Bo (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)

EXODUS 10:1-11

In some circumstances and at some times, many of us have ruined our lives. Friends. Marriages. Careers. Even self-respect. All lost.

What is the anatomy of a self-inflicted downfall? No doubt the view looks different to those observing from the outside than to the ones who are in the middle of their own deluded path to wreckage and collapse. Maybe Pharaoh’s insistent refusals resulted from some message in his head that he kept replaying or some inner drive to feel a certain way about his power. Who can understand what drives us and others to self-ruination?

In every downfall there comes a point of no return. There is a place where no comfortable, easy way out exists. The damage is done. עַל־כֵּן פִּתְאֹם יָבוֹא אֵידוֹ ‘al-kein pit’ōm yavō eidō, “Therefore suddenly calamity comes,” פֶּתַע יִשָּׁבֵר וְאֵין מַרְפֵּא peta’ yishaveir ve’ein marpei, “in a flash he will be broken, and there is no repair” (Prov 6:15). נֶגַע־וְקָלוֹן יִמְצָא nega’-veqalōn yimtza’, “He will find wounds and dishonor,” וְחֶרְפָּתוֹ לֹא תִמָּחֶה vecherpatō lō timmacheh, “and his disgrace cannot be erased.”

Of course there is redemption in the life to come. But some wreckages remain while this life continues.The finality comes quickly and soon it is too late.

This Torah is not about any sort of path back or hope we can have in the aftermath of self-wrought desolation. But other passages in the Hebrew Bible will say, “Comfort, comfort my people . . . speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her sentence is over” (Isa 40:1-2). “The Lord will not cast off forever . . . though he causes grief he will have compassion according to his abundant lovingkindness” (Lam 3:31-32).

God’s hardening and making a ruin of Egypt (1-2), the threat of the 8th wonder: Locusts (3-6), Pharaoh’s officials urge him to relent (7), Pharaoh’s sarcasm and inadequate response (8-11).

The tone is darkening. Egypt is beyond any easy way out of this conflict with Israel’s God. Pharaoh’s resistance to God and his refusal to be just toward the people of Israel has brought the land into a final triad of terrible signs: locusts, darkness, death of firstborn children.

What could make a ruler so obstinate to his own ruin? The story, as it has passed down until being written here in Exodus, is that Pharaoh’s arrogant resistance must be divinely magnified. It seemed difficult to imagine a ruler being so unwilling to see truth in the miracles that kept happening. God must have blinded him. Power must have blinded him. His behavior now borders on insanity.

Pharaoh’s hard heart is especially seen in his mocking statement in vs. 10, יְהִי כֵן יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת־טַפְּכֶם yeah ken Adonai immachem ka’asher ashalach etchem ve’et tappechem, “Thus may Adonai be with you: just as much as I will release you and your little ones!” The saying is sarcastic, of course, and Cassuto paraphrases it: “May the help of your God be as far from you as I am from giving you permission to go forth with your little ones.”

Pharaoh’s own court advisers can see it and their speech to him lacks the respectful tone now that we might expect when someone addresses a ruler: הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם haterem teidah ki avedah mitzrayim, “Do you not yet know Egypt is ruined?”

The story also takes on a new tone for the first time, one of lessons to be passed down in Israel from father to son to grandson (Meyers, New Cambridge Bible Commentary). This anticipates the founding of the Passover Seder (the ritual meal of Passover, pronounced say-der) which will come in chapter 12.

EXODUS 10:12-23

There are three ways of viewing the elements of nature. They could be thought to exist on their own. They could be the tools of the gods. Or they could be the handiwork of the One.

In Egyptian belief, the journey of the sun across the sky and then, apparently, under the earth, and its eventual return, was a wonder. In this they were surely correct. Amazement and awe are proper reactions to nature. They took it as a sign that Ra, a chief god, was traveling across the sky. The sun itself became a sort of fetish, an idol, an object in which the power of the god was concentrated.

In the belief of the Torah, the elements of nature are servants of the One who made them. It is true that poetically, some biblical passages describe God as riding a chariot of clouds in a manner similar to Ra riding the sun, but such passages are the exception in the Hebrew Bible and not the rule. God does not need to use nature as his tool. He sends natural phenomena to us as signs and the very existence of nature praises him.

