#120. How is the Red sea dried up: Moses divides it with his rod OR Yahweh with the wind OR Yahweh with his own breath OR with a shout? (Ex 14:16 vs Ex 14:21 vs Ex 15:10 vs Ps 106:9)
#121. Do the Israelites advance through the sea bed followed by the Egyptians OR do they remain on the shore and only the Egyptians enter the dried sea bed? (Ex 14:23 vs Ex 14:13-14, 25, 27)
#122. Do the Egyptians get washed up dead on the sea shore OR do they sink to the bottom? (Ex 14:30 vs Ex 15:5)

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There are three classic examples that biblical scholars use to demonstrate the Documentary Hypothesis: the Flood narratives (#14-18), the Joseph story (#72-73), and the crossing of the Red Sea. In fact there are three visible accounts of this story in Exodus 14-15: 1) the original Yahwist account (the Elohist account is no longer wholly visible); 2) the Priestly writer’s account which was later stitched into the Yahwist account; and 3) an old song version now preserved in chapter 15.

The discovery that the Pentateuch was composed of post-Mosaic sources written by different authors at different time periods, and to address the concerns and needs of different audiences, all of which later came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis, originally rested on the assumption that the Pentateuchal text was a unified narrative written by a single author, which tradition accredited to Moses. This was the traditional “given” or a priori assumption.

Yet the biblical text itself was to make quite a different claim. That is, close attention to the narrative itself, its nuances, inconsistencies, differing styles, vocabulary, and theological emphases largely brought the traditional assumption of Mosaic authorship into question. I’ve outlined the 300 year history of this discovery and the textual data which has supported, and continues to support, this claim in How the Bible was discovered to be a collection of post-Mosaic texts. That’s all I have to say on this topic here.

The reason I bring this up is that we too, in our examination of the crossing of the Red sea narrative, shall start from the assumption that the text is a unified whole, written by a single author. Note that this is a subjective assessment, but I will allow ourselves to start from this assumption in the present example to demonstrate how the text actually negates this assumption. In other words, I’d like to work my readers through the text, slowly and laboriously, showing them how the text itself in this singular case reveals that it is actually three different once separate accounts of the crossing of the Red Sea. This will be a lengthy post and in many regards is a miniature of the aims of this site as a whole. I’ll leave it up for 3 days—alas, a contradiction per day! Still true to my word.

Step 1: Reading the Full Text Closely

We’ll focus our attention on Exodus 14:8-30. Here is the full text. As usual, I use Richard Friedman’s translation. You might want to read it carefully and take notes on what you observe. My notes are at the end of this excerpt.

8And Yahweh strengthened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel. And the children of Israel were going out with a high hand. 9And Egypt pursued them. And every chariot horse of Pharaoh and his horsemen and his army caught up to them camping by the sea at Pi-Hahiroth, in front of Baal-Zephon. 10And Pharaoh came close. And the children of Israel raised their eyes, and here was Egypt coming after them, and they were very afraid. And the children of Israel cried out to Yahweh.

11And they said to Moses, “Was it from a lack of no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you’ve done to us to bring us out of Egypt? 12Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying ‘Stop! And let’s serve Egypt, because serving Egypt is better for us than dying in the wilderness!'”

13And Moses said to the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still and see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today! For as you’ve seen Egypt today, you’ll never see them again. 14Yahweh will fight for you, and you’ll keep quiet!”

15And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move. 16And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea, and split it! And the children of Israel will come through the sea on dry ground. 17And I am strengthening Egypt’s heart and they will come after them, and I’ll be glorified against Pharaoh and against all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18And Egypt will know that I am Yahweh when I’m glorified against Pharaoh and against his chariots and his horsemen.”

19And the angel of God who was going in front of the camp of Israel moved and went behind them. And the column of cloud went from in front of them and stood behind them. 20And it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. And there was the cloud and darkness [for the Egyptians], while the column of fire lit the night [for the Israelites], and one did not come near the other all night. 21And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. And Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry ground. And the water was split. 22And the children of Israel came through the sea on dry ground. And the water was a wall to them at their right and at their left. 23And Egypt pursued and came after them, every horse of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen, through the sea. 24And it was in the morning watch, and Yahweh gazed at Egypt’s camp through a column of fire and cloud and threw Egypt’s camp into tumult 25and turned its chariots’ wheels so that it drove it with heaviness. And Egypt said: “Let me flee from Israel, because Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26And Yahweh said to Moses: “Reach your hand out over the sea and the water will go back over Egypt, over his chariots and over his horsemen.” 27And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. And the sea went back to its strong flow toward morning, and Egypt was fleeing toward it. And Yahweh tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28And the waters went back and covered the chariots and the horsemen, all of Pharaoh’s army who were coming after them in the sea. Not even one of them was left. 29And the children of Israel had gone on the dry ground through the sea, and the water had been a wall to them at their right and at their left. 30And Yahweh saved Israel from Egypt’s hand that day. And Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore.

