Question: "What is the importance of the parting of the Red Sea?"
Answer: The importance of the parting of the Red Sea is that this one event was the final, decisive act in God’s delivering His people from slavery in Egypt. The parting of the Red Sea was truly the birth of a nation.
On the night of the tenth plague, the children of Israel left Egypt, and “God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:18). God told them where to camp by the sea (Exodus 14:2), and He informed them that the king of Egypt would pursue them. But the result would be a resounding victory: “I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:4).
Just as God had said, “The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea” (Exodus 14:9). The people “were terrified and cried out to the Lord” (verse 10). They also began to turn against Moses for leading them into a trap (verses 11–12). But Moses told them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (verses 13–14).
Then came the miracle: “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:21–22). When the Egyptian forces tried to follow the Israelites through the Red Sea, God disabled their chariots (verse 25), and “at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived” (verses 27–28).
The miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea was celebrated with song and dance, praising the highly exalted God who overthrows His enemies and leads His redeemed people to salvation (Exodus 15:1–21).
The exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea is the single greatest act of salvation in the Old Testament. That event is continually recalled to represent God’s saving power. The events of the exodus, including the parting and crossing of the Red Sea, are immortalized in the Psalms as Israel brings to remembrance God’s saving works in their worship (e.g., Psalm 66:6; 78:13; 106:9; 136:13).
God prophesied to Abraham that his descendants would live in a foreign land for 400 years and eventually be enslaved there, but God promised to deliver them: “I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:14). The prophecy came true, of course. Abraham’s grandson Jacob moved his family to Egypt to escape a famine. Then, many years after the death of Jacob’s son Joseph, a Pharaoh came to power in Egypt who afflicted the people of Israel and enslaved them (Exodus 1:8–11). After the birth of Moses, the time was right, and God “heard” the cries of His people and prepared to deliver them (Exodus 2:23–25).
God commissioned Moses to deliver His people. Moses stood before Pharaoh and requested the people of Israel be let go so they could worship the Lord. Pharaoh refused (“he hardened his heart,” Exodus 8:15) and began to oppress the people of Israel even more. Then began a cycle of ten plagues: in each cycle, Moses requested that Pharaoh release God’s people, Pharaoh refused, God sent a plague, Pharaoh “repented,” and God removed the plague. After the final plague (the death of the firstborn), Pharaoh finally agreed to let the children of Israel go. But then he had another change of heart and chased after them with his army, trapping them at the Red Sea. That set up the great deliverance of Israel as God parted the Red Sea.
We may be tempted to think that this is a wonderful story of God’s miraculous saving power on display, and leave it at that. But that would be to miss the bigger picture in the story of redemption. The Old Testament prepares the way for the New Testament, and all of God’s promises find their “yes” and “amen” in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). The exodus from Egypt, was a real, historical event, but it also prefigures the saving work of Christ for His people. Through Moses, God provided physical salvation from slavery to Egypt. Through Christ, God provides spiritual salvation from slavery to sin. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. . . . So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
The parting of the Red Sea is also used in the New Testament as a symbol of the believer’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1–4). Here, Paul gives the exodus from Egypt a Christological reading; he makes the connection between the exodus from Egypt and salvation in Christ. Notice how Paul says that all “were baptized into Moses.” This is a way of saying that the Israelites were dedicated, or initiated, into Moses, being brought under obligation to him for their freedom. In a similar way, Christians are baptized into Christ, as we are initiated into Him and obligated to Him for our spiritual freedom. Romans 6:4 elaborates: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
So, the parting of the Red Sea not only finalized God’s redemption of His people from slavery in Egypt, but it also prefigured the greater spiritual reality of God’s redemption of His people from slavery to sin through the work of Christ.