Desire and Life: Parashat Ve’eira וארא Exodus 6:2-9:35

A friend called me two days ago on Wednesday and asked what I would be writing about this Friday. I said that I did not know. I usually decide Thursday afternoon, do some research, and write my blog Friday morning. He then asked why I did not write about God. After all, God was the major and continuing character in the Torah. How could I write about everything under the sun and ignore God? There is nothing in Torah that is more important. My flippant answer was that God was about the future. God is He who shall be. God is revelation. I rarely write about the future. I am a terrible prophet. I write about what is happening and what has happened.

So, let me begin by writing about God. In last week’s portion, Moses expressed grave doubts about his being chosen to lead the Hebrew people to freedom from oppression. God reassured Moses, promised he would not only remain at his side, but would also provide a sign by which Moses could prove that God had sent him and that he was not simply appointing himself.  

יא  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.11 And Moses said unto God: ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’
יב  וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּךָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:  בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה.12 And He said: ‘Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.’

Moses then asked who he should say sent him. “What is His name?” God replied, in the Masoretic text that I use, “’I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thou shalt say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’ and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’” (3:14) Gunther Plaut in his edition does not offer a translation. “And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’ He continued, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (3:14)

Robert Alter in his translation of the text bites the bullet and translates as follows: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be.’ And he said, ‘Thou shalt say to the Israelites, Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” “And God said further to Moses, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘The Lord God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent me to you.

That is my name forever

And thus am I invoked in all ages.’” (3:15)

Is God “I Am”? If so, God is Being. God is everything there is in the present tense. God is permanence. God is eternally the same. God is unchanging. Or is God, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” God is then Becoming. God is the one who reveals Himself. God is He Who Shall Be Who He Shall Be.” God is a promise. Or is God the continuity of He who was the God of your ancestors: He who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Figure out who I am and who I shall be by reading who I have been to your forefathers.

God not only appears enigmatic, but the Hebrew is enigmatic. If God had said, ‘My name is Sam,’ or ‘My name is Arthur,’ there is a clear implication that there are other gods with different names. That has to be ruled out. Instead, God offers an ontological question (not a definitive answer) of the most profound sort. In Greek philosophy, the alternatives were represented by the division between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides insisted that the fundamental character of reality was being, was constancy, was eternally the same. Heraclitus insisted that everything always changes. You cannot step into the same river twice. Everything is becoming. Everything is change.

Are you on the side of Being or on the side of Becoming? God in the Hebrew text seems to be saying that I am akin to a quantum in physics, both a particle (Being) and energy (Becoming) at one and the same time. I appear and am physical, but I have the least amount of physicality possible, only sufficient to engage in an interaction with the world. On the other hand, I have no restricted discrete value. I am unlimited. Instead of being a particle that occupies the least amount of space possible, I spread through all space. I am energy. I am creativity and not just what has been created. From one perspective, I am matter and not just immaterial. From another perspective, I am not matter but only energy, only creativity.

When you look to the future, “I will be Who I Will Be.” When you look to the present, “I Am Who I Am.” And when you look backwards in time, I am neither and I am both. I am the Being who reveals himself as ever-changing. I was the Being who was always Becoming. I am the God of creativity. As the Arabic and Hebrew scholar, Shlomo Dov Gottein, demonstrated, Yahweh derives from the Arabic root h.w.y (هوى), and the word hawaya (هوايا), which means “desire.” (Cf. Professor Israel Knohl’s commentary on this week’s portion.)

After all, the original Arabic meaning of אֶהְיֶה, of Ehyeh, YHWH, originates in Midian and derives from the Arabic term for “desire.” God is He who wants what he does not have. God is not perfection as the Greeks led the Jews to believe later in their history. God was and is incompleteness. God was the process of both making Himself and revealing Himself, becoming He who He was not and who He became. Robert Alter in his footnote insists that “I Am That Who I Am” cannot be excluded as the meaning of God’s name, that is, the name can be translated as, “I Am He Who Endures,” However, “I Will Be Who I Will Be” is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew. (p. 222)

Alter chooses “will” rather than “shall” because “shall” suggests a declaration whereas “will” implies an affirmation, one uttered with emphasis. The assertion is not just a promise, but “I Will Be Who I Will Be” is more, a promise, a guarantee and not just a mystery.

Alter adds that in oral Hebrew, “the Greek transcriptions reflect a pronunciation close to ‘Yahweh.’ In that form, the name would be the causative, or hiph’il, form of the verb ‘to be’ and thus would have the theologically attractive sense of, ‘He Who Brings Things into Being.’” As Alter writes after deciphering the meaning and arrangement of the letters, the name, Yahweh, fits “a common pattern for male names in the third-person masculine singular, qal conjugation, imperfective form, Yitdhaq (Isaac), ‘he will laugh,’ Ya’aqov (Jacob), ‘he will protect.’ Or ‘he will grab the heel,’ Yiftah (Jephthah)’. “Yihyeh then suggests God who is unlimited in his creativity.

