5. The Great Deliverance
You can picture the mighty gathering beyond the walls of that city which the people of Israel themselves had built with hard-labour and suffering from their oppressor. Old men and women bowed with long years of serfdom, fathers and mothers, in the midst of their days, young men and women rejoicing in the new light of freedom that had dawned upon them, little children, wondering in themselves what might be the meaning of all the stir, but glad to have a new excitement — all were gathered together for the march. Even in the haste of their departure the ancient pledge to Joseph was not forgotten, and the painted coffin of the dead viceroy was borne in the midst of the host. With them went all their flocks and herds, and on every side was the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep. With them, too, went a crowd of aliens — foreigners who could not thrive in Egypt, and slaves eager to be free.
Eastwards they marched from Ramses to Succoth. It had been nearer to have journeyed by the shore of the Very Green Sea, which is now called the Mediterranean, and so up the great coast-road into Palestine, but the Lord in His wisdom ordered otherwise. For a race from the Isles of the Sea had settled in the coast-land of Palestine. They were war-like, and God judged that His people should not face as yet the hazard of conflict with such foes. So He led the Hebrews towards the upper end of the Red Sea, till at last they came to the great castle of Etham that guarded the southern end of the frontier wall of Egypt. Beyond them lay the desert and liberty; but the Lord suffered them not to storm the wall. Instead He led them southwards, always going before them in a pillar of dusky cloud by day, and a pillar of red fire by night. He led them to a reedy shore with an outpost watch-tower looking upon it from the hill behind. In front rolled the shallow upper waters of the Red Sea, and on the farther shore rose Baal-zephon “the Mountain of the Lord of the North.”
Now Pharaoh’s guards in the watch-tower sent swift riders to the King, telling him of the wandering host that was camped between the tower and the sea; and Pharaoh knew that it was the Hebrew host—his former slaves. King and people, stunned at first and overwhelmed by the death of the first-born, were be¬ginning to take heart again, and to deem that they had been hasty and unwise in yielding to the Lord’s command. “Why did we let them go?” they said. “Now we have none to serve us.” So when the messengers came, and Pharaoh learned that Israel lay helpless, as it seemed, between the sea and the desert, his heart was glad. Swiftly he summoned his captains, and ordered them to gather all the chariots of the Egyptian army to pursue. Foremost he set a picked brigade of six hundred chariots, with the swiftest horses and the most skillful archers in them; and in hot pursuit he and his men set forth after their slaves.
The motley camp of the Hebrews lay along the sea-shore, and evening was falling, when between the fugitives and the setting sun there rose on the far horizon a cloud of dust. Higher and higher it rose, and now the sentries of the camp could catch the glitter of spearheads and of mail. Then came the dull rumble of many chariot-wheels and the clatter of harnessed warriors as the light chariots jolted over the rough ground. It was the Egyptian host pursuing, and the hearts of the Israelites melted for fear. Angrily they turned upon their leader—”Were there no graves in Egypt, that you have brought us to die in the wilderness? Did not we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’ ? Better to serve Egyptian lords than to be slaughtered in the desert.”
Boldly Moses answered them: “Fear not, but stand fast, and see the salvation of God. See these Egyptians today? You shall see them again no more. For the Lord shall fight for you, and you shall be silent.” But deep down his own soul trembled at the fearful hazard in which his people stood, between the sea and the foe, and he sought the help of the Lord. This was His answer: “Why are you complaining to Me? Order the children of Israel to go forward.” Then the angel of the Lord turned from the front of the host of Israel and stood as rear-guard between them and the Egyptians, and the pillar of the cloud came with him. It was all dark on the side next the Egyptian pursuers, so that, when the sun had set, the cloud hid the Full Moon from them, and they groped and stumbled in the darkness; but it glowed with heavenly light on the side next to the Israelites so that they saw clearly.
Then Moses stretched out his hand seaward and a mighty wind came roaring up from the east, and before its blast the shallow waters of the sea were driven, until a broad stretch of bare sand lay from shore to shore before the men of Israel. Down that strange pathway they marched, tribe by tribe, household by household, with the foaming waters roaring in baffled rage on this side and on that as they passed. All night long, under the light of the Passover Moon, the stream of life flowed across the sands, and the morning light saw the last of their rear-guard step to the eastern shore.
But the pursuers had no thought of letting their prey escape so lightly. Pharaoh gave command, and his chariots filed before him, as he stood on the African shore, and drove down the path between the watery walls, where their slaves had gone before. Then, as the morning broke, a breath of dread passed over the long column of toiling chariots. The deep sands sucked down the wheels, and, as the frightened horses plunged and tugged to free them, axles broke and wheels were splintered, till the warriors of Egypt turned to flee. “The Lord fights for Israel against Egypt,” they cried.
It was too late for flight. Moses stretched forth his hand again, and, as the sun arose, the wind whirled round into the west. Forward swept the angry waters, freed from their restraint, and beneath them all the chosen chivalry of Egypt met their death. So Pharaoh, who had thought to avenge his shame upon a helpless people, learned what it means to fight against God, and turned from that shore of death, a broken man, to his desolate home. On the eastern beach the rising waves were tossing shattered chariots and stark corpses; and the people of Israel looked their last on the dead faces of their tyrants, and knew that they were free. . Then with songs and dances the ransomed nation gave praise to God who had delivered them; and the great chorus rolled from the men, ranked on the one side, to the women on the other:
“Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider has He thrown into the sea.”
So Israel went out from the House of Bondage, to journey through the desert to the Promised Land.