Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)

EXODUS 1:1-17

Concerning the book of Exodus, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant & Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption) says, “No story has been more influential in shaping the inner landscape of liberty, teaching successive generations that oppression is not inevitable, that it is not woven into the fabric of history.” He cites Friedrich Nietzsche who called Exodus “the slave revolt in morals,” because it is the faith of those lacking power who are rescued and brought to Sinai to receive a moral and spiritual vision from God for a just, divinely blessed, and peaceful society.

The Exodus story was passed down for long centuries by storytellers. Signs abound in the Bible that no one remembered how far back in history it all happened exactly. No one remembered who the Pharaoh was. Different texts in the Bible give different chronological signs, many of them rounded numbers like 400 or 480 or four generations. Modern readers may want an absolute date for the Exodus, but our ancient forbears did not keep information like that. Theirs was a society based on community and tradition, a hearing community and not a reading community.

But their story resonates because of the value we share with the storytellers, the desire for freedom from oppression. More than that, it is a story of freedom to build something positive. The vision was clear: a people in a relationship with God, making an ideal society of justice.

The first reading in Exodus ends at vs. 17. Some rabbinic scribes long ago divided the text into weekly and daily portions. We can speculate why vs. 17 is the dividing point. It describes the awe of God which motivated the Hebrew midwives (Shiphra, “beautiful,” and Puah, “childbirth”) to disobey Pharaoh’s order. וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים vatirena hamyaldōt et-haElohim, “the midwives feared God,” meaning not that they were frightened of him but that they held him in awe.

Later they will stand before Pharaoh and lie with conviction, perfectly confident in their right standing. The way of Torah, Exodus tells us, is not so difficult to understand. Revere God. Do what is right and just. This nation being called out of Egypt, they are being called to form a new people in the land promised to the patriarchs, a new people who will build a society built on faith like that of the midwives.

Little Israel in Egypt grows into a large people (1-7), a new Pharaoh and Israel’s enslavement (8-14), the Hebrew midwives ordered to commit genocide (15-17).

Exodus begins assuming the reader has knowledge of Genesis, affirming the longstanding tradition that the books of the Torah (Pentateuch, Chumash) go together as one. The first paragraph owes its structure and content to two passages in Genesis (35:23-26 and 46:8, 26-27), recalling that seventy persons entered into Egypt and that there was a blessing of fertility. Genesis echoes again in vs. 7 as the reader can compare Genesis 1:28 (“be fruitful and multiply,” see also 9:1, 7) with Exodus’s “the children of Israel were fruitful and they proliferated and they multiplied and they were strong.”

Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) says, “the Israelites in Egypt become another creation, the beginnings of a people.” She notes that Pharaoh’s reference to the descendants of Jacob as a “people” (vs. 9) is the first time Israel is referred to in this way. And the word multiply (רָבָּה, rabbah) appears repeatedly throughout the passage, though English translations tend to vary the word, obscuring the deliberate repetition.

The number of them at the beginning of the sojourn in Egypt was seventy, a numerologically significant figure, signifying blessing and the potential for divine election, which the author desires to use (7 X 10). But they grew into a numerous people. Meyers suggests that “seventy” also communicates that all of Jacob’s offspring were there in Egypt, perhaps a deliberate claim in the storytelling tradition opposing an alternative idea that only some of Israel came out of Egypt. There is a theory, for example, that only the Levites were in Egypt (which is why Levites in the early generations had Egyptian names while other tribes did not).

We do not know with certainty how long Israel was in Egypt. Nor do we accurately know how many Israelites there were (see below, comments to ch. 12 and following, on the problems with the population numbers that have been passed down in the Bible). The length of Israel’s sojourn and the number of Israelites is an issue that has become confused with the transmission of the Pentateuch. It is definitely possible that the Israelites quickly forgot which Pharaoh it was, when it all happened, what the name of the cities were that they were forced to build, etc. William Johnstone (Genesis and Exodus: Old Testament Guides, Sheffield) explains how the elements of the Exodus story fit with conditions over a wide span of centuries. Even the plagues of Egypt, he says, were an idea known in the Near East (the Hittites apparently suffered a plague and found that this had happened previously to the Egyptians, James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pgs. 394 and following).

The Exodus story is historically imprecise. Pharaoh is not named. The cities Israel built in Egypt are not known and their names could be a later generation making a guess. Another evidence that the stories have been passed down orally for many centuries without specific historical data is that there are only two midwives for all Israel. Umberto Cassuto (his commentary on Exodus) long ago pointed out that the names of the midwives are poetic: Shiphra (beautiful) and Puah (childbirth).

