Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson X

Crossing the Red Sea

Read Exodus XIII. 20, etc.,
and XIV.

§ 1. The Host and Its Leader

N OW we resume story from Lesson VIII. Last scene was?—the awful night of Israel's deliverance. The scene opens now on following morning, that famous 15th of Abib, the morning sun shining on the vast hosts gathering in from every direction, from Memphis and Tanis and Tel es Maskouteh to the great "gathering of the Tribes" at—where? Succoth. How many? (xii. 37). What a stirring sight! 600,000 men marching, five in a row (ch.  xiii. 18). Behind them the wagons of women and children and the vast crush of cattle and baggage and tents choking up all the roads that led towards the desert.

Who was in command and responsible for this crowd? What a burden of anxious responsibility rested on Moses! Show me how his previous life and training had fitted him for it. (1) He had learned calm, strong faith in God. (2) His training in Egypt as a soldier and leader of men. (3) His high character, that made people trust and follow him. It was just forty years since he had made his great life decision for God and Right. Where had he spent those years? And don't you think in all that lonely exile he had been living in close communion with God, growing nobler, truer, more unselfish? I think the reverence for Moses' character made a great part of his power over that unruly host. In his day, as in ours, the man who puts righteousness first and seeks nothing for himself will always be believed in and reverenced.

§ 2. The Pillar of Cloud

All the morning, all the day, the people are pouring out, till the whole converging crowds are assembled as one at—where? (xii. 37). Then on to? (xiii. 20). Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. And as we watch the great march we gradually become conscious of a new mysterious thing in our picture. What? (xiii. 21). Did you ever see dark, strange-shaped clouds forming themselves in sky like castles or pillars or great animals? What was this cloud shaped like? How could they see it at night? Red light of fire shining at the heart of it—sign of God's presence. Where else was God's presence thus shown? (Exodus iii.). So it went on, watching, guiding, protecting.

What was its use? To show them the way to Palestine? I don't think so. Any guide could do that. Joseph's brethren had travelled it easily. Jacob's funeral went along it. No supernatural guidance needed. What then the reason of the pillar? This—God had great designs for the Israelite people. What? To be God's teachers, to keep alive the light of God's truth in the world. And this wretched, degraded slave mob was yet utterly unfit. They needed to be trained and taught and disciplined and shaped into men. They had to be kept in God's presence, in constant dependence on God, till the reality of His presence and His care for men was stamped into their very souls. And so God had to take them aside from the world to prepare them for their mission. As Moses in Midian, as Elijah, as St. Paul, as the blessed Lord Himself, were taken apart for forty days or forty years, or some special period of retirement and preparation—so was Israel. Instead of getting to Canaan in a few weeks, they were to follow the Pillar southward or northward or eastward or westward, in what would otherwise seem the most aimless way—till the whole slave race that came out of Egypt were dead and a new vigorous generation arose, born in the wilderness, trained in the sense of God's presence, trained to be soldiers, some of them to be heroes and saints, in that wondrous, miraculously-guided life that God had planned for them. Don't forget that purpose when you wonder about the Pillar and the forty years' journey.

§ 3. "Between Migdol and the Sea"

On they march, day after day, to Succoth, to Etham, along the edge of the wilderness, following always their miraculous guide, until one night they are surprised to find themselves encamping in a place that even an ignorant man could see was very dangerous. They were marching along the line of cultivated land at the edge of the wilderness until they came facing the great mountain cliffs of Baal Zephon, and heard beside them the murmur of the sea. The sea was at their left hand, the impassable desert sands at their right, and in front of them the mountain cliffs.

If an enemy should follow there was nowhere to escape except into the Red Sea. The people must have been surprised. Perhaps even Moses was. But he was obeying orders—following the guiding Pillar, therefore his mind was calm. It is a great comfort in any danger to feel we are in the path of duty, obeying God's orders. Nothing else gives such calm.

