Exodus 14

Crossing the Red Sea

Commentaries by Geri Parlby

Works of art by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Marc Chagall and Unknown artist

Cite Share

Unknown artist

Sarcophagus of the crossing of the Red Sea, 375–400 CE, White marble, 57 x 223 x 68 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City; MV.31434.0.0, Eric Vandeville / akg-images

New Creation

Commentary by Geri Parlby

Cite Share

We have been rid of all this through baptism, as through the Red Sea, so called because sanctified by the blood of the crucified Lord. (Augustine Sermon 223E.2)  

This Christian sarcophagus is dated to the reign of Emperor Theodosius (379–95 CE) and is a detailed portrayal of the events that occurred as Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea.

On the left, the pursuing Egyptian army are dressed as Roman soldiers and are led by Pharaoh who stands in a chariot on the exposed seabed (its wheels jammed, or soon to be; Exodus 14:25). A figure beneath the horses drawing the chariot is a personification of the Red Sea itself.    

In the centre, the parted waters start to return and we see the Egyptians dramatically tumbling and drowning.

To the right of this, and viewing the destruction, stands Moses. Originally, he would have held in his right hand the staff he used to command the sea in parting and closing (Exodus 14:21, 26), but this is now lost. Nonetheless, like a vertical barrier, his body marks the point in the composition at which the chaos and violence of the waters come to an abrupt halt. Tumultuous waters are a frequent symbol in the Hebrew Bible for primal chaos: the formlessness from which God drew creation (cf. Genesis 1:2). Here, through Moses, God is again quelling the chaos and making a new beginning for his people. 

Behind Moses gather the rescued Israelites. We see Moses’s sister, the prophet Miriam, playing a timbrel in celebration (Exodus 15:20), while just to her right is the (rather literally rendered) pillar of fire that lights the Israelites’ way at night (Exodus 13:21) and from which the Lord looks down from to throw confusion onto the Egyptians (Exodus 14:24). On the far right, a boy looks back to the perilous sea which he has safely crossed, his wrist held by a man who is carrying a burden which evokes Exodus 12:34, ‘So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders’.

Given the funerary context of this sarcophagus relief, the Crossing scene proclaims a robust hope: the transition from death to life; from chaos and violence to heavenly salvation.

Marc Chagall

Crossing the Red Sea, c.1957, Ceramic, Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d'Assy; ©️ 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo


Commentary by Geri Parlby

Cite Share

They forgot God, their Saviour,
    who had done … terrible things by the Red Sea.
Therefore he said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach. (Psalm 106:21–23)

This work is one of several versions of the Crossing of the Red Sea made by the Russian-born Jewish artist Marc Chagall. The theme was especially poignant for Chagall as he and his wife had had to flee France in 1941 after the Germans invaded.

This version of the scene was designed in 1950 as a ceramic mural for the baptistery of the Notre-Dame de Tout-Grâce church in the Plateau d’Assy in France. Sensitive to the purpose of the baptistery, Chagall worked with the typological link between the Red Sea Crossing and Christian baptism and salvation, a link whose origins go back to the New Testament itself: as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea’ (1 Corinthians 10:1–2).

In the mural, the Israelites are led from the sea by a graceful white angel (Exodus 14:19–20). At the head of the march, a bent old man leans on his stick, a symbol of the eternal wandering Jew, said by some to symbolise the biblical Cain condemned to wander the earth (Genesis 4:12). The Israelites are pursued by a chaotic army of Egyptians with Pharoah in his chariot urging them onwards into the sea and their death (Exodus 14:26–31). A monumental Moses in bright yellow, with horns of light emanating from his head (Exodus 34:29), has his staff raised (Exodus 14:15–17). The bright yellow is reminiscent of the yellow badges Jews were forced to wear to identify their heritage.

Chagall’s mural also incorporates an image of Jesus, wearing a Jewish prayer shawl in place of the more typical loincloth. During his career, Chagall returned again and again to images of the crucified Jesus, using the crucifixion as a symbol for not just human, but specifically Jewish, suffering (see Chagall’s White Crucifixion and Yellow Crucifixion). Here, the central action unfolds between him and Moses; each revered in their traditions as a saving figure who ‘stood in the breach’ (Psalm 106:23).



