When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so. — Exodus 13:17-14:4
The Israelites had made it out of Egypt, ending over four hundred years of sojourn in a foreign land. God wasn’t going to let them go the easy way, though. They had lived there for many generations, and it was a lead pipe cinch they’d undoubtedly picked up some beliefs, practices and the like that smacked of a syncretism God wasn’t going to have them take into their new/old home. So, rather than hand them a Garmin or Tom-Tom that would give them directions straight to the Promised Land, God gave them pillars of cloud and fire to shepherd them on the way, the long way around.
God, having already given the Egyptians ten plagues to prove God’s power, determined that there was to be one more confrontation to prove to Pharaoh that God wasn’t someone to be trifled with and neither were the people of God. So instead of leading the people away from Egypt, the pillars turned the people around and led them back in the general direction they had just come from, almost as a taunt to the Egyptians. The plan seemed to be that Pharaoh, hearing that the Israelites were headed back, would have jumped at the chance of trying to at least regain some of his pride back by sending his army to round up the escapees and returning them to their former servitude.
In the meantime the Israelites have already listed several of the places they had been on their early journey out of Egypt. Succoth, Etham, and Pi-hahiroth were places that probably meant something to the people then but which are pretty much just names to us. When I looked at maps that purport to trace the route of the exodus, I am amazed at how different many of them are in where they locate the places that were named. Even with modern GPS devices, we would probably never be able to accurately follow in their footsteps with any degree of accuracy. But then, few of us would be willing to walk in the desert for about 40 years either.
Deserts are funny things. People like to go out into them for brief periods but most are never really prepared for it. Oh, most trips turn out well; people can go and see the minimalist landscape of sand, hardpan and rock, with places where scrub brush and/or cacti of various types prove that there are things which can thrive in a very harsh climate and then return to their air-conditioned cars and retrace their steps back to their suburban homes. The Israelites were somewhat used to the climate and the heat, but they were also used to being able to draw rations from the Egyptian stores, things like bread and beer and onions. Now they were on their own, with no McDonald’s or roadside pub to look to for refreshment. What they did have was a cloud and fire, visible signs that although they might be hot, tired, thirsty, footsore and discouraged, their God was still there, guiding, drawing them on and keeping them focused on why they were there.
Often when I find myself in a spiritual desert I honestly wish for some sign, some pillar that would suddenly appear and guide me or direct me to answers I seek, solutions I need and rest I must have. I have a feeling that saintly people like Mother Teresa have had the same kind of feeling, maybe even more dire and desperate than I do, but who endure because no matter how shaky it might be, there is a tiny flame of faith down there somewhere just waiting for a little tending, a little fuel and a little patience to grow into a bonfire that will light up the sky. Even if I seem to turn around to return to something that I thought I had left behind, there has to be something there that I have to learn or maybe re-learn, do or re-do, in order to progress on the road. There are times when I can almost list people or places that marked where I met a kindness or a bit of refreshment that gave me the courage and impetus to move on, much as the places the Israelites listed in their travelogue. Thing is, my journey may last more than 40 years, but, like the Israelites, I have faith that there will be a promised land somewhere, sometime, somehow.
I may not be able to find Pi-hahiroth on a map, but I can probably find a similar place in my spiritual topography. God may not be setting the stage for a great victory but perhaps a small one is all that is required of me. Perhaps what I just need to remember is to check my spiritual GPS and trust that when it says to turn left or right, I’m ready to do it.