When the people of Israel left Egypt to go to Canaan, the land which the Lord had promised to Abraham for his descendants as an eternal inheritance, they were pursued by the mighty Egyptian army. The Israelite departure from Egypt was a hurried one. When Moses approached the King of Egypt asking permission to let the people go to worship Yahweh in the wilderness, the Pharaoh denied Moses’ request and increased his oppression of the Israelites (Exodus 5:4-9).
Because of a series of calamities that plagued Egypt with disease, insects, and natural disasters that killed many Egyptians, the king of Egypt finally relented and gave his permission for the Israelites to leave his country (Ex. 12:31-33). However, Pharaoh had a change of mind. The Israelites were an important source of cheap labor, and their departure would cause a severe economic impact on the Egyptian economy. For this reason the Israelites fled in great haste because they feared that Pharaoh would change his mind again.
As soon as the people had left Egypt, “Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds” about allowing the people to depart Egypt (Ex. 14:5). Knowing that the departure of his slaves would cause a dramatic hardship on Egypt’s economy, Pharaoh began pursuing the escaping Israelites. He had his chariot made ready for battle and assembled his army in preparation to stop the people of Israel. Pharaoh’s army consisted of a group of professional soldiers who served under the command of army officers. Exodus 14:7 says that Pharaoh “took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.”
To determine when the Israelites left Egypt is difficult. Two views dominate scholarly debate for the exodus date. The first view places the exodus in 1446 B.C. Those who accept the 15th century B.C. date for the exodus rely on 1 Kings 6:1 as the foundation for this early date. According to this text, Solomon began building the temple in the fourth year of his reign, exactly 480 years after the people of Israel left Egypt. Since this early view dates the construction of the temple in 966 B.C., the exodus occurred in the year 1446 B.C. The pharaoh of this period was Thutmosis III (1490-1435 B.C.). He was an able king who led several successful military campaigns in Canaan and Syria. Thutmosis III was able to use the power of his army to build a large empire in an area that extended as far as the Euphrates River.
Those who accept a late date for the exodus rely on the information provided in Exodus 1:11. This text declares that the people of Israel built the store cities of Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. Since the rebuilding of these cities is credit to Ramses II, whose reign began in 1290 B.C., the exodus then is placed in the 13th century. Ramses II is known as a builder of monuments. However, he came from a family of generals and conquerors. His many wars in Syria and Palestine give evidence of his prowess as a warrior. His most famous battle was against Muwatallis, king of the Hittites, near Kadesh on the Orontes, in which Ramses fought against an army of 30,000 soldiers.
Although to give a precise date for the exodus is difficult, the fact is that Israel was taken out of Egypt by God’s mighty power (Exod. 14:31) as He had promised Abraham and was pursued by the powerful Egyptian army, led by a pharaoh who was determined to prevent the people from escaping.
The Egyptian army assembled by Pharaoh to pursue the fleeing Israelites was a powerful professional army composed of “horses and chariots, charioteers and fighting men.” In the Ancient Near East the horse was associated with war, and power for it was always associated with kings and armies and never with the common people. The horse was introduced in the Ancient Near East in the second millennium B.C. The use of chariots was widespread among the Hittites in Anatolia, the Hyksos in Syro-Palestine, and among the Kassites in Mesopotamia. The horse was introduced in Egypt by the Hyksos at the time they invaded and conquered Egypt. The Hyksos was a group of nomadic people who ruled Egypt for 150 years (1720-1570 B.C.). The Egyptian called them “Rulers of Foreign Land.” This Hyksos was a coalition of Asiatic people with a predominant Semitic element. They controlled most of Egypt and established their capital at Avaris in the Nile Delta. They were a warrior people, fierce in battle. The Hyksos introduced the horse and the horse-drawn chariot in Egypt as a military weapon.
The early Egyptian chariots were not heavy. Egyptian chariots of the 15th century B.C. were built with two wheels and each wheel had four spokes. These military chariots were harnessed to two horses. They were made with a wooden frame and were partially covered with leather.
After the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt, the Egyptians continued to perfect the chariots as a military weapon. In a picture of Rameses II fighting against the Hittites at the battle of Kadesh, the king of Egypt is pictured on a chariot with six-spoke wheels drawn by two horses. Ramses is also pictured with his draw bow and with a quiver for his javelin and another for his arrows. Most Egyptian chariots carried a crew of two men: a driver, whose main duty was to control the horses and a fighting warrior whose concern was to fight the enemy. Other nations added a third person in the chariot, a person whose function was to carry a shield to protect the other two riders. The Israelites did not have any horses or chariots. Only during the united monarchy, in the days of David and Solomon, were horses and chariots introduced into Israel’s army.
The Egyptian army chariots were divided into units and each unit had its own officer (Ex. 14:7). The word for “officers,” shalishim, literally means “third.” This has been understood by some scholars to mean that the Egyptian chariot carried a third person. However, more likely the word represents the official title of a unit commander.
Exodus 13:18 declares that “the Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.” Although they had served as Egyptian slaves, possibly the people of Israel departed from Egypt equipped with some kind of weapons, either made, or bought, or taken from the Egyptians. But the size, organization, and the highly-disciplined personnel of the Egyptian army made whatever armament the Israelites had ineffective. This situation created panic among the fleeing Israelites. When the Israelites perceived that they were being pursued by the powerful Egyptian chariot forces, they were afraid. The people were “terrified” (Ex. 14:10) because they trapped between the desert and the sea and because they believed that their situation was hopeless.
Moses met the people’s hopelessness with the assurance that the Lord would fight for them. The mighty Egyptian army could not match the power God would display in defending His people. The God of Israel is portrayed as “a man of war” (Exod. 14:3 KJV), as “a warrior” (NIV) who protects and who fights to deliver His people. The idea that the Lord is a warrior comes from the ideology of the Holy War in which Yahweh Himself led the army of Israel in the war against the enemy’s army. According to the exodus narrative, the Lord led his people by going before them by day in a pillar of cloud and by night in a pillar of fire (Ex. 13:21).
From the pillar of fire and cloud (Ex. 14:24) Yahweh came down against the Egyptian army and “made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficult driving (Ex. 14:25). Another translation states that the Lord clogged the wheels of their chariots in the mud (see NIV note) and the Egyptian charioteers were unable to maneuver their chariots. When this happened, the Egyptians themselves recognized that the Lord was fighting for Israel. As a result of divine action, “the waters flowed back and covered the chariots and the horsemen–the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived” (Ex. 14:28).
Thus the destruction of the powerful Egyptian army was accomplished by the mighty act of Yahweh. God fought against Egypt to save His people. Yahweh destroyed the mighty Egyptian army. By His power “the horse and its rider,” “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army” were hurled into the sea (Ex. 15:1,4). In its deliverance from Egypt and in the destruction of Pharaoh’s mighty army, Israel learned a great truth, that its salvation was accomplished “not by might nor by power” but by the Spirit of God, the Lord Almighty (Zech. 4:6).
NOTE: For other studies on the history and archaeology of Egypt, read my post Egypt, The Land of the Pharaohs.
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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