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Visual Midrash on the Parting of the Red Sea: Parashah Beshalach

Art and Literature
Symbols and Rituals

Moses said to the people: Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord which He will show you today; for as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again any more forever. The Lord shall fight for you and you shall hold your peace. Exodus 14:13-14

The splitting of the Red Sea and the Children of Israel’s rescue from Egypt in Exodus 13-16 is the climax and conclusion of the long episode of the Exodus from Egypt that starts in Exodus 4. The Children of Israel’s escape from the Egyptians is described as a double miracle – God “split” the sea to enable the Children of Israel to cross it and then brought the waters down to finish off the Egyptians. The Children of Israel are commanded to observe this double miracle in order to testify to future generations about the Divine salvation they were privileged to experience. They respond to the event by singing the “Song of the Sea”, which expresses the greatness of the miracle, the survivors’ joy and the praise for God in their hearts. Jewish, Christian and Muslim artists throughout history dealt with the splitting of the Red Sea. The great interest in this episode surely stems from its inherent drama and visual elements. But as we will see below, artists interpret the event very differently emphasizing various themes.

The Sons and Daughters of Israel as Eye-Witnesses
Laura James, a contemporary African-American artist employs a traditional Ethiopian style in her paintings. A large crowd stands on the shore of the Red Sea, in a line that undulates in three waves, starting from the angel in the upper right corner. Standing out in this crowd – because of their head coverings – are Miriam on the right in a white dress and Moses, who is holding a staff, on the left. On Moses’ left, God floats in the air surrounded by angels. Apart from Moses, all the figures are women. In this painting, everything is in motion. In addition to the undulating waves of people, the individuals are also moving, with their hips on an angle and swaying – in other words, they are dancing! The role of women in this event and the dancing are stressed by the caption on the right side, which refers specifically to Miriam and the victory song she leads. Another element in this painting is the Children of Israel’s open eyes, highlighted by the closed eyes of Pharaoh’s army drowning in the sea. This emphasis on seeing already appears in the description of the splitting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus.

When Pharaoh drew near, the Children of Israel lifted up their eyes and behold Egypt marched after them and they were very much afraid and the Children of Israel cried out to the Lord. Moses said to the people “Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord which He will show you today; for as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again any more forever.”

The Children of Israel are commanded to watch the victory over the Egyptian army, so that they can serve as witnesses for future generations as, the Passover Haggadah says:

In every generation each person has an obligation to regard himself as if he had gone forth from Egypt. As it is written, “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, Because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” It was not only our fathers that the Holy One Blessed be He redeemed, but us too He redeemed with them; as it is said: “And he brought us out from there, so that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he swore unto your fathers.”

Another interpretation of the splitting of the Red Sea highlighting the joyousness of the event, is a painting by Israeli artist Nahum Gutman that appears in an illustrated Passover Haggadah from the 1930`s. Here too, the Children of Israel burst into song, but they are still marching in the sea led by Moses and Aaron, and the crowd includes men, women and children. There is a very festive atmosphere and light descends from the heavens. This painting is reminiscent of parades and ceremonies that were held in Israel even prior to the establishment of the state – such as the Tel Aviv ‘Adeloyada’ parade on Purim and the kibbutz celebrations of the Shavuot festival. Alternately, it is possible to see the Children of Israel in the Red Sea as the prototypes of immigrants to Palestine during the days of the British mandate. In both cases, Gutman presents the biblical event using models familiar to the emerging Jewish society in Palestine and their fervent identification with the history of the People of Israel.

In “The Children of Israel Crossing the Red Sea”, by 19th century American folk artist Erastus Salisbury Field, we see here a huge crowd – whose details are blurred even in the front rows – just beginning to emerge from the sea, which stands like a wall to the right and left of them. Behind them is the soaring pillar of fire that separates the crowd from the Egyptians. In addition to his work as an artist, Field was also one of the first photographers in America and it seems that his style of drawing was influenced by the constraints of photography in his day which required his subjects to stand still for long periods because of the camera’s slowness. In clear contrast to James’ painting, which depicts movement, Field’s painting seems static. And there are no faces visible at all in this painting. In fact, we see in the first row sheep and bulls and it is impossible to even distinguish between the animals and the people. The subject is a collective image – the People of Israel. In this painting, the role of the People of Israel is not to attest to the splitting of the Red Sea – they are the evidence of the splitting of the Red Sea. The entire community faces us, the viewers, as if approaching us in an effort to include us in the evidence.