What the long-told tradition of the Exodus did pass down was something imprecise, but powerful. We may not know when, but we know what. The Israelites remembered coming out of Egypt, where they were subject to forced labor (not uncommon, and King Solomon himself will subject his own people to forced labor in building the temple). They were in Egypt during a time of remarkable plagues and came out from Egypt as a result of these plagues. They came out with an ideal, shaped by a covenant-making God, an idea of freedom.

EXODUS 1:18 – 2:10

Moses. Moshe. מֹשֶׁה. The name of this larger than life biblical figure has two explanations, only one of which is offered by the Bible. The second explanation is based on what we know historically about Egyptian names. Both explanations make sense. The Egyptian-historical one, though, has important implications for the way we will regard this biblical story of the Exodus. Did it really happen? Is the Exodus an invented story?

The explanation of Moses’ name given in the Bible makes sense. There is a Hebrew word משׁה that refers to drawing out, as in drawing something or someone out from water. וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ מֹשֶׁה vatiqra’ shemō Mōsheh, “She called his name Moses,” וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן־הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ vatōmer ki min-hamayyim mesheeteehu, “she said, ‘Because I drew him from the water.’” Pharaoh’s daughter drew (משׁה) the infant from the water (the verb uses the root משׁה). The name fits.

But we also know more about names containing the Egyptian root “-mose.” Upper class Egyptians (especially Pharaohs) had names like Ptah-mose and Rah-mose and Thut-mose. These Egyptian court-names meant “born of” or “drawn from” Ptah or Rah or Thoth (Egyptian deities).

This, it would seem, is the actual origin of Moses’ name. In the forgotten past, he was given an Egyptian court-name, featuring the name of a deity (such as Ptah or Ra or Thoth) followed by the root “-mose.” How then did he come to be called simply Moses? We can imagine when he discovered the nature of God, the God of Abraham, that Moses would want to drop the foreign god from his name.

Much of what we read in the Exodus story has the quality of a legend, a story that may be based on something real in the collective memory of Israel, but which has lost precise connections to any specific historically known figures and time periods. One conclusion we could draw from it (many have) is that the Exodus never really happened. Some would say that in later centuries, Israelite scribes were seeking an origin story. Someone created the Exodus to give Israel a founding narrative.

But the name of Moses is one of those realistic details that causes trouble for the “invented tale” theory. Such mimetic realism does not fit with a fictional contrivance. The imprecision of the Exodus story need not be seen as the result of some anonymous scribe creating a fiction, but rather would be exactly the result we’d expect concerning a story told orally for hundreds of years. Modern Bible readers tend not to understand oral cultures and look down on oral history as inferior to written, but see John Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture.

If the Exodus story lacks precision, if it has some textual corruptions surrounding things like population numbers, if its tales of plagues are stylized for storytelling and not perfectly historical, none of these supposed “deficiencies” mean it is not based on real events of the past. For long centuries a story was passed on in the communities of Israel about the ancestors in Egypt. No one knew the name of the Pharaoh of the story, when the events happened, or the typical things we as modern readers want to know to satisfy our historical cataloguing. But when those stories contain details with the kind of realism we find in the name of the central hero, Moses, the evidence points to a simple conclusion: the Exodus really happened.

The Hebrew midwives fear God and thwart Pharaoh (18-21), Pharaoh orders Hebrew babies thrown in the Nile (22), the birth and rescue of Moses (2:1-10).

In vss. 15-21, the word midwives occurs precisely seven times. The symbolic two midwives with emblematic names (see on 1:15-17) are able to thwart the mightiest man on earth by fearing God. The midwives lie to Pharaoh. In the biblical view, there is a hierarchy of values, so that lying to save lives is righteous (the midwives could continue saving lives if they preserved their own). Shiphrah and Puah are the first heroes of the book of Exodus, reverencing God enough to risk their lives. Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Commentary) notes that midwives and musicians in Exodus are classes of female professionals in ancient society (see her description a length on pos. 117-119). The text here gives us a rare peek into some actual roles women played in this historical period, but which we rarely glimpse because the literature does not have as a purpose sociological description. According to the simple theology of the J source of the Torah, these midwives who had been barren themselves, received households (i.e., children) from God as a reward for their reverent actions.

Failing to get the Hebrews’ own midwives to kill babies, Pharaoh orders his own people to drown them in the Nile. Ironically, Moses’ mother will also cast him into the Nile, but in a way that enables him to survive.

Moses’ parents are not named at first, but we find later they are Amram and Jochebed (Yocheved, Exod 6:20; Num 26:59). Some interpreters read this anonymity of the parents as a literary device, designed to make the beginning of the tale have a larger than life quality like the myths of old (Umberto Cassuto). It is possible that the author of the source text for these verses (the J source) did not know the name of Moses’ parents. Moses was not as important a figure among the priests of Jerusalem as he was to the priests in the northern kingdom (Shiloh, the home of the E source of the Torah). Still, given that no other characters are named in this subsection, it seems Cassuto has the better argument. The tale of Exodus emerges with a legendary quality, featuring renowned figures whose deeds are like the heroes of ancient times.