Chagall, Marc. 2007. The Bible: Genesis, Exodus, the Song of Solomon (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)

Green, William C. (trans.). 1963. Augustine: The City of God, vol 6, books 18.36–20, Loeb Classical Library 416 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Levine, K.A. (ed.). 2003. Marc Chagall (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Wilson, J. 2007. Marc Chagall (Jewish Encounters) (New York: Schocken Books)

Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem

Israelites Crossing the Red Sea, 1594, Oil on panel, 42 x 103 cm, Princeton University Art Museum; Museum purchase, gift of George L. Craig Jr., Class of 1921, and Mrs. Craig, y1973-74, Princeton University Art Museum / Art Resource, NY


Commentary by Geri Parlby

Cite Share

[Christ’s blood] washes and cleanses [the soul] from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God. This does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan. (de Brès 1567)

In this painting by the Dutch Mannerist artist Cornelis van Haarlem, we see the Israelites making their way out of the parted waters of the Red Sea under a dark and menacing sky (Exodus 14:19–20). The small figure of Moses can be seen on the far left of the painting standing on a bluff accompanied by four figures. He appears to be holding back the waters effortlessly until the last of the Israelites walk from the dry sea bed (Exodus 14:21; 22)

Other Israelites, some dressed in the traditional contemporary style, others more exotically, talk and interact with each other on the other side of the painting. In the centre, a turbaned man in a figure-hugging outfit of vivid green stands with his arm around the waist of a woman in shadow. The couple appear to be greeting the new arrivals.

Cornelis’s use of bright and often jarring colours with highly stylized figures in twisted and unnatural poses—although a typical artifice of sixteenth-century Dutch Mannerism—could also be a deployment of visual caricature, reflecting contemporary prejudices about the 'gracelessness' of the Jewish people. John Calvin (1509–64) had projected just such a view of onto the ancient Israelites in his Commentaries on the Bible, criticising their lack of faith:

Now the Israelites, … though preserved by God’s hand, … reject as much as possible His proffered grace. (Calvin 1853)

Yet many of the Calvinist Dutch saw clear parallels between their fight against Spanish Catholic domination and that of the Israelites breaking free from Egyptian slavery. Despite anti-Jewish prejudice, they also felt a special kinship with the great biblical figures and they repeatedly drew parallels between the Israelite people and themselves:

[They] are an example to us how many repeated salvations are necessary for us, in order that God may bring us to perfect salvation. (Calvin 1853)



de Brès, Guido. 2007 [1567]. ‘Belgic Confessions 1567, Article 34’, in The Belgic Confession, ed. by N. Gootjes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic)

Calvin, John. 1853. Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the form of a Harmony, vol. 1 (Calvin Translation Society)

Lowenthal, Anne Walter. 1977. ‘Three Dutch Mannerist Paintings’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 36.1: 12–21

Unknown artist :

Sarcophagus of the crossing of the Red Sea, 375–400 CE , White marble

Marc Chagall :

Crossing the Red Sea, c.1957 , Ceramic

Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem :

Israelites Crossing the Red Sea, 1594 , Oil on panel

Salvation By Water

Comparative commentary by Geri Parlby

Cite Share

The people … by passing through the Red Sea, proclaimed good tidings of salvation by water. The people passed over, and the Egyptian king and his host was engulfed, and by these actions this sacrament [of baptism] was foretold. For even now, whensoever the people is in the water of regeneration, fleeing from Egypt, from the burden of sin, it is set free and saved. (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Baptism of Christ

The Crossing of the Red Sea is a dramatic episode in the book of Exodus and a pivotal moment in the sacred histories of both Christians and (especially) Jews.

It also features as one of the earliest identifiable narrative scenes in both Christian and Jewish art: the oldest surviving depiction of the scene was found in a Jewish synagogue in Dura Europos, in present day Syria, dated to the mid-third century CE.