Moses’ Role
The next image is a sculpture by the contemporary Jewish sculptor, Phillip Ratner. The sculpture consists of two elements that are not meant to depict the event in a realistic way, but to express the focus and emotion in this decisive chapter. Wearing red garments that emphasize his role and importance, a bearded Moses raises his staff to the heavens and also stretches out his hand. This motion can be understood as representing the moment when he split the sea at the command of God; Moses is the one who performs the miracle, but he also acts exclusively as an emissary on behalf of God. Moses stands at the bottom of a giant u-shaped form that symbolizes the sea. Moses’ small dimensions in comparison to the sea reflect both the enormity of his task and his role as God’s chosen messenger. The shape of the water is also reminiscent of a bottle with a narrow neck. The image is one of birth – Moses, as the representative of the Children of Israel, is about to be born.

Katrina Krauss, a Christian nun who has worked for many years with an African tribe and illustrated the Bible using their style, created another painting based on the same image. In both these works, as opposed to the works by James and Field, Moses, who is identified by his staff, assumes a central place.

A woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt also focuses on the role of Moses. Two foci draw the viewers’ attention: the light breaking through on the top left and Moses’ face. In the biblical description, the Children of Israel walked through the seabed throughout the night and emerged from it at dawn. Light often also symbolizes hope for the future. But the look on Moses’ face seems to express fear or even terror; perhaps at the sight of the drowning of the Egyptians or perhaps regarding the difficult journey that still lies ahead for the Children of Israel.

Pharaoh’s fate
An interpretation by an anonymous 18th century Persian enables us to encounter the Muslim world. Two figures stand out among the Egyptians drowning in the sea. According to the Koran, the angel Gabriel was sent to Pharaoh in order to deliver in writing his divinely decreed fate. In response, Pharaoh finally acknowledged the power of God. Commentators on the Koran disagree over the outcome: Some say that Pharaoh was saved because of his repentance; others claim that his repentance under duress was not deemed acceptable and therefore he also drowned. Some Jewish Midrashim claim that Pharaoh was indeed saved as a result of his confession, and miraculously, was sent to Nineveh, where he ruled for 400 years until the time of Jonah the prophet. It was he that encouraged the Ninevites to repent.

Another painting featuring the Egyptians and Pharaoh appears in the Sarajevo Haggadah with two pictures showing the splitting of the Red Sea. The top image shows the Children of Israel still crossing the sea along several different paths, while the Egyptians have already drowned… except for Pharaoh, who appears on the left side. It appears that here, too, Pharaoh was saved. Below, Miriam leads the chorus of the women of Israel in the Song of the Sea. They do not look tired at all from their journey through the Red Sea, but rather they appear to be courtly women who are dancing at a festive celebration. Comparison with the women’s chorus in the Laura James painting illustrates how differently each artist imagines the past based on his/her own present. In our Persian painting as well, the Israelite women appear on the seashore. But in this case, they are standing at the very edge of the painting and distinctly separate from the men. Once again it is evident that the portrayal of the past is based on the conventions of the present.

The Splitting of the Sea at Dura Europos
Up to now, we have considered relatively modern works of art. Let us now consider a drawing that is over 1,700 years old!

In the wall paintings in the Dura Europus synagogue, dating from 244 CE, Moses appears many times. In this one painting alone he appears three times: on the right, he raises his staff in order to split the sea; in the center he is restoring the sea to its place and drowning the Egyptians; and on the left, he stands beside the “armed” Children of Israel (Exodus 13:18) as they sing “The Song of the Sea.”

