The Right to Leave – Exodus 9:13 – 11:10

The Right to Leave – Exodus 9:13 – 11:10

by

Howard Adelman

There are four plagues more, the three cosmological plagues (hail, locusts and darkness) and then the plague of the first born. The last three follow the rhythmic pattern of the first six in a 2:1 ratio – two plagues with warnings and a third without any prior announcement. And what plagues! What drama! For the battle now centres so much more clearly on a determined God with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand versus a stubborn Pharaoh unwilling to give way to God’s will, even if, by then, it is clear that he and the gods behind him are no match for YHWH. Resistance now becomes clearly an act of self-destruction.

Recall what this and the past parshah are all about. They are about the right to leave – not to stay, not to return, but to leave. The right to stay is about security. The right to return is about identity. But the right to leave is truly about freedom. The battle between the God of the Israelites and the gods of Egypt had now become a cosmic battle for the whole world to observe, the battle for freedom, the battle over the right to leave, the battle to leave one sovereign realm and live under another. The fight is over the right to emigrate.

I quoted the first verse of the American Black spiritual last time. I begin with the second verse this time.

“Thus spake the Lord,” bold Moses said:

Let my people go.

If not I’ll smite your first-born dead,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt land,

Tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.

O let my people go.”

If the issue was the freedom to leave, why was it cast as a “request”? Why did the Israelites need Pharaoh’s permission? Or was this not about Pharaoh’s permission at all, but about Pharaoh’s action. “Get out of my way,” saith the Lord. “Get out of our way.” Stop intervening. It was “let,” not in the sense of permission, but in the sense of stop being an obstacle. Further, it was not about gaining freedom after one left. For the point of God insisting that the Israelites be let go, was so that they could worship God (9:13) It was exchanging one form of bondage to the Pharaoh to a new form of bondage to God. How can bondage in one sphere be slavery but in another sphere be freedom?

God says to Pharaoh, I could have committed genocide. I could have wiped all the Egyptians off the face of the earth with a disease. (9:15) But if you are eliminated, you would not be around to extoll my name, to extoll me as the One, the most powerful God. It was not enough to have the Israelites bound to me by a covenant, but I need the Egyptians to give me recognition though not obeisance, “so my fame can resound throughout the world.” ((9:16) And God warns Pharaoh. Get everyone inside, all your people and all your animals. For if they remain outside, they will surely die from the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen upon Egypt.

So a distinction was made between those Egyptians who feared God and went inside and took their animals with them and those who scoffed at and ignored the threat only to die in a hail of hail the next day along with thunder and lightning. One cannot read the words but imagine how spectacular a storm it had to have been. This was a battle between the god of thunder of the Egyptians, the god that symbolized force of arms and the ability to exercise that coercive power. God was taking on the equivalent of Indras (Hinduism), Zeus in Greek mythology, Jupiter in Rome, Perun in Eastern Europe, the son of Odin among the Norse of the north. The god this time was the head of all the armed forces, the commander-in-chief of the might of a nation. This was the god of weather, the god of storms.

In Egypt, God was now challenging Montu (mntw), the Egyptian war-god, the falcon-headed being with a human body but also with a head of a bull as well as of a falcon, for Montu was headstrong and bullheaded. Montu did not strategize. Montu simply plunged forth when a red flag was waved before him. He charged before he thought. Montu knew nothing about strategic thinking let alone diplomacy. When Montu was falcon-headed topped by a sun disc, tall abstract plumes of gold rose straight up from above the disc. This was not a symbol of thought or reflection, but of a burning sun and the rays given off. This was a symbol of certainty, of conviction. But when Montu was a bull, his face was black rather than red with rage even though he had a white body. He was indeed, as Egyptian generals were known, a Mighty Bull, something even more ominous than a mad-dog.

This was a battle of true titans for all peoples to record and hear and witness. How does Pharaoh react after the hailstorm? He pleads guilty. He confesses he has been in the wrong. ((9:27) I and my people have been in the wrong. So Moses replied that he would stop the hail storm, stop the thunder and the lightning and clearly establish that Montu was all temporary flash but was now impotent. Moses also said that he would do this even though he knew full well that deep in his heart Pharaoh still did not stand in fear of the Lord, that his courtiers too did not accept God’s awesome power. “So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as God had foretold through Moses.” (9:35) Both God and Moses knew that Pharaoh was acting in bad faith.

