The Legends of the Jews— Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses

Author: Louis Ginzberg

Pharaoh Pursues the Hebrews

When Pharaoh permitted Israel to depart, he was under the impression that they were going only a three days’ journey into the wilderness for the purpose of offering sacrifices. He sent officers with them, whose duty was to bring them back at the appointed time. The exodus took place on a Thursday. On the following Sunday the king’s watchers noticed that the Israelites, so far from preparing for a return, were making arrangements looking to a long sojourn in the desert. They remonstrated and urged them to go back. The Israelites maintained that Pharaoh had dismissed them for good, but the officers would not be put off with their mere assertions. They said, "Willy-nilly, you will have to do as the powers that be command." To such arrogance the Israelites would not submit, and they fell upon the officers, slaying some and wounding others. The maimed survivors went back to Egypt, and report the contumacy of the Israelites to Pharaoh. Meantime Moses, who did not desire the departure of his people to have the appearance of flight before the Egyptians, gave the signal to turn back to Pi-hahiroth. Those of little faith among the Israelites tore their hair and their garments in desperation, though Moses assured them that by the word of God they were free men, and no longer slaves to Pharaoh. [12] Accordingly, they retraced their steps to Pi-hahiroth, where two rectangular rocks form an opening, within which the great sanctuary of Baal-zephon was situated. The rocks are shaped like human figures, the one a man and the other a woman, and they were not chiseled by human hands, but by the Creator Himself. The place had been called Pithom in earlier times, but later, on account of the idols set up there, it received the name Hahiroth. Of set purpose God had left Baal-zephon uninjured, alone of all the Egyptian idols. He wanted the Egyptian people to think that this idol was possessed of exceeding might, which it exercised to prevent the Israelites from journeying on. To confirm them in their illusory belief, God caused wild beasts to obstruct the road to the wilderness, and they took it for granted that their idol Baal-zephon had ordained their appearance. [13]

Pi-hahiroth was famous, besides, on account of the treasures heaped up there. The wealth of the world which Joseph had acquired through the sale of corn he had stored up during the seven years of plenty, he had divided into three parts. The first part he surrendered to Pharaoh. The second part he concealed in the wilderness, where it was found by Korah, though it disappeared again, not to come to view until the Messianic time, and then it will be for the benefit of the pious. The third part Joseph hid in the sanctuary of Baal-zephon, whence the Hebrews carried it off as booty. [14]

When Amalek and the magicians brought the information to Pharaoh, that the Israelites had resolved not to return to Egypt, his heart and the heart of his whole people turned against them. The very counselors that had persuaded him to dismiss the children of Israel spake now as follows: " If we had only been smitten with the plaques, we could have resigned ourselves to our fate. Or if, besides being smitten with the plagues, we had been compelled to let the Hebrews depart from the land, that, too, we could have been borne with patience. But to be smitten with the plagues, to be compelled to let our slaves depart from us, and to sit by and see them go off with our riches, that is more than we can endure."

Now that the children of Israel had gone from them the Egyptians recognized how valuable an element they had been in their country. In general, the time of the exodus of Israel was disastrous for their former masters. In addition to losing their dominion over the Israelites, the Egyptians had to deal with mutinies that broke out among many other nations tributary to them, for hitherto Pharaoh had been the ruler of the whole world. The king resorted to blandishments and promises, to induce the people to make war against the Israelites, saying, "As a rule the army marches forth first, and the king follows in security, but I will precede you; and as a rule the king has the first choice of the booty, and as much of it as he desires, but I will take no more than any one of you, and on my return from the war I will divide my treasures of silver, gold, and precious stones among you."

In his zeal Pharaoh did not wait to have his chariot made ready for him he did it with his own hands, and his nobles followed his example. [15] Samael granted Pharaoh assistance, putting six hundred chariots manned with his own hosts at his disposal. [16] These formed the vanguard, and they were joined by all the Egyptians, with their vast assemblages of chariots and warriors, no less than three hundred of their men to one of the children of Israel, each equipped with their different sorts of weapons. The general custom was for two charioteers to take turns at driving a car, but to overtake the Israelites more surely and speedily, Pharaoh ordered three to be assigned to each. The result was that they covered in one day the ground which it had taken the Israelites three to traverse.

