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Shemot/Exodus 13:18 And G-d led the people round the way of the wilderness, [to] the Sea of Suf
There has been much debate about the geography involved in this and the following verses, as to exactly which route the Israelites used and the location - and, indeed, meaning - of the Sea of Suf. The verb - the Hif'il prefix 3ms form of the root , a geminate1 "to turn or go about" - means here that G-d caused the people to go around by the way of the wilderness. Nahum Sarna explains that, "this must refer to one of the ancient, natural tracks that traverse the Sinai peninsula." There are many "sheep tracks" and camel trails that criss-cross this region, meandering through the wilderness both at random and following ancient trade routes and ways between settlements, oases and outposts. TheRamban points out that a few verses later we learn that "The L-RD went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night" (Shemot 13:21, JPS). The Baal HaTurim - thinking of the way the verb is used in the Four Question at Pesach to mean reclining for a meal2 - borrows a question from the Psalms - "They said, 'Can G-d prepare a table in the wilderness?'" (Psalm 78:19, NASB) - to suggest that, "G-d prepared a table for the Israelites and had them recline to eat."
Richard Elliott Friedman returns to the question of why G-d should have taken them by a roundabout route through the wilderness, when they could have walked from Egypt to Kadesh Barnea in only eleven days.Hirsch comments that the people were "completely and absolutely lacking in the slightest trace of that power and that courage which could have attained freedom for themselves ... they had no courage to fight, and above all they lacked the spirit of trustfully putting themselves in G-d's hands and under and all circumstances." Being a little more candid, Friedman adds: "They have been slaves for generations. Decision making, will-power and responsibility have not been part of their lives. One does not acquire responsibility instantly when one becomes free." The people needed time to adjust to their new-found freedom and develop skills to handle both freedom and their relationship with G-d in a responsible and appropriate manner.
The text, then, makes it very clear that G-d deliberately and explicitly led the people into the wilderness. This was not a casual arrangement, whereby the people simply drifted in that way or even felt led in their hearts to follow that path. The physical manifestation of G-d's presence and leading was before the people night and day in the pillars of cloud and fire, and the people walked both day and night in order to travel far enough in the time available. Later in the parasha, the people find themselves trapped between the Sea at their front and Pharaoh's pursuing army at their rear; they are between a rock and a hard place and cry out to G-d, but have no choice other than to trust G-d and experience the miracle of the Parting of the Sea. This not a place that they would have chosen or a path that would have appealed to them; it was nevertheless necessary in order for G-d to finally defeat Pharaoh and prove Himself to the Israelites. The knock-on effects of this miracle were so strong that forty years later the then inhabitants of the Land of Israel were still talking about it: "I know that the L-RD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the L-RD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt" (Joshua 2:9-10, ESV).
Moshe is later to take a slightly poetic view of the Exodus narrative, when he teaches its application to the people who are about to cross over the Jordan under Joshua's leadership in order to take possession of the Land:
For the L-RD's portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment. He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye. Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did He spread His wings and take him, bear him along on His pinions; the L-RD alone did guide him, no alien god at His side. He set him atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; He fed him honey from the crag, and oil from the flinty rock
Again, Moshe is being very clear that G-d is the active party in this whole process. The people are to follow where they are led and go to the places they are directed. The episode of the Twelve Spies and Israel's refusal to enter the Land when first instructed, demonstrates what happens when the people won't accept G-d's leading and try to take matters into their own hands. King Hezekiah urged the people of his day, when G-d was again setting up choices for the nation over who they would obey, to remember that time: "Don't be stiffnecked now, as your ancestors were. Instead, yield yourselves to ADONAI; enter His sanctuary, which He has made holy forever; and serve ADONAI your G-d; so that His fierce anger will turn away from you" (2 Chronicles 30:8, CJB). One of the apostolic writers also elaborates upon the effects of that incident: "Therefore, as the Ruach HaKodesh says, 'Today, if you hear G-d's voice, don't harden your hearts, as you did in the Bitter Quarrel on that day in the Wilderness when you put G-d to the test. Yes, your fathers put Me to the test; they challenged Me, and they saw My work for forty years!'" (Hebrews 3:7-9, CJB).
G-d continues to lead us in His ways. We often do not know where we are going, or what we shall have to do. Sometimes this leading happens without us being aware of it - we simply find ourselves in situations that we have to deal with, that G-d has set up and prepared in order to teach us and encourage us to depend on Him. Other times we feel G-d guiding us by His peace over decisions that we would not otherwise know how to take, while others report strong urgings in the Spirit to make 'phone calls, cancel meetings or alter their intended course of action on an almost minute by minute basis. Letters from long forgotten relatives or acquaintances - sometimes even from complete strangers - come in the post, our cars break down at critical moments; these are all physical manifestations that people attribute to G-d's guiding hand as He makes sure that they are or are not where they are supposed to be.
Throughout the places where G-d leads us, He continues to accompany us and provide for us. At a difficult and perhaps testing time in his own life, the Psalmist wrote: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows" (Psalm 23:4-5, ESV). We too can know and experience G-d's comfort and provision in the darkest of places and times. Nothing is without purpose or use in G-d's economy and we can be certain that He is still leading us no matter what might indicate to the contrary. He still provides us with His Spirit and in Messiah Yeshua we have His presence in our hearts.
1 - A geminate verb is one in which the second and third letters of a three letter root are the same, making the pattern XYY.
2 - "Every night we eat either sitting or reclining but on this night we all recline", which is drawn from the idea of everyone gathered around a table to eat.
Further Study: 2 Samuel 17:27-29; John 6:51
Application: Are you passing through a difficult and challenging time at the moment? Know that everything is in the hand of G-d and that He is with you every inch and moment of the way. Call out to Him and know His comfort today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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