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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 14

III. THE VICTORY.

Israel’s Victory. Exodus 14:1 to Exodus 15:21 .

INTRODUCTORY.

In the Red (Reedy or Coral) Sea, the last remnant of the Egyptian bondage is now to be washed away. This sea, which was henceforth to be so famous in the history of Israel, was called both by Egyptians and Hebrews the “Sea of Reeds” rushes or sedge meaning, perhaps, the papyrus; and there are two places near the Gulf of Suez which are still called the “Bed of Reeds” remnants, probably, of great fields of papyrus which flourished there of old. Pi-hahiroth, before which Israel next encamped, owes its name to the same famous plant, meaning “the place where the sedge grows.” The origin of the name “Red Sea” is much disputed, some (Scaliger, Bochart) deriving it from the red sandstone cliffs of Edom, others (R. Stuart Poole, etc.) from the red race on its coasts, since the Arabs call themselves “the red men,” in distinction from the white Caucasians, yellow Turanians, and black negroes; while others, with more probability, derive the name from the red coral reefs and sandstones in its bed. Only the last derivation accounts for its application by the classic writers to the adjacent Indian Ocean. Newbold speaks of the surface, when the rays of the sun fell upon it at a small angle, as “marked with annular, crescent-shaped, and irregular blotches of a purplish red, extending as far as the eye could reach. They were curiously contrasted with the beautiful aquamarine colour of the water lying over the white coral reefs. This red colour I ascertained to be caused by the subjacent red sandstone and reddish coral reefs.” (STANLEY’S Sinai and Palestine, p. 6, note.) These coral reefs fringe the shores, often to a width of fifty miles.

The Sea is more than thirteen hundred miles in length, from Suez to the Straits of Bab-el-mandel, and one hundred and ninety-two miles wide at the broadest part, under the seventeenth parallel of north latitude, whence it narrows pretty uniformly north and south, being seventy-two miles wide at Ras (or Cape) Mohammed, where it is cloven into the two gulfs, Suez and Akabah, by the great triangular wedge of the mountainous Sinai wilderness. It is the shores of these two northern gulfs or arms of the Sea which are famous in the history of Israel. The western arm, the Gulf of Suez or Heroopolis, witnessed Israel’s birth, as, somewhere within sight of what is now Suez, its divided waters were to the Hebrews a highway out of servitude and to the Egyptians a grave. The eastern arm, the Gulf of Akabah, saw the kingdom of Israel in its meridian glory, when the fleets of Solomon, manned by the sailors of Tyre, swept down along its steep shores to Indian or Arabian Ophir. This eastern gulf is the southern termination of the long, chasm-like valley in which lie the Dead Sea and the Jordan. It is a narrow, deep ravine, about one hundred miles long and sixteen broad, walled in by bare, precipitous mountains of red granite and black basalt, tipped here and there with sandstone, which rises in cliffs from one to two thousand feet high.

The Gulf of Suez, which is the Red Sea of the Exodus, is now about one hundred and eighty miles in length, and twenty in average width. It anciently, however, extended much farther north, probably reaching within historic times to Lake Timsah, with which it is now connected by the canal; but its northern extremity has receded, some think as much as fifty miles, in consequence of the rising of the land or the encroachment of the drifting sands of the desert. A large extent of country about the head of the Gulf, once comparatively fertile and populous, irrigated, as it was, abundantly from the Nile, has thus become an utter wilderness. Towns which were ports of the Pharaohs are now sand-covered ruins in the desert. At the present head of the Gulf, two miles north of Suez, there are extensive shoals, which at low tide are left bare and hard, reaching from one to two miles below the town, leaving only a narrow and winding channel, by which small vessels come up to Suez, while larger craft and steamers lie full two miles below. The tide rises five or six feet upon these shoals. Robinson was told that it reached seven feet, while Du Bois-Ayme ( Descrip. de l’Egypte) calls it about two metres, (six and a half feet,) and says that after southern storms it rises to the height of twenty-six decimetres, or about eight and a half feet. There are fords above and below Suez, but Niebuhr and others have noted that the tide rises and falls so suddenly that there is great danger in crossing when it is near the flood. It is well known that in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte and his suite came thus very near meeting the fate of Pharaoh when returning by this ford from Ayin Mousa to Suez, and that, too, when crossing under the guidance of natives. ( Descrip. de l’Egypte, Antiq. Mem., 8, 118.)

