Who Is God? Parshot Shemot: Ch. 1-5 of Exodus
We are now in a new book, the second book of the five books of the Torah. In Hebrew, its name is “Names,” but in English it is called “Exodus” even thought the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, including the set up of the story, only takes up 15 of 40 chapters. Some think that only the first verse of chapter 1 deals with “Names,” so “Names” is an even less appropriate title for the whole book. I suggest that Sh’mot or Shemot as the name of the second book is appropriate because it is about the Israelite God making a name for Himself in the wider world of politics. What happens within the story may be the redemption (Ramban – Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Gerondi or Nachmanides) of the Israelites in the various meanings of that term, but I will attend to the other side of that redemption, the redeemer who is credited with bringing it about, namely God.
The first verse seems to be merely a repetition of what was told in the previous book, in particular in Parshat Vayidash. But not quite, for this is the story read backwards, not as prophecy but as what takes place after the names of the children of Israel (of Jacob) were long gone and had been aufgehobt (from the German verb aufheben), that is when they had been taken out, put away and raised into the stars of heaven above. The names of the leaders of the twelve tribes have become just memories.
Further, as the Israelites multiplied and flourished in Egypt, as a Pharaoh came to rule over Egypt “who knew not Joseph,” who did not remember what Joseph had done to make not only Egypt prosperous, but the Pharaoh personally rich using the new economic model that saved the farmers from totally losing all their land at the same time as the plan cut Pharaoh in for 20% of their profits. The new positive sum game of macroeconomic policy was now taken for granted and no credit was given to Joseph. There was no longer a memory of why the Israelites had it so good.
So Pharaoh played the anti-Semitic card, pointing out the fact that the Israelites had not merged totally with the Egyptians and remained a distinct people, that they had grown numerous creating a theoretical demographic problem, and that they allegedly could serve as a fifth column. The theoretical prospect of double loyalty and, even more so, triple loyalty, that is where loyalty to a third foreign and enemy power became stronger than the loyalty of the Israelites to Egypt became a possible prospect. There was no evidence for any of these fears, but that is the classic nature of anti-Semitism.
The Pharaoh’s response: subject the Israelites to hard labour and when that proved insufficient, order the midwives to abort their male children, and when that was subverted by the compassion of those same midwives, order the military forces of Egypt to actually murder male Israelite infants. Suddenly – though it may have taken three-and-a-half centuries – the Israelites had gone from the top of the pile, from a golden age, into a persecuted minority. Would redemption come from a member of the tribe of Judah assigned the task of military and political leadership of the Israelites?
That was not to be at this time. In Chapter 2 we are told the story of the new leader of the Israelites, of Moses, who came not from the loins of Judah, but was a child on both sides of Levite parents. Recall that Levi was the son, who, like Simeon, had demonstrated a total absence of compassion. Yet the messenger of redemption would come from the House of Levi, but not as an inheritor of his forefather’s beastly and rash and cruel behaviour, but, via the compassion of women, the midwives who would not abort him, his mother, who would not see him dashed to death, a sister who conceived the plot to save him by sending the infant in a woven basket to where the daughters of the Pharaoh were bathing, to the compassion of the Pharaoh’s daughter, and to Miriam’s compassionate plan to have her own mother serve as nursemaid to the adopted son of the princess. The Israelite continuity is once again saved through the guile of Israelite women.
Moses is not born as a warrior. He is not political. He is neither an orator or poet as their forefather had prophesied for the House of Naphtali. Nor is he an observer and upholder of the law as had been prophesied for Judah’s heirs. But he developed into a man of extraordinary compassion at total odds to his forefather. Though his rash action in murdering the Egyptian taskmaster who was mistreating two Israelites seemed similar, that action was not driven by cruelty as had the behaviour of his forefather Levi, but by compassion for those who were being beaten. But there were two Israelite witnesses who did not observe what drove Moses to murder. They only saw the murder and feared the consequences, especially on themselves. They snitched.
Moses was forced to flee to the land of Midian where, again through his compassion, helped the daughter of the Midian priest Jethro, Zipporah, from male harassment. He was given Zipporah’s hand in marriage. They had a son, Gershom, born as a stranger in a strange land. Zipporah too will prove to be both compassionate and courageous, circumcising her son and throwing his foreskin at the feet of thugs who stood in their way when returning to Egypt. The prospect of Moses, raised in a royal household, possessing the rashness of his forefather, but with none of the cruelty, the prospect of this man content seemingly to live out his life as a shepherd living neither among Egyptians nor Israelites, emerging as the instrument to save the Israelite from the oppressive hand of the Pharaoh, seemed remote indeed.
Chapter 3 tells the story of how the turnaround took place, not by the initiative of Moses, but by the God of Israel. God, having forgotten his covenant with the Israelites just as Pharaoh had forgotten about the contributions of the Israelites to the power of the Pharaoh and the economic prosperity of the land, suddenly and inexplicably remembered the covenant he made and appears to this shepherd tending his sheep in Horeb, a holy mountain, and appears via an angel in a burning bush not consumed by fire. When Moses turns aside from the apparition, God announces, “Hineni,” Here am I. I am here for you, as the cantor in synagogue pronounces when he reads the cantor’s prayer. I am fully present. I hear the woes of the people of Israel. God recognizes the suffering of the Israelites and renews his promise to deliver the people to the land of milk and honey though Moses who is to be His messenger.
And that is when God names himself. I AM. Moses as God’s messenger must tell the childen of Israel that, “I AM sent me unto you.” Ch. 3, verse 14 reads:
יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם..
God is Aleichem, אֲלֵיכֶם. elohé avotechém sh’lacháni alechém.
So Moses receives his instructions, how to practice magic before the people turning a rod into a serpent and back again into a rod, how to turn his hand leprous, how to turn water into blood. But magic is insufficient. Moses is tongue-tied. He is neither able to put words together effectively nor communicate those words. So Aaron his brother is appointed as spokesman. (Nothing is said about how Aaron survived the Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the Israelite male children, but Aaron may have been born before Pharaoh issued the decree about getting rid of the male Israelite children.)
Moses now recognizes God and acknowledges the role he has to play. But can he play that role? Only if the people recognize that Moses is speaking on behalf of God. But how can they come to that recognition, especially given that Moses seems to be a poor replica of a warrior king? But who is this God who is to be recognized? Who is: I AM that I AM”? Well, He is not simply, “I Am.” He is I who shall be he I who I shall be.” God is revelation. God is He who reveals himself over time. He is He who proves to be through his actions, through the fulfilment of His promises. He is not just the God who says hineni, here I am. And what is becoming cannot be depicted as that which is. The proof will be in the pudding. Revelation will come through deeds.