Moses once again went to Pharaoh and conveyed God’s message: “Let my people go so that they might worship Me,” (10:3) and he could have added, and, “not you and your gods.” This was a battle not simply for survival, but for recognition. It is not enough that God remove you as an obstacle, but you, Pharaoh, must remove yourself; you must recognize the Lord as the most powerful God.

The eighth plague sent was of locusts –  – in Egyptian hieroglyphics. These were not the lice or sandflies, symbols of tenacity and courage sent in the first set of plagues. Locusts filled the sky, and, unlike the hail, invaded all the houses, got into the clothing of all the Egyptians, quite aside from destroying all the crops that remained. Locusts took over heaven and earth. Ramses II depicted the armies of Hittites as locusts, for they “covered the mountains and valleys and were like locusts in their multitude.” Locusts were the only insects using the power of numbers that could block the all-powerful sun. “Someone flies up, I fly up from you, O! men; I am not for the earth, I am for the sky. O! you local god of mine, my double is beside you, for I have soared to the sky as a heron, I have kissed the sky as a falcon, I have reached the sky as a locust which hides the sun.” (Ancient Pyramid Text) The falcon, Montu, could reach the sky, but locusts could block the sun.

You, Pharaoh, are blocking the way of my people, are preventing the Israelites from going forth and worshipping Me. Montu was represented as a nomad. The full story of Exodus was being adumbrated. For though the Israelites would spend forty years in the wilderness as nomads, that was not their destiny. They would build cities and become the centre of a civilization. Divine power would rule on earth and not just shine forth from heaven above.

The Pharaoh’s courtiers had now become convinced. But not Pharaoh. He would concede to let some go. Moses and Aaron were asked to choose. (10:8) But Moses replied, “We will all go.” We all must go to worship out Lord. The action of the entire community was a precondition of exit. But once again Pharaoh grew stubborn. The men could go, all the men, but the women and children must remain. Without warning came the ninth plague, no longer just hail accompanied by thunder and lightning, no longer locusts that would block the sun while invading every crevice on earth, The ninth plague was darkness, not simply blocking the sun, but total blackness, God had taken the Egyptians back to Genesis when darkness covered the face of the earth, before God said, “Let there be light.” For there was no light, no light at all, not the sun nor the moon nor the stars. Only all-encompassing blackness, a darkness so black it could not be seen but only felt and touched. “But the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (10:23)

How was this possible? Why was the light that shone in Goshen not reflected even faintly in the night sky as when we look towards a city in the far distance and see how it has somewhat lightened the heavens to a small degree? Pharaoh in the face of this darkness once again conceded. He would not simply let some of the men go. He would not simply let all of the men go. He would let all the people go, but not their flocks and their herds. The domestic animals of the Israelites had to be left behind. Pharaoh still had not learned his lesson. Pharaoh still wanted to bargain, still wanted to make a deal, when the whole issue was that God had made a covenant with the Israelites and that is the only covenant that counted. Pharaoh, enraged when Moses would not negotiate, took the part of God. “Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” (10:28)

Pharaoh was not the Lord. Moses did not die. But Moses never saw Pharaoh again. The all powerful war over recognition was about to be won. Only God would be recognized as the supreme ruler over the Israelites. The Israelites would freely choose to be in bondage to God and grant no ultimate and absolute fealty to any sovereign on earth, would grant fealty, but only when the covenant that the Israelites had with their God was recognized. Israelites would always live in the diaspora with a dual loyalty.

God had one more plague up his sleeve, a plague that would convert the Egyptians, temporarily at least, from an obstacle blocking the right to leave into a driving force of ethnic cleansing to expunge the Israelites from Egypt’s land. The very instrument of stoppage would become the means of setting forth the Israelites as a flood heading into the desert. Not only will you leave with your herds and your flocks, but each Israelite will be instructed to maximize their credit limits, to borrow all the silver and gold they could but renege on any responsibility to repay. The Egyptians would be left bankrupt.

Pharaoh’s order to kill the first-born of every Israelite had been thwarted, had been sabotaged by two of his own, by two midwives who subverted his orders. Now that order would come full circle and the first-born of the Egyptians would be the target. It was not sufficient that the Israelites escaped. Pharaoh had to pursue them in their escape, to at least recover the wealth that the Israelites took with them, and be drowned in the effort to recover that wealth.

