CDPCKL · The Cloud and the Sea (Exodus 13:17-14:31)

The Cloud and the Sea (Exodus 13:17-14:31)

In the beginning, the Book of Genesis tells us, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 

And these sentences were Moses the writer’s snapshot of the early unformed universe: a cosmic ocean, an abyss of chaos and darkness — but, hovering over that abyss, the Spirit of God. 

But in the Hebrew language — in Moses’ language — the word “spirit” is also the word for “breath” or “wind”. So where our translation says that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, it could also say the Breath of God was hovering or the Wind of God was hovering — all of those concepts are contained in that single word “Spirit”. 

And the “breath” aspect is brought out in the very next verse, where God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God spoke words, and his spoken words are obviously carried on his Breath, his Spirit. 

And the “wind” aspect is brought out on the third day of creation when God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” While Moses does not mention it explicitly, everyone knows that water is most easily moved about by wind. So his ancient readers, when they read that God said, “Let the water be gathered,” they understood that God moved the waters by his spoken Word, by his Breath, by his Wind. 

Okay: so that is the first foindational concept from Genesis we need to keep in our minds as we continue in Exodus today. 

But there is actually another piece of Genesis we need to bring to mind before we proceed, and that piece comes from the life of Abraham: 

If you are familiar with the story of Abraham’s life, then you’ll remember that, soon after he arrived in the land of Canaan, he settled down on the highest mountain in the land. And God appeared to him there in a very strange form. We are told that when the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared. And in the original Hebrew language that word translated “firepot” is the word “tanoor”, which was a kind of large round clay oven that the Hebrew people used — a kind of large clay oven we are all very familiar with here in Malaysia, except we call it a “tandoor”. 

So what Abraham saw that night was a tandoor glowing with fire from within, with smoke billowing up from it. And we can imagine what this must have looked like in the darkness: how the billowing smoke would have been lit from beneath and from within by the fire blazing from the depths of the oven. 

So that is the second element from the Book of Genesis that we need to keep in mind as we return today to the Book of Exodus. 

And if you have been travelling with us through Exodus from the beginning, then you will remember that these concepts of water and fire from Genesis have already been gently reintroduced through Moses’ life: 

Very early on, right after Moses was born, his mother hid him from death by building a little ark for him — a little basket, a little floating piece of dry ground — and placing it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile river. And when we looked at that episode, we realized that Moses’ little adventure among the reeds was a type of baptism, it was a type of special anointing. By being given into the water — which symbolized chaos and death — and then by being saved through the water, we realized that Moses was being symbolically chosen and prepared to lead God’s people through a much greater adventure among the reeds later on. 

And then, after Moses was an adult, God appeared to Moses on a mountain in flames of fire from within a bush. And when we looked at that episode together, we realized that Moses was experiencing what Abraham had experienced during that dark night on the mountain 600 or 700 years earlier: the smoke and fire of God’s presence. God had met Abraham to tell him that his people would be sold into slavery in a foreign land, but that God would redeem them after 400 years to lead them back home. Then God met Moses to tell him that the 400 years were over; it was time to go and redeem God’s people and lead them back home. 

And two weeks ago, in our reading, it finally happened: the people of Israel got up in the middle of the night and left Egypt. And we were told that many other people from many other nations went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. And the last time we saw them they had left the city of Rameses, and had camped at a place called Sukkoth. 

Now, nobody today knows where Sukkoth is, exactly. But we do know that the Israelites were moving in an eastward direction. And we know this because of what Moses writes next: 

It turns out that, [17] when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. 

At the time there was a very nice, very well-maintained trunk road that ran up the coast from Egypt into the Philistine country. And just on the other side of the Philistine country were the mountains where Abraham’s family first got its start. 

But God did not lead them onto this nice highway, because: 

God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” 

The Philistines were one of the sea peoples; they made their fortunes on the ocean, through trade and piracy; and because they lived on the coast, next to the sea, they controlled that coastal highway. They were just like the toll-keepers on the PLUS highway, except that, if you complained about the toll or if your touchngo did not work properly, they would chop your head and take your car. 

And God knew his people were not ready to face that kind of challenge yet. 

[18] So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. 

