Torah: Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Brit Chadashah: John 6:15-71, 1 Corinthians 10:1-5
This is really the final chapter of the Exodus from Egypt, and where the Wilderness journey begins. ‘Beshalach’ means roughly ‘When let go’ or ‘Upon being sent away’.
In last week’s portion, the Pharaoh finally consents to letting the Israelites go after his own son is struck down by the angel of death who passed over in the tenth and final plague. So the people have gathered up their things in a hurry, their bread unleavened, and have left Egypt.
Instead of making their way directly towards the Promised Land, however, God directs them southwards into the desert and once again Pharaoh changes his mind one final fateful time.
The Israelites are faced with the advancing Egyptians and their chariots on one side, and the Sea of Reeds on the other; not even God’s awesome pillar of fire and cloud assure them of His power to rescue them, and so the grumbling begins against Moses.
God instructs Moses to raise his staff to command the waters of the sea to divide, allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land, while He restrains the Egyptians in a cloud of confusion, allowing the cloud to lift and the Egyptians to forge ahead just as the waters rush back over them.
Upon realising that they are safe and the Egyptians no longer pose a threat, the Israelites burst into joyful song (sometimes called the Song of Moses, or the Song of the Sea), and so this sabbath day is known as Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song.
“I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted.”
Again, there is grumbling because the water at Marah is bitter, and Moses is instructed to throw a piece of wood into bitter water to turn it sweet. The the LORD tells them,
“If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brough on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD who heals you.” – Exodus 15:26
They are then led into the ‘Desert of Sin’ (which sounds like a title out of Pilgrim’s Progress, but the region of ‘Sin’ is adjacent to Mount ‘Sinai’), whereupon the people grumble again because they have no bread, and so God provides again, ‘manna’ from heaven (so called because the Hebrew ‘mah neh’ means, ‘what is it?’) Despite everything, the grumbling and disobedience continues.
We end with the surprise attack of the Amalekites at Rephidim near Sinai, and the introduction of Joshua who will lead the army of the Israelites, the Amalekites are destroyed and God vows to completely erase the memory of them, and will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation. Moses builds an altar, calling it Jehovah Nissi, The LORD is my banner.
“Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today…The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” – Exodus 14:13,14
This section of the Exodus story is a well-known, Sunday School selection, with God providing protection, manna and quail, sweet water. But it is also considered to be an example of what modern readers see as ‘God behaving badly’. Why does God destroy the Egyptians rather than just preventing them in some way? Why would God vow to be at war with the Amalekites from generation to generation? With what we know of God from the New Testament, as the God of incarnate love, it is difficult indeed to understand.
But if you look at the passage with an eye on symbolism and metaphor, you can see that the Egyptians , and the Amalekites, can be viewed as the spiritual forces who are enemies of God and His people.
God longs to heal us of “all the diseases of Egypt”, but we insist on continuing our grumbling, apparently missing all the mercies and glorious benefits He is providing for us.
The Manna, bread from heaven, may be viewed as a foretaste of Jesus, who is the Bread of Life who sustains us spiritually.
The water, too, is a symbol of the Living Water of spiritual life that Jesus gives, the bitterness sin, and the wood (or ‘Branch’) that takes away the bitterness is Jesus himself.
Finally, the crossing of the Reed Sea may be viewed as the spiritual ‘crossing over’ between death and life, between Egypt and the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God, between slavery and freedom.
Note on the Haftarah:
The Haftarah section in Judges 4 is the time when Deborah has become Judge over Israel, and Sisera the leader of Jabin’s army is defeated by another woman, Jael. It’s an interesting (and disturbing!) passage in itself, but is another example of the enemies of Israel being defeated in an unexpected way. The Song of Deborah is a reminder of the Song of Moses.
“So may all your enemies perish, O LORD! But may they who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.” – Judges 5:31
Note on the Brit Chadashah selections:
The passage in John is Jesus as the Bread of Life, and refers specifically to the Bread from Heaven and the grumbling that accompanied it.
“I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.” John 6:35
The passage in 1 Corinthians refers specifically to the crossing over the Reed Sea as a ‘Baptism’, and warns against grumbling.
“They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 10:2-4