14.4. The Departure from Egypt (13:18-22)

 (18) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

(19) And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”

(20) They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness.

(21) 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.

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

(18) So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds: The term yam suf, “Sea of Reeds,” in antiquity meant the entire region of the Red Sea (as it is known today), including the Gulf of Eilat[1] and the vicinity of the Isthmus of Suez and its lakes up to the Mediterranean sea[2]. Opinions differ as to where in the region of that isthmus the crossing of the Sea of Reeds actually took place, whether it was near our Red Sea, or near the Mediterranean Sea, or through a lake that lay somewhere between those two.

Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt: Although the word “chamushim” is translated here as “armed,” it more generally denotes being prepared with whatever is needed (and not only in the military sense). The Jews’ long stay in Egypt was much more than valuable time lost to slavery. Thanks to Egypt, the Jews gained the potential and the opportunity for further internal growth.

Grammatically, the word chamushim, “armed,” is very close to chamesh, “five.” The Midrash therefore offers a different interpretation here, understanding chamushim, as “reduced to one fifth”; that is, only one fifth of the Jews left Egypt. The remainder had no interest in the Exodus, nor had they any intent to leave Egypt, and they therefore died during the plague of darkness (the ninth plague). The meaning of this midrash (which, of course, should not be taken literally) is that the Exodus did not realize its full potential, for it was only “one fifth of a true Exodus,” i.e., only a small part of the ideal, full “Exodus of Egypt,” as discussed previously.

(19) And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you”: The concluding verses of Genesis (50:25) related that Joseph, toward the end of his life, repented of his deep attachment to Egypt, and enjoined the Jews under oath to take his bones with them at the Exodus. Here Moses fulfills that solemn obligation.

The Midrash finds a connection between Joseph’s bones and the creation of the Golden calf. We will touch upon this later in weekly portion Ki Tissa.

(20) They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness: The actual wilderness began immediately beyond the Egyptian border.

(21) 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: Constant movement without rest, day and night, reflects the people’s accelerated transformation.

(22) The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people: The Jews were not left to their own devices. God walked beside them, “holding their hand,” as it were, and would not allow Himself to leave them.

[1] The Gulf of Eilat is called Yam Suf at 23:31, where the Torah states that it delineates the southern boundary of the Land of Israel: “I will set your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of Philistia,” and also in the book of Kings (1 Kings 9:26), in connection with King Solomon.

[2] In the region of the Isthmus of Suez there was a canal in ancient times that ran from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, traversing their lakes.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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