians approached.

While camped at Pi Hahiroth, the Israelites noticed the approaching Egyptian army. “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord.” (14:10) The Israelites were terrified. The greatest fighting force in the world was marching after them. In their fear, the cried out to the Lord. This is a good thing for them to do. They weren’t so given into fear that they just panicked, but they at least remembered the Lord and turned to him. Even though they turned to the Lord, it wasn’t a call for salvation, but one of complaint. “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? 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!’” (14:11-12) They are kind of funny here. Upon seeing the Egyptian army, the Israelites thought they were going to die in the desert. They wondered why they were brought out to the desert to die. They were even remembering incorrectly. No one protested leaving Egypt, but here they tell Moses that they didn’t want to go and wanted to serve the Egyptians. The Lord told them that he was going to use the Egyptian army for his purpose, but the Israelites may have thought that he was going to take care of them before the army arrived. Upon seeing the fighting force, the Israelites were filled with fear and wanted to go back to Egypt. Little did they know that the Egyptians were not coming to kill them, but to bring them back to Egypt. But in their fear, the Israelites feared the worst. The were hemmed it. The Egyptians were in front of them and the sea was behind them.

Unlike the rest of the Israelites, Moses had faith in the Lord, “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. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” (14:13-14) Moses tries to calm the people down. He calls for the people to not be afraid and stand firm. The Lord will deliver the people from the hands of the Egyptians. They would never again have to see the Egyptians. The Lord would fight for them, and they only needed to be still. They only needed calm down and stop freaking out to see what the Lord was about to do. The Israelites were like inconsolable little children. When they are upset, there is little that can be done to help them get through a situation until they calm down. I have a three-year-old son and just the other day he was so upset and would say “no” to everything while screaming and crying. It wasn’t until I took him away from the situation and had him calm down that he was able realize what was really going on. Many times, we are like a little kid towards God. He is trying to do something, and we are not having it because we are freaking out about something that is going on. If we were to just calm down, we would see that the Lord was about to do something. He wants us to see what he is going to do, because that helps us to trust even more in him.

The passage continues, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 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. 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. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.’” (14:15-18) The Lord starts out by asking why they are crying out to him. They were filled with fear and had no faith that the Lord would deliver them. They started to blame them for their predicament and couldn’t see that the Lord was going to save them of insurmountable odds. There was no way to go, and they couldn’t outrun the Egyptian chariots, but as Moses said, the Lord would fight for them. The Lord told the Israelites to move on. The had to break camp and get ready to go. The Lord was going to make a way to go through the sea. The water would be divided, and they would walk across on dry ground. The Lord would, then, cause the Egyptians to follow them, but he would deal with them and show his superiority to them.

“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, 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.” (14:19-20) An angel had been traveling with the Israelites as well. It was in the front with the cloud, but they both moved to the rear. The pillar of cloud spread itself out and blocked the view of the Egyptians. The cloud stayed between the Egyptians and Israelites and prevented the Egyptians from getting close to their target. This form of the cloud was even more special than the last. The Egyptian side brought darkness, but the Israelite side brought light. This was to keep the Egyptians at bay while the Israelites evacuated throughout the night.

The plan of deliverance was about to begin. “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, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.” (14:21-22) Now, this is one of those iconic scenes. Moses obeyed what the Lord had said. He stretched out his hand over the sea and the Lord pushed the water away with a strong east wind. And it was turned into dry ground. Now, we don’t know exactly where along the sea this took place. I don’t think that it was as wide as Lake Michigan, like we have here, but it probably was a few miles wide with significant depth so that crossing it would be very daunting. Yet, the Lord used a strong east wind to blow back the waters, creating walls of water on each side. This wasn’t some sand bar revealed in the shallows. There was some significant depth to the water to have it form walls on each side. The wind didn’t just divide the water, it helped dry the ground to make it easier to pass through. It wasn’t mucky, but dry, dry enough for two million people to cross during the night. That was no small feat. We have seen the power of wind in hurricanes and tornados. Just a few weeks ago, straight-line winds torn down branches, toppled trees and took out power lines. Wind strong enough to part the sea would have made it difficult to walk. There is no mention that the wind was constantly blowing during the crossing, but it might have been or it might not have been.

