Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Beshalah 5767 / February 3, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

The Wars of the Gods

 

Prof. (Emeritus) Haim Genizi

 

Department of General History

 

The Lord said to Moses:   Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea (Exodus 14:2).

Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, specify so many landmarks to indicate the route along which Moses was to take the Israelites back?

 1) “before Pi-hahiroth”;

2) “between Migdol and the sea”;

3) “before Baal-zephon”;

4) “you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.” 

Why did Moses need such explicit instructions?  Moreover, who was Baal-zephon, and what was he doing in Egypt?

Let us begin with the last question.  It was customary in the world at that time to place idols of deities at crossroads so that they would bless the wayfarers and protect them.   Even today, touring Europe, one encounters sculpted crucifixes at crossroads.   It turns out that at the gateway exiting from Egypt, along the road leading north to the land of Canaan, the statue of a Canaanite god, [1] Baal-zephon, had been placed in a temple (just as migdol means a tower) to greet those who were traveling to Canaan and to bless them. [2]

In commanding Moses to turn back and encamp facing Baal-zephon, the Lord sought to mislead Pharaoh:  “Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are astray in the land’” (Ex. 14:3); Pharaoh would think that although the Lord was stronger than the gods of Egypt and therefore succeeded in destroying them, He would not be able to overcome Baal-zephon, who was a Canaanite god. [3]   Mekhilta, cited by Rashi, s.v. “before Baal-zephon,” gives an interpretation along these lines:   “It [the idol of Baal-zephon] alone had been left of all the gods of Egypt, in order to mislead them – that they should say that their god was a difficult one to overcome.”  In view of this, perhaps one should read Pharaoh’s words differently; instead of taking “wilderness” as the subject and saying that “the wilderness has closed in on them,” perhaps he was saying that Baal-zephon had closed the wilderness in upon them [sagar aleihem ha-midbar]. [4]

Now we can understand the need for so many landmarks being mentioned in G-d’s instructions to Moses.  Moses was about to take the Israelites out of Egypt, out of an unclean country, contaminated by pagan gods.   He surely would not have chosen to have the Israelites encamp before the temple of the pagan god Baal-zephon; but the Lord’s plan was to mislead Pharaoh and make him think that Baal-zephon would stop the G-d of Israel in His path. Therefore, G-d gave Moses numerous landmarks that were specified, to prevent Moses from making any mistake and to assure that he follow the Lord’s orders, even though they seemed contrary to monotheism.   Indeed, Moses did as the Lord had commanded and made the Israelites encamp before Baal-zephon, as it is written:   “The Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon” (Ex. 14:9).   Ironically, it was a pagan idol that witnessed the redemption of the Israelites and the fall of Egypt.

                                                                                                                                          



[1] Baal-zephon is c Alciyn Ba’al of the Ugaritic texts, who dwelt in the heights of the north. See U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. I. Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967), p. 160. His abode was on Mount Zapan, “the Mount Olympus of the Canaanites…its location is …some 19 miles (30km.) north of the city of Ugarit near Latakia-Ras Shamra by the Syrian coast.” Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), pp. 108-109. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman era, the Greeks identified Baal with Zeus, and Cassius Zeus was worshipped in the temple of Baal-zephon.   See Martin Noth, Exodus (Philadelphia: 1962), pp. 109-110.

[2] Amos Hakham surmises that perhaps a cultic site had been built to Baal-zephon near the narrow projection of the Red Sea, since the Sidonians (Canaanite-Phoenicians) were seafarers who used to sail in the Red Sea and would come to worship their god before setting sail.  Da’at Mikra, Exodus (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1991), vol. 1, p. 242, note 12.

[3] Similarly, the servants of the King of Aram thought, “Their G-d is a G-d of mountains; that is why they got the better of us.  But if we fight them in the plain, we will surely get the better of them” (I Kings 20:23).

[4] Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, trans. Walter Jacob (New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, 1992), p. 391, translates this way:   The wilderness has closed in on them – the subject here was Baal-zephon, the Egyptian idol. He, along with Migdol and Pi-hahiroth, sealed off Egypt, so that entry into the desert was barred.” Though Jacob (like Rashi) thought Baal-zephon was an Egyptian god, he correctly noted that this parasha was discussing a war not only between Egyptians and Israelites, but between rival deities.