"Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study" <email@example.com>
Subject: Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study Exodus 14:1-31. Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Date: September 20th 2017
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
refers to a state where one is faced with a decision with two very unsatisfactory options. Often we find ourselves in these situations when we are confronted with sudden loss or a sudden change. Life is certainly dynamic, and with its joys and times of peace, there are also those times where joy is not so easily found and we seem to be immersed in chaos.
When one has submitted their lives to the LORD in faith and trust, one can find assurance that, as we are engaged in such a wide variety of experiences, we go through them with the presence of the Holy Sprit who uses them to shape our character and that we find purpose in them, realizing a very positive gain in them. When we look back through the experiences of our lives we will likely remember clearly some of the most difficult decisions that we have faced, and can give testimony to how that experience blessed us in the “long run.” These experiences can also draw us much closer to the LORD when we recognize His presence and purpose in those experiences.
The following passage from the Old Testament book of Exodus demonstrates one of these situations where the nation of Israel was in desperate need of faith in God. They had been chosen as the “children of God” by the LORD because of the faith of their ancestor Abraham who passed his strong faith in God to his twelve grandchildren, the children of Israel. However, over the past fourteen generations, much of that faith was lost, and through the experience of the Exodus, the LORD is providing them with an opportunity for that faith to be renewed. However, a hard-hearted and ignorant people needed the very clear and powerful presence of the LORD to turn them from almost 400 years of apostasy. The Exodus from Egypt provided that opportunity.
In the previous narrative, Moses has communicated to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, the LORD’s demand that the nation of Israel, which now numbered from one to two million souls, were to be released from the bondage that Pharaoh brought upon them. The hardness of the Pharaoh’s heart was demonstrated in his refusal to release Israel even when the LORD brought tremendous plagues upon the land. This was the first time that the Egyptians had seen any god actually do anything, and this God of Israel was literally mocking the impotence of their most significant mythical gods with each plague. The last plague, the death of the first born of Egypt demonstrated the impotence of the Pharaoh, himself, and led the Pharaoh who lost his own son, to release the Israelites, and did so with such passion that he invited the Israelites to take virtually anything they wanted with them if they would just leave, and leave quickly.
The path that Moses led them on became immediately interesting. Rather than simply take them straight by the northern route along the shore of the Mediterranean and around Philistia, Moses took a quite different path:
Exodus 14:1-2. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baalzephon: before it shall ye encamp by the sea.
It would be reasonable that, since Moses was very familiar with the route to Midian, and then from Midian up to Canaan, that he would choose this as the best and shortest path to Canaan. Consequently, this passage speaks to the faith that Moses had in the LORD. The LORD was sending him to the south of east, to the shore of the Red Sea very close to the Egyptian border city of Migdol. There are at least three features about this command that would cause anyone to wonder what Moses is doing.
First, the Red Sea is blocking their access to the east, requiring them to either return to the northern route, or walk around its south end, taking them far out of their way.
The second issue is the “lay of the land.” Rather than traveling by the northern route where the land is less arid and more water and food can be found, this pathway takes Israel directly into a dry wilderness where neither water or food is easily found.
The third issue is Migdol. Migdol is a fortified city that enjoyed a significant “military” presence. If the Pharaoh were to change his mind and bring his military against Egypt, there would be a good number of his army who could be brought quickly to bear and would not be weary from travel. Any such attack would leave Israel backed up against the sea with no place to retreat.
This is a very unlikely and certainly strategically unwise place for the huge population of Israel to make camp. However, the LORD directed Moses to the sea for a very specific purpose.
Exodus 14:3-4. For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in. 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD. And they did so.
At this point, the LORD was not only working to build the faith of the nation of Israel, He was working to change the Pharaoh and his status as an Egyptian god among his people. The spiritual battle between the LORD and the spirit in the Egyptian people who harbored mythical gods has not yet ended. Their belief that the Pharaoh was the “god of life and death” has all but been destroyed by the tenth plague. Though his status as their spiritual leader has been challenged, his status as their military protector is still quite intact.
