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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





YHWH Battles the Egyptians with a Fiery Cloud





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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





YHWH Battles the Egyptians with a Fiery Cloud








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YHWH Battles the Egyptians with a Fiery Cloud

When the Egyptians pursue Israel into the wilderness, Moses tells the Israelites to “stand by and witness the deliverance which YHWH will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13). YHWH brings panic upon the enemy, as he does in the battle of Gibeon and the war against Sisera. This is J’s story of Israel’s escape, hidden in the biblical accounts of the escape by the sea.


YHWH Battles the Egyptians with a Fiery Cloud

A caravan in the desert in a Simoom, by Ippolito Caffi, 1866. Wikimedia

After the Israelites leave Egypt, the travel east to the border of the wilderness.

שמות יג:כ וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם בִּקְצֵה הַמִּדְבָּר....
Exod 13:20 They set out from Sukkot, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness…

YHWH then leads the Israelites with a cloud by day and fire by night (vv. 21–22). Then YHWH tells Moses that the Israelites should turn back, to fool Pharaoh:

יד:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. יד:ב דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיָשֻׁבוּ וְיַחֲנוּ לִפְנֵי פִּי הַחִירֹת בֵּין מִגְדֹּל וּבֵין הַיָּם לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן נִכְחוֹ תַחֲנוּ עַל הַיָּם. יד:ג וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם הַמִּדְבָּר.
14:1 YHWH said to Moses: 14:2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol (“Fortress”) and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. 14:3 Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are astray in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.’”

This zigzagging is a ruse, YHWH explains, to cause Pharaoh to chase them and try to recapture them as slaves, so that YHWH can destroy the Egyptian army utterly. Indeed, the Egyptians pursue them (vv. 5–8), and they find the Israelites encamped by the sea:

שמות יד:ט וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיַּשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתָם חֹנִים עַל הַיָּם כָּל סוּס רֶכֶב פַּרְעֹה וּפָרָשָׁיו וְחֵילוֹ עַל פִּי הַחִירֹת לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן.
Exod 14:9 The Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.

This sets up the story of the splitting of the sea: The Israelites are encamped, Pharaoh and his army appear, and there is no way to go but through the sea, the miraculous ending YHWH has planned to destroy the Egyptians.

But Israel Is Back on the Move

In the next verse, however, the Egyptians seem to be overtaking the Israelites again, and the Israelites don’t seem to be encamped, but are travelling with the Egyptian army hot on their trail:

שמות יד:י וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יְ־הוָה.
Exod 14:10 Pharaoh approached and the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians moving behind them and they were greatly frightened. The Israelites cried out to YHWH.

More significantly, the Israelite complaint to Moses shows that they are not near the sea, but in the wilderness:

שמות יד:יא וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם. יד:יב הֲלֹא זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת מִצְרָיִם כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת מִצְרַיִם מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Exod 14:11 And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? 14:12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?”

Israel’s complaint here is phrased in a way quite similar to the wilderness murmuring complaints about lack of food (Exod 16:3, Num 11:5) and water (Exod 17:3).[1] A variation on this complaint also appears in the story of the scouts, when the people panic, fearing they will be slaughtered by the Canaanites. The placement of the complaint here is especially problematic, since earlier we were told they got to the edge of the wilderness and then turned back (Exod 14:2–3, 9).

When Does God Destroy the Egyptians?

Moses responds that the Israelites should sit tight and watch, as YHWH will destroy the pursuing Egyptians this very day:

שמות יד:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד עוֹלָם. יד:יד יְ־הוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן.
Exod 14:13 But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which YHWH will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. 14:14 YHWH will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

After being told that the Israelites will never see the Egyptians again, however, the story continues with an overnight march and the Egyptians being drowned in the morning of the next day (vv. 20, 24, 27). Moreover, following this announcement, we would expect a scene to unfold in which the Israelites do nothing as YHWH comes and battles the Egyptians, destroying them, but instead, in the next verse, YHWH rebukes Moses:

שמות יד:טו וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ.
Exod 14:15 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to keep moving.”

