Although the crowd around Moses remained silent, there were many who wanted to speak out and demanded to know just how the Egyptian army encamped nearby would disappear. But at that moment something happened to the cloud that was gradually changing into a fiery mass. It moved northward over the Israelites – then stopped in a spot midway between the Israelites and the Egyptian army (Ex. 14:19-20)!
When the people saw how the fiery column had placed itself between them and their pursuers, their frenzy turned into awe. Still there were those who were fearful of Pharaoh’s army, regardless of God’s fiery sign in the sky. Even after the base of the blazing pillar settled right down to the ground there were many who were unable to be calm as long as they knew that Egyptian soldiers were so close.
However, the very presence of the pillar of fire behind them made it possible for most of them to lie down and sleep, realizing that God was watching over them.
Back in Pharaoh’s camp there was sudden confusion. Observers had been ordered to keep their eyes on the Israelites to make certain that there was no sign of their breaking camp during the night. When the observers reported that the campfires of the Israelites had suddenly gone out. Pharaoh was notified.
“It could be a trick,” one of Pharaoh’s officers remarked. “Perhaps they wanted us to think that they were camping for the night. Now they may be trying to escape through the mountains.”
“Perhaps their campfires just naturally died down,” another officer spoke up. “Not all at once!” Pharaoh snapped. “Whatever is going on, I won’t let these Israelites outsmart me. Alert my best chariot drivers and warriors to be ready to go within the hour. We will attack tonight!”
There was great excitement among the Egyptians because of the sudden order from their king. But the desire for a night attack died down when observers came in again to report that a very heavy fog had suddenly settled in from the south, and was covering almost all the area between the Egyptians and Israelites.
“It is so heavy and thick that our forces could become lost and separated in it,” one observer reported to Pharaoh.
In a way this was good news for Pharaoh, who reasoned that the sudden fog was the cause of losing sight of the Israelites’ campfire.
“They can’t possibly move on through the rough area along the sea south of here,” Pharaoh declared to his officers. ”With night coming on and a fog, they are hemmed in at our mercy. Let us wait until tomorrow to attack, when we can better observe the grand triumph of herding them into the sea!”
What the Egyptians didn’t realize was that God was using the cloud pillar in the sky in such a way that the north side of it was composed of heavy fog to curtain off the Israelites and confuse their pursuers. At the same time, on its south side, the pillar was like a towering torch that lighted the Israelite camps for the amazing action to come.
Now that the fears of many of the Israelites had been lessened, the people began settling down for the night. They didn’t know yet that it wasn’t God’s plan for them to spend the whole night were they were.
Just a little while after the pillar of fire and clouds moved behind the Israelites, God told Moses what to do next. Moses obeyed, and riders were quickly sent out to the long lines of people, telling them to be ready about midnight to move on. This order caused more excitement. Some of the people decided that they were about to be attacked, and wanted to leave at once. Others complained because they would lose their sleep. Many didn’t wish to leave the warmth of their fires that soon.
Puzzled at Moses’ order to move on in the middle of the night, several of the elders came to inquire what direction would be taken.
“We shall move to the east,” Moses replied. “But the Red Sea is to the east!” they exclaimed. ‘’That is where we shall go,” Moses said. “I shall let you know when to start the people moving toward the beach.”
Curious to follow Moses and his officers, a perplexed mass of people later edged toward the dark waters to their left. Moses dismounted and gazed with Aaron upon this body of water which was a very long gulf, several miles wide, shooting up from the main body of the Red Sea. In the light from the blazing cloud, as thousands of people in the foremost ranks watched, Moses lifted up his shepherds’ rod and held it out toward the water.
There was a distant roaring sound. It grew louder by the minute, until it sounded to the people near the shore like a giant waterfall.
“Look!” someone shouted. “There’s a hole in the water!”
A great murmur went up from the seashore throng as thousands of the Israelites witnessed something so astounding that at first they couldn’t believe their eyes. In the blazing light from the pillar of fire, a huge ravine was gradually appearing before them in the sea! It was as though some invisible, gigantic hand had scooped out a trough in the water all the way across the gulf to the east shore miles away! A wide expanse of muddy sea bottom was exposed to view. To the right and to the left of this giant trough were towering cliffs of water that seemed frozen in upright walls, but which actually flowed freely as though it were level.
God had miraculously plowed a road right through the Red Sea gulf by which the Israelites could escape to the east!
“There is where we shall travel to freedom!” Moses called out. After the Israelite officers and elders had somewhat recovered from their first shocks of surprise, some of them pointed out to Moses that it would be impossible for the people and their livestock to wade through the slimy, muddy sea bottom.