It was all very well at first. No enemy in sight. Pharaoh was busy mourning his dead son. The Egyptians were too frightened after that night of terror. Did this continue? No; as the days passed the terror died away. Then they saw the villages empty, the brick-fields deserted, the great works of Egypt stopped for want of slaves. And the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people, and they said, "Why have we done this, to let Israel go from serving us?" And in the midst of the grumbling came the rumours of the Hebrews in their dangerous camp between Migdol and the sea. "They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in!" I can imagine the young soldiers of Egypt laughing at the folly of the Israelites, and how the old warriors who had served under Moses long ago would wonder what he meant. At any rate "the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh."

§ 4. Terror in the Camp

You can imagine the rest. One evening, to their horror, the setting sun showed them on the desert hills behind, the horses and terrible chariots of Egypt. How did they behave? Were they brave and trustful? (See xiv. 12.) We can hardly blame them for being greatly frightened. The position seemed most serious, and they had not yet had the wide experience that came later of God's power and watchfulness over them. But still, should not you expect they would trust God and Moses a little now?

Ah! it was a thankless task Moses had. And that was but the beginning of a long series of rebellings and revilings that nearly broke the old leader's heart. Every time anything went wrong, about food, or water, or danger, or discomfort, the wretched creatures were crying and howling, wishing themselves back again in the brick-fields with the "leeks and garlic and onions" of Egypt. Liberty was as nothing compared with gratifying their appetites. God's presence was of less importance than safety for their skins.

How did Moses reply? (v.  13). Was it not fine to see him thus calm and steadfast? Do you think he knew how they were to be delivered? No. He did not know, was in secret crying to God (v.  15). But he knew he was in the path of duty and that when God's leading brings people into danger, God will look after them. A good thing for us all to know that.

§ 5. God's Deliverance

What was the first startling order? (v.  15). What the first miraculous movement towards deliverance? (vv.  19, 20). The Israelites were completely in a trap. In front and at the sides the sea, the cliffs, the desert sands, the enemy on the cliffs behind. They could not even move to carry out the plan of crossing the sea if they had known of it, as enemy would swoop down on first sign of such movement. But when the Pillar moved to the rear between the two armies, how did it affect the position? It hid the movements of Israel. In front of Egyptians thick mysterious darkness which they dared not enter. Israelites all night in light, could load their beasts, form in column, get in position on the shore ready for start. But what a solemn awe and dread were on them as they faced the sea!

Now what do you think really happened to enable them to cross? When I was a child I used to picture to myself a great, broad, calm, deep sea with a long, deep, sharp cut made through the middle, so that if you could look over the edge you could see two solid walls of water, and between them, down deep below, the Israelites walking dryshod on the bottom. I saw no reason then, and I see no reason now why God should not perform that miracle if it were necessary. But I don't now think He did. I think what really happened was just as miraculous since it happened by God's will at the critical moment that it was wanted. But I think the miracle that happened was much more natural and probable and in keeping with God's methods than the miracle of my childhood's fancy.

It is generally believed by scholars that the route of the Israelites must have crossed the sea somewhere near the head of the Gulf of Suez, which probably stretched farther inland than now. The probable place, as indicated on the map by the Egypt Exploration Fund, is now dry land, or at least it was until it was cut through by the Suez Canal some years ago. The distance across may not have been more than a mile or two, since the passage of the entire host seems not to have occupied more than a few hours. Now in such cases, unless the water were very deep, a violent landward wind has been known to lay bare the bottom for a considerable distance. For example, history tells us that in 1738 the Turks had the Crimea strongly fortified against the Russians. But in spite of it the Russians got in at the Isthmus of Perekop by a passage made for them by the wind through the shallow waters of the Putrid Sea at the north-west corner of the Sea of Azov. And a still more striking instance is given by a traveller, Major-General Tulloch, who himself saw, under a strong east wind,  the waters of Lake Menzaleh, in Egypt, recede for a distance of seven miles.