Moses’ mother throws him into the Nile in a tiny watercraft referred to as an “ark,” just as in the Noah narratives. This word is used nowhere else in the Bible and the connection is deliberate: the one saved by the ark will save others (Cassuto). The placing of Moses must have been deliberate in hopes the Pharaoh’s daughter would find him, for a person would not bathe in the main river, but in a canal running from the river (Sarna, JPS Commentary).

Moses’ sister (unnamed here) is able to contrive to have her mother (also Moses’ mother) wet-nurse the rescue infant. Pharaoh’s daughter adopts the child and names him Moses.

The explanation of his name from a rare Hebrew root here does not perfectly fit (“. . . Mosheh, because מְשִׁיתִהוּ mesheeteehu [I drew him out]”). It is not unusual to have a creative origin story for a name in the Bible (as for example in the cases of Isaac and Jacob). But there is a more likely historical reason for Moses’ name. Egyptian upper class were often named with reference to a deity, with appellations such as Ptah-mose or Ra-mose. Ptah-mose, for example, means “born of Ptah” (“drawn from Ptah,” i.e., “born of Ptah”).

The name Moses, then, appears to be a shortening of a longer lost version of his name. What happened to the prefix which would have been the name of a deity? A likely explanation is that Moses dropped the Egyptian divine element and became only Mose or Moses (Mosheh). The realism and historical veracity of a name like Moses is difficult to reconcile with an idea that Moses is purely an invented figure. The simpler and preferred explanation is that by oral tradition Israel preserved a story concerning real events involving a real personality from the past.

EXODUS 2:11-25

God heard. God remembered. God saw. God knew.

Hebrew language and thought is very concrete and action-centered. The verbs above seemingly violate philosophical notions of God. He sees and hears all, so why narrate that God saw and heard a specific happening, as if he could not see or not hear? God knows everything, so why narrate that he remembered and knew, as if he could forget and not know?

But for some time — we are not sure how long — it had seemed as if God was not hearing, not remembering, not seeing, not knowing.

This series of four verbal clauses is the author’s way of describing a change in the fortunes of the Israelites. They seemed to be a people without a god and then, suddenly, God showed up. His coming will be in a strange manner, a story for the ages, involving Moses alone in the desert having an encounter. This will set off a chain of events leading to Moses coming in the name of God and announcing a deliverance the people will refuse to believe in.

But they will hear, what Moses and Aaron have to say, that is. They will remember, that their ancestors had a God who appeared to them. They will see, the miracles and signs and even the appearance of God in a pillar of fire. And they will know, by relationship, a God who shows up and rescues.

Life does not happen like philosophy. It happens in a series of events and realizations and changes.

Moses sees his people and kills an Egyptian (11-12), Moses finds that his act is known and flees to Midian (13-15), Moses meets the Midianite priest and marries his daughter (16-22), God remembers his people and covenant (23-25).

The account of Moses growing up, seeing the reality of injustice, and despite his position of rank and privilege, taking action against the oppressor, shows that he is a deliverer. Moses’ concern was for אִישׁ־עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו ish-‘ivri mei’echarav, “a Hebrew man from among his brothers.” Moses is in the Egyptian court, but feels a kindred spirit with the people if his ancestry. The incident helps explain God’s choice of Moses.

The next event foreshadows Israel’s unwillingness to accept a deliverer, a theme which will continue throughout. Moses not only expected that his deed, murdering the Egyptian foreman in righteous anger, had gone unseen, but also that his fellow Hebrews would be grateful. Instead, they regard him as an outsider, distrusting him as much as any other Egyptian overlord. Moses has now to fear Pharaoh’s justice and his own people’s distrust.

Lacking options, Moses flees to the land of Midian. The Midianites are related to the Israelites, the children of Abraham’s second wife, Keturah (Gen 25:1-4). Later texts indicate the Midianites had five coalitions (Num 31:8). They were a people spread out. The “land of Midian” is far to the south of Israel, east of the Gulf of Elath. It is possible, however, that “land of Midian” could mean any place Midianite clans were dwelling, since they were a semi-nomadic people.

The scene at the well is a type scene in biblical literature (a scene that is repeated with variations in different periods), like Abraham’s servant meeting Rebekah and Jacob meeting Rachel. A heroic action at a well often brings a man and woman together (Rebekah watering the camels, Jacob removing the heavy stone, Moses rescuing the girls from the shepherds).

