§6. The Plot of the Red Sea Story

The plot begins with Israel fleeing from Egypt. This event resolves the earlier tension in which Moses begs Pharaoh to let the people go. After reneging on his promise nine times, Pharaoh has finally allowed Israel to depart. The new tension begins with Pharaoh again changing his mind and deciding to pursue the escaping Israelites, as the Lord has predicted.

This story reflects the basic plot of the battle narrative, Booker’s “overcoming the monster.” Here, an enemy rises up to threaten “our” lives, values, and ways of life. Typically “our” side reacts with fear. As the threat and the fear continue to rise, the means for resolution are put into place; typically, a weak leader calls and commissions a hero to fight the enemy. The hero, perhaps mustering an army, then defeats the enemy. After taking plunder, “our” side recognizes the hero with a gift, a feast, a hymn. In a variation on this, found throughout the ancient Near East, the king is already the designated hero but is somehow distant from the initial threat. These royal narratives emphasize the close relationship between the king and the deity, who also takes part in the fight and receives recognition as the battle hero.[1]

The Red Sea Story depends on this tradition but reshapes it to tell its own story. Like the royal narrative, the Lord takes the role of the hero from the outset, but he is not distant from the action. Instead, God directs and predicts the action as it unfolds. Unlike the royal narratives of the ancient Near East, where the deity and the human king triumph together, the Lord alone triumphs over the enemy as in the heroic narrative. In other biblical battle narratives, human beings take some role in the action, but here Israel does nothing but stand and watch. Moses, their leader, contributes to the victory only by raising his hand and staff. The story makes it absolutely clear that the Lord alone is the hero of this battle narrative.

Below I have divided the story into its basic moments.

6.1. Description of the Hero

  • 13:17-20. Israel with Joseph’s bones makes an escape toward the Red Sea by a route chosen by God, and they encamp at Etham.
  • 13:21-22. The Lord goes before them as a column of cloud and fire to protect them.
  • 14:1-4. The Lord’s Speech: The Lord has Israel encamp at the Red Sea to get glory over the hard-hearted Pharaoh.

Battle narratives often have a description of the hero. Here the description here shows the Lord in command of everything. He manages the escape of Israel by directing them toward the Red Sea and away from the shortest route (13:17-18). The explanation of the pillar of cloud and fire provides a concrete image of God’s presence and protection while giving the sense of the passing of time (13:21-22).

In 14:1-4, the Lord speaks directly to Moses but does not call and commission him as the hero. Rather Moses takes the role of the Israelite leader and the divine intermediary. The Lord commands that Israel encamp at the Red Sea and then predicts that Pharaoh, his heart hardened by God, will take back his consent and pursue the Israelites. We might prefer that Pharaoh come to this decision by himself, but the text again insists on the Lord’s involvement in everything. The speech also makes the divine purpose explicit. The Lord wants “glory,” that is, recognition by the Egyptians “that I am the LORD” (14:4b). The recognition of the hero, a typical reward, brings honor and often kingship. Here the Lord wants this recognition from the enemy. In the Book of Exodus, “glory” plays a larger role as the primary manifestation of God for the Priestly tradition, and the book reaches its climax with God’s glory filling the tabernacle in the final chapter (Exod 40:34).[2]

6.2. Tension: Threat and Reaction of Fear

  • 14:5-8. Tension: Pharaoh and his army have a change of heart and pursue Israel.
  • 14:10-14. Israel reacts with fear and accuses Moses of treachery, but he reassures them that the Lord will act alone as their hero.

The narrator now shifts to the king of Egypt. Hearing a report of Israel’s flight, Pharaoh and his servants have “a change of heart” even before the Lord acts to harden his heart in 14:8.[3] This “change of heart” completes the pattern after each plague, and this, the tenth time, shows that Pharaoh cannot be trusted to keep his word. The narrator then provides three extended and repetitive descriptions of Egypt’s vast army and horsemen with their horses and chariots (14:6, 7, 9). With this, the fundamental tension of the story becomes absolutely clear, and the keyword “pursue” focuses the Egyptian threat (14:4,8,9, 29). This section comes to an end with a touch of dramatic irony—that is, the narrator and the audience know something that the characters do not. As the Egyptians reach the Red Sea, the narrator tells us that Israel had gone out “boldly” (literally: “with a high hand”), thinking they were home free, but clearly, the situation has changed.

