The Israelites understood that they were to escape through the midst of the sea, but the sea had not yet split. Jewish legend says that Moses bade the Israelites step into the sea, but they were unwilling to do so until Nahshon sprang forward and plunged into the water. He struggled under the waves and nearly drowned. As the water washed over him, the LORD instructed Moses to lift his staff and stretch out his hand so that the water might split. Nahshon then led the Israelites to safety on the other side.
The legend of Nahshon’s leap of faith hints toward Messiah. The rabbis teach that Nahshon earned merit for the entire tribe of Judah when he leapt into the sea, earning his tribe the right to the kingdom of the house of David: “Nahshon jumped into the midst of the waves of the sea, followed by his tribe. Therefore the tribe of Judah merited the kingdom.” (Mechilta).
What did Israel say at the sea? They said, “The LORD shall reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:8). The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore said, “I will make him king because He was the reason they proclaimed me as king at the sea.” (Mechilta, Beshalach)
The rabbis compared Nahshon’s leap into the sea to the willing sacrifice made by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego when they stepped into the fiery furnace. Nahshon acted like a holy martyr voluntarily accepting martyrdom for the sake of sanctifying the name of the LORD. Through his voluntary act of “martyrdom,” so to speak, he obtained the privilege of becoming an ancestor of the kingly dynasty of Messiah.
Like Nahshon, Yeshua willingly laid down His life for the sake of His people. His death brought forgiveness for transgressions. He became the “great atoning prince.” Like Nahshon, the Messiah is the prince (nasi) over the tribe of Judah. The Messiah is the archegos of life in that He was the first to pass from death to life. In that sense, the Red Sea can be compared to death. Just as Nahshon led Israel through the sea to safety on the other side, Messiah leads the way through death to safety on the other side through His resurrection.