The Gulf, as will be seen from the map, narrows suddenly at Suez, where it is only eleven hundred and fifty yards wide, while it is three or four miles wide at a short distance south, and twelve or fifteen miles wide just below Ras Attakah. There is a hard gravel plain, ten miles square, west of Suez, sloping from Ajrud toward the Gulf, and reaching the hills of Attakah on the south. On this plain it is probable that the Israelites encamped before Pi-hahiroth, which was, most likely, an Egyptian garrison, and is now probably represented by the square fortress and deep bitter well of Ajrud. The mountain range of Attakah runs from the Nile east to the Sea, terminating in the Ras or Cape Attakah, a promontory twelve miles south of Suez, but also skirting the Sea north of the Cape, so as to form a defile, along which runs a road, between Mount Attakah and the Sea, from Wady et Tih to Suez. South of Cape Attakah is the broad plain of Baideah, and south of this is another mountain chain running from the Gulf to the Nile. These two ranges are the northern and southern walls of the Wady et Tih, an ancient caravan route from Memphis to the Sea. The northern or Attakah range is broken by a branch of valley near the middle, along which another route runs from the main valley northeast to the head of the Gulf.

This description is, with the aid of the maps, sufficient to make clear the different routes suggested for the passage of Israel. Messrs. Pool, ( Smith’s Dict.,) Sharpe, ( Hist. of Egypt,) and others, following Du Bois-Ayme, ( De-scrip, de l’Egypte,) suppose that the passage took place above the present head of the Gulf, some distance north of Suez; but most travellers consider that it was near Suez, or Baideah. If Baideah, they could have reached this plain from Etham, as above located, by a difficult march through the defile around the Promontory of Attakah, or by the branch valley above described, which would have taken them into the Wady et Tih, through which they would then have moved east to Baideah and the Sea. Sicard and Raumer, agreeing apparently with Josephus, supposed that the Israelites came from Latopolis, on the Nile, directly through the Wady et Tih to Baideah, and that the “turn” at Etham (Exodus 14:2) was leaving on the left the branch valley above mentioned, which would have taken them around the head of the Gulf . Baideah is a broad plain in the mouth of the wady or valley, with mountain walls on the north and the south, and with the Sea before it, so that if the Egyptians had blocked with a few troops the defile on the north, or left flank, of Israel, and closed up behind them on the west, they would certainly have been effectually hemmed in on all sides . In many respects this place precisely fits the Scripture requirements, and exactly suits Josephus’s description of the position of Israel, shut “in the jaws of the mountains,” so that many judicious travellers, as Sicard, Raumer, Shaw, Olin, and Kitto, have regarded it as the scene of the great deliverance.

But an insuperable difficulty seems to be that the Gulf is here about fifteen miles wide, and it was certainly no narrower then. This is not, of course, too wide for the supernatural part of the transaction, but it is for the natural part the march of the vast host of Israel, six hundred thousand men, with at least twice as many women and children, with wagons, herds, and flocks, and also of the Egyptian army, during the night after “the strong east wind” had “caused the sea to go back,” and before the dawn of day. Fifteen miles is a good day’s march for a well-appointed army. Hence Niebuhr, Robinson, Hengstenberg, Tischendorf, Stanley, Winer, and most modern travellers, regard Suez or its immediate vicinity as the scene of the passage. Murphy, ( Com. on Exodus, in loc.,) it is true, finds time for the march of the southern passage, by supposing that the women, children, and flocks went round the head of the Gulf; but few will be satisfied with the supposition in the absence of all proof from the record. The sea at Suez was, as above shown, wider then than now, and a passage of three or four miles, direct or diagonal, might there have been made from shore to shore, which could have been effected in the specified time, and here would also have been ample room for the overthrow of the Egyptian army. (Robinson, Bib. Researches, 1: 56; Kurtz, Hist. of Old Covenant, ii, § 36.)