The reaction of fear begins with Israel lifting up their eyes and seeing the Egyptians: “In great fear, the Israelites cried out to the Lord” (14:10). As discussed above, their speech betrays the Israelites’ ungrateful lack of faith and trust both in Moses and in their God. This reaction becomes a recurring motif, characterized by George Coats as the “murmuring motif,” and it appears both in Exodus and Numbers with regard to water, food, and a foolish nostalgia for Egypt as here. Coats characterizes it as more than a “disgruntled complaint” but as “rebellion.”[4] As such, the reaction becomes another tension in the text.

Ska points out how Moses’ reply mirrors the Israelite’s response. Though the Israelites are “greatly frightened,” Moses tells them, “Do not fear!”— a typical encouragement motif.[5] Though they have just “seen” Egypt’s military might, Moses tells them to stand and “see” the “salvation/victory” that the Lord will accomplish for them “today,” and he assures them that they will never “see” these Egyptians again.[6] There follows what is arguably the most important line in the story:

“The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (14:14).

The Lord and the Lord alone is the hero here. Unlike every other battle narrative in the Old Testament where human beings play some role, here Israel needs to do nothing but stand and watch. Israel’s reaction is not recorded, and we are left to imagine what it might have been.

6.3 Resolution 1: Israel Escapes

  • 14:15-18. The Lord’s Speech: The hero commands Moses to stretch out his hand so that he can get glory over Pharaoh and his army.
  • 14:19-20. The column of cloud and fire moves between the Egyptians and Israel.
  • 14:21-22. Moses finally fulfills God’s command and stretches out his hand, turning the sea into dry land, and Israel passes through “on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”

The narrator shifts the focus to the Lord and Moses, with the Lord asking, “Why do you cry out to me?” As noted above, the accusation comes out of nowhere. Then the Lord has Moses tell the Israelites to set out and commands him:

But you, lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground (14:16).

With this, the resolution begins, but the narrator is careful to retard the ending over the next fifteen verses so that the audience can absorb just what happens and exactly who makes it happen.

Following the command to Moses, the Lord affirms a second time that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart to take glory so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (14:18).

The narrator then tells us the angel of God moved and went behind the Israelites, and the pillar of cloud did the same so that it comes between two forces. The narrator then explains that the pillar lit up the night and kept the two from coming close to each other “all night” (14:19-20). This extended description again demonstrates that the Lord has everything in hand even as the scene creates a sense of passing time and retards the resolution.

Moses then fulfills the Lord’s command with the presiding motif of this section: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea” (14:21).

The narrator then shows us two pictures of the escape: one realistic and the other miraculous. The first shows the Lord driving back the sea with a strong east wind to yield dry land. In the other, the sea splits miraculously into walls of water through which Israel passes. Though these two images belong to different traditions, the narrator insists that we hold the realistic and miraculous together. This story affirms that God works in historical time, and the realism underscores this. Still, the event shows the magnalia Dei—the great wonders of God with the walls of water to the right and the left conjuring up a sense of wonder. Indeed, the elemental dimensions of the story—sea, dry land, the pillar of cloud and fire—give it a primordial and transcendent dimension. However, this story is not an ancient Near Eastern myth beyond this world. Instead, Egypt and Israel are human actors within human space and time. However, the Lord plays the major role in their world and shows the story to be more than a piece of human history. As Ska says, “the story contains an experience that wants to be paradigmatic and a source for continual renewal for those who relive it in the liturgy.”[7] Its telling and retelling give power to this story for those who accept its pledge.[8]

6.4. Resolution 2: The Destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptians

  • 14:23. Egypt pursues Israel into the midst of the sea.
  • 14:24-25a. The Lord throws Egypt into a panic.
  • 14:25b. Recognition by the Egyptians: “The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
  • 14:26-27a. At the Lord’s command, Moses stretches out his hand, and the sea flows back.
  • 14:27b-28. The Lord tosses the Egyptians into the sea, and all are lost.