There is some uncertainty about the identity of Reuel. Various texts describe Reuel, Hobab, and Jethro. Some harmonize these references and assume all three are the same person. Others interpret Reuel as the grandfather and Hobab/Jethro as the father. Others think the names are confused because they resulted from different and contradictory sources. In 3:1, only seven verses after he was called Reuel, the father of Zipporah is called Jethro. Cassuto theorizes that there were different traditions that used different names for the same person. When describing him as priest of Midian, the editor used Reuel. When describing him as Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a more honored name, is used. Another explanation is that the Torah is a document put together from different sources by someone like Ezra after the exile. One source in the Torah, called E, is from the northern kingdom, and in these texts he is called Jethro (3:1, 18; 18:1-27). Another source, called J, is from the southern kingdom, and he is called Reuel (2:16-18; Num 10:29).

Vss. 23-25 are a way of describing why a momentous event in history happens, from the viewpoint of heaven. God heard, then remembered, then saw, and then knew. All that God will do for Israel is because of the covenant with Abraham. It is personal with God. Of course, this raises the question whether God was not looking when Israel’s enslavement started or if he had forgotten his special relationship with Israel. The language of the text leaves this as a mystery. Why is God silent during suffering, but then he acts suddenly? No answer is suggested.

EXODUS 3:1-15

“What is his name?” Moses imagined his fellow Hebrews asking him when he came to tell them about the God who appeared to him in the desert. Not Ptah or Thoth, Atum or Isis. The God of the fathers of Israel gives a new name unlike those known in Egypt.

I will be what I will be. Ehyeh asher ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה). I am what I am.

Umberto Cassuto interprets this beautifully, “It is I who am with my creatures in their hour of trouble and need . . . to help them and save them.” He says further, in explaining that the divine name is a declaration of God’s commitment to save and rescue: “I am who I am always, ever alike, and consequently I am true to my word and fulfill it.” Cassuto points to the Song of the Sea as evidence that this is how Israelites interpreted the name. When they were celebrating on the other side of the sea, realizing they were safe and that God had been with them, they sang, “YHWH is his name!” (Exod 15:3). God had lived up to his name.

“I will be seen for who I am when I come and show my power to rescue,” seems to be what God is saying. The Exodus reveals God’s character.

But we who follow and put our hope in him must ask, “Why doesn’t he show up more often? Why only at long intervals?”

The Israelites were rescued, but only after a long wait. We are waiting and waiting, but the light is dim. “I will be what I will be,” God says.

And so we wait.

The burning bush (1-6), the mission of Moses (7-10), Moses’ uncertainty (11-12), God’s Name (13-15).

This portion of text is filled with material demanding our close attention as readers. Is the text giving answers or presenting ambiguities preserved by oral tradition? Should we find specific answers to questions that occur to us as modern readers? Or should we be comfortable with the ambiguity and assume the authors did not know more than we do about the nature of God?

Questions that might occur to us include:

Is it God or God’s angel who appears to Moses in the bush? Is it Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai? Why the custom of removing the sandal on holy ground? Why do vss. 9-10 virtually repeat vss. 7-8? Why does Moses question his readiness or qualification in vs. 11? What is the sign of vs. 12 exactly, the bush or the fact that Israel will serve God at Horeb-Sinai? Why does Moses ask about the divine Name? Is God’s answer an evasion or does it have some meaning that made sense to Moses and later generations of Israel?

The burning bush theophany is one of many examples in which the narrator seems confused whether the one appearing is God or a messenger (angel) of God. In the burning bush, we read that a messenger appeared (מַלְאַךְ, malach, usually translated “angel,” though that is just a Greek word meaning “messenger”). But in vs. 4, וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה vayiqra eilav Elohim mitōch hasseneh, “God called out to him from the midst of the scrub brush.” And the place is holy ground now, according to God’s voice in vs. 5, which would seem to be true only if God had appeared.

Perhaps the authors of the Torah (the burning bush story is a combination of the J and E sources) struggled with the concept of a mortal actually seeing God. If so, it could be they attributed the visible manifestation to a divine messenger, but the voice to God. Another possibility is that they believed both the voice and the appearance belonged to a divine messenger, but since the messenger spoke in God’s name and with his authority, it was possible to say “God called out” and “Adonai said.”

Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), however, suggests such a concern would be a contradiction in the tradition. After all, other verses suggest Moses had a uniquely intimate relationship with God (Exod 33:11, “Adonai spoke to Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend”). So which is it? Are the Torah authors reticent to say God directly appeared to Moses or not? One possible answer comes from the interpretation of Umberto Cassuto. מַלְאַךְ malach here does not mean an angelic messenger, but is being used in the sense of “manifestation” or “theophany” (“the theophany of Adonai appeared to him”).

