The Shorter Way
I’ve always understood why Israel took the “Desert Road” to Canaan. They had to go to Sinai to receive the Torah before conquering it. Furthermore, God had previously told Moshe at the Burning Bush that: Israel “would worship God on this mountain” (Shemot 3:12). Therefore, the plan from the outset was to go to Canaan via the wilderness. And so, I’ve never really understood the opening pasuk in this week’s parsha.
“God did not lead them by the Land of the Philistines Road for it was near, because God said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt’” (ibid 13:17).
I fully appreciate the dangers fraught by the quick route to freedom, but was that really the reason they did not take it? As far as I understood, it was never the actual plan!!
Unfortunately I do not have a good answer to this question, but the following point may shed more light on the subject.
God promised the Patriarchs that their descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan. However He never promised them that He would give them the Torah. He did not even promise them that He would be their God.
Indeed, when Moshe first approached Israel all he said was: “I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey” (ibid 3:17).
He said nothing about going via Sinai, let alone receiving the Torah. In fact, Israel did not even know anything about worshipping God in the wilderness. That message was only given to Pharaoh, not Israel. As far as Israel were concerned they were going straight to Canaan.
This idea perhaps explains a later conversation between God and Moshe at Sinai. Before He gives the Torah, God insists that Moshe tell the people the explicit terms of the covenant and ask if they accept it:
“'If you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel" (ibid 19:5-6).
Notice how Israel has a genuine choice. They are not ordered to accept the Torah nor are they threatened with any repercussions if they do not. Perhaps it is because it is a new item on the agenda that they were never prepared for, that they knew nothing of previously.
Therefore, let’s examine the beginning of this week’s parsha from Israel’s angle, without an inkling of future events at Sinai. All they know is that God has promised to take them to Canaan. For them, the diversion to the “Desert Road” must have come as a surprise.
There are therefore two possibilities, either they imagined the reason for themselves, that they were not yet ready for battle, or that God diplomatically gave them this message; it being true, but incomplete.
Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The 3 Day Game" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_02_01_archive.html