The Roundabout Route and The Road Not Traveled

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

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.

"בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם" – For three days or forever? R"Y Bekhor Shor and Seforno assume that Paroh had been led to believe that the Israelites intended to return to slavery after their holiday, and had sent them away only temporarily (see A Three Day Journey).2  Thus, regardless of the route taken, once Paroh would realize that his slaves were not returning of their own volition, it was inevitable that he would chase after them.3
Was the Splitting of the Sea preordained? Since Paroh was going to pursue the Israelites, the need to drown the Egyptians at Yam Suf was unavoidable.4  Otherwise, the Israelites would have been forced to return to Egyptian bondage.5
"וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים...‏ כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" – Where is the Israelites' destination?
  • 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
"בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה" – Concern over war with whom?
  • 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
How does the Wilderness Route provide the solution? According to both of these commentators, the Wilderness Route was not chosen to avoid a confrontation with the Egyptian enemy.  In fact, such an encounter was not only unavoidable, but also desirable, as it would result in the drowning of the Egyptian masters and the termination of the Israelites' slavery.16  The goal of the selected route was merely to avert the possibility that the Israelites would panic and flee back to Egypt before the Egyptians were eliminated.
  • 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
"דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף" – This approach emphasizes, not the wilderness aspect of the chosen route ("דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר"), but that it led to Yam Suf ("‏יַם סוּף‏‏"‎).19  The miracle of Yam Suf was Hashem's ultimate objective, and the raison d'être for this leg of the journey rather than merely its consequence.
Double "כִּי"
  • 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
"וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה" – R"Y Bekhor Shor and Seforno understand the phrase to refer to the fear lest the nation physically return to Egypt and its bondage.22
"וַחֲמֻשִׁים" – R"Y Bekhor Shor understands the verse to refer to food provisions and to be clarifying that the Israelites were well supplied enough to take the longer route through the wilderness. Seforno, in contrast, understands it to refer to military arms and suggests that the verse is highlighting that despite being armed, the nation lacked the courage to fight their masters.
Was the objective of the Wilderness Route achieved and when? According to this approach, traveling via the Wilderness Route succeeding in ensuring that the Egyptians drowned at Yam Suf and in permanently casting off the Egyptian yoke of slavery.23  This though raises the question of why the Israelites did not take the Philistine Route once Yam Suf had already occurred and accomplished its goal.24
What about Sinai? Seforno asserts that Mt. Sinai was always meant to be the second stop; first, though, Hashem wanted to drown the Egyptians.
Biblical parallels – Seforno compares Hashem's plan here to the words of Devorah to Barak in Shofetim 4:7, "וּמָשַׁכְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֶל נַחַל קִישׁוֹן אֶת סִיסְרָא".  There, too, Hashem drew the enemy to a particular place with intent to drown its chariots and wipe out its army.25

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.

"בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם" – For three days or forever? This approach works simplest for those who posit that Paroh had already permanently freed the Israelites,27 and that thus the drowning of the Egyptians at Yam Suf was neither necessary as a prerequisite for entrance into Canaan nor inevitable.
Introduction for long range goals rather than short term decision – Those who maintain that the Israelites were initially released for only a three day journey28 must grapple with the question of why the immediate Egyptian threat and the need for Yam Suf are not mentioned as factors in the selection of the route.29  They could explain that our verses are presenting Hashem's reasoning not for merely the short term decision to opt for the Wilderness Route until the events of Yam Suf, but also for why the Israelites continued on it even after the Egyptian threat had already been eliminated.30
"וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים... כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" – Close to where and what was the concern? These commentators assume that the verse is speaking of the route to Canaan and that the problematic issue is the shortness of the Philistine Route to Canaan, as expressed in the words "כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא"‎.31  The result would have been that the Children of Israel would have arrived almost immediately in Canaan and been forced to fight the wars of conquest before they were physically and mentally prepared for them.
"בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה" – Avoiding war with whom? The wars to be avoided for the immediate future were the battles of the conquest of Canaan.
How does the Wilderness Route solve the problem and when?
  • 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
Physical vs. Spiritual – This approach assumes that the conquest of Canaan would require human strength and courage, and not be completely supernatural.40
Later desires to return to Egypt – The Mekhilta notes that the nation's later desires (even on the longer route) to return to Egypt ("נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה") prove that had they gone the shorter route and been forced to fight the Canaanites they would surely have fled back to Egypt.41  On the Wilderness Route, although there were periodic grumblings to head back to Egypt, these were never acted upon.
Parallels to the Sin of the Spies and the need for forty years – This approach could understand the decree after the Sin of the Spies in a similar fashion.  Through their sin, the nation demonstrated that they did not possess the requisite courage to conquer, and thus more time needed to elapse before they could enter the land of Israel.42  In this case also, the nation's unpreparedness and cowardice force the postponement of the entry into the Promised Land and the need to detour so as to find a less daunting point of entry.
Where is "דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים"? Most of these commentators do not explicitly address this issue, but most43 likely assume that it refers to the coastal route (also known as "דֶּרֶךְ הַיָּם") that leads northeast out of Egypt, traversing the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  At the time of the Exodus, though, the Philistines who later live in this area had not yet arrived,44 leading Cassuto to assert that the verse instead refers to the way that leads from Egypt to Israel via the Negev,45 which was home to the Philistines of Avraham's time.46
Double "כִּי" – According to these commentators, both appearances of the word mean "because", and the two provided reasons work together to explain why the Philistine Route was not chosen. Although one might have thought that a quick route would be advantageous, in this case it constitutes a problem. If the nation was forced to wage war against the Canaanites so soon after being freed, before they were battle ready, they would inevitably opt to return to servitude in Egypt.
"וַחֲמֻשִׁים" – Shadal asserts that the verses point this fact out to highlight that it was not due to lack of weaponry that the nation would flee, but rather because of their lack of courage.
What about Sinai? R. D"Z Hoffmann asserts that there was nothing so unique about Mt. Sinai, and had they taken a different route Hashem would have simply chosen a different site for revelation. It was only because Hashem knew in advance which path the nation was to travel that He had previously told Moshe that the nation would serve him at Sinai.

Spiritual Development

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.

"בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם" – For three days or forever? This approach works simplest for those who posit that Paroh had already permanently freed the Israelites,49 and that thus the drowning of the Egyptians at Yam Suf was neither necessary as a prerequisite for entrance into Canaan nor inevitable.50
Introduction for long range goals rather than short term decision – Those who maintain that the Israelites were initially released for only a three day journey51 must explain why the immediate Egyptian threat and the need for Yam Suf are not mentioned as factors in the selection of the route. They could explain that our verses are presenting Hashem's reasoning not for merely the short term decision to opt for the Wilderness Route until the events of Yam Suf, but also for why the Israelites continued on it even after the Egyptian threat had already been eliminated.52
"וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים... כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" – Close to where and what was the concern? These commentators assume that the verse is speaking of the route to Canaan and that the problematic issue is the shortness of the Philistine Route to Canaan.53 The people needed more time to develop their connection to Hashem before their arrival in Canaan.54
  • 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.
Double "כִּי" and the concern of "בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה" – According to this approach, "כִּי" mean "because" in both instances.  However, the commentators diverge in how they understand the relationship between the two phrases.
  • 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.
How does the Wilderness Route solve the problem and when?
  • 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
Parallels to the Sin of the Spies and the need for forty years – Shadal understands the forty year period of wandering in the wilderness resulting from the Sin of the Spies as similarly motivated by a need for the still immature nation to learn from Moshe and develop a stronger faith in Hashem before entering the Land.61  In both cases, the nation's unpreparedness force the postponement of the entry into the Promised Land.
"וַחֲמֻשִׁים" – This approach might suggest that choosing the longer route necessitated greater food provisions.62
What about Sinai and Yam Suf? According to this approach, receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai and witnessing miracles such as the splitting of the Sea were some of the main advantages of the route. It is unclear, though, why this is not stated explicitly in the verses.