YHWH’s rebuke and instruction to travel seems unaware of Moses’ response to Israel in the previous verse to “stand by” (הִתְיַצְבוּ) as YHWH battles the Egyptians on their behalf.

Does YHWH Fight?

The story continues with Moses splitting the sea and the Israelites proceeding through it, pursued by the Egyptians. A wind blows all night and an angel and a cloud keep the Egyptians away from the Israelites. Then, YHWH appears on the scene:

שמות יד:כד וַיְהִי בְּאַשְׁמֹרֶת הַבֹּקֶר וַיַּשְׁקֵף יְ־הוָה אֶל מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ וְעָנָן וַיָּהָם אֵת מַחֲנֵה מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 14:24 At the morning watch, YHWH looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

This is what Moses had promised the Israelites: YHWH will come and fight on their behalf. A good example of YHWH actively fighting, which has verbal connections to the story here, is the battle of Gibeon, when Joshua defeats the army of five Canaanite city-states:

יהושע י:י וַיְהֻמֵּם יְ־הוָה לִפְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּכֵּם מַכָּה גְדוֹלָה בְּגִבְעוֹן וַיִּרְדְּפֵם דֶּרֶךְ מַעֲלֵה בֵית חוֹרֹן וַיַּכֵּם עַד עֲזֵקָה וְעַד מַקֵּדָה. י:יא וַיְהִי בְּנֻסָם מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵם בְּמוֹרַד בֵּית חוֹרֹן וַי־הוָה הִשְׁלִיךְ עֲלֵיהֶם אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם עַד עֲזֵקָה וַיָּמֻתוּ רַבִּים אֲשֶׁר מֵתוּ בְּאַבְנֵי הַבָּרָד מֵאֲשֶׁר הָרְגוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בֶּחָרֶב.
Josh 10:10 YHWH threw them into a panic before Israel: He [Joshua] inflicted a crushing defeat on them at Gibeon, pursued them in the direction of the Beth-horon ascent, and harried them all the way to Azekah and Makkedah. 10:11 While they were fleeing before Israel down the descent from Beth-horon, YHWH hurled huge stones on them from the sky, all the way to Azekah, and they perished; more perished from the hailstones than were killed by the Israelite weapons.

Indeed, in this story, after YHWH stops the sun so that Joshua’s army could complete the conquest, the scene concludes with the explicit notice כִּי יְ־הוָה נִלְחָם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל “for YHWH fought for Israel” (Josh 10:14).[2]

Another example of YHWH fighting on Israel’s behalf is in the story of Barak and Deborah’s war against Sisera and his army:

שופטים ד:טו וַיָּהָם יְ־הוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא וְאֶת כָּל הָרֶכֶב וְאֶת כָּל הַמַּחֲנֶה לְפִי חֶרֶב לִפְנֵי בָרָק וַיֵּרֶד סִיסְרָא מֵעַל הַמֶּרְכָּבָה וַיָּנָס בְּרַגְלָיו. ד:טז וּבָרָק רָדַף אַחֲרֵי הָרֶכֶב וְאַחֲרֵי הַמַּחֲנֶה עַד חֲרֹשֶׁת הַגּוֹיִם וַיִּפֹּל כָּל מַחֲנֵה סִיסְרָא לְפִי חֶרֶב לֹא נִשְׁאַר עַד אֶחָד.
Judg 4:15 YHWH threw Sisera and all his chariots and army into a panic by the sword before the onslaught of Barak. Sisera leaped from his chariot and fled on foot. 4:16 Barak pursued the chariots and the soldiers as far as Harosheth-hagoyim. All of Sisera’s soldiers fell by the sword; not a man was left.[3]

Similarly, in Psalm 18 (which appears with slight variation in 2 Samuel 22), after the Psalmist’s calls for help, YHWH comes down in a fiery cloud to battle the attackers. Again we see the language of throwing the enemy into a panic and the imagery of an attack from the sky:

