This week’s Torah portion opens with a description of the Exodus from Egypt. After the Children of Israel journeyed for a few days, God commanded Moses to tell them to backtrack slightly and camp in a very specific location for a very specific purpose.
“Speak to the Children of Israel and let them turn back and encamp before Pi-Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp opposite it by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Children of Israel ‘They are imprisoned [heb. nevuchim] in the land, the desert has locked them in.’ I shall strengthen the heart of Pharaoh and he will pursue them, and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am God.” (Ex. 14:2-4)
It is interesting that at the end of this passage, God told Moses that as a result of this plan Egypt will finally know that He is God. Apparently, the Ten Plagues, including the final death of the firstborn had failed to convince the Egyptians of the supremacy of the God of Israel.
What are the details of this plan? Let’s sum up the content of these verses.
- First, the Children of Israel are to travel back towards Egypt and camp opposite Baal-zephon.
- Upon hearing about this, Pharaoh will conclude that they are “imprisoned” – or nevuchim – in the land and “locked in” by the desert.
- Emboldened by this conclusion, Pharaoh and his army will pursue the Children of Israel and fall right into the trap that God has set for them.
- They will then learn, once and for all, that the Lord is God.
Why there? What is the purpose of the plan?
The location where God wants Israel to camp is very specific. The Bible does not generally give us such detailed descriptions of locations. Yet here, we have very precise coordinates.
before Pi-Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp opposite it by the sea.
Once the specific location at which Israel is to encamp – before Pi-Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea – is stated, the additional detail “before Baal-zephon” seems superfluous. Haven’t the directions been stated clearly enough? What is the importance of Baal-zephon?
According to the plan, it seems, the encampment of Israel at Baal-zephon, specifically, will cause Pharaoh to conclude that Israel is doomed. What is it about Baal-zephon that leads Pharaoh to believe that the God who decimated Egypt with the ten plagues will not be able to save Israel from being “imprisoned” and “locked in”?
When God told Moses how Pharaoh will react to the news, He suggested that Pharaoh will say:
“They are imprisoned [nevuchim] in the land and locked in by the desert.”
What exactly do these phrases mean? “Imprisoned in the land”? “Locked in by the desert”? Why not simply say that Israel is “lost” or “stranded”? Why does God suggest that this is what Pharaoh will say? Furthermore, is there a connection between these unusual phrases and Baal-zephon?
Finally, God said that at the end of this plan, the Egyptians will finally “know that I am God.” The question is obvious. If the Ten Plagues, and especially the plague of the firstborn, didn’t teach the Egyptians to believe in God, why do we suppose that this plan will?
Jewish tradition teaches that the Ten Plagues successfully destroyed all the false gods of Egypt except for one – Baal-zephon. (Rashi) Why? What is it about Baal-zephon that left it unchallenged by all the miraculous signs and wonders that God had done in Egypt?
Who is Baal-zephon?
What is the meaning of the name Baal-zephon? From the prefix Baal we know that we are dealing with a pagan god. Biblical text is replete with references to various Baals or pagan gods. Baal-zevuv, Baal-pe’or, or Baalim (the plural of Baal) are but a few examples. The Hebrew word Baal literally translates as “master”, “lord”, or “owner.” Zephon – is the Hebrew word for “north.”
A precise translation of Baal-zephon is “Master of the North” or “North-Lord.”
Remarkably, the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian religious text, mentions a prominent god known as “Lord of the Northern Sky” – an almost perfect translation of the Hebrew “Baal-zephon.” This god’s Egyptian name was Set. He was the patron deity of Northern Egypt and was believed to be responsible for fierce desert storms.
According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Set murdered his brother and attempted to kill his nephew Horus. For this, Set was cast out into the lonely desert for eternity. In the 19th Dynasty – the period of Israel’s enslavement – there was a resurgence of reverence for Set, and he was seen as a great god, the god who benevolently restrained the forces of the desert and protected Egypt from foreigners.
Desert storms, the sea, and preventing escape?
Set personified the powers of darkness, chaos, and the sea waters that resisted light and order. The prominent 19th-century Egyptologist Dr. Heinrich Brugsch, asserted that, from the standpoint of an Egyptian in Upper Egypt, the north was rightly considered to be the place of darkness, cold, mist, and rain, all of which were attributes of Set; and that the Hebrews called the region of darkness, or the winter hemisphere, Sephon, a name which appears to be connected beyond a doubt with Saphon, “North.”
As for Jewish sources, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century) writes that Baal-zephon was believed to have the power to prevent slaves from escaping Egypt.
In light of the above, the tradition that Baal-zephon was the only remaining Egyptian god makes sense. Baal-zephon’s dominion was not in Egypt but out in the desert. The ten plagues took place in Egypt itself.
Understanding the plan
Let’s review the plan:
Speak to the Children of Israel and let them turn back and encamp before Pi-Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp opposite it by the sea.
God specifically told Israel to encamp “opposite [Baal-zephon] by the sea.” Recall that Baal-zephon was believed to control the water.
Pharaoh will say of the Children of Israel ‘They are imprisoned [heb. nevuchim] in the land, the desert has locked them in.’
Hearing that Israel was stopped at Baal-zephon, Pharaoh would conclude that Baal-zephon had trapped them. The odd word choice – “They are imprisoned [heb. nevuchim] in the land, the desert has locked them in” – can now be explained.
The Hebrew word nevuchim is not usually translated as “imprisoned.” The actual translation of this word is “perplexed”, “depressed”, or “confused.” One ancient Aramaic translation renders nevuchim as metarfim, meaning “crazy.” (Tagum pseudo Jonathan)
If Pharaoh believed that Israel had fallen into the clutches of Baal-zephon – the god responsible for chaos, darkness, and desert storms – describing Israel as nevuchim would be an accurate way of saying “Baal-zephon has got them!”
The second phrase in Pharaoh’s suggested reaction is sagar aleihem hamidbar – “the desert has locked them in.” But an equally precise translation would be “he has locked the desert upon them.” In other words, Pharaoh believed that Baal-zephon had trapped the children of Israel in the desert.
This understanding is consistent with the ancient Aramaic rendering of Pharaoh’s reaction:
“The nation of the House of Israel is crazy in the land, the god Zephon, master of the desert, has caused them difficulty.” – (Targum ps. Jonathan Ex. 14:3)
Summing up the plan
God led Pharaoh to believe that Baal-zephon had successfully defied the God of Israel. Emboldened by this conclusion, Pharaoh will rush out to defeat Israel in the presence of Baal-zephon, over whom the God of Israel apparently had no power.
Thus, the stage was set for the refutation of the final god of Egypt – and with it all of Egyptian paganism.
With the escaping slaves camped right in front of Baal-zephon, the Egyptian god of storms, chaos, and water was refuted by a storm so orderly that it neatly split the water, miraculously forming two walls. Storms, chaos, and water were all clearly shown to be fully under God’s control.
The splitting of the Red Sea is the greatest miracle of the Exodus story not because it was a greater deviation from the laws of nature than, for example, the plague of blood. The splitting of the sea is the greatest miracle – the cause of the great song of praise that Israel sings to God – because through it Egypt and Israel knew finally and without a shadow of a doubt “that I am God.”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the “Shoulder to Shoulder” podcast.