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Maimonides’ Exposition on the Road Less Traveled

Commenting on the verse, “Now, when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines’ land, though this was the nearest; for he thought, should the people see that they would have to fight, they might change their minds and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:17).

This passage has always bothered me. The rational given by the biblical narrator  is irrelevant. Had God led the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, there would never have been a revelation at Mt. Sinai!

Despite the obvious problems with the text,  Maimonides’  exposition is still spiritually suggestive and most relevant for those of us who find ourselves traveling upon the road less traveled. Maimonides writes extensively about the nature of tribulations within the greater scheme of an individual’s personal evolution. According to Maimonides, man is a pilgrim on a special soulful journey. Human evolution is slow and painstaking. God often leads a person (or a people) along an indirect route. As it turns out in the drama of the Exodus, the seemingly indirect path is essential to transform them from slavery into freedom. Rather than forcing us to change abruptly, God works within the constraints of our nature and situation while gradually shepherding and prodding us along the spiritual path leading to Him. [1]

Israel’s earliest experiences in the Sinai wilderness foreshadow the difficulties to come in their forty year journey. An easy and comfortable exodus would not provide the fortitude necessary to persevere through the enormous adversity ahead. Israel’ first post-Exodus ordeal thus serves not only to temper their faith, but also to strengthen their collective character. For Israel to recognize that she is wholly dependent upon God’s tender mercies for survival is the important cornerstone upon which her future builds. It is no wonder that the miracle at the Red Sea becomes a paradigm for all future acts of Divine rescue.

The timing of the Red Sea miracle is exquisite. If the Israelites take any other route, the splitting of the Red Sea is impossible within natural law. As with all the previous plagues, Divine power prefers to operate within the bounds of nature. The chapter shows once again how God utilizes Pharaoh’s stubborn disposition and weakness of will to ultimately glorify Himself before the Israelites and the Egyptians. Pharaoh and the imperial Egyptian army are destroyed, thus bringing closure to the saga of the Exodus.

Modern biblical scholarship views the text as a tapestry of traditions interwoven together. This view suggests that originally, the escape from Egypt and the sea crossing were originally independent traditions that were brought together later to form the present text. Regardless how the text came to assume its present form, the present narrative shaped the collective psyche as to how Israel would perceive God manifests His Presence in the subsequent history of Israel. The narrative teaches two other important lessons (1) God protects His people in times of crisis (2) God ultimately holds wicked leaders and their  governments accountable and responsible for their crimes; there is a just order that exists within the world, and ultimately it is Providence that prevails.



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  January 28, 2010

    Some things are fortunate, but seem not to be at the time. The fortunate fall from Eden is one (see Milton, Paradise Lost). The Scenic Route from Egypt is another. The Rambam reminds us that God prefers to work within the laws of nature. That’s why plate tectonics shift, despite the tragic loss of life that occurs. (See my other post on Haiti).

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  2. admin  February 1, 2010

    Milton’s spin on the Garden of Eden is quite fascinating. When I have some time, I will post some of his thoughts on the subject. Your reference to him is a good example of how Jewish and Christian traditions can learn from each other.

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