Watching, standing between the water and his people, Moses hardly dared breath.
It had been tough going, getting the whole lot through the mud, the water and the reeds. Sheep stampeded through, goats dragged bitterly protesting. Every able-bodied man weighted down with possessions, women with children on their shoulders. And him, moving back and forward, reassuring, encouraging: ‘No, it does not get deeper. Yahweh is with us, do not be afraid. Yes, you will soon be across. Yes, this will be enough. We will be truly free – here grab my hand. Can I lift that for you? If you can just call the sheep, and then your brother goes behind, gets the sheep running at it – once they are going forward, then – ah I thought so. Yes poor beasts, but soon over – look – they are already clambering out. Yes, this will be enough. Yes, I am certain. No, it does not get any deeper. Yahweh is with us, Yahweh is with us.’ The same thing, over and over again, catching his words echoed by Miriam, by Aaron, as they too pushed and pulled and lifted.
And now the three stood, mud drying on them, too anxious to be exhausted, because the Egyptian cohort had caught up, and was on the other side. And whatever he had said, Moses had no idea, no idea at all, if it would work. It was just that he could not see the Palace boys he had known being very happy to bog their chariots down in the mud. He saw them pause on the bank, and confer, and his hopes rose. But then they sorted themselves back into a strict formation, and they came on, came into the water.
Moses felt despair wash over him. If they just kept on, if they all kept their heads, they could make it. Not easily, and it would be harder for the second ranks, moving through the increasingly churned-up mud and water, but it would be possible. And still the first row came bravely on in formation, but the horses began to lose impulsion. Then, incredibly, an officer near the centre made the one fatal mistake; seeking a better hold, he turned his horses. The inevitable followed. One wheel lost purchase, and the chariot lurched. The officer tipped into the mud, and the horses, their load lightened, ran the vehicle straight in front of half a dozen other chariots before it went on its side, and stopped, its horses floundering in the mud. The chaos spread, and very shortly the Egyptian bank of the Reed Sea was a mass of muddy officers, swearing, cutting horses free of their traces, blaming each other, shouting that it was not worth this for a slave rabble.
‘It will take them days to get all the chariots and the spears and the harness ornaments out of the mud,’ said Moses, ‘It will take them weeks. And trust me, what those things cost – they are worth more than us. We are free.’ He turned, shouted: ‘We are safe, we are free! Yahweh has triumphed!’ An answering cheer went up, and then Miriam rummaged in the bag which held everything she had brought – she dragged out a tambourine. Moses laughed, and she tossed and caught it, and set off, singing, dancing, the same refrain, over and over: ‘Sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’ Their cousin joined her, then woman after woman, till all throughout the refugees, a line of mud-stained women snaked, singing, dancing, laughing. The men clapped out the time, children made up little mini-chains, getting the timing wrong, laughing, trying again.
Aaron flung his arms round Moses, who, for once, did not stiffen and move away. ‘We’ve done it – you’ve done it! Next stop – the Promised Land.’ Moses smiled, depreciatingly: ‘Not quite the next stop – not quite. What we will do is march a day or so away, and then sleep, out of sight of the Egyptian captains. But honestly? Yes, I can’t see it taking more than a month or so to get there. I know this land so well. We are as good as there. What a night – what a night!’