The mind of the Egyptians was in no wise directed toward spoil and plunder in this expedition. Their sole and determined purpose was to exterminate Israel, kith and kin. As the heathen lay great stress upon omens when they are about to start out on a campaign, God caused all their preparations to proceed smoothly, without the slightest untoward circumstance. Everything pointed to a happy issue. [17] Pharaoh, himself an adept in magic, had a presentiment that dire misfortune would befall the children of Israel in the wilderness, that they would lose Moses there, and there the whole generation that had departed from Egypt would find its grave. Therefore he spoke to Dathan and Abiram, who remained behind in Egypt, saying: "Moses is leading them, but he himself knows not whither. Verily, the congregation of Israel will lift up their voice in the wilderness, and cry, and there they will be destroyed." He thought naturally that these visions had reference to an imminent future, to the time of his meeting with his dismissed slaves. But his error was profound - he was hurrying forward to his own destruction. [18]

When he reached the sanctuary of Baal-zephon, Pharaoh, in his joy at finding him spared while all the other idols in Egypt had been annihilated, lost no time, but hastened to offer sacrifices to him, and he was comforted, "for," he said, "Baal-zephon approves my purpose of drowning the children of Israel in the sea." [19]

When the Israelites beheld the huge detachments of the Egyptian army moving upon them, and when they considered that in Migdol there were other troops stationed, besides, more, indeed, than their own numbers, men, women, and children all told, great terror overwhelmed them. [20] What affrighted them most, was the sight of the Angel of Egypt darting through the air as he flew to the assistance of the people under his tutelage. They turned to Moses, saying: "What has thou done to us? Now they will requite us for all that hath happened - that their first-born were smitten, and that we ran off with their money, which was thy fault, for thou didst bid up borrow gold and silver from our Egyptian neighbors and depart with their property."

The situation of the Israelites was desperate. Before them was the sea, behind them the Egyptians, on both sides the wild beasts of the desert. [21] The wicked among them spoke to Moses, saying, "While we were in Egypt, we said to thee and to Aaron, ’The Lord look upon you, and judge, because ye have made our savor to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.’ Then there died many of our brethren during the days of darkness, which was worse than the bondage in which the Egyptians kept us. Nevertheless our fate in the desert will be sadder than theirs. They at least were mourned, and their bodies ere buried, but our corpses will lie exposed, consumed in the day by drought and by frost in the night."

Moses in his wisdom knew how to pacify the thousands and myriads under his leadership. He impressed them with the words, "Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord." "When will His salvation come?" questioned the people, and he told them it would appear the following day, but they protested, "We cannot wait until to-morrow." Then Moses prayed to God, and the Lord showed him the angel hosts standing ready to hasten to the assistance of the people. [22]

They were not agreed as to what they were to do. There were four contending parties. The opinion of the first party was that they seek death by drowning in the sea; of the second, that they return to Egypt; the third was in favor of a pitched battle with the enemy, and the fourth thought it would be a good plan to intimidate the Egyptians by noise and a great hubbub. To the first Moses said, "Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord;" to the second, "The Egyptians whom ye have seen to-day, ye shall see them again no more forever;" to the third, "The Lord shall fight for you;" and to the fourth, "Ye shall hold your peace." "What, then, shall we do?" these asked their leader, and Moses answered them, saying, "Ye shall bless, praise, extol, adore and glorify Him that is the Lord of war!" Instead of the sword and the five sorts of arms which they bore, they mad use of their mouth, and it was of greater avail than all possible weapons of war. The Lord hearkened unto their prayer, for which He had but been waiting. [23]

