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Beshalach: Stepping Out in Faith...
Chagall - Creation

Stepping out in Faith...

Further thoughts on Parashat Beshalach

by John J. Parsons

Exactly one year after Moses first encountered God at the burning bush at Sinai, the children of Israel left Egypt. Instead of leading Israel along a direct route to the Promised Land, however, the Torah states that God directed them south, into the desert, in order to avoid war with the Philistines (Exod. 13:17). The sages note that God chose "the way of the desert" (דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר) so that the people would learn to depend on Him alone to meet their needs (Deut. 8:3). The excursion into the desert also marked a period of "betrothal" or courtship, where Israel would learn the character of her Beloved more fully. The prophet Jeremiah later recalls Israel's passion for God during this time: "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the desert, to a land not sown (Jer. 2:2). Over two million people - men, women, and children - journeyed to "a land unsown" for sake of the Promise of God (for more on this, see "Love Story Exodus").

At the outset of their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites first traveled south from Raamses to the city of Sukkot, an Egyptian city near the eastern border. After this they went further south toward Etham, at the "edge of the desert," where the Shekhinah Glory appeared as a Pillar of Cloud by day (עַמּוּד עָנָן) and as a Pillar of Fire by night (עַמּוּד אֵשׁ) to lead them on their way (Exod. 13:20-22). According to Rashi, when one pillar would leave, the other would appear, providing them protection from the elements. The pillar of cloud would protect them from the heat of the sun of the desert; the pillar of fire would keep them warm and provide light at night.

When Pharaoh heard that the Israelites were camped at Etham, he thought they had lost their way and were hemmed in by the desert.  The LORD then instructed Moses to lead the people back to encamp at a pagan sacred place named "Baal-Zephon" (בַּעַל צְפן), near the shore, so that they would appear to be trapped, in order to entice Pharaoh to pursue them. God intended to "lure" Pharaoh back for a final power encounter and to destroy the last vestiges of his idolatry: "And I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD" (Exod. 14:1-4).

Three days after the Exodus (i.e., on Nisan 18) Pharaoh mobilized his army and pursued the Jews to bring them back. Perhaps Pharaoh felt "justified" in doing so, since by now he realized that the "three-day feast to the LORD" was really a permanent escape from his clutches (see Exod. 3:18; 5:3; 7:16; 10:24). After two days (i.e., on Nisan 20), Pharaoh and his army reached the Israelites while they were encamped before Baal-Zephon beside the sea (Exod. 14:9).

"When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out (וַיִּצְעֲקוּ) to the LORD" (Exod. 14:10). In their panic the people then turned on Moses and blamed him for their predicament: "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: 'Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Exod. 14:11-12; cp. Exod. 5:21).

Moses then reassured the people that the LORD would deliver them, despite their terrifying circumstances: "The LORD will fight for you; [so] quit complaining!" (Exod. 14:14). Moses then apparently began pleading for God's intervention, but the LORD said to him, "Why are you crying out to me (מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי)? Tell the children of Israel to move forward!" (Exod. 14:15). There is a time for prayer, and a time for action, and this was a time for action! Moses needed to move the people closer to the shoreline and prepare them for God's deliverance. The LORD then explained to Moses how he would lift up his staff over the sea and divide it so that the Israelites could cross through on dry ground, but when the Egyptians would attempt to follow they would be swallowed up by the returning sea (Exod. 14:16-18). The Angel of God (and the pillar of cloud) then moved to the back of the camp, coming between the army of Egypt and the Israelites. That night the Egyptians were enshrouded in darkness while the Israelites had light (Exod. 14:19-20). "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided" (Exod. 14:21).

According to midrash, when Moses lifted his staff to divide the sea, at first nothing happened. The people waited anxiously at the seashore, wondering what to do. Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav, a descendant of Judah (Num. 1:7), took action by stepping into the water and the winds began blowing to divide the waters (Shemot Rabbah). The miracle of kriat yam suf - the splitting of the sea - therefore resulted because someone took a step of faith before God revealed His power. "And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall (חוֹמָה) to them on their right hand and on their left" (Exod. 14:22). They marched across the sea all that night (i.e., Nisan 21), under the light of the Shekhinah Glory...