A similar painted scene appears in a funerary context in the fourth-century Christian catacomb of the Via Latina in Rome—suiting the triumphal tone of much early Christian figurative art, which frequently celebrated moments of victory over danger and death.

Thus, the fourth-century marble sarcophagus in this exhibition is one of several coffins with reliefs of the Crossing of the Red Sea. In them we see the story of Pharaoh’s pursuit, the drowning of the Egyptian army, and the ultimate celebration of salvation by the liberated Israelites. The typological link between the Israelites’ passing through the waters and that undergone by Christians in baptism offers assurance that death has no ultimate power over the believer: in baptism they have already died with Christ, and will rise with him.

For sixteenth-century Calvinists, as for centuries of Christians before them, the Crossing of the Red Sea evoked a connection between baptism and spiritual cleansing. According to one of their most important doctrinal texts:

God signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the bodies of those who are baptized when it is sprinkled on them, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. (de Brès 1567)

But, as the same text goes on to say, the Crossing also signified an escape from tyranny into a new space of freedom. Although Cornelis van Haarlem was Roman Catholic, he was commissioned to paint this scene at a time when Dutch Calvinists were celebrating the emergence of their church from Spanish Catholic domination. The event of salvation depicted in this work must have seemed especially resonant in such a context. For many, the Egyptians would have recalled the Spanish Catholic Church whereas the promised land of Canaan represented the Calvinist Dutch Republic. 

After his 1931 commission by the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard to illustrate the Bible—resulting eventually in two volumes containing 105 etchings—Marc Chagall continued to return to biblical subjects throughout his life. In revisiting some of these subjects, Chagall varied the media he used. He made both lithographic and oil-painted versions of the Crossing of the Red Sea in addition to this large ceramic mural composed of 90 tiles. 

Chagall was commissioned to create the mural for the baptistery of the Notre-Dame de Tout-Grâce church in Plateau d'Assy, France. The episode was an informed choice for that location, because of the link between the sacrament of baptism and the story of the Red Sea crossing. The Church was consecrated in 1950 by the Dominican led Sacred Art Movement who—post-World War II—were seeking to revitalize church architecture through the contributions of the finest artists of the 1950s, regardless of their faith.

Despite already having painted many New Testament subjects in his biblical works, Chagall was uncharacteristically plagued by self-doubt when he first received the commission for the baptistry of the Plateau d’Assy Church. He even turned to both the chief rabbi of France and the president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, for reassurance that as a Jew it would be acceptable to take on the commission. In the event, he revised his earlier treatments of the Crossing by adding an image of the Crucifixion, and by doing this he reconciled the requirements of this very Christian commission with an expression of his own Jewishness—for in his previous work he had developed the image of the Crucifixion into a way of both highlighting and exploring the sufferings of the Jewish people.

By combining both Jewish and Christian symbolism in this Crossing of the Red Sea, Chagall harnesses not only the baptismal themes of new creation, and of liberation, but also of reconciliation: a new incorporation of divided traditions and peoples. He speaks powerfully of the possibility of a cohesive civilization in which Jews and Christians share key religious motifs.      



de Brès, Guido. 2007 [1567]. ‘Belgic Confessions 1567, Article 34’, in The Belgic Confession, ed. by N. Gootjes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic)

Schaff, Philip (ed.), W. Moore and H. Wace (trans.). 1893. ‘On the Baptism of Christ’, in Gregory of Nyssa Dogmatic Treaties etc., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2.5 (Christian Literature Company), p. 518, available at https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205/npnf205/Page_518.html

Next exhibition: Exodus 15:20–21

Exodus 14

Revised Standard Version

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, 2“Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-ha-hiʹroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baʹal-zephon; you shall encamp over against it, by the sea. 3For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are entangled in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ 4And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so.

5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” 6So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, 7and took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the people of Israel as they went forth defiantly. 9The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-ha-hiʹroth, in front of Baʹal-zephon.

10 When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord; 11and they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” 15The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. 16Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea. 17And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

19 Then the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness; and the night passed without one coming near the other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians, 25clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel; for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.”

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” 27So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its wonted flow when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled into it, and the Lord routed the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained. 29But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore. 31And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did against the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.