Detours are frustrating. Detours are stressful. Detours are burdensome. When you are traveling in unfamiliar or unfrequented territory and you come across a detour it feels like a tremendous setback. It interrupts your direction, it interrupts your schedule, and, if you’re like me, it interrupts your blood pressure. But detours are often necessary. For example, detours are utilized when dangerous conditions are present. You may be forced to detour because a bridge is washed away or debris is obstructing the roadway. Detours are utilized when improvements are underway. You may be forced to detour because construction crews are working to repair or build better transportation systems. Detours may interfere with your life but they typically exist for a reason.
God is not unfamiliar with detours. According to scripture, He has been known to use them for the benefit of His people. In Exodus 13:17-18 we learn that “God did not lead [the Israelites] by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near…but God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.” In other words, God took the Israelites on the scenic route from Egypt to Canaan rather than the direct route. But why did God use such a detour?
God knew that the Israelites had endured tremendous hardship. When Moses and Aaron began negotiating with Pharaoh for the release of God’s people, the immediate consequence was increased workloads for the Israelites. We are told in Exodus 5:6-9 that because Moses and Aaron’s influence was causing the Israelites to “rest from their burdens,” Pharaoh stopped supplying the straw they needed in order to make bricks and began requiring them to gather it for themselves while maintaining the same daily quota of bricks that were required when straw was supplied. The situation became so burdensome that the Israelites accused Moses of putting “a sword in [Pharaoh’s] hand to kill us” (Exodus 5:20), and, as a result, they “did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exodus 6:9).
Needless to say, the Israelites were exhausted when this journey began because of the physical and emotional toil they endured. God knew that it would not take much for their depleted strength and broken spirit to potentially result in a quick retreat. In fact, there were multiple occasions when the Israelites expressed a desire to return home. When they got stuck at the Red Sea, with a charging Egyptian military in pursuit, they complained about their predicament and said that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt (Exodus 14:11-13). When food became scarce they complained about their predicament and said that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt (Exodus 16:3). When water became scarce they complained about their predicament and said that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt (Exodus 17:3).
God knew that they would encounter hurdles that would make them want to turn around, so he chose the route with the least amount of hurdles. This is evident in the text’s description of God’s concern that the people might “change their minds when they see war” and, as a result, want to “return to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17). So God, in His infinite wisdom and abundant mercy, did not allow the burden of war to be placed on these people when they were at their weakest. He loved them enough to protect them from an obstacle that He knew they were not ready to endure. Therefore, He led them on a detour so that war would be delayed and their strength could be restored. Despite the Israelite’s belief that the journey was too difficult because of their enemy’s pursuit or their diminishing food and water supplies, the truth is that their journey was no where near as difficult as it could have been if God had not provided the detour. Ultimately, God’s decision to lead Israel on the long route toward the Red Sea revealed how much He loved His people, because He used a detour to protect them from enduring a burden that they were not yet ready to endure.
The lesson to be gained from this brief, narrative detail about the exodus is that God knows exactly what His people need. He can see, from His vantage point on the throne in heaven, the big picture that we, from our vantage point down here on earth, cannot see. Because of His vantage point, God will occasionally use detours in our lives in order to accomplish an objective that we cannot comprehend yet. Joseph endured the detour of enslavement and imprisonment while God prepared him to save his family. David endured the detour of living as a fugitive while God prepared him to become the next King. Elijah endured the detour of isolation while God prepared him to challenge the nation’s idolatry problem. In essence, God used detours in the lives of these heroes as if they were continuing education programs, and the lesson each of them were being taught is summarized by Solomon in Proverbs 3:5 where he wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
We may not always understand how God operates. We may not always understand why God operates. We may not always understand when God operates. But we do not need to understand those things as long as we understand that He loves us unconditionally (Romans 8:35-39), protects us from unbearable temptations (1 Corinthians 10:13), strengthens us in times of weakness (1 Peter 5:10), and never abandons us (Hebrews 13:5-6). On these promises our faith should rest as we patiently endure His detours