The relationship of the one God to nature is quite different than in the Egyptian conception of deity. God is not simply able to control the elements with magic. In him the elements have their existence and continuity and definition.

As for the view which arose in modern times, that Nature is supreme, the all-that-is, this view suffers a number of problems. It is not true to what we sense inside. C.S. Lewis (Miracles) argues best that Naturalism (which could also be called Scientism or Materialistic Naturalism or Materialism) is not what it appears to be. It is a negative view really, denying that something the human mind conceives of (the supernatural, the divine) cannot exist. It rules out many of our most essential human characteristics, such as the sense that we are significant. In Naturalism we lack free will (since we are nothing more than a random result of external forces and processes) and significance (because our very sense of self is actually an empty thing). And the tool we rely on most, our reason, is most suspect of all. Why should our thoughts, which are simply a physical process, be considered reliable? Reason only matters if some transcendent reason exists and is the origin and essence of truth.

God blotted out the sun long ago in Egypt, so the story tells us. This is the Torah’s way of saying we should put our hope in him, the One, and see nature as pointing to him.

The locusts summoned with an east wind (12-15), Pharaoh’s plea (16-17), Moses prays and a west wind disperses the locusts (18-20), the 9th wonder: darkness (21-23).

The hail had ruined the barley and flax; now the locusts will destroy the wheat and spelt which were likely tender shoots already but too small for hail to destroy (cf. 9:32). As for the term “east wind,” it may be an anachronism, yet another example in the storytelling of the Torah where something is explained as it would be in Israel in later times, rather than in Egypt in earlier times. This is probably the desert wind, the sirocco (Sarna, JPS Commentary), but in Egypt it would be a south wind.

This time when Pharaoh begs Moses to relent, there is no answer. Moses does go out and pray as Pharaoh requested, but he offers no response to Pharaoh himself. Sarna suggests that Moses and Aaron’s silence after Pharaoh’s plea is deliberately cold. Pharaoh had just dismissed them rudely in the previous scene. The power dynamics are shifting and Moses and Aaron are less supplicants now and instead are becoming dominant over Pharaoh, or at least unafraid of his power.

A wind from the sea drives the locusts away, which is God’s response to Moses’ prayer. Then the 9th sign comes. As usual for the third one in each triad of signs, it comes without warning. Cassuto interprets this event as a sandstorm rather than an eclipse. The fact that Goshen is said to have light while the rest of Egypt was in darkness fits with the sandstorm theory. Meanwhile, the chief god of Egypt is Ra, the sun god. Blotting out the sun is a powerful statement of God’s authority over the Egyptians.

EXODUS 10:24 – 11:3

In our self-deception we fail at times to realize the comeuppance that is headed our way. Cruelty, dishonesty, arrogance. They save up for us a payout of bad consequences which will often come at an inopportune moment. And we are usually caught unaware.

“Be careful not to see me again,” Pharaoh said to Moses. “Because the next time you see my face, on the day you see my face, you will die.” These are continued words of power, of self-perceived domination. Pharaoh has completely believed in his own ability to defeat Moses and the God of Israel. It has been obvious to those around Pharaoh that Egypt is ruined.

“Thus you have spoken.” כֵּן דִּבַּרְתָּ kein dibarta. Pharaoh’s own words are turned to a new meaning. He warned Moses, “Be careful not to see me again.” What those words meant to Pharaoh (“I will in my great power see to it that you die”) had no validity. God gives the words new meaning and so Moses says, “I will not see your face again.”

Pharaoh’s face will be one of bereavement, terrible loss. He will hold his dead son in his arms. He was not above killing Israelite children. His own child will die.

While we cannot prevent all tragedy, there are some we can avoid. Selfish and cruel choices have their end. Even in his own pain and loss, Pharaoh still will not learn. His bereavement will turn to anger and he will set out with the intent to kill more people. The end of all oppressors is destruction. The earth runs on wisdom and righteousness. Pharaoh will not learn this.