As for the mountain in this story, it is called Horeb here and also in all the references in Deuteronomy (also with Elijah in 1 Kgs 19). Yet in most places referring to the mountain where divine revelation occurred, it is called Sinai (Exodus 19, most of the Torah, Psalms, other poetry in the prophets). One possibility is that the E and D sources of Torah prefer “Horeb,” while J and P prefer “Sinai.” Yet both E and J make wordplays on “Sinai” in this story, referring to the “scrub brush” Moses sees with the Hebrew הַסְּנֶה, having root letters similar to Sinai (סִינָי). It’s difficult to imagine E and D being unaware of the name. There is no clear answer, but several references make it seem as if Sinai and Horeb are the same place.

While standing near the theophany, Moses must remove his sandals. It was the priestly custom in Israel and other Near Eastern cultures to be barefoot in a sanctuary. This is why, later when Exodus details the garments of the priests, no footwear is mentioned.

Vss. 9-10 repeat much of what had already been said in vss. 7-8. Why say the same thing twice? This is an example of the “doubling” of story elements that happens over and over again in the Torah, which was one of the evidences that led scholars to think Torah is a document woven together from multiple sources. Based on many converging lines of evidence about how to differentiate the source documents in the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman assigns vss. 7-8 to the J source and vss. 9-10 to E (The Bible with Sources Revealed).

Moses’ feeling of unworthiness is common to scenes involving the call of a prophet. Coming before the divine Presence and receiving a call is terrifying. Further, Moses is the first prophet in the sense of one who transmits words of God so directly in the way he does. Childs (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary) says: “The patriarchs received revelation in theophanies, but had no commission to transmit a message to others.” He adds, “Moses’ call recounts the deep disruptive seizure of a man to whom neither previous faith nor personal endowment played a role in preparing him for this vocation.” In other words, Moses is treading new ground in this role as prophet. Prophets are known primarily in the Near East as court advisers.

God will give Moses a “sign” to be credible when he speaks to the children of Israel. But what is the sign? God says, “I will be with you.” Childs (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary) argues the sign will be a combination of Moses’ testimony about what he saw at the burning bush and the confirmation that comes when his prediction comes true that Israel will escape and worship God on that very mountain.

In order to trust this deity he is encountering, Moses inquires about his name. Names were intimately associated with the character and destiny of people. God’s Name must say something about who he is and what his intentions must be. God’s explanation of his Name is a word-play on the root from which his Name is derived. Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey (Y-H-V-H) is from the root of the verb “to be” (was, is, will be). It means, in a theoretical earlier Semitic form of the verb, “he will be.” So God’s answer is ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, “I will be what I will be” (arguably this translation is to be preferred over “I am what I am”). The meaning is that God is about the reveal the power of his Name to Israel by setting them free and giving them the Torah covenant. They will see his Name by his deeds. God’s Name will be shown in great power, the power of redemption and the promise of consummation in a kingdom which hints at a life better than this one.

EXODUS 3:16 – 4:17

Moses is a strange character. He is said to be “more humble than any man on earth” (Num 12:3) and yet on many occasions he is a strong prophet, imbued with the power of God, standing against mighty forces. We will see Moses undertaking and doing great things, even arguing with and winning concessions from God. Yet he is filled with self-doubt and a sense of inadequacy.

In his initial discussion with God, Moses insists he is incapable of doing the assignment God is giving him.

This reticence of Moses to be the messenger of God has raised questions for many years. “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” Moses objects. Maimonides speculated that Moses spoke with a stutter. This is based on a legend (a midrash) which says that Moses was injured as a toddler by putting a burning coal in his mouth.

Was Moses’ repeated attempt to get out of the assignment to be God’s messenger to Pharaoh and to the children of Israel ordinary fear and self-doubt, or was it based on a speech impediment? Who can say for sure?

We do know that Moses’ denials about his capability angered God (4:14) and yet Moses got his way. God sent Aaron to be the spokesman. Moses would be like God and Aaron like the prophet of Moses.

Richard Elliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah) speculates that Moses was afraid to speak to the Hebrews, not being fluent in Hebrew, but was not as afraid of speaking to Pharaoh and his court. “Heavy of tongue” may have meant an inadequacy in speaking a particular language, in this case Hebrew. Friedman offers as support for this theory that when speaking the first time to the elders of Israel, Aaron did all the speaking, whereas in the first meeting with Pharaoh, both Moses and Aaron speak.

Whatever the exact reason for Moses’ initial refusal to be the prophet of God, we find as is often the case in stories of great people, that their strength was not unassailable. And in the case of a prophet, the mortal is a vessel for the divine. The power and the life-changing word are from God. God’s message goes to us through a frail medium. The power of it is something that transcends the container and which resonates beyond personalities. Moses’ word will be liberation. And the word of the Exodus will also transcend the one-time event of Israel escaping forced labor in Egypt. The God who gave the word of the Exodus has a will to set us all free.

What Moses will say to Pharaoh (16-18), God foretells the outcome (19-22), the first sign to Moses (4:1-5), the second sign to Moses (6-9), Moses angers the Lord and Aaron is chosen as the spokesman (10-17).

