Signs Shown to the Children of Israel
Chapters 15 – 19 of Exodus teach us very important things about faith—the first principle of the gospel. The Israelites were witnesses of miracles on a daily basis. Did that make them more religious? Did signs cement their belief in God, fortify their trust in Moses, and solidify their determination to keep the commandments?
Bruce C. Hafen
If it is so important for us to know [God] today, why doesn’t the Lord send a great chariot across the sky every day at noon, drawn by flying white horses? The chariot could stop right above the earth and then a voice from the great beyond could say, “And now a word from our Creator.”
Why has he chosen not to do things like that? (“The Value of the Veil,” Ensign, June 1977, 10)
I love the quote above because we can’t imagine such an overt demonstration of divine power. Having lived by faith and not by sight, we often yearn for the kind of signs that the children of Israel saw on a daily basis. The question is a fair one, “Why has God not chosen to do things like that?” Truth is He has tried it—at least once. In fact, the Israelites witnessed greater signs than a chariot led by white horses flying across the sky on a daily basis. What is unfathomable to us was commonplace to them. Let’s review the history, the signs, and the effect it had upon the people.
• Plagues of Egypt—The children of Israel were spared all the destruction brought upon their Egyptian masters. Their bondage and heavy burdens were released in answer to their prayers. The manner in which they were released could not have been more dramatic; God’s power was shown in an indisputable way.
• Egyptian Army Buried in Red Sea—Who could question the power of God in this instance? Modern scientists have tried to explain away this Biblical story. Maybe a great wind could dry out a shallow area of the Red Sea providing dry land for the Israelites to cross. The Bible, however, presents a narrative much more like the familiar scenes from the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” where walls of water on both sides were raised by the power of God. “The waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.” (Ex. 15:8) Never in history has water defied gravity as it did in this instance.
• Healing of the Waters of Marah (Ex. 15:23-27)—Having just witnessed these great demonstrations of God’s power, the children of Israel were quick to forget and quick to complain. Only three days journey from the Red Sea, the Israelites complain of thirst. Their complaint could be characterized as Laman-and-Lemuel-like murmuring, a term synonymous with faithless complaint against God and his prophets. What is the Lord’s response to their faithless complaint? He shows Moses a tree, which when cast into the bitter waters of Marah, heals them (foreshadowing the Messiah healing the waters of the Dead Sea after the Second Coming; see Ezek. 47). Has anyone seen such a miracle? What wizard can cast a tree into bitter waters and make them pure? The very Fountain of Living Waters has provided Israel with pure water to drink. How could anyone doubt his power? That it not all—as if to recognize their suffering for water, the Lord leads them to an oasis with 12 wells and an unlimited supply of water for the next four weeks (Ex. 15:27). As Elder Maxwell noted, “murmurers have short memories. Israel arrived in Sinai, then journeyed on to the Holy Land though they were sometimes hungry and thirsty. But the Lord rescued them, whether by the miraculous appearance by quail or by water struck from a rock. (See Num. 11:31; Ex. 17:6.) Strange, isn’t it, brothers and sisters, how those with the shortest memories have the longest lists of demands! However, with no remembrance of past blessings, there is no perspective about what is really going on.” (“Murmur Not,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 83)
• Manna and Quail (Ex. 16)—Only one month after the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel complain again. They don’t say, “Moses, great prophet of God, what shall we do seeing we suffer with hunger? What will God do for us?” Rather, their response is, “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3). The Lord’s response, “I will rain bread from heaven for you” (Ex. 16:4). You can eat snow; you can drink rainwater, but never has food literally fallen from heaven. He also sends quail to cover the camp, an unlikely natural phenomenon to be sure. So many elements of manna are miraculous that they deserve separate mention:
1. Manna, like a honey-flavored cereal, falls daily from heaven
2. Every morning, like clockwork, the ground is covered with the substance
3. Every day, in the heat of the sun it melts, meaning that the Israelites are daily reliant upon the goodness of God for their sustenance.
4. They are not allowed to keep it overnight because it spoils, unless it is the day before the Sabbath, in which case, the manna remains edible, thereby emphasizing the importance of Sabbath rest.
5. For 40 years, the Israelites are daily fed from heaven (Josh. 5:12)
• Water supplied from the rock in Horeb (Ex. 17:1-7)—Again the Israelites complain for lack of water. This time there is no muddy pond in which Moses can throw a purifying tree. Having daily eaten food fallen from heaven, the children of Israel still doubt Moses; they doubt that God can quench their thirst after all they have witnessed. They are about ready to stone Moses after all the Lord has done for them. Moses is commanded to take his rod, smite the rock, and the Lord would provide water. Moses followed this command and the people drink (a second, similar account in Numbers 20:8-12, records God commanding Moses to speak to the rock not smite it. He also presumptuously took credit for the miracle and so displeased God; see Numbers 20:12 and Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 243 by Spencer W. Kimball. The accounts probably refer to two separate events; in the Exodus account Moses is commanded to smite the rock while in the Numbers account Moses is commanded to speak to the rock.).
