Confronting Baal-Zephon: The Spiritual Message of the Meeting of Israel and the Armies of Egypt

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This article was first published in the June 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea...directly opposite Baal Zephon...'"(Exodus 14:1).

It would be a gross understatement to say that the issues of the locations of the crossing of the Red Sea and of Mt. Sinai have gotten quite a bit of attention lately. Many articles have been written (some of the best by ABR scholars!), and the debate and discussion goes on. The pursuit of truth is a most noble task and its importance cannot be overestimated. Even within the subject of biblical geography, the researchers' theological assumptions impact both the research and the conclusions drawn from that research.

You may ask, "you mean it’s actually important to know where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea?" or "Does it really matter which mountain is Mt. Sinai?" Such questions belie a set of assumptions that many Christians hold today, that historical or geographical precision is unimportant compared to the "spiritual meaning" of the biblical text. This form of reasoning is not necessarily found among just liberal scholars with an axe to grind with evangelicals. It is found among many evangelicals, and sadly among our young adults who have been trained to understand the Christian faith in experiential and subjective forms devoid of the historical and geographical foundations that give their faith actual meaning. Let me be clear, my intent is not to cloud the important discussion of the actual locations of these events in any way, or to suggest that, by looking to the spiritual meaning and application, that our search is unimportant. Indeed, the archaeological research that is helping us understand the locations of these momentous events is of paramount importance, led by the sovereign will of God.

With that said, I want to call the reader to the Exodus text, chapters 13 and 14. We find the Israelites being led by God out of Egypt, by the desert road toward the Red Sea and armed for battle. God's leading is miraculous: "By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light..." (v. 21). It is significant that the writer informs us that the pillar of cloud and fire never "left its place in front of the people" (v. 22). Why is this significant? Because God is about to do something apparently strange and unexpected. God wants us to know that He led them every step of the way to this point, and now He stops the Israelites and tells them to turn back! "Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon." God shows us that the confrontation with the Egyptians at Baal Zephon is not by accident, or a coincidence. He shows us that He intentionally turns the Israelites around and leads them to a place that He has chosen for the great spiritual conflict with the Egyptians.

Yes...I said spiritual conflict. Even though the Israelites had left Egypt "armed for battle" (13:18), they were told, "you only need to be still" because "the Lord will fight for you" (14:14). And lest we think the impending battle is just a physical battle between armies with swords, armor and chariots, let us remember that our God had been triumphing over not only the Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but also the supposed power of their gods. The plagues were a drumbeat of victory as the gods of Egypt were, one by one, displayed to be impotent and powerless. And even more importantly, Yahweh wanted the Egyptians to know that He is the Lord (14:4).

The study of the history and background of Baal Zephon is utterly fascinating. The worship of Baal was known throughout the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, and down into Egypt. Upon this mountain, Baal Zephon, it was believed that Zephon reigned in power and was lord over the sea. Here, Pharaoh may have sensed that the idol Zephon was going to display his power over the Israelites. God tells us some of Pharaoh’s reasoning: "Pharaoh will think, 'The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.' And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them" (v. 3, 4a). Indeed he did, and I believe that Pharaoh considered that Zephon would finally rout the Israelites and that Yahweh would be shown to be inferior in power. (Did Pharaoh still think that he and his Egyptian gods had power to subdue the God of Israel unaided by a still more powerful deity?) And it is no surprise that the Lord stopped Israel and turned them around to meet and defeat not only Pharaoh and his army, but also to display his power over Zephon and defeat him at the mountain of his glory and power. Not only this, but Yahweh would lead His people directly through the sea...the sea which the Egyptians believed were under the control of Zephon! And further, that instead of the Israelites being destroyed, showing Zephon's lordship of the sea, it would be the Egyptians who would discover who was both Lord of the mountain, but also Lord over the sea! There were many ways that God could have chosen to eliminate the Egyptian army; it was no accident that He chose to bring this conflict into the sharpest spiritual focus and to a climax of incredible proportions.

In the end we are left awestruck at the wisdom and power of our God. We can see clearly that God was showing His people, in the most amazing and startling ways, not only that He was Lord over all other gods and over nature, but was teaching His people Israel what happens to those who worship false gods. And lest we forget His love for the Egyptians, we must remember His words, that ultimately, "the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord" (v. 4). Can we not also conclude, that in the end, God showed His grace to the Egyptians who were in the bondage of following gods who were empty, without power, and unable to save them?

The Lord said: "...I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." God's glory is at stake in all these things. May we praise and glorify our great God, who delivers his people and triumphs over all our enemies!

Scott Lanser graduated with an M.A. from Biblical Theological Seminary, has served for over 20 years as a pastor in Lancaster, PA, and currently serves as the Executive Director of ABR.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

Moses and the Gods
of Egypt

100 Reasons to
Trust OT History


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6/5/2008 8:30 PM #

This is wonderful. This article clears up so many of the questions concerning the Exodus and the route taken by Moses. This article, and Dr. Wood's on the location of Mt. Sinai are a must read for everyone that truly wants to understans the messages of GOD's word.

