From Slavery to Freedom

Despite the radical break, there is much continuity between the old world of the Wheel and Avraham’s new world of the Journey. Avraham does not turn overnight into a wide-eyed desert mystic, seeking only the Lord. He seeks the things all sane men seek—pleasure and security—though he hopes for something more, something New. And the only immortality sensible Avraham hopes for is heirs of his body. But this is a great deal more than the generalized fertility of Sumer, where sacred prostitutes of both sexes haunted the temple precincts and dead bodies floated along the Euphrates, just as they still do along the Ganges. From now on, the heirs of Avraham will look not to sacred copulation rites but to their God to assure their line and their land.

This God is the initiator: he encounters them; they do not encounter him. He begins the dialogue, and he will see it through. This God is profoundly different from them, not their projection or their pet, not the usual mythological creature whose intentions can be read in auguries or who can be controlled by human rituals. This God gives and takes beyond human reasoning or justification. Because his motives are not interpretable and his thoughts and actions are not foreseeable, anything—and everything—is possible. Many new things have already come into being as a result of this relationship, but faith most of all, which prior to Avraham had no place in religious feeling and imagination. Because all is possible, faith is possible, even necessary.

Despite the fact that Avraham, on reaching Canaan, built an altar at Shekhem, it is true to say that at a deeper level all the sacred places of the world and all its sacred symbols have been cast away. Now everything is sacred, everything profane. Avraham and his children do not anoint special statues or follow the stars from their glistening temples but listen to the Voice and journey on. Faith supplants the generalized predictability of the ancient world with the possibility of both real success and real failure, real happiness and real tragedy—that is, a real journey whose outcome is not yet. Avraham’s story is real history and irreversible, not the earthly dramatization of a heavenly exemplar. “Avram went”—really went. Cyclical religion goes nowhere because, within its comprehension, there is no future as we have come to understand it, only the next revolution of the Wheel.

Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value. This new value is at first hardly understood; but already in the earliest accounts of Avraham and his family we come upon the carefully composed genealogies of ordinary people, something it would never have occurred to Sumerians to write down, because they accorded no importance to individual memories. For them only impersonal survival, like the kingship, like the harvest, mattered; the individual, the unusual, the singular, the bizarre—persons or events that did not conform to an archetype—could have no meaning. And without the individual, neither time nor history is possible. But the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov—no longer your typical ancient divinity, no longer the archetypal gesturer—is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.

He will continue to intervene. And these interventions will gradually bring about in Avraham’s descendants enormous changes of mind and heart, some of which are only hinted at in the patriarchal narratives. To give but one example: Yaakov, whose anxious guilt in regard to his brother Esav impels him to expect to be slaughtered at Esav’s hands should they ever meet again, at last reconciles with his brother; and in this moment of happy resolution, Yaakov, who has seen the face of God and lived, speaks the uncanny words “Just to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me so kindly.” The narrator, as is his custom, gives us no help in interpreting this gnomic expression. But we know that in this ancient world to “see the face” of someone was to know him, to understand his character, to grasp his identity. Because Yaakov has seen the face of God—has been allowed, however partially, to know God as he really is, to see into the face of ultimate truth—he can also see an individual human being for who he is; and somehow this experience is like the experience of God. What this will mean for the future is yet to be spelled out, but the human being as pawn (Sara, Lot’s daughters, Lot’s wife, Yitzhak) is quietly and subtly giving way to a more exalted vision of what a human being is. At this point in the narrative, we have only the faintest hint of such a development. But as we follow the wanderings of Avraham’s children down the centuries, we will witness many such developments. We will be witnesses, in fact, to the slow evolution of our entire system of values.

The stories of the patriarchs do not come to their close with the story of Yaakov/Israel. Israel eventually has—by his two wives and two concubines—twelve sons, who are slated to turn into the Twelve Tribes of Israel.1 His favorite wife, Rachel, gives him his favorite son, Joseph, the last of the patriarchal figures and the one by whom events are set in motion that bring the Israelites not to permanent settlement in the Promised Land, as might have been expected, but to seemingly permanent slavery in Egypt.