Pharaoh is willing now to let the children go but not the flocks (24), Moses insists on all the flocks as well (25-26), Pharaoh hardens and says he will kill Moses if he sees him again (27-29), preparation for the final plague (11:1-3).

The escalation of conflict continues. The negotiation between Pharaoh and Moses has progressed, but they reach another stalemate. This time Pharaoh says he will kill Moses if he sees him again. Moses answers, “Thus you have spoken: you will not see my face again!”

It is hard to know what has been really going on in the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron have been asking simply for a three day festival in the desert. Has this request been genuine or has it been a pretext for escape from Egypt?

Pharaoh has assumed it as a pretext. In 10:8-11, Pharaoh granted that the men could go and Moses refused. Now Pharaoh grants that all but the flocks can go. Moses’ reply seems excessive: they must bring all the flocks and herds because they do not know which animals God will choose for an offering. Cassuto reads the negotiation in terms of national pride: Moses will accept no concessions and sees the festival as a right. He even demands that Pharaoh provide the animals for the offerings to Israel’s God.

Is it possible that Pharaoh was right to suspect Moses? Could the “three day festival” have been a ruse all along, with escape being the goal? More likely the request for a mere three day release has been to show that Egypt is a true oppressor, unwilling to even let its forced laborers have a respite. How much less would Egypt consider ending the servitude of Israel? God has directed Moses to ask for something reasonable to expose Egypt’s ruthlessness. Knowing Pharaoh will not relent, God plans something greater than a holiday: a complete deliverance. As Abraham was told in Genesis 15, Israel will not only escape, but the slaves will receive compensation for their time of service in the form of jewelry and money from the Egyptians (see also Deut 15:13).

EXODUS 11:4 – 12:20

In a world where 23% of Jewish men and women says they attend synagogue once or twice a month (source: Pew Research Center, 2013 study), we find the surprising fact that 70% attended a Passover Seder (symbolic meal) in the year previous to the study. The celebration of Passover is one of the defining traits of Jewish identity.

“This day will be for you a memorial” (וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן vehayah hayyōm hazzeh lachem lezicharōn). “Throughout your generations you shall keep it as a feast as a statute forever” (לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחָגֻּהוּ ledōrōteichem chukat ōlam techaguhu).

How remarkable is it to see people in modern times eating unleavened bread and sitting down to the story of an Exodus that happened more than three thousand years ago?

Passover is one of the miracles of Jewish existence. It has survived the loss of the temple and the cessation of animal sacrifices, thanks to the transforming work of the rabbis and sages of Israel. It has taken on some new forms and has become an example of Jewish creativity. But the core idea remains: it is a remembrance of the deliverance from forced labor in Egypt.

Exodus 12 describes two different kinds of Passover: the one-night event in Egypt long ago in which lambs were slaughtered in the family dwelling and blood was painted on the doorway and the year-after-year commemoration over a seven day period with a Seder (symbolic meal, pronounce SAY-der) on the first night.

As the family and guests sit or recline around a table, the evening becomes timeless, a few hours suspended in the stream of millennia flowing as it were directly from the Torah. Exodus keeps using the word “forever” and the phrase “throughout your generations.” Whereas most forms of Christianity interpret the Torah as a temporary constitution between God and the Jews, which has now been replaced by church life and tradition, Jesus and even the congregations associated with Paul observed Passover as a “forever” ordinance (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, where Paul uses an illustration from the Passover observance to explain something to a congregation).

Although it is not the only ordinance in the Torah to be considered a “perpetual statute,” Passover has become the most successful one of all. The Pew Research Center study found that only 53% of Jewish men and women fasted at Yom Kippur in 2012, even though the fast of Yom Kippur is arguably the holiest observance in all of Torah. Yet 70% observed the Passover. No doubt it is the shared meal, the family togetherness, the element of story and symbol, that keeps Passover alive where other observances diminish.

Moses’ stern speech to Pharaoh about the coming death in Egypt (4-8), epilogue (9-10), Passover observance instructions (12:1-13), observance of future Passovers (14-20).

