DIG: At the outset of this journey to the Sea of Reeds, what is God’s assessment of the Israelite’s emotional state? How did He allow for that? With God having defeated all the gods of Egypt (12:12), why do you think the people were afraid of one more battle? What significance do the bones of Joseph have (Hebrews 11:22)?
REFLECT: Has God ever taken you the longer way to get you to where you need to be? Were you better prepared when you got there? Or does your life seem like it is in the wilderness right now? What needs to change to get to your promised Land?
The writer returns to a description of the Hebrews in their escape from Egypt after the parenthetical section regarding the commandment of the firstborn. There was a short way and a long way to return to the Promised Land. When Pharaoh let the people go, ADONAI did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. The shorter way was called the Via Maris, or the Way of the Sea, that extended from the Nile River, across the northern Sinai into the coastal plain of Canaan. It was heavily traveled and was the most commonly used route from Egypt to Asia.
The Hebrews had just come out of slavery and were not prepared for warfare. The distance from Egypt to Canaan by the direct route would have taken about ten days; if it had taken longer Jacob’s sons could not have managed so easily to make that journey many times. It was the shortest and most direct route, but it was heavily guarded by a line of Egyptian fortresses that would have surely forced the people to return to Egypt. Therefore, God reasoned: If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt (13:17). A play on words is evident from the two major verbs of this verse. The verb for God’s leading them is naham. The verb used for the Hebrews’ changing their minds is yinna-hem. Although the two verbs come from different roots, here they look and sound alike in Hebrew. The reason for it is perhaps to underscore the contrast between God’s leading and Israel’s desire to return to Egypt.245
So God chose the longer way to go and led the people around by way of the wilderness (NKJ) toward the Sea of Reeds (13:18a). Throughout the parallel accounts of the crossing, the water is often referred to as the yam suph, or Sea of [Papyrus] Reeds (Exodus 15:4; Deuteronomy 11:4; Joshua 2:10, 4:23, 24:6; Psalm 106:7, 9, 22, and 136: 13, 15), because the term suph is used in the Old Covenant to refer to the reeds growing along the side of the Nile River (2:3).
The phrase Sea of Reeds might be a common noun rather than a proper name and could therefore refer to more than one body of water, depending on the context. As a result, many sites have been suggested for the miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus. It is used in First Kings 9:26, but we can be fairly certain that that is a different body of water. The line followed by the modern Suez Canal (Lake Timsah or the Bitter Lakes, for example), or the bodies of water farther to the north (such as Lake Sirbonis near the Mediterranean) have also been suggested. The Red Sea itself (including its western arm, the Gulf of Suez) would appear to be too far south to fit the detailed description of 14:2.246 In addition, reeds do not grow in salt water and the Red Sea is extremely salty! More on this later.
There were two reasons why God did not lead the Israelites directly to Canaan. One is stated directly and the other is implied. First, the Israelites had just come out of slavery, and they were not prepared for warfare. The shortest way for them to get to the Promised Land of Canaan was up the seacoast. During the Six-Day War in Palestine in 1967, the Israeli army moved right down the seacoast and moved the Egyptians right out. Of course they had tanks, guns and planes to do that. They were prepared. The Israelites coming out of Egyptian slavery had no weapons to fight with. So for the most part, God graciously delayed the fight and took them through the wilderness. It was a longer route, but they would not have to face an enemy (except against the Amalekites in 17:8-13), until they entered Canaan under Joshua. It took them forty years to get through the wilderness into Canaan, but by then they would have an army and be equipped to fight.
Secondly, God had much to teach them before He would have them enter the Land to stand before the nations of the world as His particular treasure, a model for other nations. Israel would eventually become the channel through which His blessing would flow out to the entire world. If they were to fulfill their calling, it would take time for the LORD to reveal His will to them and for them to get to know Him. They were to sit at God’s feet, listen to His instruction, and understand His plan and His methods for accomplishing that plan. Above all, they had to learn how He wanted them to conduct themselves toward God and man. They had to be willing to obey His commands. God needed to spend time with them to teach them and the long wilder-ness journey afforded it.247
The Israelites went up out of Egypt as if armed for battle (13:18b). Numerous ancient and modern translators (such as the Targums and the Vulgate) say that the Hebrews left Egypt armed for battle. The meaning of the Hebrew term is uncertain, however. The Septuagint translators render it the fifth generation. It seems to be related to the number five in some way, and may refer to an army in five parts or divisions. Thus the word may indicate that the Hebrews were leaving Egypt not necessarily in a military posture, but rather in an orderly, military-like fashion. In other words, they were well organized when they left Egypt.248
It is significant that the move forward out of Egypt does not commence without a look backward because Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. God had told Joseph that his descendants would leave Egypt and return to Canaan (Genesis 15:13-16). Before he died, Joseph said: God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place (13:19). Therefore, Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath (Genesis 50:24-25). They would carry his bones around for the next forty years until they finally entered Canaan. Then Joseph’s bones, and the bones of his brothers were buried in the territory of his second son Ephraim (Joshua 24:32). Stephen tells us that their bodies were also brought back to Shechem (Acts 7:15-16).
But why did Joseph want to be buried in the Promised Land? If Joseph knew he would be raised from the dead someday and taken up to heaven, what difference would it make if his launching pad was in Egypt or in the land of Israel? Well, the fact of the matter is that he was not expecting to go to heaven. Like other Old Covenant believers, or the righteous of the TANAKH, he expected to be raised in the resurrection of the Messianic Kingdom and to live there forever. The Messianic Kingdom was going to be in Israel. That was why it was imperative the he be buried in the Promised Land. He didn’t want to miss the blessings of the Messianic Kingdom (see my commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10, 65:17-25, 66:1-24). This was the hope of Joseph, and it was also the hope of Moses. Thus, by faith Moses took the bones of Joseph with him (Hebrews 11:22).249
God often does not lead His people by what they perceive to be the easiest and shortest way! He knows our hearts and how we falter in times of danger. Oh, how like the Israelites we are! Thus the LORD will frequently take us by the long road in many things. In that way, He protects us from danger and destruction. His leading also teaches us to rely upon Him and His purpose. We think we know best, but there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).250
The Teaching Ministry of Jay Mack 2006-2017