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.

"וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים... כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" – Close to where? According to most of these commentators, the verse is saying that the Philistine Route is close to Egypt, and either despite this fact, or because of this fact, it is rejected.64
"בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה" – Avoiding war with whom? Commentators divide regarding which enemy was on the Philistine Route which needed to be avoided:
  • 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
Evidence and parallels – See the Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel below who note that there were fearsome Philistine giants (see Yehoshua 11,72 Shemuel I 17, Shemuel II 21), and that these were the subject of the similar concern in Devarim 9:1-2.73  The concern over the Philistine giants also parallels the Spies' trepidation in Bemidbar 13 regarding the giants in Chevron.
"וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה" – According to most of these commentators, Hashem's worry was that when faced with war, the nation would panic and return of the own volition to the relative safety of Egypt. Philo, though, maintains that the problem was that the enemy would actively drive the Israelites back to Egypt.74
What about the wars with Egypt and Amalek on the Wilderness Route? While the advantage of this position is that it adopts a more literal reading of the verses, it faces a significant difficulty because despite taking the Wilderness Route, the Israelites saw battle almost immediately.  Ramban attempts to respond that the only wars that might have caused the nation to return were ones against settled peoples whose lands were being trespassed.75  These would be protracted struggles for many years,76 and thus posed a greater challenge in sustaining morale and preventing the nation from giving up.77
Double "כִּי" and their relationship – These commentators agree that the second "כִּי" of the verse means "because", but they disagree about the meaning of the first "כִּי" and its relationship to the second.
  • 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.
"וַחֲמֻשִׁים" – According to Rashi the verse highlights this point because it was only due to the change of route (into the wilderness) that the nation needed to be armed with provisions. Ramban, in contrast, asserts that the verse is emphasizing how fearful the nation was of a Philistine attack, to the extent that they even armed themselves as a precaution.80
What about Sinai? None of these commentators address the question, but one could argue that had the Philistine Route not been problematic, Hashem truly might have revealed himself somewhere on that path.81  Hashem had previously told Moshe that the nation would serve Him at Chorev, only because He is omniscient and knew in advance that the nation would ultimately take the Wilderness Route.

Combination

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.

"בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם" – For three days or forever? According to Abarbanel, Paroh believed that the nation was to return after three days.  The very fact that he was not freeing them permanently, but rather expecting them to head to the wilderness, is one of the reasons that Hashem chose the Wilderness Route.82
"בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה" – Avoiding war with whom? Both the Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel maintain that the immediate concern related to war with the Philistines living on the route,83 but they add that this fear would have caused the nation to cast doubts on its ability to conquer the land as a whole.84
How does the Wilderness Route solve the problem?
  • 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
Double "כִּי" – The Akeidat Yitzchak assumes that the first "כִּי" means "that" and is simply describing the route rather than explaining its rejection. The real concern was that wars encountered there would lead the nation back to Egypt.  Abarbanel, in contrast, asserts that "כִּי" in both of its occurrences means "because".  Wars on this route specifically would lead the nation to return because its proximity meant an earlier confrontation.
"וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים... כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא" – Close to where? The concern related to the Philistines' proximity to the Israelites in Egypt and the fact that they would confront them a mere few days after leaving Egypt.
"וַחֲמֻשִׁים" – Abarbanel asserts that the verse is emphasizing that, even though the nation left armed and/or in military formations of fifths, they still lacked the courage to fight against the Philistines.
What about Sinai and Yam Suf? Abarbanel assumes that these were both factors in choosing the Wilderness Route.  Perhaps the route is referred as "דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף" to hint to both events.  "יַם סוּף" refers to the miracle of the drowning in Yam Suf, while "הַמִּדְבָּר" alludes to the nation's request to worship Hashem in the wilderness.
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