Moses’ final speech to Pharaoh contains some surprising and interesting features. God will act alone in the final judgment on Egypt, not through the agency of Moses and Aaron. אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם ani yōtzei betōch mitzrayim, “I am going forth in the midst of Egypt,” God says. Furthermore, the death he will bring with him will fall upon every level of Egyptian society. Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) eloquently summarizes the statement about the levels of hierarchy in Egypt: “The sedentary enthroned male at the top to the laboring female servant at the bottom, and thus everyone in between, will lose their first offspring.” As a result of God dealing out death, and doing so to every level of society, there will be an anguished cry in Egypt. The tragedy is depicted in a concrete image, typical of Hebrew narrative, comparing the wailing sound of bereavement in Egypt to the lack of even a dog’s snarl in Goshen where the Israelites lived. And then Moses delivers to Pharaoh a final word of ironic judgment: “These court-servants of yours,” he says, meaning Pharaoh will be too paralyzed to do it himself, “will come and bow low to me” and declare that we may go free.

After Moses’ devastating speech, the text has one more time the description of Pharaoh’s hard heart. Then the narrative pauses while the Passover instructions are given.

The Passover instructions lack a setting. Are we to understand that God spoke to Moses and Aaron after they left Pharaoh at the end of chapter 11? There is no reference to a time or place for this message. It stands independently. According to Richard Elliott Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed), these words in 12:1-20 are from the Priestly source.

The new year according to Torah begins in spring, with the new moon preceding Passover. The month in which Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (Tabernacles) falls is called the seventh month in Torah, but in the modern Jewish calendar it is called the first.

The instructions for selecting a lamb on the tenth day begins a section which is about the first Passover only, the Passover in Egypt. This is something that has confused some later readers, who wondered if a lamb was to be slaughtered in the family home each year at Passover. Not so. In all Passovers after the first one the lambs were to be slaughtered in the temple. And in modern times, lambs are not slaughtered at all, since the temple was destroyed.

The Passover lamb is the kind of sacrifice known in Leviticus as a well-being offering (aka “peace offering”). Its meat was eaten by the worshippers and was to be treated as holy. Therefore there are instructions here about not breaking bones and not leaving any meat over at the end. They must eat it with symbolic foods: unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Regarding unleavened bread, the Passover section seems to offer two different explanations. In one, the message about eating unleavened bread was given in advance and had nothing to do with the haste of their departure. There was quite likely already a celebration of spring for flock-tending pastoralists involving a lamb and rough bread. In the other explanation, though, the haste of the departure made it necessary to bake bread without taking the time to leaven it.

It is not to be eaten half-raw or boiled. This is perhaps a reference to an already existing rite eating the half-raw meat of the flock (Cassuto). If so, God is separating his Passover festival in some ways from pre-existing customs. A well-being offering must be cooked in a manner that is holy and not treated according to rustic traditions of the desert. Pre-existing rituals of sheepherders are transformed into a celebration of the greatest deliverance any people has known to this point in history: a nation of slaves liberated by divine power and promised a land of abundance.

Vss. 14-20 spell out the future Passover instructions, a seven-day festival with a strict prohibition of leaven in their dwellings. The Passover shall be לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם ledōrōteichem chukat ōlam, “for your generations a perpetual statute.” As long as Israel exists, we must celebrate Passover. Vss. 16-20 set apart future Passovers as a seven-day holiday and not just a ritual meal on one night.

EXODUS 12:21-28

The Jewish family gathered to eat symbolic foods and to read excerpts from an old book is one of the most unusual and domestic of all religious customs on earth. “Religion” does not usually look like the typical scene in a Jewish home on the night of Passover. The participation of children is central to the meaning of the event. Strange foods, such as greens, unleavened bread, a sweet concoction of fruit and nuts, and a serving of bitter herbs, fill the night with a peculiar flavor.

The Passover Seder, a central rite of Judaism, traces its roots to Moses himself, with instructions from God about what specifically to say when children ask about the ceremony. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation, an essay called “The Story We Tell”) says, the instruction regarding answering the questions of children “remains one of the most counterintuitive passages in all of religious literature.”