But that is for another parshah. This parshah is ultimately about the defeat and death of primogeniture among the Israelites. The tales of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been about second-born sons winning over first-borns. This defeat marked the death of the principle of primogeniture altogether. For henceforth, merit and aptitude would count in leadership and not the order of birth. And in doing so, the Israelites would inherit the double portion, the wealth of the Egyptians as well as their own wealth. Jacob’s tricking Esau out of his birthright was but a sign of what was to come. Thus, an upstart nation would henceforth steal the birthright of a civilization that had already lasted several millennia. Israel, God’s later-born, would take the place as God’s firstborn. And the Israelites would move from bondage to a human-god to a God who would gradually become humanized, a God of wrath and coercive power who would become a God of mercy and influence.

To live under the sovereignty of influence rather than coercive power would be the route to full freedom for the Israelites and for all of humanity. And it is a route that is not established between one individual dedicated to service to the authority of influence rather than coercion, but of a whole community, a whole society. For without that collective commitment to this process of revelation, there is no individual freedom. I cannot be free, you cannot be free, we cannot be free unless we worship the same God, a God that in the days of the Israelites in Egypt who was a God of coercive power but over time revealed Himself to be a God of influence, a God of dialogue and discourse rather than commandments from on high.

But it was through coercion that the community came to be in the first place. The freedom of the individual, the freedom to think and choose and believe and express oneself, are all dependent and conditional upon the prior existence of such a collective covenant. The freedom of the autonomous self is not a condition of democracy, of the modern enlightenment world. Rather the modern enlightenment world, the world of a nation-state that grants freedom to the individual, is the primary precondition.

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God’s Coercive Power

God’s Coercive Power: Va-eira Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

by

Howard Adelman

This is not a segment of the Torah about influence, either the influence of ideas or the influence of material attractions, either of which can impel an action. Nor is it a segment about authority, either the authority of expertise or of a foundational document, a type of authority Donald Trump seems to be dedicated to ignoring, nor the authority of an office or position, that which is often called formal authority. God does not say, let my people go because I am the one true God. Nor does he insist they be let go because their rights were being abused. The authority of the Ten Commandments, yet to come, was not invoked, only the coercive power of the ten plagues.

God does not ask for compliance because he is the Lord on High. This parshat is all about power, not any kind of power, but coercive power. Genesis started with the power of God as a creative being. Exodus gets into the dramatic action with a display of coercive power, power that brings about change through physical intimidation.

Last week, God announced that he was Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), a name never heard before nor since attributed to God. That segment ended with verse 6:1:

  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עַתָּה תִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה:  כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.  {ס} 1 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’

Because of God’s strong hand, Pharaoh will be forced to let the Israelites go and then they will only be let go with Pharaoh’s armies hot on their tail. This week’s portion is a tale of two sources of coercion battling, not just for a people, but for their allegiance.

This parshat begins with the first two verses of chapter 6 (my italics):

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.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God, accepted God as the Almighty, but not one of them ever asked for that might to be really demonstrated. And it could not be. How could one prove one was all-powerful? One could only demonstrate that one was more powerful than another, having greater coercive capacity and able and willing to exercise that power. God, who now has a personal name, YHWH, will display that might, that coercive power. God promises: “I will deliver you from their [Egyptian’s] bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments.” By judgement, God does not mean the edicts of a judge who is the supreme authority in a court of law, but judgment that follows wrath and a display of power. This segment is all about strong hands and outstretched arms.

No longer will obeisance to God be simply a matter of tradition, simply a matter of a habitual response and fealty. It is under the shadow of coercive power that the Israelites will now become God’s people. I will be to you, the Israelites, a God in a very different way, says the Lord. The text makes very clear that this was going to be a very tough task, not because it would be hard to display that mighty power, but because the Israelites had become suspicious, had become cynics, had lost the ability to have faith, to trust. Because of the cruel bondage that they had suffered for years, the people were impatient of spirit” (6:9), מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ. They were in anguish. Further, God Himself had admitted that He had forgotten them, forgotten the Israelites, forgotten the covenant to deliver them to the land of Canaan that He had made with their founding fathers. But now he remembered his covenant. (6:5) God was not exactly the paradigm of reliability, but God in Egypt would prove to be a great transformative power.