God explains the mission to Moses, what he must say to the elders of Israel and then to Pharaoh. The elders of Israel will listen, God says. And it comes to pass in 4:29-31, where we read, “And the people believed.”

As for Pharaoh, Moses is to ask for a three-day religious holiday in the desert. This initial instruction may be surprising for the reader. Wasn’t Moses supposed to ask Pharaoh to “let my people go” permanently? What was the plan here? Was it to pretend to go only for a three-day holiday and then escape? Cassuto argues this could not have been the case, since the difference in preparing for a permanent departure versus a three-day holiday would be obvious. The strategy in the request, he reasons, was to show how unwilling Pharaoh was to recognize Israel’s relationship to God and to allow them any freedom at all. A tyrant who would not let his forced laborers have a religious festival would certainly not ever let them go.

But God will bring to pass the covenant with Abraham, “I will curse those who curse you.” Egypt will be smitten. And Egypt will bless Israel even if grudgingly, for Egyptian commoners will look with favor on the Israelites and send them out with gold and silver! The promises to the patriarchs are heavy in this tale. After all, in Genesis 15:14, God had said to Abraham, “I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve and they will come out with great wealth.”

Moses remembers how his Israelite brothers challenged his authority before (2:14) and cannot imagine they will listen to him now. God shows him two signs as foreshadowings of the plagues to come. Egyptian magicians did tricks with snakes and wax models of sea-monsters (Cassuto). It would seem that the rod and snake sign is a deliberate evocation of Egyptian magic. It may be that the second sign, making Moses’ hand leprous and then healing it, also was powerful in the Egyptian context (Cassuto speculates that such skin diseases may have been fairly common in Egypt and incurable). If needed, God promises to perform another sign: turning the life-giving Nile water so vital to Egypt, into blood.

Moses now tries a different objection to escape this hard assignment from God. The signs may convince Israel to listen, but Moses does not believe he is the capable spokesman who can convince Pharaoh. Aaron is suddenly introduced into the narrative, not having been mentioned before at all. Many have wondered why Aaron is called “the Levite.” Isn’t Moses also a Levite? At the very least, this is a recognition that Aaron later will be the priest. Though God may be angry with Moses, the addition of Aaron to the mission is accepted and the plan is established.

EXODUS 4:18-31

Life seems random, sometimes heartless. What happens does not always make sense or fit neatly with our belief that God is good and has a purpose for us in the scheme of all things transcendent and wonderful. The experience of bewilderment is not new to us, nor is it something biblical characters and authors were unfamiliar with.

If the Bible did not have stories that cut against the grain of simple formulas, we’d be missing something of utmost importance. It helps to know that even Moses nearly died right when he was supposed to be starting the most important thing God ever asked him to do. Who could possibly explain why God would assign a purpose to Moses, refusing to let him shirk the assignment, and then Moses would nearly die.

Readers have been at a loss to understand Exodus 4:24-26 for a long time. Adonai visited Moses on the journey to do the mission and וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ vayevaqeish hamitō: “he sought to kill him.” At least that is the usual translation, and it may be correct. Richard Elliott Friedman though, points to a different reading: “he asked to kill him” (Commentary on the Torah).

The usual reading is that God sought to kill Moses. Friedman’s interpretation is that Moses asked God to kill him. Why? Because this mission was something Moses would rather die than do. Elijah and Jonah asked God to take their lives (1 Kgs 19:4; Jonah 4:4). Jeremiah preferred death to the mission of tears he was given (Jer 20:14-18).

A problem for Friedman’s intriguing theory is that Zipporah’s action, which saves Moses’ life, makes little sense. She performs ritual circumcision on their son and places the bloody foreskin on Moses’ foreskin, an act of representative sacrifice. An act which makes sense given the symbolic meaning of sacrifice in the ancient world.

Umberto Cassuto offers another variation on the usual interpretation. “Adonai visited him on the way,” says Cassuto, could be a way of saying Moses became ill to the point of death. Whereas in many cases a visit from God to Moses might be far more literal, this “visit” might have been hidden, invisible. Zipporah, aware that her husband might die, reasoned that it was because they had not obeyed the Hebrew custom passed down from the patriarchs — to circumcise male children on the eighth day. Egyptians, after all, and perhaps Midianites too, circumcised at puberty.

The story as it exists is nearly incomprehensible. The author has left us with nothing to explain the motives of the characters or the rationale for the solution. How did such a story come to exist?

It wasn’t invented out of nothing. It is a fair conclusion that when a story goes so much against the grain of a biblical belief, it must be based on something real. Who would invent a story about God doing the opposite of what was expected?

