On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1
Moses is not introduced until Chapter 2 of Exodus. Instead, this book begins as a tale of the Israelite people and the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” (1:8) But we know who Joseph was. We just read a very long story about his life and achievements. And now we are introduced to a repressive Pharaoh. How is this Pharaoh (PII) depicted? How does his character, his dispositions, his motivations, his self-conception and his overall temperament compare to that of Joseph? Of Moses?
Pharaoh (PII) has none of the grace, the tolerance, the consideration and the humanitarianism of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph (PI), the Pharaoh who appointed Joseph as the vizier of Egypt. PII was a populist. He talked directly, just as Moses will, but Moses talked to God; PII talked to his people (1:9). He may have been an all-powerful leader, but PII championed the ordinary Egyptian against previous Pharaohs who, PII seemed to believe, succoured and welcomed strangers. PII presented himself as opposing the establishment, the previous powerful elite who coddled strangers in their midst. Against the interest in protecting and holding onto their labouring population, PII raged against the Israelites.
PII used the Israelites as a scapegoat. They were Other. They were totally other. They were inferior. But they were also numerous and, therefore, a potential fifth column – “in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise up from the ground.” (1:10) Do not welcome the stranger. Fear them. They are a danger. In the process, PII transformed Egypt from the benevolent rule of an autocrat (PI) to a state run as a one-person fiefdom. L’état c’est moi. PII began the process of dismantling the institutions that allowed Egypt to rule the ancient world. Instead of welcoming strangers among them, PII oppressed them. He rounded up those “strangers” and shackled them in forced labour. As he did so, the fear of the alleged dangers of the Israelites grew rather than diminished. The Egyptians were ruthless, without an ounce of empathy, and made life as bitter as possible for what had become a slave nation.
If PI had been constrained by economic realities, PII was not. The latter was willing to kill the source of his manual labour force, Hebrew boys, to service his paranoia and to use the fear of strangers as a way of mobilizing the Egyptians behind his autocratic rule. Was he effective? Not among the midwives who did not carry out his harsh decree and, instead, blamed the Hebrew women for being so healthy that they did not need a midwife. He may have been a populist, but could not use his tongue to persuade, just dictate.
He would be succeeded by another autocrat even worse than PII. PIII never acted with any strategic considerations in mind. His treatment of the Israelites was not a product of thoughtful and sound public policy, but rather of rants and stubborn determination to get his way. PII may have used the persecution of the Israelites to mobilize the Egyptian population behind him, but PIII disdained diplomacy altogether in favour of being a brawler, not just with anyone, but with the God of Israel. Contrast the behaviour of PII and PIII with the respect PI showed God.
It seems clear that PII was a macho male who lived off dominating the lives of others. He wanted and needed recognition. PIII would need even greater recognition, not as primus inter pares, first among equals, but as first űber alles. PIII would accept no rivals under any circumstances, and certainly would not accede to a God who was superior to himself in virtually every way. But his conflict with God would bring out his anxiety, his self-doubt, his emotional instability, his negative emotions and his propensity towards depression – when he was not being manic.
PII and PIII both lack any sense of curiosity (compare them in this regard to PI), imaginative capability, concern with or care for others. There did not seem to be an ounce of empathy or compassion in either. And PIII, though stubborn and determined to have his way, possessed no ability to think strategically in a disciplined manner, or to follow and submit to a set of rules, or even formulate such rules. Revenge was the driving force behind his behaviour rather than accommodation. As we will see, he seemed incapable of learning from experience.
Cognitively rigid and incurious, lacking any sense of emotional stability and calm, PII (and, subsequently, PIII), quite aside from being the oppressor of the Israelites, comes across as a most disagreeable fellow. PII was certainly driven and determined; PIII was even worse; he was, again as we shall see, restless and incapable of keeping a deal. He seemed to be a dynamo in perpetual motion, especially when contrasted with Moses. PII, the Pharaoh in the narrative before us, was the archetype of callous rudeness and arrogance. It would not be inaccurate to dub him a narcissistic mendacious two-dimensional performer rather than a three-dimensional human being. The only emotion both PII and PIII seemed capable of expressing was rage.
What a contrast with Joseph. But Joseph was far from a saint and just as far from being a Tzaddik, contrary to his publicists. He was as disagreeable as PII, but for different reasons. Joseph was a consummate actor with an instinct for making an impression on others. But Joseph was also a malicious gossip. If PII saw himself as greater than anyone, Joseph was very capable of his own aggrandized self-expression, though certainly more warranted. PII did not have to get along to get ahead. Joseph acquired the skill of the former to accomplish the latter. He acquired the skills of a diviner, but took no responsibility for his actions. Unlike Moses, who invited God to intervene in history, in Joseph’s world, God determined everything, eliminating the need for confession, forgiveness and, hence, acceptance of responsibility.
Look at the end of Genesis when his brothers begged for forgiveness. Instead of offering that forgiveness and permitting his brothers to accept and take responsibility for their actions, he cried. Unlike PII, Joseph was all sentiment, but lacked compassion, not to suggest that his brothers exhibited much. Joseph told his brothers: “Do not fear, for I am in the place of God. As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20) PII might have claimed that he was a god, but Joseph did the next worse thing. He said that he was in the place of God. Though God never spoke to him as he would to Moses. Joseph did not invite God’s entry into history, but insisted that what took place, even evil deeds, were just expressions of God’s will. For very different reasons, PII and Joseph both exhibited “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” What a contrast with Jacob! Both PII and Joseph, though radically different, could not accept that they had ever done anything wrong.