• Joshua beats the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-16)—As if miraculous food and drink were not enough, the Lord would again fight their battles. Had Joshua and his army beaten the Amalekites without help, the children of Israel would not be indebted to the Lord. But the Lord made sure that the victory would be clearly heaven sent—only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven, the source of their success, could the Israelites prevail against Amalek. Indeed, the children of Israel are given sign after sign after sign.
• The presence of God descends upon Sinai with fire, smoke, and an earthquake (Ex. 19:10-25)—Here we are reminded of the quote from Elder Hafen, “The chariot could stop right above the earth and then a voice from the great beyond could say, ‘And now a word from our Creator.’” The chariot example pales in comparison to the scene shown the children of Israel. If the destruction of Egypt wasn’t enough, if walls of water in the midst of the Red Sea wasn’t enough, if bread literally raining down from heaven is not enough to convince you, then how about the presence of God descending with fire, smoke, and an earthquake upon the mountain?
• Children of Israel hear the voice of God speaking to their prophet Moses (Ex. 19:19)—The Exodus version records, “when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice” (Ex: 19:20). This is the part we have waited for, “a word from our Creator.” Did the children of Israel actually hear the voice of the Lord? They did; they heard Moses their prophet converse with the Lord! How easy is it to believe in God and his prophet when you have witnessed such a scene? Moses was just as incredulous with the disbelief of his people:
For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
Or hath God assayed to go and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him.
Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice, that he might instruct thee: and upon earth he shewed thee his great fire; and thou heardest his words out of the midst of the fire.
And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt;
To drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou art, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day.
Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the LORD he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.
Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever. (Deut. 4:32-40)
Dallin H. Oaks
The viewing of signs or miracles is not a secure foundation for conversion. Scriptural history attests that people converted by signs and wonders soon forget them and again become susceptible to the lies and distortions of Satan and his servants. (Hel. 16:23; 3 Ne. 1:22, 2:1, 8:4) "How long will this people provoke me?" the Lord said to Moses, "and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs that I have shewed among them?" (Num. 14:11.)
Jesus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but John records in sadness, "Though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him." (John 12:37.)
In contrast to the witness of the Spirit, which can be renewed from time to time as needed by a worthy recipient, the viewing of a sign or the experiencing of a miracle is a one-time event that will fade in the memory of its witness and can dim in its impact upon him or her. fn For example, as President Kimball observed, "Oliver Cowdery saw many signs. He handled the sacred plates; saw John the Baptist; received the higher priesthood from Peter, James, and John, and was the recipient of many great miracles, and yet they could not hold him to the faith."
President George Q. Cannon summarized the experience: "I do not believe that men can be convinced as they should be convinced by such manifestations. It has been a matter of remark among those who have had experience in this Church, that where men have been brought into the Church by such manifestations, it has required a constant succession of them to keep them in the Church; their faith has had to be constantly strengthened by witnessing some such manifestations; but where they have been convinced by the outpouring of the spirit of God, where their judgment has been convinced, where they have examined for themselves and become satisfied by the testimony of Jesus in answer to their prayers and to their faithful seeking unto the Lord for knowledge—where this has been the case they have been more likely to stand, more likely to endure persecution and trial than those who have been convinced through some supernatural manifestation of the character to which I have alluded."
The true church does not convert by signs and wonders, but by the testimony of the Holy Ghost. The Lord's way of teaching religious truths is not by a public miracle or sign, but by a personal testimony. (The Lord's Way [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991], 87-88)
Spencer J. Condie
“How could they forget so fast?” my children asked
As we read our way through Exodus.
“The plagues that God sent to deliver them from Pharaoh’s slavery,
And the parting of the Red Sea,
The discovery of living water to quench parched throats!
Didn’t the daily supply of manna convince them of God’s love for them?
Hadn’t the cloud by day and the fiery pillar by night taught them
That he lives, that he cares for them?”
“The children of Israel were spiritually immature,” I confidently replied.
“They didn’t have burning testimonies of the gospel or testimonies of Moses’ holy mission.
“Thank goodness, children, we’re not like that today.”
And then I thought …
About the time one of the children had been miraculously healed.
