Angels and Clouds: B’Shalach Exodus 13:17-17:16

Angels and Clouds: B’Shalach Exodus 13:17-17:16


Howard Adelman

To continue the theme of God as a coercive power with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand who defeated all the Egyptian gods, in this section the Israelites are led south along the Red Sea. It will be the tides of the Red Sea that will inundate the Egyptians, not the Sea of Reeds.

The prerequisite is there – unity. They must place a mezuzah on the door posts to recall God’s help and, more importantly, to recognize, as the prayer says on the parchment enclosed in the mezuzah, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD (is) our God, the LORD is One”. (Deuteronomy 6:4) They must be unified with a faith in one God with many attributes rather than gods divided among themselves with different expertise who quarrel among themselves.

B’Shalach refers to God “letting go.” First Pharaoh had to let the people go. Now God must do the same, but not without teaching the Israelites the art of war. The Israelites must now learn to fight their own battles. They must learn to become a military power in their own right. And the terror of war may make them yearn even for slavery as a preferable alternative or authoritarianism rather than fighting for democracy. The latter lesson would come much later.

וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

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.” (13:17)

But if you are going to fight war, you must learn the basic principles as well as master the practices. The first lesson of war is that you need arms. “Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” (13:18) Since the only source was the Egyptian army, they had to have stolen arms as well as silver and gold from the Egyptians. But they never had time to be trained in the use of those arms. Thus, a direct battle with the Egyptians at that time was inconceivable.

The second lesson of war is that you must be very well disciplined and trained. A mob cannot fight a war. Wars require visionary leaders (angels) and soldiers very well versed in the military arts. Nothing could be more useless than sending off a philosopher to fight in a war – unless, of course, he was a philosopher of war and could teach the general principles of war and their application to strategy and tactics.

The third lesson of war is that an army never, or, hardly ever, sleeps. An army might need a pillar of fire to travel during the night.

וַֽיהוָ֡ה הֹלֵךְ֩ לִפְנֵיהֶ֨ם יוֹמָ֜ם בְּעַמּ֤וּד עָנָן֙ לַנְחֹתָ֣ם הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְלַ֛יְלָה בְּעַמּ֥וּד אֵ֖שׁ לְהָאִ֣יר לָהֶ֑ם לָלֶ֖כֶת יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃

The LORD went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. (13:21)

But why a pillar of cloud by day? Because the Israelites needed a cover. The fourth lesson of war is that daylight offers the real danger for warriors. They must travel in a cloud, in camouflage, dressed perhaps as simple shepherds so that the peoples among whom they pass do not detect them as warriors and prepare a defense.

לֹֽא־יָמִ֞ישׁ עַמּ֤וּד הֶֽעָנָן֙ יוֹמָ֔ם וְעַמּ֥וּד הָאֵ֖שׁ לָ֑יְלָה לִפְנֵ֖י הָעָֽם׃ (פ)

The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (13:22)

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far; when far, we must make him believe we are near.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The fifth lesson of war is to take the safest route, even if it is a long way round. The Israelites were forced to travel, not along the easy route eastward along the Mediterranean from Goshen, but the long circuitous trek southward via Succoth to the south-eastern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The sixth lesson of war is that when they must camp, and all armies must stop and sleep sometime, it is important where they camp even if it means backtracking to a safe spot where there is a minimal perimeter between them and an enemy.

דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ וְיַחֲנוּ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ פִּ֣י הַחִירֹ֔ת בֵּ֥ין מִגְדֹּ֖ל וּבֵ֣ין הַיָּ֑ם לִפְנֵי֙ בַּ֣עַל צְפֹ֔ן נִכְח֥וֹ תַחֲנ֖וּ עַל־הַיָּֽם׃

Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. (14:2)

Pihahiroth “faces” BaalZephon and itself means “mouth of water” because a body of water, a bay, stands between the broad part of the peninsula to the south. To the east, there is water. The Sinai lies to the north connecting the wide part of the peninsula to the Sinai Desert via a narrow neck of land. Thus, Pihahiroth is a peninsula located south of Sharm-el-Sheikh as the southern and most eastern portion of the Sinai desert with a very narrow neck connecting to the mainland and facing Baal-Zephon. The backs of the warriors must be to the sea as they look forward at the isthmus.

The seventh lesson of warfare is to expect the unexpected. Did Pharaoh and his gods not already suffer devastating defeats? Pharaoh still had a reserve army and he sent 600 charioteers, a cavalry unit and foot soldiers, an enormous army at the time, in pursuit of the Israelite population to recover the stolen gold and silver as well as the stolen arms, but most of all, his army of slaves on which the economy of Egypt had become so dependent. The Israelites still did not have any training in using their arms. One need not go into the question of why God took credit for stiffening the Pharaoh’s heart even further. But it was an excellent war tactic.

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

God wanted more glory via Pharaoh. The news of a military victory in the south-eastern tip of the Sinai between a rag-tag army of poorly armed ex-slaves without any training and the might of Egypt would spread that reputation far and wide beyond Egypt and earn renown throughout the Sinai and even further east among all the Canaanites, the Edomites and the Moabites. The eighth lesson of war is that was is primarily psychological; an army must instill the fear of God among its enemies.

