Baptized into a New Creation
The Red Sea crossing is the decisive moment of transition in the Exodus narrative. It is the watery threshold between slavery and freedom, between life in Egypt and the wanderings into the wilderness. It is the broken waters of the womb of Egypt and the narrow birth canal of the nation. It is the baptism into the new life of ‘body of Moses’. It is the great existential boundary marker of the nation.
As I observed in a previous post, such crossings and establishing of boundaries are not merely events in a historical narrative, but are the inscription of the spiritual identity of the nation onto a particular geography through divinely guided itineraries. YHWH places his people in the land by walking them into it and through it, by marking out its borders and boundaries with spiritual transitions, by ‘story’-ing its territory. While we are accustomed to thinking of the spaces of Israel – its tabernacle or its land – as viewed from the panoptic and detached perspective of the map or diagram, for Israel these places were known through itineraries, related by means of particular journeys or movements through time and space, with all of the meaningful transitions that those entail (this article raises some helpful thoughts along these lines). For instance, God didn’t give a diagram of the tabernacle, but rather ‘walked’ the reader of Exodus through it, describing its furniture step by step and then later described the process of moving through its space in the sacrifices. If we are to understand events such as the Red Sea crossing, we need to recapture something of this way of thinking about space.
When we think of the washing of water associated with the worship of the tabernacle, or in such events as the Red Sea, we are at risk of thinking purely in terms of actions detached from movements in time and space, in terms of such things as ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’, failing to recognize that the geography, orientation, and time of water crossings are significant. We pass through waters from one realm and time to another, come up out of the waters of the deep and ascend through the waters of the firmament – they cannot be detached from time and geography.
We live in a watery world. The great divisions of the world are divisions of water, something that is clear from the story of creation. The waters above are divided from the waters below. The waters are gathered together in one place and divided from the dry land, the lands are divided by the great rivers. To pass from one realm into another one must pass through waters. To go into the abyss, you enter into the below-waters, the waters of the deep. To go into heaven, one must pass through the above-waters of the firmament. These divisions are not merely divisions in space, but also divisions in time. To enter into the restored creation, Noah had to pass through the waters of the flood. To enter into the new era YHWH had prepared for them, Israel had to cross through the Red Sea. In entering the new creation we are baptized into Christ’s death.
To find one’s place on earth, one does so by defining oneself through water crossings. To become Israel, Israel had to pass through the waters of the Euphrates, which marked off former idolatry from the patriarchs’ service of YHWH. They had to pass through the Jabbok/Jordan, where Jacob was given his new identity. They had to pass through the Red Sea, where they left slavery. They had to pass through the Jordan, where the conquest of the land began and the wandering of the wilderness years ended. Finally, to truly become Israel, they had to venture out onto the Gentile sea and become fishers of men.
The great movements of the world are movements of water and movements through water. It is the springing up of water within the garden and the flowing of that river of water into the world. It is the rain of heaven and the rainbow of God’s promise that signify the descent of God’s good favour upon us from above. It is the rising up of the waters below and the flooding of the world that signifies death and judgment. It is the pouring out of the water of the Spirit and the flowing out of the Spirit into a parched creation that signifies the healing and life of the new creation.
Water brings together and, while forming certain divisions, dissolves others and unites new wholes. While dividing Israel from Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea dissolved many people into one new nation under Moses’ leadership, just as the waters of baptism dissolve Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, into one new people in Christ, their separations and oppositions broken down. The old divisions and separations are washed away as we enter into a new creation.
The Red Sea crossing is a great threshold in the story of Israel, a watery seam between eras of its narrative. As a seam between stories, it is sometimes associated with the story that precedes (the exit from Egypt) and sometimes associated with the story that follows (the entrance into the wilderness wanderings).
The Preparation for the Crossing
YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart and causes him to pursue the Israelites who have departed with his chariots (I have commented on the biblical theme of chariots and water elsewhere). It has become clear to Pharaoh that this is not a temporary departure, but that his Israelite slaves intend to leave his service for good, much as Jacob fled from the service of Laban. YHWH declares that through this event he will decisively prove his identity to the Egyptians. The Red Sea crossing is a site where YHWH’s identity is demonstrated with power.
YHWH declares that at the Red Sea he will accomplish a decisive victory over the Egyptians, establishing a definitive boundary between Israel’s past life of slavery and its new life of freedom. Their old master will be defeated and they will be a free people, with a deep watery line drawn between them and their former bondage. Due to its definitive character, the Red Sea crossing can serve as a sort of synecdoche for the entire Exodus – the one event that encapsulates the whole.