First, the pathway taken by the Israelites would immediately cause the Pharaoh to take notice. His opinion was that the people had shown profound foolishness by abandoning the safe and shorted route to Canaan, and instead “entangling” themselves in the wilderness by backing themselves up against a lake with only desert on all sides. This also presented the Pharaoh with a unique and unexpected opportunity: desiring greatly to seek revenge for the loss of his son and the first born males of Egypt, Israel had placed themselves in a vulnerable situation where the Egyptian army could easly pursue, surround, and destroy the Israelites.
The narrative states the the LORD “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart. Some hold that this action relieved the Pharaoh of any responsibility for his choices, but quite the opposite is true. A better understanding of the Hebrew grammar that is used may show us that the LORD allowed Pharaoh’s heart to harden, even when doing so would bring Israel into danger. The presence of the Holy Spirit informs our choices every day. When a hard or evil thought enters the mind of a person of faith, the Holy Spirit is there to show a better, alternate, way. The Holy Spirit serves to “soften” the heart of the faithful. The LORD is also sovereign and can speak to the heart of any person, whether they are faithful to him or not. When the Pharaoh learned of this unique opportunity for revenge, a revenge that could wipe out the children of Israel, the Holy Spirit could have spoken to his heart and turned him away from such a wicked thought before that thought grew into determined action. In this way, God did harden the heart of Pharaoh.
Exodus 14:5. And it was told the king of Egypt that the people fled: and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?
Not only was the Pharaoh dealing with his spiritual leadership, but now he faced a cultural crisis: by releasing all of the Israelites his country faced a labor crisis. The short phrase, “told the king of Egypt that the people fled” probably sounds unnecessary since the Pharaoh is quite aware that they are all gone. This has more to do with the litany of complaints that he has heard from the people and their leadership concerning what they now regret as a bad decision. Mob psychology often has a very short memory, and is also short on wisdom. The people have already forgotten the meaning behind the plagues.
So, now, in addition to the Pharaoh’s desire for revenge, he has a second, more pressing reason to send his armys against the Israelites: to bring them back into slavery.
Exodus 14:6-7. And he made ready his chariot, and took his people with him: 7 And he took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over every one of them.
“His people” would refer to the leadership of Egypt that surrounded him in his palace. He took all of his leadership, and called upon his entire army of chariots. This included the “chosen chariots,” those that were manned by the best train captains and squads and were designated to protect the government and property of the Pharoah, and the remaining chariot squads that served to protect the remainder of the nation. The chariot was the most formidable offensive force known in armed conflict in the ancient near-east. The Pharaoh has just mustered his entire army of literally thousands of chariot squads.
Exodus 14:8-9. And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand. 9 But the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pihahiroth, before Baalzephon.
Seeking revenge and the need to placate a rebelling population, any pensiveness that the Pharaoh may have had concering the pursuit of the Israelites was gone. The evil that is intended in his heart is unswayed, and again, the Holy Spirit is not getting in his way. Upon approaching the community of Israelites he was expecting to find a nation of foolish and ignorant people, stumbling around, trying to determine where they were, and where they were going. However, instead he found those Israelites whom he encountered on the skirts of the community to be bold and determined. However, boldness and determination has little power against squads of chariots, so the Pharaoh’s army was able to surround the community and drive them to the shore of the Red Sea. Having experienced the power of the God of Israel, and recognizing the boldness of the Israelite people, the Pharaoh would have been wise to turn around. However, spiritual wisdom was not the Pharaoh’s “strong suit.”
Exodus 14:10. And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.
It is quite reasonable the the Israelites, though great in number, would be extremely frightened by their predicament. They could look only in two directions. Surrounding them to the west was the advancing army of Egypt led by a broad line of indominable chariot squads. The Israelites had nothing which which to defend themselves against an army, much less one that is leading its attack with chariots.
It is important to note that, following fourteen generations of accelerating apostasy, the Israelites cried out to the LORD. The Exodus from Egypt would become the seminal experience for Israel, not because of their freedom from slavery, but because their freedom came from their faith in God. Many often argue that the emancipated Israelites were faithless because of their post-Exodus behavior, but actually quite the opposite is true. We will find that, though the people were not perfect, and their understanding of their faith was not perfect, they had fulfilled the LORD’s prophecy to Abraham that he would be the father of a nation of faith. The behavior of the Israelites is just a reminder that the small faith, one the size of a “mustard seed” is saving faith.
