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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Exodus 14

Verse 2

XIV.
THE PURSUIT BY PHARAOH AND THE PASSAGE OF THE RED SEA.

(2) Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn.—The march of the Israelites had been hitherto almost due south-east. They had reached the edge of the desert (Exodus 13:20), near the head of the Bitter Lakes. If this direction had been maintained, their next day’s march would have taken them out of Egypt into the “wilderness of Etham”—a desolate tract, in which there was no water, and probably scarcely any herbage. The Bitter Lakes would have been upon their right hand, and, so far as the Egyptians were concerned, they would have been in safety. But at this point an express command was given them to “turn.” Kaiisch, Rosenmüller, and others understand this as a command to “return,” or “retrace their steps;” but this is clearly not what was intended, since their march was to bring them to “the sea,” which they had not reached previously. The question arises, What sea? Brugsch suggests the Mediterranean; but it is against this that the Mediterranean has not yet been mentioned in Exodus, and that, when mentioned, it is not as “the sea,” but as “the sea of the Philistines” (Exodus 23:31). “The sea” of this verse can scarcely be different from “the Red Sea” of Exodus 13:18, the only sea previously mentioned by the writer. To reach this sea it was necessary that they should deflect their course to the right, from south-east to south, so keeping within the limits of Egypt, and placing the Bitter Lakes on their left hand.

Pi-hahiroth . . . Migdol . . . Baal-zephon.—These places cannot be identified. They were Egyptian towns or villages of no importance, near the head of the Gulf of Suez, situated on its western shores. The names nearest to Pi-hahiroth in Egyptian geography are Pehir and Pehuret. Migdol would, in Egyptian, be Maktal; and there was an Egyptian town of that name near Pelusium, which, however, cannot be intended in this place. Baal-zephon was probably a Semitic settlement, which had received its name from some worshippers of the god Baal. Eastern Egypt contained many such settlements. The accumulation of names indicates an accurate acquaintance with Egyptian topography, such as no Israelite but one who had accompanied the expedition is likely to have possessed.

Verse 3

(3) Entangled in the land.—Literally, confused, perplexed. (Comp. Esther 3:15.) Pharaoh, seeing that the Israelites had placed the Bitter Lakes on their left, and were marching southward, in a direction which would soon put the Red Sea on one side of them and a desert region—that about the Jebel Atakah—on the other, thought that they must be quite ignorant of the geography, and have, as it were, “lost their way.” He observed, moreover, that “the wilderness had shut them in.” The desert tract between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea lay upon their left and in their front: they would soon be unable to proceed, and would not know which way to turn.

Verse 5

(5) The heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people.—No doubt the change began as soon as Israel commenced its march. The emigration left Eastern Egypt a solitude, suspended all the royal works that were in progress, threw the whole course of commerce and business into disorder. Beforehand, neither the king nor the people had understood what the loss of six hundred thousand labourers—some of them highly skilled—would be. When Israel was gone they realised it; consequently both king and people regretted what they had done.

Verse 6

(6) He made ready his chariot.—Egyptian monarchs of the Rameside period almost always led their armies out to battle, and when they did so, uniformly rode with a single attendant, who acted as charioteer, in a two-horse chariot. “Made ready” means, of course, ordered to be made ready.

Verse 7

(7) Six hundred chosen chariots.—The chariot force was that on which the Egyptians chiefly relied for victory from the beginning of the eighteenth

dynasty. Diodorus Siculus assigns to his Sesostris (probably Rameses II.) a force of 27,000 chariots; but this is, no doubt, an exaggeration. The largest number of chariots brought together on any one occasion that is sufficiently attested, is believed by the present writer to be 3,940, which were collected by various confederates against an Assyrian king (Ancient Monarchies, vol. ii, p. 103, Note). In 1 Samuel 13:5, 30,1 Samuel 13:0 chariots are mentioned, no doubt by some numerical error. A force of 2,500 is said by Rameses II. to have been brought against him in his great Hittite campaign (Records of the Past, vol. ii., pp. 69, 71). Sheshonk I. (Shishak) invaded Judaea with 1,200 (2 Chronicles 12:3). The “six hundred chosen chariots” of the present passage are thus quite within the limits of probability. Most likely they constituted a division of the royal guard, and were thus always at the king’s disposal.

And all the chariots of Egypt.—The word “all” must not be pressed. The writer means “all that were available—that could be readily summoned.” These could only be the chariots of Lower Egypt—those stationed at Memphis, Heliopolis, Bubastis, Pithom, Sebennytus perhaps, and Pelusium. They would probably amount to several hundreds.

