Historical critical read of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14-15)

Red Sea or Reed Sea?

Egypt, Red Sea, and Sinai from space
Image from nasa.gov

Comparing Canaanite with Israelite literature shows move from myth to history

Ba‘al likes to smite with his smitin’ stick.

Based on Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (PDF)

Canaanite Hymn to Ba‘al Israelite Hymn to YHWH (Exodus 15)
Your name is Yagarriš (drive out),
Yagarriš drive out Sea!
Drive out Sea from his throne,
River from the seat of his dominion!
YHWH is a warrior, YHWH is his name!
You shall take your eternal kingship,
your dominion forever and ever…
Sea verily is dead; Ba‘al rules!
Let YHWH reign forever and ever.
Behold your enemy, O Ba‘al,
Behold your enemy you will smite,
Behold you will smite your foes.
Your right hand, YHWH, shattered the enemy.
In your great majesty you crushed your foes.

Who is the enemy in each? When does it happen?

Canaanite Hymn to Ba‘al Israelite Hymn to YHWH (Exodus 15)
Sea fell, He sank to Earth
His joints trembled,
His frame collapsed.
Ba‘al destroyed, drank Sea!
He finished off Judge River!
Sea verily is dead. Ba‘al rules!
Pharaoh and his army God hurled into the sea.
Pharaoh’s elite troops, drowned in the Reed Sea.
The deeps covered them, they sank in the depths like a stone.
You blew with your breath… sea covered them.
They sank like a lead weight in the dreadful waters.

The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton, Leeds Art Gallery, arthive.com

Myth vs. history

(does NOT mean unreal vs. real or false vs. true)

Myth – outside of time and space

History – placed in a specific time and earthly place

Both are found in the Bible

Israelite myth comes back with a vengeance

Early Israelites were more concerned that God and the sea NOT sound like Marduk and Tiamat

Later Israelites embrace the advantage of myth, that it signifies a recurring pattern of a liberating God

Isaiah 51:9-11

Was it not you who smashed Rahab, the writhing Dragon?
Was it not you who dried up Sea, the waters of the great deep?
Did you not make a way in the depths of the sea for the redeemed to cross?
The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and enter Zion with a shout!

Habakkuk 3:8

Was not your wrath against River, Lord? Your anger against River? Your ire against Sea?
When you drove your horses, the chariot of your salvation?

Psalm 114:1-3

When Israel came forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from an alien people,
Judah became God’s holy place, Israel, God’s domain.
The Sea beheld and fled; the Jordan turned back.

Distinguishing sources demonstrates historical development within the Bible

Exodus 15 (oldest): God uses sea as a tool to defeat Egyptians (basically throws them in the sea as if from a boat, no splitting, no dry land)

Pharaoh and his army He hurled into the sea
At the blast of your nostrils the waters heaped up
The swells mounted up as a hill; the deeps foamed in the heart of the sea.
You blew your breath, sea covered them
They sank like a lead weight in the dreadful waters.

Joshua 24:7 (pretty old): more like a tidal wave (no splitting, no passing through, no dry land)

Because they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between your people and the Egyptians, upon whom he brought the sea so that it engulfed them.

J strand in Exodus 14: Dry land (Israelites not on it), sea is pushed back (not split), no depths, Egyptians drown when wind ceases to blow

The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land… at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea.

D in Joshua 2:9: Israelites seem to pass through on dry land, still no splitting

For we have heard that the Lord dried up the waters of the Reed Sea before you in your exodus from Egypt.

P (late): God splits the sea

The Israelites came into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall for them on their right and left… And the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea that the waters will fall back on the Egyptians, their chariotry and on their horsemen.”

Nehemiah (very late): combination of different stages

And you split the sea before them and they crossed over in the midst of the sea on dry ground and their pursuers you threw into the deeps like a stone in the mighty waters.

Liberation theology and the exodus

Reading the Bible as liberating to communities today (postmodern)

Latin American

African American


Exodus 14 as interpreted by “The Ten Commandments” (1956)
Red Sea Family
Red Sea Bizarro