Moses also addressed himself to God, saying: "O Lord of the world! I am like the shepherd who, having undertaken to pasture a flock, has been heedless enough to drive his sheep to the edge of a precipice, and then is in a despair how to get them down again. Pharaoh is behind my flock Israel, in the south is Baal-zephon, in the north Midgol, and before us the sea lies spread out. [24] Thou knowest, O Lord, that it is beyond human strength and human contrivance to surmount the difficulties standing in our way. Thine alone is the work of procuring deliverance for this army, which left Egypt at Thy appointment. We despair of all other assistance or device, and we have recourse only to our hope in Thee. If there be any escape possible, we look up to Thy providence to accomplish it for us." [25] With such words Moses continued to make fervent supplication to God to succor Israel in their need. But God cut short his prayer, saying: "Moses, My children are in distress - the sea blocks the way before them, the enemy is in hot pursuit after them, and thou standest here and prayest. Sometimes long prayer is good, but sometimes it is better to be brief. If I gathered the waters together unto one place, and let the dry land appear for Adam, a single human being, should I not do the same for this holy congregation? I will save them if only for the sake of the merits of Abraham, who stood ready to sacrifice his son Isaac unto Me, and for the sake of My promise to Jacob. The sun and the moon are witnesses that I will cleave the sea for the seed of the children of Israel, who deserve My help for going after Me in the wilderness unquestioningly. Do thou but see to it that they abandon their evil thought of returning to Egypt, and then it will not be necessary to turn to Me and entreat My help." [26]

Moses, however, was still very much troubled in mind, on account of Samael, who had not left off lodging accusations before God against Israel since the exodus from Egypt. The Lord adopted the same procedure in dealing with the accuser as the experienced shepherd, who, at the moment of transferring his sheep across a stream, was faced by a ravening wolf. The shepherd threw a strong ram to the wolf, and while the two engaged in combat, the rest of the flock was carried across the water, and then the shepherd returned and snatch the wolf’s supposed prey away from him. Samael said to the Lord: "Up to this time the children of Israel were idol worshippers, and now Thou proposest so great a thing as dividing the sea for them?" What did the Lord do? He surrendered Job to Samael, saying, "While he busies himself with Job, Israel will pass through the sea unscathed, and as soon as they are in safety, I will rescue Job from the hands of Samael." [27]

Israel had other angel adversaries, besides. Uzza, the tutelary Angel of the Egyptians, appeared before God, and said, "O Lord of the world! I have a suit with this nation which Thou hast brought forth out to Egypt. If it seemeth well to Thee, let their angel Michael appear, and contend with me before Thee." The Lord summoned Michael, and Uzza stated his charges against Israel: "O Lord of the world! Thou didst decree concerning this people of Israel that is hall be held in bondage by my people, the Egyptians, for a period of four hundred years. But they had dominion over them only eighty-six years, therefore the time of their going forth hath not yet arrived. If it be Thy will, give me permission to take them back to Egypt, that they may continue in slavery for the three hundred and fourteen years that are left, and Thy word be fulfilled. As Thou are immutable, so let Thy decree be immutable!"

Michael was silent, for he knew not how to controvert these words, and it seemed as if Uzza had won his suit. But the Lord Himself espoused the cause of Israel, and He said to Uzza: "The duty of serving thy nation was laid upon My children only on account of an unseemly word uttered by Abraham. When I spoke to him, saying, ’I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it,’ he made answer, ’Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?’ Therefore did I say to him, ’Thy seed shall be a stranger.’ But it is well-known and manifest before Me that they were ’strangers’ from the day of Isaac’s birth, and. reckoning thence, the period of four hundred years has elapsed, and thou hast no right to keep My children in bondage any longer." [28]


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Chicago: Louis Ginzberg, "Pharaoh Pursues the Hebrews," The Legends of the Jews— Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, trans. Rodwell, J. M. in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses Original Sources, accessed July 5, 2022,

MLA: Ginzberg, Louis. "Pharaoh Pursues the Hebrews." The Legends of the Jews— Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, translted by Rodwell, J. M., in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, Original Sources. 5 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Ginzberg, L, 'Pharaoh Pursues the Hebrews' in The Legends of the Jews— Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, trans. . cited in , The Legends of the Jews—Volume 3: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses. Original Sources, retrieved 5 July 2022, from