Did Pharaoh drown with his army?

Q. When God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, and when God then made the waters sweep back over the pursuing Egyptians, did Pharaoh drown with his army?

This question is much debated by biblical scholars. Many say yes, while others say no. I can only give you my own opinion on the matter, which is that Pharaoh did not drown with his army.

The book of Exodus does say that when the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled . . . he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him to pursue the Israelites. So it seems that Pharaoh did personally accompany the army out into the desert.

However, the further details in the account suggest that he didn’t join the actual pursuit of the Israelites. Rather, Exodus says that all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. It describes God telling Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” And the book then says that “the water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea.”

Pharaoh himself was apparently not included in this group (“the entire army of Pharaoh”), because when Moses and the Israelites  compose and sing a song afterwards to celebrate the event, they say:

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.

It seems to me that if Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt, had also been killed, the song would have mentioned this as the high point of the victory and not spoken only of his best officers.

I think that in this light, we should understand the statement in Psalm 136 that God swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea to mean that God swept Pharaoh, personified in his army, into the sea. This would be in keeping with the view in the ancient world that the host of a ruler (that is, his army or troops) was an extension of the ruler himself. (In Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, God is depicted that way, surrounded by the heavenly host emanating from his throne: A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.)

As I said, others might answer the question differently, but this is what the biblical account suggests to me.

“Crossing the Red Sea,” a wall painting from the 1640s in Yaroslavl, Russia

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

One thought on “Did Pharaoh drown with his army?”

  1. I think I am personally gratified with this response. Because according to what is written in Exodus, Pharaoh himself did not take part in the pursuit of the isrealites.

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