“We needn’t be concerned about that,” Moses explained. “It will be a little while yet before we leave here. Meanwhile, God will prepare the way for us.”
Even before Moses spoke, a strong, dry wind had come up. It increased in speed, soon sweeping down through the water-walled trough with gale force. The dry, howling wind continued for several hours. The dust and sand it blew up made the Israelites who were nearest the seashore uncomfortable. But although it was a slight hardship for them, it was the means by which God dried up a part of the sea bottoms so that they could walk upon it safely (Ex. 14:21). Shortly after midnight the wind died down. There was a strange silence, broken only by the peculiar sounds of throbbing splashes from the upright walls of water. Then came the order to move on.
There must have been many Israelites who hesitated to move on, even though they saw Moses and Aaron and their officers ride down across the steep beach and out upon the dried mud valley between the awesome walls of water.
Nevertheless, the ranks of the Israelites passed on to the left and descended into the bed of the Red Sea gulf. To the right and to the left the walls of water loomed higher and higher as the people approached the lowest and deepest part of the great trough. At that point the water towered above about 300 feet!
It required faith and courage to make this unusual descent into a sea bed. Moses and Aaron were good examples in faith and courage. Thus it was easier for the Israelites to follow, though many of them had trouble herding shying livestock through the water-walled chasm.
Most of the people were too intent on reaching the east shore to notice the many things of interest on the sea floor. Some, however, noted the object in their path. There were fish, crabs, octopi and other saltwater creatures that had been stranded in the mud when the waters parted. Of course most of them were not alive, having been out of the water for quite a while. There were also half-dried remains of strange underwater plants and the shells of sea mollusks that had long since died.
As for live fish, there were plenty of those, too. Here and there a fish would swim right out through the upright water and fall to the ground below. But the Israelites were interested only in escaping, and even the largest of the wall-pierced fish were almost unnoticed.
Back in the camp of the Egyptian army, events had been taking place that were soon to mean much both to Pharaoh and the Israelites. The Egyptians had bedded down for the night, but their sleep didn’t last very long.
It was that strong, dry wind that aroused the Egyptians to action. An alert guard noted that the heavy fog to the south of them didn’t seem to be affected at all by the high wind. Word of this was finally brought to Pharaoh. The Egyptian king had suffered through many miracles from God, and now he was suddenly suspicious.
“Something peculiar is going on,” he remarked to his officers. “Send word out for all to be ready to move on at top speed!”
When at last the Egyptian army did move on to the south in pursuit of the Israelites, it immediately ran into what appeared to be a very thick fog. Actually it was the base of the cloud pillar that had been leading the Israelites, and which had settled to the ground to separate them from the Egyptians.
Confusion overtook the Egyptian forces. The inky blackness of a night fog made it almost impossible to move on without running into all kinds of trouble. Furthermore, the strong east wind whipped in from their left, blowing stinging sand and soil into the eyes of men and horses. Pharaoh was furious. As he couldn’t get at the Israelites, he felt increasing certain that they were fooling him in some way. Now he regretted that he had failed to attack when they were first sighted.
“Our drivers can’t see which way to go,” one of the king’s officers reported. “Our horses and chariots will be lost or ruined if we continue in this manner.”
“Then have every man and horse halt where he is,” Pharaoh ordered. “We’ll stand where we are until daylight comes and the fog lifts. Then we’ll rush those fleeing slaves and either march them back to slavery or push them into the sea!”
The Egyptians didn’t have long to wait. The hot east wind gradually died down. Then the fog began to lift. Actually, God was lifting the cloud pillar to move it out over the Red Sea.
Now the first faint rays of morning made it possible for the Egyptian army to move. Pharaoh’s spirits soared. He felt that the Israelites had to be somewhere just ahead in the uncertain gray of dawn, and that there was no way for them to escape. Here, at last, was his happy opportunity to get revenge on the people whose God had caused so much trouble for him and for Egypt! Here was his chance to prove that he, Pharaoh, the supreme king of Egypt, would at last be the conqueror.
“Charge!” Pharaoh yelled. The order was relayed back to thousands of men and horses and chariots. The elements of the Egyptian army spurred forward in the growing dawn. It was the greatest battle force ever to be used since man had been put on Earth.
But it was not like one great army rushing against another army. It was one vast military force bearing down upon a helpless mass of men, women and children. It was a plan for large scale murder--genocide. That plan had been schemed out by a man who believed that he could triumph over the people God had chosen for a special work.
God, however, was allowing Pharaoh to do these things. He was using the Egyptian king to show both the Egyptians and the Israelites that there was only one Supreme God and Creator.
Riding in his special chariot near the head of the charging forces, the king of Egypt was one of the first to notice that the camp sites of the Israelites appeared empty. It was still early morning dusk, and difficult to see very far.