So instead of travelling in a northeasterly direction along the coastal highway, God led them directly eastward onto a smaller desert road leading toward the sea. And as Moses has already noted, on their first night they camped at Sukkoth. 

But even though the Israelites were not really ready to face war yet, still they went up out of Egypt ready for battle. 

We do not know if they had any weapons yet; it could be that, when they asked the Egyptians for gold and silver and clothing, they also asked for swords and spears. But in any case, what Moses means here is that they went up well-organized and vigilant. 

Moses also notes that he took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” 

And these words here are among the closing words of the Book of Genesis. By including this information here, Moses is showing that the Book of Genesis is now officially closed, God’s promises completed, Joseph’s faith fulfilled. 

Then, [20] after leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert — another location that has been lost to history. [21] By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. [22] Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. 

And this is where we are supposed to pause and look at each other and say, “Ah, a pillar of smoke and fire! We know where this concept comes from!” Right? God met Abraham in smoke and in flames of fire. He met Moses the same way. But now all of God’s people together get to see God in this form! 

[1] Then the Lord said to Moses, [2] “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon.” 

And again, we have no idea where these places are. All we know for sure is that this is not the normal way a fleeing people would take if they were trying to leave the country in a hurry. 

But God has a reason for this: 

[3] “Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ [4] And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” 

Apparently God is not yet finished punishing Egypt for their 400 years of abusing his firstborn nation Israel. He is also not yet finished proving to the Egyptians that he is the Lord. 

And we can tell that many Egyptians still have not figured out that Moses’ God is the God over all gods, because when they were given the choice to stay back with Pharaoh and starve or follow Moses and eat, many — probably most — of the Egyptians decided to stay back and put their faith in Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s gods. Even after all the disasters the nation has suffered, they are not yet convinced that God alone is God. 

And God is determined to get his message across. So he tells the Israelites to wander around a bit and then work themselves into a trap between Egypt and the sea. 

So the Israelites did this. 

And it all happens just as God said it would: Pharaoh hears that the Israelites are already lost, then he regrets his decision to let them go, and he unleashes the full power of his military: six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. 

Meanwhile, the Israelites have camped beside the sea. They are feeling really good about themselves! — until they look up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. 

And they completely lose their faith, just as we would in that situation. [11] They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” 

And this is a bit of sarcastic humor we find here, because: what is the one thing everyone thinks about when we think about Egypt? Pyramids! And what are pyramids? They are graves. Tombs. ”Egypt is full of graves,” the people are saying, “so why are you leading us out to be buried in the wilderness instead?” 

What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? [12] Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” 

And it is clear that the people are not really thinking clearly at this point. Pharaoh’s army would not be coming to kill them all, merely to enslave them. But just like most of us when we lose our faith, their minds have jumped to the worse-case scenario. 

[13] Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. [14] The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” 

Now, Moses’ advice here is good pastoral advice. Three simple points: Don’t be afraid. Stand firm. And be still. 

But in the original Hebrew Moses does not sound quite so calm and pastoral as he sounds in our English translation. Especially in the last two words: “be still,” which really could be translated, “Shut up!” 

Remember, Moses is a descendant of Levi the hot-tempered murderer. In fact, Moses — in his younger years — was a bit of a hot-tempered murderer himself. And what we are seeing here is a reminder that, if Moses has a besetting sin, that sin would be his temper. Which will probably get him into trouble at some point. But anyway: 

The point being: Moses is annoyed. Like as in: “Come on, people! After everything we have just seen, now you are going to give up all hope just like that? The Lord will fight for you; you need only to shut up. Just be quiet and watch!” 

And it is clear that God is having a similar reaction: 

[15] Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? 

“What is all that noise down there? 

Tell the Israelites to move on. [16] Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. [17] I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen.” 

And he says again: [18] “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” 

At this point, however, we could pause and go back and ask a question about God’s overall strategy here: 

Just a few verses ago we read that God did not want his people to face war with the Philistines, or they might lose their faith, change their minds and return to Egypt. 

But how is this better? Here, the Israelites are facing the Egyptian army, the greatest army of the greatest empire on earth at the time — far better organized and equipped than the Philistines. Surely, if God wanted to teach his people to shut up and let him fight for them, he could have done that through the Philistines also? 