Captains over every one of them.—Rather, over the whole of them. These “captains” are again mentioned in Exodus 15:4. The word in the original—a derivative from the numeral three—is supposed to have meant, primarily, “persons occupying the third rank below the king.”

Verse 8

(8) The children of Israel went out.—Rather, were going out.

With an high hand—i.e., confidently, boldly, perhaps somewhat proudly, as having brought the Egyptians to entreat them to take their departure (Exodus 12:33).

Verse 9

(9) All the horses and chariots of Pharaoh.—Heb., all the chariot-horses of Pharaoh.

And his horsemen.—It is questioned whether “horsemen” are really intended here, and suggested that the word used may apply to the “riders” in the chariots. But it certainly means “horsemen” in the later books of Scripture, and, indeed, is the only Hebrew word having exactly that signification. Though the Egyptians do not represent cavalry in any of their battle pieces, yet there is abundant testimony that they employed them. Diodorus Siculus gives his Sesostris 24,000 cavalry to 27,000 chariots (Book i. 54, § 4). Shishak invaded Judæa with 60,000 (2 Chronicles 12:3). Herodotus makes Amasis lead an army on horseback (ii. 162). The Egyptian monuments appear to make frequent mention of cavalry as forming a portion of the armed force. (Records of the Past, vol. ii., pp. 68, 70, 72, 83, &c, vol. iv., 41, 44, 45, &c.) It is suspected that some conventional rules of art prevented the representation of cavalry in the sculptures, which never show us an Egyptian, and but rarely a foreigner, on horseback.

And his armyi.e., his infantry. The host of this Pharaoh, like that of Shishak (2 Chronicles 12:3), consisted apparently of the three arms, cavalry infantry, and chariots.

Verse 10

(10) The children of Israel . . . were sore afraid.—It has been objected that 600,000 men above twenty years of age had no need to be afraid of such an army as the Pharaoh could have hastily gathered. The entire armed force of Egypt is reckoned by Herodotus (2:166-168) at 410,000, and it is tolerably clear that not one-half of these could have been mustered. It would imply, indeed, more facility of mobilisation than we should have expected in this early age, if Pharaoh was able to bring 100,000 men into the field upon a sudden emergency. Why, then, it is asked, should the Israelites have been “sore afraid” of a force but one-sixth of their number? Were they “arrant cowards?” The answer is that the Egyptian army, whatever its number, was composed of trained soldiers, well-armed and used to war; the 600,000 Israelites were, in the main, unarmed, ignorant of warfare, and trained very imperfectly. Above a million Persian soldiers were defeated and slaughtered like sheep by 47,000 Graeco-Macedonians at Arbela. A similar result would, humanly speaking, have followed on a conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians at Pi-hahiroth. The fear of the former was therefore perfectly legitimate.

The children of Israel cried out unto the Lord.—If Israel had been unduly timid—which we have shown not to have been the case—at any rate they knew where to make their appeal for succour. There is no help like that of Jehovah.

Verse 11

(11) Because there were no graves in Egypt.—Spoken in bitter irony, doubtless, but scarcely with any conscious reference to Egypt as “a land of tombs.” They meant simply to say: “Might we not as well have died there as here?”

Verse 12

(12) Is not this the word that we did tell thee . . .?—At one time they had refused to listen to Moses (Exodus 6:9) but in the main they had acquiesced in his proceedings, and allowed him to act in their name. The reproach was therefore unjust and undeserved; but it is in human nature to make such reproaches in times of danger and difficulty.

Verses 13-14

(13, 14) Fear ye not, stand still.—There are times when all our strength must be “in quietness and confidence” (Isaiah 30:15). So long as we have means of resistance put in our power, with a reasonable prospect of success, it is our duty to use them—to exert ourselves to the uttermost, to make all possible efforts. God, for the most part, “helps those who help themselves.” But there are occasions when we can do nothing—when all must be left to Him. (Comp. 2 Chronicles 20:17.) Under these circumstances, our duty and our true wisdom is to wait patiently, quietly, courageously. Moses, probably, did not yet know how God would effect Israel’s deliverance, but he was confident that, in one way or another, it would be effected.

The Egyptians whom ye have seen . . . —Heb., As ye have seen the Egyptians to-day, ye shall see them no more for ever: i.e., never again shall ye see them in the pride of power, haughty, menacing, terrible. When next you behold them they will be stiff and lifeless—pale corpses strewing the Red Sea shore (see Exodus 14:30). The reference is to the present time only, not to the future relations of the two peoples.