Joseph’s brothers, who are wildly jealous of their father’s attentions to their youngest half-brother, contrive to sell Joseph to a caravan of slave traders who are passing through Canaan and who take him off to Egypt, where he is bound to a householder named Potiphar. By resisting the sexual attentions of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph lands himself in prison, where he gains a reputation for being able to read dreams among the prisoners, one of whom is Pharaoh’s cupbearer. When the cupbearer is reprieved and regains his status in Pharaoh’s house, he is able to recommend Joseph as an infallible interpreter of dreams to his master, who has been troubled in his sleep. Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams (which, according to Joseph, predict seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine) so impress Pharaoh as to win Joseph the most extraordinary status—vizier and second-in-command of all Egypt.

In his new position, Joseph sets about to prepare Pharaoh’s kingdom for the day of famine by storing much of the grain of plenty. By the time famine strikes, Joseph’s stock with Pharaoh and his reputation throughout Egypt could hardly be higher; and it is at this point that Joseph’s brothers arrive, impelled by the famine, which has become universal. The Joseph story—a great short story, especially for any reader who has ever been stalked by sibling rivalry—ends with the most satisfying irony: Joseph’s brothers are reconciled to him, but not before they have been thoroughly humiliated and made to see that he is their unchallengeable superior; father Yaakov resettles with his family in Egypt, where, surrounded by many grandchildren, he dies happy, extending a special blessing to Joseph’s Egyptian children.

Joseph nevers hears the Voice of God, as did his progenitors, the first three patriarchs. But as with the narrative of Rivka’s trickery, we are given to understand that all is taking place according to God’s will. Just as Yitzhak’s torment over giving his blessing to the “wrong” son was a necessary suffering (because it ensured God’s will for Avraham’s line, which ordinary human thinking would have thwarted), Joseph’s suffering at the hands of his brothers and his subsequent slavery were necessary to the eventual survival of the Children of Avraham in famine times. “It was to save life,” Joseph explains to his brothers, “that God sent me on before you.” This God can make use of human beings, whether they mean to do his will or not.

The Bible now falls silent in its recounting of the story of the generations of Avraham. By the time it picks up the narrative—in Exodus, the second book—centuries have elapsed.2 The Children of Israel “bore fruit, they swarmed, they became many, they grew mighty (in number)—exceedingly, yes, exceedingly; the land filled up with them.” And then “a new king arose over Egypt,” who in the chilling phrase of the King James version “knew not Joseph”—the third pharaoh we encounter in the biblical narrative.

The first pharaoh was a fool—the stationary god-king whom Avram ran circles around. The second, Joseph’s pharaoh, is given fairly high marks for a pharaoh: he was smart enough to put Joseph in charge. It is all too likely that this pharaoh was an interloper and a Semite, one of the Hyksos, who ruled Egypt from the time of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century B.C. to the middle of the fourteenth century of the same era, at which time the old royal lines of Egypt reasserted themselves. One of these post-Hyksos pharaohs was Akhnaton, who for a brief period decreed that only one god, Aton the Solar Disc, could be worshiped publicly in Egypt. But this singular reform was carried out in the teeth of vested interests (the priests and votaries of all the other gods) and was soon rescinded by a subsequent pharaoh, the mighty Tutankhamon, and erased from public memory. The pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” was most probably Seti I, who reached the throne of Egypt thirty-four years after Tutankhamon and more than a half-century after Akhnaton.

This pharaoh (he is never given a proper name in the Bible, as if the writer would not give him even that much dignity) is beset by a fear so great we would call it paranoia: he fears that there are now so many “Children of Israel” that they may even be “many-more and mightier (in number) than we”—a sure sign of paranoia, since the Israelites could hardly have become that numerous—and that “if war should occur,” this people may also “be added to our enemies and make war upon us or go away from the land!” His solution: to impress the Israelites into forced labor to build his great storage cities of Pitom and Rameses.

Still fearing their numbers, he attempts to enlist their midwives in a feeble attempt at genocide—the first but hardly the last that the Children of Israel will endure. He summons two women who are termed “the midwives of the Hebrews.” In contrast to his impersonal treatment of Pharaoh, the god-king of all Egypt, the narrator records the names of these humble women: Shifra and Pua. Their very names seem to call them up from the distant past; and we can almost see them standing before Pharaoh, the young, beautiful one with the young, beautiful name, the old, plain one with the old, plain name, listening to him rave:

    “When you help the Hebrew women give birth, look at the two stones:

    if it is a boy, kill him;

    but if a girl, let her live.”

