“War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson penned these words in a 1838 address that could have been the thesis of Stephen Crane’s book, The Red Badge of Courage. The story takes place during a fictional battle of the Civil War and the hours preceding it. A young Union soldier and freshly enlisted man, Henry Fleming, battles with himself and doubt before he ever encounters the Confederate army.
There was a more serious problem. He lay in his bunk pondering upon it. He tried to mathematically prove to himself that he would not run from a battle…here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.
On the eve of his first battle, Henry Fleming doesn’t know how he will respond in the face of adversity, struggle, and conflict. The question of “do I have what it takes?” faces men of all ages at one time or another. What I find interesting is that, no matter how many times we answer that question, it still faces us. After 10 times of prevailing, taking courage and overcoming the struggle, it awaits us at the next issue that we come to. It is a question that must be answered everyday, every battle, and every step of the journey.
When the Israelites began their journey to the promised land, God saw the question that plagued Flemming in His people. The Philistines controlled the land along the coast of the Mediteranean sea. Had the Hebrews followed the coast out of Goshen and then north toward Canaan, they would have been on a collision course with the Philistines, the southern Sea Peoples who had established themselves and their culture just south of Canaan. Their role as the antagonist of Israel would have to wait until after the Egyptians time ran out. God instead led them out of Goshen to the south-east, towards the Red Sea for a couple reasons.
First off, God was aware of the questions that would be in the minds of the Hebrews. “If they face war, they might change their minds [hb. yinachem] and return to Egypt.” (Ex. 13.17) Moses, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, uses the hebrew word, n-ch-m to explain the mindset and will of the Hebrews. The verb means to be comforted or grieved; to relent or to have compassion. God knew that the people, who had cried out for deliverance since Exodus 2, would change their minds, feel compassion toward the land of Egypt and desire to return to a life of comfort yet oppression as opposed to a life of freed but struggle. The form of the verb shows also that the people will have their mind changed not from within but from without. The Niphal verb stem in hebrew shows a passive voice indicating that someone or something, changed their minds…in this case it would be the Philistines. God took them the long way around, to keep their minds focused forward towards the land they were going too, not the people in their way. Even though they left Egypt “armed for battle” (an ambiguous term that some have argued would be better translated as “a fifth” even though it makes little sense contextually), God is handling his people with gentle hands knowing that they are young and tender. It is as if God is putting the Hebrews in position to live out 1 Corinthians 10.13: “…God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” In this situation, as well as 1 Cor. 10, God provides a way out. In this case it is the desert road.
Secondly, the road south-east instead of north, would bring the Israelites onto the stage of God’s final showdown with Pharaoh. A move this direction brought the conflict between Pharaoh and God to a final meeting. The battle that began in Egypt with Aaron’s staff “swallowing up the staff’s of the Egyptian Magicians” (Ex 7.12) and ends with the Red Sea “swallowing up” the Egyptian chariots. (15.12) Had the Hebrews traveled down the way of the Philistines this final display of God’s power, in this setting, been possible. Like the blind man in John 9, “this happened so that work of God may be displayed in his life.”
Finally, this route was taken for a Spiritual reason. Whereas the norther route/the way of the Philistines, led to the promised land, the southern route, led to Sinai, but first through the Red Sea. For the rest of the Old Testament, God would remind the Hebrews of his work, on this day, at the Red Sea. For the next few weeks and months, they would travel towards Sinai, the Mount of God, inorder to receive the law, and be reintroduced to their Lord. The northern route led to the destination, but as we have found out, God is more interested in the journey than the destination. God wants his people at Sinai for a greater purpose than he wants them in the promised land right now.
God knew the question that both men and nations face…am I, are we, enough? So God put on his delicate gloves as he dealt with his people at the beginning. As we ponder God’s works prior to the crossing of the Red Sea, it impossible to not notice that God wants to see his people succeed. He wants to see His people receive good things. A war/battle at this point (2 months later is a different story) would be a huge setback in the future of the people. God knows that the questions that haunt us are better answered with experience, and the experience he is setting up for his people will be unforgettable. Just as Henry Fleming could only answer his questions in the struggle, so Israel will soon understand itself and its God better than ever.