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Shemot/Exodus 13:17 And G-d did not lead the people [in] the way of the land, of the Philistines
Although this verse is formally part of Parasha B'Shallach, its early position in the Exodus narrative means that it is often considered during the week of Pesach, In the text above - the second clause in the verse - the pointing seems quite clearly to link the last three words together and they are usually translated that way: the way of the land of the Philistines. However, the first two of the three words - , derech eretz, the way of the land - is the name of a well-known concept within Judaism. Although the phrase is found nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are many references in the rabbinic writings that illustrate its range of meanings. It is first found in the Mishnah: "Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said: Excellent is the study of the Torah together with derech eretz, for the effort of both keeps sin out of one's mind" (m. Pirkei Avot 2:2). In over 200 references in the Talmud and the Mishnah, the rabbis take it to mean earning a living, behaving appropriately, good manners and so on. It is also often quoted in a way that closely matches the saying, "When in Rome, live in the Roman way; if elsewhere, live as they do", first attributed to St. Ambrose. The Midrash even goes as far as saying that "derech eretz precedes Torah" (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3): one cannot exemplify Torah until one personifies the qualities of derech eretz in everything one does.
In the context of the Exodus narrative, then, separating the last word of the phrase as shown in our translation above, the question is asked: Why wouldHaShem not want Israel to leave Egypt by "the way of the land". The answer starts from the idea that the "way of the land" is precisely that - the usual way, the accustomed way, the way that the peoples of Egypt, Philistia and the other ANE kingdoms would expect: in the natural. HaShem, on the other hand, has just brought Israel out of Egypt "with an outstretched arm and with great judgments" (Shemot 6:6, NASB); by a supernatural way, not the "way of the land" at all. The verb used here - , a Qal affix 3ms form from root , meaning "to lead or conduct", with a 3mp suffix to make "He led them" - demonstrates deliberate intent. HaShem didn't simply bring the people of Israel out of Egypt and then once over the border, point them in the right direction and agree to meet them in the Land when they got there. As the following chapters of the narrative are to show, the people were specifically and intentionally led: both along the physical or geographical route to the Land and through the spiritual and formational events of becoming a nation.
ThePesikta de Rab Kahana reports Rabbi Levi, citing Rabbi Hama bar Hanina, giving eight examples of just how different the Exodus was from the "usual way of things". The first example is that usually, water comes from above and bread from below; but during the Exodus, bread came from above - "And the L-RD said to Moshe, 'I will rain down bread for you from the sky'" (Shemot 16:4, JPS) - and water from below: "Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well" (B'Midbar 21:17, JPS). It was usual, in those days, for the disciple to carry the lantern as he walked ahead of his master; during the Exodus, "The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people" (Shemot 13:22, JPS). A disciple usually walks in front of his master, but "The LORD went before them" (Shemot 13:21, JPS); a disciple will wash his master but G-d says "Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil" (Ezekiel 16:9, ESV); a disciple will clothe his master, but G-d says, "I clothed you also with embroidered cloth" (Ezekiel 16:10, ESV); a disciple will provide his master's shoes, but G-d "shod you with fine leather" (ibid.); a disciple may carry his master, but during the Exodus, "I bore you on eagles' wings" (Shemot 19:4, ESV); a disciple will stand and keep watch over his master while he sleeps but "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4, ESV).
As we remember and celebrate Pesach this week, eating matzah instead of bread, we too are marking a difference between the "usual" and the "unusual" to build and trigger memories that will pass the significance of Passover on to the next generation. G-d told Moshe to tell the Israelites "When your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this ceremony?', say, 'It is the sacrifice of ADONAI's Pesach'" (Shemot 12:26-27, CJB). Our lives - celebrating the cycle of the Feasts of the L-rd throughout the year - are meant to be a series of "unusual" actions in the midst of the very "usual" world to remember significant events in our people's history and the way in which the L-rd dealt with us.
In particular, celebrating the feast of Passover draws a vivid backdrop to the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Yeshua in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Unusual as those events were - "it is a rare event when someone gives up his life even for the sake of somebody righteous" (Romans 5:7, CJB) - and unique in the course of history, when G-d reached down and created the pivotal point in man's existence and the whole course of creation and redemption, their significance can be lost without understanding the context in which they were set. Passover provides the background for Rav Sha'ul to say, "For our Pesach lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed" (1 Corinthians 5:7, CJB); Passover enables us to see the cross as not just atonement, but redemption; to recognise that Yeshua didn't come simply to rescue good people but "to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45, CJB), that G-d "has visited and made a ransom to liberate His people" (Luke 1:68, CJB). Passover shows us that our lives and relationships with G-d are not just a stamp on a passport but the start of a journey, as we are each taken out of bondage, brought through the trials, hunger and thirst of the desert "that you may walk in a manner worthy of the L-rd, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of G-d; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience" (Colossians 1:10-11, NASB).
If we are living totally normal lives, doing exactly the same things as everyone else, having the same goals and aspirations as everyone else, with our horizons limited to the same things as everyone else - birth, school, university, job, marriage, children, grandchildren, retirement, funeral - then we are in Egypt; we are in bondage; we are going nowhere and we are doing nothing but making mud bricks for someone else's treasure cities. Yeshua came to set us free from that; G-d told Moshe that "I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G-d. And you shall know that I, the L-RD, am your G-d who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians" (Shemot 6:6-7, JPS). When we know G-d our horizons must change; if there is no change, then we don't know G-d. When we know G-d, we think differently and have different values; if we still think the same and have the same values, then we don't know G-d. When we are led by G-d, we experience supernatural events and spiritual battles; if we don't have such experiences, then we aren't being led by G-d.
Rav Shau'l wrote to the community in Galatia because he had heard that, just like the Israelites who hankered after the leeks and onions in Egypt while they were out in the desert, they were becoming subject to the old patterns of superstition and manipulating the gods from which the Gospel had released them. He told them, that is was "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1, ESV). This year, celebrate Passover in freedom, as a sign and expression of freedom, and know that G-d is not leading you in the ways of the world, but in His supernatural and miraculous ways.
Chag Pesach Sameach!
Further Study: Romans 12:2; 1 Peter 1:14; Acts 17:30
Application: Passover is different: life in the midst of death, freedom in the midst of slavery. Which side are you on - are you a slave or are you free? Make a stand for freedom and celebrate Passover this year wherever you are as a free man (or woman, of course)!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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