One explanation for these multiple depictions is that the artist tried to illustrate the passage of time in the story of the splitting of the sea. Another possibility is that it is meant to emphasize the importance of Moses as the ideal leader of the People of Israel and the hope for the future. But a third possibility is that this painting is a composite based on three separate lost models.

Note that behind the double of Moses on the left side, there are horizontal stripes (paths). Similar stripes appear in the painting from the Sarajevo Haggadah. Midrash Tanhuma explains the meaning of these paths: a separate path in the water was made for each of the tribes, further marking the greatness of the miracle. Another Midrash explains the two hands of God, as a visual expression of the repetition of the word “right” in Exodus 15:6: Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe! This Midrash further explains that each use of the word has a different function: one hand is saving the People of Israel and one hand is drowning the Egyptians. Therefore, as in many of our paintings, there is a reflection of the tension between the joy over the liberation and the sadness over the loss of life.

The parting of the Red Sea is perceived by artists in significantly different manners, depending on the underlying psychological meaning they attribute to the miraculous and terrifying event and its imagery.

Dr. Jo Milgrom is a lecturer in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program at Schechter, where she offers her unique workshop “Handmade Midrash.” She and Joel Duman are the source of inspiration and founding developers of the TALI Education Fund’sVisual Midrash website, the source of this article. Dr. Joel Duman is a Biblical educator at HUC Jerusalem, JTS and the Hebrew University High School.

Article Sources

Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 118a

-R. Shizbi said in the name of R. Eleazar b.Azariah: A man’s sustenance is as difficult [to provide] as the dividing of the Red Sea. For it is written, Who gives food to all flesh and near it, To Him who divided the Red Sea in slices.

-R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: A man’s excretory organs [when blocked up] are as painful as the day of death and [as difficult to overcome] as the dividing of the Red Sea, for it is said, The prisoner hastens to be loosed; [and he shall not go down dying into the pit, neither shall his bread fail]; and that is followed by [For I am the Lord thy God,] who stirs up the sea, that the waves thereof roar.

Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 118b

R. Nathan said: It was the fish in the sea who said and the truth of the Lord endures forever, Spew them forth on to the dry land. Said he to Him, Lord of the Universe! Does a master make a gift to his servant and then take it back from him? I will give you one and a half times their number, He replied. Lord of the Universe, he pleaded, can a servant claim [a debt] from his Master?  Let the brook of Kishon be surety for Me, He answered. Straightway he spewed them forth on to the dry land, and Israel came and saw them, as it is said, all Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the sea shore. This being in accordance with R. Huna. For R. Huna said: The Israelites of that generation were men of little faith, and as Rabbah b. Mari expounded: What is taught by the verse, But they were rebellious at the sea, even at the Red Sea? This teaches that in that moment the Israelites were rebellious and said: Just as we ascend at one side [of the sea] so do the Egyptians ascend from another. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, ordered the Prince of the Sea, ‘Spue them forth on to the dry land.’

Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b

R. Johanan said, Why are the words for he is good omitted from this thanksgiving hymn (II Chron. 20:21)? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked! And R. Johanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse (Ex. 14:20), And one came not near the other all the night?   The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

Genesis Rabba 44:21

R. Joshua said: He also showed him [Abraham] the dividing of the Red Sea, for it is written, that passed between these slices (gezarim) (Gen. 15:17), gezarim having the same meaning as in the verse, [O give thanks … ] to Him who divided the Red Sea in slices  (gezarim) (Ps. 136:3)

