Some of the most formative events in the history of the Children of Israel occurred on the Wilderness Route, and it is difficult to imagine how history would have evolved without them. However, the sublime benefits of this travel route are more obvious only in retrospect, while the Torah appears to explain its choice by highlighting the more mundane dangers associated with the alternative Philistine Route. Commentators thus struggle with how to reconcile the relationship between what we know to be important and what the text says, with their positions partially dependent on whether baiting Paroh into chasing after the Israelites was a crucial element of the Divine master plan.
Two approaches emphasize the advantages of the Wilderness Route. R"Y Bekhor Shor and Seforno focus exclusively on the immediate objective of reaching Yam Suf, saying that this was always Hashem's initial plan and that this alone accounts for the path taken. The Mekhilta and many others also accent the positive, but they instead stress the long range benefits of traveling through the wilderness, as it allowed the nation to acquire the mental, physical, and spiritual fortitude needed to conquer and settle Canaan. In contrast to both of these positions, Rashi and others adopt the simple reading of the text that the purpose was merely to avoid the pitfalls of the alternative Philistine Route. Finally, Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel attempt to synthesize various approaches, combining the mundane reasoning explicit in the text with the more implicit transcendent motives.
The following is an analysis of the spectrum of approaches regarding Hashem's main objective in leading the Israelites by way of the Wilderness Route:
Facilitating the Egyptians' Destruction
The Wilderness Route was selected in order to ensure a confrontation in which the Egyptians would drown in the Sea (the primary purpose is indicated in the words "יַם סוּף"). This would sever the Israelites' remaining bonds of servitude, thereby enabling them to then (and only then) proceed to Israel.
- Yam Suf – Seforno contends that heading for Israel was not even a consideration prior to the drowning of the Egyptians at Yam Suf, as it was still assumed that the Israelites were returning to Egypt. Accordingly, the verse cannot be speaking of which path was the shortest to Israel, but must rather be dealing with which was the quickest to Yam Suf.6 He thus posits that each of the Philistine Route and the Wilderness Route must have led to Yam Suf,7 but that the Philistine Route was the shorter one of the two.8
- Israel – R"Y Bekhor Shor, though, does assume that the verse is speaking of which path the nation was to take to arrive in the land of Israel.9 He explains that the Philistine Route was the shortest option10 and would have been the obvious choice had the Egyptian threat not existed.11 According to him, this is precisely what the verses are saying – Yam Suf needed to occur and the Egyptian army needed to be disposed of before the Israelites could journey to Canaan.12
- With Egypt and the Philistines – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Hashem's immediate concern was about the Israelites' potentially fearful response to being surrounded by foes, as they would be attacked by the pursuing Egyptians from behind as well as the looming Philistine threat from the front.13
- With Egypt alone – Seforno similarly contends that the Divine concern was that the Israelites might panic upon hearing14 that the Egyptians were in hot pursuit and return to Egypt rather than fight. Seforno, though, assumes that this encounter would occur even before the Israelites reached Philistine territory.15
- Avoiding a dual front battle – R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that traveling via the Wilderness Route avoided exposing the Israelites to a two-pronged attack.17
- Forcing a confrontation – Seforno posits that the Wilderness Route was chosen since it was devoid of spies and informers. As such, the Israelites would be unaware of the pursuing Egyptians until it was too late to flee.18
- Two opposing factors – R"Y Bekhor Shor understands the "כִּי" of "כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" to be providing the reason why the Philistine Route might have been chosen,20 while only the "כִּי" of "כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים" explains why this option was rejected.
- Two parts of the same explanation – According to Seforno, both "כִּי" phrases constitute part of the reason for not choosing the Philistine Route.21
Affording Opportunities for National Growth
The Wilderness Route was not just the default alternative to a rejected route, but rather had value in its own right (the key words being "דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר"), as it offered the nation vital opportunities that the Philistine Route could not. This approach subdivides regarding what this route had to offer:
Physical and Mental Fortitude
The Wilderness Route afforded the nation both the time and environment needed to discard their slave mentality and gain the confidence and independence essential to conquer and rule Canaan.
- Growth through trials – Rambam emphasizes how the scarcity and hardships of wilderness life instilled courage and strength,32 and he explains that this was the purpose of the trials (נסיונות) in the wilderness.33 R. Hirsch adds that the challenges encountered taught them to trust in Hashem, which, in turn, gave them the self-confidence needed to fight. Shadal further asserts that the time in the wilderness provided time to learn the skills necessary for self rule.