תהלים יח:ט עָלָה עָשָׁן בְּאַפּוֹ וְאֵשׁ מִפִּיו תֹּאכֵל גֶּחָלִים בָּעֲרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ. יח:י וַיֵּט שָׁמַיִם וַיֵּרַד וַעֲרָפֶל תַּחַת רַגְלָיו... יח:יב יָשֶׁת חֹשֶׁךְ סִתְרוֹ סְבִיבוֹתָיו סֻכָּתוֹ חֶשְׁכַת מַיִם עָבֵי שְׁחָקִים. יח:יג מִנֹּגַהּ נֶגְדּוֹ עָבָיו עָבְרוּ בָּרָד וְגַחֲלֵי אֵשׁ. יח:יד וַיַּרְעֵם בַּשָּׁמַיִם יְ־הוָה וְעֶלְיוֹן יִתֵּן קֹלוֹ בָּרָד וְגַחֲלֵי אֵשׁ. יח:טו וַיִּשְׁלַח חִצָּיו וַיְפִיצֵם וּבְרָקִים רָב וַיְהֻמֵּם.
Ps 18:9 Smoke went up from His nostrils, from His mouth came devouring fire; live coals blazed forth from Him. 18:10 He bent the sky and came down, thick cloud beneath His feet…. 18:12 He made darkness His screen; dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky were His pavilion round about Him. 18:13 Out of the brilliance before Him, hail and fiery coals pierced His clouds. 18:14 Then YHWH thundered from heaven, the Most High gave forth His voice—hail and fiery coals. 18:15 He let fly His shafts and scattered them; lightning and threw them into a panic.

Jewish tradition, which reads the Song of the Sea on the seventh day of Pesach, has Psalm 18 as the psalm of the day (in the Vilna Gaon tradition), and the Samuel version of this psalm as the day’s haftara. This underscores the strong literary connection the psalm has to the account in Exodus 14.

We expect YHWH to act similarly here, throwing the enemy army into a panic so they flee, only to be destroyed. Moreover, Moses promises that the Israelites will not even have to give chase, as they do in Joshua and Judges, but, like in Psalm 18. YHWH will defeat the enemy without Israel’s involvement.

And yet, this is not what happens. Instead, YHWH has the Israelites march, and then fools the Egyptians into following them into the sea where YHWH drowns them. This does not align with the expected storyline based on Moses’ promise of YHWH battling Egyptians in the wilderness while the Israelites watch. It seems, therefore, that we have another story here, one that has nothing to do with drowning.

The Fleeing Egyptians

After YHWH appears in the fiery cloud, the story continues:

שמות יד:כה וַיָּסַר [תה"ש, נ"ש: ויאסר] אֵת אֹפַן מַרְכְּבֹתָיו וַיְנַהֲגֵהוּ בִּכְבֵדֻת וַיֹּאמֶר מִצְרַיִם אָנוּסָה מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי יְ־הוָה נִלְחָם לָהֶם בְּמִצְרָיִם.
Exod 14:25 He (removed) [LXX, SP: locked][4] the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for YHWH is fighting for them against Egypt.”

The reaction of the Egyptians, and their announcement that they will flee, is in line with what we would expect from Moses’ announcement and the parallels in Joshua and Judges. Indeed, they echo what Moses said about YHWH fighting for Israel against Egypt.[5]

The Two Sea Stories Plus the Story of YHWH’s Battle

Scholars have long noted that the account of the Israelites’ escape at the sea as told in Exodus 13–14 is repetitive and runs on two different timelines. Advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis have long argued that two escape-by-the-sea stories have been combined.[6]

The Priestly story tells of Moses splitting the sea, while the non-priestly story speaks of wind blowing back the sea and then returning in a wave.[7] As this latter story uses the name Elohim repeatedly (though not exclusively), and refers to the sea as Yam Suph rather than just an unnamed sea, it derives from the E source. Documentary scholars have long wondered if J had a story about Egypt chasing the Israelites and YHWH saving them.[8]