Moses, as tradition passed down through the long centuries has it, fell ill and nearly died just before he come to start his famous mission to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” A sudden illness is always confusing. The near death of the greatest prophet of ancient Israel at the inception of his liberating assignment is utterly disconcerting.

Why would such a story be preserved? Why not suppress it? We can guess they saw value in stories that seemingly made no sense. We can further suppose they related such stories to the befuddlement and disappointment ordinary people — those of us who are not giants like Moses — feel when circumstances appear to oppose faith. It happened to the great ones. It may happen to us as well.

Moses asks Jethro’s leave to go (18), the Lord tells Moses it is time (19-20), the Lord tells Moses about the firstborn (21-23), the Lord tries to kill Moses (24-26), Aaron meets up with Moses and acts as spokesman (27-31).

Following his dialogue with God, in which Moses asked five times not to be sent on this mission, he asks Jethro’s leave to go. Jethro, who already has two other names in the Torah (Reuel and Hobab), is referred to as both Jether (Yeter, יֶתֶר) and Jethro (Yitro, יִתְרוֹ) in this verse. Yeter (the variation on the name) means “leftover” or “survivor.” Later in 10:5, Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh the locusts will eat even the “yeter” (what is left over) of the destroyed crops. Friedman (Commentary on the Torah) thinks the variation of Jethro’s name as Jether is deliberately to set up a wordplay in the plague story later. Subtle features like this in ancient storytelling may seem strange to modern readers, but in oral cultures these devices were part of the technique of keeping stories interesting.

This story is full of details that seem to require more explanation. How is it that Moses has “sons,” when we have only heard so far of him having one son (Gershom, 2:22)? Why does God give Moses already the message that he will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn, although Moses will not use this message until the tenth plague? How is it that Aaron is free, not enslaved in forced labor in Egypt, to come to be with Moses? And what is the story about killing and the bridegroom of blood all about? The inescapable conclusion is that the ancients knew more stories about Moses and Aaron than we do. What is left to us in Torah is not the whole story. And we are required to guess about the elements omitted from the story that has survived and been passed down to us.

The statement in vs. 21, that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, need not mean that God originated Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Cassuto observes that it was Hebrew convention to use causative verbs for happenings as if God caused them. For example, Exodus 21:13 describes manslaughter as if “God opportunely put it in his hand.” Just as God does not induce manslaughter, neither does he induce Pharaoh’s cruel will. Later we will see that Pharaoh makes his own heart hard to the unhappiness of the Israelites. We should probably assume that God increases Pharaoh’s own stubbornness as a sort of judgment, increasing the consequences of Pharaoh’s own folly in resisting the divine will.

The statement, “Israel is my firstborn son,” (vs. 22) explains the place Israel has in God’s heart and also the other nations, who would be God’s other children.

Cassuto thinks the statement about God killing the firstborn is placed where it is for reasons of dramatic tension. God demands release of his firstborn or he will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn. Moses, either by his own choice or by God’s unstated direction, will not deliver this message to Pharaoh right away, but only later. Nonetheless it is stated here at the beginning and foreshadows the terrible events to come. It also sets up in a very ironic fashion the next scene, where it seems as if God comes to kill Moses.

In the famous scene usually interpreted as God coming to kill Moses, it is important to realize the meaning is obscure. Vs. 24 could be translated “he sought to kill him,” being commonly interpreted as God seeking to kill Moses. Or it might be rendered “he asked to kill him,” with the “he” being Moses asking to be put to death rather than sent on this mission (so Friedman, Commentary on the Torah). It is difficult to decide what the story is about. Why would God repeatedly insist on sending Moses on a mission and then seek to kill him on the way? Cassuto’s guess about the story makes the most sense. Moses became very ill, to the point of death, and Zipporah saved his life by offering her son’s foreskin to God.

Strange as the story may seem, to ancient readers it fit with ideas of blood redemption and was a foreshadowing of the Passover blood redemption about to come. Cassuto argues that “Adonai met him on the way” is a figure of speech for “he fell ill to the point of death on the way.” If Moses did become ill and nearly died right after being given an assignment by God, people would wonder, “Why would God let his prophet die before the mission?”

We can only guess that this was all so that Zipporah would rise to the occasion and make her meaningful sacrifice. She touches the foreskin to Moses’ “feet” (almost certainly his genitals) as a sort of expiation offering to save his life. Zipporah’s strange statement likely means, “You are now a second time a groom to me, acquired by blood,” since he is practically raised from death and given a second life through her sacrifice. The details of this story have been lost and we have only this fragment from which to guess the rest of it.

After all of this, Moses and Aaron finally arrive and speak to the elders of Israel. Their message is well received. But this will only last until there is adversity and then, as is always the case with prophets, they will be utterly despised.

EXODUS 5:1 – 6:1

You would think a man who stood before the Eternal and felt the tremendous mystery would be afraid to challenge the deity. Not Moses. He prays with refreshing honesty.

