The Baptism of Israel at the Red Sea

Their baptism transported them from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from spiritual oppression to spiritual light, from an old world to a new creation. Their very identity was changed by their baptism. Their name was changed from “Hebrew slaves” to “The Nation of Israel” . . .

Again, according to the view of the inspired Paul , the people itself, by passing through the Red Sea, proclaimed the good tidings of salvation by water. The people passed over, and the Egyptian king with his host was engulfed, and by these actions this Sacrament [of baptism] was foretold. For even now, whenever the people is in the water of regeneration, fleeing from Egypt, from the burden of sin, it is set free and saved; but the devil with his own servants (I mean, of course, the spirits of evil), is choked with grief, and perishes, deeming the salvation of men to be his own misfortune.1

— St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Baptism of Christ

Eighty years2 after the baptism of Moses, the time had come for all Israel to be delivered from Egypt. God remembered the covenant which He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and He listened to the prayers of their descendants.3

God gave Moses a new revelation of His Name.4 Then He sent Moses on a mission to lead all the Israelites out of Egypt, so they could be free from slavery and worship God as a community. Scripture refers to the Israelites who left Egypt as the “church in the wilderness”.5 Just like the New Testament church, the Israelites were called together to escape bondage, worship God as a community, and partake of both baptism and holy food.6

But Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. Pharaoh hardened his heart, and then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Ultimately, God brought an impressive series of ten miraculous judgments upon Egypt.

The final plague — the death of the firstborn — was a cause for rejoicing among the Israelites. According to God’s command, the blood of lambs was spread upon the doorposts of Israelite homes, and the angel of death passed over their homes that night. The Egyptian firstborn were killed, and the Israelite children were spared. So the day of judgment for God’s enemies was a day of life and celebration for God’s people. This point in history was so important that God commanded this event to mark a new beginning for their calendars. No longer would they mark time like the Egyptians. The Israelites would now have their own calendar, and the day of “Passover” would be the first day on it. Passover became the equivalent of “January 1” for the Israelites. From now on, when the new year rolled around, they would celebrate it by slaying and eating a lamb.

The Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt. So they left with great haste, just as God had commanded. Moses led them to the edge of the Red Sea, but crossing it was impossible. To make matters worse, the Pharaoh had second thoughts, and brought forth his mighty army to overtake the Israelites. He was determined to either kill them, or force them again into slavery.

Then God performed a mighty miracle which has remained famous unto this day. He parted the waters, and the Israelites walked across on dry land. The clouds poured water on them from above.7 The Egyptians tried to follow them across, but at just the right time, God caused the waters to fall upon them and they were all drowned. As with Noah’s flood, the waters which destroyed God’s enemies were the same waters which were the instrument of salvation for God’s people. And in 1 Corinthians 10:2, St. Paul calls this mighty miracle a baptism.

With this story in mind, let us proceed to answer four questions:

  • How do we know that this passage speaks of baptism?
  • Who were the recipients of this baptism?
  • How were the recipients chosen?
  • What was accomplished by the baptism of the Israelites?

How do we know that this passage speaks of baptism?

The Apostle Paul tells us that it was a baptism:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

Who were the recipients of this baptism?

All Israelites, and gentile friends of the Israelites, received this baptism. Men, women, adults, children, and infants were all included.

How were the recipients chosen?

They were chosen because they were the descendants of God’s people: Seth, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God remembered His covenant with his people, and so He remembered the Israelites.8 They escaped Egypt and crossed the Red Sea by faith in God.9

What was accomplished by the baptism of the Israelites?

Their baptism freed them from slavery, birthed them into a new world as a new nation, enabled them to come together as a group and worship God in community, and released them to a place where they could partake of Christ, by partaking of holy food and holy drink.

Cornelius Plantiga describes the Israelite’s freedom from slavery:

Paul is talking about an event that changes a person’s very identity. Before the Red Sea, an Israelite was a slave to a foreign power. After the Red Sea, an Israelite was a liberated child of God, belonging to the people whom God was leading forward into a whole new history of fellowship and promise. Centuries later, Jews would celebrate Passover as if they had the Exodus in their own memory bank. Even today, “I am an orthodox Jew” means “I am a slave, whom God led out of Egypt by the hand of Moses, and to whom God gave the law at Sinai. I am a Moses-Exodus-Sinai person, a member of the people who were forever changed by this man and these events." 10

The waters of the Red Sea hearken back to the waters of Noah’s flood. The waters that bore the Ark to safety are the same that drowned the wicked. The waters that opened the way to Israel’s deliverance are the same that drowned Pharaoh and his army. As Ian Thomas states:

Because of God’s miraculous intervention, the Israelites went through the Red Sea on dry land, but when the Egyptians tried to follow, they were drowned. So the enemy was buried in the place of death, while God’s people passed on through the place of death into a new land and on to new life.11

In baptism, Israel was following Noah’s footsteps. They were passing from death into life, from spiritual darkness into spiritual light, from the old world into a new creation. They were separated forever from their past lives. Baptism is always a separation from the old life and a commencement of the new, thereby pointing back to Creation itself.

Not only did their baptism free them from bondage, and bring them into a new life; it also enabled the Israelites to partake of Jesus Christ in a special way. As precursors to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, God graciously gave them manna from Heaven, and water from a rock:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. —1 Cor. 10:1–4

Their baptism did not merely symbolize these things. It actually brought about these things:

  • Without Israel crossing the Red Sea and passing through the waters of baptism, the Egyptians would not have been destroyed.
  • Without those waters, the Hebrew slaves would not have been released from bondage.
  • Without those waters, the nation of Israel would not have been born.
  • Had they never been baptized, they never would have been able to partake of Christ, via manna from Heaven and water from the Rock.

Their baptism transported them from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from spiritual oppression to spiritual light, from an old world to a new creation. Their very identity was changed by their baptism. Their name was changed from “Hebrew slaves” to “The Nation of Israel”. As one author puts it:

God’s saving of His people through the Exodus was a re-enactment of the history of the Creation: In saving Israel God was constituting them a New Creation. As in the beginning, the Spirit-Cloud hovered over the creation, bringing light in the darkness.12

Their baptism did not merely represent their rebirth into the freedom of being a new creation. God used their baptism to actually bring it about.


1  St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Baptism of Christ. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2910.htm (accessed November 5, 2015).

2  Exodus 7:7

3  Exodus 2:23-25

4  Exodus 3:13-15

5  The Greek word used in Acts 7:38 is ἐκκλησία, the same word translated “church” elsewhere in the New Testament.

6  1 Corinthians 10:1-4

7  Psalm 77:17

8  Exodus 2:23-25

9  Hebrews 11:29

10  Plantiga, Cornelius. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 83. https://books.google.com/books?id=NgLalukuxvYC&printsec=frontcover&sourc... (accessed November 5, 2015).

11  Thomas, Ian. The Saving Life of Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961), 38. https://books.google.com/books?id=wqoHrNtZhIsC&q=God%E2%80%99s+miraculou... (accessed November 5, 2015).

12  Chilton, David. Paradise Restored. (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1994), 59. http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/paradise_restored.pdf (accessed November 6, 2015).