The Meaning of the Prohibition against Returning to Egypt
"It happened that when Pharaoh sent the nation forth, God (E-lokim) did not guide them along the way of the land of the Philistines, which is close; because God said, 'Lest the nation have a change of heart when they see war and return to
Despite the many interpretations that have been offered, the meaning of these verses is very problematic and they seem as baffling as ever. There are three basic questions:
1) What is the meaning of "which is close" (KI karov hu)?
2) Which war is being referred to in the phrase "if they see war"?
3) Why is the phrase, "the Israelites left
There are three further difficulties we must raise:
1) Why do these verses refer to God as E-LOKIM, the only such instance in the exodus narrative, rather than God's "personal" or "historical" name Y-K-V-K, the only Name which appears from the burning bush story onward?
2) The goal of the exodus has been repeatedly defined in relation to Sinai, which lies on the "way of the desert" and not the "way of the Philistines." For example:
"When you bring the nation out of
Indeed, Pharaoh's permission to worship at Sinai is the expressed goal of all Moshe's negotiations, threats, and wonders, and it is with this understanding that Pharaoh finally gives his permission:
"Get up and leave my nation - you and the Israelites; go and worship the Lord as you say." (Shemot 12:31)
But this directive of Pharaoh is diametrically opposed to our verses, which imply that the Revelation at Sinai was virtually accidental, merely an outcome of God's concern that "the nation would have a change of heart" if they encountered war on the shorter, more direct coastal road.
3) The basic assumption in all the traditional interpretations is that God wanted at all costs to avoid confronting
The difficulty in this assumption is that, in actuality, the alternate route through the desert led them INTO war with
The classical commentators, noting the third difficulty, proposed solutions which seem somewhat contrived. For example:
"If the circuitous route resulted in their saying: 'Let us ... return to
According to Rashi, the phrase "which was close" means "close to
The Rashbam reads "close" - to Eretz Yisrael; the shorter route would have brought the war for the
The Rambam is of a similar opinion:
"It is contrary to human nature that a person be raised in slavery, doing the most menial of tasks, and promptly wash the filth off his hands and go wage war with the gigantic Sons of Anak ... God's wisdom led them roundabout, through the desert, until they learnt to be brave. It is well-known that traveling in the desert without luxuries such as washing and the like gives rise to bravery, while the opposite gives rise to cowardice. Furthermore, men not habituated to subservience and slavery were born in the desert." (Guide 3:32; see also chap. 24)
The Ramban, on the other hand, interprets "which was close" as referring to the path traversing the land of the Philistines. Even though this route was shorter, God wished to avoid war with the Philistines. However, the Ramban is confronted with the difficulty that on the longer route they met Amalek instead of the Philistines.
All of these interpretations contain important points but do not address the cardinal problem: the war at the Red Sea with
Modern scholars offer a different solution to our problem, which resembles the Ramban's interpretation. Bas reliefs on the walls of the temple at Karnak, dating to the rule of Pharaoh Seti I (toward the end of the thirteenth century BCE), show that the entire northern Sinai coastal region was under direct Egyptian sovereignty, with Egyptian military outposts all along the way.
Various early commentators hinted that there is a hidden reason for the change of routes - God's plan to drown the Egyptians. For Abarbanel, God's motive was not concern for
I would like to propose a different interpretation for these verses:
"which is close" - and therefore should have been the route of travel (following the Ramban),
"God said, 'Lest the nation have a change of heart if they see war'" - any war, whether for the Land or at any point in history,
"and return to
"so God led the nation roundabout, along the Way of the desert by the
"and the Israelites left
Contrary to the accepted opinion, God's intention was not to avoid war and save
"Leave us be and we will serve
Their complete liberation would result from the experience of war ("the Lord will fight for you") and the rejoicing and singing of victory.
The expression "to return to
"Woe to those who descend to
"They who go and descend to
This last quotation contains more than one allusion to the Parting of the Sea.
The prophet Hoshea also condemned reliance on
"Ephraim is like a silly dove without a heart; they call to
"Now their sin will be remembered and their error recalled; they will return to
Yirmiyahu offers a similar condemnation:
"You will be shamed by
These prophecies do not see returning, or "going down," to
The Torah itself, in describing the duties of the king, commands that he "not return the nation to
The tokhecha (rebuke) of Sefer Devarim ends with the same theme:
"The Lord will return you to
The Rabbis understood this point as being the crux of the commandment to pierce the ear of the voluntary slave:
"An ear which heard (at Sinai), 'I am the Lord your God,' and went and bought itself a master - should be pierced." (Rashi to Shemot 21:6, based on Yerushalmi Kiddushin 1:2; Sifra Vayikra ad loc.)
At this point, we can take a new look at the prohibition against returning to
"…and the Lord said you would never return this way again" (Devarim 17:16);
"…on the road I told you that you would never see again." (28:26)
Where and when did God previously tell Moshe that they would not return this way? The recurring theme of "never seeing
"The Lord will fight for you ... for as you have seen
In my opinion, the verse reads thus:
"as you have seen
That the Halakha understood patronage to be the true meaning of "returning to
"The Torah warned
Three prohibitions and three "returns" mean three different kinds of submission. The first is asking for Egyptian patronage, as Chizkiyahu did when he was threatened by Sancheriv (according to the prophecies quoted earlier). The second is actual physical emigration to
It is submission that the Rabbis see as the true meaning of "return," as is evidenced by the conclusion of the Yerushalmi:
"One may not return to
Financial dealings do not imply submission, and are therefore permitted.
We can now return to the story of the exodus.
In the episode of the Egyptian pursuit of the Israelites at the
Only when the Torah returns to describe the "other" exodus, the journey towards complete freedom, with no foreign protection whatsoever, and where the goal is the Torah, does it speak of Divine Revelation and Lawgiving. Here God reveals Himself through His transcendental, historical attribute: "Y-K-V-K went before them by day..." (13:21).
The "Way of the Land of the Philistines" was an official route under Egyptian jurisdiction, as were considerable portions of
"To my king, my lord and my sun: So speaks Biridia, the King's faithful servant. Beneath the feet of my king, my lord and my sun, I grovel on my belly and on my back." (from the Tel El-'Amarna letters)
Moshe's prophecy and leadership - including God's revelation at Sinai and giving of the Torah - stem from a state of complete independence from Pharaoh. For this reason, God led them on the desert route, into confrontation, into war, into salvation and singing, and into complete freedom -
"You will never see them [through the eyes of slaves] again." (14:13)
[An expanded Hebrew version of this article appears in Megadim, vol. 3.]
For further study:
1. According to the above, the purpose of the splitting of the Sea was to change the attitude of the Jews to
2. Does the repeated request of the Jews in Sefer Bamidbar contradict the conclusion of this shiur?
3. Does 15:14-16 suggest another purpose for the splitting of the Sea? Can this be introduced to the verse at the beginning of the parasha? (See Yehoshua 2:10.)