Parashat B’shalach (“when he let go”)

B’shalach  – “when he let go” –  Exodus 13:17 to 17:16 will be read in Synagogues and Congregations the world over this Shabbat. It tells of the aftermath of Pharaoh releasing the Israelites.

God did not direct the Israelites to the promised land by the shortest route. The fastest way would have been along the north coast off the Sinai Peninsula through what is modern day Gaza. Instead, he directed them towards the Red Sea on the opposite coast of the Sinai towards what is modern day Sharm El Sheikh. God knew that the Israelites were not trained for battle at that point and would be defeated by the inhabitants of the land were they to take the shortest route.

From the point of view of the Egyptian observers the Israelites did not know where they were going. When they arrived at the Red Sea God led them in a circle giving the impression to the Egyptians that they were totally lost. Despite all that had happened to the Egyptians during the time of the ten plagues, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and regretted that he had let Israel go. Now that they were lost in the wilderness it would not be a difficult task to round them up again. Pharaoh organised an army with 600 state-of-the-art chariots, the 1500 BCE equivalent of Merkava tanks, to go after the Israelites and recapture then.

When the Israelites who were encamped on the banks of the Red Sea saw the Egyptians coming, they were terrified and complained to Moses saying

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” Exodus 14:11 NIV

Moses is not a man to crumble in a crisis and he boldly assured the Israelites that they will not see the approaching Egyptians again. That night the Lord set a pillar of cloud between the camps of Israel and Egypt, keeping them apart. The cloud brought light on Israel and darkness on the Egyptians. Then God commanded Moses to stretch his staff over the Red Sea and it parted. A great wall of water divided the sea on both sides and the Israelites crossed over on dry land.

The Egyptians pursued the Israelites, but their chariot wheels got jammed as they followed in their tracks. Then the Lord commanded Moses to stretch out his hand once more over the Red Sea and the wall of water each side came crashing down, drowning all the Egyptians. The next morning the Israelites saw the Egyptian dead bodies lying on the seashore. They put their trust in the Lord and Moses his servant. They sang a song of praise to God:

“I will sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea. Exodus 15:1 NIV

The whole song can be read in the first eighteen verses of this chapter. It’s an inspiring read.

The Israelites then continued in the desert but could not find water. When they did eventually find some, it was bitter. Moses threw a piece of wood into the water, and it became sweet. Moses encouraged the people to fear God and obey his commandments. Then they came to a place called Elim where there were seventy palm trees and twelve springs of water.

They continued in the desert and started grumbling again. They were hungry and remembered all the lovely food they used to have in Egypt, conveniently forgetting that they were slaves. God speaks to Moses and tells him that he has heard the grumbling of the Israelites and that the next day they would eat meat in the evening and bread the following morning.

Sure enough, the next evening a flock of quail arrive and the following morning, once the dew had lifted, there was a frost-like substance on the ground. The Israelites did not know what it was so they called it “manna” meaning ‘what is it?’. Everyone gathered as much as they needed but it was not to be left overnight. If left overnight, it went mouldy and was full of maggots the next day. The only exception to this rule was on the day before the Sabbath they were to collect a double portion since no manna would be sent on Shabbat.

Even so,  some Israelites went out to look for manner on Shabbat but found none. Manna tasted like wafers mixed with honey. A jar of manna was preserved by Aaron for future generations. The Israelites lived on manna in the wilderness for forty years until they arrived in the land of Canaan.

In the desert, food is not sufficient to survive. The most important need is for water and in its absence the Israelites again complained to Moses. God commanded Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Moses does so and water came gushing out.

The Israelites encounter war for the first time since leaving Egypt and come to face the Amalekites The Israelite army was led by a young officer named Joshua. Moses stood at the top of a hill and held his hands up. When his hands were raised the Israelites were winning the battle. When his arms got tired, and he had to res,t the Amalekites gained the upper hand. Aaron and Hur who were with Moses placed a stone for Moses to sit on and held up his hands, one on each side. They held Moses’s hands up until the battle had been won. The name of the place was called ‘Adonai Nissi’ meaning ‘the LORD is my Banner’.

Haftarat B’shalach                        הפטרת בשלח

The Haftarah portion associated with this week’s Parsha is Judges 4:4 to 5:31. The similarity with the Parsha is deliverance for the Israelites from an enemy and a song of praise following it. Barak the commander of the Israelite army defeated Sisera who headed the army of Jabin, king of the Canaanites

The Egyptians had only 600 chariots. Sisera had 900 chariots and they were made of iron – a technology the Egyptians had probably not yet developed. Barak and his 10,000 strong infantry defeated Sisera’s iron chariots and routed his army. Sisera however escaped on foot and took refuge in the tent of Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Sisera asked her for a drink, and she opened the skin of milk. When his thirst was quenched Sisera fell sound asleep, exhausted. While he was asleep Yael took a tent peg and drove it through his temple with a hammer. The victory was complete.

The Israelites then sang a song reminiscent of the song sung at the banks of the Red Sea after the Israelites had crossed in safety.

Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
    to the Lord I will sing;
    I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel. Judges 5:3 NIV

The whole song of victory can be read in Judges chapter 5.

Messianic Message

After the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea the only water that could be found was bitter. The piece of wood that made the bitter water sweet is a picture of the wood that made up the stake to which Yeshua  was nailed that makes all bitterness sweet.

The manna on which the Israelites survived in the wilderness is a foretaste of the bread from heaven given to us by Messiah.

The manna provided in the wilderness sustained the people for this life only. Yeshua’s bread provides nourishment that leads to eternal life.

I am the bread of life.Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”   John 6::48 -50 NIV

Likewise, the water that gushed from the rock in Sinai satisfied the people only until they became thirsty again. Yeshua’s water springs up into eternal life. The water came out of the rock only after it had been struck. Yeshua also had to be struck down on the cruel Roman gibbet before that living water became available to us

While talking to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well

“Yeshua replied to her, “Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never be thirsty. The water that I give him will become a fountain of water within him, springing up to eternal life!” John 4:13 TLV

The lifted hands of Moses during the battle with the Amalekites teaches us that victory is always achieved by persevering in prayer.

Therefore, I want men everywhere to pray, lifting holy hands 1 Timothy 2:8 NIV

And in particular

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:   שַׁאֲלוּ, שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם; Psalm 122:6

This article originally appeared on the BMJA website, January 14, 2022, and reposted with permission.