It has been objected that this scene could not possibly be historical: if you want to kill off a people, you must assassinate their women, their baby factories, not their men. What Pharaoh urges is irrational on two levels: he is trying to destroy his own labor force—and he is going about it inefficiently. Nor could two midwives do the whole job if Israel had become so numerous.

But what about those “two stones”? They could (as some commentators have thought) be something on the order of medieval birthing stools, but why more than one? The Bible often employs euphemism in describing sexual (especially male) anatomy. To me, the meaning leaps out: the minute the midwife sees that the newborn has testicles, she is to smother him.

And why must we think of Pharaoh as rational? Have we not already been given the evidence that he is irrational—that he thinks the Children of Israel are “many-more and mightier” than the Egyptians? Is it perhaps only in Pharaoh’s eyes that the Children of Israel “swarm,” as if they were breeding insects? Is this a weak, fantasy-beset god-king who fears the potency of the Israelites, much as enervated plantaowners of the American South feared the potency of their black slaves, especially those slaves who had “two stones”? Would the Nazi attempt to destroy the Children of Israel be any more rational than this (less efficient) one? I do not doubt that what we have here is the portrayal—in a few deft strokes—of an insecure Egyptian madman, an all-powerful god-king who fears that someone else could be more powerful than he.

“But,” continues the narrator in his usual economic fashion,

    the midwives held God in awe,

    and they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them,

    they let the children live.

Such beautiful, simple words. Because they bowed down before real power, they were not tempted to bow down before empty show, and so they did the right thing. It is less than clear that these “midwives of the Hebrews” were themselves Children of the Promise; they may have been pagans who bore the true God in their hearts, they may have been, like Hagar, Egyptians who could See. But in their exquisite moral discernment (“they let the children live”) they are people of stature—real individuals who are worthy of names, unlike the little god-king. Nor should we forget that they are women, who in their sharp insight into the deep truth of things have taken a giant evolutionary step beyond Sara the pawn, beyond Avraham himself, who was willing to sacrifice his wife to save his own neck.

The next turn of the screw is even more satisfying. When Pharaoh learns that the midwives have disobeyed him, he summons them once more with a petulant “Why have you done this thing?”

    The midwives said to Pharaoh:

    “Indeed, not like the Egyptian (women) are the Hebrew (women),

    indeed they are lively:

    before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth!”

Once again, we are back on that southern plantation, where well-brought-up “ladies” need potions and medical assistance just to keep from fainting on a hot day, but slave women are so full of life that they drop their young with as little ado as barnyard animals—and the oppressed subvert the overlord with seeming guilelessness.

The exasperated god-king takes a further step into irrationality and orders that henceforth all newborn Hebrew males be thrown into the Nile. Thus it is that we are introduced to a Hebrew mother, a woman who

    became pregnant and bore a son.

    When she saw him—that he was goodly, she hid him, for three months.

    And when she was no longer able to hide him,

    she took for him a little-ark of papyrus,

    she loamed it with loam and with pitch,

    placed the child in it,

    and placed it in the reeds by the shore of the Nile.

    Now his sister stationed herself far off, to know what would be done to him.

This lovely passage, full of care and cherishing—how seldom the narrator allows himself to rest in such humble details as loam and pitch—presents us with a loving mother and a loving sister, who also exhibit the characteristic resourcefulness we have come to expect of the Children of Abraham. The rest of the episode is so well known that I need only summarize it: Pharaoh’s daughter, one of the long line of biblical figures who See, spots the little-ark among the bull-rushes while bathing in the Nile, sees the child, and takes pity on him, though she knows perfectly well that he is “one of the Hebrews’ children.” The baby’s sister suddenly materializes and helpfully volunteers to find for the princess a nursemaid “from the Hebrews”—a nursemaid who turns out to be the baby’s mother. Thus is the child rescued from certain death by a silent conspiracy of women on the side of life, so that he can grow up as an Egyptian prince with a secret Jewish3 mother, a man who will understand the world of power and connections, but a man who has also been nursed at the breasts of kindness and love—the best of both worlds. The princess gives him the name Moshe (or Moses), He-Who-Pulls-Out.