I knelt to thank God,
Then returned to my building project, hit my thumb and swore a blue streak.
… about our financial security and physical well-being
Like manna in the wilderness.
Then the Bishop asked $500 for the building fund
And I assured him that new car payments would prevent participation at this time.
… a four bedroom home for four children isn’t adequate.
And you can’t really have a good party in a living room this size.
It would be nice to have some horses for the kids.
And so we built the house complete with pool and thanked the Lord that we could build a bigger place.
… of course, the bigger house payments meant my wife had to work,
And with my extra moonlighting and all—
How could the bishop expect us to work in the Church?
No, children, with our 400-horsepower commitment and our split-level devotion,
We can be thankful that we’d never worship a golden calf.
(“Israel, Golden Calves, and Me,” Ensign, Apr. 1976, 9)
Exodus 15:1-19 Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord
“The Song at the Sea, a lyric poem, sung as a hymn, celebrating God’s defeat of Egypt at the sea. Rich in imagery, hyperbole, and poetic license, it expresses the unrestrained enthusiasm of the Israelites of their miraculous rescue from disaster… In Jewish prayer, the entire poem is recited every morning in the preliminary prayers, and vv. 11 and 18 are recited following the Shema prayer morning and evening, as part of the daily acceptance of God’s kingship, the Jewish declaration of allegiance to God.” (The Jewish Study Bible, [NY: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.], 127)
This song is a hymn of praise so important that it was canonized. Excepting the psalms, rarely do we find sacred lyrics in scripture. Imagine the entire host singing with one voice, “The Lord is my strength and song.” (see also Hymn 89).
A recurrent foreshadowing from Exodus is that God’s destruction of the Egypt is a type for the destruction of the wicked attending the Second Coming. Adding to the prophetic symmetry is the song to be sung once the latter-day plagues are stayed (D&C 84:97) and the righteous “see eye to eye, and… lift up their voice” (D&C 84:98) to sing this new song:
The Lord hath brought again Zion;
The Lord hath redeemed his people, Israel,
According to the election of grace,
Which was brought to pass by the faith
And covenant of their fathers.
The Lord hath redeemed his people;
And Satan is bound and time is no longer.
The Lord hath gathered all things in one.
The Lord hath brought down Zion from above.
The Lord hath brought up Zion from beneath.
The earth hath travailed and brought forth her strength;
And truth is established in her bowels;
And the heavens have smiled upon her;
And she is clothed with the glory of her God;
For he stands in the midst of his people.
Glory, and honor, and power, and might,
Be ascribed to our God; for he is full of mercy,
Justice, grace and truth, and peace,
Forever and ever, Amen.
Exodus 15:3 The Lord is a man of war
The New Testament message is that the Lord is a God of peace. The Old Testament message challenges that and challenges us to understand our loving, benevolent, merciful God as “a man of war.”
Sterling W. Sill
We should also keep in mind that the greatest of all military men was the Son of God. In the war in heaven, he led the forces of righteousness against the rebellion of Lucifer. There is great significance in the fact that before the Savior of the world was the Prince of Peace, he was Jehovah the Warrior. He fought the battle for righteousness and free agency, a battle that is still going on. (That Ye Might Have Life [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974], 221 - 222)
J. Reuben Clark
The scriptures are likewise filled with testimony that God possesses and exercises the same great elemental feelings that are possessed by man. He himself declared at Sinai…
And when Moses and Israel sang their song unto God, they declared, "The Lord is a man of war" (Ex. 15:3); not, suggest the commentators, as the Vulgate has it, the "Lord is as a man of war." (Bishop A. J. Maclean in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, sub voce "God.")
"Who," said Nahum, "can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire." (Nah. 1:6.) Paul declared to the Romans, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18), and he exhorted the Colossians to abandon evil things "For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience" (Col. 3:6); God speaking to Moses of the Children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, said, "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them" (Ex. 32:10), and to Eliphaz, the Temanite, he said, "My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends." (Job 42:7.)
But God is not wholly a being of wrath and vengeance, not wholly a God of war. He declared to Moses, as he gave the second tables: "The Lord, The Lord God merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." (Ex. 34:6-7.) (Behold the Lamb of God [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991], 192-193)
Exodus 15:8 the floods stood upright as an heap
This passage is important because some faithless modern disbelievers try to explain away the miracle of crossing the waters by saying that at certain locations, a strong wind will blow hard enough to keep certain waters from flowing, thereby allowing the children of Israel to cross on dry ground. Their point is to discount the miracle. Every modern thinker knows that water can’t stand up on itself! Right? Water can’t defy the laws of gravity; a liquid can’t form a wall without a physical structure to contain it.
