The sixteenth reading from the Torah is named Beshalach, which means “When he sent.” The title comes from the first verse of the reading, which can be literally translated to say, “And it happened when Pharaoh sent out the people.” The reading tells the adventures of the Israelites as they leave Egypt, cross the Red Sea, receive miraculous provision in the wilderness and face their first battle.
This Parsha has one of the most spectacular stories in all the Bible. The crossing of the Red Sea. Who doesn’t remember Moses (Charlton Heston) stretching his staff across the water and seeing the wind begin to part the water. You can almost feel the sea breeze hitting you in the face. I was nine years old when I watched the Children of Israel excitedly cross over the sea on dry ground. (On the movie screen, not in real life). I’m not THAT old.
As exciting as that was, there were other events that led up to the crossing that, while they didn’t make the front page of the Israelite Gazette, they were important nonetheless.
The first event was really a non-event. Coming out of Egypt into the Promised land was only a few day’s journey. If they followed the main trade route along the Mediterranean Sea they could be been in Canaan in less than a week. However, there were some issues.
Exodus 13:17 After Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them along the road to the land of the Philistines, although that was nearby, for God said, “The people might change their minds if they see war and return to Egypt.”
The coastal highway was guarded by Egyptian garrisons as well as the road led through Philistine territory. God did not want the military confrontations to dissuade the people. Besides, He had some important things to teach them in the wilderness before they arrived at Canaan. He wanted to deliver them at the Red Sea, teach them about His provision and give them the Torah at Sinai before leading them to the land.
The non-event turned out to be a detour toward the desert. In that first week after leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel would experience a terrifying existential threat from the most powerful army in the world. God had led them in one direction only to bring them back to seemingly face utter destruction. But before the crossing, there are two verses that I want to bring to your attention.
Exodus 13:21-22 Adonai went before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead the way and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light. So they could travel both day and night. (22) The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never departed from the people.
In the following 49 days, the people would face annihilation, starvation, thirst, and war. But they seemed to have forgotten a very visible symbol of God’s presence. He said he would provide them with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire to guide them. We don’t knw what the cloud or fire looked like. Perhaps the cloud was a huge cumulo-nimbus thunderhead with lightning flashing throughout it. Was the pillar of fire simply lightning? We don’t know. But there is one characteristic of the pillars of cloud and fire. They were ever present. The Bible says the pillars never departed from the people.
The cloud and fire were symbols of God’s presence with the people that was a precursor to when at Sinai, God made his dwelling place between the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant. He was reminding them that He was there with them.
Of course B’nei Israel were slow learners. They saw the problems but didn’t look to the cloud and fire. The Egyptian army was about to strike and the people cried out to Moses. His answer? Stand still and witness your salvation. Stand still? With the whole Egyptian army poised to push them into the sea, God’s cloud came between the Egyptians and God’s chosen people. It must have been some kind of cloud, because the Egyptians could penetrate it. God was in that cloud. He didn’t abandon His people.
After crossing the Red Sea and watching the destruction of the Egyptian army, Israel soon ran out of provisions. They complained and God heard their cry. He provided quail and this strange stuff called Manna. The manna was a miraculous substance that fell with the morning dew. As the dew dried the flakes of manna remained. They were to gather the manna for their daily needs. It could be baked, boiled, roasted. If they tried to get lazy and keep some for the next day it spoiled overnight except for Shabbat. Then the manna lasted two days without spoiling. The daily outpouring of manna lasted until they crossed the Jordan River forty years later. In hunger, God did not abandon His people.
Almost immediately another crisis confronted Israel. They ran out of water and when they came to an oasis, the water was not fit to drink. Complaining loudly to Moses was the order of the day so Moses went into his tent and brought out bottled water for everyone. What? You don’t believe that? Well what really happened was even more unbelievable. God told Moses to cut down a tree and throw it into the water. The water immediately became pure and drinkable. The bitter water full of contaminates and minerals was transformed instantly into a lifesaving liquid. In thirst, God did not abandon His people.
