As darkness closed in on the Israelites who were leaving Egypt, a strange thing took place. The peculiar, upright cloud that had gone before them by day took on a startling, different appearance. It began to glow!
The darker the sky became, the brighter the cloud became. By an hour or so after sundown it was like a giant shaft of fire blazing silently up into the sky (Ex. 13:21-22). The Israelites gasped in wonderment at this amazing thing. If there were any doubts in the minds of any of them that their Creator was leading them, then all such doubts should have been wiped away by this awesome pillar of fire.
To add to their astonishment, a lesser light grew out of the blazing column and spread back over the miles of encamped people, insomuch that their camps were filled with a soft radiance from above all during the hours of darkness!
Next morning, the light over and ahead of the Israelites encamped at Etham gradually lost its brilliance and turned back into cloud form. Now the people were at the edge of hot, dry desert country. The overhead streak of light that had extended over the camps turned into a long cloud whose vapors produced a cooling shadow. Otherwise, many infants and the aged would have become ill or would have perished in the burning heat of midday.
When the huge caravan was ready to move for another day, many were surprised to see the upright cloud turn to the right of Etham to lead them southward. Some of the elders who knew that the way to Canaan was northeastward hurried to the head of the caravan to speak to Moses and Aaron.
“Why are we being led to the south?” they asked. “We should go northeastward!” “God is leading us by the cloud,” Moses answered. “Are we to question His wisdom?”
“But going south means traveling away from our goal – not toward it,” the elders argued. “If we follow the cloud, we will end up in arid mountains on the west side of the Red Sea!”
“God is showing us the way He wants us to go,” Moses patiently repeated. “Any who choose to go any other way will be lost.”
God had already spoken to Moses, even before the cloud turned to the right from Etham, and he trusted God to lead His people in the direction that was best for them, even though there were those among them who believed that they shouldn’t follow the cloud southward.
Most people have failed to understand God’s ways and direction ever since the time of Adam. It has seemed wiser, in their human reasoning, to go just the opposite of the way God had carefully pointed out in the Bible and through the teachings of His servants. There have always been men, regarded as wise and religious, who insist on teaching people to live contrary to many of God’s ways. They are often sincere men or women who believe what they have been wrongly taught by others before them. Or, in many cases they have tried to reason matters out by themselves.
God tells us that the thinking powers of man are far, far below His. We should understand how true that is when we realize that God made the universe, us and everything in it. To be as intelligent as God, we would have to be able to create a universe.
As it is, man is just beginning to stumble across a few of God’s great secrets in the realm of physical things. But what we need most is wisdom to help us live happily. The Bible tells us that if we respect our Creator and believe what He tells us, wisdom will start coming into our minds.
Respect to God means living by His laws. And the more we obey the rules He has given to us, the more understanding and happiness will come to us.
When told that they would be lost if they didn’t follow the cloud, the protesting Israelites gave up talking with Moses and Aaron, and fell back into their places in the caravan. They knew that the power within that awesome cloud and pillar of fire was something to be respected, and they didn’t want to run any risks of getting cut off from the caravan.
Now that the caravan was in a desert region, food for the flocks and herds wasn’t so plentiful. The first day or two of the escape journey had been through areas close to Goshen, where locusts hadn’t eaten up every green thing. But now that the Israelites were turning into the regions where locusts had swarmed, grass became less plentiful. Some grass had grown up in the several days since the 8th plague. Also, there were tufts of grass yellowed by the sun. The locusts hadn’t cared for that, but it made good food for livestock.
You will remember that it was suggested to Pharaoh that the Israelites be given freedom to make a three-day journey into the desert to worship God. At first the king of Egypt considered this a favor he could never grant. But after the 10th plague, in which he lost his oldest son, he was anxious to get rid of the Israelites forever. The idea of letting the Israelites go for only a few days was lost in the frantic desire of Pharaoh and the Egyptians to see the last of the Israelites and the plagues from God.
Later, when Pharaoh’s scouts and spies brought word to him that the Israelites were still moving on even after a three-day journey, Pharaoh wasn’t surprised. “I expected it,” Pharaoh muttered with a grim smile. “They were so anxious to get away that they were willing to go out into the desert that will surely take all of them as its victims. Now I regret that I didn’t send my army after them. But by now they must be moving across the sandy country where my chariots can’t go. It is too late to either bring them back or slaughter them.”
It was then that a panting messenger arrived with the very latest word about the Israelites. When the king heard the messenger’s report, his glum expression suddenly changed to one of subdued glee. Then he glowered down on the messenger.
