Exodus 13-15: Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

1.  Unleavened Bread and the Pillars of Cloud and Fire (Exodus 13)

2.  Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death: the Parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14)

3.  Song of Moses: the Trinity explained (Exodus 15:1-21)

4.  Bitter water made sweet: prophecy of the cross (Exodus 15:22-27)

1.  Unleavened Bread and the Pillars of Cloud and Fire (Exodus 13)

Further details are given on the festival of the unleavened bread – v.12-16

12(A) you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13(B) Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every(C) firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14(D) And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him,(E) ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of(F) slavery. 15For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the(G) LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but(H) all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16(I) It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for(J) by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

Both animals and men are treated similarly (v.15) – every firstborn of a donkey you redeem; every firstborn of man you redeem – but also comes the sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, “but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem”.  It shall be as a mark on your hand, or frontlets between your eyes.  The latter part of v. 16 displays the meaning of propitiation well – “I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb (the animals), but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem”.  By the blood of another, the firstborn sons are redeemed; by the blood of the Lamb, the firstborn of God the Father, our firstborns are spared.

So also, this seal shall be on our forehands, or on our hands, as the seal on our hands like the signet ring (Esther 8:8), or the mark on our foreheads to distinguish us from the non-Christians (Revelation 9:4).  This is the seal of the Holy Spirit.

Before ending this chapter, Moses and co. stop between Succoth (meaning “booths”) and Etham (meaning “fort”) on the edge of the wilderness.  The Angel of the LORD led them by the pillar of fire by night, and cloud by day.  Some people have wrongly personified the pillar of fire and cloud to be the Angel himself, but the Angel is leading the pillar of fire and cloud which follow the Angel (v.21; Exodus 14:19).  This route is considerably longer, but also safer.

What of this cloudy pillar by day and fire by night?  Some interpretation may be offered by Alexander the Great’s tradition of setting up a lofty pole placing a brazier fixed with combustible materials at the summit, kept burning over the general’s tent when encamped, and in the forefront of the moving host when on march, like a cloudy banner by day but firey beacon by night.

This pillar served as a cloud enshrining the shekinah, the glory of God; as well as being the very throne of God (resting on the ark of the covenant within the tabernacle).  Following William Brown’s view of the cloudy pillar, it being a guide (Exodus 13:20-22), light (Nehemiah 9:19), shade (Psalm 105:39), shield (Deuteronomy 1:30-31), oracle (Exodus 33:9), avenger (Exodus 14:24). Brown makes a distinction, however, not to confuse the sign with Christ himself.  Indeed, the sign of the pillar carries this six-fold characteristic of Christ himself, but it is the Angel who leads the cloud, NOT the cloud itself being the Angel.  Brown does not emphasise that distinction enough, and relies on a purely spiritual interpretation of the pillar which I think does not lend enough Christological weight to the Angel (he confuses the Angel and the cloud as synonymous in a few occasions in his chapter on the cloudy pillar in “The Tabernacle – Its Priests and Its Services”).

Nonetheless, the six characteristics are indeed very helpful and fitting in understanding the personality of our God; he is indeed our Shepherd-guide, Light of lights, a cleft in the Rock as a shade from destruction, a shield from the onslaught of the enemy, a prophetic oracle of the Judgment Day, and our Judge when he avenges for all the righteous by the very pillar of fire which only refines us, but destroys all else.

2.  Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death: the Parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14)

So the LORD tells Moses and the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth (“place where the reeds grow; farmstead”), between Migdol (“fortress”) and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon (“lord of the North/Baal of the North”).

So will it be a time of trial?  Covered by the fortress, the sea, the lord of the north yet also standing in front of the place where the reeds grow… indeed, this is the place where Israel is either held captive by Egypt, or grows as a nation of global repute.  Exodus 14:13-14 shows Moses’ faith in spite of the apparently dismal situation of the Israelites, and the theological depth behind it is astounding:

’13And Moses said to the people,(O) “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For(P) the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14(Q) The LORD will fight for you, and you have only(R) to be silent.”‘

Indeed, does it say that you depend on Him and do a little bit extra yourself?  No, salvation is of the LORD.  HE is the one working the salvation.  The LORD will FIGHT for you – the very meaning of Israel – the God who fights and struggles.

Then in v. 16, God tells Moses to lift up his staff again – indeed, this is a prophetic image of Jesus’ shepherding and judgmental power.  In v.21, Moses stretches his hand over the sea and a strong ‘east wind’ (again, this is the Holy Spirit) tears the Red Sea into half as it stood up in two heaps – two walls (v. 24 and v. 29; Psalm 78:13).  Indeed, not two pitiful puddles, but two heaps and walls of water which could drown all six hundred chariots (v.6).

Paul Blackham makes an interesting observation that the people didn’t just treat Moses as a mediator, but actually treated him like God (Numbers 16).  1 Timothy 2:5 explains that there was ever only one Mediator, the man and God Jesus Christ – not Moses however ‘great’ he became for even he did not enter the Promised Land.  In v. 31 we understand this as the Israelites began to truly believe in Jesus Christ, the Second Person and the very Angel who led them through the Pillar of Cloud and Fire.  They didn’t just generically believe in the LORD (God in Heaven), but they believed in the LORD-Angel who was with them!  Then again, they would be confused to SEE God, yet also understand God to be unseen.  The song of Moses in chapter 15 reveals their Trinitarian understanding of God, but let’s firstly understand whether their prophetic understanding of the Messiah is that of a divine Son of man, or just a normal human seed of Adam?