GOD Bless,

Ken Moffett - 6/5/2008 8:30:30 PM

12/9/2012 5:13 PM #


Colin - 12/9/2012 5:13:04 PM

2/18/2013 12:32 PM #

Should history and archaeology be important to Christians? I do believe we should put the focus on studying the theology of the Bible, but, there is an incredible amount of information in the Hebrew Scriptures about Egypt and the cities there, and it was given by God! The history and archaeology of the Bible should not be explained by the scholars who do not believe in the supernatural and then sell their books to our young people, who are left with the impression the Bible is not trustworthy. In truth, there are things that are “weightier matters”, as Christ said in reference to the weightier matters of the Law of God, but we should not ignore the other things in the Scriptures, “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone”. (Matthew. 23:23)

I read with interest about how the "Lord stopped Israel and turned them around...also to display his power over Zephon", even calling it the "idol Zephon". The legends preserved by the Jews make an interesting comment about this idol. “Of set purpose God had left Baalzephon uninjured, alone of all the Egyptian idols. He wanted the Egyptian people to think that this idol was possessed of exceeding might, which it exercised to prevent the Israelites from journeying on.” (Legends of the Jews, III, Pharaoh Pursues the Hebrews, also Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Exodus XIV). This was believed to be when God destroyed the idols of Egypt (Exodus 12:12, also Numbers 33:4), maybe these idols had been knocked to the ground off their pedestals or broken in pieces. But as quoted above, the reason Baal-zephon was still standing was to give Pharaoh a false hope in this idol. Therefore the Sphinx would be the only possibility for Baal-zephon, for all believe it was standing when the children of Israel left Egypt! What other idol could it have been? These Jewish sources just quoted said Baal-zephon was the only one left. It was and is still there! At the third encampment Israel is back where she started (Numbers 33:7 "turned again" to Pi-Hahiroth).

Josephus said Israel started the Exodus at the southern end of the Letopolis nome (west side of the Nile Antiq. II, 15, 1), which would be in front of the Sphinx and Great Pyramid. The Romans called the pyramids "towers" (Pliny. The geography of Egypt, book V, chapter 11). The Hebrew Bible is not going to use the Greek name "pyramid" to describe them. For the Jews it was Migdol a "tower" (Numbers 33:7). The Uraeus, or cobra, was the symbol of northern Egypt. On the upper forehead of the Sphinx is clearly seen the Uraeus or cobra and it is made from the stone of the Sphinx itself. A two-foot limestone piece of the Sphinx’s cobra, with its eyes and mouth, is in the British Museum #1204. Pharaohs who were rulers of the two lands (northern and southern Egypt) would wear both the vulture and the cobra on their headdress, as is seen on King Tutankhamun's grave mask, but the Sphinx only has the one symbol of the north. Baal-zephon. Strong’s #1168 gives for “Baal” = Lord, and #6828 “zephon” = north, or “Lord of the north”. The children of Israel were familiar with Baalzephon from their time in Canaan before they came to Egypt, and one would expect Israel to use a name they were familiar with. Just as the Egyptian god Amun was called by the Greeks, Zeus and by the Romans, Jupiter, so the Sphinx was called Baalzephon by the Jews.

Pi-ha-hiroth, the “Dream Stele” (18th Dynasty), the Papyrus of Ani (18th Dynasty), Victory stele of king Piye (8th century BC) and the Papyrus of Sanehat (Sinuhit, 12th Dynasty) all talk of Kheraha or Kher-ahau (vowels are conjecture = Khrh), and place it at Old Cairo across from the Great Sphinx (Again Josephus said it was by Fort Babylon, which was old Cairo, Antiq. II, 15, 1). Pi-ha-hiroth, is found four times in the Bible, and all are at Israel's sea crossing (Exodus 14:2, 9, Numbers 33:7-8). The first part, "Pe-hah", is believed to be Hebrew, and "hiroth", is believed to be Egyptian (Gesenius's Lexicon, online); it is pronounced “pē hah·khē·roth’” (Strong’s). Legends of the Jews and other Jewish books shows that the name is not always found with “Pe”, but "Hahiroth" “Ha" (The) "hiroth” (Kheroth = Khrth)

The annual flood (before the Aswan Dam) flooded the area between the Great Pyramid and Old Cairo at an average of 24 feet above the Nile and for 6 miles wide. The ancient Egyptians called this flooded sea the “Lake of Rushes”.  The sea Israel crossed is the Sea of “Suf” in the Hebrew, for which Strong's Concordance, #5488 gives “reed, rush, water plant”.  This Hebrew word "suf" (suph) is the same word translated "flags" of the river (Exodus 2:3, & 5), where the ark that held Moses as a baby was placed in the reeds of the Nile River. It is also the same word translated "Red" from Red Sea in the Hebrew Old Testament. There are four ancient Jewish sources that call the Nile river the "Yam Suf"   Modern Egyptians commonly call the Nile River El-Bahr = "The Sea". In the Qur'an they also call the crossing place the “Red Sea”: however, one of Islam’s prophets explains that this was the Nile River! His name is Prophet Shu’ayb. This is found in Hay Al Qulub Vol. I, Stories of the prophets, Section 13, “An Account of Musa and Harun” (Moses and Aaron). The pertinent parts are, “Musa and the Israelites came to the bank of the river Nile. The water of river split and made a way to cross the river…and the last man of the Pharaoh entered into the river. Allah ordered the wind to move the water and the mountain of water fell on them.”  

Garry Matheny - 2/18/2013 12:32:28 PM

10/27/2013 4:39 PM #

I have found this article very useful having been asking series of questions about Pihahiroth and Baal-zephon. these have been two areas of interest to me because i am currently writing a book titled "The WIT's End Corner and EX.14: 1-14 is the main text of my study.I just found this article on time as it will help me answer some of the dark questions that bother me about Israel's journey from Egypt especially the events of Pihahirothy and Baal-zephon.
Thank you for your interest and research in this very important part of the Bible.
Ishaya adamu

Ishaya Adamu - 10/27/2013 4:39:16 PM

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