Seeing the Egyptians coming upon them, the Israelites complain against Moses, accusing him of bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness (14:10-11), claiming that they would have been better off remaining in the service of the Egyptians. This grumbling seems out of place in the order of the narrative, as we typically associate such wilderness complaints with Israel’s unbelief in the wilderness before crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In this event in the wilderness before the Red Sea we see an anticipation of this later unbelief of the forty years of wilderness wandering and also of the faithfulness of YHWH and the victory that he provides. The Red Sea crossing should have prepared them for the later crossing. As we shall later see in more detail, the Red Sea crossing is a decisive event that occurs in two stages: the first part of the washing through the Red Sea, to be completed in the crossing of the Jordan. The two events become conflated at various points in the scripture and in the imagination of its later interpreters (e.g. Psalm 106:9).
YHWH declares that this is his battle and that all should hold their peace and see the salvation that he will accomplish on their behalf: he will put a final end to the Egyptians, without the Israelites having to raise a finger (vv.13-14). Moses is instructed to lift up his rod and stretch out his hand over the sea and it will be divided so that the children of Israel can pass through on dry ground. The man who was drawn out of the reeds and the water as a child will be used by YHWH to draw his people out of the Sea of Reeds. Through this event, Israel will enter into the experience of Moses. The return to the themes of the first chapters of Exodus also involves the presence of Miriam as the witness of both great birth events and the throwing of the Egyptian boys into the waters, just as they had thrown the Israelite boys into the Nile.
Red Sea as New Creation
The creation themes here should be clear to us. The great acts of creation are ones of forming by means of division (days one to three of the creation) and filling (days four to six of the creation). The waters are divided as they were divided on the second day. The sea is separated from the dry ground as it was on the second day. Israel is the dry ground taken up out of the sea and the Egyptians are consigned to the abyss and the deep. The Egyptians and the Israelites, formerly mixed together, are going to be separated in YHWH’s new act of creation. YHWH’s cloud – the water of his presence above – comes between the Egyptians and the Israelites (v.19). The Israelites are symbolically drawn above the firmament, and the Egyptians placed beneath it. It also serves as a division between darkness and light (v.20), such as that accomplished by YHWH on the first day of the creation. The wind of YHWH passes over the waters (v.21), just as at the creation (Genesis 1:2) and the flood (Genesis 8:1). At the Red Sea YHWH is creating a new world. Later on in such places as Isaiah 63:11-14, these creation themes will become even more pronounced. Having formed a new creation through these great acts of division, YHWH will bring the Israelites in to fill those divisions.
As we shall see, the Red Sea is the site of both a creation and a de-creation. The Israelites are drawn up out of the deep, out of the undifferentiated sea of their slavery among the Egyptians, established on dry ground, and symbolically set in the heavens, above the firmament of the glory cloud. The Egyptians, however, descend into the primeval waters of the abyss (notice that the ‘deep’ is mentioned in 15:5 and 8, a word that is associated with the waters that existed before the formation of the creation and at the time of the flood – Genesis 1:2; 7:11; 8:2). The entire story of the plagues has been one of decreation, as the world of Egypt has been steadily destroyed: this is the final decisive blow.
As in the case of previous exodus patterns, the movement from the darkness to the new dawn is given great prominence within the story of the Red Sea crossing. The wind blows through the night (v.22) and the Israelites cross over, the morning watch comes and God troubles the Egyptians (v.24), then, as the morning appears, the sea returns and drowns the Egyptians (v.27). This movement from evening to morning is not merely the ending of a period of symbolic darkness: it is also the transition that marks out a creation day (‘and the evening and the morning were…’).
The Battle of YHWH
The Red Sea is YHWH’s battle and the Israelites are supposed to stand by and watch (v.14). Through this event, YHWH will bring honour for himself. 14:19 refers to the Angel of YHWH moving from the front of the camp to the rear, with the pillar of cloud moving too. Until this point in history, the Angel of YHWH had always appeared by himself, without the Glory cloud (see my discussion of the Angel of YHWH here), on odd occasions and for a limited period of time. Now, at this point in time, the Angel was clothed in the Glory cloud.