As Rabbi Sacks observes, the Israelites are about to be released. Miraculous events are going to happen that night. The freedom of a nation is under way. And the narrative pauses for what? For instructions about answering the questions children will ask in future generations. “He tells the Israelites to do what Jews have done from then to now,” says Rabbi Sacks, “tell your children the story.”

This instruction is vital, Rabbi Sacks argues, because the Passover story is a story about freedom. It is about the calling of the Jewish people to build a nation based on freedom, and one whose moral code is concerned also with the freedom of others. True freedom, Rabbi Sacks says, comes from God and is found in a covenant of mutual love with him. Judaism passed this value on to Christianity and Western culture in general.

The strength of Jewish identity is one of history’s marvels. More than three millennia after the events of the first Passover, Jewish families are still keeping these customs. Children are still asking questions and parents answering them. The family Passover Seder has become the most popular of all of Judaism’s traditions, according the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study.

Exodus. Divine wrath passing over. Safety for those in covenant with God. Terror for the oppressors. Freedom and bread eaten in haste during the escape. The themes of Passover have resonated beyond the Jewish community. They became historically foundational to Christianity in the customs of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) and in the experience of the African slaves in America, the Exodus story became a liberating tale of hope. The Israelite prophets say that Passover has meaning for the future as well. God is not finished. There remains an Exodus to come.

Moses relays the instructions for the first Passover (21-23), Moses relays instructions for future Passovers (24-27), Israel obeys (28).

Moses is now relaying the instructions he received from God about what will happen Passover night. He adds two things here not found in the report of God’s instructions: details about how to implement the placing of blood and a warning not to go outside on this night when the Lord will be passing through.

To apply the blood, Moses tells them to use hyssop. The exact identity of biblical hyssop is a much discussed question. Many identify it with marjoram or Syrian oregano. Hyssop features in a number of texts as the official tool for sprinkling blood (e.g., Lev 14:4 and Num 19:6).

There is some ambiguity in the narrative about who will do the actual killing of the firstborn. On the one hand, Moses says that “Adonai will pass through to strike the Egyptians.” And when Adonai “sees the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts” he will “pass over” (פָסַח, pasach, same root as פֶּסַח, “Passover,” the name of the holiday and also the word used for the sacrificial lamb). So these references all clearly are about God himself. Yet Moses also says Adonai “will not all the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you.” The word “ the destroyer” is הַמַּשְׁחִית, hamashchit, from the Hebrew root for “slaughter.”

What does this reference to the destroyer or slaughterer mean? Many have interpreted this to mean a supernatural being (angel, fallen angel, demon) sent by God to perform the act of slaying. A similar event in 2 Samuel 24:16 involves a “messenger of destruction” (could also be translated “an angel of destruction”). In spite of the indications that the “destroyer” at the first Passover could have been a supernatural being, the traditional Passover Haggadah (the book telling the order of the meal and giving stories and liturgy for the evening) has a section explicitly denying the presence of any being other than God passing through Egypt that night. The Haggadah says it was God himself who destroyed and it was “no angel.” Sarna (JPS Commentary) argues that the “destroyer” is a personification of the plague and not meant to refer to a supernatural being.

Moses’ account of what will happen does emphasize the personal presence of God and there is a strict warning to the Israelites not to exit their houses and thereby come in contact with this manifestation of the Divine.

The text then turns to future observances of Passover. As has been said previously, this is a “forever” statute for Israel, for all generations. In a surprising shift of subject, Moses instructs parents in the future what to say to their children who ask, “What do you mean by this service?” The word “service” (הָעֲבֹדָה, ha’avōdah) means the ritual involved in sacrificing a lamb (it is not, as in modern religious jargon, a “worship service”). When the child asks why this annual slaughter of a lamb takes place, Moses gives the Israelites a liturgy to use. This liturgy is one of the most important foundational passages for the modern Jewish Passover Haggadah. Three times the text of Exodus refers to parents answering a child’s question about the Passover (12:25-27; 13:8; 13:14).

The liturgy given to this first question posed by a child can be translated as follows: “It is the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when he struck Egypt, but our houses he spared.” Parents, Moses shows them, will continue generation after generation passing this story down to the children and in this way will keep alive the relationship between God and Israel. This commandment is fulfilled literally in the reading year after year of the Passover Haggadah at a family meal on the night of Passover.

