Did the Split Reed Sea Return Twice?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Dani Roth
Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the Lord violently stirred the Egyptians in the sea. The waters returned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen—Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea—not one of them remained. (Exod. 14:27,28)
As verse 14:27 already says, “the sea returned to its normal state,” why does verse 14:28 repeat “The waters returned back”? Furthermore, why does verse 28 change from “sea” to “water,” also adding “chariots and the horsemen”? Verse 28 also differs saying, “the water covered the chariots and the horsemen” while verse 27 says, “stirred the Egyptians.”
To answer Dani’s astute questions, we must gain an overview of God’s plan at the Reed Sea (Yam Suf):
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:17).
This means that the Jews would have returned to Egypt—as opposed to heading in any other direction to avoid the Philistine war. Had they confronted the Philistine war, the Jews would prefer servitude under Egypt’s rule, than freedom elsewhere. This is due to the Jews’ veneration for the Egyptians, their former authority. But to accept God and Torah, the Jews could not retain any type of respect for Egypt, as this would inhibit a full acceptance of God as their sole authority. God tells us why He will drown the Egyptians at the Reed Sea:
And I will stiffen the hearts of the Egyptians so that they go in after them; and I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17).
God wished to remove the Jews’ respect for Egypt by obliterating Egypt’s “warriors, his chariots, and his horsemen,” their most respected and glorified army, so that He will “gain glory.” Now we can explain our Dani’s questions…
The sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the Lord violently stirred the Egyptians in the sea.
God’s first step was to display His completed control: not yet drowning, but tossing Egypt around in the sea; in the raging waves, Egypt had no control over their movement, and certainly no control over the Jews. Thereby God displayed Himself as the One in control of the Jews’ fate.
The waters returned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen
Next, God now removed the Jews’ respect for Egypt’s pride—their army—and killed them. Here, as the intent was drown Egypt so they no longer posed any threat to the Jews, “water” is the only reference needed, since “sea” or “river” is irrelevant when discussing drowning. This also explains why “covered” them in water is the selected word, as covered in water means to drown.
Thus, the “return” of the previously split Reed Sea occurred only once, but it had 2 purposes: 1) to toss around Egypt’s army displaying their lack of control, and 2) to drown them. Thereby, God achieved His plan to “gain glory” by eliminating the threat to His honor, i.e., the Egyptian army. So revered was Egypt in the Jews’ eyes, they preferred servitude in Egypt over freedom elsewhere. This revealed the need for God to eliminate Egypt so the Jews would accept God alone as their sole authority.
Other Torah instances appear to contain repetitions too, such as “And God created man in His image” (Gen. 1:27) followed by, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth” (Gen. 2:7). But in fact, God created man only once, as reason demands. But the repetition is to highlight different aspects of man’s creation. Repetition is one of God’s method’s of attracting our curiosity so we might delve into Torah and gain greater wisdom.