Minutes later the Egyptian chariots and cavalry thundered past a vast area of dead campfires. But here and there, a campfire was still smoldering.
“Those smoking ashes prove they haven’t been gone very long!” one officer shouted. “They might be hiding in the rocks and clifts ahead!”
“Impossible!” Pharaoh shouted back. Millions of people and animals couldn’t squeeze into those places! Turn left toward the shore! Perhaps a low tide allowed them to file around those crags next to the water!”
The foremost part of the force veered to the left and clattered toward the water. Suddenly the king held up an arm as to signal to halt. Gradually the speeding army ground to a stop. Pharaoh stood in his chariot, his head stretched forward and his eyes popping and blinding in disbelief and bewilderment at what he saw.
“It – it looks like a ditch in the sea!” an officer blurted out. ‘I can’t believe it!” the king muttered. “Calm water has to be level. But here it is upright.”
“I – I – I don’t like this,” a paling officer stammered. “It’s too much like those mysterious plagues we went through. We’d better turn back before something terrible happens.”
“Look, oh king!” a young lieutenant blurted out, pointing to the space in the sea, “I see them!”
Pharaoh and those about him stared hard into the water-walled valley. The growing light of morning revealed very faintly, in the distance, the rear columns of the Israelites moving slowing to the east between the divided waters!
Pharaoh was jubilant. He raised his arms to silence the excited officers. “These walls of water must indeed be a miracle from the God of the Israelites,” the king shouted. ‘But if the Israelites don’t fear to pass between these two bodies of water, why should we? As long as the Israelites are between the waters, their God won’t let the sea go back into place. We’ll be just as safe in there as they are. We can overtake them shortly. Pass the word back to move on after them at once!”
There were many Egyptian soldiers who were so startled at sight of the hole in the sea that they quivered at the very thought of going forward. But Pharaoh believed that he saw victory in sight, and no one dared fall back at such a time.
Thousands of clattering hoofs and rattling chariot wheels set up a din again as the vast army rolled down the steep shore and into the yawning space in the waters (Ex. 14:23).
Although the sea bed was dry on the surface, there were huge tufts of sea plants and dips and ridges that forced the chariots to go slower. Nevertheless, the speed of the Egyptians army was much greater than that of the plodding Israelites. The distance between the two groups was narrowing so swiftly that it would be only a matter of a few minutes before the rear columns of the Israelites would be cruelly set upon by their pursuers.
Several miles to the east, at the same time, the head columns of the Israelites had already emerged from the gap in the waters, and were moving slowly along the east shore of the gulf. Those who had come through felt a great relief to be out of that watery maw. But a fear of Pharaoh’s army still gnawed at many of them, even though Moses had told them that they would never see that army again.
As for the rear part of the mass of Israelites, they were spared the fright of seeing their pursuers move so close to them. The cloud by which God aided them had moved out over the trough in the sea. Just before it descended, it allowed Pharaoh to view his intended prey. Then it moved down so that its base touched the bed of the sea, thus keeping the Israelites from knowing that Pharaoh and his army were so close to them.
For a second time in a matter of hours the Egyptians were to have great trouble with that cloud. Pharaoh and his officers saw the growing fog-like condition ahead of them. But with the morning growing brighter, they didn’t think that low cloudiness would slow them up very much.
Suddenly a sizzling bolt of lightning spat out of the sky. The Egyptians looked up to see that what had seemed to be a fog bank had abruptly turned into a seething, towering mixture of clouds and flames! For the first time the Egyptians had a good look at the thing that had led the Israelites by day and by night. They were so startled that many of them came to a halt.
“Tell them to keep going!” Pharaoh ordered his officers. “The Israelites are just ahead of us!”
The king’s voice was lost in the loud rumble of thunder from the cloud. Chariots and horsemen that had come to a halt or slowed up were rammed by those who continued the charge. Sudden confusion swept across the whole Egyptian army. To make matters worse, there was a sudden heavy downpour of rain. Within minutes the ground was a slippery, muddy mess. Chariots skidded together, smashing wheels and injuring horses and drivers. Horses and chariots became mired in the mud. What only minutes before had been a mighty fighting force was transformed into a struggling, helpless mass of men, horses and chariots (vs. 24-25).
“Let’s get back out of here while we can!” one of Pharaoh’s head officers yelled. “We can’t win in a fight against these Israelites and their God!”
Other officers shouted out their agreement to the idea of a hasty retreat on foot. Pharaoh was dismayed to realize that he was fast losing control of his fighting force. Even so, he kept trying to preserve order.
Watch for our next installment of The Story of the Bible. See God’s deliverance of His people!