16 Mar. Exodus 14:5-31

16 Mar. The Israelites cross the Reed Sea and escape from Egypt

“When the king of Egypt was told that the Israelites had left, he and his officers changed their minds about them. They said, ‘What have we done? We have let the Israelites leave. We have lost our slaves!’”

“So the king prepared his war chariot and took his army with him. He took 600 of his best chariots, together with all the other chariots of Egypt, each with an officer in it. The LORD made the king of Egypt stubborn, so he chased the Israelites, who were leaving victoriously.”

“The Egyptians – with all the king’s horses, chariot drivers and army – chased the Israelites. They caught up with them while they were camped by the Red Sea [Hebrew ‘Yam suf’, the ‘Reed Sea’], near Pi Hahiroth and Baal Zephon.”

“When the Israelites saw the king and his army coming after them, they were very frightened and cried to the LORD for help. They said to Moses, ‘What have you done to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert?...”

“But Moses answered, ‘Don’t be afraid! Stand still and you will see the LORD save you today. You will never see these Egyptians again after today. You only need to remain calm; the LORD will fight for you.’”

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Command the Israelites to start moving. Raise your walking stick and hold it over the sea so that the sea will split and the people can cross it on dry land.’”

“'I will make the Egyptians stubborn so they will chase the Israelites, but I will be honoured when I defeat the king and all of his chariot drivers and chariots…’”

“Now the angel of God who usually travelled in front of Israel’s army moved behind them. Also the pillar of cloud moved from in front of the people and stood behind them… This made it dark for the Egyptians but gave light to the Israelites. So the cloud kept the two armies apart all night.”

“Then Moses held his hand over the sea. All that night the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind, making the sea become dry ground. The water was split, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry land, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”

“Then all the king’s horses, chariots and chariot drivers followed them into the sea. When morning came, the LORD looked down from the pillar of cloud and fire at the Egyptian army and made them panic. He kept the wheels of the chariots from turning, making it hard to drive the chariots…”

“Then the LORD told Moses, ‘Hold your hand over the sea so that the water will come back over the Egyptians, their chariots and their chariot drivers.’ So Moses raised his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its place.”

“The Egyptians tried to run from it, but the LORD swept them away into the sea. The water returned, covering the chariots, chariot drivers and all the king’s army that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived…”

“So that day the LORD saved the Israelites from the Egyptians, and the Israelites saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore. When the Israelites saw the great power the LORD had used against the Egyptians, they feared the LORD, and they trusted him and his servant Moses.”

          (Exodus 14:5-31)


Shortly after the Israelites left Avaris (Ramases), the king of Egypt (probably Pharaoh Dudimose) changed his mind and set off with six hundred war chariots, catching up with the Israelites at Pi Hahiroth among the Bitter Lakes.

The Israelites travelled through the tidal salt marshes to the north of the Gulf of Suez and crossed the shallow ‘Sea of Reeds’ (the Hebrew ‘Yam suf’ means 'Reed Sea', not 'Red Sea') while Moses held out his hand and the LORD drove the water back “with a strong east wind” (Exodus 14:21) (see 4 on the map on 14 Mar).

The Egyptians pursued the Israelites through the marshlands but their chariot wheels become stuck in the mud. The water returned as the wind subsided in the morning, covering the chariots and drowning the heavily armed Egyptian soldiers. The Israelites were able to arm themselves with the weapons abandoned by the Egyptians.

The Biblical account of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt reaches a climax when pharaoh’s chariots pursue the fleeing Israelites, but the Egyptian soldiers are drowned when the sea returns and floods the path that the Israelites have trodden only hours earlier. So what actually happened? And where?

While Hollywood films (and perhaps even the Bible itself) tend to exaggerate the cause of the military disaster that struck the Egyptians, there is no doubt that local winds and tides are quite capable, even today, of producing the kind of ‘miraculous’ conditions described in the Bible.

The first point to bear in mind is that the Israelites did not cross the Red Sea but the Sea of Reeds. The Hebrew ‘Yam-suf’ (meaning ‘Reed Sea’) was translated incorrectly in the King James Version of the Bible (in 1611) and this unfortunate error has passed into folk history (and is still perpetuated in some modern Bible translations, while others have a footnote explaining the correct meaning).

In reality, the Israelites’ route crossed the shallow depression now occupied by the Suez Canal in the region of the tidal salt marshes and reed beds near the Bitter Lakes to the south of Ismalia (Al-Ismalliyah).

When Moses raised his arms and a strong easterly wind drove the waters back, the Israelites were able to walk across the shallow Sea of Reeds. When the wind stopped blowing in the morning (and the rising tide probably flooded back) the water returned and pharaoh’s chariots, already bogged down in the heavy mud, were washed away.

The average daily variation in sea level at Port Tawfik where the Suez Canal joins the Gulf of Suez (at the northern end of the Red Sea) is currently nearly 4 feet / 1.2 metres. (It is roughly half this amount at Port Said, at the northern end of the tidal Suez Canal).

Hydrological research carried out in the Gulf of Suez in 1996 showed that daily fluctuations are due to a combination of both winds and tides. Where the water is particularly shallow (as in the Bitter Lakes), the effect of the prevailing north east winds on the water levels is actually greater than the effect of the tides. So the Biblical account, emphasising the effect of the “strong east wind” (Exodus 14:21), has been proved to be true. God, indeed, moves miraculously in mysterious ways.

The NASA satellite photo, taken from space, shows The Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea (at the top of the photo) and the Red Sea (at the bottom). The Israelites crossed the ‘Reed Sea’ or ‘Sea of Reeds’ between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf of Suez (near the bottom of the photo). This was an area of shallow marshes which have since been drained.

You can read more about the precise dating of the Exodus from Egypt (in c.1447BC) @ https://www.thebiblejourney.org/biblejourney2/25-the-israelites-journey-from-egypt-to-mt-sinai/the-israelites-cross-the-sea-of-reeds/

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