Step 2a: Observing and Collecting the Textual Data. Part I: Exodus 14:10-15

The rationale for these markings are given below (wish I could have drawn circles and made lines connecting the words here distinguished by different colors).

10And Pharaoh came close. And the children of Israel raised their eyes, and here was Egypt coming after them, and they were very afraid. And the children of Israel cried out to Yahweh.

11And they said to Moses, “Was it from a lack of no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you’ve done to us to bring us out of Egypt? 12Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying ‘Stop! And let’s serve Egypt, because serving Egypt is better for us than dying in the wilderness!'”

13And Moses said to the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still! And see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today! For as you’ve seen Egypt today, you’ll never see them again. 14Yahweh will fight for you, and you’ll keep quiet!”

15And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move.

The observable textual data:

  1. The specific theme and vocabulary of the Israelites being “afraid” and Moses responding to their fear, “Don’t be afraid,” seem to link verses 10b and 13 together.
  2. This is reenforced by the criterion of narrative continuity: verses 10b and 13 read as a continuous whole.

    And the children of Israel raised their eyes, and here was Egypt coming after them, and they were very afraid. And Moses said to the people: “Do not be afraid. Stand still and see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today.”

  3. The specific theme and vocabulary of the Israelites “crying out” to Yahweh and Yahweh’s response, “Why do you cry out?” seem to link verses 10c and 15 together.
  4. This is reenforced by the criterion of narrative continuity:

    And the children of Israel cried out to Yahweh. And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move.”

  5. Separated out, these two thematic responses would seem to solve the fact that the narrative has duplicate responses to the initial crisis: “And Moses said…” and “And Yahweh said…
  6. Both of these ensembles (10b & 13 and 10c & 15) not only display different vocabulary but also present contradictory commandments: “Stand still!” and “Move!”
  7. Finally, verses 11-12 seem to represent an independent theme, part of the wilderness theme of rebellion, that adds nothing to the present narrative. In fact, it can easily be removed without causing any loss in meaning nor narrative consistency.

I have tried just to note what we observe at the textual level. But tentatively let’s postulate the following textual hypothesis:

10And Pharaoh came close. And the children of Israel raised their eyes, and here was Egypt coming after them, and they were very afraid. And the children of Israel cried out to Yahweh.

11And they said to Moses, “Was it from a lack of no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you’ve done to us to bring us out of Egypt? 12Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying ‘Stop! And let’s serve Egypt, because serving Egypt is better for us than dying in the wilderness!'”

13And Moses said to the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still! And see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today! For as you’ve seen Egypt today, you’ll never see them again. 14Yahweh will fight for you, and you’ll keep quiet!”

15And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move.

Each colored text reads as a continuous and uninterrupted whole. Let’s momentarily put this aside and look closely at another segment, Exodus 14:13-30.

Step 2b: Observing and Collecting the Textual Data. Part II: Exodus 14:13-30

13And Moses said to the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still and see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today! For as you’ve seen Egypt today, you’ll never see them again. 14Yahweh will fight for you, and you’ll keep quiet!”

15And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move. 16And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea, and split it! And the children of Israel will come through the sea on dry ground (yabbashah). 17And I am strengthening Egypt’s heart and they will come after them, and I’ll be glorified against Pharaoh and against all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18And Egypt will know that I am Yahweh when I’m glorified against Pharaoh and against his chariots and his horsemen.”

19And the angel of God who was going in front of the camp of Israel moved and went behind them. And the column of cloud went from in front of them and stood behind them. 20And it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. And there was the cloud and darkness [for the Egyptians], while the column of fire lit the night [for the Israelites], and one did not come near the other all night. 21And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. And Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry ground (harabah). And the water was split. 22And the children of Israel came through the sea on dry ground (yabbashah). And the water was a wall to them at their right and at their left. 23And Egypt pursued and came after them, every horse of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen, through the sea. 24And it was in the morning watch, and Yahweh gazed at Egypt’s camp through a column of fire and cloud and threw Egypt’s camp into tumult 25and turned its chariots’ wheels so that it drove with heaviness. And Egypt said: “Let me flee from Israel, because Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26And Yahweh said to Moses: “Reach your hand out over the sea and the water will go back over Egypt, over his chariots and over his horsemen.” 27And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. And the sea went back to its strong flow toward morning, and Egypt was fleeing toward it. And Yahweh tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28And the waters went back and covered the chariots and the horsemen, all of Pharaoh’s army who were coming after them in the sea. Not even one of them was left. 29And the children of Israel had gone on the dry ground (yabbashah) through the sea, and the water had been a wall to them at their right and at their left. 30And Yahweh saved Israel from Egypt’s hand that day. And Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore.