Verses 15-18

(15-18) Wherefore criest thou unto me?—Like the people (Exodus 14:10), Moses had cried to Jehovah, though he tells us of his cry only thus indirectly. God made answer that it was not a time to cry, but to act: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward,” &c. The Israelites were to strike their tents at once, and prepare for a forward movement. Moses was to descend to the edge of the sea, with his rod in his hand, and to stretch it out over the sea, and then await the consequences, which would be a “division” of the waters—the sea-bed would for a certain space become dry, and Israel would be able to cross to the other side (Exodus 14:16); the Egyptians would follow, and then destruction would come upon them, and God would “get himself honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host” (Exodus 14:17-18). The exact mode of the destruction was not announced.

Verses 19-20

(19, 20) The angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel—The “Jehovah” of Exodus 13:21 becomes here “the angel of God,” as “the angel of Jehovah” in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2) becomes “God” (Exodus 14:4), and “Jehovah” (Exodus 14:7). The angel is distinguished from the cloud, and represented as antedating its movements and directing them. It is clear that the object of the movement now made was double: (1) to check and trouble the Egyptians by involving them in “cloud and darkness;” and (2) to cheer and assist the Israelites by affording them abundant light for all their necessary arrangements. Although there is nothing in the original corresponding to our translators’ expressions, “to them,” “to these,” yet those expressions seem to do no more than to bring out the true sense. (Comp, the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan, the Syriac Version, and the Commentaries of Rosenmüller, Maurer, Knobel, and Kaliseh.)

Verse 21

(21) The Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind.—By “a strong east wind” we are at liberty to understand one blowing from any point between N.Ë. and S.E. If we imagine the Bitter Lakes joined to the Red Sea by a narrow and shallow channel, and a south-east wind blowing strongly up this channel, we can easily conceive that the water in the Bitter Lakes might be driven northward, and’ held there, while the natural action of the ebb tide withdrew the Red Sea water to the southward. A portion of the channel might in this way have been left dry, and have so continued until the wind changed and the tide began to flow. It is true that Scripture does not speak of the ebb and flow of the tide, since in them there was nothing unusual; but an Egyptian tradition distinctly stated that “Moses waited for the ebb tide in order to lead the Israelites across.” (Artipanus, ap. Euseb. Prœp. Ev., 9:27.) Whether the whole effect was purely natural, or whether (as in so many other cases) Goa used the force of nature so far as it could go, and further supernaturally increased its force, we are not told, and may form what opinion we please.

The waters were divided.—The waters of the Bitter Lakes were for a time separated completely from those of the Red Sea. By gradual elevation and desiccation the channel over which the Israelites passed has probably now become dry land.

Verse 22

(22) The waters were a wall unto them.—Any protection is in Scripture called “a wall,” or “a rampart” (1 Samuel 25:16; Proverbs 18:11; Isaiah 26:1; Jeremiah 1:18; Nahum 3:8). In the present case, the waters protected Israel on either flank—the Red Sea upon the right, the Bitter Lakes upon the left. Poetical writers, as was natural, used language still more highly metaphorical (Psalms 78:13; Exodus 15:8), and spoke of the waters as “standing on an heap.” Hence, some moderns have gone so far as to maintain that on this occasion the water “gave up its nature, formed with its waves a strong wall, and instead of streaming like a fluid, congealed into a hard substance” (Kalisch). But this is to turn poetry into prose, and enslave oneself to a narrow literalism.

Verse 23

(23) All Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.—The chariot and cavalry force alone entered the sea, not the infantry. (Comp, Exodus 14:28 and Exodus 15:1.) The point is of importance as connected with the question whether the Pharaoh himself perished. If all his force entered, he could not well have stayed behind; if only a portion, he might have elected to remain with the others. Menephthah, the probable Pharaoh of the Exodus, was apt to consult his own safety. (Records of the Past, vol. iv., pp. 44-45.)

Verses 23-28

(23-28) The Egyptians pursued.—All the Israelites having entered the bed of the sea, the pillar of the cloud, it would seem, withdrew after them, and the Egyptians, who, if they could not see, could at any rate hear the sound of the departure, began to advance, following on the track of the fugitives. What they thought concerning the miracle, or what they expected, it is difficult to say. They can scarcely have entered on the bed of the sea without knowing it. Probably they assumed that, as the bed had somehow become dry, it would continue dry long enough for their chariots and horsemen to get across. The distance may not have been so much as a mile, which they may have expected to accomplish in ten minutes; but when once they were entered, their troubles began. “The Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar . . . and troubled the host of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:24). By some terrible manifestation of His presence and of His anger, proceeding from the pillar of the cloud in their front, God threw the Egyptian troops into consternation and confusion. A panic terror seized them. Some probably stopped, some fled; but there were others who persevered. Then followed a second difficulty. The progress of the chariots was obstructed. According to the present reading of the Hebrew text, the wheels parted from the axles, which would naturally bring the vehicles to a stand. According to the LXX. and a reading found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the wheels “became entangled,” as they would if they sank up to the axles in the soft ooze. Hereby the advance was rendered slow and difficult: “they drave them heavily.” To the Egyptians the obstruction seemed more than could be accounted for by natural causes, and they became convinced that Jehovah was fighting for Israel and against them (Exodus 14:25). Hereupon they turned and fled. But the flight was even harder than the advance. A confused mass of horses and chariots filled the channel—they impeded each other—could make no progress—could scarcely move. Then came the final catastrophe. At God’s command, Moses once more stretched his hand over the sea, and the waters returned on either side—a north-west wind brought back those of the Bitter Lakes (Exodus 14:10), the flood tide those of the Bed Sea—and the whole of the force that had entered on the sea-bed in pursuit of the Israelites was destroyed.

