COC 19 Exodus 14 route sermon
Christ in the Old Covenant
READ 13:17 – 14:12.
The week after Christmas I’ll preach more thoroughly on the crossing of the Red Sea, and what that means about God and for us. This week is more of a transitional week to get us there.
I need to deal with a couple of factual things in the text, that aren’t especially spiritual sounding but they do affect our understanding of the text. First of all, we have the question of how many people were in this group that left Egypt? Exodus 12:37 says six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. 600,000 men would put the total population somewhere around 3-4 million – not including the large group of foreigners who went with them. Many people have noted that this is nearly logistically impossible.
First, they lived up in a restricted area of the Nile Delta, the land of Goshen, which was not nearly large enough for that many people. It makes little sense that they were afraid of 600 chariots from Pharaoh if they had 600,000 men. It’s hard to understand why the spies were afraid of the Canaanites, or why they had trouble with any conquests in Canaan since archaeologists say the largest city in Canaan at this time had a population of 40,000. In Exodus 22 God tells them that they’ll take over the land of Canaan gradually, so that the land won’t be desolate and the beasts of the field too numerous for them. That is hard to understand if there were several million Israelites. So were there really that many Israelites?
Now first of all, let me say, if the Bible says it, we believe it. I am not in any way questioning the truthfulness of the biblical text. The reason this is even an issue is because the Hebrew word translated “thousand” is a very broad word that can mean thousand but it can also mean family or tribe or division or clan.
And so there has been extensive study trying to understand Hebrew numbers, and what they mean. And some people conclude that this does mean that millions of Israelites left Egypt, and others conclude that it is more likely that this means six hundred divisions of foot soldiers. And many people have come up estimates ranging from 20,000 to 150,000 Israelites.
No one really knows for sure. No matter what view you take, you run into some things that are hard to explain. We’ll take the numbers as they are translated in the NASB, but I want you to be aware that there is another possible translation of these terms that renders a much lower number.
Now, we have another practical matter to address, and that is: What route did they take out of Egypt, and what body of water did they cross? So let’s consider this briefly.
First, let’s note what the text says about this sea that they crossed.
14:7-9 we read that pharaoh took his army with him, at a minimum there were six hundred chariots and the accompanying soldiers. It could have been much more than that, but clearly it was no less than that.
14:22 says that the waters were like a wall on each side of them. So this has to be deep enough to be considered a wall.
14:23 says that all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen went in after them.
14:28 says that the waters covered Pharaoh’s entire army that had gone into the sea after them.
So the water was of sufficient breadth and depth to cover 600 chariots and their soldiers. This was probably a very wide path, for all Israel to get across. So if this was a wide path, several hundreds yards at least, I’m just guessing that you would probably need to be crossing a body of water a mile wide or more to cover 600 chariots.
So I think we can say that at the very minimum, the text calls for a body of water at least a mile across and 10 feet deep.
Now let’s ask this question: did they cross the Red Sea? Today we have a body of water that we call the Red Sea – it’s that long body of water between Saudi Arabia and Africa. Up at the tip of that you have these two fingers – the Gulf of Suez on the West and the Gulf of Aqaba on the east. So what we’re asking is, did they cross the gulf of Suez, that part of what we call the Red Sea today?
First of all, our Hebrew text doesn’t actually say “Red Sea.” It says “reed sea.” For a reason we don’t know, the Greek translators translated it Red, and the Latin translators followed them and translated it “red.” And so still today our English Bibles say “Red Sea” when the Hebrew says “sea of reeds.”
So, what is the Sea of Reeds? Is that the Gulf of Suez? It could be. Several places in the Old Testament use the phrase sea of reeds to describe the Gulf of Suez. So it’s possible that the children of Israel crossed the Gulf of Suez.
The phrase “sea of reeds” could also be used for any one of a series of lakes that run from the Gulf of Suez up to the Mediterranean Sea. Today the Suez canal runs through there. But in ancient times there was a series of lakes that ran basically in a line up from the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean. Those lakes had shores covered in reeds. And some of those lakes were miles across; certainly large enough to prohibit the Israelites from crossing initially, and then drown Pharaoh’s army.
So it’s possible that the Israelites crossed the Gulf of Suez; it’s also possible that they crossed another of those lakes. There is a chart in your notes that helps you see both of those possibilities. The smaller dotted line along the coast of course isn’t the route they took, but it shows you where the coastal road was.