First, we should note the inconsistencies in the narrative, reading it under the assumption that it is a single and continuous narrative whole:

  • Moses reaches out his hand (v. 21a), yet it is Yahweh who drives the sea back with the wind, all night long (presumably Moses holds his hand out all night long too!)
  • the sea is turned into dry ground (Hebrew: harabah, which is different from the earlier, and later, mention of dry ground with the Hebrew yabbashah)
  • the children of Israel pass through on dry ground (yabbashah) and the Egyptians pursue on dry ground “through the sea” (v. 23)
  • in the morning Yahweh gazes at the Egyptian camp and throws them into tumult, thus creating a tension with the previous verse where the Egyptians are on the sea bed in pursuit. This verse (24) assumes they are encamped and…
  • contrary to verse 23, it is now the Egyptians who flee, since they perceive that Yahweh is fighting for Israel (v. 25)
  • Moses reaches out his hand (v. 27a)
  • the sea goes back to its flow in the morning, where now it is stated that Egypt was heading “toward it” (v. 27b), and not on the sea bed as in verse 23!
  • Yahweh tosses the Egyptians into the sea
  • and the waters go back, a second time!
  • Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore and saw Yahweh’s salvation. This harkens back to verse 15 where Yahweh commands Israel to Stand still! and see Yahweh’s salvation. What is implied here in verse 30, is that Israel indeed stood still and saw Yahweh’s salvation—that is, they did not move!

Conclusions:

  1. There are 2 accounts about how the sea is turned into dry ground:

    1) Moses holds out his hand, rod in hand, and the sea is split exposing its dry ground (yabbashah).

    2) Yahweh drives the sea back with the east wind all night long, thereby exposing its dry ground (harabah) in the morning.

    Here, we have the additional difference in vocabulary, and it is not a coincidence that in the Flood narrative when the Yahwist uses the Hebrew for dry ground it is harabah, and when the Priestly account uses the Hebrew for dry ground it is yabbashah! This attest to different historical eras for each of these terms.

  2. Taken together, the chronology implied in 2) means that Moses held out his hand over the sea all night, “until the morning watch.” If 1) and 2) are from two once independent versions, then their stitching together has produced this narrative tension.
  3. Likewise there are 2 accounts of how the Egyptians drown:

    1) the Egyptians pursue the Israelites through the sea on dry ground, Moses holds out his hand, and the walls of water move back and drown the Egyptians.

    2) Yahweh throws the Egyptian camp into a panic and they flee Israel, and blindly (Yahweh’s pillar of cloud) run toward the sea, which Yahweh has returned to its normal flow and they are tossed into it on account of their panic and inability to see the sea.

  4. If 1) and 2) are from two once independent accounts, then their stitching together has produced this narrative tension, and doublet.
  5. There are 2 contrary accounts of what the Israelites do:

    1) They are commanded to move, and do indeed cross the Red sea on dry ground, with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

    2) They are commanded to “Stand still!” and see Yahweh’s salvation, which they do, and the Egyptians are driven into a panic and run into the sea bed which Yahweh had prepared for them. The Israelites remain on the shore and watch Yahweh do his thing (cf. Ex 15:3: “Yahweh is a man of war” and 15:10: “You blew with your wind/breath”)

  6. If 1) and 2) are from two once independent accounts, then their stitching together has produced this narrative tension.

In sum, the text itself has revealed that it is a composite of 2 once independent stories about the crossing of the Red sea. Now read them both independently and tell me that they each are not a continuous whole story each on its own terms.

Step 3: Separating the Two Stories, the Two Whole and Continuous Narratives

9And Egypt pursued them. 10bAnd the children of Israel raised their eyes, and here was Egypt coming after them, and they were very afraid. 13And Moses said to the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still and see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today! For as you’ve seen Egypt today, you’ll never see them again. 14Yahweh will fight for you, and you’ll keep quiet!” 19bAnd the column of cloud went from in front of them and stood behind them. 20bAnd there was the cloud and darkness [for the Egyptians], while the column of fire lit the night [for the Israelites], and one did not come near the other all night.

21bAnd Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry ground. 24And it was in the morning watch, and Yahweh gazed at Egypt’s camp through a column of fire and cloud and threw Egypt’s camp into tumult. 25bAnd Egypt said: “Let me flee from Israel, because Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.” 27bAnd the sea went back to its strong flow toward morning, and Egypt was fleeing toward it. And Yahweh tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 30And Yahweh saved Israel from Egypt’s hand that day. And Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore.

8And Yahweh strengthened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel. And the children of Israel were going out with a high hand. 9bAnd every chariot horse of Pharaoh and his horsemen and his army caught up to them camping by the sea at Pi-Hahiroth, in front of Baal-Zephon. 10aAnd Pharaoh came close. 10cAnd the children of Israel cried out to Yahweh.

15And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move. 16And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea, and split it! And the children of Israel will come through the sea on dry ground. 17And I am strengthening Egypt’s heart and they will come after them, and I’ll be glorified against Pharaoh and against all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18And Egypt will know that I am Yahweh when I’m glorified against Pharaoh and against his chariots and his horsemen.”