EXODUS 12:29-51


“Passover” in Torah usually means something different than “Passover” when we say it today. “Do you celebrate Passover?” we as someone. The word to us means a holiday, a special occasion that has its own customs and history. We might event think of “Passover” as referring to the meal eaten on the night of the holiday. But neither of these is the usual meaning of the word in Torah.

Imagine if Torah meant “the holiday” or “the meal,” when it says, “This is the ordinance of Passover; no foreigner may eat it.”

What? No non-Jewish guests allowed at the family celebration of Passover? You mean you have to be Jewish to eat matzah (unleavened bread) and sing Dayenu (a Passover song)?

No, in the parlance of Torah the word “Passover” means the sacrificial lamb or goat. At the first occasion for the Passover in Egypt, a lamb or goat was slaughtered in the home and its blood smeared on the doorposts. After that, lambs and goats were sacrificed at the temple for the holiday, but the meat was eaten by the worshippers. “Passover” in the text means the sacrificial meat, which was a well-being offering (also known as a peace offering).

Non-Jews are forbidden in Torah from eating the well-being offering of Passover. This has no continuing relevance for Passover customs today since there are no sacrifices. But it raises the question: why is God prohibiting Gentles from eating a sacrifice?

The answer is simple and profound. The events that occurred in the Exodus are a special bond between God and the people of Israel. The Passover sacrifice is holy, set apart to commemorate the origins of the Jewish people as those who were liberated by God from Egypt. Quite simply, the Passover sacrifice is a sign between God and Israel forever. If people who are not part of Israel — by birth or conversion though circumcision — eat of the sacred meat, it makes light of the occasion and events and relationship.

Other peoples of the world have been inspired by the Exodus. Themes from it inform Christianity though the eucharist or Lord’s Supper observance which is kept in imitation of Jesus, who was, of course, observing Jewish customs himself in the season of Passover. The Exodus is forever bound up with the experience of African slaves in America. Other peoples throughout the world take inspiration from the Exodus.

But none of this can erase the bond that exists between the Jewish people and God because of the Exodus.

The 10th Plague (29-36), the Exodus (37-42), who may eat the Passover (43-49), summary (50-51).

Issues vital to the history of Israel and to modern understandings of Jewish identity and the meaning of Passover are bound up in this section. Why is it noted that the Israelites bound up their dough before it was leavened? How does this correlate with the instructions already given previously to eat unleavened bread with Passover? Do we have two conflicting origin stories for the festival of Unleavened Bread? What should we make of the report of 600,000 Israelite men when we know that populations of cities were so small in that time period? What are we to make of the time period of 430 years since it does not compare well with other mentions of time in Genesis 15 and the genealogy of Exodus 6? And, finally, what does the section in 12:43-49 tell us about Jewish identity today?

Concerning the origin of the custom of unleavened bread, Sarna (JPS Commentary) and Cassuto both note the problem that there seem to be two origins suggested in Exodus. In 12:8, Israel is already commanded to eat unleavened bread with the Passover on the first night in Egypt. Yet, now in 12:34, 39 we seem to have another origin rationale, which is referred back to in later scriptures (see also Deut 16:3). Sarna says “the present rationale is a reinterpretation . . . of a preexisting practice.” Cassuto reads it all in harmony. Since the Israelites had made bread without leaven the night before, they have no leavened dough to use as a starter when the Exodus sets out. Therefore they put the dough in containers bundled in their clothing so the body heat might speed fermentation (but to no avail). Thus, there is a double explanation: it was preexisting as a custom and it also reflected the difficulty of the journey. It is also worth noting that the first mention in 12:8 is from the Priestly source of the Torah while 12:34, 39, are part of the E account (from the Shiloh priests in the northern kingdom).

As for the number 600,000 “men on foot,” there are many reasons this census figure could not possibly be accurate. Population figures in the ancient world were much smaller than in modern times. A visitor to archaeological ruins, such as the mound at Jericho, can see that towns in that time could house at most a few hundred soldiers. With 600,000 men, the total population with women and children would have been near or over 2 million. No army in the ancient world could have been a threat to them. It makes no sense to see Israel’s 600,000 men running from Pharaoh’s much smaller army (600 chariots). The largest fighting force known from the ancient Middle East was assembled at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, where Shalmaneser III of Assyria records that all the enemies who marched against his armies totaled 53,000 men.

