When the Israelites left Egypt, God did not lead them to the Promised Land by the shortest route, in case they became regretful ‘when they see war and return to Egypt’. The Bible does not explain what war they would have seen. A Midrashic tradition speculates that would have seen the corpses of the Ephraimites, of whom a legend states they left Egypt before their due time, travelled by the shortest route and were attacked and slaughtered by the Philistines.
A more straightforward explanation is that the Israelites themselves might have been attacked as they travelled through the inhabited coastal lands, causing them to lose heart and return to Egypt.
God sends them instead on a journey through the desert, a route which will oblige them to cross the Red Sea. God knows, of course, that there will be no easy passage across the Sea, and that it will take a miracle to get them all across safely. Moses probably also knows this, as a young man he had fled from Pharaoh‘s wrath, ending up in Midian, on the far shore of the Red Sea.
Of course Moses could not have foreseen that the Israelites would arrive at the shores of the sea with the Egyptian army hot on their heels, but even so he knew that the sea was impossibly hard for a whole nation to cross. Yet we hear no whimper of complaint from him when he discovers the route they are to proceed along.
So God leads them across the Red Sea knowing he will need to perform a miracle, and Moses seems relatively relaxed about it. Why? The answer seems to lie in the special relationship each of them has with water.
God has something to prove about water. On the second day of creation he commanded the water on earth to gather into seas and rivers, so that dry land would appear. But it seems that he didn’t manage to complete the task in one day, as he did with every other act of creation. The second day is the only day on which the Bible does not say that God ‘saw that it was good’. It does however uniquely record this phrase twice on the third day. The Midrash conjectures that it took God longer than he anticipated to get the water to obey his command.
God’s struggle with water is hinted at in several psalms. “He assigned a boundary to the sea, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth (Proverbs 8,29). “The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; The God of glory thunders” (Psalm 29,3). “Above the noise of many waters, the powerful breakers of the sea, God is mighty on high”. (Psalm 93,4).
Water is the most powerful natural element on earth. In time it will erode its way through any material. It is also the essential ingredient of life. In the Babylonian creation myth, the first gods evolved out of water; they were subservient to it. Not so the God of Israel.
By splitting the Red Sea, God emphasises his mastery over water. He did not evolve from the primordial seas; water is part of his creation, it is subject to his word. God’s final triumph over Pharaoh, whom the Egyptians revered as the god of the Nile, was to lead the Israelites across the divided Red Sea, demonstrating his absolute control over creation. This is why we see a competition in the Passover Haggadah, between rabbis trying to outdo each other over the number of miracles that could be counted at the Red Sea.
As for Moses, his whole life was framed by water. He was nearly drowned as a baby because of Pharaoh’s command that all new born boys were to be cast into the Nile. He survived because his mother placed him in a basket in the river, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. She even named him ‘drawn from the water’. He met his death through water; God commanded him to speak to a rock so that water would flow out of it for the people to drink. But he hit the rock instead. Water still gushed out but Moses was told that because he did not believe sufficiently in God’s word he would not enter the Promised Land; rather, he will die in the wilderness.
Pharaoh’s decree to drown the babies was instituted, according to one Midrash, because his soothsayers forecast that Israel’s saviour was about to be born, and that he would meet his end through water. Pharaoh, miscalculating as usual, assumed this meant that he could be drowned at birth. He didn’t realise that the prophecy related to incident of Moses striking the rock.
Water was the cause of Moses’ survival as a child, and of his death. Crossing the Red Sea gives him the opportunity to demonstrate that because water frames his life, he has mastery over it. As soon as he realises which route they will take out of Egypt, he knows he will be called upon to lead the nation across the Red Sea, and that he will have to do something extraordinary to accomplish it. He Is fully prepared for what is to come. He has no problem with God leading the people by a long, circuitous route; he will not complain.
From the moment the Israelites left Egypt it was obvious they would have to cross the Red Sea. It was the most spectacular of all miracles. But it was pre-ordained; it was not an act of desperation, not born out of necessity.