4. The LORD and Pharaoh at the Red Sea: Exod 13:17–14:31

The story of the Lord and Pharaoh at the Red Sea is arguably the most important story in the Hebrew Bible. Retold or referred to in various places, it becomes the paradigm for understanding Israel’s relationship with God.[1] Embracing both journey and battle, it takes Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land and begins with the battle with Pharaoh and his army. The confluence of various traditions marks the importance of the narrative.[2] Still, as Jean Louis Ska, SJ has shown, the construction of Exod 13: 17–14:31 creates unity from the complexity.[3]I have recently examined the narrative craft of this text.[4] Here I shall focus on the battle pattern found in this text with its victory hymn in 15:1-18, 19-20.

4.1. A description of the hero directing everything: Exod 13:17-22, 14:1-4

This narrative opens with a description of the hero, but this hero has no impediment, nor is he distant from the place of battle. Instead, the Lord is completely in charge of the action.[5] In 13:17-18, the Lord has Israel take a roundabout way lest encountering a war they lose heart and return to Egypt. The pillars of cloud and fire, visible yet intangible images of God’s mystery, appear in 13:21-22 to lead the Israelites by day and protect them by night. In 14:1-4, the Lord announces to Moses that Israel is to turn back and encamp at the Red Sea so that he can get glory (renown) over Egypt. To do this, the Lord says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that the Egyptians will come to know “that I am the Lord.” Recognition of the hero and king even by the enemy leader is a traditional motif. Here it becomes the major theme.

4.2. The enemy’s threat and false confidence: Exod 14:5-10a

The plagues recounted in Exod 7-10 end each time ends with Pharaoh saying that he will relent and let Israel go, but in each instance until the last plague, he does back on his word. Only with the death of the firstborn does Pharaoh let Israel go. However, with his officials, the king again goes back on his word: “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” With false confidence, he deploys his vast army with its chariots and horsemen to pursue Israel. In 14:6, 7, 9, the narrator continually repeats the elements of the Egyptian forces and so creates a sense of their overwhelming power.

The text juxtaposes Pharaoh’s false confidence with the Lord’s insistence that he will harden the Egyptian king’s heart to gain renown. The two traditional motifs seemingly vie with each other although the outcome is never in doubt.

4.3. The reaction of fear: Exod 14:10-12

Seeing the Egyptians, the Israelites predictably cry out “in great fear,” and then they cry to the Lord. In one of the great comic scenes of the Bible, they ask Moses if there were no graves in Egypt—a line that emphasizes a total lack of hope. In this way, the Israelite capitulate to their own fear.

4.4. A variation on the “call and commission: Exod 14:13-14

In the heroic battle narrative, the search for a hero and his commission follows. In the royal battle narrative with the king already the designated hero, the people may cry out to the king for help. Here the people expect nothing but doom. Moses, in the role of the leader, does not initiate a search for a hero but meets their fear with the encouragement motif: “Do not fear!” He then announces their deliverance that God will achieve by wining the victory.

The idea of the deity fighting for “our” side appears throughout the ancient Near East. As Kang says, “the basic concept of the divine war” shows that the deity “is a warrior who fights against the enemy.”[6] However, in the traditional royal pattern of “divine war,” the king represents the deity and carries out his or her will. The motif, as Rowlett says, is a function of imperial ideology, which glorifies the deity and likewise glorifies the king.[7]

Here in Exod 14:14, Moses states definitively: “The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still.” In Exodus 14, there is neither human king nor human hero nor human army. The Lord alone is the hero. Though the divine warrior as hero serves as a basic motif in the ancient Near East, Moses’ statement stakes out an extreme position. There is no king, no human hero—only the human leader lifting and lowering his staff. Moreover, this basic idea of the Lord as the primary hero serves as the dominant theme for the whole battle tradition in the Bible. Human heroes will appear later in the biblical tradition as we shall see; even so, the various traditions respect and underline in their own way this basic theme: The Lord is the true hero of the battle.

4.5. The divine hero commands the leader: 14:15-18

In 14:15, the hero appears on the scene asking Moses why he cries out to him—a line that admittedly does not follow smoothly from the previous verse. The hero then commands Moses to perform the only human act. The hero has the human leader lift his rod and raise his hand. This gesture miraculously opens the way for escape and prepares for the resolution. To this, the Lord repeats the theme of the hardened heart that will lead to recognition: “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (14:18).

