The crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14 is one of the most memorable Old Testament stories. The beleaguered children of Israel, trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptian army, are miraculously delivered as God opens a path through the waters, rescuing them while drowning their pursuers.
But the Red Sea deliverance is no mere random miracle. It comes as the decisive climax of a series of judgments and recalls events that happened almost 80 years prior. It fits within a pattern of water crossings throughout Israel’s history. And it serves as a picture of our salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Echoes in Earlier Exodus
The events at the Red Sea were anticipated by the deliverance of the infant Moses. Many decades earlier, the infant Levite had been placed by his mother in an “ark” (same word used in the account of Noah) among the reeds at the river bank (Ex. 2:3). There is an important linguistic connection here. The Hebrew word for “reeds” in Exodus 2:3 is the same word later used in the phrase “Red Sea,” which is why some scholars refer to it as the “Sea of Reeds.” This linguistic link shouldn’t, however, be confused with liberal attempts to demythologize the event.
Israel enters into Moses’s experience of deliverance from the waters—all witnessed, once again, by Miriam.
So the infant Moses was left in the reeds beside the river and was named for being drawn out of the water (Ex. 2:10) in events witnessed by his sister Miriam (Ex. 2:4). What happened to the leader of the people later happens to the whole people at the Red Sea, as Israel enters into Moses’s experience of deliverance from the waters—all witnessed, once again, by Miriam (Ex. 15:20–21).
This Red Sea crossing also fits within the broader Exodus pattern of Israel as God’s firstborn son (Ex. 4:22–23) being delivered.
The Exodus story begins with Israel multiplying in the land of Egypt (Ex. 1:7). Although their foremothers struggled to bear children in the book of Genesis, the children of Israel now frighten the Egyptians with their fruitfulness. The curtain of the book opens to reveal a series of women on center stage: the Hebrew mothers, the midwives, Jochebed, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Miriam. The antagonist, Pharaoh, seeks to destroy the infant Hebrew boys, instructing his men to cast them into the Nile. Yet the women—his own daughter among them—outwit him and rescue many of the boys from his clutches.
The plight of the pregnant women and their infant sons manifests the state of the people as a whole: Israel groans in its birth pangs, waiting to be delivered from the darkness of Egypt’s womb.
By the time we reach the Red Sea, Israel is on their way out of Egypt. The land of Egypt has been struck with 10 devastating plagues, culminating in the death of the Egyptian firstborn as Israel celebrates the Passover. It’s in the context of the Passover that the firstborn sons of Israel, those who open the womb, are set apart to the Lord (Ex. 13:1–16).
In the Red Sea the waters of the womb are broken and Israel, God’s firstborn son, passes through a narrow passage into the light of a new day.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the resurfacing of the birth theme just as Israel is about to leave Egypt, the womb in which it has been growing. After the contractions of the plagues, the Passover is the start of labor. In the Red Sea the waters of the womb are broken and Israel, God’s firstborn son, passes through a narrow passage into the light of a new day, to be greeted by joyful songs on the other side. The Red Sea crossing is thus a birth event in which a new people are created (cf. Isa. 63:11–14).
And in a twist of poetic justice, Pharaoh, who had once sought to drown the Hebrew boys, leads the young men of Egypt into a watery grave.
History of Water Crossings
The crossing of the Red Sea is significant in yet another way: Israel’s existence was defined by water crossings. They served other gods on the far side of the Euphrates, before Abram was called (Josh. 24:2). They received the name of “Israel” at the crossing of the Jabbok, where their forefather Jacob wrestled with the Angel (Gen. 32:22–32). Their liberation from harsh service was achieved at the Red Sea. They entered into possession of the Promised Land after crossing the Jordan (Josh. 3).
The Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 could arguably be compared to a sort of national anthem for Israel.
These geographical boundaries were also landmarks in the nation’s spiritual itinerary, memorialized in song and story. The Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 could arguably be compared to a sort of national anthem.
Red Sea Crossing and Our Redemption
The deliverance at the Red Sea is recalled in the New Testament, where Christ accomplishes a new exodus through his death and resurrection (Luke 9:31). He dies at the time of Passover, before tearing open the deep waters of the grave through his resurrection, so that we—following in his triumphal train—might be reborn into a new life.
Looking back to the events of the first exodus in 1 Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul speaks of “our fathers” being under the cloud and passing through the sea, being “baptized” into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor. 10:2). The use of the language of baptism to refer to the crossing is arresting. Paul sees in the crossing something analogous to our baptism: Israel is being united to Moses, who, as we’ve seen, experienced his own deliverance from the water many years before. In a similar manner, we’re baptized into Christ, united with him in his death and buried with him, so that the shape of his resurrection life might become the shape of our lives (Rom. 6:4).
If the crossing of the Red Sea is like baptism, baptism is also like the crossing.
Paul invites the Corinthians to see the children of Israel in terms of our salvation, to recognize that their story of deliverance is continuous with our deliverance. They are—even the ones who fell away!—“our fathers.” Christ brought about their deliverance (cf. 1 Cor. 10:9; Jude 5) and gave them his presence and spiritual sustenance (1 Cor. 10:3–4).
We too are called to view our salvation in light of Israel’s story. If the crossing of the Red Sea is like baptism, baptism is also like the crossing. If we’re tempted to presumption, we must learn from the judgments that fell on the children of Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:6–11). We must also, like the Israelites, look back on our deliverance through the waters as a testimony to God’s grace and strong saving will toward us. If Israel was called to remember and return to the Lord’s grace manifested to them in the deliverance at the Red Sea, Christians are called to remember and daily return to the divine grace declared to them in their baptisms.