This is all we need to know about Moshe’s childhood—and in the next scene Moshe, the grown man, does exactly what we would expect of him: “he went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.” The lovingly nurtured prince identifies with the underdog; and seeing an Egyptian repeatedly strike one of his brothers, he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The following day, in a scene that foreshadows the great anguish of Moshe’s future life—the carping opposition of his own “stiffnecked” people—he breaks up a scuffle between two Hebrews, only to have the guilty party taunt him:

    “Who made you prince and judge over us?

    Do you mean to kill me

    as you killed the Egyptian?”

So “the matter is known”; and hard on the heels of this gossip, Pharaoh seeks to execute Moshe for his crime, leaving Moshe no alternative but flight.

Moshe finds refuge in the land of Midian, where he is given shelter and a shepherd’s occupation by Jethro, whose daughter Tzippora Moshe marries. Their first child Moshe names Gershom, aptly meaning Sojourner There, “for he said,” as the King James has it, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” And this strange land is about to yield up to this stranger the strangest experience ever known.

Moshe, shepherding Jethro’s flock, leads the sheep “behind the wilderness” to a mountain called Horeb, another name for Sinai. The text signals to us that something extraordinary is about to happen by calling this place “the mountain of God,” but there is no reason to suspect that Moshe is anticipating anything more than another energy-sapping day with the flock. Moshe sees, out of the corner of his eye, “the flame of a fire out of the midst of a bush.” He stops to take in this unusual sight, for in the desert any movement stands out as phenomenal, and observes that “the bush is burning with fire, and the bush is not consumed!” Even though the dehydrating desert heat is a constant warning to nomadic herders against making any but the most necessary exertions, Moshe resolves to “turn aside that I may see this great sight—why the bush does not burn up!”

As Moshe makes his way toward the fire, God calls “out of the midst of the bush,” twice speaking Moshe’s name, as he once did to Avraham on the Mountain of Seeing:

    “Moshe! Moshe!”

    He said:

    “Here I am.”

—the very words Avraham used.

    He said:

    “Do not come near to here,

    put off your sandal from your foot [just as the Arabs still do on holy ground],

    for the place on which you stand—it is holy ground!”

    And he said:

    “I am the God of your father,

    the God of Avraham,

    the God of Yitzhak,

    and the God of Yaakov.”

In the midst of this breaking of the silence of hundreds of years—this completely unexpected manifestation of continuity—Moshe, the Egyptian prince who could hardly have been less prepared for such a moment, acts with a terror the patriarchs seldom exhibited:

    Moshe concealed his face,

    for he was afraid to gaze upon God.

But God reveals that, despite appearances (or lack thereof), he has not been absent:

    “I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt,

    their cry have I heard in the face of their slave-drivers;

    indeed I have known their sufferings!

    So I have come down

    to rescue it from the hand of Egypt,

    to bring it up from that land,

    to a land, goodly and spacious,

    to a land flowing with milk and honey.…

    So now, go,

    for I send you to Pharaoh—

    bring my people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt!”

Here is Moshe, on his face in the intense desert heat, made even fiercer by the fire before him, listening to a Voice that no one has heard since the days of Yaakov, a Voice that orders him off on an impossible mission to the very people he has been hiding from. Like Avraham, he never doubts the information of his senses—that this is really happening—only God’s lack of realism:

    “Who am I

    that I should go to Pharaoh,

    that I should bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God’s answer ignores completely Moshe’s opinion of himself. For this mission will not be dependent on Moshe’s abilities but on God’s:

    “Indeed, I will be-there with you,

    and this is the sign for you that I myself have sent you:

    when you have brought the people out of Egypt,

    you will (all) serve God by this mountain.”

Moshe now offers one objection after another in the vain hope of forestalling God. He imagines confronting the Children of Israel with the news that “the God of your fathers has sent me,” only to receive their skeptical response: “They will say to me: ‘What is his name?’ ” Moshe, the clean-shaven ward of Pharaoh with the style and bearing of an Egyptian, will hardly seem a credible messenger of God in the eyes of the dusty slaves, and they will quiz him mercilessly till they call his bluff.