Verses 1-3

THE RED SEA DELIVERANCE, Exodus 14:0.

2, 3. That they turn and encamp before Pi-hahiroth The Hebrews were now at Etham, near the head of the Gulf, whence the direct route to Palestine would be northeast, by way of the plain of Philistia, and the route to Mount Sinai southeast, along the eastern shore of the Gulf; but instead of taking either of these direct routes to their destination, they turned southwest into the great plain west of the modern Suez, came down the west shore of the Gulf, and encamped north and east of Mount Attakah. Thus the Sea was in front and Mount Attakah on the right flank, and partially in the rear. When, then, the Egyptians came upon them from the northwest, either by the Bubastis or Belteis road, they seemed to be completely entrapped, especially if Pharaoh sent a small detachment around Mount Attakah to block the defile and thus cut off all retreat on the south. (See map of Goshen.)

Pi-hahiroth… Migdol… Baal-zephon These were all known places in the time of Moses, all traces of which seem to have been lost in the changes of these thousands of years, although the names are all suggestive of the localities. Migdol, tower, implies that this was a fortified spot, perhaps on one of the summits of Attakah, Baal-zephon ( צפה , to watch) was probably a frontier watch-tower, and the name Pi-hahiroth, if, as generally supposed, an Egyptian word meaning the “place of reeds,” seems to have been a coast fortress or station. They are entangled Probably the word is better rendered by bewildered. (Gesenius, De Wette, Knobel.) Their “turn” into this trap between the mountain and the sea seemed to arise from confusion and perplexity when they found themselves “on the edge” of the terrible desert.

The wilderness hath shut them in Literally, closed upon them, like a trap.

Verse 5

5. Why have we done this? What (is) this (that) we have done? The panic having subsided, Pharaoh’s hard heart rises in rage and revenge . The pride and obstinacy of Pharaoh may appear incredible, but this representation of his character is in perfect harmony with the pictures of the Egyptian kings, as they have themselves left them upon the walls of their tombs . The magnificent engravings in the great works of Lepsius and of the artists of Napoleon spread before our eyes pictures of the conquests, coronations, and deifications of these Pharaohs, as they may now be seen in their rock-hewn tombs, from the Delta to the Cataracts perpetual monuments of their haughty might and heaven-defying pride, as well as vast and enduring commentaries upon this narrative of Moses. (See Introduction to the History of the Plagues, 1.)

Verse 6

6. He made ready his chariot Horses and chariots are first represented in the monuments of Amosis, (1520 B . C . ,) although there is evidence of their use before that time . The chariot was two-wheeled, without back or seat, bottomed with a network of thongs, whose elasticity supplied the lack of springs: it was drawn by two horses, which were harnessed, without traces, to a pole fastened to a yoke resting upon the withers . The spear-case, bow-case, and quiver were fastened at the side, and it was manned by a driver and one or two warriors, who stood as they rode.

Verse 7

7. Six hundred This was a picked chariot force, and Josephus adds, from traditional sources, that there were fifty thousand horsemen and two hundred thousand footmen . The word “all” is not to be taken absolutely, as if every chariot in Egypt was in the pursuit. See note on Exodus 9:6.

Captains Literally, third men, one of three, because the chariot was sometimes manned by three .

Verse 8

8. With a high hand Openly and defiantly; but how their courage failed when they saw Pharaoh’s chariots!

Verse 9

9. All the horses and chariots of Pharaoh Rather, the chariot horses .

Three kinds of troops are mentioned, cavalry, chariotry, and infantry.

Click image for full-size version

Verses 10-12

10-12. Cried out unto the Lord In terror, but not in faith . Because there were no graves in Egypt No graves at all; words that had a special pathos in the mouths of a people who had been bred in a land renowned for the vastness and grandeur of its sepulchres . The royal cemetery of Memphis stretched more than sixty miles along the Nile, and among its monuments now stands the loftiest and most massive work that man’s hand ever reared . The Theban tombs are magnificent palaces of the dead . To lie unburied after death was deemed in Egypt to be one of the greatest of calamities, and the Israelites had doubtless an Egyptian horror of having their bodies scattered over the desert .