“What atmospheric phenomenon could make this occur? The paper (“Application of storm surge modeling to Moses' crossing of the Red Sea; and to Manila Bay, the Philippines,” by Carl Drews) describes a coastal effect called a ‘wind setdown,’ in which strong winds -- a little over 60 miles per hour -- create a ‘push’ on coastal water which, in one location, creates a storm surge. But in the location from which the wind pushes -- in this case, the east -- the water moves away. Such occurrences have been observed in the past in Lake Erie, among other places -- and, note Drews and Han, also in the Nile Delta itself in the year 1882.
“’Wind setdown happens just as often as storm surge, but hardly ever hurts people, it just blows a harbor completely dry,’ says Drews. ‘So this water sloshes from one side of the body to the other and leaves a dry place.’” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/12/08/no-really-there-is-a-scientific-explanation-for-the-parting-of-the-red-sea-in-exodus/ )
Well the Bible says it was a miracle. Contrary to currently understood principles, God was able to make water stand upon itself against the law of gravity. “The waters were a wall unto them on their right hand and on their left” (Ex: 14:22).
Exodus 15:16 Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm
The Lord’s dealings with Egypt are unusual. There have been hundreds of evil regimes both before and since which escaped the direct wrath of God. The difference in this case is that the Lord intends to use the power of Egypt as an example. He is “making a name for himself”—as it were—giving the enemies of the Israelites some idea of the kind of Being that is protecting them.
There are certain defining characteristics of the one true God. 1) He is the creator of heaven and earth, 2) He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and 3) He is Moses’ God, who led the children of Israel through the red sea on dry ground. The nations of Canaan do not believe in a monotheistic God as creator of heaven and earth, nor do they have any recollection of Abraham’s God. They will know the Israelite God for this third characteristic—the God who is more powerful than Pharaoh and his armies.
Again, this pattern will be repeated in the latter-days, “For when the Lord shall appear he shall be terrible unto them, that fear may seize upon them… And all nations shall be afraid because of the terror of the Lord and the power of his might.” (D&C 45:74-75)
Exodus 15:20 Miriam the prophetess… and all the women went out… with timbrels and with dances
Dancing is not inherently evil. The Israelites got in trouble for singing and dancing with lewdness at the time they worshipped the golden calf (Ex. 32:19, 25), but other than that, dancing is a wonderful expression of the human experience. While it has not found a place in church meetings, dance can be a form of worship as much as singing hymns.
In the 1930’s, LeGrand Richards was president of the Southern States Mission centered in Atlanta. He wanted to see more young latter-day saints learning to dance. This notion went contrary to the rather puritanical aversion to dancing in the pre-war South.
“When the president told the people that they were going to teach the young people to dance, some of the brethren said it could not be done in the South, for if they let them dance in Church buildings the local inhabitants would burn the buildings down. To this he said, ‘Well, if they do, we will build them up again, only we will make them larger so more can dance in them.’ (One chapel was burned down-whether from arson was not established; but another larger one was built to replace it, and successful dances were held there.)
“Emotions ran high. One good brother in west Florida said, ‘President Richards, if you let them dance in our building I will have my father's body removed from the cemetery next to the Church property.’ As the Lord's representative in the mission's program for the youth, President Richards told the man not to worry, they would not force him to dance in that building; but he added, ‘Before I leave this mission you will be dancing in it yourself and enjoying it.’ And he was.” (LeGrand Richards: Beloved Apostle [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 169-170)
Spencer W. Kimball
The properly conducted dancing party can be a blessing. It provides opportunity to spend a pleasant evening with many people to the accompaniment of music. It can create and develop friendships which will be treasured in later years. (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 290)
Exodus 15:23-25 they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter
This is the first of many times during the 40 year pilgrimage, that the children of Israel need a miracle to supply water. In this case, water is there but it is dirty and likely infected. The solution this time is provided; Moses is to cast a branch of a local tree into the water, and the waters were healed. Considering how hard it can be to purify bad water, this miracle is impressive. It has both symbolic and prophetic significance. The Lord declares, “I am the Lord that healeth thee,” calling attention to God’s power to purify the unclean soul and pointing to the future date when He will heal the waters of the Dead Sea (Ezek. 47:8)
“In the face of shortages the people grumble against Moses and Aaron. God here responds to their complaints without anger or punishment, perhaps because they have not previously seen His ability to meet their material needs, or because these incidents occur before the covenant at Sinai at which God promised to meet such needs (Ex. 23:25).” (The Jewish Study Bible, [NY: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2014], 129)