There are two answers as to why facing the Egyptians is better than facing the Philistines: 

First — as we have already noticed — it is the Egyptians who need to be educated in a special way about God’s true identity and character. The Philistines need to wait their turn; God is going to get their attention a few centuries later. 

Second, God’s main concern is that his people might change their minds and return to Egypt. Yes, if God’s only lesson here was, “Shut up and watch me fight for you,” then a war with the Philistines would have worked just as well. But that is not the only lesson God wants his people to learn here: he also wants them to know that, once they have followed him into the wilderness, there will be no going back. 

And as the first part of this lesson, Moses tells us that: 

[19] The angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, [20] coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. 

So even if somebody wanted to change sides, cross the aisle, go back to Egypt, they could not. 

[21] Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. 

And here, again, we are supposed to pause here and look at each other and say, “Ah ha! Here we have a strong wind gathering waters so that dry ground can appear. We know where this concept comes from!” 

Moses has just brought us back to the very dawn of creation. After many months of work uncreating Egypt, taking Pharaoh’s system apart piece by piece, here we have finally reached the turning point of the uncreation process. Over the last few weeks of our reading, ever since the plague of darkness, we have been waiting for the new creation to begin. Ever since the night of the Passover, we have been like Noah and his family floating in the ark, with the earth formless and empty beneath them, darkness over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, waiting for the resurrection to life. 

And now, here, it happens just as it did on the third day of creation, just as it happened in the time of Noah: God sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded: 

The waters were divided, [22] and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 

And I think we all know how the story ends. Just as God promised, the Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 

[24] During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion, 

— just as he once looked down upon the Tower of Babel and threw those builders into confusion. 

[25] He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” 

So now the Egyptians, at least, have learned the appropriate lesson! 

But they learn their lesson too late: the Lord gives Moses the signal, Moses stretches his hand out over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place, and not one of the Egyptians survived. And so, [30] that day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. [31] And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant. 

And there is a very ancient tradition that says this is where the Israelites got their weapons: from the drowned Egyptian soldiers whose bodies washed up on shore. I am personally skeptical that a man weighted down with a sword and a spear would float very well, if I had to guess I would say swords and spears were the first things the soldiers threw away when they saw the walls of water closing and realized they needed to run. 

But all that speculation is really beside the point. The point of the Egyptians lying dead on the shore is this: remember how, near the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Egyptians were throwing the sons of Israel into the waters of the Nile river? Well, now, God has taken the sons of Egypt and thrown them into the waters of the Red Sea. 

…except that the Red Sea is not actually called the Red Sea here: it’s true name, in Moses’ time, was the Reed Sea, the Sea of Reeds. And if you have a good bible translation, you will notice that every time the Red Sea is mentioned in this passage, it comes with a footnote that says, “Or the Sea of Reeds.” 

Now, what is the confusion here? 

The confusion is this: in the original Hebrew version of Exodus, it says the Reed Sea, because that was its name when Moses first wrote it down. But well over 1000 years later, when the ancient Jewish scholars went to translate Exodus into Greek, they called it the Red Sea, because that was its name more than 1000 years later. 

Which is fine: they were simply updating the name of the sea so that their readers would know which sea the Israelites crossed. And most of our modern translations have followed the Greek translation — but with this footnote to let us know that Moses actually called it the Sea of Reeds. 

Unfortunately, when we use “Red Sea” instead of “Reed Sea”, we actually lose something of the poetic beauty and balance and precision of God’s judgement here: 

Remember how Moses’ mother saved his life by making a basket for him and then placing it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile? When Moses was a baby he was left lying on the shore of a river, among reeds. He had been given over to a type of death — from which God saved him. 

The point is this: at the beginning of Exodus, Part 1, the sons of Israel were given over to death among the reeds on the shore of a river — but God resurrected one of those sons and raised him up as a messiah to lead God’s people through the waters of death to new life. 

