The Battle of the Reed Sea

Exodus 14:19-31

You’ve probably heard the cliché, stuck between a rock and a hard place?  The people of Israel found themselves stuck between an army and an ocean, which is an equally impossible situation.

On one side stood the Egyptian army, Pharaoh’s personal guard with hundreds of chariots, chariot drivers, archers, and infantry. The Egyptian army was the superpower of its day. Chariots and horses were the ancient equivalent of tanks and helicopters.

On the other side, the Israelites faced the Reed Sea. You may know it as the Red Sea. That is how most Bibles translate it, but it was almost definitely not body of water between the mainland of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That Red Sea is 220 miles wide, and not exactly on the route from the Nile Delta to Canaan.

In Hebrew, the sea is known as the Sea of Reeds, like the plants that grow in shallow fresh water. We don’t really know where this body of water was. Back in the day, there was a chain of lakes separating Egypt from the upper Sinai. Wherever it was, the sea was narrow enough that thousands of people could cross it in one night, deep enough that you could drown in it and long enough to prevent Israel from going around it. The Israelites were stuck between Pharaoh and the water.

Pharaoh, King of Egypt

How did Israel come to be stuck in such an unhappy circumstance? The descendants of Jacob had gone down to Egypt, and while they were there they had grown into a great multitude. The Egyptians became afraid of these foreigners and started to mistreat them. They made them work likes slaves, and God’s people cried out to him for deliverance.

There are, I am sure, bad individuals in every nation and class of people, but evil combined with power is especially dangerous. There was no one more powerful than the king of Egypt, with the entire might of an empire behind him. Egypt had the richest economy, the largest army, and the most sweeping political machinery in that part of the world. No one could stand up against Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. No one, that is, except the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the commander of heaven’s army.

God heard the cries of his people and sent Moses to deliver them. Pharaoh laughed at that idea and asked, “Who is this God of Israel, that I should obey him?” God answered Pharaoh with a series of plagues, demonstrating his dominion over the gods of Egypt. As the suffering mounted, Pharaoh eventually decided to let the Israelites go free.

Shortly thereafter, though, he and his officials changed their minds. “What have we done?”, they said. “We have let the Israelites go and we have lost their services!”  They could not envision their economy without Israelite slaves. Pharaoh mustered his army and pursued the Israelites into the desert.

So that’s where our reading from Exodus picks up. The people of Israel are being chased by an angry and powerful king who wants to make them slaves again. They are running for their lives, but they are trapped.

The Battle of the Reed Sea

What happens next might be called the Battle of the Reed Sea, but it was not an ordinary battle. Pharaoh had all the ordinary weapons of war. The Israelites were not an army at all. The only warrior on Israel’s side was God himself. Moses told the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

The Lord put a pillar of cloud and fire between the Egyptians and the Israelites. In military terms, the Lord “popped smoke” to obscure Israel’s withdrawal. He then sent a strong east wind upon the water, dividing the sea in two and causing dry land to appear. The path to freedom was open.

It must have been a magnificent experience, but, you know, I think still I might have been hesitant to walk into the sea. It was night. The wind was blowing hard. The sea was wide. Pharaoh’s army was still in pursuit. Sure, it looks like it’s okay to walk the path through the sea, but who knows how long the waters will part or what is out there in the darkness, beyond the pillar of fire. I think It took great faith for the people of Israel to walk into the sea.

The Israelites passed through the waters on dry land, but when the Egyptians followed, their chariots bogged down in the mire, slowing their progress, and throwing them into confusion. Then, when the wind subsided and the waters rose again, the Egyptians had nowhere to go. Weighed down by their armor, they had no chance for survival. Like soldiers who jumped from Higgins boats into deep water on D day, they drowned, and their bodies washed up on the shore. The battle ended as all have throughout history, with mothers and wives and children mourning for sons and husbands and fathers whom they will never see again.

Pharaoh and his army were dead, and the people began to sing like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi when the Death Star was destroyed.

I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Reed Sea. The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone. Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.

The song goes on for 18 verses.

New Enemies, New Victories

The people of Israel were free. Well, sort of. Before they ever left the desert, the people worshipped a golden calf, rebelled against Moses, and doubted God’s providence and power. When they entered the land of Canaan, they bowed down to Baal. When they became rich and powerful, their leaders became corrupt and cheated the poor.

The people of Israel faced other enemies over the years, and they did not always win the battle. Canaanites. Philistines. Babylonians. Greeks. Romans. God’s people were subjected to occupation and exile and dispersed throughout the world. Moreover, it became crystal clear that Israel’s greatest enemies were not always the foreign powers that surrounded them. Unfaithful people within Israel could cause as much suffering as a foreign enemy.