All this is but background to this week’s portion, more particularly, chapter 6, 2-8 where the God who has revealed his enigmatic name now describes what He has done in the past and what He will do in the future and does so by His own authority without reference to any other legitimation. God is a historic version of the American constitution that provides the foundation of a promise. He will not only liberate Israel, but will deliver Canaan into their hands.

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.
2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the LORD;
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.
ד  וְגַם הֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם, לָתֵת לָהֶם אֶת-אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן–אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֵיהֶם, אֲשֶׁר-גָּרוּ בָהּ.4 And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, wherein they sojourned.
ה  וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי.5 And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant.
ו  לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲנִי יְהוָה, וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם; וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים.6 Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments;
ז  וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם, מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם.7 and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
ח  וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת-יָדִי, לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב; וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה, אֲנִי יְהוָה.8 And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the LORD.’

In the present, God is, both by appearing, coming into view, and by speaking. The key factor in the past was God establishing a covenant – not a contract – with the Israelites. It is a covenant that is recalled. It was unconditional. For, in the immediate past, God listened and heard the suffering of the Israelites and remembered that covenant. (Did He forget for four hundred years?) In the future, where most of the action resides, God will deliver the Israelites out of bondage, will redeem the people, will make the people His people, and will deliver Canaan into their hands as a heritage.

Yehwa was the place name, the toponym, for where one found God’s presence on earth originally in the nomadic lands rather than the settlements of the Nile basin where prosperity was guaranteed by the repeated overflow of the waters of the Nile each year onto the farmlands lining each shore, Yahweh is the theonym for that divine presence just as Athena was the goddess for Athens.

Desire is the will to close the gap between what is and what is not. God is not only the guarantor that the gap will be closed, that the desire of the people will be fulfilled, but that promise has its only legitimation in God as the promiser as well as the guarantor that the promise will not be broken. It is not a conditional agreement, but a unilateral unwavering commitment. That is who God is and will be.

In such an account, God is not everything that is. God is not the divinity of the Pharaohs, the cult of which was dedicated to guarantee eternal life, not like the promise to the Israelites as a collectivity of a future as a nation-state on their own land in Canaan. God does not deliver on his covenant in a single stroke. God first destroys the constitutional foundation of the alternative of a promise of eternal life. The ideology of the ancient Egyptians was an antithesis to God. Yahweh was a jealous God in a world of monolatry with different gods and ideologies competing for loyalty rather than a monotheistic world where only one god was posited as existing.

To understand this further, let us, like the frogs, leap ahead to the plagues. The first two plagues are blood and frogs. (Cf. Professor Christoph Berner’s commentary on this week’s portion.)

יז  כֹּה, אָמַר יְהוָה, בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה:  הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מַכֶּה בַּמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר-בְּיָדִי, עַל-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר–וְנֶהֶפְכוּ לְדָם.17 thus saith the LORD: In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood.
יח  וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר תָּמוּת, וּבָאַשׁ הַיְאֹר; וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם, לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן-הַיְאֹר.  {ס}18 And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ {S}
יט  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה-יָדְךָ עַל-מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם עַל-נַהֲרֹתָם עַל-יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל-אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל-מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם–וְיִהְיוּ-דָם; וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים.19 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’

Blood appears in the idols [rather than vessels, a word that does not appear in the Hebrew text) of wood and stone, in the central symbols of the Egyptian world that worshipped gods of wood and stone. Instead of water, however, the core substance of living forms, blood, spreads from the life-giving waters of the Nile River. It is Yahweh who gives life to these objects of wood and stone and reveals that they are inanimate, that they lack any life force on their own. With the first plague, God attacked the core belief of the Egyptians, a belief in reification, that the purpose of this world was to mummify life and preserve it for an eternal state. That foundation and structure was the first bastion of the Egyptian belief system to be attacked.

Then out of that same river came swarms of frogs which invaded the bed chambers, ovens and kneading bowls of all Egyptians. And then the frogs were all killed; the stinking contamination piled up in heaps and particularly desecrated the instruments that had to be spotlessly clean. The Egyptians who disdained the eating habits of the Hebrews were now themselves made unclean.

With the first two plagues, the God of Israel has attacked the core ontological and existential elements of the Egyptian way of life. It was a belief system dedicated to eternal life, to reification in contrast to the Hebraic vision of change, of dynamism, of creativity. Becoming trumped Being. Instead of the Egyptian values of freezing time forever, within the flow of time was the promise of change, of revelation. Revelationists lived on promise and hope for a better future. Reificationists and restorationists lived to make the present and the past permanent.

The war of worlds had begun.


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