With the Israelites safely through on dry ground, their plight is resolved. The narrator now turns to the Egyptians and begins with the word “pursue.” The addition of the word “all” underlines the completeness of destruction that will come:

The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. (14:23).

The narrator is in no rush to end this. We hear of the morning watch and the Lord looking down on the Egyptian army from the pillar of fire and cloud. From there, almost casually, it seems, the Lord first throws “the Egyptian army into panic” and clogs their chariot wheels so that they turn only with difficulty (14:24b-25a). With that, the narrator takes us close and lets us hear exactly what the Egyptians say:

“Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt” (14:25b).

Here we have the recognition by Egypt that the Lord had predicted in 14:4 and 17-18.

The narrator continues to retard the action. Next, we hear the Lord speak to Moses: “Stretch out your hand over the sea that the water may flow back.” Again the narrator repeats all the elements: “upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” And then we hear:

So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,
and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. (14:27a).

The reference to “dawn” asks us to understand more than a realistic reference to the time of day. The next sentence shifts our perspective and emphasizes once again the Lord’s control:

As the Egyptians fled before it,
the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea (14:27b).

Exod 14:28 resolves the tension and leaves no doubt about its totality:

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers,
the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea;
not one of them remained (14:28).

The motif of the enemy’s total destruction is a traditional motif in battle narratives and supports the theme of complete victory over the forces of chaos.[9]

6.5. Recognition of the Hero

  • 14:29. Repetition of Israel’s journey through the Sea.
  • 14:30. Statement: The Lord saved Israel, who sees the Egyptians dead on the shore.
  • 14:31. Israel’s recognition of the Lord as hero and of Moses, his servant.

Exod 14:29 repeats Israel’s miraculous escape to emphasize the contrast with Egypt’s destruction. Again it describes their journey “on dry land through the midst of the sea,
with the water as a wall to their right and to their left.” The miracle cannot be denied.

The motifs of seeing and fear from 14:10 and 13 reappear transformed for the recognition of the hero. Earlier, the Israelites, on seeing the Egyptians, greatly feared, though Moses commanded them, “Do not fear!” He called on them to stand their ground “and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today,” adding: “For these Egyptians whom you see today, you will never see again.” The events have realized these predictions, and the final verses summarize this.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians;
and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.
Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians.
So the people feared the Lord
and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. (14:30-31)

No longer cowering, Israel stands in awe of its hero. To that is added the word “believe,” which in Hebrew carries the sense of “trust in” and “rely on.” The power of Egypt has given way to the great work of God. The fear of the Egyptians gives way to the fear of the Lord.[10] Israel’s unbelief and the desire to return to Egypt also gives way in the final resolution:

“They believed in the LORD and in Moses his servant” (14:31b).

For the moment, all is good.

6.6. Footnotes for Section 6

[1] Hagan, “Basic Plots,” 206-208; Mighty in Battle, §2.5.4; 3.5.4.

[2] Ska, Le Passage, 106.

[3] Terrence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991) 155.

[4] George W. Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness: The Murmuring Motif in the Wilderness Tradition of the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1968) 249.

[5] Hagan, Mighty in Battle, §2.4.3.

[6] Ska, Le Passage, 71-74.

[7] Ska, Le Passage, 112.

[8] Hans Georg Gadamer, “On the Contribution of Poetry to the Search for Truth,” in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, translated by Nicholas Walker, edited by Robert Bernasconi (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 105-115, esp. 109-110.

[9] Judg 3:29; 4:16; 16:30; Hagan, Mighty in Battle, §2.5.2; 3.6.3; 4.3.

[10] Ska, “The Crossing of the Sea,” 37; le Passage, 117-118; Dozeman, Exodus, 318.


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Elements of Biblical Narrative by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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