More on Crossing the Red Sea
To many people the crossing of the Red Sea on top of an ice bridge seems absurd. Where in all history has such a suggestion been made? The truth is, I know of no suggestion. But the first time I studied the account thirty-eight years ago, the Bible said to me it was an ice bridge. But wait, does not the text say Israel went across on “dry land” or “dry ground”?
Hollywood is wrong again. The text does not say the Israelites went across on dry land or ground even though at first glance one might be led to that conclusion (Exodus 14:21,22,29; 15:19). Note carefully that the King James word “land” or “ground’ is in italics, and this shows those italicized words are not in the biblical text. All it means is that the Israelites walked “dry shod” on some substance that was itself “dry.” The context identifies that “dry substance.” And in the case of crossing the Red Sea, it was ice, not land or ground. The Israelites went across on a thick (and wide) slab of ice.
But does not the text say that the waters were a “wall” on each side of the pathway (Exodus 14:22,29)? Yes, the waters were likened by Moses as two “walls” on each side, but he did not mean the “walls” were like the sides of a canyon with the Israelites in the valley below -- on the bottom of the sea bed. Not at all. There is a principle that must always be followed if one hopes to interpret the Bible in a proper way.
That principle is to let God give the definition of the Hebrew or Greek words that he uses to explain himself to readers of his Scriptures. And he does such a thing with this use of the word “wall” (ghohmah) in the matter of the Exodus. In the Book of Nahum, the same word “wall” (ghohmah) is used in another context that also fits what happened at the crossing of the Red Sea. Here is what the prophet Nahum wrote to describe the island city of Thebes in Egypt which had the waters of the Nile surrounding her. Nahum said: “Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river [Nile] was her defense, the waters her wall [ghohmah]” (Nahum 3:8 NIV). And just like in Nahum, Moses used the same word “wall” (ghohmah) to signify the open waters on each side of the ice bridge which were like “walls” to the Israelites. Those “walls” were not at all perpendicular ones like the sides of a canyon. And, as far as the word “dividing” (bah-kag) the waters is concerned, in other parts of the Bible the same word simply means to separate one section of the subject under discussion from another section, like breaching the wall of a house or a city (II Chronicles 21:17; Jeremiah 52:7) or dividing one part of an army from another (I Chronicles 11:18). Indeed, the ice bridge did in fact separate one part of the Red Sea from the other part as the word bah-kag signifies.
What God did at the Exodus was to cause (in a miraculous way) a cold wind to arise at night which froze the waters of the Red Sea into a bridge of ice which was dry. He froze the water to be like “dry land.” In the Arctic today, thick ice covers the lakes over which heavy trucks can travel and the ice is as dry as a bone. But in the case of the Exodus, it was a thick ice bridge that stuck out of the water about 10% higher than the surrounding waters which were like “walls” to the Israelites. So, when morning came and the Israelites were safe on the east side, the Egyptians started across the ice bridge. And when they got themselves far out on the bridge, the Hebrew of Exodus 14:25 states that the wheels of the Egyptian chariots began “to slip off’ the ice bridge. The Egyptian drivers “drove the horses heavily forward” (verse 25) to keep the chariots from slipping off the sides into the water.
This sliding off the ice bridge of the chariots with their men is described by Moses. “The horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea“ (Exodus 15:1,21). And Moses said, in a similar expression: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host has he cast into the sea” (Exodus 15:4). Psalm 136:15 states: “But (God) overthrew [margin, shaked off] Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.” That’s right. They were shook off into the sea.
The Book of Hebrews also attests to this. Hebrews 11:29 states: “By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.” Now this is the King James translation (which has the word “land” in italics). But even retaining the word “land” is no problem with Paul’s meaning. This is because he used the word “as” in the text (which I have underlined). He means “as though it were” dry land. Even Moses said that YHVH “made the sea dry land” (Exodus 14:21) – the sea itself was made solid into (or converted into something like) “dry land,” not that Israel walked on the dry sea bottom.
In Psalm 66:6 we read that God “turned (or transformed) the sea into dry land (that is, into a dry substance).” The sea itself was converted into a dry substance -- not that the sea opened up and Israel walked on the sea bottom. The sea was “congealed” (made into ice) and this fits the story of crossing the Red Sea perfectly. Even Paul said the same thing. He said the substance on which their feet trod was “just like” dry land to them -- though it were “dry land.” Then Paul remarked on “which [dry land]” (that is, the substance that had become solid and dry) the Egyptians made a trial (Greek) of walking, but the Red Sea (which Paul personified) “swallowed them down” (Greek). That is, the Egyptians went from the surface down to the bottom. Indeed, Paul was simply quoting Moses who said: “The earth [the sea part of the earth] swallowed them [down]” (Exodus 15:12).
Thus, everything becomes clear regarding the events that happened on that crucial day in biblical history. In the plainest of language we are told by Moses and Miriam that the waters congealed into a frozen slab of ice that made the water to be a solid mass just like it was “dry ground” or “dry land.” The slab stood upright (as ice does in water about 10%) and the Israelites walked across at night. The Egyptians did not make it across.