Now it is distinctly stated (xiv. 21) that this miracle was effected by the use of natural means. Perhaps Moses knew that a strong east wind blowing strongly all the night would make the passage quite possible. But of what use would that be unless he could get the strong east wind when he wanted it? This was what constituted the miracle. God sent the strong east wind which opened an escape when all hope seemed lost. Of course we cannot be sure, but if that were so, do you think it was one bit less of a miracle than the crossing which I pictured to myself in my childhood?

Now let us look at the account before us and try to imagine the crossing. Was it day or night? How do you know? By the light of fire in the Pillar (xiv. 20, 21). Was it a still, calm night? Read the reference to it in Psalm lxxvii. 15-20, rain, storm, thunder, lightning. Josephus says showers of rain came down from the sky, thunder and lightning and flashes of fire. It must have been an awful night, an awful storm that arose when Moses raised his rod, and the strong east wind, sweeping up like a hurricane, drove the upper waters of the inlet before it landward, while probably the strong ebb tide drew the lower waters seaward so that the bed of the sea lay bare. Still the Egyptians could not see. Their prey seemed safe. At last their watchmen discovered what was happening, and fiercely in the teeth of the storm they swept down on the escaping slaves. (Read xv. 9.) What was the result in the morning watch? (xiv. 24). The wheels sank in the soft sand, the storm kept rising with terrible force. Amid the roar of the hurricane, in the deep black darkness, lit up by the lightning, Moses' rod was raised again and the east wind dropped, and the sea swept back on the ill-fated army of Pharaoh. The Israelites were safe from their foes for ever! The last glimpse we get of them is of a great host of people praising God, singing their joyful Te Deum  to Him who had delivered them (ch.  xv.).

§ 6. Lessons

What do you think we learn from this story? There are three lessons:—

(1) The first is taught in the grand Te Deum  of Moses and the people sung upon the farther shore. Who did they think had won the victory? Yes. Very solemn for them. A well-known historian points out that there are great events in the life of men and of nations brought about by their own exertions, by their own cleverness or holiness. But there are times of higher interest and more solemn feeling when deliverance is brought, not by us, but by causes quite beyond our control; e.g., in English history, the Defeat of Armada—in Jewish history the Crossing of the Red Sea. No Jew could think that anybody but God had accomplished it. How solemn this would make the people!

(2) St. Paul makes this a picture of Holy Baptism. "They were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea." (1 Corinthians x. 1, 2). They went down into the water a horde of terrified slaves, they rose up out of it the free, ransomed children of God. Behind them was the land of slavery, in front of them the free and open country, with God's abiding presence to be felt and God's glad, blessed service to be done, and at the end of the road the Land of Promise. It is a picture of the sinner beginning the Christian life. There are many still in slavery to sins and lusts and evil habits. They wish to conquer, but are too lazy to fight, or think it is hopeless. For us, as for Israelites, God provides rescue. "That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies might serve Him without fear." (St. Luke i. 74).

(3) Some of us shrink from the drowning of these Egyptians as we did from Death of Firstborn. Why from this more than from other deaths in war or pestilence? Are we afraid that their death must certainly mean eternal damnation too? The Bible says nothing about their future state, only that the firstborn died, that the Egyptians were drowned. We know nothing more except that they did not go out of God's sight when they went out of ours, and that the Judge of all the earth will do what is right and fair and kind to all men. We think, perhaps, many of these soldiers only obeyed orders, and did not deserve eternal ruin. Well, they only passed into the great Waiting Life and God is in that Waiting Life as well as He is here, and God is surely at least as fair and kind and pitiful as we who feel so pitiful about them. Can't we trust them and trust all men with Him?

Questions for Lesson X

Where were those Israelite slaves travelling to?

How long did it take them?

But it could be done in a month. Why did it take forty years?

What guided their journey by day and night all these years?

Now in their journey they got into a very dangerous position. Explain.

Had the Egyptians heard of it? What did they do?

How were the Israelites delivered?

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