When the Israelites fear the approaching Egyptians, Moses tells them to stand and watch the victory the Lord will accomplish.
Granted there is a degree of hyperbole in the command to stand still-Israel does need to put one foot in front of the other to move out of Egypt-it is striking how the text asks nothing of Israel at the key moment of deliverance. They are witnesses of their own deliverance: "See the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today" (14:13a). Instead of turning their faces and running from the Egyptians whom they see approaching, they are to imagine no Egyptians: "The Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again" (14:13b). One day they fear the Egyptians (14:10, 13); the next they fear the Lord (14:31). The double meaning of "fear" is at play; "fear" shifts from terror to awe. The latter is belief.
Chapter 14 and the song in chapter 15 have been probed for clues to reconstruct the logistics of Israel's movement out of Egypt. The reason for "probing" arises because the narration is already celebrating the result. The narrative is articulating the significance of the event more than it is nailing down the data of the event. It addresses the "so what?" question more than the "what?" question. Making that distinction does not need to be driven by a distrust of the "facts" of the text; rather, such a distinction captures the tone of the text and joins the believing and singing.
Interpreters have puzzled over the details of the text. To some, it seems that two or more prior narrations have been merged. It is possible to reconstruct two full versions of the account. In one, the Egyptians approach; Israel fears and cries to Moses; Moses tells them to stand firm and watch; the pillar of the cloud moves between the Israelites and the Egyptians and separates them during the evening; the wind blows back a body of water; near morning the Lord looks from out of the pillar of the cloud and panics the Egyptians; the Egyptians flee from the cloud and run headlong into the rushing water that is returning from being pushed back by the wind; the Egyptians drown; and, finally, the Israelites awake to see the Egyptians dead. The Lord has indeed fought for them. They did nothing. In this telling, all references to the pillar and temporal notations are included. The narrative is coherent.
The second posited strand involves following God's command to encamp "by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon." The body of water is in front of the Israelites and the Egyptians press against Israel. God commands Moses to stretch out his rod over the body of water to divide it and he executes the command. Israel walks to the other side with water on their left and right as the Egyptians pursue them. As soon as the Israelites reach the opposite shore, God commands Moses to stretch out his rod and the walls of water collapse on the pursuing Egyptians. This second telling also follows a coherent sequence. In addition, the narrative style is distinct. For example, each time Pharaoh is mentioned his forces are also rather fully described.
The distinction between these reconstructions of prior narrations is not that one is historical and the other miraculous. The first is every bit as "miraculous" as the second. The Lord does everything in the first! Even though source analysis is not as dominant as it once was in pentateuchal studies, it is still worth pondering proposals arising from that method. In this case, beginning interpreters might ponder why the "Wow!" factor seems higher in the second version. Have movies like DeMille's The Ten Commandments shaped (and curtailed?) our imaginations? Why does the Lord fighting through the use of a pillar of cloud and wind while Israel sleeps seem to be less impressive? What drives our desire for a "Wow" factor (or, in some cases, our resistance to surprising elements in the narrative)?
13But Moses said to the people, Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011