In his 1894 The Triple Tradition of the Exodus,[9] Benjamin Bacon (1860–1932) of Yale University argued that (p. 69): “There is no reasonable doubt that the story of the crossing of the Red Sea… was the folktale of Israel par excellence, related from time immemorial at every Passover feast.” Therefore, he argued, all three sources must have had such a story. Bacon was unable to reconstruct three stories, however, and his third story (E in his estimation) remains only in fragments.[10]

Bacon’s assumption, that all three sources, E, J, and P, must be set at the sea and be about the Egyptians drowning, left him unable to see that the third story is set in the wilderness and has nothing to do with Egyptians drowning. Instead, as I outlined above, the third story—J in my view—is as follows:

The Israelites leave Egypt and are in the wilderness when Pharaoh arrives with his army. The Israelites complain to Moses, and he responds that they should just sit tight and watch as YHWH fights for them. YHWH appears in a fiery cloud and causes the Egyptians to panic. The Egyptians announce that that they must flee since YHWH has come to fight against them.

The overall story line is clear, but how does it end?

Running Into a Fiery Cloud

The ending of the J story is incomplete: we do not have the line in which YHWH strikes or destroys the enemy on Israel’s account. This is not an unusual problem, since in cases in which the combined stories contain phrases that are contradictory, the compiler often had to choose one and cut the other.[11] In this case, given that the Egyptians drowned in both P and E, the compiler cut the phrase in which YHWH strikes the Egyptians directly. Nevertheless, from various literary clues, it may be possible to reconstruct most of the ending, and even to speculate on how the Egyptians were killed.

The key observation is that the phrase in verse 27, וּמִצְרַיִם נָסִים לִקְרָאתוֹ “Egypt was fleeing towards it” must be part of the J text, since, in verse 25, the Egyptians declare they shall flee (נ.ו.ס), and in this phrase, they are fleeing (same root).[12]

Here is my suggested reconstruction of the ending, starting with the previous verse for context:

יד:כד // וַיַּשְׁקֵף יְ־הוָה אֶל מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ וְעָנָן וַיָּהָם אֵת מַחֲנֵה מִצְרָיִם יד:כה // וַיֹּאמֶר מִצְרַיִם אָנוּסָה מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי יְ־הוָה נִלְחָם לָהֶם בְּמִצְרָיִם // <יד:יט וַיִּסַּע עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן מִפְּנֵיהֶם וַיַּעֲמֹד מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶם>[13] // יד:כז וּמִצְרַיִם נָסִים לִקְרָאתוֹ // יד:כח // {ותבער בם אש י־הוה}[14] לֹא נִשְׁאַר בָּהֶם עַד אֶחָד.[15] // יד:ל וַיּוֹשַׁע יְ־הוָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם[16] // יד:לא וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְ־הוָה בְּמִצְרַיִם[17] וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת יְ־הוָה.[18]
Exod 14:24 // YHWH looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 14:25 // And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for YHWH is fighting for them against Egypt.” // <14:19 And the pillar of cloud lifted from before them and stood behind them> 14:27 and the Egyptians were fleeing towards it // 14:28 {And YHWH’s fire burnt them up} not one of them remained. // 14:30 Thus YHWH delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. // 14:31 And Israel saw the strong arm which YHWH had wielded against the Egyptians, and the people feared YHWH.

The cloud is the key to this story. The Egyptians try to run away from YHWH in his fiery cloud, but the cloud intercepts them, and the Egyptians are burnt up, with no survivors. Thus, as Moses promised, YWHH fought for them and saved them from the Egyptians. The Israelites recognize that YHWH’s mighty hand struck Egypt, and while at the beginning of the story they were afraid of the Egyptians, and Moses warns them not to be afraid, at the end they fear YHWH, as they should.


April 7, 2022


Last Updated

November 25, 2022


View Footnotes

Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.