Israel’s escape at the Sea of Reeds

The account of Israel’s sea-crossing contained in Exodus 14-15 is a composite text. At least three disparate sources concerning God’s activity at the Sea of Reeds were sown together by a priestly redactor for priestly purposes.

For this final compiler, Israel’s escape at the sea, however it might have been conceived previously, was reflected through the lens of God’s creation of the world as depicted in Genesis 1:1-2:3 (cf. Wisdom 19:6-8). At the sea God “divided” (בָּדַל/בָּקַע Exodus 14:21, cf. Genesis 1:6-7) the waters of the chaotic abyss so that a newly-formed people might cross over safely on “dry land” (יַבָּשָׁה Ex 14:22, cf. Gen 1:9-10). Israel passed through the sea, the waters heaped up on either side (cf. Nehemiah 9:11, Isaiah 51:10).

As suggested by redaction critics, these priestly elements of the story represent the latest layers of the tradition. Buried within the redacted text are older traditions about what happened at the sea. Once these sources were embedded into a new narrative and appropriated for a new theological program, their original import was lost—or at least obscured. Despite this, scholars believe these sources can still be isolated with relative precision (as they are here and here).

By extracting the materials taken over by the redactor from their artificial narrative constraints, we are better able discern how Israelites first told the story of their origins. In what follows we will examine those sources.

Fighting upon the waves: the Song of the Sea

Being that poetry was a more archaic form of story-telling, scholars generally accept that the Song of the Sea and Miriam’s Song (Exodus 15:1-18; 21) are older than the prose which surrounds them. They quite likely represent the oldest extant version of the events that took place at the Sea of Reeds.

When read in isolation, what do these texts reveal?

  • God “hurled” the pursuing Egyptian army into the depths (15:1; 4).
  • God covered Israel’s enemies with water by blowing upon the sea (15:5; 8; 10).
  • The gloating Egyptians “sank” into the “heart of the sea” (15:4; 10).

The account closely resembles a naval disaster brought on by a storm: “the Egyptians, apparently in ships or barges, were swamped by a storm at sea and sank to the sea’s bottom” (Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, 88). Ezekiel 27 uses somewhat similar language to characterize the city of Tyre as a ship submerged by rough waters.

The east wind has wrecked you in the heart of the seas. Your riches, your wares, your merchandise, your mariners and your pilots, your caulkers, your dealers in merchandise, and all your warriors within you, with all the company that is with you, sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your ruin… Now you are wrecked by the seas, in the depths of the waters; your merchandise and all your crew have sunk with you. (27:26-27; 34)

Since there is no explicit evidence here or elsewhere that either Israel or Egypt took to the sea in boats, however, a different explanation is preferable.

The poem may describe a storm surge. Israel’s God, like other storm gods, conjures coastal flooding and sweeps Pharaoh’s army into the depths while Israel escapes the tempest on ahead.

According to this reading, the Song of the Sea parallels other ancient Israelite war poems in which the storm god fights for his people: “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept [the enemy] away, the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon” (Judges 5:20-21, cf. 5:4-5). Habakkuk’s battle ode to God more completely encapsulates the pattern.

Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord? Or your anger against the rivers, or your rage against the sea, when you drove your horses, your chariots to victory?

You split the earth with rivers… a torrent of water swept by; the deep gave forth its voice… You came forth to save your people, to save your anointed. You crushed the head of the wicked house, laying it bare from foundation to roof. You pierced with their own arrows the head of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter us, gloating as if ready to devour the poor who were in hiding. You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the mighty waters. (Habakkuk 3:8-10; 13-15)

Escaping along the coast, Israel looks back to see their pursuers tormented by floodwaters, overtaken by the storm. God, they reason, is fighting for them upon the mighty waters, dragging their enemies into the heart of the sea.

Drawn into the Sea: the Yahwist source

The Yahwist narrative contained in Exodus 14 is another independent version of the story. According to this account, God pushes the coastline back with a strong east wind (14:21b) and confuses the Egyptian army with a “column of fire and cloud” (14:24-25b). In an attempt to turn back home, the Egyptians are instead drawn toward the ocean, fleeing “into it” (14:27b). Once entrapped, God permits the sea to retake the coast, throwing Egypt into the waters and crushing them under the waves (14:27b). Israel looks back to see Egypt’s dead on the shore (14:30).

Like the Song of the Sea then, the Yahwist portrays the events at the sea as a military victory, not as a sea-crossing. In this case, God “troubles” (הָמַם) the enemy into a panicked retreat in order to destroy them (cf. Exodus 23:27, Joshua 10:10, Judges 4:15). A trap is set and Israel is saved.

Taking the Song of the Sea and the Yahwist source together, earliest Israelite memory maintained that God had secured Israel’s escape by whipping the sea against their enemies. He had done so not as transcendent cosmic creator, but as god of the storm.


Drying up the sea: the Deuteronomists

Although lightly edited by later hands sympathetic to the priestly worldview, the Deuteronomists possibly provide one last independent vision of Israel’s escape at the sea.

  • The waters of the Sea of Reeds were made to “flow over” the Egyptians, “covering” them (Deuteronomy 11:4, Joshua 24:7).
  • God “dried up” the sea until Israel had “gone over” (Joshua 2:10, 4:23, cf. 3:14-17, 5:1, 2 Kings 2:8).

That Egypt’s army was overwhelmed by surging waters corresponds with all possible traditions: the Song of the Sea, the Yawhist prose account, and the drama created by the priestly redactor.

The idea that Israel traveled across a dried seabed, on the other hand, is otherwise attested to only by the priestly school. There are two explanations for this.

  1. A priestly editor is responsible for the material in Joshua 2:10 and 4:23. The language of “drying up” (יָבֵשׁ) the sea appears elsewhere only in the priestly source (Genesis 8:7; 13).
  2. This is authentic Deuteronomistic material that corroborates the priestly tradition of Israel crossing through the sea.

If 2 is correct, Israel’s legendary journey across the sea is still not the oldest version of the sea-story, but it is pre-exilic.

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