But initially it was the Israelites that stood facing Pharaoh’s huge army at the other end of the isthmus and were frightened out of their wits. As predicted, they wailed to God and Moses. “Why did you take us to this forsaken place? Why did you lead us to escape from slavery only to face the military might of Egypt now threatening to wipe them out?”

יֹּאמְרוּ֮ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֒ הַֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר מַה־זֹּאת֙ עָשִׂ֣יתָ לָּ֔נוּ לְהוֹצִיאָ֖נוּ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? (14:11)

הֲלֹא־זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁר֩ דִּבַּ֨רְנוּ אֵלֶ֤יךָ בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר חֲדַ֥ל מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וְנַֽעַבְדָ֣ה אֶת־מִצְרָ֑יִם כִּ֣י ט֥וֹב לָ֙נוּ֙ עֲבֹ֣ד אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מִמֻּתֵ֖נוּ בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (14:12)

Talk about ungrateful cowards and cry babies! But Moses knew that isthmus was wide when the tide was low. He marched his trembling barely military force forward to fight the Egyptians presumably as the frontline shock troops on the widened but still relatively narrow isthmus and invited the Egyptian chariots to engage in battle. Moses knew two complementary lessons about the tactics of war:

“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

But the chariots got bogged down in the mud, especially when following in the tracks of the forward chariots that could not spread out. As the army got bogged down, as their thrust was greatly diminished, as their cavalry piled up against the chariots stuck in the mud, the tide began to rise. The army was caught and could neither retreat nor go forward. Meanwhile, the Israeli ragtag collection of ex-slaves stood at the southern tip of the narrow isthmus that was growing narrower by the minute and cheered as the threatening army drowned in the rising waters.

There are two important lessons from this battle. The ninth lesson is pick your battleground with great care to make up for your deficiencies. Turn the very strengths and confidence of the Egyptian army against them so that you do not have to so much seek victory as to prepare for your enemies self-defeat.

There is, as might be expected, a tenth lesson.

יִּסַּ֞ע מַלְאַ֣ךְ הָאֱלֹהִ֗ים הַהֹלֵךְ֙ לִפְנֵי֙ מַחֲנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם וַיִּסַּ֞ע עַמּ֤וּד הֶֽעָנָן֙ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֖ד מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃. וַיָּבֹ֞א בֵּ֣ין ׀ מַחֲנֵ֣ה מִצְרַ֗יִם וּבֵין֙ מַחֲנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיְהִ֤י הֶֽעָנָן֙ וְהַחֹ֔שֶׁךְ וַיָּ֖אֶר אֶת־הַלָּ֑יְלָה וְלֹא־קָרַ֥ב זֶ֛ה אֶל־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הַלָּֽיְלָה׃

The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus, there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. (14:19-20)

Now was the time, not to throw light onto the battleground, but to disguise oneself, not to look bedraggled, but to become hidden in the mists thrown off by the sea and only appear as a mysterious presence.  The Egyptian army was not only bogged down in the mud, not only threatened by the sea, but became blinded by the darkness and misled by the misty air that clouded their vision so that they could not even see how weak their enemy was. Rashi, by contrast, suggests the pillar of cloud was intended to provide direction.

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak,” and “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night,

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

The Israelite army that initially appeared to move into battle to fight the Egyptians, instead retreated behind the mists and the clouds that hid their weaknesses and allowed them to get back on the higher dry ground of the peninsula. It had learned by far the most important lesson of war.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
― Sun TzuThe Art of War

What can be said? It was an enormous victory! God had finally, or so He believed, won the hearts and undying love of the Israelites. Chapter 15 goes on to explain how they sang and danced with joy and pledged eternal fealty to their God. And it became a daily prayer.

עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃

The LORD is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him. (15:2)

The God of the Israelites was no longer just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, no longer the God of Joseph that facilitated the interpretation of dreams and the rise to secular power, but the God was now clearly and unequivocally a warrior God, a God of War. And the people of Israel would sing His praises, would sing the praises of their newly discovered God of War.

יְהוָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה יְהוָ֖ה שְׁמֽוֹ׃

The LORD, the Warrior— LORD is His name! (15:3)

But not for long. That, however, must wait another commentary.



Commentary on Commentators

ה’ איש מלחמה means The Lord is a Master of war; just as, (Ruth 1:3) “the איש (i. e. the master) of Naomi”. (Cf. Rashi on that verse). Wherever the words איש and אישך occur they must be translated by בעל; so, too, (1 Kings 2:2) “Be thou strong and show thyself an איש” — a mighty person.

Most rabbinic commentators, Rashi included, were determined to re-interpret a warrior God, not as a coercive Being, but as strong in spirit, “a mighty person.”

Another example follows, but the warrior God is kept but subsumed under a God of mercy:

ה’ שמו THE LORD IS HIS NAME — His wars are not waged with martial weapons but He fights by means of His Name, just as David said, (I Samuel 17:45) “But I come against thee in the name of the Lord of Hosts”. Another explanation of ה׳ שמו — He is a man of war, but His Name is the Lord (the God of Mercy): even at the time when He battles against and avenges Himself upon His enemies He retains His attribute (that expressed by His name ה׳) showing pity to His creatures and feeding all the inhabitants of the world; not as is the nature of the kings of the world each one of whom when he is engaged in war turns aside from all other engagements, and has not the power to do both this and that (cf. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:3).

It should be clear that this commentary is radically different from those of the vast majority of commentators.



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