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Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31

Ralph W. Klein
This fourth semi-continuous selection from the Book of Exodus focuses on what most
people mean by the Exodus: the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Sermon preparation may not seem like an ideal time to revisit the vagaries of the
Pentateuch, but it is good to know that there are at least three accounts of that deliverance
from Egypt in the Book of Exodus.
The Song of Moses
One account of the victory at the sea is poetic in form in Exodus 15:1-18 (the Song of
Moses) where Yahweh attacks the Egyptians like a divine warrior, climaxing in the
doxology of verse 18: "Yahweh will be king forever and ever." This picture of divine
kingship, therefore, is not hierarchical, but shows rather that God's kingship in the Bible
often refers to God's care for the poor and oppressed, in this case the Israelites.
The Priestly Account
In chapter 14, verses 21-23, 26, and 28-29 come from the priestly writer and depict what
most of us naturally imagine when we think of this crossing -- waters piled up on the left
and right, with the Israelites marching through the sea on dry land, as if it were a liturgical
The Egyptians followed in hot pursuit, but when Moses raised his hand over the sea, the sea
collapsed and destroyed the whole Egyptian army. This fits well with a priestly theme that
in the Exodus Yahweh is manifesting his glory over the Egyptians and exposing Pharaoh
and all other tyrants as hollow, burnt out cases (Exodus 14:4, 17-18)
The Yahwist Account
The remainder of our semi-continuous selection comes from the Yahwist source (verses
19b-20, 24, 25b, 27a, 30-31). Here the pillar of cloud and fire settles down between the
Israelites and the Egyptians, preventing any kind of violent confrontation between the two
peoples. At daybreak Yahweh threw the Egyptians into a panic and they plunged foolishly
into the sea and perished.
It is the climax of this account that offers additional materials for preaching. As a result of
this saving action (verse 30), Israel reverenced (or feared) Yahweh and believed in Yahweh
and in his servant Moses. This brings to a fitting conclusion a theme that has been explored
since the time of the call of Moses in chapters 3-4.

As you will recall, Moses came up with every possible excuse not to follow Yahweh's call
(many preachers have travelled this Moses route before they finally answered God's call).
In Exodus 4:1 Moses says, "They won't believe this story or that you, Yahweh, even
appeared to me."
Moses was then given three signs -- a staff that turned into a snake and back into a staff; a
hand that turned leprous and then was restored; and water from the Nile that will turn into
blood when poured out on the ground. When Moses and Aaron showed up back in Egypt,
however, the people believed (Exodus 4:31)! No doubt many of them fretted about the
ultimate outcome during the protracted negotiations with Pharaoh and the ten plagues. But
now when they had escaped from Egypt without a scratch we read in Exodus 14:31: They
believed in Yahweh. Oh, and also in his servant Moses.
Preaching God's Good News for Contemporary Bad Situations
In the twenty-first century, many Christians struggle to maintain their faith. If Luther
worried about finding a righteous and forgiving God, we worry about finding God at all.
What made the Israelites believe in the Book of Exodus? Was it really the three trick signs
that Moses was able to pull off? Was it the supernatural power of the Exodus experience
itself? Perhaps.
But chances are it was the fact that God had heard their groaning and remembered his
covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and took notice
of them (Exodus 2:24-25). A literal translation of Exodus 2:25 reveals an even more
poignant depiction of Yahweh's compassion: God looked upon the Israelites, and God
knew. God knew what they needed, God knew what they were going through, and then God
came up with good news for their bad situation. God knew.
As we struggle to live out the life of faith, we have a God who knows us, knows our
problems, knows our failings, knows our needs. As we preach to and for the people of God,
we try to describe a God who provides good news for whatever bad situations our people
are going through -- unemployment, family discord, depression and serious illness, doubt,
fear, loneliness -- you name it.
How does God's activity in Jesus provide hope and the basis for faith for such people and
such situations? Moses underestimated God. "They won't believe me; they won't believe
you." That's a mistake we dare not make. Exodus presents a well-defined situation of
oppression and how Yahweh met that need. Our assignment, should we choose to accept it,
is to articulate the means of grace in ways that intersect with the current real plight of our
people. Then people will believe in God and will trust the word delivered by us latter day
Moses' or Miriam's.