“Your report had better be true,” Pharaoh told him. “Otherwise you will be rotting in a dungeon for a long time!”
“My report is true, O Pharaoh,” the messenger insisted. “May these miserable eyes of mine dwell forever in the darkness of your royal dungeon if I myself did not witness the Israelite caravan turning southward along the western edge of the Red Sea!”
The king of Egypt sat for a few moments in deep thought while a slight smile, more cruel than agreeable, seemed to freeze on his face. “Send for all my top officers!” he suddenly snapped at an aide.
A short while later Pharaoh addressed the men he had summoned. Only those who knew him very well could tell that he was trying to hide a great excitement.
“I have been thinking lately,” Pharaoh told them, “that perhaps I acted hastily in letting the Israelites go. But a message had just been brought to me concerning them, and I have decided that it was best that they did leave. Now I want them back, dead or alive, and I want all their livestock returned as well and all the things that were given to them by my people.”
“But it is too late to overtake them, your highness,” a military officer spoke up. “We have heard the report that the Israelites are by now well on their way into the desert far east of here. Foot soldiers could never catch up. Chariots would become stuck in the sands.”
“If that were entirely so, then I wouldn’t ask you to pursue them,” Pharaoh frowned. “But I have learned that the Israelite Moses has bungled matters by taking his people the wrong way. Instead of guiding them straight east, he has turned south to lead them along the rocky west coast of the Red Sea. They are headed directly into a range of mountains. It we go at once, we can’t fail to trap them between the sea and the mountains!”
A few moments of silence followed the king’s short speech. Then those who were before him, most of whom were men of war, began buzzing with excitement. Many who had tried to talk the king into letting the Israelites go now made it known that they wished to pursue the Israelites. They seemed to forget the terrible things that had come upon Egypt. The thing that seemed uppermost in their minds was the thought of crushing a defenseless mass of people without risking their lives to do it.
“You be our leader in destroying the Israelites, O Pharaoh,” one of the officers suddenly shouted. “We are happy that it is our duty to go with you to overtake and to overcome the cowardly Israelites and rescue the livestock and other things they have taken from us!”
There was a loud, long enthusiastic chorus of yells from others present. This sort of conduct was somewhat unusual for officers gathered before the king, but Pharaoh could hardly frown upon such zeal agreement.
“I will lead you!” the king exclaimed, holding a fist up at arm’s length.
Time was short for the Egyptians, what with the Israelites being already more than three-days’ journey by foot ahead. Thousands of horse-drawn chariots with drivers and fighting men were hastily mustered for speedy action. These included the king’s specially trained guard. This unit was made up of 600 chariots, more than a thousand men and many hundreds of the strongest and most spirited horses in military service.
Chariots of that time each carried one driver and one or two fighting men. Often the driver was also considered a warrior, having been trained to handle spears or swords as he guided the chariot. Each chariot was pulled by either two or four horses, and when rolling at full speed it was no small task for the driver to keep the vehicle upright and all in one piece.
It was quite a sight for many Egyptians to see and hear Pharaoh’s army thundering eastward out of Memphis and out across the plains in a vast cloud of dust. Besides chariots, there were many warriors mounted on horses. It was a remarkable fighting force for those times. It was a great display of the power of the greatest nation on Earth in those ancient days.
But even as the Israelites had to stop at night to rest, so did Pharaoh and his army. Horses couldn’t gallop on hour after hour, and the speed of the Egyptian forces was soon slowed down to a walking pace. There was more than one overnight encampment by the Egyptian army before it could move up within sight of the Israelites.
Meanwhile, the Israelites had arrived at a point near the Red Sea where the mountains jutted up like an unfriendly wall. Nevertheless, the upright cloud continued to move southward as though beckoning them to move into the narrow passes. Again some of the elders came to Moses to voice their objections to moving to the south.
“This is madness,” they declared. “Even if we manage to get through these mountains, we’ll still be in Egypt. The Red Sea will be even wider between us and freedom.”
“God knows what is best for us,” Moses answered. “Either get back into line and move on or fall out and try to return to Egypt.”
It was then that a lone Israelite rider came racing along the moving column. “The Egyptians are coming after us!” the rider excitedly panted as he alighted from his mount and hurried up to Moses.
The elders who had complained to Moses glanced at each other in alarm. One of them stepped up and roughly seized the panting rider. “What are you talking about?” the elder demanded of the shaking rider. “Explain what you mean!”