Exodus Rabba 22:2

that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians – Another explanation: R. Johanan said, When the last Israelite came out of the sea, the last of the Egyptians descended therein; but R. Simeon b. Lakish said, The sea locked in both the Israelites and the Egyptians from all four sides. Moses said to God, What should Israel do? The reply was, You are not responsible for what they should do; for I am going to perform a miracle for them. Then it was that God stretched out His hand and brought them out of the sea, as it says, He sent from on high, He took me. He drew me out of many waters (Ps. 18:7). R. Abbahu said: It is like one who saw robbers coming towards him. His son was with him, so what did he do? He took his son in one hand and with the other fought the robbers. His son said to him: May I never lack [the protection of] those two hands, the one that is holding me and the other which is slaying the robbers. This is what the Israelites said to God: May peace be upon both Thy hands. Both on the one with which You save us from the sea and on the other with which You overthrow the Egyptians, as it says, Your right hand, 0 Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, 0 Lord, dashes in pieces the enemy(Ex. 15: 6). It does not say, `And the sea returned,` but the waters returned (ibid., 15:28), to show that all waters came back. Moreover, it does not say `upon the Egyptians,` but upon Egypt, because God first drowned their guardian angel in the sea and then all of them went down after him. For this reason does it say, that the waters may come back upon Egypt, [first], and after that, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen (ibid.,26).

Exodus Rabbah 24:1
And Moses led Israel onward (Ex.15:22). It is written, Do you thus requite the Lord? (Deut. 32:6). R. Shasha, son of R. Abba, used to write the heh below, and the lamed above, implying: Alas! Do you thus requite the Lord after all the miracles He has performed for you, dividing the sea for you into twelve portions and drowning the Egyptians in the sea, drowning them with one hand and saving you with the other, as it says, Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O Lord, dashes in pieces the enemy (Ex.15:6)

Exodus Rabba 43:8

Another explanation of that You have brought forth out of the land of Egypt -What was his idea in mentioning here the Exodus from Egypt? R. Judah b. Shalom said in the name of R. Judah b. Simon, who said in the name of R. Levi b. Prata, It can be compared to a man who was about to purchase a slave and who said to the owner, This slave whom you offer me for sale, does he belong to the class of the mischievous, or to the well-behaved? Said he to him, He belongs to the mischievous, and as such do I sell him to you! He bought him and took him home. It so happened that the slave later corrupted his ways, and his master began to smite him and say, I will slay you, for of what use to me is a wicked slave? The slave then began to wail, You treat me unjustly! Whereupon his master said, You have done all this villainy and yet you complain, You treat me unjustly! The slave repeated, In very truth, you treat me unjustly; for listen, my lord, Did you buy me as a good slave or as a bad one? The reply was, As a bad one! Whereupon the slave exclaimed: You did purchase me as a bad slave, yet you seek in me a good slave? This is what Moses said, Lord of the Universe! Did You not say to me, Come now, therefore, and I will send you unto Pharaoh, etc. (Ex. 3:10); and when I asked You what their merit was that You should redeem them, since they are idolaters, Your reply was, You can only see them now as idolaters, but I can foresee them depart from Egypt, and My dividing the Red Sea for them and bringing them into the wilderness, and giving them the Law revealing Myself unto them face to face, and [I can see them] accepting My kingship, yet denying Me at the end of forty days by making the calf. This is why I said,  I have surely seen the affliction of My people (ibid.,7); and it was the noise around the calf [which I heard when I said], But the noise of them that sing do I hear  (ibid., 32:18). Well, [concluded Moses], since You have told me of their making a Golden Calf long before You deliver them, why do You seek to slay them now that they have made it? It was for this reason that Moses mentioned the Exodus from Egypt in his plea for mercy.

R. Phinehas b. Hama, the priest, said in the name of R. Abbahu, who said in the name of R. Jose b. Hanina, What is the meaning of I have surely seen? This is what God said to Moses, You can see them as they are now, but I can see them scrutinizing Me when I go forth in My state-carriage in order to give them the Torah, as it says, The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands (Ps. 118:18), and then they will unhitch one of the four animals of My chariot, for it says, And the four had the face of an ox on the left side(Ezek. 1:10). For this reason did Moses say, Lord, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people? You knew them [from of old], and now Your anger is kindled against them for making the Calf?

Tanhuma Beshelach 10

And lift up your rod (Exod. 14:16) – Ten miracles were performed on their behalf at the sea:

-The sea was split asunder for them, and became a kind of vault, as it is said, You have pierced with his own rods the heads,etc. (Hab.3:14).