21aAnd Moses reached his hand out over the sea. 21cAnd the water was split. 22And the children of Israel came through the sea on dry ground. And the water was a wall to them at their right and at their left. 23And Egypt pursued and came after them, every horse of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen, through the sea. 

26And Yahweh said to Moses: “Reach your hand out over the sea and the water will go back over Egypt, over his chariots and over his horsemen.” 27And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. 28And the waters went back and covered the chariots and the horsemen, all of Pharaoh’s army who were coming after them in the sea. Not even one of them was left. 29And the children of Israel had gone on the dry ground through the sea, and the water had been a wall to them at their right and at their left. 

The Sea Green version is from the pen of the Yahwist, and the Blue version is from the Priestly writer. What remains of the Elohist version is in Yellow. A later Redactor stitched these accounts together as follows, giving us the composite account as it now sits in the Bible. Our last section (below) will explore the reasons behind the creation of the Priestly version.

Step 4: The Composite Version, done by a later Redactor

8And Yahweh strengthened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel. And the children of Israel were going out with a high hand. 9And Egypt pursued them. And every chariot horse of Pharaoh and his horsemen and his army caught up to them camping by the sea at Pi-Hahiroth, in front of Baal-Zephon. 10And Pharaoh came close. And the children of Israel raised their eyes, and here was Egypt coming after them, and they were very afraid. And the children of Israel cried out to Yahweh.

11And they said to Moses, “Was it from a lack of no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you’ve done to us to bring us out of Egypt? 12Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying ‘Stop! And let’s serve Egypt, because serving Egypt is better for us than dying in the wilderness!'”

13And Moses said to the people: “Don’t be afraid. Stand still and see Yahweh’s salvation that he’ll do for you today! For as you’ve seen Egypt today, you’ll never see them again. 14Yahweh will fight for you, and you’ll keep quiet!”

15And Yahweh said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move. 16And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea, and split it! And the children of Israel will come through the sea on dry ground. 17And I am strengthening Egypt’s heart and they will come after them, and I’ll be glorified against Pharaoh and against all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18And Egypt will know that I am Yahweh when I’m glorified against Pharaoh and against his chariots and his horsemen.”

19And the angel of God who was going in front of the camp of Israel moved and went behind them. And the column of cloud went from in front of them and stood behind them. 20And it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. And there was the cloud and darkness [for the Egyptians], while the column of fire lit the night [for the Israelites], and one did not come near the other all night. 21And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. And Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry ground. And the water was split. 22And the children of Israel came through the sea on dry ground. And the water was a wall to them at their right and at their left. 23And Egypt pursued and came after them, every horse of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen, through the sea. 24And it was in the morning watch, and Yahweh gazed at Egypt’s camp through a column of fire and cloud and threw Egypt’s camp into tumult 25and turned its chariots’ wheels so that it drove it with heaviness. And Egypt said: “Let me flee from Israel, because Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26And Yahweh said to Moses: “Reach your hand out over the sea and the water will go back over Egypt, over his chariots and over his horsemen.” 27And Moses reached his hand out over the sea. And the sea went back to its strong flow toward morning, and Egypt was fleeing toward it. And Yahweh tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28And the waters went back and covered the chariots and the horsemen, all of Pharaoh’s army who were coming after them in the sea. Not even one of them was left. 29And the children of Israel had gone on the dry ground through the sea, and the water had been a wall to them at their right and at their left. 30And Yahweh saved Israel from Egypt’s hand that day. And Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore.

As is apparent, this was a thought out and clever redaction of these once independent versions. In sum, the biblical text itself tells us, reveals to us, that it was created from different once independent stories of the crossing of the Red sea. It even tells us how these separate stories were combined together. However, the composite text tells us nothing about why they were stitched together and more importantly tells us nothing about why the later Priestly writer rewrote the story. Here we move beyond textual analysis into more speculative areas.

Why Two Versions?

When we look at what the Priestly writer was doing in his rewriting of other Yahwist passages (see particularly Genesis), and we understand a bit about this writer’s beliefs, his ties to the Aaronid cult, his theology, historical era, and audience, we are in a better position to speculate why he felt compelled to rewrite the Yahwist version of the crossing of the Red sea. There is one primary thing (certainly others) which he does, that may have been the reason behind his rewriting.

The Priestly writer eliminates the Yahwist’s anthropomorphic depiction of Yahweh blowing back the sea with the wind. Instead Moses’ arm is used as an extension of the deity’s power and the sea is instantly split rather than implying that Yahweh had to push it back with the wind all night long. In the Priestly version, Yahweh is depicted in non-anthropomorphic terms.