God’s reply is probably the greatest mystery of the Bible. He tells Moshe his name, all right:


What does it mean? Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels; and by the time vowel subscripts were added to the consonants in the Middle Ages, the Name of God had become so sacred that it was never uttered. Even in classical times, as early as the Second Temple period, only the high priest could pronounce the Name of God—and only once a year in the prayer of the Day of Atonement. Once the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, no Jew ever uttered the Name again. From that time to this, the devout have avoided this word in the text of their Bible, reading “Adonai” (“the Lord”) when they come to the word YHWH. Many Orthodox go a step further, refusing even to say “Adonai” and substituting “ha-Shem” (“the Name”). So, after such a great passage of time, we have lost the certain knowledge of how to pronounce the word that is represented by these consonants. And, without the pronunciation, we are less than certain of its meaning, since precise meaning in Hebrew is often dependent on knowing how to pronounce the vowels, especially in the case of verbs—and YHWH is definitely a verb form.

We can take comfort in the certain knowledge that God is a verb, not a noun or adjective. His self-description is not static but active, appropriate to the God of Journeys. YHWH is an archaic form of the verb to be; and when all the commentaries are taken into account, there remain but three outstanding possibilities of interpretation, none of them mutually exclusive. First, I am who am: this is the interpretation of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which because of its age and its links to the ancients bears great authority. It was this translation that Thomas Aquinas used in the thirteenth century to build his theology of God as the only being whose essence is Existence, all other beings being contingent on God, who is Being (or Is-ness) itself. A more precise translation of this idea could be: “I am he who causes (things) to be”—that is, “I am the Creator.” Second, I am who I am—in other words, “None of your business” or “You cannot control me by invoking my name (and therefore my essence) as if I were one of your household gods.” Third, I will be-there with you: this is Fox’s translation, following Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, which emphasizes God’s continuing presence in his creation, his being-there with us.

How should we pronounce the Name when we come upon it? One may, of course, substitute “the Lord” for the tetragrammaton YHWH. Others will boldly attempt a pronunciation, “Yahweh” (as English speakers usually say it) or “Yahvé” (after the French and Germans) or even “Jehovah” (a mispronunciation, much in evidence in Protestant hymnody and based on an inadequate understanding of the conventions of medieval manuscripts). But for me, when I attempt to say the consonants without resort to vowels, I find myself just breathing in, then out, with emphasis, in which case God becomes the breath of life. This God of the fathers, now manifested as YHWH in the bush that burns but is not consumed, is more awesome than in any of his previous manifestations—not only because of the fireworks, but because of the symbolic nature of this epiphany, which suggests that this God, as dangerous, tempering, and purifying as fire, can burn in us without consuming.

God explains to Moshe how things will go before Pharaoh, who “will not give you leave to go” until God strikes Egypt “with all my wonders”; and he arms Moshe with a few wonders of his own for dazzling the multitude. But then, Moshe raises his most serious objection:

    “Please, my Lord,

    no man of words am I …

    for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I!”

    YHWH said to him:

    “Who placed a mouth in human beings …?

    So now, go!

    I myself will instruct you as to what you are to speak.”

Moshe continues to drag his feet, so that “YHWH’S anger flared up against Moshe”—and not for the last time. At last, God offers the tongue-tied shepherd-prince his brother Aharon (or Aaron) to be Moshe’s spokesman: “he shall be for you a mouth, and you, you shall be for him a god.” And then “Moshe went.” In this long procession of God’s delegates through the ages, the pattern established by Avraham holds: they may object vigorously, but then, when all’s said and done, they go. They remain faithful—full of faith.

But Moshe is still the uncut Egyptian prince, not yet a convenanted son of Israel, so on the journey back to Egypt “YHWH encountered him and sought to make him die”—“to kill him” being the usual translation. Tzippora, in the long tradition of practical wives, intuits immediately what is wrong. “Tzippora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, she touched it to” Moshe’s—“feet” or “legs” we would normally translate the next word of the text. But once again, ancient Hebrew literature is reticent when it comes to designating genitals, especially male genitals. Tzippora touches her son’s foreskin to Moshe’s penis and screams: “Indeed, a bridegroom of blood are you to me!”

What a scene this must have been—little Gershom the Sojourner screaming in one corner; blood dripping from Gershom, running down Tzippora’s forearms, smeared on Moshe’s foreskin; Tzippora’s unhinged, triumphant exclamation; the abrupt withdrawal of God’s wrath. This is but another story by which all, even those who had taken on the mores of alien societies, could come to understand: the cove-blood is serious business. And in this ancient religious milieu, still harking back to old ideas of correspondence and the power of blood, to have one’s foreskin washed in the blood of one’s son’s foreskin was to have been circumcised.