Here we see a fuller revelation of the identity of the Angel as he is accompanied by the Spirit-Presence. The ‘glorification’ of the Angel of YHWH manifests a deeper and more powerful presence and association of YHWH with his people. Prior to this point, the Angel of YHWH had appeared in less dramatic form, often as a man, such as in his appearance to Abraham in Genesis 18:1-2 and his wrestling with Jacob in Genesis 32:24. This development is like the development between Christ’s self-revelation (the Angel of YHWH is, I believe, a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ) during his incarnate ministry and Christ following his ascension, at which point he receives the Glory-Spirit (cf. Acts 2:33). The Angel of YHWH who wrestled incognito with Jacob at the fording of the Jabbok now rides on a glorious pillar of fire and cloud (Exodus 14:24), fighting with the Egyptians from his stormy throne chariot in the midst of the Red Sea.
In the Red Sea, the sea monster Pharaoh has his head crushed (cf. Psalm 74:13). This is the final judgment: the defeat of the dragon and the Angel of YHWH coming with the fiery glory cloud of heaven. In this Day of YHWH, God’s identity is revealed to Israel in a way that it hadn’t been before. It is a foretaste of the last day, when the true glory, power, and justice of YHWH will be made known.
The Song of the Sea
It is not surprising that the narrative of this event is immediately followed by the Song of the Sea, in which the event is memorialized. The Song of the Sea contains in nuce much of the larger early history of Israel, presenting the Red Sea crossing as an anchoring point for the broader sweep of the surrounding narrative and for the identity of Israel more generally. This song should be regarded as Israel’s national anthem, what some have described as ‘a foundational piece of literature’ that was drawn upon by later tradents for the description of events within their own time. The Song of the Sea frames the crossing as a battle, in which the warrior God gains victory over the foes of Israel. The continuing presence of the Red Sea crossing event in the regular prayer and worship of Israel is evidenced in many of the psalms.
The Song also introduces the canonical motif of YHWH as the divine king, where earlier texts focus primarily upon YHWH as guide and provider. Until this point in history, Israel hadn’t seen YHWH riding his throne chariot. Now, seeing the Angel of YHWH enthroned on the Glory-cloud there is a fuller revelation of and response to his identity. This historical revelation of YHWH’s might, and the closeness of his alliance with Israel, will cause the surrounding nations to melt with fear.
Brevard Childs observes the effect of the literary device that juxtaposes the original events with their continuing celebration, ‘The original events are not robbed of their historical particularity; nevertheless, the means for their actualization for future Israel is offered in the shape of scripture itself.’ The fact that the Red Sea crossing is immediately presented to us in the form of a liturgical memorialization testifies not merely to its foundational character, but also that ‘the authentic form of departure for the story is the celebrating assembly in its present reality’ (Chauvet) as I observed in the previous post. As the Song is a liturgical retelling of the Red Sea crossing event, the text never ceases to be a contemporary declaration of YHWH’s might and victory to its readers and performers, rather than just a witness to a past history.
Worship is a response to YHWH’s self-revelation in his great acts of salvation and judgment in history. It is appropriate that this, the fullest revelation of YHWH’s salvation and judgment in the life of Israel to that point, should immediately give rise to answering praise declaring the greatness of YHWH’s power and goodness to those who fear him and his judgment upon all oppressors. This event and the song that follow establish a pattern for much of the worship of Israel that follows.
It should once again be stressed that this Song is a liturgical memorial. As such, it was designed to be sung throughout the centuries that followed, and by us in the present. Like other such memorials, it declares YHWH’s great covenant acts of old and calls him to remember and fulfil his covenant in the present. In this way, declaring such past victories of God in our worship recognizes them as realities that give direction and impetus to the covenant actions of both God and man in the present. Past deliverances are joyfully sung forth as reality-filled promises of future deliverances. We sing to YHWH, calling him to remember his covenant that we are memorializing and finding strength and orientation in the present as we do so.
As songs and dancing follow after military victory and birth, so Moses’ Song of the Sea and the dancing and the song of Miriam are the joyful response to the great act of YHWH at the Red Sea. This crossing is the decisive transition in Israel’s life, the moment when they are born as a new nation and the foundation of a new creation, the moment when they pass from slavery to freedom. It is the final judgment on the dragon and the crushing of his head. It is a powerful new revelation of YHWH’s identity and is consequently fundamental for much of the worship of Israel that follows. As the climax and final decisive blow of the Exodus deliverance, the Red Sea crossing encapsulates the entire moment.
As we shall see as this series develops, the themes associated with the Red Sea are extensively developed over the course of biblical history and, unsurprisingly, provide one of the most important biblical paradigms for understanding the meaning of Christian baptism.