Crossing of Yam Suf in Art


The three images shown here, the fresco from the Dura Europus Synagogue,1 the miniatures from the Sarajevo Haggadah,2 and the Mainz Haggadah3 all depict the crossing of Yam Suf (Shemot 14). Each artist highlights different aspects of the story, and portrays the crossing itself, the Nation of Israel, the fate of the Egyptians, and the roles of Hashem and Moshe in unique ways. The various renderings help the learner reexamine the Biblical text by highlighting many of the nuances and gaps in the original telling.

Contrasting Images

Dura Europus

The fresco contains three separate scenes which together tell the story of the crossing. In each, an oversized Moshe and his staff tower over the rest. On the right side of the painting, the Children of Israel march from Egypt armed with shields, and on the far left, Moshe leads them safely from Yam Suf. The center of the mural is framed by two figures of Moshe, the first lifting his staff, presumably to split the sea for the Israelites, and the second with his staff again outstretched, signaling the waters to return and drown the Egyptians.4 At the top of the image, two hands of God appear, one pointing toward the water and the other reaching out toward the people on dry land, emphasizing His role in both the punishment and the salvation.5

Sarajevo Haggadah

This scene from the Sarajevo Haggadah focuses on the contrasting fates of the Egyptians and the Israelites.6 The sea is split into multiple, alternating paths of water and dry land, with the drowning Egyptians and their weapons juxtaposed with the crossing Israelites carrying unbaked Matzot on their shoulders. Interestingly, the paths are drawn as arcs rather than horizontal strips. In the left foreground, Paroh stands tall, the sole survivor among the dying Egyptians.

Mainz Haggadah

In contrast to the other renderings, this image depicts only the conclusion of the story, after the Children of Israel have already reached the safety of the shore. They watch as Moshe lifts his staff and the Egyptians drown in the sea. As in the Dura Europus painting, here, too, the nation is armed. Amidst the many figures in the painting, those of Moshe and Paroh stand out. Moshe looms in the foreground, staff raised and garbed, king-like, in gold robes. Paralleling him, Paroh sits in his gold chariot, his hand stretched heavenwards, perhaps finally recognizing God. It is unclear if he is about to drown or to be saved.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

One Path or Many?

A simple read of Shemot suggests that when the sea split, it created one large dry patch of land, bordered by "walls" of water between which the nation crossed to safety. Several sources, though, suggests that twelve separate lanes were created, one for each tribe.7 This understanding is alluded to in the multiple paths of the Sarajevo Haggadah8 and perhaps hinted to in the Dura Europus fresco.9 It is also most explicit in the 15th century Alba Bible.10 Is there any textual motivation11 for rendering the miracle in this way, or is it merely related to a desire to intensify the supernatural elements of the event? See Yam Suf – Natural or Supernatural and Miracles.

Paroh's Fate

While Paroh is not depicted at all in the Dura Europus fresco, he is highlighted in both the Sarajevo and Mainz Haggadot. The Sarajevo Haggadah clearly suggests that he miraculously survived the crossing.12 In contrast, the Mainz Haggadah, while allowing for that possibility,13 leaves his final fate as a question mark. What does the Biblical account have to say? Paroh's death is never mentioned explicitly, but the simple reading of "לֹא נִשְׁאַר בָּהֶם עַד אֶחָד" in Shemot 14:2814 suggests that there were no survivors. Nonetheless, several Midrashim claim that Paroh did in fact endure.15 This disagreement depends in part on how one views the purpose of the wonders in Egypt. If they were mainly punitive in nature, it is natural that Paroh should die. However, if they were meant to educate, transform, and impart recognition of Hashem, a survivor is necessary to tell the tale. See Purpose of the Plagues, Hardened Hearts, and Paroh's Fate.

Purpose of the Miracle

Most readers of the Biblical text tend to assume that the Sea split because the Children of Israel's route required them to get to the other side. This leads them to imagine a straight corridor leading from one side to the other. The curved paths portrayed in the Sarajevo Haggadah may therefore come as somewhat of a surprise. This depiction may be following an interpretive tradition found in numerous commentators who describe the path of the crossing as being in the shape of an arc or rainbow in which the Israelites came out of the Sea on the same side as from which they entered it.16 According to this, the parting of the Sea was necessary not for the Israelites' journey, but only to ensure the drowning of the Egyptians. For more, see Geography of Yam Suf.

Israel and Egypt – How Close?

The Sarajevo Haggadah has the Egyptians drowning in the sea, while the Israelites simultaneously cross unharmed, right next to them. The Mainz Haggadah, in contrast, depicts the Egyptians drowning only once the Israelites have reached the shore.17 Which is truer to the text of Shemot? The verses are unclear, and the disagreement relates to two ambiguities in the text. First, does the repetition of the description of the Children of Israel crossing in Shemot 14:29, following the account of the Egyptians drowning, suggest that they were still in the sea at the time?18 Second, do the words, "וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִצְרַיִם מֵת עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם" in Shemot 14:30 mean that the Israelites saw the enemy dying while they themselves were already on shore or that they saw the corpses wash up onto shore?19 The various readings may also relate to each commentator's general approach to miracles; are they performed in as natural a manner as possible or not?20 See Miracles and Yam Suf – Natural or Supernatural.

Carrying Weapons or Matzot?

Both the Dura Europus fresco and the Mainz Haggadah interpret "וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם" in Shemot 13:18 to mean that the Israelites left Egypt equipped for battle. For a fuller discussion, see "וַחֲמֻשִׁים". In the Sarajevo Haggadah, though, the only weapons depicted are those of the Egyptians cast into the water. Instead, the artist has the Israelites carrying Matzot, as per "וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָם עַל שִׁכְמָם" in Shemot 12:34.