When traveling through a desert, you have to be able to make it from one oasis to the next watering hole. If you don’t find water, you end up like so many cartoons we see of a guy in tattered clothing crawling on hands and knees chasing a mirage. Same thing happened to Israel. They didn’t find that next watering hole. They were thirsty again. But this time there wasn’t even bitter water. There was nothing but rocks. God told Moses to take his staff and strike a rock. Immediately water gushed out of the stone in such proportions that the entire assembly was able to drink their fill. There is some speculation that the rock followed them throughout their desert wandering supplying Israel with life giving water for the duration of their wanderings. Israel never seemed to lay hold of the concept that God was there with them and would take care of them.
Some 1500 years later Yeshua was still teaching that message.
Matthew 6:31-34 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ (32) For the pagans eagerly pursue all these things; yet your Father in heaven knows that you need all these. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (34) Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
God did not depart from His people even though in the ensuing years the people departed from God. He was still there. The pillar of cloud was gone as was the pillar of fire, but God never forgot His people and His covenant with them.
If we look through the pages of the Book of Judges, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles we see a population of people who quickly settled into a domestic life of farming, sheepherding, and general business. They settled in towns, and in small communities with the hope of developing a good sustainable life for them and their children. Unfortunately, in the conquest of Canaan, they didn’t eradicate the source of sin that caused God’s judgement to fall on the Canaanites. The People of Israel forgot the crossing of the Red Sea, the miracle of manna, the water that followed them through the wilderness. They forgot the many battles against formidable enemies resulting in victory after victory. In the words of Yeshua in the Book of Revelation, they had forsaken their first love. The 1500 years after coming to the Promised land was a rollercoaster ride of idolatry, sin, oppression, repentance, revival, and victory. They just never were able to stay focused on God’s promises in Torah. There were a few years of peace but much more of war and turmoil and exile. Through it all, though, the hand of God was directing the affairs of men. He did not abandon His people.
Sometimes I think we are not unlike the Israelites. No, we don’t bow down to idols as such. But we get so involved in our daily lives that we can lose perspective of what is really important. In my earlier years I was consumed by my career. Everything revolved around that next promotion or assignment that would lead to the next promotion. Family suffered, spiritual life suffered even though I was busy in music ministry wherever I was stationed. It is easy to lose your focus.
One of my rabbi friends wrote that during the recent rabbi’s conference they were in a group discussion and taking the time to pray for each other’s needs. He said that the time spent together was beneficial but still had an air of heaviness hanging over them. One of the other rabbis then voiced what many were thinking. When will this end? He was speaking of the seemingly endless virus variations, everchanging government mandates that never really produced any improvement in the situation. It was one of those honest moments that we really need to confront sometimes.
I feel like that too. When will this ever end? When will we get back to normal? What is normal anyway? Where is the cloud or fire to give us some direction? Am I alone in that sentiment? I wouldn’t think so.
But we don’t have to be depressed or down in the dumps. No, I haven’t seen a pillar of cloud or fire lately, but we are not without guidance. We have the Ruach HaKodesh to give us direction. We need to remind ourselves of that fact on a daily basis.
Yeshua said that when He went back to the Father, he would send a comforter.
John 14:26 But the Helper, the Ruach ha-Kodesh whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I said to you.
The Greek word is paracletes and has been variously translated helper, counselor, and comforter. The Ruach is the contemporary cloud and fire. Maybe it is not as visible, but it is every bit as powerful if you will let it.
We can rest assured that even when we wander off the reservation, God’s spirit is there with us. One of my favorite verses was a Psalm of David.
Psalms 139:7-10 Where can I go from Your Ruach? Where can I flee from Your presence? (8) If I go up to heaven, You are there, and if I make my bed in Sheol, look, You are there too. (9) If I take the wings of the dawn and settle on the other side of the sea, (10) even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed this morning, you have lots of company. Speed bumps, detours, cancellations are all part of our modern life. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with marauding Philistines or Ammonites. But it is still a dangerous world we live in. You don’t have to face it alone. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to:
Hebrews 13:5-6 For God Himself has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” (6) so that with confidence we say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What will man do to me?”
That’s a very strong assurance. The Creator of the universe promised never to leave us or forsake us. Just reach out to the Lord this morning. His Holy Spirit is just as close as your next breath. The presence of the Lord will not depart from us.