Was the Miracle of Yam Suf Only an Afterthought?
Parashat Beshalach opens at the end of Chapter 13 by describing the path upon which Hashem led the Children of Israel when they left Egypt:
(יז) וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה. (יח) וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
(17) And when Paroh released the people, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was close, for God said, "The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt." (18) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness to Yam Suf, and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.
The beginning of the first verse (v. 17) notes the rejected Philistine Route, while the first half of the second verse (v. 18) delineates the selected Wilderness Route heading toward Yam Suf. Sandwiched in between is an enigmatic explanation of God's decision, namely the concern that the Israelites, upon encountering an enemy, would cower and flee back to Egypt.
From these verses it might appear that avoiding battle was the primary reason that the God led the Children of Israel via the Wilderness Route toward Yam Suf, and that if not for this factor, He would have opted for the Philistine Route. But was not the real reason for heading toward Yam Suf so that the Egyptians would give chase, drown in the sea, and enable the Israelites along with the rest of the world to behold the Almighty's awesome majesty?1 And do not the opening verses of Shemot 142 detail how Hashem choreographed the Israelites' movements in order to entice Paroh into chasing after them?3 If so, why do our verses focus on the fear of war, making it seem like one of the greatest miracles of all time was merely an afterthought?
What About Mt. Sinai?
The Torah's emphasis on the mundane concern of the nation's potential cowardice overshadows not only the Splitting of the Sea, but also the need to take the Wilderness Route so as to experience the revelation and giving of the Decalogue at Sinai. Had not Hashem already told Moshe that upon leaving Egypt the nation was to worship Him in the wilderness, at Mt. Sinai,4 and had not Moshe, throughout his negotiations with Paroh, repeatedly requested leave for a three day holiday to serve Hashem in the wilderness? Was this all just a sham?5 If not, how could taking the Philistine Route have been regarded as any sort of option?6
Leaving aside the external considerations of the paramount importance of Yam Suf and Mt. Sinai, the above verses themselves contain multiple ambiguities and raise numerous questions:
- "בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם" – Did Paroh send the Israelites off on only a temporary three day journey, or was he expelling them permanently?
- "דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים" – Where exactly is the "Philistine Route" and why was it thus designated? Did not the Philistines arrive on the shores of Israel only in the 12th century BCE, much after the Exodus?7
- "כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" – To what is the Philistine Road close? To Canaan, Egypt, or Yam Suf? Is the proximity being presented as a reason to take this path or to eschew it?8
- The double "כִּי" – What is the relationship between the two clauses of "כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" and "כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם"? Does the word "כִּי" have the same meaning in both occurrences?9 Is the verse giving two reasons for the rejected route or just one?
- "בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה" – Which potential battle is the cause of the concern (the Canaanites, Philistines, or Egyptians)? Was not Hashem planning on miraculously vanquishing all of the enemies awaiting the Israelites in Canaan?10 Furthermore, how did changing their route solve the problem? Was it not more terrifying for the nascent Israelite nation, just a few days into their journey, to be pursued by the mighty Egyptian army? Would this not be an even greater motivation for them to raise a white flag and resubmit to Egyptian slavery?11
- "וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל" – What does the word "וַחֲמֻשִׁים" mean? Why does the text emphasize this detail and how might it be relevant to the choice of route?
All of the above questions have led exegetes over the generations to explore alternative interpretations of our verses. To study them, please continue to Approaches.