Of Split Wood and Waters

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Nachum Krasnopolsky


War and the Way of the Land of the Philistines
After the tenth plague, the Israelites are sent out of Egypt. The oppressed are oppressed no longer; God has redeemed His people. With girded loins, they leave their house of bondage. Following a temporary encampment in Sukkot, God leads the people in a roundabout manner toward the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. As sensitive readers, we ought to note that the description of this renavigation is a deviation from that of the original divine plan given in Parashat Shemot:

And He said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” (3:12)[1]

In the plan as originally told, the people are to travel directly to the mountain, without any mention of any stops along the way. Indeed, the providential plan of the journey to the Land of Canaan described at the beginning of Parashat Va’era makes no overt mention of the Yam Suf (or of Har Sinai, for that matter):

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors 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 God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord.” (6:6-8)

But instead of traveling straight to the land, they are redirected:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although/for it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (13:17)

What is the aim of this redirection? How might we locate its significance within the larger narrative arc of the Humash? In other words, what is the place of keriat Yam Suf in the story of God’s covenant with His people?

The classical commentators interpret this rationale in a variety of ways. Famously, for Ramban, the redirection of the people is rooted in geopolitical considerations. Had they taken the route that passed through the land of the Philistines, the Israelites would have been confronted by the Philistine military. Faced with the oncoming battle, they would run back to Egypt. Per Ramban, God redirects the people away from the potential conflict. In contrast, Rashi notes the people’s willingness to return to Egypt even along the indirect path (see Bamidbar 14:4, 45); had they taken the more direct path, they would have been even more inclined to return to Egypt after facing various military challenges in the desert. God navigates the people along a more complex path to deter their retreat to Egypt.

But these interpretations encounter challenges of their own. Rashi relies upon his awareness of later battles in the desert. But the Humash gives us no explicit reason to believe that any such battles would occur. And while one may argue, as does Ibn Ezra, that God is aware of the future and leads the people away from conflict, it is highly unusual for the Humash to relate such divine plans. God knows many things; the Humash does not record how His actions relate to every possibility. Likewise, Ramban’s approach is somewhat tenuous. Why would the Philistines not give them permission to pass through their land? On this front, the text is silent.

In general, these interpreters are concerned with military conflicts that the Israelites could encounter along their journey to Israel. They constitute the “war” that the people might see and then subsequently turn back to Egypt. Rashbam (13:17, s.v. va-yehi be-shalah), however, takes the people’s destination into account:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go – And God intended to bring them to the Land of Canaan and did not desire to lead them along the way of the Philistines, for it was close. Meaning, it was the path along which they could immediately enter the Land of Canaan. And when they would be burdened by the wars in the Land of Canaan, they would relent and return to Egypt.

Rashbam notes that the people are on their way to the Land of Canaan, where they will have to engage in battle to conquer the land. Indeed, they are armed for battle (Shemot 13:18)! But, if they enter too soon, they will not be ready and will return to Egypt. God therefore leads the people along the longer route, such that they will be able to prepare before engaging in the conquest of the land.

The strength of Rashbam’s approach lies in its appeal to covenantal considerations. The successful conquest of the land is a key theme in the biblical narrative. It is reasonable for God to take the people’s readiness into account and for Him to take the appropriate steps to ensure their success. At stake is not the people’s ability to engage in relatively ancillary battles, but rather their very conquest of the land promised to Avraham. Moreover, as I will show, the rest of the narrative―and particularly, Shirat Ha-Yam―further supports Rashbam’s reading.

Battle at the Sea
To where has God directed the people? “So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (13:18). Shortly thereafter, God commands Moshe to tell the people to encamp by Pi Ha-hirot, near the sea. At that point, He also notifies Moshe of His plan:

Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are astray in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” Then I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them, that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord. And they did so. (14:3-4)

Through His roundabout navigation of the people, God notifies Pharaoh that the people have fled. Over and over again, Moshe had demanded that Pharaoh release the Israelites so that they could serve God in the wilderness, three days away from Egypt. When Pharaoh finally acquiesces, he agrees to the conditions that Moshe had presented to him: “Go, worship the Lord as you said!” (12:31). Thus, Pharaoh’s expectation is that the people will go worship God in the wilderness. However, once the Israelites diverge from the way of the Philistines and encamp near the sea, Pharaoh has reason to be concerned. The people have run away; they have not traveled to worship their God (Ramban, 14:5). This is exactly what occurs:

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” (14:5)

His heart stiffened by God, Pharaoh sets out to pursue the Israelites. The Egyptians approach the camp; the people are in turmoil. Philistines and Canaanites aside, the Israelites are forced to face the Egyptians at the sea. God’s plan to redirect the people, as we have understood it until now, does not result in a lack of confrontation of war; rather, it enables it! The people have encamped near the sea, in a narrow strait, where the Egyptians can close in on them. Surrounded by the Egyptian forces, the Israelites are bombarded by the sights of war: weapons, chariots, horses, and all the king’s men. What are we to make of this plan? God’s will, that the people avoid the sights of war (bi-re’otam milhamah), is seemingly reversed!