The large number is also suspicious because of a cultural element which Umberto Cassuto identifies repeatedly in his commentaries on Genesis and Exodus. In the Ancient Near East there was a preference for numbers related to six, which Cassuto calls the “sexagesimal system.” Combine this with the possibility that later scribes copying the text of Exodus may have confused the word elef (troop) with its other meaning (thousand) and it is possible the story originally claimed 600 troops of men on foot. In all likelihood the number of Israelites was probably less than 10,000.

A similar issue applies to the rounded figure of 430 years. It is an ideal number: six periods of sixty with seventy added (6 X 60 + 70). Cassuto demonstrated how the number could be arrived at. It is a stylistic number, not fitting with our modern notions of historical reporting (which did not matter to ancient peoples). Who would have counted the years? Chronology was not an issue for them.

As for the mixed multitude, some rabbinic commentators felt (for a grammatical reason) they are to be identified with the “riffraff” of Numbers 11:4. The term here for “mixed multitude is עֵרֶב רַב, which involves a repeating of the last two consonants just like אסַפְסֻף in Numbers 11:4. But this identification has little evidence. A better sense of the story, given that Israel is leaving a place where multiple groups have been subject to forced labor, is that some other slave groups and even Egyptians left with them. We do not hear of this mixed multitude later, which likely means they assimilated into the people Israel and became part of the tribes (much as Caleb the Kennizite’s family became part of Judah).

Finally, in 12:43-49 we find that only circumcised members of the tribes could eat the Passover. It is important to point out that “Passover” in this context (and usually in Torah) means specifically the lamb (or goat) slaughtered for the festival. This is not a prohibition against a non-Jew joining a Jewish family in modern times at a Seder (symbolic meal for Passover), especially since there is no sacrificial animal to eat in modern times. According to Torah, “resident aliens” (immigrants, foreigners living among the Israelites) were not full members of the covenant people unless they submitted to circumcision (vs. 48) and thus joined the people of Israel (as did Caleb and others, apparently).

But how does this coincide with the text of vs. 49 which says תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר tōrah achat yihyeh la’ezrah velager, “There will be one Torah for the native-born and the immigrant”? The two statements (“no foreigner shall eat of it” and “there shall be one Torah”) were not contradictory in their mind. The unity of Torah does not mean all provisions apply equally. Rather, it means the Torah as a complete system applies, but with distinctions, to everyone, native and immigrant. It also likely has the force of saying there will be equal justice. It does not mean there will be identical roles, and this can be seen in various distinctions in Torah between Israelites, Levites, and priests as well as among men and women.

But why is the Passover sacrifice forbidden to foreigners? The sanctity of the Passover sacrifice — its blood having been dashed on the holy altar — is about God’s rescue of one specific people, Israel. For non-Jews to participate in this covenantal meal, eating the peace offering designated to represent God’s redemption of the chosen people, would be to devalue the purpose of the sacrifice.

EXODUS 13:1-16

If we did not know better from history and experience, we might think the insistence of Torah that Jewish people for all generations would keep certain customs as memorials is an antiquated and ineffective notion. The Torah is adamant. “You shall keep this service.” “You shall tell your child.” “It shall be to you as a sign.” “It will be a memorial between your eyes.”

Why this insistence on memorializing and ritualizing life? What significance can the continued observance of Passover along with seven days of eating matzah have for the Jewish people? How can the custom of redeeming firstborn children and sacrificing firstborn animals keep the Jewish spirit alive?

To see the answer, all we have to do is look at Judaism today. It is alive and well. Though a small people, the Jewish people have not assimilated and forgotten their identity. Though scattered in places all over the globe, Israel continues to exist. Though secularization has eroded many precious things, the overwhelming majority of Jews keep Passover every year (according to the 2013 Pew Research Center study).

This Torah portion is bizarre. “It shall be a sign on your hand.” “It will be frontlets between your eyes.”

