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Shemot/Exodus 14:3 And Pharaoh will say about the Children of Israel, "They are confused in the land; the wilderness has shut against them."
The Israelites are now out of Egypt - that is, Egypt proper - although they are still just within the south-east boundary of Pharaoh's empire. They had camped as far as the edge of the wilderness, but have now turned back and are camped "before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; ... facing it, by the sea" (Shemot 14:2, NJPS). Pharaoh, regretting that he had, after all, let the Israelites go, has come racing after them and the text isHaShem's description of Pharaoh: he will assume that Moshe and the Israelites are lost, confused and have no clue where to go or what to do next; that the wilderness is stopping them from going any further. Richard Elliot Friedman translates Pharaoh's words as, "They're muddled in the land! The wilderness has closed them in." Don Isaac Abravanel almost has Pharaoh gloating: "They are trapped between our fortifications and the sea."
The word causes dissent among the commentators. After translating "they are entangled in the land"1, theMekhilta, the earliest commentary on the passage, draws on other uses within the Hebrew Bible and says that "the word means perplexed or bewildered, as in the passage: 'How do the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are bewildered' (Joel 1:18, NJPS)"; it then offers an alternative: "it means confounded or dumbfounded, as in the passage: 'And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was dumbfounded' (Esther 3:15, NJPS)." Abraham Ibn Ezra explains that the word would indicate not merely that they were lost, but that they had no idea where to go." At this point, the plot gets thicker as Ibn Ezra continues: "Grammatically, it is a Nif'al passive [participle] of - it has no connection with in "Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea?" (Job 38:16, NJPS), which comes from ." This causes the Rashbam to comment that, "the sources of the sea are before them; that is why they have turned back - they have no idea where they are going."
RabbiHirsch, on the other hand, insist that "according to its form, must come from not from otherwise it would have to be , [following the model of] [from the root ]. as (in Job 38:16) means the depths of the sea, hence [means] "to be sunk", to be immersed. [Then, here, means] "caught in the land", they cannot get out; on the one side the sea which they cannot cross, on the other Ba'al Tz'fon will not let them pass and that is why they have to turn back. Tz'fon was the Egyptian god of the sirocco, of death, of evil, blight and barren wastes, hence the desert would be one of his domains." The Mekhilta lends support to this, commenting that "Ba'al Tz'fon alone was left of all the [false, Egyptian] deities, to mislead the minds of the Egyptians. To him applies the scriptural passage: 'He misleads the nations and destroys them' (Job 12:23)." The Sforno agrees, adding that "Ba'al Tz'fon has closed in the wilderness on them."
Finally, Drazin and Wagner report that the various Targum translations offer: "crazy", "gone astray", "escaping" and "going in circles". Nahum Sarna adds " in the present context has the sense of 'disoriented' or 'hopelessly confused'. The Israelites are hemmed in on all sides - by Egyptian border fortresses, by the wilderness and by the sea."Rashi thinks that "when Pharaoh hears that the Israelites are returning to their rear, he will say, 'They are confined in the wilderness, for they do not know how to get out of it and where to go.'" The Mekhilta offers yet another interpretation blaming Moshe for the problem: "Pharaoh will say, 'Moshe has led them astray, he did not know where he was leading them.'" Presumably, Pharaoh was not impressed with Moshe's local knowledge or desert navigation skills!
Confused after all that? Does this discussion of biblical Hebrew grammar seem crazy, just going around in circles? Has the text shut us in so that we don't know what to say? Or are believers always like that: ready for a detailed discussion of minutiae, but hopeless when it comes to the larger strategies of the kingdom - as if we don't where we are going? There are two things to learn from this. The first is who is speaking; the second is whether it is true.
Although the words are actually given to Moshe by HaShem, they are put in the mouth of Pharaoh; this is what Pharaoh will say. And just who is Pharaoh? Pharaoh is a defeated enemy, who is still extremely sore after the plagues, culminating in the death of the first-born, including Pharaoh's own son. Pharaoh is the enemy of the Jewish people, the leader who recently set himself up against HaShem and said, "Who is the L-RD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the L-RD, nor will I let Israel go" (Shemot 5:2, NJPS). Pharaoh knows nothing, has no insight or wisdom and typifies the unthinking and belligerent enemy, rushing after his prey and about to fall over the edge of the cliff. The figure of Pharaoh is also used by the Hebrew Scriptures as a type or personification of the devil, HaSatan, the accuser and enemy of our souls. That's who is speaking.
Moreover, Pharaoh knows nothing about the Israelite plans or movements. He is not privy to the instructions and reasoning that HaShem has shared with Moshe, the tactics that Israel is employing, or that his demise is shortly due in the waters of the Reed Sea. So it doesn't matter what Pharaoh says, he doesn't know what he is talking about and wouldn't tell the truth if he did. Inspired by and typifying HaSatan, he will lie himself blue in the face if he thinks it will serve his cause or give him advantage. In this case, such words would only be spoken in arrogant boasting or to intimidate the Israelites; neither are interesting or have any relevance to G-d's people. Yeshua told the crowds in Jerusalem, "From the start he was a murderer, and he has never stood by the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he is speaking in character; because he is a liar - indeed, the inventor of the lie!" (John 8:44, CJB). Pharaoh attempted genocide against the Israelites and constantly denied G-d's authority during the whole sequence of plagues, ducking and diving to try and get off the hook.
Early in His earthly ministry, Yeshua went from town to town, teaching in the synagogues of the Galil, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of G-d and healing the people. People came from far and wide to hear his teaching and to receive healing from Him. Matthew tells us that "When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were harried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36, CJB). Other translations offer similar descriptions of the people: "distressed and downcast" (NASB), "confused and helpless< (NLT) or "weary and scattered" (NKJV). In Mark's parallel version, he says that "filled with compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, He began teaching them many things" (Mark 6:34, CJB). Yeshua responded to their confusion by meeting their needs: first He taught them about the kingdom of G-d, then He demonstrated the reality of the kingdom by feeding the huge crowd of over five thousand men so that everyone was satisfied and "they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces and fish" (v. 43, CJB). Enough and to spare!
So we see the difference in approach. The enemy gloats over our apparent difficulties, lying and magnifying the problem, telling us that we are confused and don't know what we are doing; his words are empty, hateful and untrue. Yeshua has recognises our needs and distress, moving to meet our needs by teaching and feeding us, sharing the truth and the practical reality of the kingdom; His words are true, compassionate and full of promise and fulfilment.
Given that, we have a choice to take. When the going gets a little rough - and it will - to whom will we choose to listen? Will we listen to the voice of the enemy, presented through the world and the flesh, and run around like headless chickens: confused, harassed and - because we have chosen to place ourselves beyond immediate help - helpless? Will we allow ourselves to hear lies and falsehood, criticism and curses that destroy our souls and our will to live? Or will we hear the still small voice - not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire - that quietly tells us the truth and directs our path in the way of righteousness?
1. - Jacob Z. Lauterbach, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Jewish Publication Society 2004, 0-8276-0678-8, pages 128-129.
Further Study: Psalm 23:1-6; Ezekiel 34:12-15; Revelation 7:14b-17
Application: Are you in a place of confusion, uncertain where to turn or what to do next? Then tune out the strident lies of the world around you and listen carefully for the voice of the Spirit, for the voice of Yeshua calling you home and meeting your every need.
© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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