Not only did the Lord lead the people the long way to where they were going, he told them to backtrack. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%2013:20-14:4&version=NIV He told Moses why: he wanted to provoke Pharaoh and work one more miracle at his expense. He led them to a very vulnerable place.
It looked to Pharaoh like the Israelites were lost and easy to recapture. Where they camped was surrounded by sea and desert. He would sweep in for the kill, right into the trap the Lord set for him.
If we just look at Pharaoh as a man, it seems that God was cruel, toying with him like that, but if we look at him as a thyme of Satan, a different picture emerges. Satan will never do anything righteous. He vigorously opposes God and intends to do every kind of harm to God’s plans, no matter how spectacularly he comes out second best in their encounters. He actually thinks he is strong enough an crafty enough to succeed. He is too stubborn to recognize defeat and too utterly predictable to gain more than short-term advantage.
Satan cannot thwart God’s plans, but he must be destroyed before they can be completed. And so God puts himself, as well as his people, in positions that look weak and defenseless, knowing that Satan will overplay his hand (as he did in forcing the crucifixion of Jesus).
For a while, it will look like all hope is lost, that the leaders are incompetent, and that the enemy is too powerful to withstand. Actually, from any viewpoint but God’s, that exactly describes the human condition in everything from the struggles of any given individual to, say, American foreign policy.
Back then, God was visibly present with his people. He spoke directly to Moses. We no longer have a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The church has multiple leaders, not just Moses. Some of them have direct revelation of some part of what God is up to, but no means of communicating it to the whole church. It appears that Moses didn’t, either.
It almost looks like God wanted most of the people to be essentially clueless so that they would feel and act as helpless as they looked to the enemy. We at least have Scripture, which sets out the general plan for ultimate victory. We have no idea where we are in the working out of that plan.
When we don’t know where we are or where we’re going and all hell breaks loose, maybe we’re exactly where God wants us, and deliverance from the immediate troubles is just around the corner.
Of course, even the miracle that ends this story left Israel in the wilderness and subject to more attacks. Victories in this life seem like near misses, and the next problem awaits us. In fact, despite relentless Satanic attack, a few faithful people always remained in Israel, even in the most backslidden of times. The church, too, has survived multiple crises both in times of stress and complacency and continues to grow. As individuals, we need to wait for God to do what he planned for us from the beginning. Eventually (if only in the next life), everything will be set right.