The intention of this new narrative, like other Priestly passages, was to create a new “history” of Israel’s past, an updated version if you like, which addressed better the historical circumstances that the Priestly writer and his audience lived in, and aligned better with the Priestly writer’s own beliefs and wordlview. In all likelihood the Priestly source existed on its own individual scroll and was intended to replace the earlier JE narrative. However, due to an editorial process that started during the exile, it would seem that an attempt was made to preserve all of Israel’s traditions. Thus, in walks our Redactor, who stitched these different texts together. We can also confidently conclude that the Redactor, in his cut-and-paste job of the Yahwist and Priestly versions of the crossing of the Red sea used all the text of both versions. We can conclude this because separated each account reads as a whole continuous story, as we saw above.

The Crossing of the Red Sea: Fact or Fiction according to its Authors?

If the Priestly writer freely and consciously rewrote the crossing of the Red sea and ideally expected his version to replace that of the Yahwist (remember it is only due to a later redactional activity that these two version became stitched together), then did the Priestly writer himself view this as an historical event? If he did, how could he so blatantly have changed its details—that is, at least how it was presented in the earlier Yahwist version? Furthermore, we see, here and in the hundreds of other examples posted on this site, that the Priestly writer’s own ideas, beliefs, theology, conception of Yahweh, etc. inform and shape his narrative. Thus modern readers, Christians predominately, who know nothing about the authors of the Bible’s texts are in no position to even be able to perceive this. But we have seen it here, and in the thousands and thousands of other examples on this site. In other words, the Priestly writer’s beliefs, theology, even ideology informs the “historical” narrative that he is writing. This will be especially visible when we get to the Deuteronomist. Thus, for our biblical writers, faith informs “history” not history informs faith. Hell, we might even say that this author’s faith and theological tenets creates history or the historical narrative! In other words it is historicized theology! And the same holds true for the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and the other 70+ scribes who wrote the texts that later scribes redacted together and even later readers codified together, authenticated as scripture, and marketed as “the Book.” This too the Bible has revealed to us!

This is what I’ve been meaning by the objective study of the Bible. Whether I believe or do not believe the text is historical, true, the word of God, etc. is irrelevant. I won’t even engage in that conversation. It is a subjective conversation and its parameters are defined by its subjects, i.e., readers. This is not what we’re doing here. Our study is defined by the object of study, the biblical text! Studying the text itself leads us to the conclusion that none of these reader-oriented subjective assumptions are valid. Or, the text itself strongly suggests that its authors did not view these stories as history, as true (whatever that means), as the word of God. Remember this is not a conclusion drawn from this one paltry example, but one drawn from literally thousands and thousands! And here is the conversation that we, as a species, must move toward. What if what we’ve been conditioned to believe about the Bible is not supported by the biblical text itself? Where do we go from there?

First, we must be objectively honest to these texts, then grapple with the hows and whys of how we, as a culture, have misunderstood and misconstrued these texts, and what that means about our beliefs, perceptions, and religious ideas. The response that the Bible gives to this question is that we, as a species, have created and continue to create new religious beliefs and recreate God anew. These are done to suit our changing needs, beliefs, concerns, worldviews, etc. Just like the Priestly writer rewrote the Red sea story to have it conform to his own ideas and attitudes about Yahweh—He refashions Yahweh—so too do subsequent generations of readers. In the end, this scribal recreation is authorized by presenting it as an extension of or a reinterpretation of the already existing and authoritative tradition! This whole process is transparent in the objective study of the Bible itself. An new interpretive layer is added, like the Priestly version of the Red sea, and is immediately authenticated as “true” because it presents itself as the very tradition it sought to replace. This is what Christianity has done with the Old Testament, and what modern Christians do with the New Testament—present their new beliefs and conceptions of God as the very tradition that is, in the end, interpreted away. The new interpretive framework replaces the original message of the texts; indeed, it claims to be the original message of the text—just as the title “the Bible” claims to be the voice of these 70+ individual texts but actually drowns them out, and just as the Priestly writer’s Red sea narrative claims to describe the “event” but drowns out the Yahwist’s version and the fact that we actually have 2 or more versions.

11 thoughts on “#120. How is the Red sea dried up: Moses divides it with his rod OR Yahweh with the wind OR Yahweh with his own breath OR with a shout? (Ex 14:16 vs Ex 14:21 vs Ex 15:10 vs Ps 106:9)
#121. Do the Israelites advance through the sea bed followed by the Egyptians OR do they remain on the shore and only the Egyptians enter the dried sea bed? (Ex 14:23 vs Ex 14:13-14, 25, 27)
#122. Do the Egyptians get washed up dead on the sea shore OR do they sink to the bottom? (Ex 14:30 vs Ex 15:5)

  1. Miguel, what I find so convincing about this analysis is that two complete stories can be separated out from the text of Exodus which make sense on their own. When Dr. DiMattei points out small discrepancies in the account, it is like pointing to the perforations in a sheet of paper. One or two perforations could be a meaningless accident, but when you tug at the paper and it cleanly divides into two pieces along a perforated line, you can only conclude that there was a deliberate pattern to the marks in the paper.