-It was divided into twelve paths, as it is said, And stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it (Exod. 14:16).

-It was turned into dry land, as it is said, And the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea(ibid.,v.29).

-It was converted into a kind of clay, as is said, You have trodden the sea with your horses, the mud of mighty waters(Hab. 3:15).

-The water was made into pieces, as it is said, You did break the sea into pieces by Your strength(Ps. 74: 13).

-It was changed into rocks, as it is said, You did shatter the heads of the sea monsters in the waters (ibid.).

-It was torn into slices, as it is said, To him who divided the Red Sea into slices (ibid., 136: 13).

-It was piled up into stacks, as it is said, And with the blast of Your nostrils, the waters were piled up (Exod. 15:8).

-It was made into a heap, as is said, Stood upright like a heap(ibid.).

-Barrels of sweet water flowed out of the salt water for them, and the sea congealed and became like a glass vessel, as it is said, The deeps were congealed (ibid.).

R. Judah declared, These ten verses are derived from vari­ous sources. It may be compared to a man traveling over a road, preceded by his son. If robbers approach from the front to seize the lad, he places him behind himself. If a wolf comes from behind to snatch him, he puts the lad in front of him. If he sees robbers behind him and the wolf before him, he takes his son in his arms. The Holy One, blessed be He, did likewise for Israel. When the sea was before them and the Egyptians behind, He bore them in His arms. When Israel began to suffer from the sun, He spread His cloak over them, as it is said, He spread a cloud for a screen (Ps. 105:39). When Israel became hungry, He gave them bread, as is stated, Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you (Exod. 16:4). When they became thirsty He gave them water, for He brought streams also out of the rock (Ps. 78:15).

The Israelites sang ten songs because of the ten miracles performed on their behalf:

– The first was in Egypt, as is said, You shall have a song as in the night when a feast is hallowed (Isa. 30:29).

-The second was at the Red Sea, as it is said, Then Moses sang(Exod. 15:1).

-The third was at the well, Then Israel sang this song Num. 21: 16).

-The fourth took place when Moses said, And it came to pass when Moses had made an end of writing (Deut. 31:24).

-The fifth, Then spoke Joshua to the Lord(Josh. 10: 12).

-The sixth, Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam (Uudg. 5:6).

-The seventh, And David spoke unto the Lord the words of this song (II Sam. 22:1).

-The eight, A song at the dedication of the House; of David(Ps. 30:1)…
-The ninth song is the Song of Songs of Solomon.

-The tenth song is the song of the future: A psalm, 0 sing unto the Lord a new song; for He hath done marvelous things(Ps. 98:1).

Pirke deRabbi Eliezer 42

Rabbi Nechunia, son of Hakanah, said: Know the power of repentance. Come and see from Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who rebelled most grievously against the Rock, the Most High, as it is said, Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto his voice? (Ex 5: 2). In the same terms of speech in which he sinned, he repented, as it is said, Who is like you, a Lord, among the mighty? (ibid.15:11). The Holy One, blessed be He, delivered him from amongst the dead. Whence (do we know) that he died? Because it is said, For now I had put forth my hand, and struck you (ibid. 9:15). He went and ruled in Nineveh. The men of Nineveh were writing fraudulent deeds, and everyone robbed his neighbor, and they committed sodomy, and such like wicked actions. When the Holy One, blessed be He, sent for Jonah, to prophesy against (the city) its de­struction, Pharaoh hearkened and arose from his throne, rent his garments and clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes, and had a proclamation made to all his people, that all the people should fast for two days, and all who did these (wicked) things should be burnt by fire.

Koran 10:90-92

And We made the children of Israel to pass through the sea, then Firon and his hosts followed them for oppression and tyranny; until when drowning overtook him, he said: I believe that there is no god but He in Whom the children of Israel believe and I am of those who submit.
What! Now! and indeed you disobeyed before and you were of the mischief-makers.
But We will this day deliver you with your body that you may be a sign to those after you, and most surely the majority of the people are heedless to Our communications.

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