Now let’s talk about the route:
Not by the way of the Philistines (coastal road) (13:17)
“around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea” (13:18)
Looked like they were wandering aimlessly (14:3)
From Rameses to Succoth (12:37)
From Succoth to camp at Etham on the edge of the wilderness (13:20)
Turned back (14:2)
Camped before Pi-hahiroth (which faces Baal-Zephon), between Migdol and the sea, in front of/opposite Baal-Zephon, by the sea. (14:2, Num. 33:7)
Across the sea they came into the wilderness of Shur (15:22)
The part from Rameses to Succoth is pretty generally understood; but from then onit gets really fuzzy. Either they went down along the cost of the Gulf of Suez, then came back up and crossed the tip. Or else, they headed southeast, then turned back up and crossed one of the lakes. My opinion is that they crossed one of those lakes. One of my major reasons is that the Bible says that when they crosses they entered into the wilderness of Shur. Now the wilderness of Shur is mentioned other places in the Old Testament, and it does not seem to refer to the area across the Gulf of Suez. It refers to an area much higher, the area between Canaan and Egypt.
Archaeologists have discovered a couple things that I think help us understand why Pharaoh knew about their route, and why Pharaoh got excited about catching them. First of all, we know that the Egyptians built a whole series of canals connecting those lakes, the Gulf of Suez, and the Mediterranean. Why? For defensive purposes. It was like a moat for Egypt. Even if a canal is only 20 or 30 feet wide, it’s still a big problem for an army or another big group of people to cross. The second thing we know is that in the key places where you could get through, the Egyptians had built forts. So how does Pharaoh know that the Israelites are wandering around? Probably because he has soldiers at those forts who are sending reports back to him. Why does Pharaoh get excited? Because he knows there is a series of lakes and canals there that hems them in. Unless they come up to the coastal road, they’re going to have a tough time getting through. And they end up camped in some sort of a trap. You see those three names in 14:2 – it’s possible that one or two of those are actually Egyptian forts. So we can’t know for sure, but probably their situation is something like this: on their West are the Egyptians coming; on their south are ridges and hills difficult to get over; on their north is an Egyptian fort and soldiers. And on their east is a large lake. And so they are trapped.
And from Pharaoh’s perspective, it appears that they are wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where they can get all of these people out of Egypt. And Pharaoh can’t miss this opportunity. So he takes off with his chariot force, to catch them.
First, consider the timing. Most of these people have only very recently turned to the Lord. They don’t have a lot of spiritual maturity and experience. Understandably, verse 10 says they became very frightened. From a human perspective this seems like poor timing. Couldn’t God give them a little honeymoon period without very many trials, while they learn to know Him and trust Him? Very simply, the principle is that we learn to know Him and trust Him through the challenges. According to Romans 5:3-5, tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance proven character. And so Paul has a simple message for us: exult in your tribulations. Oh that God would give us His perspective, that we might be a people who embrace the hard things, knowing that it is in the hard things that we have the greatest opportunity to know Him, trust Him, become like Him, and glorify Him. Don’t ask the Lord to give you a light burden; ask the Lord to give you strong shoulders to carry whatever burden is best for your Christlikeness and His fame.
Second, consider the situation: First, there seems to be no way forward. Lakes, canals, and Egyptian forts seems to block every possible route. Now they are entirely hemmed in with no apparent way to go. Add to that the danger of an approaching army. We always want God to show us His will so that we can see clearly where we are headed. But instead, we see in Scripture that it is actually completely normal for God to place His people in situations where it seems there is no way out. It is completely normal for those situations to be compounded by approaching danger. If you are in a situation like that – where you can see no way forward. Maybe you can even see the potential problems advancing quickly. If you are in a situation like that, so not be deceived into thinking something has gone wrong, or God has abandoned you. God gets from us great glory when we get from Him great grace. Expect God to often put you in places where there seems to be no way forward, so that you will cry out in genuine dependence, that He would make a way.
Third, let’s consider their responses. They model for us a wrong response to hard situations. And I Corinthians 10 exhorts us that these things happened as examples for us. So we are accountable to learn from these things, and by God’s grace not respond like them.
How did they respond?
First, as the end of verse 10 says, they cried out to the Lord. Doesn’t that sound good? They prayed. Yes, but notice the next words in verse 11. This is a sobering reminder – you can pray about things and then immediately go start handling them in a man-centered manner. Just because you pray isn’t actually a guarantee that you are really trusting God and have your focus on God. They prayed and then immediately focused all of their attention not on God but on Moses. This is a common starting point for a wrong response to hard things: we may say our focus is on the Lord, but practically our focus is on the people involved and the circumstances involved. So first of all, they got their focus off of God and onto people.
