Parsha Shemot––the first in the famous tale/legend/myth/story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt––blows through a number of the highlights at blistering speed.
You’ve got a Pharaoh turning on the Israelites, the baby in the basket, Moses growing up as an Egyptian, Moses killing an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite slave, Moses fleeing, marrying Zipporah, the burning bush, and the hatching of a plan to get the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and off to the Promised Land.
This all happens within the first several pages of the first book of Exodus. Imagine if The Lord of the Rings trilogy was halfway through Return of the King just a few minutes after your ass hits the couch. It’s jarring! It’s especially jarring when you intuitively know from common knowledge that this is an epic story. One assumes there’d be a bit more to it. But the Torah is famously lacking in detail––and there’s no exception for Moses’s story.
We do get at least a reminder of how this all ties into Genesis. The text flows like a Star Wars prologue.
“Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.'”
Tell me you can’t see that running on the screen before a Star Wars flick.
Stranger Than Fiction
Now feels like a good time to acknowledge that there’s very little archaeological evidence to support that the Exodus story actually happened––certainly not to the extent depicted in the text. This isn’t a controversial admission.
That said––and this is not a new observation––many have found it nonetheless interesting or even inspiring that Jews selected this story for their creation myth. If you’re totally making up a creation story from scratch, one would think you’d go the non-slave route.
I’m not very interested in whether or not the story happened or to what degree it did. I can still find interesting, relevant lessons in this story. I mean, re-read that Star Wars: Exodus intro. A new leader rising to power and proclaiming a minority too numerous and needing to be suppressed is uncomfortably timely.
Pharaohs of the World
Exodus Pharaoh provides the ultimate in examples for a xenophobic dictatorship. One of his most famous rules is to throw every boy born to an Israelite into the Nile. Girls get to live.
But not everyone is down with Pharaoh’s treatment of the Israelites.
“The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘ This must be a Hebrew child.'”
The baby boy is Moses, left floating in a wicker basket after her Levite mother hid him for three months. Moses grows up and the Pharaoh’s daughter makes him her son.
There’s no indication that anyone is suspicious of Moses. (Again, the Torah is light on details.) But you can draw the conclusion that it’s only what’s in his blood––his heritage––that the Pharaoh would have a problem with.
This seems especially timely for the Jewish community to consider after a sharp rise in anti-Semitism predominantly directed toward visibly Jewish people. Many of the non-Orthodox among us can blend in. Or, we can go the other way and make a point to mark our Jewishness in another way.
In other words, we can stay hidden among the Pharaohs of the world or proudly showoff who we are.
Remembering The Covenant
Just a few pages into Exodus and Moses is already on the run after killing an Egyptian he sees beating a Hebrew. In his defense:
“He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
Moses flees before Pharaoh can find out, but the Egyptian ruler determines to kill Moses once he does. Meanwhile, Moses makes it to Midian where he quickly immerses himself in the family of a priest and marries his daughter, Zipporah. They have a son named Gershom.
The Pharoah of Moses’s time dies and God finally starts to take notice of the Hebrews.
“God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelis, and God took notice of him.
Wait a second… God just remembered His covenant? Did He fucking forget!? It’s a translation from Hebrew, yes, but if the English carries the same meaning of the original text––then, damn. It really sounds like God forgot about the people he made a covenant with. What was God doing? Was God busy? Was God making covenants with other tribes?
HOW MANY COVENANTS HAVE YOU MADE, GOD!? Do you just swipe right and make a covenant with any tribe!?
(I think that was an accurate Tinder reference. I got married before it was a thing, so…)
Nobody seems to mind that the plight of the Hebrews slipped God’s mind when He appears to Moses “in a blazing fire out of a bush.” Yes, we’re already at the burning bush.
The Burning Bush
God calls out to Moses. “Here I am.”
God continues, saying “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”
Is anyone else curious just how long God has been “mindful of their sufferings”? This text seems to portray God as not-all-that powerful and not-all-that-knowing or omnipotent. I mean, that’s fine. Just not your classical depiction of God. In this Parsha of Exodus, God sounds like He’s been on vacation and is just catching up on his e-mails, generously skipping ahead to the one marked with a red flag: “Urgent.”
Anyway, God tells Moses that he’s going to be the one to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. But Moses isn’t so sure he’s the man for the job.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” Genesis God might say something snarky or do something out of spite here. After all, Genesis God wasn’t a fan of people doubting Him. But Exodus God is a bit more reassuring.
“I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.”
Awe, that’s nice!
“And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”
Ah, there’s the “worship me” bit. That sounds more like God.
Despite God’s encouragement, Moses continues to doubt himself throughout this Parsha. He begs God to choose someone else to be His “agent.” You can sense that God is growing tired of Moses’s whing or lack of confidence. God finally agrees to let Moses’s Levite brother Aaron to speak on their behalf to the people.
Finally, Moses starts to follow God’s plan and heads back to Egypt with his wife and sons in tow. God leaves Moses with a line that blew my mind. First, God hints at the plagues He’s going to unleash on Egypt to help free the Hebrews. But then God says, “I, however, will stiffen his [Pharaoh’s] heart so that he will not let the people go.”
That line makes God seem pretty powerful again; having the ability to control Pharaoh’s resolve. But what for? Why not just let Pharaoh get scared shitless and let the Hebrews go?
We don’t get an answer. Instead, things start to play out as God suggested it would. Pharoah has no interest in letting the Hebrews go and instead becomes even harsher with them. Now, Moses is pissed with God.
“Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”
2020 translation: WTF, God? Get off your ass and do the damn thing you said you were going to do!
God responds. “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”
Well, that reads creepy and ominous. God comes off like a B-Movie villain here. “He’ll see! You’ll see! You’ll ALL see!”
But if you know anything about Exodus, you know God does indeed have a few tricks in store for Pharoah.
Onward with Parsha Vaera.