Through the Sea of Reeds

One of the most dramatic episodes in the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures is the crossing of the Red Sea.  Shortly after the first Passover, the first Pascha, the people of nascent Israel escaped the wrath of Pharaoh and his armies through the separated waters of the sea.  After the Israelites had passed through on the dry ground, the waters closed to cover and destroy the Egyptian charioteers.  This scene has been dramatized in films both live-action and animated.  It has been depicted in a variety of ways artistically beyond its traditional iconography.  The song of victory sung by the Israelites, recorded in Exodus 15, is the first Ode of the Canon, traditionally sung in the context of matins and compline services.  Though not often sung in toto in modern practice beyond the baptismal liturgy of Holy Saturday, its influence is felt in the meditation of the first Ode of the Canon’s hymnography upon the event of the crossing of the sea.  The significance of this event, and of this hymn, however, goes far beyond the material, historical reality of the ancient event itself when the hymn is understood within its ancient context.

The reason why much of the ancient understanding has been lost is easily understandable with even a little research into the topic of the crossing of the Red Sea.  Modern scholarship has been completely focused on attempting to demonstrate the reality, or lack thereof, of the historical event of the exodus from Egypt.  Within this battle, questions regarding the meaning of these events and the texts which describe them to their original hearers are largely neglected.  As a specific example, much of the scholarly discussion regarding the crossing of the sea revolves around which part of what sea was being crossed.  Many, in focusing on arguing for the historicity of this event, have even suggested various natural phenomena that might have caused the sea to recede and then rush back in abruptly.  The latter seems counter-productive as regardless of the mode of the separation and restoration of the sea if nothing else the perfect timing would have to be taken as a miracle.  Scholarly attention is directed nearly entirely at Exodus 14, which narrates the event, while Exodus 15 and the Song of the Sea is viewed as merely a poetic afterthought of little relevance to ‘actual history’.

In reality, the Scriptures are describing a historical event that took place in ancient times as the group of escaped slaves and others who would become the nation of Israel left Egypt.  As they left, they came to the ‘Yam Suph‘.  Much is made of the fact that this does not mean ‘Red Sea’ but is taken to mean ‘Reed Sea’ or ‘Sea of Reeds’.  This is partially true.  The name ‘Red Sea’ which we currently use for the body of water is in actuality the Greek name for that body of water.  The Egyptians referred to seas in general as ‘The Great Green’, the Mediterranean being the ‘Great Green of the North’ while the Red Sea was the ‘Great Green of the East’.  The earliest meaning of the word ‘Suph‘ in Hebrew is actually ‘end’.  Meaning that the most likely meaning of ‘Yam Suph‘ in the Torah is ‘Sea of the End’ or ‘Border Sea’.  A literal translation, then, would indicate that the Israelites reached the sea which formed the Eastern border of the lands of Egypt and crossed it.  Recent satellite imagery has revealed a series of connected lakes, themselves connected to the Red Sea, which formed such a border and it is likely these which newborn Israel crossed on their way to Sinai.

The primary purpose, however, of the historical portions of the Torah is not to argue or educate for the reality of historical events.  This was unnecessary in its original context as the events described were accepted to have occurred by all ancient cultures.  This includes not only the exodus but any number of other events now considered mythical in modern circles such as the flood of Noah and the wars against the giant clans.  Every culture had their own stories regarding many of these events but none doubted that they were real.  The purpose, therefore, of the presentation of these events in the Scriptures is not to argue for their reality but to correctly inform the Israelites, and through them the world, of the truth regarding these events.  This is why they are all characterized as prophecy.  They represent communication from Yahweh, the God of Israel, as to what really happened over against the propaganda of the gods of the nations and their followers.

Though all too commonly glossed over, the events of Pascha, from the death of the firstborn to the flight from Egypt to the crossing of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s armies, is characterized by the book of Exodus as a cosmic war between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt whom he judges and defeats (Ex 12:12).  These gods included Pharaoh himself who, although human, was seen at this time as a hypostasis of Horus, son of Ra.  It is for this reason that the Pharaoh is represented in hymnography as a ‘persecuting giant’.  Within this cosmic war, the crossing of the sea is the final battle.  The Song of the Sea, then, is the song of victory which gives the report of the victory which had been won by Yahweh.  It is the gospel.  Its proclamation might be summarized, “Who is like you, Yahweh, among the gods?  Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing marvels?” (v. 11)

From the beginning of the Song of the Sea, the God of Israel is portrayed not so much as a wonder-worker or a controller of the natural world but as a warrior.  “Yahweh is a man of war.  Yahweh is his name” (Ex 15:3).  He has triumphed in battle by hurling the horse and its chariot into the sea (v. 1, 21).  This victory is won by Yahweh using his right hand and his mighty arm (v. 6, 12, 16).  This language is drawn from Egyptian sources.  The Egyptian god of war during this period was Montu, seen as a hypostasis of Ra, the sun god and representing the scorching heat of the desert sun.  He was sometimes called Montu-Ra for this reason.  He was referred to, however, as ‘the strong arm’ or ‘the strong right arm’.  Montu was associated with the Pharaohs who also served as generals and took the title ‘Horus of the Strong Arm’.  The wording of this hymn, then, is a direct attack on the claims of Ra, Montu, and the Pharaoh to military strength and power.  Ezekiel would later use similar words when he pronounced that Yahweh had broken the arm of Pharaoh (Ezek 30:21).

