The book of Exodus begins with reiterating the death of Joseph and his generation, as well as the death of the Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh of Egypt was threatened by the increasing population of Israelites, so he enslaved them. “Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.” (Exodus 2:23-25)
God called Moses to return to Egypt and insist on the release of the Israelites, which Pharaoh granted after 10 catastrophic plagues. The final blow was the death of all Egypt's firstborn, humans and animals. In the middle of the night, Pharaoh gave in to Moses' demands, and urgently implored Moses and Aaron to take all of Israel out of Egypt.
The first leg of the journey was from Rameses to Succoth, then to Etham, on the edge of the wilderness, then to Pi Hahiroth, where they camped by the Red Sea. Scripture states that the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, enough to light the way for more than two million people.
At this point, the Pharaoh became deeply embittered that he had let all of his slaves leave. He got in his chariot, took 600 choice chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and pursued the children of Israel. As they drew near to Pi Hahiroth, the Israelites looked out and saw in the distance the hundreds of Egyptians in pursuit. Instantly forgetting the power of God demonstrated by the 10 plagues, and the pillar of fire and the cloud which had led them out of Egypt, they were terrified.
With the chariots in pursuit, the Israelites said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11, 12)
In the intensity of the moment, Moses likely let this complaint go in one ear and out the other. To be sure, the Egyptians were gaining ground on one side, and there was a sizeable body of water on the other. Moses courageously told them not to be afraid, and encouraged the people. “The Lord will fight for you!” (Exodus 14:14) God had Moses stretch his staff over the sea, while the pillar of the cloud stood between Israel and the Egyptians.
Moses obeyed God's revelation and during the night, a strong east wind divided the waters of the Red Sea. This event is well known. All of the Israelites walked through the passageway, but the waters came back over the Egyptians and they all drowned. That is how the Lord saved the Israelites that day, and they saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Therefore the people of Israel feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and Moses, at least for three days. (Exodus 14:31)
When they got to Marah, the water was bitter and again the people murmured against Moses. Moses sought a solution from God, and God showed him a tree. Moses threw it into the water, which sweetened it and made it drinkable. (Exodus 15:23-25) Their next stop was Elim, a lush oasis described as having 70 palm trees and 12 wells of fresh water. The Israelites camped there for several weeks, not moving again until the middle of the second month from the time when they had left Egypt.
They were just about to enter the wilderness of Sin, where their character and faith would be proved by God, “whether they will walk in My law or not.” (Exodus 16:4) They were now on a southward path in the direction of Mount Sinai, farther and farther away from the land of Canaan. But God had His reasons. He was attentive to their attitudes and the condition of their hearts.