The crossing of the Red Sea carries echoes of ancient creation stories.
Note: This blog post was originally published on September 27, 2018. I repost it here because of its relevance to our journey through the Book of Exodus.
Ancient creation myths, whether Mesopotamian or Egyptian, often shared a common feature. They assumed that the structured order of the world as we know it arose out of an aboriginal watery chaos.
That chaos was formless and often depicted as malevolent. It needed to be tamed before the created world could emerge. That taming occurred through a titanic battle between divine forces.
A representative example is the ancient Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. In that myth, the watery chaos is personified in a female divine figure named Tiamat. Her opponent is the male head of the Babylonian pantheon, the sky god Marduk.
In a ferocious battle the two gods fight to the death. Marduk prevails. He kills Tiamat, carves up her body, and out of the pieces creates the world in which we live. Creation emerges out of an act of supreme violence. (Also don’t miss the misogynist tones to the story.)
Biblical Imagery Echoing Ancient Myths
Echoes of this widespread understanding of the creation of the world are to be found in the Bible. The ancient Israelites probably picked them up from the common cultural environment which they shared with other ancient societies.
Genesis does not duplicate the theme of battle as the prelude to creation. But we should not miss the detail that when God begins to create the world in Genesis 1, God begins not by creating out of nothing. Instead he speaks to a vast formless, watery and dark void. The taming of this void begins with the divine words, Let there be light (Genesis 1:3).1
Creation continues the next two days with the division of the waters into the sky dome and ocean. Then emerges the dry land out of the oceanic waters, with its proliferation of vegetation. The land becomes the platform for the advanced creative work of God as God calls into being animal life, and ultimately human beings.
We also find echoes of the ancient theme of the chaos monster in the Old Testament figure of the great sea monster Leviathan (also known as Rahab). A number of poetic passages in the Old Testament celebrate God’s victory of this monster.2
One example is Psalm 74:12-14:
Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
Another example appears in Isaiah 27:1. Here the author uses the imagery of the chaos monster to symbolize the forces of chaos that God will subdue in the future. What lies ahead in the future is a new creative act that echoes the old story.
On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
The Israelites were not sailors like the Phoenicians. For this reason they tended to regard the ocean as something fearful, if not terrifying, especially when the ocean rose up in ferocious storms. The imagery of the Leviathan resonated with them, and it came to be the symbol of all the forces of chaos that might threaten their lives, whether foreign invasions, natural disasters like earthquakes, or the breakdown of social order
The Red Sea Crossing as a New Creative Act
What I had not come to recognize until recently is how imagery from these old creation myths as well as from Genesis 1 echo through the account of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea (see Exodus 14-15).3 That crossing is the climax of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.
When the Israelites encamp on the shores of the Red Sea, it appears that the old forces of chaos are about to engulf them. At their rear waits Pharaoh’s armies, poised to attack. If Pharaoh cannot enslave them, he will at least slaughter them. Chaos will reign on the battle field.
Ahead of them lie the waters of the Red Sea. These waters block any escape. The Israelites’ fate, if they move forward, is to drown in the oceanic waters.
The threat of chaos lies behind them. The threat of chaos lies before them. They seemed to be doomed.
But they have not counted upon the creative power of God, the God who has tamed Leviathan in the past and will do so again in the future. Instructing Moses to stretch his rod out over the sea, God summons mighty east winds (note again the echo of the mighty wind/Spirit that blows over the watery void in Genesis 1:1) to divide the waters. Out of that division emerges dry land over which the Israelites cross into freedom. Land has emerged out of the waters, as in the creation story of Genesis 1.
When God ceases the winds blowing, the chaos waters return, drowning the Egyptian army. Chaos has engulfed its own, as the song of Moses in Exodus 15 celebrates.
The crossing of the Red Sea then can be seen as a new creative act of God, an act that creates the new people of Israel. Their new life as the people of God begins. There will be much more to do before Israel grows up into a mature nation. This echoes how the creation of the world progresses by more and more advanced stages in Genesis 1. But it all begins with a divine act of taming the waters of chaos.
This imagery should resonate with Christians as we think about the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is the act when God chooses each one of us to become a part of his people, the people who form the church. That act of initiation begins with a ritual of water.
In an extended sense baptism is the Christian crossing of the Red Sea.4 We symbolically drown and then are raised up to new life.5 It is also an act of new creation, a rebirth. Out of the waters of chaos all of us are lifted up onto the dry land of the Kingdom of God.
1. Genesis 1 may in fact be conducting a polemic against the Babylonian myth. God tames the chaos not by an act of violence, but by his sovereign word.
2. Several examples: Job 26:12, Job 41:1-11, Psalm 74:12-14, Psalm 89:10, Isaiah 27.1, Isaiah 51:9.
3. I want to acknowledge that I received this insight from an essay written by Dr. George Athas of Moore Theological College. The essay The Creation of Israel: The Cosmic Proportions of the Exodus Event can be accessed on Academia.edu.
4. This connection between baptism and the exodus event is very explicit in some early Christian baptismal liturgies. The language of the liturgies is filled with allusions and imagery drawn from the Israelites’ exodus.
5. This symbolism is most vivid when baptism is performed by immersion.