This God is obviously not a member of any known “twelve-step program.” He is far from “supportive” and “inclusive,” to use the jargon of our day—and he is certainly not cuddly. Perhaps he is not a God for an age such as ours but for a more vigorous one, such as the Jacobean, that did not blanch so easily. “Batter my heart,” prayed John Donne to this alien God,

    That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

    Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.…

    Take me to You, imprison me, for I

    Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,

    Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Following this bloody episode, Moshe, exuding a newfound confidence and with Aharon as his spokesman, succeeds in winning the confidence of “all the elders of the Children of Israel.” He then makes his approach to the dread Pharaoh—a new pharaoh, probably Seti’s son Rameses II, since the Bible tells us that the pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites had died by the time of Moshe’s encounter at the burning bush.


    “Who is YHWH?” inquires Pharaoh,

    “that I should hearken to his voice to send Israel free?

    I do not know YHWH,

    moreover, Israel I will not send free!”

These are the first words the new god-king speaks on his first appearance in the Book of Exodus. The words of this question, like the notes of an identifying musical phrase in grand opera, give us the principal “notes” of Pharaoh’s character. The question is the key that opens up Pharaoh’s soul to public view. But more than this, it is a leitmotif not only for Exodus, but for many of the books that make up the library that we call the Bible—to such an extent that it could almost be said to be the central question posed by these scriptures.

Who is YHWH? However we interpret it, the Name of God means ultimate dominion: He-Whom-There-Is-No-Escaping. This idea must have been implicit in even the earliest form of this narrative concerning the intervention of the Israelite God in human affairs—and it was an idea to which the Israelites, in different ways at different times, became accustomed. So much so that Pharaoh’s question must have had for the first audiences to hear the story a satisfyingly ironic ring, even a savagely comical ring, especially satisfying in that its irony was unperceived by this pretentious pipsqueak. Who is YHWH? Pharaoh is about to find out. He is about to have his ears boxed—and only he is unaware of it. So to the audiences who first heard this story told, the phrase “Who is YHWH?” sounded the ominous notes of Pharaoh’s doom—just as the famous five-note phrase in Bizet’s Carmen foreshadows Carmen’s violent end.

The narrative of the ten plagues, each plague brought on the Egyptians by Pharaoh’s pigheaded refusal to heed YHWH’S demand and let the Israelites leave his dominion, is too well known to recount in detail. Each time Moshe and his brother Aharon approach Pharaoh with YHWH’S demand, Pharaoh refuses. Though he begins to offer unacceptable, minor concessions, plague follows plague: the Nile reeking with blood, a swarm of frogs (who die and lie in festering heaps), fleas “on man and beast,” an infestation of insects, a pestilence that kills livestock, boils, hail, locusts, “darkness over the land,” and, last of all, the one that breaks Pharaoh’s spirit, the death of the firstborn of Egypt—from “the firstborn of Pharaoh” and of every Egyptian household to “every firstborn of beast.”

Why is Pharaoh so obstinate? God predicted he would be (“I am well aware that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless he is compelled by a mighty hand”) and even claimed responsibility for Pharaoh’s attitude (“but I myself will make him obstinate, and he will not let the people go”). Are we, therefore, to conclude that Pharaoh is just another pawn with no will of his own? Rather, I think, the text suggests strongly that Pharaoh is acting in character—as would any great monarch divinely appointed.

In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was god-on-earth, the visible manifestation of the presence of Ra, chief god of the Egyptians. But ra’a also means “evil” in Hebrew; and if the pharaoh was Rameses II, his name—a combination of ra and moses—would have sounded to a Hebrew ear like “he who brings forth evil,” the evil counterpart of Moses. In the parlance of the ancient world, moreover, the phrase “the hand of god X” was virtually an idiom used to describe a plague, so that we may interpret the phrase “the hand of YHWH,” which is repeated throughout the plague narrative, as belonging to this attributional tradition. If plagues were commonly considered divine in origin within Egyptian society, what we have here is an account of a cosmic tug-of-war between two gods—Ra and YHWH—played out on earth between their designated stand-ins—Pharaoh and Moshe. Within this interpretation, YHWH’S promise to Moshe “I will make you as a god to Pharaoh” may have even deeper implications than at first appear.