Exodus 14:11-12. And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? 12 Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.
One can probably accurately speculate as to much of the conversation that was taking place in Israel while they marched into the wilderness. Many probably questioned Moses’ decisions. We should note that up to this point in Israelite history, the people had no interaction with Moses. The interaction that brought them to this point was between Moses and the Pharaoh. Moses did not take on the leadership of Israel until they were gathered together outside of the city of the Pharaoh and embarked on their journey. They had no reason to follow Moses other than it was he who “bargained” for their release. His closeness to God was obvious, but for people of little or no faith, this was not a universal credential.
Moses was facing a crisis of leadership. All of their criticisms of his leadership up to this point was now coming together as they interpreted their situation as Moses’ fault. It was necessary that the LORD present Moses to the people as their leader. Consequently, there was yet another purpose for the LORD’s bringing Israel to this place: to establish Moses.
Exodus 14:13-14. And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will show to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. 14 The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.
Though Moses had no idea of how the LORD would save them from the army of the Pharaoh, it is clear that Moses knew that Israel was not going to fall to the army this day. Moses commanded the people to stand firm rather than try to run from the army, and to be without fear because they are about to witness the power of the LORD as it would be He who would fight the battle that threatened them.
Again, the faith of Moses is demonstrated at this point. Although there were many instances where the LORD caused an armed enemy of Israel to be “discomfited” and destroyed without Israelite intervention, those events had not happened yet. Moses was not drawing from experience. He could only draw from his unwavering faith in the LORD to complete what He had started.
His command to stand firm was the only logical strategy for the Israelites since their back was to the sea. Moses would not have a thought of anyone moving eastward at this point in time. Israel was now “between a rock and a hard place.” They were faced with only two decisions: die by drowning in the Red Sea, or die in the imminent attack the Pharaoh’s army. One can imagine that the Israelites were quite focused on these two impossible alternatives, the only alternatives that they faced.
When faced with such decisions, we often find ourselves making the same error: the assumption that we have a binary choice: choose A or B. We only see A or B as possible alternatives to our solution. However, when we approach our decisions and seek the wisdom of the LORD as communicated to us through the Holy Spirit, we may likely find that we have other alternatives that we never considered, alternatives that take us to a place better than we imagined that we could go. Surely the Israelites only saw A and B. Moses, unshaken in his faith, knew that neither A nor B would be the choice, but at this point he did not know what that third alternative would be. Moses simply trusted the LORD and tried to communicate this trust to the people of Israel.
Exodus 14:15. And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward:
Though the prayers that Moses were taking to the LORD at this time are not recorded, the LORD’s response makes it clear that he was praying to the LORD quite fervently. The fervency of his prayers is indicated by the LORD’s words, “why are you crying to me? Just tell the people of Israel to stand down from their firm stance towards the army of the Pharaoh and move to the water.”
If Moses had a moment for him to fully comprehend the words of the LORD, they might have sounded quite unreasonable. Why would he advance the people toward the water? Certainly, drowing in the sea is not one of the viable alternatives. However, it is likely that (1) there was not a lot of time for Moses to express such doubts as we might have a tendency to do, and (2) Moses’ faith in God was firm. It is likely that Moses had little doubt in his mind at this point, as he had already declared this to the people. However, even when we make decisions that we are certain are godly and appropriate, when they involve dramatic change we still might question ourselves: “did I make the right choice?”
Exodus 14:16. But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.
Moses, like a shepherd on duty, kept his staff with him at all times. When encountering the burning bush on Mount Horeb, the LORD told him that this staff would be a big part in Moses’ acts of leadership, just as it plays a large part in caring for his flock of sheep. The LORD allayed any doubts concerning the egress across the sea, telling him that by raising his staff toward the sea, it would divide in front of them and they would pass on dry land. Though the next few verses is a narrative that describes the time between the LORD’s command to raise the staff, and the point where he actually does so, this interim point may be very short.
Exodus 14:17-18. And I, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten me honour upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.