Secondly, they started to think longingly of their own way. They started to think about how their own ideas were better than God’s. They started to think about how they could handle things better if they were in charge. They started to consider all the hypotheticals: what if this hadn’t happened; what if Moses hadn’t done this; what if we hadn’t done this.
In the process, they also started to distort God’s blessings into curses. Why have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? It would have been better for us to stay in Egypt. Wait a second – wasn’t the Exodus the greatest thing God had ever done for Israel? Wasn’t this the day they were supposed to never forget? Wasn’t this the deliverance that for centuries they had pled for? Can we do this? We pray for God to change us; we pray for God to help us grow to be more like Christ; we pray for God to use us. Then when he brings hard things to accomplish those goals in our lives, we get upset. We question God’s goodness. We take the blessings of God and manage to see them as curses.
In the process, ultimately, we miss what God is doing. Listen again to the words of verse 11. Now go back and read 14:1-2. Why were they in this situation? Because God had led them. And read 14:4. God is working out every detail of this situation according to His plan. But they’ve lost sight of God. They can’t think about what God is doing – they can only think about Moses and what Moses is doing wrong, and about themselves, and how they would do it right if they were in charge. Wait – where’s God?? What’s God doing? Oh yeah … God led us here. And if God led us here, then God must be doing something here. In every situation we have to carefully consider: where is my focus? Is my focus on myself, and what I want, or how I’m such a failure and no good. Or is my focus on others and what they could have done or should have done or are doing or aren’t doing. Or is my focus on what God is doing in this situation?
So they missed what God as doing. But finally, and most importantly, they missed God Himself. Read 13:21. Yes there may have been a lake on one side of them and rough terrain on another side and an Egyptian fortress on another side and the Egyptian army on another side, but who was in the middle of that with them? God Himself.
There would come a day later in Israel’s history when the king of Aram would determine to capture Elisha. And he sent a great army and surrounded the city. II Kings 6:15-17 Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" 16 So [Elisha] answered, "Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see." And the LORD opened the servant's eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Later the Assyrian Hezekiah besieged Jerusalem, and king Hezekiah told the people II Chronicles 32:7-8 "Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be dismayed because of the king of Assyria nor because of all the horde that is with him; for the one with us is greater than the one with him. 8 "With him is only an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God to help us and to fight our battles."
Much later in Israel’s history three young Hebrew men were thrown into a furnace because they refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 3:24-25 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he said to his high officials, "Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?" They replied to the king, "Certainly, O king." 25 He said, "Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!"
To His followers Jesus promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” and the author of Hebrews encouraged the hearts of his readers to contentment by the reminder that God has assured them “I will never leave you, nor will I ever desert you.”
But we skipped over something. There came a time in Israel’s history when a man named Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, even God Himself. And they decided to crucify Him, as the Romans did with their criminals. Matthew 27:46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?" that is, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?"
Is it enough for you, that Jesus was forsaken by God as your substitute, so that now God can say to you “I will never leave you.” Think carefully about Exodus 14: the Israelites are saying: at any cost, get us out of these troubles. Even if the cost is abandoning God and going back to Egypt. Just get us out of these troubles.
How foolish. Like Adam & Eve, who shattered their relationship with God for the false promises of Satan. Like Esau who sold his birthright for a meal. Like Judas who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Oh how we fail to value the most valuable thing in the world: God.
Of all the truths that could have helped the Israelites in this situation, one is more important than all the rest. God was with them. That was all they needed to know. There seemed to be no way out. That’s OK – God was with them. There was danger nipping at their heels: that’s OK – God was there. Is it enough for you, that Jesus was forsaken by God as your substitute, so that now God can say to you “I will never leave you.” God Himself is more than enough for you. Because God has said “I will never leave you,” you must say “I will be content in whatever circumstances I am.”
Questions for Application and Discussion
What is the specific application of the promises in Hebrews 13:5-6? The author is in a list of final exhortations for his readers. This exhortation is primarily related to money, obvious from the beginning of verse 5. The answer to covetousness/materialism is not “grin and bear it” or “learn to live with less” or “just think about the poor people in Africa who are starving.” The answer is to be content with God Himself, and truly believe that He is more than enough.
What is the meaning of God’s promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:5?
When everyone seemed to abandon Paul, what was his focus – II Timothy 4:16-17?
How does Exodus 14:12 contrast with Philippians 1:21?
Read Psalm 63, as a positive example of how to react with a focus on God even when danger is pressing. Especially note verse 3 (again the mention of life and the contrast with Exodus 14:12), and verse 7.