And it turns out that Israel’s enemies are not just bad people, either within or without. God is at war with the idols and false gods worshipped by the nations of the world. God is also at war with the demonic forces that lurk behind the scenes. Jesus frequently cast out demons throughout his ministry.

The Battle of the Reed Sea played itself out again in Jesus’ life in the region of the Gerasenes, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus encountered a man oppressed by evil spirits. “My name is Legion,” the demons said, “for we are many.” “Legion” was the Roman word for a field army. Jesus cast out the army of demons, who then entered a herd of swine and rushed into the lake. Like the army of Pharaoh, the army of demons drowned in the sea. 

Evil empires. Unfaithful Israelites. False gods. Demonic spirits. The prince of darkness himself. Every power of death and destruction, the God of Israel defeats them all. But when Israel was camped by the Reed Sea, all of that was yet in the future.

The battle of the Reed Sea became a paradigm for Israel’s self-understanding, and its knowledge of God. The Lord is the mighty warrior, the Lord is strong in battle. He the Lord of Hosts, the commander of heavenly armies. Jesus, however, radically reinterpreted how God wins his battles. In Exodus 14:17-18, the Lord proclaimed that his victory over the Egyptians would bring him glory. In John 12, God’s glory is revealed in a very different manner. As Jesus neared the hour of his crucifixion, he said:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  …  Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”  Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” John 12:23–28

God achieved his ultimate victory in a manner even more unexpected than the parting of the sea. The Son of Man was handed over to evil men to be crucified. The father did not sweep in at the last moment to rescue him from the crushing power of an idolatrous empire. This apparent defeat was, in fact, God’s greatest victory.

“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out,” Jesus said. “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” John 12:31-32

God’s greatest power was shown in mercy and suffering for others and love for his enemies. If that is how God is eventually going to deal with sin, death, and the devil, what are we to make of this story that ends with thousands of dead Egyptians?

First You Invent the Universe

That is a profound question, and it deserves much more attention than I can give it here. I only want to touch on one thing. Carl Sagan once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

In a sense, that is what God is doing at the Reed Sea. In fact, if you listen closely, you can hear echoes of the creation story in Exodus. Do you recall the opening words of Genesis (1:2-10)? The Spirit of God hovered over the deep. In Hebrew, spirit and wind are the same word. God separated the waters above from the waters below and gathered the waters of the earth together to make the dry land appear, creating space for his creatures to live? That sounds remarkably like what happened at the Reed Sea. God reenacted his work of creation.

If you want to save the universe you created, you must then create a community in which salvation can emerge. And when that community is brand new, you protect it in its infancy so that it can mature and become well established. You deliver it from evil.

Once again, the Battle of the Reed Sea echoes the pages of Genesis (6-8). In the days of Noah, God allowed the waters of the primeval flood to rain down from heaven and rise from the earth. The unrighteous perished in the rising waters, but God delivered his people safely through the sea. There seems to be a thematic thread running through the scriptures, and we will see it again.

Eventually, that community would become so well rooted in the hearts and minds of the people that it could survive hardship. Eventually, the people of God would be able to look beyond tribalism, dreams of earthly power, and military conquest. But that would take time. And just as you don’t leave an infant alone to fend for itself against wolves, the Father did not leave his infant people alone to be destroyed by a predatory empire.

Baptized in the Sea

By faith and in Christ, you and I are all part of that same community that God rescued in the Battle of the Reed Sea. God will rescue us, too, not only from the hands of evil doers, but from the structures of evil that hold the world in bondage and from the unseen powers that seek to do us harm. More than that, he will save us from ourselves, from being trapped in sin and enslaved to the powers of this age. Those old enough to remember the comic strip “Pogo” may also remember his most famous saying: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

In First Corinthians (10:2), the apostle Paul describes Israel’s passage through the Reed Sea as a kind of baptism. So, stand with me on the shores of another sea, the font at which you were baptized. Behind you are the forces of wickedness that enslave, hurt, and destroy the people of this world. The Holy Spirit hovers over the sea, beckoning you to come, to enter the waters. But the sea will not part this time. Someone will drown, but it will not be Pharaoh.

To the Church at Rome (6:3-7), Paul wrote, “We died and were buried with Christ in baptism. Since we have been united with him in death, we will also be raised to life as he was. … We are no longer slaves to sin.”

The waters will swallow you, but they will not destroy you. Christ promises that life and freedom wait on the other side. Like the Israelites, we never know exactly where our paths through the sea will take us.

A benediction commonly heard in Lutheran churches goes like this:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

That is exactly the situation in which the Israelites found themselves at the Reed Sea, and the situation of every baptized believer. God be with us throughout the journey.