However that may be, Pharaoh’s consciousness of his role as the Sun god incarnate, whose epithets include “Son of Ra” and “Good God,” would have made him obstinate: his whole worldview is at stake. If he gives in to this upstart YHWH, the consequences are too terrible to contemplate, for these consequences include losing control over the natural order. Pharaoh, as the Son of Ra, is responsible for the orderly functioning of the Nile and the fertility of the land. In the ancient world, chaos, especially chaos in nature, especially the drying up of fertility, was always greatly to be feared—much more feared than it is by us who seem, from our technological point of view, far better protected from such chaos. So when God tells Moshe that he will “make [Pharaoh] obstinate,” he is referring to the very nature of things: this is the way things are; they can be no other way. God understands the nature of things (and of individual human beings) as does no other, for he has created all nature, as he stresses repeatedly in his encounters with his creatures:

    “Who placed a mouth in human beings

    or who (is it that) makes one mute or deaf

    or open-eyed or blind?

    Is it not I, YHWH?”

God knows who Pharaoh is and therefore foresees the inevitability of his obstinacy.

But there is deeper human and theological business at work in this story than the theme of the inevitability of Pharaoh’s behavior. God the Creator has ultimate dominion over all he has created; earthly dominion is given to men only in a subsidiary sense—only insofar as they conform their actions to God’s will. Pharaoh must fail because he is not so conformed. The god whose representative he is, is powerless before YHWH; he is as nothing, so much so that he never even makes an appearance in the narrative: his residual presence is like the faintest scent, discoverable only by an inquiry into linguistic roots.

The comedy of the narrative lies in ironic juxtaposition: Pharaoh, supposedly all-powerful, understands nothing. It would not be too much to say that this narrative asserts that power (because it is a feckless attempt to usurp God’s dominion) makes you stupid, blinding you to your true situation—and absolute power makes you absolutely stupid. The simple audience of semi-nomadic herdsmen to whom this story was first told understood that they were wiser than Pharaoh: they, certainly, unlike the great Ra-Moses, now with frogs jumping all over him, now covered in horseflies, would not have required the cumulative impact of ten plagues to change course! And this audience would also have appreciated the paradox that they were also more powerful than Pharaoh, because God is on the side of the little people, the people who have no worldly power. This is a lesson that will be repeated again and again in the story of Israel.

It is precisely Pharaoh’s pretense to a dominion that he does not own—the very motivation of his actions throughout the plague narrative—that is mocked in Exodus, that gives the narrative its satirical edge. The lesson is so cunningly shaped as drama—ten separate plagues, any one of which might have convinced a more ordinary mortal to give in—that it burns itself into the memory like a brand: when a human being arrogates to himself the role of God, he must fail miserably.

The implications of this lesson were radical in their time, since there was no political edifice that did not claim to be founded by a god. In one fell swoop, this subversive narrative delegitimizes all political structures claiming a god as their author—delegitimizes, in fact, all the political structures of the ancient world. And Pharaoh, who claimed to know nothing of YHWH, has come to know him all too well, “and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there is not a house in which there is not a dead man.”

Like Avram before them, the Children of Israel are sent forth from Egypt richer than they arrived, with “objects of silver and objects of gold, and clothing” that the Egyptians press upon them to encourage them to leave. “So,” concludes the narrator compactly, “did they strip Egypt.” They also transport with them the “bones of Joseph,” the mummy of the forefather. They do not take the obvious route to Canaan—by way of the coast, now occupied by the warrior “sea people,” the Philistines—“lest the people regret it, when they see war, and return to Egypt!” God is apparently afraid that this people he has decided to champion have little fortitude and may use any calamity as an excuse to return to the security of their previous servitude.

Their route—by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds (not the “Red Sea,” a mistranslation)—is unrecoverable and the source of myriad scholarly disputes. But we should probably imagine this “sea” as more a marsh than a large body of water; and when Pharaoh, in a change of heart, charges after them with all his chariots and charioteers, we should probably imagine the miracle that we know is coming on a somewhat less heroic scale than its usual dramatizations would have it.

As the forces of Egypt march toward them, the Children of Israel turn on Moshe (it doesn’t take them long to lose heart), crying:

    “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt

    that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness?

    What is this that you have done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?

    Is this not the very word that we spoke to you in Egypt,

    saying: ‘Let us alone, that we may serve Egypt!’

    Indeed, better for us serving Egypt

    than our dying in the wilderness!”