4.6. The first resolution: Israel’s escape: 14:19-22

The narrator is in no hurry to resolve the tension in order to make absolutely clear that the Lord alone resolves the tension. In 14:19-20, Israel passes the night under the protection of the angel of the Lord and the pillar of darkness. Finally, in 14:21, Moses stretches out his hand, and the Lord creates a way of escape. On the one hand, the narrator realistically reports that a strong east wind dried up the land; on the other, the narrator reports that the water miraculously split and become two walls of water through which the people pass.

4.7. The second resolution: the destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptians: Exod 14:23-28

The Egyptians, still full of false confidence, pursue Israel into the midst of the sea, but their chariot wheels begin to clog. With this, the Egyptians recognize their defeat and so fulfills the prophecy of the Lord (14:4) and of Moses (14:13): “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt” (14:25). With that, the Lord has Moses stretch out his “hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers” (14:26).  The chaotic waters which served as the enemy in the stories of the Enūma Eliš and Baal and Yamm, here become the hero’s instrument of destruction.[8] Unlike those narratives which take place before human time, the Lord achieves this victory within human time against a human enemy.

The narrator repeats the resolutions of Israel’s escape and the Egyptian’s destruction to build and prolong the events until “not a man was left.” The total destruction of the enemy, a traditional motif, is appropriate and even necessary because it represents the total eradication of slavery and oppression. Likewise, Pharaoh’s death is the traditional death of the enemy hero. Without a personal name, he too represents the ideas of slavery and oppression. His death is to be cheered and not mourned because he represents an idea and not a real person.

4.8. Victory Hymn

The recognition of the hero follows in Exod 15. As a victory hymn, it tells the story of the battle, but not in narrative sequence. The hymn presumes that the singers and hearers know the story and so begins with the conquest (15:1-7) and follows it with the events prior (15:8-10) before repeating to the victory (15:11-12). It finishes with the Lord leading Israel forth and inspiring great fear in other peoples (15:13-18). The final verse celebrates the kingship of God. Although some immediately connect kingship to Jerusalem, Baal wins his kingship by defeating Yamm, and Marduk demands his kingship before the battle. The recognition of the victor as king is an ancient motif. Having seen what has happened to the Egyptians, “the people feared the LORD. They believed in the LORD and in Moses his servant” (14:31). Israel’s fear has become awe, and they believe in both their warrior God and in “Moses his servant.” Those who know the story also know that this will not last.


4.9. Conclusion

Exodus 14 shows the Lord as the one and only hero of this battle story. Moses assists the Lord but only in a representative way by lifting and lowering his staff or hand. Unlike the Enūma eliš, the Myth of Anzu and the battle between Baal and Yamm, this battle takes place within human time; a deity fights a historical enemy, and so the Lord is like the deities of the royal narratives who fought with and for the king and thereby exalted the king. Here, however, there is no king, no hero other than the Lord alone. The traditional pattern of the ancient Near Eastern narratives has been transformed, and this theme dominates the biblical battle tradition and transforms the tradition in various ways to insist that the Lord is the hero.

4.10. Footnotes to Chapter 4

[1] Deut 11:14; Josh 2:10; 4:23; 24:6; Judg 11:16; Neh 9:9-10; 1 Macc 4:9; Ps 106:7-9; 136:13-15.

[2] For a recent discussion of sources, see Thomas B. Dozeman, Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmann’s Publishing Co., 2009) 300-318. See now Charles M. Trimm, “YHWH Fights for Them!”: The Divine Warrior in the Exodus Narrative (Dissertation: Wheaton College, 2012). Also his “Recent Research on Warfare in the Old Testament,” Currents in Biblical Research 10 (2012): 1–46.

[3] Jean Louis Ska, SJ, Le Passage de la Mer: Étude de la construction, du style et de la symbolique d’Ex 14,1-31, AnBib 109 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1986). Ska demonstrates that the three basic pieces of the narrative (14:1-14; 15-25; 26-31) begin Lord’s discourse to Moses (14:1-4; 15-18, 26) and conclude with shared themes (14:14 and 14:25; 14:13 and 14:30-31). This unified approach in recent times began with Brevard Childs who initiated his famous canonical approach with his commentary on Exodus which acknowledges the complexity while searching for its theological unity; The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974) 237-239.

[4] Harry Hagan, The Elements of Biblical Narrative and the Red Sea Story in Exod 13:17–14:31 (Palni, 2021).

[5] See §2.3 above.

[6] Kang, Divine War, 108. and 45-46, etc.

[7] Rowlett, Joshua, 62.

[8] See, for instance, Dozeman, Exodus, 298-300. Also Bernard Botto’s discussion of “The Exodus as Primeval Event” in Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) 118-123. He offers a critique of Gunkel’s antiquated definition of myth which seeks to place a dividing wall between stories before human time and those in human time.


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Mighty in Battle by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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