“O Adonai, why did you bring harm to this people?” (אֲדֹנָי לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה Adonai lama harei’ōtah hazzeh). The verb accusing God of bringing “harm” (the standard word for “evil,” which can mean disaster) is causative. Moses implies that God caused this evil thing to befall the children of Israel. Moses’ assumption, a good assumption to be sure, is that God knows in advance how events will turn out. It is not difficult for God to see in advance that Moses’ request to Pharaoh would lead to greater severity in their treatment. לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי lama zeh shelachtani, “Why this sending of me?” (smoother: “why did you send me?”). Moses wonders if there was a point to his mission at all.

Israel has a tradition of lament. It’s all through the Bible. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” asks the Psalmist (89:46). The impiety of the question does not seem to be a problem. “Rouse yourself! Why are you sleeping, O Adonai? Awake! Do not reject us forever!” (Psa 44:24).

In the aftermath of the greatest tragedy Judah had ever known — the complete ruin of Jerusalem and the seeming end of the temple and all worship of Adonai — what did the community do? They wrote a brilliant, poetic lament in five chapters. “Adonai has laid waste, without pity, all the habitations of Jacob!” (Lamentations 2:2).

Prophets like Jeremiah openly complain to God. “Let the day I was born be cursed!” (20:14). “Why did I emerge from my mother’s womb to see misery and woe, to spend my days in shame!” (20:18).

And who can deny the bitter complaints found in Job. “I would speak to the Almighty and I long to argue my case with God” (13:2). “God has made my heart faint; Shaddai has terrified me,” Job complains (23:16). “Yet I am not quiet in the face of darkness.” Job insists that being truthful is more important than pretending he has sinned and praying a false prayer of repentance to appease the deity. Like Moses, Job is honest about his experience with God.

When we are tempted to ignore the darkness, to pretend it is not there, to piously see life with God as if he softens every landing, meets every need, and delivers from every obstacle we are not being truthful. Rose-colored religion is false piety. God’s closest servants have not related to him as groveling appeasers, but as forthright representatives of righteousness and justice in the world. Moses’ honest prayers, his insistence that God should do right by Israel, is a tradition presented for us to follow.

Moses and Aaron deliver the message to Pharaoh (1-4), Pharaoh increases the burden on the Hebrews (5-9), the taskmasters carry out Pharaoh’s order (10-14), the Hebrew supervisors complain and are rebuffed (15-20), the Hebrew supervisors curse Moses and Aaron (21), Moses complains to God (22-23), God says he will show his hand (6:1).

Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh as prophets, using the same, “Thus says Adonai” formula that will be found 350 times in the prophetic books. This formula is only used in the Torah for confrontations between God’s mouthpieces (Aaron and Moses) and Pharaoh (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary).

“The God of the Hebrews has let himself be met by us” (אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים נִקְרָא עָלֵינוּ Elohei ha’Ivrim niqra’ ‘aleinu). Given the low view of deity in pagan society, Pharaoh is not impressed. No doubt the god of a slave people would be inferior to Egyptian deities.

Interestingly, what Moses and Aaron ask for is not a complete release from forced labor. They want a religious festival, a temporary holiday. God, they say, commanded them to make a feast in the desert in his presence. The idea is a sacrificial festival, where offerings we will come to know in Leviticus 3 and 7 as “well-being offerings” (commonly translated “peace offerings”) are shared in a ritual meal in the deity’s presence. This element of the story is a reminder that very little in the Torah was actually new, most of it being cultural forms already known in the cultures surrounding Israel. The sacrifices detailed in the Torah were all known to the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Mesopotamians prior to Israel’s adoption of them.

Pharaoh uses a strong arm tactic, knowing how to treat slaves in order to defeat their will to resist. He increases their burden, knowing that the oppressed worker is too bent under his burden to see much beyond immediate suffering. Though Moses brings hope of freedom, the pressing strain of new misery dulls the hopes of the slaves and diverts their attention to their agony and its unfairness.

Predictably they blame the one trying to free them instead of the one oppressing them. The story is true to human nature. It also reflects accurate knowledge of Egyptian brick-making (Childs).

Moses’ complaint to God in vss. 22-23 will become a standard practice with him. Childs says, “In a complaint reminiscent of Jeremiah’s, he accuses God of bringing evil on the people.” From the early days, Israel has had a tradition of lament. Moses set the standard and God did not punish honest lament, even though the words blame God. The pattern will be repeated in the future with Moses’ prayers at times of tragedy and in Israel’s later poetry. God does not require insincere groveling but welcomes honest lament and even blame. The cathartic effect of lament is in part knowing that God does not condemn it. But God responds to this lament strongly by assigning to Pharaoh a terrible price, a price which Pharaoh has brought on himself and his people by his own cruel hand.