“My family and our herds are at the rear of the caravan,” the winded man told them. Part of our stock strayed away this afternoon. Some of us rode back several miles to try to round up these strays. We notice a big cloud of dust off to the north. At first we thought it might be our cattle. We got just close enough and stayed just long enough to see that it was a whole army of chariots, thousands of them! It must be the Egyptians, and at the rate they’re moving, they’ll overtake us very soon!” “Have you told anyone else of this?” Moses Asked.
“Of course I did,” the rider answered. “I yelled out an alarm all the way down the column of our caravan. People are getting terribly excited.”
“Ride back to your place at the rear of the caravan,” Moses told him. “On your way, spread the word to our people that I am asking them not to be afraid. Tell them that there is no reason to worry, because God will take care of us” (Ex. 14:13-14).
Moses wasn’t surprised at this turn of events. God had already told him that Pharaoh’s army would set out after the Israelites. Moses hadn’t told the people because he knew that they might become fearful even before the event took place.
After the rider had gone back, the elders who had come to Moses were more upset than ever. But realizing that they couldn’t cause Moses to change his mind about anything, they hastily rode back to their places in the caravan.
Moses and Aaron and their officers continued riding southward, leading the Israelites along the rises at the foot of the mountain range towering so close to them. Then, as the sun began to slide out of sight behind the mountains, the guiding cloud ceased moving. This was a sign that the caravan should stop and camp for the night.
“Send the word back for the people to move up for the night as close together as possible without crowding themselves,” Moses instructed some of the men.
“This is as God told you it would be,” Aaron quietly reminded Moses when others couldn’t hear. “But how shall we escape if the Egyptian army rushes in and traps us here?”
“I don’t know – yet,” Moses replied. “But we have obeyed God in coming to this spot and camping here. We must leave it to Him to take care of us.”
At this same moment, several miles to the north, there was great excitement among the Egyptian officers. Sharp-eyed soldiers had spotted the rear part of the Israelite caravan moving slowly up into the higher areas. Pharaoh was so elated that he at first ordered his army to increase its speed and overtake their intended victims. However, the sun went down early in the mountainous area, and twilight came on so quickly that the king decided it might be unwise to attack in darkness.
“They cannot move at night in this region,” Pharaoh triumphantly told his officers. “We will stop and camp here and attack when we choose tomorrow.”
Pharaoh and his officers retired to their tents, satisfied that the next day would bring about the capture of the Israelites. Meanwhile, the Israelites were becoming more and more fearful as the news spread that the Egyptian army was pursuing them. With darkness coming on, some of them imagined that a blood-thirsty mob of soldiers would charge them at any moment. Anxiety grew steadily amid their millions. Most of them had little faith that their God would make any move to help them. They felt that Moses was mostly to blame for their terrible situation, and so a huge part of them moved up around the camp of Moses and Aaron, and shouted all kinds of unkind and threatening remarks.
“We told you at first that we didn’t want to leave Egypt!” they yelled. “It would have been better to remain there as live slaves than to come out here in the desert to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s swords and spears!”
However, not all the people were so rude to Moses and Aaron. Many of them realized that they should look to God for help. Thousands fell to their knees and begged for divine aid. But even as they prayed, the tumult and confusion increased as others kept on bitterly shouting against Moses for leading them out into the desert (Ex. 14:10-12).
Moses knew that something must be done to calm them. Ordinarily, Aaron spoke for Moses because Aaron was more gifted as a speaker. Moses felt that this was a time when he should do his own speaking. He asked God for wisdom in what to say and do, and then walked to an elevated spot where many could hear him. But only a small part of all the Israelites were close enough to even see him. Though they had set up their camps closer together than usual, they were still spread out for miles around. Moses held up his hands and spoke as loudly as he could to as many as possible.
“This loud complaining and wailing must stop!” he cried out. Perhaps it was the mere sight of Moses that caused the people for quite a distance to suddenly quiet down. Perhaps it was the ringing sound of his voice, made louder by echoing back from rocky cliffs behind him.
“This display of fear and confusion is anything but pleasing to God!” Moses exclaimed. “He has promised to take care of us. The only voices God wants to hear from us right now are those from you who are sincerely asking Him for help. You don’t need to be afraid. Just be patient and see how God will rescue you. Remember that, and pass it back through your numbers. Some of you have looked back and have seen the Egyptian army approaching. Believe in God; that is the last any of you will ever see of Pharaoh and his chariots and his men” (v. 13)!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. “Stand still and see His salvation”!