- New generation – Rambam proposes that the forty years in the wilderness meant that it was a new generation that had never been enslaved which entered the land.34 This generation was not encumbered by a slave mentality, and was thus more capable of dealing with the challenges of conquest and government.35 Rambam's dim view of the generation of the Exodus is reflected also in his contention that numerous commandments needed to be given to address its deficiencies.36
- Miracles as morale booster – Malbim maintains that the splitting of the sea and other miracles of the wilderness would both instill fear in the Canaanites37 and boost the belief, and hence the courage, of the Israelites enabling a victory over their enemies.
- Stalling for the Canaanites – Malbim38 adds that the extra time afforded by the Wilderness Route ensured that the sins of the Emorites would be complete and they would deserve to be eliminated by the time the Israelites arrived in the land.39
The trek through the wilderness enabled the nation to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai and/or witness many other miracles, thereby deepening their belief in and religious connection to Hashem and His ways.
- Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael and Shadal explain that once they conquered the land they would disperse each to their own inheritance and no longer have the opportunity to learn Torah and be guided spiritually by Moshe.
- Netziv and Meshekh Chokhmah maintain that God feared the influence the idolatrous neighbors would have on such a fledgling nation.
- Netziv stresses that the first reason of "כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" was the primary one. He points out that the subsequent reason of "כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן... וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה" could have been only a secondary concern, as the people did desire to return to Egypt even on the longer path.55 He suggests that Hashem added this second reason only because the nation would not have understood the meaning of the fear of assimilation.56
- The Toledot Yitzchak, R. Hirsch, and Malbim, though, maintain that the reasons work in tandem. Without the benefit of a long route in which to grow spiritually, the nation would lack the trust in God needed to fight wars and win.
- Experiencing miracles and dependence on Hashem – The Wilderness Route enabled the nation to witness the miracles of the Splitting of the Sea, manna, and water, all of which instilled faith in God.57
- Receiving mitzvot – It further allowed the Children of Israel to receive the Torah and learn God's commandments.58
- Sterile environment – The isolated environs of the wilderness protected the people from outside influences.59
- All needs provided – The miraculous providing for their subsistence in the wilderness gave the Israelites the opportunity to grow and learn without being occupied with and overwhelmed by the normal concerns of having to work the land.60
Avoiding Philistine Route Dangers
The choice of the Wilderness Route was a response to the dangers lurking on the Philistine Route (the critical factor was to avoid traveling "דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים"). Hashem was concerned lest the wars the nation would encounter en route would frighten it into returning to Egypt.
- Philistines – Most classical and medieval commentators assume that the threat was posed by the Philistines. According to the medieval commentators, the Philistines currently65 living on the route itself constituted the threat.66 However, the Mekhilta suggests that the concern was over seeing the frightening remains of previous skirmishes.67
- Egyptians – According to modern scholars,68 the Philistine Route might be identified with what is known in Egyptian texts as the "Wall of Horus".69 At the time of the Exodus, it was under Egyptian control and heavily fortified with Egyptian sentries and garrisons.70 Traveling via such a route would inevitably lead to conflict with the Egyptians, and Israelite terror of their masters would lead them to a quick surrender and return to servitude.71
- Because – Rashi and Ibn Ezra imply that it, too, means "because". Hashem is, thus, giving two related reasons why to avert the Philistine route. Fear of war was significant specifically because the route was so close to Egypt. The proximity made it more likely for the nation to return to Egypt upon encountering war.
- Even though or that – R. Moshe ibn Chiquitilla (cited by Ibn Ezra) maintains that the first "כִּי" means "even though",78 while Ramban proposes that it means "that". According to both, though, the meaning is the same,79 and the verse is giving only one reason to avoid the Philistine Route. Even though it was the shorter (and thus seemingly more logical route), Hashem chose to dismiss it because of the danger involved.
There were multiple reasons for the path taken. The nation needed to avoid the dangers of war lurking on the Philistine route but there was also intrinsic value in taking the Wilderness Route.
- Longer route – Abarbanel points out that the war against the Philistines would have been almost immediate (due to their proximity to Egypt) and as such was much more likely to lead the nation to flee back to Egypt than later wars.
- "דֶּרֶךְ... יַם סוּף" – In addition, only on this route was there a sea in which to drown the Egyptians. The Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that this was the antidote to the original concern regarding war. After the miracle, the news spread and instilled fear throughout Canaan, enabling the Israelites to more easily defeat the Canaanite nations.
- Preserve honesty – Abarbanel asserts that another motivating factor in traveling the Wilderness Route was the fact that Paroh had sent them assuming that they were leaving for a three day furlough to worship God in the wilderness.85 If they headed towards the Philistine Route they would have been viewed as liars, and therefore Hashem led them through the wilderness.86