The LORD repeated his purpose to Moses so that he would clearly understand what he is about to witness. Where the LORD had previously stated that He would harden the heart of the Pharaoh, He now states that He will also harden the hearts of all of the Egyptians. The Egyptians will not have a second thought as they will follow the Israelites into the dry path through the lake. However, the LORD is going to demonstrate His sovereignty, his “honor” over man and the kings of man. What is about to take place will be known and remembered by all of Egypt as He demonstrates quite graphically and completely His power over the army, their chariots, their horsemen, and the Pharaoh himself. All Egyptians will know that it was the God of Israel that has the real power, not their pantheon of mythical gods, and not their Pharoah whose assumed deity is about to be destroyed.
Exodus 14:19-20. And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: 20 And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.
The time was approaching evening. This was not a time when an army would attack, but rather dig itself in and prepare for the battle that would start at first light. Normally such a scenario would serve to strike fear into the hearts of those who are so sieged. However, to allay their fears, the LORD established a border between the army and the Israelites by moving the Shekinah Glory, the Pillar of Fire from in front of them to behind them, blocking the way of the Egyptians. The Egyptians saw only a cloud of darkness separating them from the Israelites while the pillar shown its light down on Israel. This gave Israel peace through the night while the LORD was creating the means for their escape.
Exodus 14:21. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
The wind blew “all that night,” so the command to Moses came about the same time that the Pillar of Fire moved to separate the army of Egypt from Israel. Moses raised his staff as the LORD had commanded. This would establish Moses among the people by his taking an active part in what they are about to witness. As he raised his staff there was a strong wind blowing across the lake driving the water back and drying the lakebed. Many have tried to deny the details of this “miracle” by stating arguments such as the lake was shallow and thick with reeds. While the reeds would support the Israelites it failed to support the heavily armed Egyptians and their chariots. However, the Israelites also had hoofed animals and wagons.
Actually anyone familiar with the approach of a powerful hurricane upon a flat beach can attest to the “drawback” that sometimes takes place when the steady winds blow the waters back and may drive the shoreline several hundred yards out to “sea,” only to return with a tremendous surge when the wind direction changes. There is literally no need to speculate as to how the LORD could have divided the waters: the scriptures clearly explain the phenomenon as a “strong east wind.”
Exodus 14:22-23. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. 23 And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
One can envision Moses standing on the shoreline, perhaps from an elevated position on a rock, holding his staff out towards the lake while the tremendous wind blows the waters back. As soon as the lakebed is dry, Moses gave the order for the people to start their short trek across the lake, with the people moving as quickly as possible. Considering that they were taking children, animals, and possessions, this was not a sprint across the lake. The LORD was still separating the Israelites from the Egyptians with the pillar of fire until they had advanced far enough across the lake that the Egyptians would not catch up to them before the last of the people reached the opposite shore. So, at the appropriate time, the LORD removed the barrier that held back the Egyptians, and they pursued the Israelites by the same path across the lake.
One can probably visualize the Pharaoh standing in the same elevated place that had been used by Moses as he directed his army to follow the Israelites across the lakebed.
Exodus 14:24-25. And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, 25 And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.
By the time of the “morning watch” would commence at sunrise, Israel had made their way across the lake and were approaching the other side. By this time the entire Egyptian army was now on the lakebed pursuing the Israelites and the waters were still being held back by the wind. However, the wind and setting that the LORD put in place took a heavy toll on the hurried Egyptians. Many of their chariots were breaking apart from driving them so hard on the uneven lakebed. Recognizing their plight, the Egyptians began to realize that they were caught in the middle of a storm that was created by the LORD to protect the Israelites and to discomfit the army. At this point the Egyptians realized the danger of their situation and sought to retreat back to the safety of the shoreline. Their battle was no longer with the Israelites: it was with the God of the Israelites.
Exodus 14:26-28. And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. 27 And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28 And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.
When the last of the Israelites had set foot on the opposite shore, the deliverance of the Israelites was completed. Moses had been standing on that shore as the last person stepped out of the lakebed when the LORD commanded him to stretch out his hand upon the sea. Note that the first command given to Moses was to stretch out his staff to initiate the division of the waters. This time Moses is commanded to simply stretch out his hand. Again, the LORD is using this event to clearly communicate His selection of Moses as their leader since the battle that is about to be ended is commenced by Moses’ own hand rather than an intrinsically lifeless shepherd’s staff.