Today, as we near the the end of Exodus, Part 2, the sons of Egypt have been given over to death among the reeds on the shore of a sea — but for them there is no resurrection. They rejected God’s messiah, and so now no sacrifice for sins is left to them, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 


So now the road back to Egypt is closed. But out of the darkness, out of the ruins of a collapsing civilization, out of the abyss, out of the waters of death here we find that the Wind of God, the Spirit of God, has breathed new life into a reborn Adam, God’s firstborn son: the nation of Israel. Israel is the new creation we have been waiting for. 

And because the road back is closed, now Israel is ready to face war. Changing their minds and returning to Egypt is no longer an option: they are committed now to the wilderness ahead. And this sets us up for the rest of the story. 

But before we get there we have to stop for today and ask ourselves the question we always do: what does this ancient event have to do with us? How are our lives supposed to be changed by this crossing? 

Well, as you can see from the table set before us today, we are planning to eat the Lord’s Supper together. And a few weeks ago, as we studied God’s instructions for the first Passover, we realized that this meal we eat is the completed form of that original Passover. 

But then, a week after that, as God continued his instruction for the Passover, we read that no foreigners — no non-Israelites — are allowed to join the sacred meal until they submit to circumcision, which was the sign of Abraham’s covenant with God, the promise of every man to entrust himself and all his sons and his whole family into God’s care. And we wondered, briefly, if we had violated God’s law by eating the Lord’s Supper without being circumcised into the Israelite nation. 

At that time I answered and said no, we were not wrong to eat. Because Jesus did not just transform Moses’ Passover into the Lord’s Supper, he also transformed Abraham’s circumcision into the Holy Spirit’s baptism by water. I said that if you have been baptised with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, by a legitimate minister in a legitimate church, then you are permitted — actually, commanded! — to come and eat the Lord’s Supper, which is Jesus’ Passover. It is through baptism that foreigners are able to come and eat Jesus’ Passover and join the Church of All Nations. 

But at that time I also asked you to take that statement on trust. I promised you that, as we came to the end of Exodus, Part 2, the process by which Jesus transformed circumcision into baptism would become clear. Today is that day. And this is how the transformation happened: 

Up until this night, when Israel crossed the sea, circumcision was the only way for a foreign family to leave their lastborn nation and join God’s firstborn nation. But in the chaos and haste of the exodus, many other people from many other nations have suddenly joined. There was no time for the men of those foreign families to be circumcised; these are people who did not get to eat the first Passover — they witnessed the death of their firstborn sons, they realized they were falling under God’s judgement for their participation in the abuse of God’s people, they repented, and they followed God’s people, all in one night. They camped at Sukkoth, they camped at Etham, they were setting up camp at Pi Hahiroth on the third night when suddenly the Egyptians attacked and Moses led them quickly through the sea. 

And now here they are, on the fourth morning after leaving their homes, looking back across the uncrossable sea, and there is no doubt that these foreigners are now part of Israel, even though they have not yet been circumcised. For them it was crossing the sea that first bound them to Israel, not circumcision. 

Now, for a long time no one really thought about the implications of this. The focus of Israelite identity continued to be on circumcision. The rule was: if you want to eat the Passover and join fully in worship, the males in your family have to be circumcised first. 

But there were hints almost from the beginning that circumcision was going to be replaced by something else in the future. For instance, near the end of Moses’ life, as he was writing the Book of Deuteronomy, God told Moses that physical circumcision was really just an external sign of having a circumcised heart, a heart that is dedicated to God. And God made it clear that, if he had to choose between physical circumcision or heart circumcision, he would rather have the heart circumcision. 

And then some of the later prophets began to suggest that, during the age of God’s true and final firstborn Messiah, physical circumcision would no longer be needed, because the hearts of every true Israelite would actually be circumcised by God’s Spirit. Through God’s Holy Breath each individual Israelite would become a new creation from the inside-out. The prophet Isaiah especially prophesied that, one day, even eunuchs would be able to come and participate fully in worship — which was a strange thing to say, since eunuchs in those days could never be circumcised, they had no private parts left to circumcise. 