Another midrash states that after the waters were divided, the tribes began arguing among themselves as to which should go first. The tribe of Reuven argued that it should go first because it was first in birth order; the tribe of Ephraim argued it should go first because of the blessing of Jacob, and so on... While everyone was arguing, the tribe of Judah simply marched into the midst of the sea...

Just before dawn, the dark pillar of cloud that enshrouded the Egyptian army lifted and the soldiers immediately rushed after the Israelites into pathway of the sea. The LORD looked down upon them "through the pillar of fire and cloud" (בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ וְעָנָן), however, and threw them into a panic, causing the wheels of their chariots to fall off and hindering their progress. God then told Moses to lift his staff again so that the waters would return to normal, thereby overwhelming the Egyptians with their chariots and horsemen. By the time dawn arrived, the Israelites saw the dead bodies of Pharaoh's army lining the seashore (Exod. 14:28-30). "Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses."

Moses and Miriam then composed the famous "Song of the Sea" (shirat hayam) and all Israel sang (and danced) together: "... The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.... Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? ... The LORD will reign forever and ever" (Exod. 15:1-21).

מִי־כָמכָה בָּאֵלִם יְהוָה
מִי כָּמכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקּדֶשׁ
נוֹרָא תְהִלּת עשֵׂה פֶלֶא
נָטִיתָ יְמִינְךָ תִּבְלָעֵמוֹ אָרֶץ
נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ עַם־זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ
נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל־נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ

mi · kha·mo·khah · ba·e·lim · Adonai?
mi · ka·mo·kha · ne·dar · ba·ko·desh,
no·ra · te·hi·lot · o·seh · fe·le?
na·ti·ta · ye·mi·ne·kha · ti·ve·la·e·mo · a·retz
na·chi·ta · be·chas·de·kha · am · zu · ga·al·ta
ne·chal·ta · ve·o·ze·kha · el · ne·veh · kod·she·kha

"Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
 Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
 awesome in praises, doing wonders?
 You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.
 You have led in your steadfast love the people you redeemed;
 you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
(Exod. 15:11-13)

Hebrew Study Card

A midrash states that as Miriam the prophetess was leading the people in the song, some of the angels began singing too, though the LORD stopped them: "How can you sing while my children are drowning?" (Talmud Megillah 10b). God objected to their praise because it lacked sensitivity to the suffering of human beings created in His image. The acknowledgment of the Egyptian suffering that made our liberation possible has given rise, in part, to the development the Passover tradition of spilling wine from our cups as we recite the ten plagues during the seder....

It is interesting that the Apostle Paul likened the crossing of the sea as a metaphor of baptism: "All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor. 10:1-2,11). In the New Testament, baptism symbolizes our identification with Yeshua's death, burial, and resurrection (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-5). The Israelites were facing death and were therefore at the "end of themselves." They had no other appeal or hope than God's gracious intervention on their behalf (i.e., salvation). Still, they needed to act and move forward.  After they took the step of faith, they could see the Shekhinah Glory lighting up the way of deliverance, though this meant being "buried" within the midst of the sea. Their earlier fear of death was replaced with a song of God's great deliverance (shirat hayam). The other side of the sea represents new life in the Messiah, the life that comes from above, by the power and agency of the Holy Spirit... The Israelites died to their old life, were symbolically buried in the waters, but arose to new freedom by the grace and power of God... Shifting the analogy somewhat, the crossing of the sea represented a sort of "birth canal" into the realm of true freedom as God's redeemed children.

Baptism of Moses

The Talmud says "Kashe l'zavgom k'kriat yam suf," which means it is more difficult for God to create a marriage than to split the sea. Why do the sages think it is so difficult for God to create a marriage? Because each person needs to take individual action to trust the other. Likewise with God. It is more difficult for God to get us to be in a genuine, trusting relationship with Him than it is for Him to split a sea. Of course the problem is not with God, who is the perfect "husband," but with our adulterous inner nature. It took the LORD a year to deliver Israel from Egypt, but it took Him 40 years to teach Israel to trust in His promises of love. God always awaits our teshuvah - our "answer" - to His invitation before He will reveal more to us. As Yeshua once said to his followers, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" (John 16:12).  Some things about God can only be known by stepping out in faith and surrendering ourselves entirely to Him....

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