“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” So the Israelites did this.”
Exodus 14:1-4, NIV
“In Exodus 14:2 the Israelites were directed by God to backtrack to a precisely specified place. If ever an act of God must have seemed unloving this was it, for all too soon they found that they had apparently been led into a trap, which rapidly closed upon them (14:9). And it was their God who had put them there! They were helpless, caught in a vice, and when they looked back on that day, they probably said, as we frequently find ourselves saying, 'We didn't know which way to turn.' What can the Lord have been thinking about?” The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Exodus by J.A. Motyer, p. 181
|There are more than a few opinions on which route they really took|
I am a person who generally defines myself as a Christian first. I will quickly add a brief disclaimer that I am a pastor serving a congregation in the Pentecostal tradition but that's only to help an inquiring mind know where to place me. But while I rarely go there to clarify the matter, I generally consider myself an Arminian. That is, I put a lot of emphasis on man's right to choose his eternal destiny, heaven or hell. When things go south, as they sometimes do, I'll wrack that up to the toll of living in a fallen world, sinful free will agents acting out as they are wont to do or the influence of the devil and his minions or a combination of all three. It's not that I believe that God takes a “hands off” approach to what goes on “down here.” Rather, it's the logical conclusion of the conviction that if it is God's will that we choose to acknowledge him willingly of our own free will than that choice involves the risk that we won't. And then stuff happens and bad things with it.
But reading Exodus 14 reminds me that try as we do to nail him down like he is some candidate running for political office, God resists neat little boxes, such as Arminian or Calvinist, that will define him. In fact, the way Moses tells it, God is...well...er, God and therefore he does what he wants for his own reasons that usually at the moment make sense only to him.
Take that climatic moment of the exodus from Egypt, for example. The ten plagues have passed and just as God had promised Pharaoh had had a belly full. He was so done with these Israelites that essentially he evicts them from the country. “Get out of my sight! And watch your step. I don’t want to ever see you again. If I lay eyes on you again, you’re dead” (10:28, Msg). These are the last words he speaks to Moses (that may have been spoken about the same time as his words recorded in 12:31). And thus 400 years of captivity come to an end. What a sight and a sound it must have been the morning following the night of the plague on the First Born. While the multitude of Israel departed in orderly fashion they left behind a country grief-stricken to the core, the air torn with “wild wailing and lament” (12:30).
Beginning around 13:17, there is what I would describe a definite deliberateness in how God leads the people. Instead of taking them up the main highway toward Canaan, he leads them toward the vast unknown of the wilderness. But he has good reasons for doing so which Moses shares with us: they don't know a thing about fighting and if they go straight north they will very shortly run into battle ready troops and quickly rethink the entire venture (vv. 17-22).
But Chapter 14 reads as if God is the Great Puppetmaster, pulling strings and yanking Pharaoh's chain for all it's worth. He instructs Moses to lead the people to a specific place - “near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon” (v. 2) – like a chess master setting the board or an angler setting the hook. He deliberately backs the people into a corner so that under any other circumstances they appear ripe for the picking. As with the case in choosing the desert road, Yahweh shares his reasons with Moses: “Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (14:3-5, NIV).
Naturally, things play out as Yahweh has foreseen. After Egypt is emptied of its labor force, Pharaoh awakens from his emotional hang-over and realizes he has made an incalculable error and sends a battalion of chariots after his slaves to round them up and drive them back to Goshen. When the people see the rising cloud of dust and hear the rumble of hundreds of chariots bearing down on them understandably they freak out. “How could this be?” “How could God do this to us?” “Moses, what were you thinking?” “Didn't we tell you to leave well enough alone?” But what seems like hell unleashing upon them is in fact the set-up for an incredible, never-to-be-repeated wonder that will be remembered for the ages: the same wind that brought the locusts (10:13) now splits the sea and drives it apart (14:20-21). Once again, Yahweh confides in Moses that it's all a part of a larger Plan, a Plan to teach Pharaoh a thing or two. After all that was the opening salvo in the plague narrative, Pharaoh's contemptuous reply to Moses' message from God: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go” (5:2, NIV). By the time he sees one of his entire battalions of one of the most fiercest weapons of the ancient world swallowed whole by the collapsing walls of sea water he has been schooled sufficiently in who Yahweh is and why it's a good thing to listen to what he says.
But God has other reasons in bringing his people to this specific locale. Not only is it to witness his once-and-for-all defeat of Egypt (“Stand firm and watch God do his work of salvation for you today. Take a good look at the Egyptians today for you’re never going to see them again” v. 13), not only is it answer definitively Pharaoh's query (“And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen” vv. 17-18) but to underscore to his own people that while he is good he is also to be feared (“And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses” vv. 30-31).
But where the Israelites saw only an unwanted disaster, the Lord had a purpose that would minister to his glory, give them assurance of faith and secure the future from the menaces of the past. For on That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore (14:30). At
this demonstration of the great power of the LORD...the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him (14:31) and in his promise that The Egyptians you see today you will never see again (14:13). So there was a purpose after all. God was working his purpose out, bringing his people a benefit which they did not know they needed and dealing with a danger which they thought was past but he knew was not.
Let us learn the lesson: it is the will of God that gives purpose to life. There is always the 'bigger picture' of which he is aware and we are not. There are dangers and menaces, unknown to us, from which he is guarding us, and, above all, there is his conflict with Satan, within which, in ways we cannot possibly know or understand, the joys, sorrows, battles and testings that come upon us are playing their part. Had Israel not been caught – baffled, terrified and helpless – at the Red Sea, there would have been no final defeat of the power that had enslaved them. (The Message of
Exodus, p. 181)
I rarely know what God is up to in my life – why certain prayers don't seem to get answered, why certain things I try don't seem to work, why people I love and care for continue down a path of trouble despite my counsel or earnest prayers to the contrary. He is God and I am not and while I can understand people making bad choices (myself included), I don't comprehend why he wouldn't want to rescue them especially when they begin to suspect they have done wrong. Re-reading Exodus 13-14, however, reminds me that God remains the Red Sea-splitting God he has always been but he always has a Plan, most of which involves provoking me to holy fear and abiding trust in Him regardless of the circumstances of the road I travel.