While they were blocked from view by the cloud, the Israelites crossed the sea on dry ground. The Egyptians had no idea what was going on. It was night, even darker than usual because of the cloud. When the Israelites were across or nearly across, the cloud lifted, and they could see the Israelites going through the sea. The Egyptians decided to pursue them, which was not a good idea. For one, that path was not there before and could disappear at any time. Also, the path is where the sea used to be. It was a seabed and, even though it was dry, it was not solid. The bottom of the sea is sandy. It was fine for walking across and for horses, but not for the thin wheels of chariots. Under normal circumstances, the Egyptians would know better to not follow them into the sea, but the Lord had his hand in confusing them to get them to follow. By doing so, their wheels became stuck, and they had difficulty in moving. The Egyptians became fearful and turned around. The recognized God’s hand in their escape and sensed their impending doom. At daybreak, the Lord had Moses stretch out his hand once more and the water returned to its place and swept the Egyptian army away. They were all killed in a moment and their bodies washed ashore.

Our passage ends, “But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (14:29-31) The Lord allowed his people to cross the sea on dry ground and saved the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians. The Egyptians were dead, while the Israelites were free. With that, they finally put their trust in the Lord and in Moses, the Lord’s servant, at least for now.

So, this is a very famous passage that lots of people know about. It really shows God’s provision and protection for his people. The Lord loves his people and wants to save them, but he also wants them to trust him and not freak out all the time. So, he does something spectacular so that people will remember to who he is. We had that last week. Our message was about remembering what the Lord had done. He really wants the Israelites to remember who he is, that he is their almighty God, who loves them and cares for them. If they go into every situation with fear, doubt and freaking out, they will never become a nation.

We might be tempted to look at the Israelites and call them foolish for the lack of faith. They had seen the hand of God in the plagues in Egypt, but they couldn’t have faith in God that he would fight for them against the Egyptians. The superiority of God to every aspect of Egyptian life was not enough for them to have faith in him. We might be tempted to question them, “How could they not trust God?”, but that would require us to forget all the times where our faith was lacking. They were new to the faith thing. For faith to work, they had to have their eyes on the Lord, but when the Israelites saws the Egyptian army coming towards them, they couldn’t take their eyes of that. How often has that happened in our own walks of faith? There might be some situation or problem that we become fixated on and start to freak out. It could be a money issue, where you are wondering how you will survive. Maybe it is an exam in a course where you are struggling. Maybe it is wondering when this pandemic will end. Maybe you feel under attack because of your faith. You thought life was going to get better since you came to believe, but there has been trouble upon trouble instead. It is supposed to be a blessed life, but it feels even more cursed than before. Like the Israelites, you might be questioning God as to why he brought you to the sea. Did he bring you here to kill you or hurt you?

Not in the least! The Lord loves his children, but he wants them to trust in him. To show that he is in charge, he might not respond how you would expect. The Israelites did not expect to cross the sea on dry ground, but that is what the Lord did. God will see us through. He has already saved us, and it is certain that, if he already did that, he would watch over us in other parts of our lives. We may need to grow in our faith. We may just need to be still to see what God is going to do. This pandemic is horrible with millions of people dead, and the Lord can stop it in an instant, but we must be patient to see what he is going to do. Right now, he is using the pandemic to bring more people to him. Even in our ministry, we started streaming the message out of necessity, but it has allowed us to connect with people who had moved away. They could still be a part of this ministry in ways that we never could have imagined. We must remember who God is, as we heard last week, and let it bring us peace. We must be still and know that he is God and he loves us.

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