Moses was instructed to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” But Moses asked querulously, why would the Pharaoh listen to me when I am “of uncircumcised lips” עֲרַל שְׂפָת (6:12 and 6:30). My body may have been transformed through the covenant of circumcision, but not my thoughts, not my words, not the language that springs from my mouth. It is with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand that Moses will be transformed, in good part, to a political leader of a nation that knows and exercises power, from a shepherd of a nation in bondage to a warrior nation with generals in charge, a nation governed by the fundamentals of coercive power – as much as the rule of law to manage that power will be introduced at a later date.

Chapter 7 begins with God reiterating that the Egyptians will learn, not because they respect God, not because they recognize God, but because they will learn to fear God. It is as if God was telling Moses that the only thing the Egyptians understand is force. More importantly, it is through the exercise of that force that the cynical unbelieving and untrusting Israelites will once again come to know and recognize God as their saviour and protector.

The first round is a competition of magicians. When Aaron threw down his rod, it became a serpent. But the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could match that magic act. Thus, Pharaoh was even more disinclined to pay any attention to the words of Moses spoken by his brother Aaron. God had to up the ante and the plagues followed. In the first plague, Aaron lifted his rod and caused the water in the Nile River to turn blood red so that the fish died. But the Egyptian magicians were also able to replicate that act and Pharaoh became even more sceptical of the power behind the threats of Moses and Aaron.

Then the second plague – frogs, swarms of frogs – but once again the magical act was replicated. Nevertheless, this time Pharaoh entreated Moses to ask his God to let up. Pharaoh offered Moses a deal. Let up and I will let the Israelites go. So Moses did let up, withdrawing the frogs from the clothing and the houses, from the courts and from the field, while still letting the streams and rivers team with them. But Pharaoh double-crossed Moses. “(W)hen Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken.” (8:11) At this point, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

God then delivered the third plague. gnats or lice or sand flies. And this time, He did so without forewarning the Egyptians. According to scholars, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) in the 12th century was the first to notice this 2 then 1 pattern of each cluster of three plagues. Further, in the first cluster, it is the last of the plagues that will be delivered by the hand of Aaron. (Bahya ben Asher, 13th century; Don Isaac Abravanel, 15th century.) In the medieval period, structural analysis had come to the fore.  The Egyptian magicians could not replicate the third plague. The pattern included the agent, the response and the mode of communication of the coming of the plague. We are introduced to intellectual rhythmic patterns overruling those of nature.

Why did Pharaoh not recognize God’s power at that point? To understand that, we have to first understand the clustering of the plagues and their significance. We also have to recall that God was not trying to prove that he was all powerful, that He was Almighty, but only that He was more powerful than all the Egyptian gods. This was the character that God had to establish to go with His name. God for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been Shaddai. For Moses, God was now Ehyeh.

Further, the Egyptians, unlike the Israelites later, were not being punished because they had fallen away from their faith in God. The Egyptians were not being hit with an intifada, with terror attacks, with extreme hunger, with a disease like tuberculosis, with defeat by their enemies or with crop failure, let alone wild beasts that devour their children. (Leviticus 26:14-26) These were acts of magic and, at this point, just unbearable nuisances rather than killers.

There is another distinction between the first six plagues of this segment and the final four. The first six could possibly take place and be explained by extreme climate and ecological changes. They were not cosmological in character like hail, locusts and darkness that came from the heavens above even though the first plague was indirectly a product of heavy rains, the observed consequences were earthly. Water changes to blood when the red clay is swept down the Nile after intense and huge rains in the Upper Nile in Ethiopia killing all the fish in waves of mud. The poisoned rotting fish forced the frogs to leave the river en masse and invade the countryside. Their rotting carcasses in turn introduced swarms of flies. The next three plagues were again consequences of the first three, beginning with the death of cattle from the diseases spread by the flies which in turn produced an economic disaster equivalent to when mad cow disease was diagnosed in western Canada. Finally, humans were affected with boils on their skin.

However, the main pattern was not the clustering, nor the differentiation by agent, nor whether there was forewarning, not whether there was resistance or temporary and partial compliance, nor the naturalistic sequence, but the individual target of each plague, the power of one of or more gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The one God of the Israelites had to prove that he was more powerful than all of the Egyptian gods. The target of turning water into a blood red fluid was Hapi.