What is the “it” to be worn on the hand and between the eyes? Is it jewelry, a bracelet and headband? Is the rabbinic custom of tefillin (phylacteries, small leather boxes strapped to the head and arm, which have inside tiny scrolls with words of Torah) the meaning of this Torah?

The text suggests a different answer. Israel will “wear” these commandments like jewelry. The continued practice of the matzah custom and redeeming firstborn animals and children will memorialize the Exodus. These customs will grace the arm (the actions) and the head (thoughts and emotions) of Israelites for all time.

The firstborn are God’s (1-2), the matzah festival as a memorial (3-10), redemption of the firstborn, pidyon haben (11-16).

Two events in Israel’s history will become core experiences of identity formation: the Exodus and Sinai. Who are the Jewish people? They are those whom God brought out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, and who stood before him at Sinai and received a priestly calling to be a holy people.

Therefore, the texts about the Passover and Exodus contain repeated commands about memorializing, about passing the story down to the children, about perpetual customs that will serve as signs “between your eyes,” and about the crucial importance of observing such customs as the seven-day matzah festival. Although instructions for both the first Passover in Egypt as well as future Passovers have already been given, this section repeats some of those directives with a new emphasis on two commandments in particular: a seven day period of eating matzah and the perpetual practice of redeeming all firstborn of animals and children.

Vss. 1-2 are about the status of the firstborn immediately after the Exodus. Vss. 11-16 are for when Israel is in the land. As was the case in Exodus 12, the text is about both the past and the future, about Israel in Egypt and Israel after Egypt. Both customs, the matzah festival and redemption of the firstborn, are seen as curious practices which will lead children to ask why. Vs. 8 and vs. 14, much like Exodus 12:25-27, involve the education of children through the continued practice of rituals related to the Exodus experience. The Passover Haggadah (the order of service for Passover that has developed through the ages) is largely based on the concept of these questions from the children (as well as the liturgy for the first fruits in Deut 26).

The matzah festival, which coincides with Passover and lasts for a week, is both a positive and negative injunction. No Israelite is to eat anything leavened. But it is also a commandment to eat unleavened bread.

Vss. 9 and 16 are curious. Very similar commandments are given in Deuteronomy 6 and 11, which have become in Judaism the basis for wearing tefillin (phylacteries, small leather boxes strapped to the head and arm, which have inside tiny scrolls with words of Torah). The tefillin are worn by pious Jewish men during the morning prayers, but not on the Sabbath. If the only texts we had about this custom were the two in Deuteronomy, we might agree that the tefillin custom is what Torah was talking about.

However, Exodus 13:9 and 16 help us to see something more here. What is the “it” that Israelites must bind on the hand and wear between the eyes as a memorial? The answer, flowing logically from the text, is that the commandment itself must be memorialized. The matzah commandment is the subject of vs. 9 and the firstborn redemption commandment is the subject of vs. 16. How does one wear a commandment on the hand and between the eyes?

Three possible interpretations exist. The first is that this was about some kind of jewelry (bracelet and headband), perhaps with an inscription. The second is some thing like the modern custom of tefillin (wearing small boxes with scrolls inside). The third, and most likely, is that the meaning is symbolic. Israel will “wear” these commandments like jewelry. The continued practice of the matzah custom and redeeming firstborn animals and children will memorialize the Exodus. These customs will grace the arm (the actions) and the head (thoughts and emotions) of Israelites for all time.

It is quite possible that at an early stage, perhaps even as a preexisting custom, firstborn males were regarded as dedicated to the sanctuary (priests and sanctuary servants). In Numbers 3:12 and 8:16-18, Levites replace the firstborn as the priests within Israel. Also, firstborn rites concerning animals may have already existed as a custom, but after the Exodus this is explained as remembering God’s deliverance of the firstborn in Egypt. The matzah or unleavened bread is a sign during the seven days of the festival commemorating the Exodus and a means of passing the story down to children. Redemption of the firstborn for human children is further regulated in Numbers 18, especially vs. 16. The ceremony continues to be observed today with a ceremonial payment of five shekels (usually traded for a donation to charity).