When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, "If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt." So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.  The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle. (Exodus 13:17-18 NIV)
Pharaoh’s decree was sent and God’s people were declared free from this Egyptian oppression. They were no longer slaves to a world that enslaves unto death but now liberated unto new life. With Moses leading they gather their meager belongings, despite the wounds and labor of cruel slavery, and follow God's chosen leader.
As the children of Israel make their exodus God did not send them along the path that was the shortest. The shortest route, referred to as the Via Maris in the late Bronze age (1600-1100 BC), was not in the plan of the Almighty. The Via Maris eventually comes to a split where one must leave the Mediterranean coast and start towards desert. This route being so popular, it is possible that many recognized it as they saw the final glimpse of their journey’s nearest passage.
That way was a common trade route where large caravans would pass through with spices, herbs, wares, and slaves. Maybe even a few of the Israelites had been on that route with Egyptian caravans on route to deliver goods or to dig the mines for minerals and turquoise--a very sought after stone of their time. The way God chose for Moses to lead the people was, no doubt, unpopular. Just imagine the possible exclaims heard on that day.
The NKJV records:
Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt. (Exodus 13:17)This passage is frequently used in application to suggest that God does not always take us the shortest route and thereby concluding that God has some hard times before us and "living for God isn’t easy". The Christian life is certainly not characterized by flowery utopia. In fact, it is commonly characterized by military terms and in fact we will be hated because of our Lord and those who stand "firm to the end will be saved." (Matthew 10:22 NIV) Military terms are frequent in the epistles of Paul who reminded Timothy that he was "enlisted...as a soldier" by God Himself. (2 Timothy 2:4 NKJV)
A closer look at this passage though does not match the application or characterization. In fact, the last portion of 13:17 indicates God concern for the people that "If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt." God had concern here as He led them to His destination.
Scholars confirm that the trade route would have certainly brought conflict to the tired and well traveled Israelites. The exodus from cruel slavery and bringing the bones of Joseph out of Egypt was certainly a defining moment in the history and collective thought of the Israelite people. Jewish theology and thought, and later Christian partially, defined in these times.
God had purposed for Israel to remember this exodus and created the sanctification of the firstborn and the Passover celebration to serve as symbols and reminders. The Almighty was using an indelible marker, so that this time would be a reminder if they turned from Him but also to encourage and build their faith to draw closer to Him.
I believe God purposed that their faith should be strengthened by His supernatural road of experience which lay ahead. It included God’s power, His faithfulness, and goodness with food and provision, and then His mighty acts and decrees at the foot of Mount Sinai.
God is not the taskmaster of cruel slavery; rather He asks willful servitude to a cross, that we carry, but with rewards everlasting. Sacrifice and reward are included. In fact, the writer of Hebrews, would remind Israelites generations removed, that without faith it is "impossible" to please God and there are two prerequisites to those who come to God (Hebrews 11:6). One, they must believe that He is--the self-existing God over all and finally that He is a "rewarder" (KJV). He rewards those that diligently seek Him.
Two chapters later, in 15:17, we read of Elim. This passage is situated after the bitter waters of Marah. Beyond Mount Sinai where they were punished to drink water with the ashes of their idolatrous concoction. We simply read:
Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water. (Exodus 15:27 NIV)Thank God for Elim. This may appear to be such a small and seemingly insignificant verse yet it clearly shows the sovereignty of Almighty God. He can open the bitter waters of Marah yet shortly after lead them to a place of delight and happiness.
Elim: 70 palm trees and 12 wells of water.
Only God knows the limits of our strengths. Only God knows how much we can truly bear. When we seemingly are on the precipice of spiritual death and starvation, there will be times when He leads us to Elim. In spite of us He continues to bless and mercifully bestow delight and "reward" upon His chosen.
Long and straight is the path of righteousness yet as the Psalmist records it is for His names sake (23:3). The blessings and trials, the battle and the victory, the storm and the rainbow is all for His names sake!
Many times believers have knelt in prayer and seemingly cannot feel a thing from God. No visceral or spiritual connection. It seems that direction and His will, then, become to us as enigma and speculation. All the while we "diligently seek Him" with faith believing in our eternally powerful God and knowing that He is a "rewarder". Yes, He does reward and suddenly out of the darkness--in our secret place with Him--the Glory of God comes shining through.
Only one touch of His Spirit and our Faith is renewed. Seemingly, all hope is gone and God manifests His Glory upon us. We stumble and fall in the darkness of this world groping for our way, yet the light and direction of God comes lighting the way! That is the sovereignty of God moving in our lives as vessels which are submitted unto Him.