Better for us to serve the Egyptians Cowardly despair . But it should be remembered they had been degraded by bondage, and the masters before whom they had cowered so long were full in sight with horses and chariots .

Verse 13

13. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord Moses rises to the height of the occasion; his faith is mighty, but he cannot see how salvation is to come .

Verse 15

15. Wherefore (or what) criest thou unto me No prayer is recorded, but this is the reply to the inward struggle to the “groanings that cannot be uttered” in which the soul of Moses then travailed with Israel’s birth . He is told that the answer to his prayer is ready, and that he has but to prepare to receive: “Advance and accept deliverance!”

Go forward Decamp, break up and march . This seemed like madness, but it was God’s command .

Verse 16

16. Lift thou up thy rod… divide it Prayer is thus said to effect what God effects in answer to prayer when it is inspired by him . The rod was but the symbol of the divine-human power .

Verse 17

17. I will get me honour Namely, by their complete overthrow in, such manner that it shall be manifest to all that “the Lord is the man of war” who accomplishes this destruction. Chariots… horsemen. (See cut on p. 85.)

The cut on this page, from a Theban tomb, represents the different kinds of Egyptian infantry, with their arms.

Click image for full-size version

Verses 19-20

19, 20. The Angel of God That is, the manifestation of God in the pillar of cloud and fire . See Exodus 3:2; Exodus 3:6. The pillar gave light to Israel, so that they could see how to direct their march, while at the same time it hid their movements from the Egyptians, and, as it was spread between the armies, perhaps seemed to Pharaoh’s host simply like the natural darkness of the night .

Verses 21-22

21, 22. And the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night Here, as in the history of the plagues, natural causes are declared to have been supernaturally used. A northeast wind, which would be called “an east wind” in Hebrew, would tend to drive the water out of the narrow bay towards the southwest, and if transpiring at the time of an ebb tide, might be strong enough to blow the channel dry. If there were shoals or flats at the place of crossing, as there now are near Suez, and deeper water to the north, as there now is, a pathway might thus be made across the Gulf, leaving deep water above and below. It will be noticed that this was soon after the full moon of the vernal equinox, when there would be a very low ebb and a very high flood, and that the tide rises from five to seven feet opposite Suez, and from eight to nine feet when aided by strong winds, returning with unusual suddenness and power after the ebb. (See Introductory remarks.) The Hebrew and heathen traditions of this wonderful deliverance all make it probable that all these natural causes were employed to answer the prayer of Moses. In Moses’ song of triumph the waters are said to have been “gathered together” by the “blast of the nostrils” of Jehovah. He also sang, “Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them,” (Exodus 15:8; Exodus 15:10;) thus assigning the return as well as the division of the waters to the agency of the wind . So in many places God is said to have “dried up the waters of the Red Sea,” as if by wind . Joshua 2:10; Psalms 66:6; Psalms 106:9. [Different minds will assign different degrees of the supernatural to the transaction . But, (1 . ) The movements of Israel by divine orders were prescribed, and to these the blowings of the wind were precisely timed, measured, and even changed from east to west . (2 . ) The two armies were long in such proximity that Israel could have easily been destroyed had not Pharaoh been deterred and blinded by the “pillar . ” (3 . ) The ordinary tidal action of the sea must have been better known to Pharaoh and his generals than to Israel . That the whole should have been so executed as to save all Israel and destroy all the Egyptians is… unaccountable on merely natural assumptions . See note on Joshua 10:12. ]

The waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left That is, they were a defense, not necessarily perpendicular cliffs, as they are often pictured. God could make the water stand in precipices if he should so choose, and such a conception is more impressive to the imagination; but it is certain that the language of the text may mean simply that the water was a protection on the right and on the left flanks of the hosts. Thus in Nahum, (Nahum 3:8,) No (Thebes) is said to have the sea (the broad Nile) for a rampart and wall; that is, a defense, a protection against enemies. It is true that in poetical passages the waters are said to have stood “as a heap;” Exodus 15:8; Psalms 78:13; but so they are also, in the same style, said to have been “congealed in the heart of the sea;” and the peaks of the trembling Horeb are said to have “skipped like rams,” and the “little hills like lambs . ” Psalms 114:4. Of course these expressions are not to be literally and prosaically interpreted . Yet it will be noticed that upon our view the waters were heaped up by the wind, though we do not believe that they stood in parallel precipices . But see note on Joshua 3:13.