Thus, in a trice, do they reward Moshe’s steadfastness in his long tug-of-war with the god-king and his courage in overcoming his own inadequacies. But Moshe keeps his head and his heart, using God’s own injunction:

    “Do not be afraid!

    Stand fast and see

    YHWH’S deliverance which he will work for you today,

    for as you see Egypt today, you will never see it again for the ages!”

Moshe, the true leader, obeying God’s directive, leads the Children of Israel through the “sea,” probably a marsh at low tide. When Pharaoh and his forces follow, they are beset by the rising tide, their wheels get stuck in the mud, and they find themselves in danger of drowning. It would all be remembered most gloriously by later generations as a miraculous victory:

    But the Children of Israel had gone upon dry-land, through the midst of the sea,

    the waters a wall for them on their right and on their left.

    So YHWH delivered Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt;

    Israel saw Egypt dead by the shore of the sea,

    and Israel saw the great hand that YHWH had wrought against Egypt,

    the people held YHWH in awe,

    they trusted in YHWH and in Moshe his servant.

That something extraordinary happened here we should not doubt—and that it happened quickly and to the permanent astonishment of all. Israel, a ragbag of runaway slaves led by a tongue-tied prince, has triumphed over all the might of Egypt. But how many were involved—how many dead, how many saved—and what was the exact disturbance that created the unexpected victory? These are matters that will probably be argued till the end of time.

The text contains a lengthy song, supposedly sung by Moshe and the Children of Israel, that reads like an antiphony of praise from an ancient liturgy. In it, YHWH is depicted as a warrior god and the greatest of all the gods (“Who is like you among the gods, O YHWH!”); and Israel is depicted as “your people redeemed” whom “you led in your faithfulness.” This incredible surprise, this permanent victory wrested from the very jaws of expected disaster and predictable defeat, left a profound impression on the imagination of the whole people—now no longer merely the Children of Avraham or of Israel but the People of YHWH—as had no earlier encounter between God and any of his chosen interlocutors. This was their God, the God of Surprises, and they were hisPeople.

There is also another song, a brief one with which this scene of triumph closes. On the far shore, beyond the grasp of the devastated Egyptians, a barefoot woman with a timbrel begins to dance, and all the women after her “with timbrels and with dancing.” It is Miryam, once the young girl who peered through the bullrushes in the hope of guarding her baby brother, now grown to full womanhood and known to her people as “Miryam the prophetess.” Her song is simple and pointed, its Hebrew so archaic that it may well come down to us from the very shore on which she danced, the original formulary from which the song of Moshe and all the accompanying narrative would one day be drawn:

    “Sing ye to the LORD,

    for he hath triumphed gloriously;

    the horse and his rider he hath flung into the sea!”

This story of deliverance is the central event of the Hebrew scriptures. In retrospect, we can see that all the wanderings of the forefathers and foremothers and their growing intimacy with God have led up to this moment; and looking down the ages from this shore, we can see that everything that happens subsequently will be referred back to this moment of astonished triumph. In the next chapter we will take up the vexed question of the Bible’s historicity—its reliability as a historical document. But for now it is enough to affirm that in this moment Avraham’s descendants, this raggle-taggle collection of Dusty Ones, received an identity they have maintained to this day and to remember this barefoot woman, her dark hair having escaped all confinement, singing and dancing on the far shore with prehistoric exuberance.

1 The names of the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes (and, subsequently, the names of the tribes themselves) are recorded in Genesis as Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (from Israel’s wife Leah); Joseph and Benjamin, the last of Israel’s sons (from Israel’s wife Rachel); Dan and Naphtali (from the concubine Bilhah); and Gad and Asher (from the concubine Zilpah) In later listings, the tribe of Simeon tends to disappear within the land controlled by Judah; the priestly tribe of Levi, which was landless, is sometimes omitted; and Joseph is divided into the tribes of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.

2 How many centuries is debatable For the approximate dates of the principal events of the Hebrew Bible, see the chronology at the back of the book. For an annotated table of contents of the Hebrew Bible, see “The Books of the Hebrew Bible,” also at the back.

3 “Jewish” is a conscious anachronism on my part. The people who would become the Jews were known in this period as Hebrews or (perhaps) Hapiru—that is, the “Dusty Ones” from the mountains and deserts. To themselves they were the Children of Israel.

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