In order to understand the central movement of the hymn and the nature of the event of the crossing of the sea, certain central aspects of Egyptian religion need first to be understood.  As with all ancient religion, there was no distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ realms.  Visible and invisible realities overlay each other.  Physical locations in the world overlap and bleed through with locations within the spiritual world and its geography.  The ‘end sea’ or ‘border sea’ is one of these locations and the Hebrew name ‘Yam Suph‘ is a deliberate wordplay.  In addition to that original meaning, the word ‘Suph‘ in Hebrew later came also to be used for various types of plant life, specifically ‘reeds’.  The ‘Land of Reeds’ and ‘Sea of Reeds’ are locations within the Egyptian underworld, the realm of the dead.

At nightfall, the sun disappears from view.  It was believed by the Egyptians that Ra, in his fiery chariot, rode into battle in the underworld with Apophis, a chaos monster or dragon.  Every morning, Ra then emerged victorious in the east, rising up out of the ‘border sea’.  The waters were the realm of chaos and death.  When an Egyptian died, their life left their body and traveled to this underworld.  On the other side of the Sea of Reeds lay the land of reeds where they might live eternally in the presence of their gods, albeit in a shadowy existence compared to that of the world above beneath the sun.  The funerary rituals of the Pyramid Texts, as just one example, are aimed entirely at ferrying the soul of the departed Pharaoh, noble person, or official across the sea to the other side.  Those who receive incorrect funerary rituals or none at all end up dead in the sea or on its banks.  These are referred to as ‘mkhay-u‘, or ‘the drowned ones’.  These are the damned.

With these concepts in mind, it becomes clear how the crossing of the sea represents a decisive victory against the Egyptian gods.  Yahweh does not need to take his people on a treacherous journey across threatening chaos, nor does he need to struggle with it.  He merely breathes and the waters part before him in fear and then crush his enemies (Ex 15:8, 10).  The Israelites walk through the sea as on dry land, utterly safe.  The Egyptian gods offered the Egyptian people two things.  The first was ‘ma’at‘, justice, the proper functioning of the world of which the plagues had proven them incapable.  The second was passage across the Sea of Reeds after their death.  The drowning not only of Egyptians but of the chief Egyptians, the highest-ranking Egyptians, in that sea at the strong right arm of Yahweh proved them incapable of this as well (v. 1, 4, 7, 10, 12, 16).  Rather, it is Yahweh who safely leads his people through death, bringing them to dwell with him forever on his holy mountain with him where he reigns forever (v. 13, 17-18).

On the first Pascha, Yahweh brought his people out of slavery to the demonic powers, led them through death and out the other side, bringing them to dwell with him atop his holy mountain forever.  This gospel message is not related to Christ’s death, the harrowing of Hades, his resurrection, ascension, and return allegorically or by analogy.  It is, quite literally, the same story.  Christ’s story, at the second great and holy Pascha, however, represents a fulfillment.  That story has been filled full and filled to overflowing.  Connecting the crossing of the sea to baptism, as Ss. Paul and Peter do, is not an allegory based on both involving water.  Those baptized into Christ pass through the waters of chaos and death into life which begins now and continues into eternity.

Pascha celebrates the reality that Christ has redeemed us from slavery to the powers of sin, death, and the devil.  Pascha celebrates the defeat of the powers and principalities who have enslaved us and sought to destroy us.  Pascha celebrates our passing through death safely and without harm and into eternal life in Paradise where we will dwell with the Lord who reigns forever.

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.

One comment:

  1. “On the first Pascha, Yahweh brought his people out of slavery to the demonic powers, led them through death and out the other side, bringing them to dwell with him atop his holy mountain forever. This gospel message is not related to Christ’s death, the harrowing of Hades, his resurrection, ascension, and return allegorically or by analogy. It is, quite literally, the same story. Christ’s story, at the second great and holy Pascha, however, represents a fulfillment. That story has been filled full and filled to overflowing. ”

    Oh Father…this is so good! Your teachings about how Christ our God has filled to overflowing the OT prophesies are, well… so filled full…to overflowing! Your explanations of the ‘backstory’, I tell you, make all the difference in the world.
    You have to pardon me…right now I am filled full 🙂 with a week of streamed Church services that despite the inability to gather together, have touched deeply my soul. Despite the ‘distancing’, we gather together. Yes, by God’s mighty right arm (!), we, engulfed by His boundless Spirit, though we long for the day we can be physically together, we still celebrate Holy Week, and tonight Great and Holy Pascha, together!
    So Father, after reading this post, allow me to express my joy, having been blessed by a better understanding of the Exodus story, in a way I have never heard before.
    Thank you! And in advance, may you and yours at Archangel Gabriel Church in Lafayette have a very blessed night of Paschal celebration!

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