And then, after about 400 years of silence from God, one final prophet turned up in Israel. His name was John, and he was the firstborn son of a priest. He was trained to perform all the usual ancient ritual baptisms, especially the sacred sprinkling rituals that cleansed people from physical skin diseases. But instead of performing these baptisms at the temple or in a synagogue — a Jewish church — this strange prophet performed his baptisms in the wilderness, on the shore of the the Jordan River. And he also changed the meaning of these baptisms: instead of baptising to cleanse people from skin diseases, he baptised to cleanse them from their confessed sins. He warned them that just being born and circumcised as an Israelite was not enough to save them from God’s judgement: they would need to produce fruit in keeping with repentance; they were going to need circumcised hearts. “But not to worry!” he said, “even though I can only baptize you with water, God’s final Messiah is on the way now, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In other words: God’s Messiah is the one who will circumcise your hearts so that you will produce fruit in keeping with repentance and be saved. 

And then Jesus, a man from Nazareth, arrived, and John the prophet baptized him also, even though Jesus had no sins to confess. In that case, John was anointing Jesus, marking him out as the king, the firstborn son of Israel, the representative messiah of Israel just like Moses had been. And Jesus did go on to claim that he was God’s final Messiah, the one sent to abolish circumcision and usher in the great age when eunuchs and foreigners of every kind would be able to come and worship God freely and without fear. 

Instead of welcoming Jesus, however, the leaders of Israel killed him. They cast him into the waters of death. For three days his body lay on the shores of the abyss. And then God resurrected him, raised him back up to prove that Jesus is who he claimed to be: the firstborn Son of God, the Messiah sent to lead people from all nations through the waters of death so that they could become part of a new creation. 

It was the apostle Paul who put all the theological pieces together for us. It was he who went back to the Exodus and pointed out that, when they followed God’s cloud out of Egypt, and followed Moses through the sea, “they were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” It was Paul who pointed out that the baptism through the sea was actually more important than circumcision, because it was an act of profound faith; and so it was not circumcision but baptism by faith that qualified even the foreigners to eat the true spiritual Passover that comes through Jesus Christ. 

And then, in another place, Paul finished putting the pieces together by explicitly connecting circumcision to baptism. He says, “In Christ you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, with which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 

Basically, Paul is saying that when Jesus died, he figuratively drowned in the sea just like the Egyptians had. And his people — all of them, past, present and future — symbolically drowned with him, just like the Egyptians. But then, in the same way, when he was resurrected, all of Jesus’ people — past, present and future — were also raised with him through faith, just like the Israelites had been. And that resurrection, that being joined together with Jesus as a new creation, circumcised from the inside-out, is symbolised through the priestly sprinkling of water, just as being joined together with Moses was symbolized by being baptized through the sea, just as being joined together with Abraham was symbolized through circumcision. 

Now, there is a lot more that needs to be said about all this. Remember how John the Baptizer said that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire? And Paul talked about how the people were all baptized in the cloud and in the sea — the cloud that was also a pillar of fire? The connection between the concept of fire and the presence of God began in Genesis, and has been continued in Exodus, it will continue to develop — but I think we have gone as far as we can for today, we will revisit these things again as we read on together in the weeks to come. 

In the meantime, we still have not answered the question: what does this ancient event have to do with us? How are our lives supposed to be changed by this crossing of the sea? What is our application? 

Most of you know already what I’m going to say next: 

If you are here today, and you are not baptized…well, in the words of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, for all — every foreigner — whom the Lord our God will call.” 

Come with us. Cross the sea, and rise as a new creation! 

But what about we who are already baptized, is there any application here for us? 

Well, yeah, I think so. This point is going to be made several times in the chapters ahead, but even here we see that the hearts of the Israelites are easily swayed by fear. And really, if we are honest, we have to admit that, left to ourselves, we are no different. We also face overwhelming odds. Right here, in this city, in this nation, we are severely outnumbered. We have no significant voice in government, in media, in society. The vast majority of the people out there have no fear of the Lord, they do not even know his name, and they certainly despise us. And so the temptation to turn back is always among us, the temptation to surrender or even despair. 

So when those temptations come upon us, let us preach to one another Moses’ rather short-tempered application: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance of the Lord. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Or, in the words of Psalm 46: “Shut up! and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” We are in the wilderness now; the way back is closed. But we are not alone, brothers and sisters: God goes ahead of us in the cloud and in the fire. So let us follow him with courage! 


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