In Essays

Parsha Beshalach | Biblical Kvetching and the “Rod of God”

Photo by Juanma Clemente-Alloza on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 – 17:16. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Bo.

The Israelites are on their way to the Promised Land after their God unleashed His 10 plagues on the Egyptians, continually hardening Pharaoh’s heart to prolong the ordeal/make the narrative that much more memorable. God follows along “in a pillar of cloud by day” to help guide them along.

Sounds nice, until He decides to bring back some of His old tricks.

“I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them, that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”

Jesus Christ, God. What’s the superiority complex? The egomania? Isn’t it enough to be saving Your people? You need glory on top of it? Besides, I’m pretty sure the Egyptians know that you’re “the Lord” after unleashing those plagues. Nobody is confusing you with Bill in accounting.

The God of Chutzpah

As promised, Pharaoh has a change of heart and regrets “releasing Israel” from their service and orders his men to pursue the Israelites. When news reaches the Israelites, they take their anger out on Moses.

“Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?”

Burn.

“Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?”

This feels like such a contemporary argument. “I told you this would happen! Didn’t I tell him this would happen? I knew this would happen!”

Moses tries to get them to buck up, promising “The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

That’s an awful lot of confidence in the Lord considering it was also the Lord who stiffened Pharaoh’s to give chase to the Israelites in the first place. In other words, Moses is asking his wandering Israelites to trust the invisible entity that got them into this mess.

That’s chutzpah.

Successful Delivery

As you’ve probably guessed, the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the banks of the Sea of Reeds (not the Red Sea, which most of us mistakenly think). Moses holds his arms out over the sea and “the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground.”

This makes it seem less like the instantaneous magic trick we’ve come to know from popular depictions of the exodus.

God, who to this point seems to be playing both sides, steps up for the Israelites.

“At the morning watch, the Lord looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He locked the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.'”

God then tells Moses to hold his arms out over the sea, returning the water to its normal state and killing Pharaoh’s entire army.

“Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.”

Yes, Moses again has the trust of the Israelites––for about 24 verses.

Constant Kvetching

After singing a song glorifying God (I guess He got what He wanted), Moses and the Israelites head out into the wilderness. After three days with no water, the kvetching returned.

“And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?'”

This was only the beginning. On the fifteenth day, the grumbling against Moses and Aaron continues.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into the wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Mmm, that’s some delicious kvetching.

God works His magic to appease the Israelites, telling Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion––that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not.”

Basically, God is conditionally feeding His people. The condition being, honoring the sabbath or the day of rest. Of course, some didn’t listen and they went out on the seventh day anyway, looking for some grub.

“How long will you people refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? Mark that the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.”

The Secret of Manna

The Israelites name the food the Lord is providing them “manna.” They describe it as a white coriander seed that tastes like wafers dipped in honey. And according to the Torah, that’s all they eat for forty years while wandering the desert until they reach the border of the land of Canaan.

That’s when the kvetching makes a comeback.

“Give us water to drink,” say the Israelites. This seems to piss Moses off.

“Why do you quarrel with me?” he says. “Why do you try the Lord?”

The Israelites don’t back down.

“Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

Oh, I love this kind of kvetching. It implies that Moses left his royal life, put his own life at risk by standing up against Pharoah, led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and wandered around the desert for forty years all as a sick gag to kill his own people of dehydration.

These are my people.

Moses, for his part, kvetches back to God.

“What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”

God must be tired of it, too, because he helps Moses fetch some water for the Israelites by using the rod he used in the Nile for the river of blood episode. He instructs Moses to strike a rock with the rod, he does it, and water comes out for his people.

The Fight with Amalek

Here’s a bit you probably don’t remember about the Exodus story. After quenching Israel’s thirst, the story jumps to a fight against the nation of Amalek led by a grandson of Esau. It’s a bit jarring for the reader, especially one who’s familiarity with the Exodus story jumps from fleeing Egypt to the Ten Commandments.

Anyway, it’s happening. Amalek is attacking, so Moses sends Joshua with some men to “do battle with Amalek.” He promises to head up to the top of the hill with the “rod of God” (name of my sex tape) so that Israel would prevail in battle whenever he held up his hand. If his hands lowered, Amalek would prevail.

Over time, Moses’ hands become heavy and so Aaron and Hur support his hands by placing a stone under him. Joshua and his men are then able to overwhelm the people of Amalek.

In the aftermath of battle, the Lord gets fiesty, saying to Moses:

“Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!”

And blot it out He did…except, of course, for this mention in Parsha Beshalach––read by millions once every year.

Onward with Parsha Yitro.

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