B’shalach – Exodus 13:17 to 17:16
God causes the plagues, divides the waters, defeats the Egyptian army, provides water when the Israelites are thirsty, sends manna when they are hungry…. Yet, whenever they want, why do the Israelites still show little faith in God and ask to return to the slavery of Egypt?
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt,’ So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Ex. 13:17-18)
Have you ever started a project on Monday… filled with enthusiasm… and sure of the results? But, then came a few setbacks. By Wednesday, the enthusiasm was gone. You were ready to quit and move on to another project.
In many ways this is what happens to the Israelites in this week’s parsha. They were slaves in Egypt. God saw their suffering and sent Moses to lead them to freedom. But the journey wasn’t easy.
- The Ten Plagues
- Splitting of the Sea of Reeds and allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land.
- Destruction of the Egyptian army
- Water in the wilderness
- Food in the form of manna
But before each of the above, there was despair. The Israelites wanted freedom, but were also ready to quit and turn back.
- Before the plagues, Moses went to the people and told them of God’s plan. They didn’t listen because they were too beaten down to even hear what was being said.
- Before the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the people saw the Egyptian army; they cried out to Moses that they should go back to Egypt and not die in the wilderness.
- Before God provided water and manna, the people remembered the food and water they had in Egypt…. In Egypt, times may have been tough, but, there was food and water. Now, mothers had to watch children who were crying for lack of water… and families suffering due to lack of food. They turned to Moses for answers. When none came at that moment, they wanted to quit and return to their past lives … The food and water … A life without uncertainty, a life where they knew tomorrow would be just like today.
I have wondered why, after the plagues and the splitting of the sea, the Israelites would doubt God…. Why they would want to return to Egypt. Part of the answer is in the words above … and part is shown below.
Different parts of the answer appear in two places in this week’s parsha. At the beginning we read that God chose a longer path to the Promised Land. A journey through the land of the Philistines would have taken no more than ten day. But God saw that they would not be welcomed by the Philistines and “the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (Ex. 13:17) The people were used to slavery and having all decisions made for them. They were not ready for the strategies and thought needed for warfare.
The Israelites had also grown used to the regulated life of slavery. They were not ready for the idea of waiting or planning for the future. They only did as they were told. So the life of uncertainty that the desert life made them desire Egypt and the world of plenty.
The second answer to the question of why the people wanted to return to Egypt comes near the end of the parsha. The people were lacking water … Both children and livestock were suffering. This is becoming a constant problem in the desert. The grumbling begins again. Moses goes to God and says: “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!” And again, God provides water. “The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Eternal, saying, ‘Is the Eternal present among us or not?’” (Ex. 17:4-7) The people couldn’t see that God was with them. If they were in need, they saw no solution. They couldn’t see that God would again be with them to help. They couldn’t see into the future. If needs weren’t provided, they were ready to quit.
So the story of the Israelites really isn’t that much different than a project we begin on Monday and quit on Wednesday because of many setbacks. The potential goal and rewards are quickly forgotten. This is what is happening to the Israelites.
We see that God has a plan. The people will journey through the desert for the next forty years – the span of a generation. They will learn the importance of faith in God … They will learn what is needed to assume the responsibilities of freedom. At the beginning of the journey God saw that the people were not ready to adapt to freedom after a life of slavery. And they did not have the skills needed to survive including the challenges of war and the skills needed to conquer and hold the land promised to them.
But, the last verses of this parsha demonstrate that they are beginning to learn…. The Amelek troops came and attacked the Israelites. Moses tells Joshua to pick some troops and do battle with the Amalek. Moses stations himself with the “rod of God” in his hands. Whenever Moses raises the rod, the troops are successful against the Amelek. Aaron and Hur assist Moses in keeping his hands, and the rod, in an upright position and the Israelites are successful. They learn the lesson that they… when working with God can produce success.
The long path toward living with a real faith in God by the Israelite people has begun.