God’s Salvation
The people’s reaction to the arrival of the Egyptian army is telling:

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight [emphasis added] of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (14:10-12)

Faced with war, the people regret leaving Egypt. God’s ‘prediction’ comes true. However, the Israelites do not have the opportunity to go back, as the Egyptians have caught up with them. There is nowhere to hide; God has pushed them into the encounter. This reaction is a reflection of their faith; they do not trust that God will save them. In fact, they do not even acknowledge God’s role in their redemption from Egypt. They direct their complaint to Moshe: “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” (14:11).

While the Torah (14:4) directly addresses the purpose of keriat Yam Suf vis-à​​-vis the Egyptians (“and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord”), its purpose in relation to the Israelites is less clear. Abarbanel writes that keriat Yam Suf was rooted in two primary motivations. One aspect of the event was the further punishment of the Egyptians for throwing the Israelite children into the Nile. Tit-for-tat, they are drowned for their sins. But the experience at the Yam Suf was also designed to strengthen the nation’s faith. While it is true that the Israelites were privy to God’s wonders in Egypt, their experience at the sea fortified their faith to the point that they fully put their trust in God.

It emerges that the events at the Yam Suf serve as an educational experience for the Israelites.[2] Instead of directing them along the shorter path―toward Horeb and ultimately Canaan―He leads them to the Yam Suf, where they will learn about His providence and salvation. There, faced with the sights of war, they will be unable to return to Egypt, even if they want to. Up until this point, the Israelites were unable to fight the Egyptians because they still related to them as their masters and to themselves as slaves (Ibn Ezra, 14:13). As slaves, they did not have the confidence to fight in any battles. Nor did they trust God to fight for them. Now, they have witnessed the power of God’s salvation in war. This is what Moshe tells the people:

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (14:13-14)

God sees that the people are not ready for any sort of battle: “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt” (13:17). The plan, nonetheless, is for them to enter the land after a short stop at Horeb. In order for them to conquer the land, God must educate them in His ways, such that their attitude toward Him changes. After their experience at the Yam Suf, the people’s knowledge and understanding of God’s providence are strengthened. Their former masters have drowned; God has acquired His people (15:16). In this manner, God trains the people to recognize His support. Faced with the conquest of the land, instead of seeing battle and running away to Egypt, they will see the salvation of God and His providence. With His help, they will be able to conquer the land. Shirat Ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, testifies to this newfound faith:

You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain,
The place You made to dwell in, O Lord,
The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established. (15:17)

Split Wood and Waters
According to our proposed reading, the story of keriat Yam Suf is about the development of faith and experiential knowledge of divine providence. The idea of experience as a method of arriving at faith or knowledge is not unique to this narrative. Perhaps most notably, the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac (Bereshit 22), radiates this conception of faith and experience. God puts Avraham in a difficult situation, not to garner some previously unknown information but to provide Avraham with the opportunity to develop his inner potential (Ramban, 22:1). The Sefat Emet (Parashat Vayera, s.v. atah yadati) similarly argues that the purpose of the Akedah was to actualize an aspect of Avraham’s faith, his reverence of God. Likewise, as we have noted, keriat Yam Suf actualizes aspects of the Israelites’ faith: their dependence on and knowledge of God’s ultimate providence.[3] How might the Akedah help us further understand the covenantal significance of keriat Yam Suf?

Bereshit Rabbah (55:8) directly ties our narrative to the Akedah:

Rabbi Hiyya b. Rabbi Yosei said in the name of Rabbi Meyasha, and it was also repeated in the name of Rabbi Benaiah: As a reward for the two cleavings with which our father Avraham split the wood of the burnt-offering, he earned that God should split the Sea before his descendants, as it says, And he split the wood for the burnt offering” [Bereshit 22:3], and it says there, “And the waters were split” [Shemot 14:21].[4]

R. Benaiah and R. Meyasha identify a linguistic connection between the two stories. The sea is split by God (vayibakeu), and Avraham splits the wood (vayvaka) for the offering. They interpret this to mean that Avraham’s splitting of the wood is rewarded with the splitting of the sea. What does this mean?

In order to understand this midrash, we must look toward the end of the Akedah narrative. After Avraham is told not to sacrifice Yitzhak, God presents him with a promise of blessing (Bereshit 22:15-18):

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I swear, the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.”

