You may ask, 'you mean it's actually important to know where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea?' or 'Does it really matter which mountain is Mt. Sinai?'...
This article was first published in the June 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
'Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea...directly opposite Baal Zephon...''(Exodus 14:1).
It would be a gross understatement to say that the issues of the locations of the crossing of the Red Sea and of Mt. Sinai have gotten quite a bit of attention lately. Many articles have been written (some of the best by ABR scholars!), and the debate and discussion goes on. The pursuit of truth is a most noble task and its importance cannot be overestimated. Even within the subject of biblical geography, the researchers' theological assumptions impact both the research and the conclusions drawn from that research.
You may ask, 'you mean it's actually important to know where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea?' or 'Does it really matter which mountain is Mt. Sinai?' Such questions belie a set of assumptions that many Christians hold today, that historical or geographical precision is unimportant compared to the 'spiritual meaning' of the biblical text. This form of reasoning is not necessarily found among just liberal scholars with an axe to grind with evangelicals. It is found among many evangelicals, and sadly among our young adults who have been trained to understand the Christian faith in experiential and subjective forms devoid of the historical and geographical foundations that give their faith actual meaning. Let me be clear, my intent is not to cloud the important discussion of the actual locations of these events in any way, or to suggest that, by looking to the spiritual meaning and application, that our search is unimportant. Indeed, the archaeological research that is helping us understand the locations of these momentous events is of paramount importance, led by the sovereign will of God.
With that said, I want to call the reader to the Exodus text, chapters 13 and 14. We find the Israelites being led by God out of Egypt, by the desert road toward the Red Sea and armed for battle. God's leading is miraculous: '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...' (v. 21). It is significant that the writer informs us that the pillar of cloud and fire never 'left its place in front of the people' (v. 22). Why is this significant? Because God is about to do something apparently strange and unexpected. God wants us to know that He led them every step of the way to this point, and now He stops the Israelites and tells them to turn back! '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.' God shows us that the confrontation with the Egyptians at Baal Zephon is not by accident, or a coincidence. He shows us that He intentionally turns the Israelites around and leads them to a place that He has chosen for the great spiritual conflict with the Egyptians.
Yes...I said spiritual conflict. Even though the Israelites had left Egypt 'armed for battle' (13:18), they were told, 'you only need to be still' because 'the Lord will fight for you' (14:14). And lest we think the impending battle is just a physical battle between armies with swords, armor and chariots, let us remember that our God had been triumphing over not only the Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but also the supposed power of their gods. The plagues were a drumbeat of victory as the gods of Egypt were, one by one, displayed to be impotent and powerless. And even more importantly, Yahweh wanted the Egyptians to know that He is the Lord (14:4).
The study of the history and background of Baal Zephon is utterly fascinating. The worship of Baal was known throughout the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, and down into Egypt. Upon this mountain, Baal Zephon, it was believed that Zephon reigned in power and was lord over the sea. Here, Pharaoh may have sensed that the idol Zephon was going to display his power over the Israelites. God tells us some of Pharaoh's reasoning: 'Pharaoh will think, 'The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.' And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them' (v. 3, 4a). Indeed he did, and I believe that Pharaoh considered that Zephon would finally rout the Israelites and that Yahweh would be shown to be inferior in power. (Did Pharaoh still think that he and his Egyptian gods had power to subdue the God of Israel unaided by a still more powerful deity?) And it is no surprise that the Lord stopped Israel and turned them around to meet and defeat not only Pharaoh and his army, but also to display his power over Zephon and defeat him at the mountain of his glory and power. Not only this, but Yahweh would lead His people directly through the sea...the sea which the Egyptians believed were under the control of Zephon! And further, that instead of the Israelites being destroyed, showing Zephon's lordship of the sea, it would be the Egyptians who would discover who was both Lord of the mountain, but also Lord over the sea! There were many ways that God could have chosen to eliminate the Egyptian army; it was no accident that He chose to bring this conflict into the sharpest spiritual focus and to a climax of incredible proportions.
In the end we are left awestruck at the wisdom and power of our God. We can see clearly that God was showing His people, in the most amazing and startling ways, not only that He was Lord over all other gods and over nature, but was teaching His people Israel what happens to those who worship false gods. And lest we forget His love for the Egyptians, we must remember His words, that ultimately, 'the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord' (v. 4). Can we not also conclude, that in the end, God showed His grace to the Egyptians who were in the bondage of following gods who were empty, without power, and unable to save them?
The Lord said: '...I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.' God's glory is at stake in all these things. May we praise and glorify our great God, who delivers his people and triumphs over all our enemies!
Scott Lanser graduated with an M.A. from Biblical Theological Seminary, has served for over 20 years as a pastor in Lancaster, PA, and currently serves as the Executive Director of ABR.