17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” 18 But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. 19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” 20 And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. 3 For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so. – Exodus 13:17-14:4 ESV
The day of deliverance had finally arrived. After a series of divinely-ordained plagues had devastated the Egyptian economy and taken the lives of thousands of its citizens, Pharaoh finally relented and gave his permission for the Israelites to go into the adjacent wilderness to worship their God. His understanding of the agreement was that Moses would lead his people on a three-day journey outside the borders of Egypt, where they would conduct their worship service, and then return.
…Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” – Exodus 5:2 ESV
Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” – Exodus 5:3 ESV
Pharaoh never agreed to a permanent departure that would free the Israelites from their role as his virtual slaves. These people had become his unpaid workforce and he could not afford to give them up. They had become a vital source of labor and were critical to building the Egyptian infrastructure.
…they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:13-14 ESV
Yet, God had other plans for His people. They would not be returning to Egypt but instead, would be traveling all the way to the land of Canaan. The most logical and shortest route for this journey would have taken the Israelites along the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Moses refers to it as the “way of the land of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17 ESV). This region of western Canaan was occupied by a variety of warring nations collectively referred to as Philistines. Some of these people groups were of Semitic lineage, while others had migrated from Crete and Greece.
Had the Israelites taken this much shorter and easier route, they would have encountered stiff resistance upon their arrival in the land of Canaan. And it is likely that this well-traveled northern trade route was fortified and protected by an Egyptian military presence. God knew that the people of Israel would become disheartened at the first sign of conflict, so He instructed Moses to lead the Israelites in a different direction.
So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle. – Exodus 13:18 NLT
The English Standard Version states that the people of Israel “went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle” (Exodus 13:18 ESV). The Hebrew word is חָמַשׁ (ḥāmaš) and it can be translated as “in battle array.” It is not suggesting that the Israelites were a well-armed militia but that they were leaving in an orderly manner. It is estimated that the Israelites may have numbered in the millions by the time they left Egypt, so Moses would have needed to arrange them in an orderly fashion just to maintain crowd control.
Moses provides a parenthetical statement that reveals his knowledge of his own people’s rich heritage. He somehow knew that the patriarch, Joseph, who had died more than four centuries earlier, had made his brothers swear an oath that they would bring his bones back to Canaan when the eventually returned.
Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. – Genesis 50:25-26 ESV
So, Moses arranged to have Joseph’s body exhumed and prepared for transport to Canaan.
As this mass of people made their way south toward the wilderness, the Egyptians must have watched with a mixture of relief and awe. They were glad to see the Israelites go because they had been the reason for all the disasters that had overtaken their land. But they must have been shocked at the sheer size of the multitude that was making its way out of Egypt; a group that included some of their own people. And they would have been dumbfounded at the sight of the pillar of cloud that seemed to be leading the procession.
Little did the Egyptians know that this atmospheric apparition was a sign of Yahweh’s presence and power. The God of Israel was leading His people as they made their way out of Egypt. There would be no doubt as to which direction they should go because God was directing their path. During the daylight hours, He would appear as a pillar of cloud, and during the dark of night, He would manifest His presence as a pillar of fire. At no point along the way would the people of Israel run the risk of taking a wrong turn or losing their way because “The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:22 ESV).
So, when God instructed Moses to have the people backtrack and reverse their course, the pillar of cloud would have led the way.
“Order the Israelites to turn back and camp by Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea. Camp there along the shore, across from Baal-zephon.” – Exodus 14:2 NLT
This abrupt change in direction was God-ordered and God-led. He wanted Moses to lead the people back toward Egypt, knowing full well that the Egyptians would interpret their actions as a sign of confusion. It was all intentional and part of God’s overall strategy for assuring Israel’s full and final release from Egyptian domination.
“Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness!’ And once again I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after you.” – Exodus 14:3-4 NLT
God had one last judgment He was going to pour out on Pharaoh. Yahweh was not yet done displaying His power and authority over this self-consumed and overly confident sovereign of the Egyptian people. To his own people, Pharaoh was more than a king who wielded great power; he was a god who was worshiped and revered. They believed that he possessed divine power and god-like attributes that made him invincible and worthy of their adoration and complete allegiance. And while the ten plagues had shaken their faith in the reliability of their gods, they still had Pharaoh at the helm of the national ship of state. But God was about to expose Pharaoh for the fraud he really was.
“I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army. After this the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord!” – Exodus 14:4 NLT
The sudden change of course must have left the Israelites a bit confused. It would have left them wondering what Moses was thinking. But they couldn’t argue with the fact that the pillar of cloud was still out front, leading them to their next destination. God was with them, so they obeyed. But as they made camp for the night, they had no way of knowing what was about to happen next. Their little excursion into the wilderness was going to become a living nightmare and a test of their faith in Yahweh.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.