    Yet your response is to point to each perforation and provide a separate explanation for each one because you don’t want to see the conclusion that is suggested by the two complete stories. I understand this mindset because, when I was a believer, I also dismissed the documentary hypothesis. One can make excuses for the text and seemingly smooth over these seams; that’s always possible if one wants to do so. The redactor did as good of a job as I think could be expected, so the story seems to make sense as one narrative; but if it originated as one work, why are there so many duplicated events or phrases?

    You questioned the assignment of the Flood account’s Gen. 7:21, 22 to different authors, but did you notice that everything on the earth dies twice, once in each verse? Did you notice that in the Red Sea account, we’re told twice that Pharaoh pursues Israel (Ex. 14:8, 9)? Did you notice that the people cry out in fear in 14:10, then Moses answers them in 14:13, 14, then God asks Moses why they are crying out to him, and provides his own answer in 14:15-18, as if Moses didn’t already answer Israel? Did you notice that the waters come back together in both 14:27 and 28? Do you sense a pattern here?

  2. @ Dr. Steven DiMattei

    You openly declare that the “crossing of the red sea” is some sort of epitome (or litmus test) of your approach to the bible as made up of poorly harmonized, even contradictory “layers”. These are your very words: “This will be a lengthy post and in many regards is a miniature of the aims of this site as a whole.”

    Let’s forget about your “preliminary assumption” (“[I] shall start from the assumption that the text is a unified whole, written by a single author”). Likewise, let’s forget about your later “rational” assumptions (essentially, there are a “Yahwist account” and a “Priestly account”, poorly stitched together by a “redactor”) and let’s concentrate on your main claims.

    A. You make a big thing about the different response that Moses and Yahweh seem to give, confronted with the fear of the Israelites (“Do not be afraid. Stand still …”, says Moses to the Israelites – “Speak to the children of Israel that they should move.”, says Yahweh to Moses).
    => Is there a contradiction? Only for a superficial, prejudiced reader. Moses knows that Yahweh will “make things happen” (this is the most likely meaning of His name) to prove His saving power, BUT Moses, before Yahweh speaks to him, still does NOT know how Yahweh’s saving action will manifest itself.

    B. You make a big thing about the alleged “inconsistency” between, on one side, Moses operating the parting of the sea (and then returning it to its normal state) with his staff, raising his hand (Ex 16, 21, 26-27), and on the other side, Yahweh parting the sea with wind (or His breath [or even a shout?] – Ex 14:21, 15:8, 10).
    => Is there a contradiction? Only … (see above). Moses does not have power of his own: his stretched out hand and staff are ONLY meant to be a sign, but it is Yahweh at work all along.

    C. You make a big thing about the difference between the Hebrew words used to refer to “dry land” (yabbashah [Ex 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19] vs harabah [Ex 14:21]), claiming that “it is not a coincidence that in the Flood narrative when the Yahwist uses the Hebrew for dry ground it is harabah, and when the Priestly account uses the Hebrew for dry ground it is yabbashah”.
    => Apart from many possible reasons for using different available word to mean the same (style, for instance), rather than attributing it to different authors, here is a question for you: why and how would it be so clear that this verse …

    And all flesh, those that creep on the earth, the birds, the beasts, and the wild animals, and all the swarming things that swarm on the earth, and all the humans expired. (Gen 7:21)

    … should be attributed to the “P source”, whereas this verse …

    Everything that had the breathing spirit of life in its nostrils, everything that was on dry ground [harabah], died. (Gen 7:22)

    … should be attributed to the “J source”?

    D. You claim that “the chronology [of the “Yahwist account”] means that Moses held out his hand over the sea all night”.
    => This is so stupid, that it is not even worth taking issue with.

    E. You claim that “there are 2 accounts of how the Egyptians drown”, and that “their stitching together has produced [a] narrative tension”.
    => Tension? Read Ex 14:24-28 again. Read it properly.

    F. You claim that “There are 2 contrary accounts of what the Israelites do”.
    => See comment at A.

    Conclusion: if the alleged (and allegedly poorly harmonized) “different accounts” of the “crossing of the red sea” are THE test of your wares …

  3. This area is on the banks of a small branch of the nile, if memory serves me. And from a different perspective maybe the jews new about this seasonal flooding and thats why they planned this route ahead of time. Also the numbers of jews and soldiers and how far behiñd the soldiers were, was disputed by their findings. Im using tablet and analog so i hav difficulty editing and putting all info in the same block bc i cant scroll the box so aplogize ahead of time for two msgs.

