Everyone remembers Moses parting the Red Sea, and I always think of Charlton Heston when I think of Moses, but actually the Lord parted rivers different times by four different people. Thus, the correct answer to the question is four times, but let’s look at the four different times and compare the different ways in which it was done.
First, let’s start with the parting of the Red Sea, with Moses, since it is the most famous incident, and the first. “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14:21) When I read this verse, I do always think of Heston, because, at least in my memory (?), I remember the whole scene, of Heston parting the waters, to be filled with a mighty howling wind. I recall the wind tearing at the clothes of Moses (Heston), even as he lifted his staff. Indeed, the Bible says that this is the only parting where wind is involved; it is not completely clear, but evidently the force of the wind actually parted the sea. Even though natural physical forces were used to cause this miracle, it went far beyond something natural. Note that the hand of Moses was what initiated the wind, and note that the children went over on dry ground (v. 22). Then, the forces of Pharaoh, and Pharaoh himself were caught in the sea when Moses again stretched out his hand. And, last, the wind in itself was unlikely to create any “path” at all, but would be a normal chaotic and random event, if it were natural. But that is exactly the point—these events are not natural—they make the act of Moses to be miraculous.
What a majestic scene that must have been—Heston notwithstanding. Can you imagine being a spectator to that whole scene? I imagine a wind so strong that even shouted words would be almost useless. Nevertheless, all of Israel, standing before the sea, see Moses lift his hands, and before their eyes the waters begin to be beaten back. In some ways it marked the end of the beginning for the relationship of God and the Israelites. God had remarkably delivered the Israelites with the ten plagues, even causing the Egyptians to surrender their jewelry to the Israelites. Now, God had steered them into an impossible corner, the Red Sea, with the armies advancing, and their doom apparent. So, what does God do? He makes the impossible corner open an escape route, and one that also spells the doom of all the Egyptians who were in pursuit.
Second, after all the forty years wandering through the wilderness was over, Moses, in his last act, turns his authority over to Joshua. It remains to Joshua to carry the Israelites to the promised land, but they face an obstacle- the Jordan River is a large barrier keeping them from the promised land. It is interesting to note how far the news of that original parting had come, for Rahab says, “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt.” (Joshua 2:10) The spies return with the news that all their enemies are frightened and dismayed at what they hear God doing with the Israelites. Joshua takes heart at this report, and sends the ark to the Jordan: “And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, (for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest,) That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho. And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed clean over Jordan.” (Joshua 3:15-17)
As the leadership mantle is passed from Moses to Joshua, all of the Israelites were undoubtedly wondering if Joshua was going pass muster. In this act of parting the Jordan River, God removed all doubt—they had heard of the parting of the Red Sea. Remember that all the adults had now died off, and at best the children who had been present at the parting of the sea were now themselves old. Most of the nation had but heard of the great acts of God—now they were to see for themselves. Note that there is no wind here; only the quiet marching of the priests carrying the ark of God, and when their feet touch the waters, the waters part, and all of Israel is able to go over on dry land. There is also a specific purpose for the two partings of the river told in Joshua. “That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the Lord your God for ever.” (4:24) There is a constant theme in the Old Testament of God wanting peoples other than the Israelites to know about him, and I marvel at the way that God dealt with the Israelites seems to spread across the land.
Third, there arose in Israel the prophet of all prophets, Elijah. Elijah, fulfilling his ministry, and commanded of God to turn his ministry over to his successor, is taking his last walk, where he is carried up into the air by a whirlwind, seeing the chariots as he goes. On his last walk he comes to the Jordan River, “and Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.”(2 Kings 2:8) Note a couple of things: 1) this is again on the Jordan River, just as Joshua had already crossed, and 2) there is no major wind, other than the whirlwind which eventually carries Elijah, to push back the waters.
Fourth? You probably already guessed it. Elijah’s servant, Elisha, was soon to replicate the parting of the river. “And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.” (2 Kings 2:14) You may remember, but probably not, that I have already written some things about his great question, where is the Lord God of Elijah. So we have a total of four partings of the waters given to us in scripture.
Why aren’t there more? I cannot answer anything but to comment that these are the four that God saw fit to leave us with. I would notice that all of them are given as miracles—that is, they are spectacularly listed with details precisely because the writers of the miracles knew they were breaking natural laws. Sometimes we make assumptions about prior periods of history, and I have heard more than once the objection that people were easily fooled back then, because they were more superstitious, and less trained in scientific things.
But the opposite is more nearly the truth. The baby notices things going on around him, and they occur with a rhythmic pattern, following the natural laws. It is from an infant’s age that we note this regularity of nature, and it is what we come to expect when we observe the world around us. In these four instances, the writers were telling us about something not regular—that is the whole point of a miracle. It breaks all of the rules, and stands out. In the Christian world, miracles are given to point us singularly to God, or to what God is showing.
I am very interested in speculating that God is not yet through with this kind of miracle. I have no proof, and it is, as I say, mere speculation, but one of the things that God has told us is that in the end times he is going to send a prophet like unto Elijah (Malachi 4:5). If a prophet is coming like unto Elijah, it is for the stated purpose of turning the hearts of Israel back to God, and many signs and miracles will accompany that coming. One of those miracles might actually replicate the miracle that Elijah has already done. Perhaps the world will yet see one more parting of the waters. I cannot say for sure, but what a marvel it is to look forward to!