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Top Ten Old Testament Stories: #5 Moses and the Crossing of the Red Sea

TIMING: While there aren’t definitive sources that corroborate the traditional timing of the life of Moses (1400-1201 B.C.), for the sake of the chronology the crossing of the Red Sea is about four hundred years after Joseph dies. This gives time for the pharaoh that loved Joseph to die, and for a new king to come to power and treat the Israelites harshly (Exodus 1: 8-22). 

REASON TO READ: There are several levels on which one could read the story of Exodus:

  1. Historically as a story of the Israelites,
  2. As a metaphor of our struggle against sin,
  3. To study Moses as a model of leadership,
  4. To study the character of God in how He deals with his difficult people,

and many more perspectives that we could not cover in a single article. We will explore each of these reasons when we discuss how this story fits in the top ten, below.

BRIEF SUMMARY: This is one of the most popular stories in the Bible, so we will not spend too much time elaborating here on the details. The main events are

  1. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house (Exodus 2:1-10),
  2. He realizes his people are being oppressed, tries to liberate them by his own strength, kills an Egyptian, and flees to Midian (Exodus 2:11-25),
  3. He sees God in the burning bush and God tells him to go back to rescue the Israelites (Exodus 3),
  4. Moses tells God that he is not the right man for the job and God convinces him to go back with the help of his brother, Aaron (Exodus 4),
  5. Moses and Aaron speak on behalf of God to pharaoh who does not want them to leave (Exodus 5),
  6. Pharaoh and the Egyptians suffer ten plagues, the last of which is the death of the first born son in every household that does not have the blood of a slain lamb on the doorway (Exodus 6-11),
  7. In the middle of the night after the Passover meal, the Israelites escape Egypt (Exodus 12),
  8. The Israelites are pursued by Pharaoh and narrowly escape when Moses strikes the Red Sea to divide it allowing them to pass but drowning Pharaoh and his army (Exodus 13-15),
  9. Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments (Exodus 20), the law of God (Exodus 21-24) and instructions for the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31),
  10. The Israelites disobey God in the wilderness by building a golden calf and God wishes to destroy them, but Moses intercedes on their behalf, and God agrees not to destroy them and instead strikes them with a plague (Exodus 32),
  11. They follow the instructions and build the tabernacle of the Lord (Exodus 35-40), and
  12. After much more drama, they reach the promised land, but even then are too scared to go in and take it, so God wishes to destroy them again, but again Moses intercedes on their behalf and God decides that they will rather roam in the wilderness for 40 years so that a new generation would be born that would be allowed to inherit the promised land in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (Numbers 13).

Whew. Yes, this sounds like a lot of information, but there is so much more there in the book of Exodus that each of us will continue to pick up new information every time we read it. If you have never read the book of Exodus hopefully this is enough to encourage you to go do it for the first time. If you have read it before, then you know that there is so much there, and hopefully you are encouraged to go back and read it again.

HOW THIS FITS IN THE TOP TEN:  While we do not see Bible as primarily a “history book,” but rather the love story of God and humanity, we do accept historical elements in the Bible as facts. The promise to Abraham, the rise of Joseph, the growth of the Israelites in the land of Goshen, and the exodus into the wilderness are accepted as historical chronological facts, with details as passed down in oral tradition and written down by Moses.

Since most of us do not identify ourselves by ethnicity to the Hebrews as genetic ancestors, we instead relate to them as our spiritual ancestors. Yes, we may not share the same patriarch in Jacob, but we share with them the same Father in God. For this reason their spiritual struggle is the same as our spiritual struggle. In this way of looking at slavery in Egypt, it is analogous to our slavery to sin. The blood of the lamb in the Passover symbolizes the blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The parting of the Red Sea is our baptism where we enter into and escape certain death and come out alive on the other side, while sin (symbolized by Pharaoh) is left behind. Their subsequent roaming in the desert is symbolic of our current struggle in the spiritual wilderness of the world that we live in. Ultimately we hope to reach the Promised Land of the Heavenly Jerusalem, just as the Israelites did in their story, and may God give us the grace to seize it rather than turn around and wander aimlessly for another 40 years.

The leadership of Moses in liberating the Israelites is a great study for someone seeking to understand how the strength of the leader comes in aligning themselves with the will of God. We see that the young Moses who killed the Egyptian put himself in the center of the Israelites' plan of salvation, while the older Moses who led the Israelites into the wilderness was clear that this was God’s work and not his own. From this we learn that we may have the right idea of what needs to be done, but that is not enough without also having God’s wisdom and timing on our side. We can learn from the older Moses and his humility in seeing God as the one liberating the Israelites and not himself. It is only when we see God as the primary actor rather than ourselves that we can truly do His work, by allowing Him to work through us. 

Finally, for our limited time here, we can think about the love of God and His long-suffering in dealing with people that betray Him over and over again. Almost immediately after they cross the Red Sea (Exodus 14:11-12), and on multiple other occasions (Exodus 15:22; Exodus 16:1-4; Exodus 17:1-4) the Israelites “grumble against God” and complain to Moses saying that they would have been better off staying in Egypt as slaves. In His compassion, God does not despise the people for their lack of appreciation, but rather forgives and moves on to giving them water, food, and shelter, thus caring for them like a parent who loves with no limit, always treasuring the child, regardless of their misdeeds. This compassion is an insight into the character of God that “He does not desire the death of a sinner but rather that he return and live” (conclusion of Adam Theotokia, from the Coptic Church Psalmody).

Clearly there is so much more we can say here about this epic story of Old Testament stories. As the fifth story in the top ten, let us keep it in mind as a landmark of the transition between the Bible talking about the fallen descendants of Adam, to taking us through the story of a special chosen people and showing us how God prepared them in their own promised land to receive their Messiah, Christ the savior of the world. 

Series Name: Top 10 Old Testament Stories

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