As a result of his actions during the Akedah, God promises Avraham that his descendants will be great in number, that they will seize the gates of their enemies, and that the nations of the earth will be blessed through them. Many commentators note that God’s promise that Avraham’s descendants will “seize the gates of their enemies” is the only unique element of this blessing/oath unit; the other blessings had already been given to him on earlier occasions. While this is true in terms of content, one of the repeated blessings is presented in a new fashion. In past blessings, Avraham was promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth (13:16) and the stars of the heavens (15:5). After the Akedah, he is promised for the first time that his descendants will increase like the sand on the seashore―ka-hol asher al sefat ha-yam (22:17). Why the sudden change in simile?

Notably, the next time the expression “al sefat ha-yam” appears in the Torah is at keriat Yam Suf (Shemot 14:30):

Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea [emphasis added].

The Israelites stand, as numerous as the sand on the seashore, on the seashore. God has fulfilled part of His covenant (Bereshit 15) with Avraham. His descendants were redeemed from a foreign land; their oppressors have been judged. What of the new element, the guarantee that the Israelites will inherit the gates of their enemies?

As we have demonstrated, the experience of keriat Yam Suf should enable the people to engage in the conquest of the land. Following keriat Yam Suf, they know that God will fight for them. In the ideal history, it takes the people eleven days to arrive in Canaan (Devarim 1:2), where, with God’s help, they speedily conquer the land. The source of this merit is the promise that Avraham receives as a result of his actions during the Akedah: his descendants will “inherit the gates of their enemies.” The fulfillment of this promise requires the education of the people. Otherwise, they will run away, afraid, back to Egypt.

Quaking Canaanites
But keriat Yam Suf does not only involve the Israelites. The event also notifies the other nations of God’s power. This, too, promotes the successful conquest of the land. Much of Shirat Ha-Yam pertains to this theme. And, as Abarbanel highlights, the story leaves its mark on subsequent narratives in the Tanakh. Its reverberations are still felt a generation later, when Rahab grants Yehoshua’s spies her hospitality:

Through the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Land of Canaan was conquered by the Israelites. As stated in the Song of the Sea, “In Your loving-kindness You lead the people You redeemed… The peoples hear, they tremble; agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; the tribes of Moab—trembling grips them; all the dwellers in Canaan melt… Until Your people cross over, Lord, until Your people cross whom You have acquired.” And so said Rahab the harlot: “I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds when you left Egypt, for we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you” (Yehoshua 2:9-11). Thus… [the splitting of the sea] was part of God’s great wisdom to terrify the residents of Canaan so that the Israelites could conquer [the land] with great ease [emphasis added]. (Abarbanel on Shemot 14:1)

God’s drying of the sea dries out the nations’ spirits. The eastern wind (14:21) splits the sea and carries news of God’s might toward the land. The Israelites are full of faith; the nations are without spirit. Faced with war, God’s people will hopefully emerge victorious.

Rashbam’s reading of the opening pasuk facilitates this understanding of the narrative. From start to finish, the story is about God’s plan to develop His people’s faith in Him with respect to the conquest of the land. It also sets the stage for their victory. With the nations frightened, that conquest is somewhat simplified. Moreover, read this way, keriat Yam Suf fits comfortably with the remainder of the narratives in Beshalah leading up to the revelation at Sinai. Abarbanel summarizes the significance of these narratives:

As God was going to give them the Torah and mitzvot at Mount Sinai, these initial travels were needed to bring [the people] into narrow straits so that they would beseech Him and He would fulfill their needs. They would thereby know that there was a God in Israel and that He is the One who brings forth flowing waters out of rock and grants them bread—that all is in His hand as clay in the hands of the crafter. Through this, they would acquire a valuable lesson—that when they are in distress, they should seek Him, and He will provide for them. (Abarbanel on Shemot 15:1)

This is the first of many such lessons; the faith uncovered at the sea does not endure on its own. At the end of the day, the eleven-day journey from Horeb to the Land of Israel expands into a forty-year-long educational experience. The Humash charts this journey.

[1] All verse translations are adapted from the JPS Tanakh (1985).

[2]  Rashbam interprets the people’s faith in 14:31 as referring to their faith that God will provide food for them on their journey. This is consistent with his interpretation of the people’s complaints at the beginning of the narrative as referring to a lack of food and water in the desert. Nonetheless, Rashbam views the events of keriat Yam Suf as an educational experience.

[3] Strikingly, the Mishnah in Avot (5:3-4) juxtaposes the ten tribulations of Avraham to the ten tribulations of the Israelites in the desert.

[4] Translation adapted from

Nachum Krasnopolsky is a second-year undergraduate at Yeshiva University, where he studies physics and Jewish studies.