The Crossing of the Red Sea

According to the "Document Theory" (circa 1890) most of the first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Old Testament were constructed from four distinct, underlying written sources, which can be recreated from the received text. These multiple texts result in much duplication in the first five books with typically two or three of the four sources dealing with the same topic from slightly different perspectives.

The branch of Biblical studies dealing with the discernment of underlying written sources is called Redaction Criticism. The Redactor being the ancient editor who compiled the underlying written sources into the final text.

This is controversial because it denies the traditional attribution to Moses as being the sole author of these books and also because it alters the traditional interpretation of the meaning of these books.

In analyzing the story of the crossing at the Red Sea from this perspective, two distinctly different story lines emerge. These two accounts may give us additional insights into the historical event underlying both accounts. The story appears in Exodus 13:17- 14:31. Note: every verse is used once and only once.


17. Now, when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines land, though this was the nearest; for he thought, should the people see that they would have to fight, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.

18. Instead, he rerouted them toward the Red Sea by way of the desert road. In battle array the Israelites marched out of Egypt.

19. Moses also took Joseph's bones along, for Joseph had made the Israelites swear solemnly that when God should come to them, they would carry his bones away with them.

Version I - The Crossing of the Red Sea - Traditional/Movie Version

20. Setting out from Succoth, they camped at Etham near the edge of the desert.

1. Then the Lord said to Moses,

2. "Tell the Israelites to turn about and camp before Pi- hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. You shall camp in front of Baal-zephon, just opposite, by the sea.

3. Pharaoh will then say, "the Israelites are wandering about aimlessly in the land. The desert has closed in on them."

4. Thus will I make Pharaoh so obstinate that he will pursue them. Then I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." This the Israelites did.

8. So obstinate had the Lord made Pharaoh that he pursued the Israelites even while they were marching away in triumph.

9. The Egyptians, then , pursued them; Pharaohs whole army, his horses, chariots, and charioteers, caught up with them as they lay encamped by the sea, at Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

15. Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

16. And you, lift up your staff and, with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two, that the Israelites may pass through it on dry land.

17. But I will make the Egyptians so obstinate that they will go in after them. Then I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots and charioteers."

18. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I receive glory through Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers."

21. a. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,

21. c. When the water was thus divided,

22. the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.

23. The Egyptians followed in pursuit, all Pharaohs horses and chariots and charioteers went after them right into the midst of the sea.

26. Then the Lord told Moses; "Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may flow back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and their charioteers."

27. a. So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and

27. c. the sea flowed back to its normal depth.

28. As the water flowed back, it covered the chariots and the charioteers of Pharaoh's whole army which had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not a single one of them escaped.

29. But the Israelites had marched on dry land through the midst of the sea, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.

Version II - The Divine Battle at the Red Sea

21. The Lord preceded them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light. Thus they could travel by night and day.

22. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people.

5. When it was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his servants changed their minds about them. "What have we done!" they exclaimed. "Why, we have released Israel from our service!"

6. So Pharaoh made his chariots ready and mustered his soldiers--

7. six hundred first class chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt, with warriors on them all.

10. Pharaoh was already near when the Israelites looked up and saw that the Egyptians were on the march in pursuit of them. In great fright they cried out to the Lord.

11. And they complained to Moses, "Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you do this to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt?

12. Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, "Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians"? Far better for us to be slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert."

13. But Moses answered the people, "Fear not! Stand your ground, and you will see the victory the Lord will win for you today. These Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.

14. The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still."

19. The angel of God, who had been leading Israel's camp, now moved and went around behind them. The column of cloud also, leaving the front, took up its place behind them,

20. so that it came between the camp of the Egyptians and that of Israel. But the cloud now became dark, and thus night passed without the rival camps coming any closer together all night long.

24. In the night watch just before dawn the Lord cast through the column of the fiery cloud upon the Egyptian force a glance that threw it into panic;

25. and he so clogged their chariot wheels that they could hardly drive. With that the Egyptians sounded the retreat before Israel, because the Lord was fighting for them against the Egyptians.

27. b. The Egyptians were fleeing head on toward the sea, when the Lord hurled them into its midst.

30. Thus the Lord saved Israel on that day from the Egyptians. When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore

31. and beheld the great power that the Lord had shown against the Egyptians, they feared the Lord and believed in him and in his servant Moses.

Version III - Verses that fit neither story above

21. b. and the Lord swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and so turned it into dry land.

27. b. at dawn [the sea flowed back to its normal depth.]

These two verses imply a strong wind temporarily dried the sea out allowing the Israelites to cross during the night. This detail fits neither the versions above nor the traditional combined account.

Possible Interpretation

The underlying event may have been a battle between a band of escaping Israelites and a unit of the Egyptian Army. Apparently the Israelites out flanked the Egyptians by slipping around them during the night, attacking them by surprise at dawn and driving them back against the sea.

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