SynopsisThe Israelites have escaped from Egypt, and they are now going to face their first test as a nation. Unfortunately, right at the beginning of this passage we see warning signs that the Hebrews are not fully ready to trust God:
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. (verses 13:17–18a)
The part that gives the warning signs is that God is thinking that the Israelites might rather go back and be slaves than go to war. (And the reason this is bad is that it means they don’t trust God to help them win a war.) However, regardless of how much faith they had that God would save them in a battle, they never had any problems believing that He exists:
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. (verses 13:21–22)
When you’ve got a big pillar of cloud guiding your way—or a pillar of fire, when you’re travelling at night—it’s not hard to believe that God exists.
In previous chapters, we’ve seen that the reason God orchestrated the events in Egypt the way that He did was because He wanted to demonstrate to the Israelites—and to the Egyptians, and other nations—aspects of His character. He’s not done doing that yet. He leads the Israelites to a particular location, in such a way that the Pharaoh will think they’re wandering aimlessly around the desert—once God has hardened his heart (verse 14:4)—and, when he sees this, will decide to go after them. And this is what happens.
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!” 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. (verses 14:5–9)
Unfortunately—I’m probably going to use the word “unfortunately” quite a bit, for the rest of the Old Testament—the Israelites are not ready for this test:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. 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!” (verses 14:10–12)
They’re not just scared, they’re terrified. (And they’re also putting their powers of sarcasm to good use.) But God and Moses are having none of it:
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.”
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.”(verses 14:13–19)
And now comes the parting of the Red Sea. What you might not realize, if you’ve only seen dramatizations of the event, and haven’t actually read it, is that the parting of the Red Sea doesn’t happen instantaneously. Moses stretches out his hand over the sea—just like in the movies—but it actually takes all night to happen. While the sea is receding, the pillar of fire (God) stands between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The next day, the Israelites go through the sea, on dry ground, and then the Pharaoh’s army follows. However, they’re partway through—meaning that the entire army was on the dry land where the sea used to be—when God causes the wheels of their chariots to come off, so they can’t drive. But the Egyptians know what’s happening; in verse 14:25 they say “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
They come to this realization too late, though. God has Moses stretch his hand out over the sea, again, and it closes in on the Egyptians, who perish.
ThoughtsI’m probably being a bit hard on the Israelites. The reason they wouldn’t trust God to help them win a battle is because they haven’t seen Him do so, to date. They’ve seen Him do a lot of other wonderful things, so they should probably be able to figure out that He’d be able to help them with anything else, but the point is that we can’t judge the Israelites too harshly. The truth is, any modern-day Christian abandons God on a regular basis, when faced with problems that are far less daunting. The trick is to learn from the mistakes of the Israelites in the Old Testament, without judging them.
So the Israelites are now out of Egypt, and their problems are over. I’m sure the rest of the Old Testament will probably consist of a series of genealogies, and probably some poems.