But what about I Corinthians 10:1,2 where Paul said the Israelites “were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea”? Does this support the supposition of Hollywood after all? This has been a favorite verse of the Baptists to show that the word “baptize” means to immerse (or to put under the water). To them, Paul’s analogy indicates that Israel was on the sea bed and (figuratively speaking) under the water’s surface. This is, however, not so. Paul’s real meaning can easily be understood. Let me explain this with a story about my early life.
I was born in Oklahoma and spent my early years there. The region where we lived was made up mainly of Methodists and Baptists with a predominance of Baptists. Of course there were other Protestant groups represented like the “Super Methodists” called Nazarenes (and two of my uncles on my father’s side were Nazarene preachers) along with some Campbellites, Pentecostals and a few others. But the Methodists and Baptists so dominated the area that it was common to call the Methodists “the Army of the Lord” and the Baptists “the Navy” (the Baptists were the “Navy” because they put people under the water at baptism while the Methodists normally only sprinkled and were called the “Army”).
Now my father was a Methodist and my mother a Baptist. They got along splendidly well, but when the doctrine of baptism came up the sparks would fly. My mother used the argument of most Baptists that complete immersion was correct because Paul said (using the traditional interpretation of the crossing of the Red Sea) that the Israelites went down onto the sea bed with the water above their heads. Baptists normally believed this was the best way to understand Paul’s figure of baptism in I Corinthians 10:1,2. My father did not feel the interpretation was correct because he saw that the Israelites went through the sea without any water touching them. It reminded him, he said, of some Baptists he knew whom he claimed were “dry sinners” before their baptisms and were simply “wet sinners” when they came out of the waters. Be that as it may, mother did not think dad’s belief defended Methodist sprinkling. Oh yes it did according to dad. He said the key to the whole thing was Paul saying the Israelites were baptized “in the cloud” as well as “in the sea.” But mom showed dad that the Israelites were not up “in the cloud” to get wet from the cloud surrounding them because Paul also said they were “under the cloud” the whole time they crossed the Red Sea. And this is the very thing dad wanted mom to admit. He then said, “And being “under the cloud” is what makes Paul’s teaching sensible because, you see, that’s when the cloud rained on them.” And with a smile on his face he said: “That makes our Methodist way of sprinkling better than your Baptist way of immersing.” [In fact, dad wasn’t far off because water did come forth from a sapphire stone in the shape of a throne on which God sat over the cherubim that was in the cloud. See Question One Hundred.]
My dad got a laugh out of kidding mom about this matter. And though both of them enjoyed joking with one another over the issue, they still took Paul seriously and they certainly were not kidding about Paul’s teaching. The truth is, both dad and mom knew that both their explanations had major drawbacks to them. But really, when one studies the words that the apostle Paul used in Greek, the matter can be easily explained. This is because the word “en” in the phrase “in the cloud and in the sea” is not always equal in its meaning to our English word “in.” It often means “by.” Dr. R.C.H. Lenski (the great Lutheran scholar) explains this.
“Being under the cloud and passing through the sea are here termed a baptism, they were analogous to Christian baptism. The preposition en is usually termed instrumental, ‘by the cloud,’ etc. This might be conceived as an immersion in so far as the cloud would cast a shadow over the Israelites but scarcely in regard to the waters of the sea which in no way covered the Israelites who walked through ‘upon dry ground,’ only the Egyptians were immersed, and that not only figuratively but very literally. As for the cloud, this moved behind the Israelites, its function being to separate them from the Egyptians. No water from the cloud or from the sea was applied to the Israelites. It was likewise the function of the sea to separate” (page 390).
The meaning of Paul’s illustration is simple. He was showing that the Israelites were baptized “unto Moses” (they came under or within his full authority) “by the cloud and by the sea.” That is, by the cloud being above them and by the sea being beneath them, they were completely surrounded (that is, immersed unto Moses) with the full protection from God -- both from above and from below. This is Paul’s meaning.
The Israelites were certainly not up in the cloud nor were they down in a trench at the bottom of the sea. They were actually (as we have shown as the true and proper interpretation of the crossing) on the top of the waters that had now been turned into a solid roadway of ice. It is by understanding this fact (that Israel was on top of the waters) that Paul’s figure of being immersed both by the cloud above as well as by the sea below can make perfectly good sense.
All of what Moses said (including the testimony of Paul) shows that the Israelites went through the Red Sea (as shown in questions four and five in this book) by means of an ice bridge which stood up about 10% above the surface of the water. That is precisely what the texts state when read carefully. It is time to give up the “Hollywood” version and get back to the original teaching of the Bible.
The great Rabbinic scholar named Rashi said the waters were made to stand upwards like “a stack of wheat” or “a mound.” It was like one mound -- a single mound -- but level on top, not like two ice “mounds’ parallel with each other stretching across the extent of the sea. And while Israel safely crossed at night, the ice bridge began to get slippery with the sun coming out and the wheels of the chariots began to slip off the bridge into the open sea. And as morning progressed the slab of ice began to break into pieces. The Egyptians found themselves unable to stay on the several pieces of melting ice. They were then cast off (or, they slid off) into the sea. And, as Moses and Paul said: The Red Sea swallowed them down. This is the real biblical meaning.
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