  4. Great explanation. I dont know much about this area of study, so have lots of questions. But the story of moses is one reason i began to study this. Along with apparant contradictions i myself noted between what our preacher taught when i was young and what i read in the actual scripture he quoted. Which caused me to change wat i believe.But, i saw a story on the history channel about the exodus. There is an area in egypt, that by locals has been called the red sea through ancient times because of the red color of its waters. This area, during dry seasons, the waters recede leaving a water bed. When the wet season happens the waters fastly flood the area. So a study was conducted, digging ect. They found bones and ancient armor dated to the exodus. Not sure about the sources used, as i said program on history chanñel. But the flood area and water bed is very small in comparison to the red sea so much more likely. Also a natural occurrance explained by the ancients at the time with the only explanations they knew. However, as this article is clearly about the multiple authors of the story, i thank u for ur tirelsess effort in researching this field and sharing it.

  5. Interesting, thanks for the response. I hadn’t remembered hearing before that P might prefer not to talk about angels. I agree with verses 11 and 12 being Elohist but I figured it might be the only insertion of E’s point of view and the later verses might fit into P. But I can’t dispute the linguistic points you brought out, as I’m sure the scholars who know the language can recognize these kinds of telltale signs.

    As you said, my real question was why such tiny remnants of the E account would end up here. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps there *was* no E telling of the Red Sea story. In any case, if it is E who mentions both the angel and the chariot wheels being turned, my suggestion does not necessarily totally go out the window even if divested of the Red Sea story. Perhaps in E’s account, there was simply an explanation for how Israel could have escaped on foot when when Egypt had chariots, the answer being that the angel moved behind Israel slowed down the chariots.

    Or maybe not. I’m happy to let the scholars have the final say on reconstructions of source documents, but it’s fun to speculate on this, so I just thought I would throw that out there.

  6. I came back to this article because I still find it fascinating :-) Previously I was so focused on verse 27 that I failed to pay much attention to the part where you discussed the “Elohist version” (the fact that the yellow text is practically invisible also caused me to overlook them ;-). I’m not familiar with the argument for those yellow sections being Elohist in nature. I’m puzzled at why there would be a third fragmentary account unless you’re saying that the E account also told one of the other two versions of the story, and only those sentences were unique to it. Could not the yellow sections in verses 19, 20 and 25 be assigned comfortably to the Priestly writer?

    For verses 19-20a, what if we label them this way? “(P) And the angel of God who was going in front of the camp of Israel moved and went behind them. (J) And the column of cloud went from in front of them and stood behind them. (PJ) And it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel.” The suggestion here is that the third sentence existed in both documents. After all, the cloud and angel did the same thing, ergo they ended up in the same place, between the two camps.

    Then, verse 25a, “and turned its chariots’ wheels so that it drove it with heaviness” could be yet another example of the Redactor fusing the P and J accounts. (There sure are a lot of “and”s in this story!) In other words, what originally happened here was that the angel of God from 19a now acted against the Egyptians’ chariots, causing them to become stuck. God then tells Moses to stretch out his hands again, and the sea covers the stalled Egyptians.

    Otherwise, you’ve assigned the angel to an E account, but he does nothing in either the combined, redacted story or in any original E version that is evident. The column of cloud serves the purpose in the J account of obscuring the Egyptians’ view (and isn’t this version also happening at night, for further obscuration?), but what did the angel do in his originating story? Perhaps he had a mission in the P version to sabotage the chariots!

    I might be way off-base, but I just wanted to throw that out there and see what you and your sources have to say. Since I don’t know Hebrew, I am just speculating based on the translation and might be missing some original linguistic context.

    1. KW,

      It’s nice to hear from you. This too is one of my favorites because I actually try to let the text reveal its own different sources or versions. Even if there is disagreement about how these sources are assigned, or were combined, Ex 14 does nonetheless reveal itself to be a composite of different (2 or more?), once separate versions of the crossing of the Red Sea.

      Here are some of my initial responses to your proposed reading, and I too am no expert here.

      First, in assigning the sources to E, J, and P, I pretty much followed the scholarly literature (Friedman, Campbell & O’Brien, Wellhausen, etc.). The rational (or some of it at any rate) for a fragmentary showing of E is:

      1) in other places in Genesis and Exodus, the mention of the angel of God along with other Elohist features appear together suggesting that this locution is from the Elohist source (see Ex 23:20 where the angle is mentioned as leading the Israelite camp, as it does here in Ex 14 (I also think the Hebrew for “camp” here is unique to E); there’s got to be more examples here, just can’t think presently). Conversely, the mention of Yahweh’s pillar of clouds also appears elsewhere where other Yahwist features are found (Ex 13:21; Num 10:34; 14:14). Thus here in the crossing of the Red sea, it seems only natural to keep that assignment: the angel of God is unique to E; Yahweh’s pillar unique to J.

      2) The refrain, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness…” is also found in other assigned E passages (e.g., Num 21:5).

      3) I’d be curious to know if P uses the expression “angel of God” anywhere in his text. If not, I’d be hesitant to assign it to P here. I can say off hand that P likes to speak of God’s/Yahweh’s kabod, “glory.” But I don’t recall where this author speaks of angels. I mention this, because when we get to the book of Deuteronomy, when the Deuteronomist’s Moses renarrates stories from J and E that have angels in them, he suppresses their mention. That is the Deuteronomist does not “believe” in angels. Perhaps the same might be said of the Priestly writer. Oh, in fact here it is, contradiction #38. The older Yahwist text has the “angel of Yahweh” convey Ishmael’s blessing, but in P’s retelling no angel is mentioned. I’d be curious to know if there’s other incidences like this.