Hapi was the Egyptian God of the Nile, a water bearer, a source of change, but in the Egyptian experience, change came with a pattern. Change was not a matter of creating something new. Change was cyclical as illustrated by the flooding of the Nile. The first plague introduced a unique event that disrupted the whole pattern of control of Hapi. The significance can be further developed in reference to the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a hieratic papyrus from the chaotic period in Egypt before 2050 BCE or by others ascribed to the period 1850-1450 BC. The papyrus is located in the Dutch National Museum in Leiden. However, what is important is the reference and not the time of composition or the historical events that may have given rise to this composition, or whether or not the poem provides a proof text of the historicity of the Exodus story.

Ipuwer is a poem of a world turned upside-down when the Lord of All was active in destroying his enemies, the noble gods, each responsible for a different aspect of human experience. It is a period of desecration, of chaos, of disrespect for the law. This is a political ethical treatise akin to Machiavelli’s Prince that insists that the first responsibility of a ruler is to maintain order and not sow disorder, even though disorder may be a requisite to establishing a new order. When two mighty powers fight it out, like two roosters fighting to be head of the pecking order, only one can prevail and order be restored. This is even truer when a God of All fights to suborn lesser gods. This is the tale of the first battle against Hapi when, “the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water,” or against Osiris whose bloodstream was the Nile.

God’s second battle is with the Egyptian god, Heket, the wife of the creator of the world, the goddess of childbirth represented as a frog, the symbol of fertility and creation as well as harmony. The frog’s life cycle is characterized by radical transformation in a life form from what appears to be a little fish into a land animal living on the periphery of water and land. In the plagues, that animal is driven from the waters of the Nile into the countryside and once again the whole natural order is disrupted, no longer just the natural order of the seasonal cycle, but the natural order of species transformation. Thus, the issue is not the specific god being undermined – after all, the Egyptian pantheon included about a hundred gods – but the type of order being turned topsy-turvy to demonstrate the power of the One God.

The third plague of lice or sand flies or fleas – from the Hebrew root meaning to dig (under the skin), was the challenge of the One God to the great Egyptian god of the earth, Geb. After the third plague, the One God proved that he could defeat and overturn the order established by the natural cycle of the seasons brought about by water, the god of fertility itself symbolized by the frog, of organic transformation. In the third plague, the One God now was really getting under the skin of the Egyptians and proving that what was taking place was not just a shift in power, but a radical transformation. Khepri, the Egyptian God of creation governing the movement of the Sun and ruling over rebirth, had the head of a fly.

In the fourth plague, the mechanism of the way fertility worked was itself attacked. The fourth plague of “swarms” now made the turmoil and disorder no longer confined to a specific and limited time, but became incessant. In Egypt, Amon-Ra is represented by the head of a beetle, a dung beetle that guarantees that decaying matter with be recycled and provide the mechanism for fertilization. The systematic order of the Egyptian world was being undermined a step at a time.

Hathor was the Egyptian Goddess of Love and Protection usually depicted with the head of a cow. The fifth plague was an attack on Hathor. Hathor personified joy, feminine love and motherhood. In the war of the One God against the many, the very foundations of stability and experienced natural order in the family was itself attacked and overturned. Mothers, young children and babies now became the target of this one all-powerful God filled with wrath.

What is a boil, the sixth plague, the plague of shechiyn? The fight for power was no longer just getting under the skin, but bubbling that skin into enormous balloons. The body is the foundation of material pleasure and satisfaction. With an eruption of boils, you can no longer sleep. Discomfort and pain wracks the body. The plague may even have referred to leprosy and the unremitting burning sensation of that then incurable disease. This was a direct attack on Thoth, the ibis-headed god of medical research, the foundations of Egyptian science.

Next week we will return to the celestial plagues and the plague about killing the first born, but this portion of the text clearly establishes a tale about the mightiest political struggle of all time, the one between the One and the Many, the one most powerful God and the many lesser gods. The Israelites were merely the tokens in this war, the symbols of whether a group of humans would be in bondage to a system in which there were a multitude of sources of power versus one in which power could be traced to a single source. It is a struggle between established and repetitive order to a new transformational order governed by God named Ehyeh, one who transforms “I am that I am” into “I shall be he who I shall be.” It is a war to make orderly change rather than orderly stability the ruling ethos of the world.