Verse 24

24. In the morning watch In New Testament times, the Jews divided the night into four watches, but in the Old Testament history mention is made of three only: the first, or “beginning of the watches,” from sunset to ten P . M . , (Lamentations 2:19;) the “middle watch,” from ten P . M . to two A . M . , (Judges 7:10;) and the morning watch, from two A . M . to sunrise . It was, then, after two o’clock in the morning when the cloud, that had hung like a black curtain over and before the Egyptians, opened, and Jehovah “looked upon them” through his lightnings . Thus the Psalmist describes the scene . To appreciate its awfulness to the Egyptians we must remember that thunder and lightning are extremely rare in Egypt, and that the fearful grandeur of our thunderstorms is there wholly unknown . “The clouds streamed water, the skies lifted up their voice, yea, thine arrows (thunderbolts) flew . The voice of thy crash rolled round, (like a chariot in heaven;) lightnings illumined the world; trembled and shook the earth . Psalms 77:17-18.

Verse 25

25. Took off their chariot wheels Their chariots were entangled with each other, bemired, broken, and overturned in the awful confusion that ensued from the pouring rains, blinding lightnings, and appalling thunders . Yet this was but a premonition of what awaited them when the sea returned to his strength.

Verse 27

27. When the morning appeared At the turning of the morning approach of dawn . Then the entanglement of the bemired chariots and horses, the changing wind, which blew the blinding rain and spray directly into the faces of the Egyptians, now struggling towards their own shore, and the darkness, intensified by the lightnings, all conspired with the waters, suddenly returning in their overwhelming might, to make their destruction complete .

Verses 30-31

30, 31. The Egyptians dead upon the sea shore The western wind and the returning tide strewed the eastern shore with men and horses, chariots and armour . Josephus says: “On the next day Moses gathered together the weapons of the Egyptians which were brought to the camp of the Hebrews by the current of the sea and the force of the winds assisting it . ” ( Antiq . , 2: 16, 6 . ) Thus might the Israelites have obtained arms for the battles afterwards described with the desert tribes and the Canaanites .

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day Israel ever remembered this day and this event as the beginning of their national life . Reminiscences of the Red Sea deliverance are interwoven with all their literature, worship, and social life . Profane history has also preserved unmistakable traditions of this great event . Diodorus Siculus (iii, 39) relates that the inhabitants along the shore of the Sea have a tradition that it was once left dry by a great ebb tide, so that the bottom appeared. Artapanus relates ( Euseb., Praep. Evang., 9: 27) that the inhabitants of Memphis said that Moses led the hosts through the Red Sea during an ebb tide, while the inhabitants of Heliopolis said that Moses, when chased by the king, divided the Sea with his rod, but that when the Egyptians followed after them fire flashed upon them and the waters rolled back and destroyed them. In the language of Ewald, this is an event “whose historical certainty is well established, and its momentous results… are even to us distinctly visible.” ( Hist. of Israel, 2: 75.) It is not surprising that men who refuse to admit the supernatural anywhere attempt to explain the Red Sea deliverance as a fortuitous coincidence of natural events. Obstinate unbelief can resolve all answers to prayer into happy accidents. No amount of evidence can demonstrate the supernatural to him who lacks spiritual insight. No miracle can compel conviction like a mathematical demonstration, for the proof of divine activity is addressed to the moral and not to the intellectual man. The grandest miracle recorded in history, the resurrection of the Son of God, did not convince all who witnessed it, for “some doubted.” If unbelief were not always possible faith would not be a rewardable virtue, and it is this faith that sees with Israel that great work which Jehovah did upon the Egyptians.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 14". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/exodus-14.html. 1874-1909.