As Pharaoh’s army approached from the west and the Red Sea sat to the east, the recently liberated Israelites found themselves trapped while they camped at Pi-hahiroth (Ex. 14:1–12). We can imagine the terror Israel felt as the Egyptians closed in on them and how hard it was to believe Moses’ words that the Lord would defeat Pharaoh and his forces (vv. 13–14).
Let us now consider what body of water is meant by the name “Red Sea” (see 13:18; 15:4). The name itself in English suggests the large body of water that separates the northeast corner of Africa from the Sinai Peninsula, but the description of Israel’s journey thus far makes it unlikely that this body of water is in view. In Hebrew, the name translated as “Red Sea” likely means “sea of reeds,” which could also be applied to the Gulf of Suez or the Gulf of Aqaba, smaller bodies of water that extend north from the Red Sea to the west and east of the Sinai Peninsula, respectively. The name was also used for many of the large lakes north of the Gulf of Suez. Given what Moses has said about Israel’s movements, most likely the Red Sea of the exodus was one of those lakes. These were deep and imposing seas and were barriers to Israel’s escape eastward without divine assistance.
Divine assistance is just what God promised the Israelites at this time, as we read in today’s passage. Although the people, not Moses, have cried out to God (14:10–12), the Lord addresses Moses with His plans, since Moses is the representative of Israel before Him. God tells Moses that he is to stretch out his hand and staff over the Red Sea to divide it and to allow the Israelites to pass through the waters on dry land. He will harden the Egyptian army so that they will pursue Israel, but then God will get glory over them. In other words, the Lord is promising to use the waters as a means of escape for Israel and a means of defeat for Egypt, and He, the Divine Warrior, will receive acclaim for bringing an end to His enemies (vv. 15–18). Paul later uses this event as a picture of Christian baptism (see 1 Cor. 10:1–2). Those who, like the Israelites, trust in God make it through the waters of baptism safely, but those who do not trust in the Lord will find that the waters of baptism become waters of judgment.
For the Israelites to pass through the Red Sea, they must first break camp, a time-intensive task for so many people (see Ex. 12:37–38). God moves the pillar of cloud and fire between Israel and Egypt’s army to give Israel time to pack up their things (14:19–20).