Blackham in Lamentations 4:20 explains that the original Hebrew should not be “the LORD’s anointed” (although that indeed points to Christ as LORD’s anointed, it doesn’t explain his divinity), when it really should be re-translated as “the Messiah is the LORD” or “the Anointed LORD” or “the Messiah LORD”.  Given the staunch references to God’s self-provision of the Messiah, of means of salvation and redemption shown so explicitly in Genesis whether through sacraments, typologies and above all Christophanies, it is definitely not surprising to see these Israelites actively looking forward to what the splitting of the Red Sea meant.  This is merely a physical salvation; and just a type of the true salvation to come, and a type of destruction of the fire of judgment crashing down on every unbeliever just like those continuously unrepentant Egyptians who, like us, will have to walk through the valley of death; but unlike us, will not come out unscathed (Psalm 23:4).

3.  Song of Moses: the Trinity explained (Exodus 15:1-21)

Now, let’s visualise the scene where the bodies of thousands of men and animals were either trapped in the water or floating in water.  Instead, the people of Israel broke out in song!  How insensitive are they?

In fact, it is a completely appropriate praise.  God has been merciful on Egypt for many years (think 400+ years!), has blessed the Pharoah during Joseph’s time, and no doubt would bless the Pharoah of Moses’ generation.  But it is the Pharoah who refused to respond to the miracles, and kept on refusing and hardening his own heart until God kept him as the tool of expressing his judgment on all unbelievers.

v.6 of the song: “Your right hand” is a synonymous term used for Christ in various occasions, the Christ who ascended to God the Father’s right hand (Psalm 17:7, 20:6, 48:10, 60:5, 77:10, 78:54, 108:6, 110:1 and 5, Matthew 26:64, Mark 12:36, Romans 8:34), although it has been referred also to God’s “dominant” hand, or even a hand of Power.  However, to limit its semantic definition to ‘dominant hand’ or ‘hand of Power’ is to limit the titles of Christ to that of Messiah, Anointed One, Second Person, Angel, and Jesus Christ – when, within the Old Testament, there are many possible titles for Him which are equally appropriate, and one of which is God’s Right Hand, where he is seated and takes his actions from the Father’s Right Hand.  v.12 goes on – God the Father stretched out his right hand, and the earth swallowed the non-Christians.  The significance of this shows that Moses’ stretching of his hand and staff is but only a symbolism, or even a witness to God’s stretching of his right hand, Jesus Christ, in completing these punishments!  And indeed, what we had in chapter 14 is the Angel of the LORD directing all of this action, the Angel who sits at the right hand of the Father!

So this is Moses’ Trinitarian understanding of God – he does not confuse the right hand from God the Father who is the ‘generator’ of the right hand per se.  The Son is after all sent FROM the Father, and thus the Son rightfully should be at the right hand of the Father and differ in number only, but not in essence (to paraphrase Justin Martyr, i.e. both are divine).

Finally v.13-18 show that Israel’s name is now reputable simply BECAUSE of God!  The Edomites and Canaanites are trembling because of what God has done, and we will later find out that this event has struck fear in the heart of many nations which remain non-Christian.

4.  Bitter water made sweet: prophecy of the cross (Exodus 15:22-27)

Justin Martyr on the log which made the bitter water at Marah (meaning “bitter”) sweet:


And when I had quoted this, I added, “Hear, then, how this Man, of whom the Scriptures declare that He will come again in glory after His crucifixion, was symbolized both by the tree of life, which was said to have been planted in paradise, and by those events which should happen to all the just. Moses was sent with a rod to effect the redemption of the people; and with this in his hands at the head of the people, he divided the sea. By this he saw the water gushing out of the rock; and when he cast a tree into the waters of Marah, which were bitter, he made them sweet…
…even as our Christ, by being crucified on the tree, and by purifying with water, has redeemed us, though plunged in the direst offences which we have committed, and has made a house of prayer and adoration. Moreover, it was a rod that pointed out Judah to be the father of Tamar’s sons by a great mystery.”

This was taken from chapter 86 of his Dialogue with Trypho which speaks of the prophetic imagery of ‘wood’ which points to Christ’s death on a piece of wood.

Therefore, after 3 days in the wilderness of Shur (meaning “wall”), they arrive at Marah and threw a piece of log (or in the ESV footnote, a tree, the translation which Martyr favours) into the waters to make the waters sweet.  v. 26 makes the theological point about this event which happened after 3 days – if you listen to the voice of God, then He will be our healer.  Many of course make the obvious connection between Jesus the healer and this event, followed by the grand imagery of the 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees, almost symbolising the establishment of the 12 tribes of Israel and 70 elders (Exodus 24) encamping in Elim (meaning “trees”).  This is a foretelling of the new Garden of Eden, although it is only a mock-representation, with water being given sweet-life again, and so many trees to give Sabbath (rest) to the hundreds of thousands of Israelites.  Indeed, these 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees may be insufficient, but what they symbolise (the 12 tribes, and 70 elders) will be enough to father the spiritual descendants to come!

However, before leaving chapter 15, an important point to make.  v. 26 says if you listen to the voice of God, whereas in other parts of Scripture you get ‘if you listen to the LORD’.  This is quite different from saying the ‘voice’‘ of God which has occurred in Genesis 3:8 (where the unusual word used is “qowl” in Hebrew is repeated here).  This ‘voice’ of God is again, the very same ‘voice’ of God who was walking in the garden!  We can therefore add to the list of names which we can refer to Christ; not only is he the Right Hand of God the Father, but he is also the Voice of God, the visible of the invisible.

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Exodus 13-15: Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

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