      4) Other places in E where “angel of God” is used. I know there are, in Genesis, but it eludes me at present

      5) The argument from continuity is pretty convincing here as well. When J and P are reconstructed—leaving the assigned E material out—both version read as continuous whole narratives without any gaps.

      In the end, I’m not too concerned if these verses get assigned to J. However, I guess the real question you seem to be grappling with is that if these verses come from E, why would they even have been preserved by the Redactor since they don’t add anything to the narrative? I’m not quite sure myself. Could the original Elohist tradition not have had a crossing of the Red sea story? Maybe this is the logical conclusion to draw.

      Well, that’s my attempt to muster up some textual data to support the assignment as it presently stands.

  7. Wow, a very interesting case study in the subject of your site! The point I homed in on with the greatest interest was Ex. 14:27, where your translation read “Egypt was fleeing towards it”. The suggestion that the Egyptians, in one version of the account, fled *into* the sea instead of already being *between* the walls of the sea and trying to flee, was new and quite surprising to me. I would personally say that it’s the clearest actual contradiction in the account (not that the overall case you make here isn’t convincing irrespective of contradictions, because you’ve laid out a very good case for the multiple-version hypothesis). I simply wasn’t aware that verse 27 could be translated that way. My Bible says “All the while the Egyptians were fleeing from encountering it.”, which is the exact opposite! Looking at the Parallel Translation site, I see that the numerous translations are not in agreement on which direction the Egyptians were going, which I find very interesting:

    NIV: “fleeing toward it”
    NLT: “trying to escape”
    ESV: “fled into it”
    NASB: “fleeing right into it”
    ISV: “tried to retreat against the advancing water”
    NET: “fleeing before it”
    Douay: “as the Egyptians were fleeing away”
    KJV, ASV, Darby, English Revised, Webster’s, World English: “fled against it”
    Young’s Literal: “the Egyptians are fleeing at its coming”
    NWT: “the Egyptians were fleeing from encountering it”

    Some of the translations sound more like the Egyptians fled into the water from the shore, and some make it sound more like they’d followed the Israelites onto the sea bed, and they were unable to escape from the returning waters due to God confusing them and sabotaging their chariots.

    I guess what troubles the translators is that the Hebrew word that follows na-sim (“were fleeing”, “fugitives”) is liq-ra-tow, and clearly means “meeting” or “coming up against” from its other uses in the Bible. At least to my eye as someone who doesn’t know Hebrew, the original grammar is so fragmentary that it’s impossible to say what was intended by the writer — that they were fleeing the Israelites and drowned, or that they were fleeing the returning waters and ran smack into them face-first instead.

    But I do agree that the verse can be read as part of a story where the Egyptians are fooled into entering the sea after it’s returned to normal, which is a novel idea for me, and food for thought.

    1. KW, Thanks for the added commentary and in-depth textual analysis on 14:27. I’m quite the novice with Hebrew as well and will be much more comfortable doing original language textual analysis when we get to the New Testament. That said, I’d render the Hebrew literally as “were fleeing to meet it.” Looking over the various translations you’ve listed, some of them take extensive liberties!

      Contextually, I’d have to understand the “fleeing toward/to meet it” as referring to the sea that Yahweh has just returned to its normal flow in the morning watch in the same verse, as you yourself indicate. You can almost see the Redactor at work here as well. The Egyptians simultaneously “flee toward” the sea that had been held back all night by the wind in the Yahwist version and which is now released AND the walls of water that Moses releases in the following verse in the Priestly source. As you note, the question then becomes not what the Egyptians were fleeing toward, but where from: the shore as the Yahwist source suggests or/and the dry sea bed as the Priestly source indicates. It’s a skillful stitching together of these stories, right at the crucial moment.

      As an aside, the Samaritan Pentateuch has ns‘ym, “setting forth,” rather than nsym, “fleeing.” William Propp (Anchor Bible) suggests that this may have been the original reading. This makes much more sense then in the context of the Yahwist story, where the Egyptians “flee” Israel and “set forth” to meet the sea!

      When I teach my course, Who wrote the Bible?, which deals with the Pentateuch’s sources, I often start by having my students look at Tatian’s Diatessaron, which is a 2nd c. AD text that has attempted to harmonize the gospels by literally cutting and pasting them together. It’s a great exercise because not only do we see the rationale of the Redactor, but we explicitly see how the composite text was stitched together since in this case we actually have the whole original sources!

    1. Indeed, if you’ve followed the textual demonstration (sorry for the length), then you’d understand that that is exactly why I’ve chosen yellow for that fragmented textual tradition.

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