Exodus 13:17-14:31 Between a Devil and the Deep Red Sea

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Why did God send the Israelites the long way around? Why snare them between Pharaoh and a dead end? “Read More” to explore.

Exodus 13:17-14:31

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not [through] the way of the land of the Philistines, although that [was] near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:

God apparently realizes that the Israelites aren’t too committed to their own freedom, so He needs to minimize adversity:

But God led the people about, [through] the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.

I have this image of a Father leading (cabab) a small child by the hand, perhaps to escape a burning house. The child’s fear of the fire could make him run back into destruction, so the Father needs to keep the child’s focus on Him.

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:

The writer strongly emphasizes God’s manifest and enduring presence:

He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, [from] before the people.

One might think such a powerful manifestation would herald a trouble-free journey: if God is for us, who can be against us? Yet that’s not the way it works out, at least on the surface; in fact, God sets them up! First He turns them into a dead end:

Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baalzephon: before it shall ye encamp by the sea.

Then He turns Pharaoh against them:

For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, They [are] entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them;

Why?

and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I [am] the LORD. And they did so.

Interesting. It is not surprising (though still a bit unnerving) to see the priority God places upon His honor (kabad). However, I would have expected God’s purpose to be for the Israelites — not the pagan Egyptians — to know (yada’) Yahweh (Y@hovah). I get the impression that knowledge of the glory of the LORD is a a fundamental goal of God, even independent of relationship and salvation.

Of course Pharaoh is unaware of this, and rushes like a lamb to the slaughter:

And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.

The Israelites appear equally clueless to the big picture:

And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on them; it is a nasty predicament. Still, their response is remarkably whiny:

And they said unto Moses, Because [there were] no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? [Is] not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For [it had been] better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.

Yeah, right. You’d think they hadn’t been crying out in suffering all these centuries. Perhaps that’s one reason why God allowed them to suffer so long: liberation can be so painful and frightening, we have to truly hate our bondage to generate the courage to face it. Perhaps we can only achieve liberty when we would rather die than be slaves.

And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.

I consider that a pretty strong and faith-full response. Yet God seems almost surprised that Moses needs to mention it:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward: But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry [ground] through the midst of the sea

Shut up and move! Don’t mind the enormous sea of reeds that happens to be in front of you at the moment; I’ll get it out of the way. And as far that vicious army behind you:

And I, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I [am] the LORD, when I have gotten me honour upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.

God not only tells Moses what He will do, He reiterates His purpose. He also gives Moses a smokescreen, perhaps to buy him a little time (not to mention a sense of being protected):

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness [to them], but it gave light by night [to these]: so that the one came not near the other all the night

Sure enough, that’s all they needed to get a royal road through the water:

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. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry [ground]: and the waters [were] a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.

So that solves Problem #1: the sea. What about Problem #2, the Egyptians?

And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, [even] all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.

Perhaps the Israelites were hoping that the Egyptians wouldn’t follow. But God uses their brashness to, literally, put the fear of God into them:

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

Then He has Moses administer the coup de grace :

And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.

So it occurs:

And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, [and] all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.

Providing a stark contrast to the deliverance of the Israelites:

But the children of Israel walked upon dry [land] in the midst of the sea; and the waters [were] a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.

And even if God’s primary purpose was to reveal Himself to the Egyptians, the Israelites surely get the hint:

And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and his servant Moses.

O, that we too might fear (yare’) and believe (‘aman) God; not just at the moment of great victory, but long after — and even before!

Prayer

God, I confess that I share the timidity of the Israelites. Part of me longs for freedom, and groans under the yoke of bondage. Yet much of me also hides in the security of slavery, and fears the terrors and reprisals of living in the wilderness with God. Lord, save me from myself, as well as the implacable chariots of my past and the uncontrollable seas of my future. For both of these are under Your control, and in fact You have raised them up as adversaries merely to show Your power over them. Lord, reveal Your power in my life, family, church, and work. Show Yourself strong against my adversaries, and lead me into the true freedom that only comes from You. Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title is a color-correction of “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

Note:

A friend of mine read my blog (perhaps the first to do so), and expressed confusion about the random word abstracts — apparently not noticing the Read More section. Thus, I’ve decided to adopt a “study question” approach to the abstract, as well as explicitly encouraging people to Read More — plus use a burnt ocher for the links, rather than the less-visible beige-gold.

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