One can only imagine what happened when Moses stretched out his arm towards the sea. The wind that had been so powerful that it drove back the waters and slowed the progress of the chariots suddenly stopped. All became calm except for the noise of the return of the waters and the shouts of the Egyptian soldiers and civilians who were witnessing the hopelessness of their return to the shoreline. The narrative states that the entire army was on that lakebed when the waters returned and, though they made a rush to safety, not a single person was close enough to the shore to evade its crushing power. After a few moments the waters settled and were as smooth as they were prior to their parting, and all the Israelites saw in the lake was the floating debris of the army that threatened them and the bodies of the dead soldiers washing up on the shore. On the opposite shore was a shocked Pharaoh who just witnessed the destruction of his entire army, the one last resource that he had that was needed to protect his people.
The historical succession of the Egyptian Pharaohs is well-documented. The ancient Egyptians had a written language, and much of their history was recorded and the tombs contained much of the history of the lives of those that they held. Many historians believe that the Pharaoh standing on the shoreline that day was Thutmose II who reigned from 1492 – 1479 BC. Thutmose II’s reign of 13 years was unexpectedly cut short, and he had no children to be a recipient of his holy deity, (possibly falling victim to the Passover.) This inability to pass deity ultimately ended the status of the Pharoah as the god of life and death and the leader of all other gods.
The power of the Pharaohs changed dramatically with the demise of Thutmose II when the Egyptians began to deny the deity of the Pharaohs, selecting as his successor the very non-deified Hatshepsut. Hetshepsut was depicted as a Pharaoh in some records, but in his sixth year the title of Pharaoh was officially given to his wife, the queen, who assigned her the position of deity, “God’s wife of Amun.” It would be many years before Egypt would regain its military strength, and with its pantheon of mythical gods without an established head, Egypt was never the same again. The last named Pharaoh of Egypt was Alexander the Great who was crowned in 331 A.D.
Exodus 14:29-31. But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. 30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore. 31 And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and his servant Moses.
Not only was Egypt radically changed that day, the nation of Israel was also changed from a fragmented, leaderless cluster of loosely organized tribes into a unified nation that knew the LORD. The people “feared” the LORD. Though there was much reason to be “afraid” of the LORD if one stood against Him, this was a fear of awe and respect. Gone were the thoughts of the powerless mythical gods, the ancient superheroes that were not real. They knew that God is real, God is powerful, and God is reaching down to them and intervened to deliver and protect them from the Pharaoh of Egypt. They also “believed” the LORD. This may be one of only two times in the history of Israel when the entire nation is described as a community of faith.
When we are “between a rock and a hard place” we might be reminded of the nation of Israel who found themselves in what appeared to be an impossible dilemma facing two options: death by land, or death by sea. However, the truth was quite different.
The LORD put together the circumstances that challenged the Israelites. God led Moses to take the people to this shore where they would find themselves without defense and without a means for egress.
The LORD used that circumstance to bring Pharoah and his army against Israel so that (1) Egypt would know the power of the One True God, (2) Israel would come together as a nation, (3) Israel would find faith in God, and (4) Israel would accept Moses as their leader, chosen by the LORD.
We can be reminded that God’s purpose for us is often far greater than anything that we could imagine, and what He will do through our experiences can take us to a place we never thought we would be. This is why James write that we can find joy in tribulation, for it is through those times that the LORD can often do His greatest work in our lives, bringing us closer to Him, and bringing us to a better understanding of His purpose and His love for us.
Though Israel demonstrated sincere faith in God, their behavior would quickly demonstrate the difficulty they would have keeping that faith when (1) they failed to pass their faith onto their children, and (2) when difficulties would come and their spiritual “eyes” were not on the LORD. We can also find ourselves making the same errors when we abandon the LORD in difficult times, or think that the LORD is abandoning us in the same. Let us always remember that the LORD works our experiences for our good when we put our faith and trust in Him. When things get tough, watch what God can do.
The historical succession of Egyptian Pharaohs is well-documented. Many hold that this Pharaoh was Thutmose II who reigned from 1492 – 1479 BC. His tenure was only 13 years, was unexpedly cut short, and he had no son
The other instance is when Nehemiah, with Ezra, celebrated the return of Israel to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls in a spiritual revival that was led by a spontaneous and continuing reading of the Torah over a period of several weeks.
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