Both PII and Joseph presented themselves as gifts from heaven. But true Israelites “rose from the ground.” Moses was an exception. He came forth from the water. The meaning of the name Moses in Egyptian meant “drawn out,” a name given by Bithiah, his adoptive mother, who pulled Moses out from the river. Bithiah’s name itself means “Daughter of Yah,” daughter of God. She became Moses’ second midwife. Joseph, in contrast, was named Zaphenath-paneah. The speculation about the meaning of that name that seems both the most scholarly as well as appealing to me is “he who is called life.” As much as Moses is a spiritual man serving as a conduit between God and man, Joseph is the epitome of a natural human driven by a quest for power and position as the expression of what it means to live at the highest level.
If Joseph was arrogant, Moses is the epitome of a great man who remains humble despite his royal upbringing. He first became a shepherd of sheep and then of humans as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela did in the twentieth century. But the latter two divined the future as Joseph did. God spoke to Moses face-to-face and Moses was the vehicle by which God revealed Himself to humans. Joseph said to his brothers that he would personally be responsible for their safety and well-being. Moses never attributed any credits to himself. His unique characteristics were not special. Perhaps many others could have done as well or better than he did.
Moses was not a goody-goody two-shoes. What is the first story told of Moses after the tale of his birth and his being drawn out of the water? It is the encounter with a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses rose up in anger and slew the man. He did not own up to the deed but sought to hide it by burying the man’s body. The next day when he witnessed two Hebrew slaves fighting one another, and intervened, they challenged Moses. “Who are you to talk peace and to dissuade us from fighting? You killed an Egyptian taskmaster yesterday. Are you threatening me now?” There was a witness. Pharaoh wanted revenge, even against a boy in his own household. Moses was afraid and fled.
Not much of an advertisement for a future military, political and religious leader of the Israelites. He fled to Midian. He went to a well, the J-Date for ancient Hebrews. Once more he intervened. But he did not kill. He simply chased away other shepherds harassing the priest of Midian’s seven daughters. And he watered their flocks. The Midian priest was impressed, invited Moses to dinner and then gave his daughter, Zipporah, in marriage. Zipporah had a child, Gershon. We move through Moses’ early life with the speed of lightning. Yet there is sufficient to capture his core character – caring, responsible, capable of taking a moral stance, but also possessing a volcanic temper.
Then the revelation. Not a dream needing interpretation, but the appearance of an angel of the Lord in a blazing bush, a bush that is not consumed by the fire. Moses will not be consumed with the anger within him as Pharaoh (PIII) will be. God is fire. Moses emerged from the water. Fire and water do not mix. Yet God called to him. And Moses, like Abraham answered, “Hinaini.” Here I am. Moses did not turn away. And God spoke directly to Moses, introducing Himself but not revealing his name. He called on Moses to lead his people out of bondage.
Moses replied. Who am I to carry forth so great a mission? How can I convince anyone? Moses had to be drawn out of himself. He had to develop and be transformed into a leader. How could he convince people? He was full of doubt, totally lacking in the certainty of either PII, PIII or Joseph. By signs and wonders, God replied. And he gave Moses a demonstration turning a rod into a snake and a snake back into a rod, covering the back of Moses’ hand with fish scales and then making his skin smooth again.
These are not arbitrary magical acts. And they are not just dreams either. The snake in the Garden of Eden is crafty and clever, shrewd and wily. Machiavellianism will be required.
We need a break; it is time for a joke. A Bishop of the church each day passed a Jewish beggar near the entry of the church. Next to him the Bishop saw a Christian beggar wearing a monk’s habit with a large cross around his neck. Each day the Bishop would drop a few coins into the box of the Christian beggar. After many days of passing the two, he stopped. He addressed the Jewish beggar. Why are you begging as a Jew in front of a Cathedral? Why don’t you go outside a synagogue among your own people? The Jewish beggar turned to the other beggar and said, “So Moishe, look who is trying to teach us how to raise money for charity?” Machiavellian indeed!
In the Garden of Eden story, the stiff staff, the rigid snake, can no longer stand up, but falls to the ground. In this tale, the sequence is reversed. The rod becomes a squirming snake and then reverts once again to a staff.
Moses was a merman who emerged from the water and grew up with delicate skin in the royal household. As one of my readers noted, Moses was like Elisa in The Shape of Water, an outsider in the Hebrew, Egyptian and Midian communities. If Elisa was mute, Moses too had a speech impediment. Moses had “never been a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) But God will instruct Moses what to say and do. Joseph, in contrast, was the one giving the credit. In Exodus, God takes the credit and Moses simply has to trust God that He will perform as needed. Aaron will speak for you to the people. This will guarantee that Moses can never become a populist. For he will not be able to address his people directly or claim they are his people.
Could one have a greater contrast with PII and PIII, but also with Joseph? Moses remains the epitome of a modest leader.