The parting of the waters
2009 S.H. Parker

All Hebrew transcription and translations are from the Mechon-Mamre on-line chumash, unless otherwise noted.

From Shmot 14, we learn about the parting of the waters of the Yam Suph ("Sea of Reeds," not "Red Sea"):

טז  וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת-מַטְּךָ, וּנְטֵה אֶת-יָדְךָ עַל-הַיָּם--וּבְקָעֵהוּ; וְיָבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם, בַּיַּבָּשָׁה. 16 And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground.

Cover for the maneuver is provided by the cloud, to block the Egyptians, and the pillar of fire, for light:

יט  וַיִּסַּע מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים, הַהֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵי מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶם; וַיִּסַּע עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן, מִפְּנֵיהֶם, וַיַּעֲמֹד, מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶם. 19 And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them;
כ  וַיָּבֹא בֵּין מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם, וּבֵין מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיְהִי הֶעָנָן וְהַחֹשֶׁךְ, וַיָּאֶר אֶת-הַלָּיְלָה; וְלֹא-קָרַב זֶה אֶל-זֶה, כָּל-הַלָּיְלָה. 20 and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet gave it light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night.

But once the people are screened from the Egyptians:

כא  וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, עַל-הַיָּם, וַיּוֹלֶךְ יְהוָה אֶת-הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה; וַיִּבָּקְעוּ, הַמָּיִם. 21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
כב  וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם, בַּיַּבָּשָׁה 22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground...

This text appears to be a classic doublet (on the importance of these doublets, see Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible, which contains a very readable discussion of the history and meaning of these Biblical passages). In one, 14:16, Moshe will divide the sea. In the second, 14:21, Moshe's stretching out his hand (note, in the first version, it is his rod) is only the sign that God is dividing the sea. In the second version, we get the additional detail about the east wind blowing the water back.

It is a doublet because it is the same story told twice and each telling is from a different point of view. There are details in the second telling that are not in the first. And, some details differ, even contradict each other, between the versions (there are more differences but those are not to the point here -- see Friedman's The Bible with Sources Revealed, you can read the various stories as complete, independent accounts).

But there are more important, political, differences in our text. It is the hidden agendas of each version that are important to textual scholars and interesting to me.

In the first version, Moshe is the active party. The water is parted by Moshe lifting his rod over the water (granted, God has to order him to do so; in the verse immediately before our text, Moshe is dithering in indecision: "You! Tell [order] the people to go forward!" -- my translation).

In the second version, God is the active party. God causes the water to be blown back (the wind -- a sirocco -- the mechanism by which the water parts, is a detail missing from the first telling). Moshe's action, in stretching out his hand, is a mere signal.

De Mille reconciled the two versions by having Charleton Heston extend his arms, holding the rod. This satisfies the first telling. At the same time, he bellows "Behold His mighty hand," which satisfies the second telling. But this hardly reconciles the underlying politics.

In the first telling, Moshe and his actions are essential. Without Moshe, nothing happens. In the second telling, Moshe and his actions are irrelevant. God uses Moshe, at best, as a traffic cop. The first version of the tale, clearly, is from a pro-Mosaic author; the second, clearly, is not.

Why is this important? The political agenda is claims to the priesthood. In the earliest Biblical stories, the first born is the family's priest, as well as the clan's leader. Later, Yaakov overturns the normal order of precedence in his final blessing to his sons, elevating Judah. Finally, the entire tribe of Levi is appointed as the priests of Israel (Devarim doesn't even mention Aaron or a High Priest, for example; the Deuteronomic code simply assumes that all Levites are equal and the Priestly source seems to countenance sacrifice at many locations -- centralization of sacrifice is being a highly related issue).

Throughout the Torah (outside of Bereishit), Levi are the priests -- witness the constant use of the term "Levitical priests" throughout Devarim. The only inherited role, from Aaron, is the office of the High Priest (at least, where that office is even acknowledged -- which it is not in Devarim). It is only very late in the Biblical narrative -- it is not mentioned until 2 Chronicles and is associated with the reign of Hezekiah -- that all priests are required to be descended from Aaron and sacrifice may be offered at only one place (though, the attempt to centralize worship may go back further, to Shlomo). 

Those who support the Levitical priesthood would be pro-Moshe; their stories would build him up. This position, anti single, central sanctuary, pro Levitical priests, would have characterized the nation's history as told in the northern kingdom, the kingdom of Israel. The Aaronid priesthood, featuring a single sanctuary, would have been a characteristic of the southern kingdom, Judah. (The Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom (722 BCE) finally settles the dispute about who are priests and where is sacrifice permitted. It is not the victors but the survivors who wrote the history.)

To this point: What we have, of course, is a set of Biblical verses from two schools of thought (according to Friedman, three of the sources, the P (Priestly), E (Elohist) and J (Jawist) sources, are used here, P and J being on the same side of the political issues discussed here). On the one side, we have the proponents of Moshe, adherents to the belief that all Levites are priests and that sacrifice can be at any place "He causes His name to be called" (P and E). On the other, we have the anti-Moshe group, the group behind the Aaronid priesthood and a single sacrificial site (J).

But, the two traditions share the memory of a water crossing, pursued by Egypt's army and the annihilation of that army (the two stories differ on how Paro and his troops were held off and how they died in the sea -- but those differences are not germane at this moment). We have, in fact, a strong cultural memory of defeating an Egyptian army at a sea shore. Everyone agrees on that.

A Better Story

If Torah was committed to parchment during the Sinatic sojourn, it clearly has an ambivalent attitude toward Moshe. Perhaps there is a concern with ascribing too much to him, of venerating the man.... If the Pentateuch is a compendium of disparate earlier documents, then we are witness to the political infighting between Israel and Judah over the Temple and the priesthood.

In any case, as interesting as the foregoing may be, there is no torah (instruction) in the analysis, little of homiletic interest. Fortunately, the midrash has a third version of how the sea parted, a tale nowhere referenced in the text of the Torah (though its protagonist does appear several times in the Torah).

In the midrash we are told about נחשון בן עמינדב (Nachshon ben Aminadab), the leader of the tribe of Judah (Num. 10:14 and, according to Ex. 6:23, brother-in-law to Aharon). According to the midrash, נחשון caused the waters to part. נחשון  caused the waters to part by simply walking in. When the water was about to cover his face and he was about to drown, the waters opened.

As I first heard the story, "the waters did not part until the first person jumped in."

Here, Moshe's hand and rod are irrelevant. There is no contention over who's the hero, who's the priest or where one may sacrifice. What is relevant, all that is relevant, is נחשון's action: he jumps in. 

I can hear him now, ticking the points off on his fingers:

    "Moshe is the prophet of God"

    "Moshe says the Egyptians will be defeated"

   and we will be clear of the Egyptians (לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד, עַד-עוֹלָם -- you will not see them again, for ever)

    "Canaan is thataway ..."

   "Well, that's good enough for me!" 

And in he goes.

Thus we have the etymology of the term "leap of faith."

But, there is another important message in this drosh, a lesson I received from both of my teachers. נחשון did, albeit by way of anticipation, the right thing. His action (method) was good. He got, not through his own agency, the right result. In other words: If you do the right thing, using right methods, you have the right to expect the right result. You have the right to demand God's cooperation in ensuring the right outcome. 

Thus we also have the etymology of the saying "God helps those who help themselves."

Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest said: "When a man enters upon the path of truth and justice, God helps him forward ..." (The Talmud: Selections, H. Polano, 1876).

Of course, as both Rabbi Engel and Rabbi Radinsky wistfully observed, your perception of the timeframe may not be quite the same as God's....