Verse 24

(24) In the morning watch.—Between 2 a.m. and 6.

Verse 26

(26) And the Lord said.—Or, The Lord had said. Probably the command was given as soon as the Israelites were safe across. It would take some hours for the north-west wind to bring back the waters of the Bitter Lakes.

Verse 27

(27) When the morning appeared.—This would be about five o’clock. The light showed the Egyptian their danger. The white-crested waves were seen advancing on either side, and threatening to fill up the channel. The Egyptians had to race against them; but in vain. Their chariot wheels clogged, themselves and their horses encumbered with heavy armour, they made but slow way over the soft and slimy ground; and while they were still far from shore, the floods were upon them, and overwhelmed them. In this way God “overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.”

Verse 28

(28) The chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host . . . —This translation is misleading. The Heb. runs thus: “The chariots and the horsemen (who were) all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea.” It is implied that his footmen did not enter the sea.

There remained not so much as one of them.—The armour of an Egyptian warrior would make it impossible for him to escape by swimming from such a catastrophe. All who were caught by the tide would certainly be drowned. The question whether the Pharaon was drowned or no cannot be ruled by the expression here used, nor by any parallel one in the Psalms (Psalms 78:53; Psalms 106:11); it depends on more general considerations. In the first place, is it likely that if the Pharaoh had been killed there would have been no explicit mention of it? Would the point have remained one open to question? Secondly, if the Pharaoh had been killed, would the Egyptian annals have retained no trace of it? Must we not have had some account of a great king cut off in the flower of his age, after a reign of two, or at the most three, years? (Comp. Exodus 2:23; Exodus 4:19, &c.) But Menephthah, to whom all the indications point, reigned at least eight years. The latter part of his reign was inglorious, and he left the empire a prey to pretenders; but he was not suddenly cut off after reigning a year or two. Thirdly, was an Egyptian king sure to lead an attack, and place himself in the position of most peril? This has been asserted, and it is so far true, that most Egyptian kings, according to the records which they have left of themselves, so acted. But it happens that Menephthah records it of himself that on one great occasion, at any rate, he kept himself out of danger. His country was invaded by a vast army of Libyans and others from the northwest in the fifth year of his reign; the assailants menaced his chief cities, and the peril was great. Menephthah collected all his forces to meet the danger, but declined to lead them out in person, pretending that one of the Egyptian gods, Phthah, had forbidden him to quit Memphis (Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. ii., p. 119). It is thus quite probable that he would remain with the reserve of footmen when the chariots and horsemen entered the bed of the sea.

Verse 30

(30) Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore.—On one who saw this sight it would be likely to make a great impression; to after generations it was nothing, since it had no further consequences. That it is recorded indicates the pen of an eyewitness.

Verse 31

(31) Israel saw that great work.—The destruction of the Pharaoh’s chariot force and cavalry in the Red Sea secured the retreat of Israel, and saved them from any further molestation at the hands of the Egyptians. The spirit of the nation was effectually broken for the time; and it was not till after several reigns, and an interval of anarchy, that there was a revival. The king himself probably despaired of effecting anything against a foe that was supernaturally protected; and the army, having lost the flower of the chariot force, on which it mainly depended for success, desired no further contest. The Israelites, as will be seen further on, in their rapid march to Sinai avoided the Egyptian settlements, and having once reached the Sinaitic region, they were beyond the dominion of Egypt, and for forty years quite out of the path of Egyptian conquest. The episode in the life of the nation begun by the descent of Jacob into Egypt now terminated, and a fresh beginning was made. In the open air of the desert, cut off from all other races, admitted to close communion with Jehovah, the people entered upon that new and higher existence which culminated in the teaching of the prophets, in the noble struggles of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the memorable stand on behalf of religious truth and national independence which was made by the Maccabees.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 14". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/exodus-14.html. 1905.