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God's two speeches about redemption from Egypt

A detailed analysis of two speeches made by God to Moses reveals much about the nature of God and the role of the Jewish people in history.

 

Summary: Moses had been a social activist in Egypt and although married and living in Midian he did not feel fully integrated into Midianite society. The story of the Exodus is about the Israelites exchanging their servitude to Pharaoh and becoming subject to God. The personal God of Israel, who reveals His name as a conjugation of the verb to be, YHVH, promises Moses that He will be with him on this mission to liberate the slaves. The objective of the Ten Plagues is to reveal to the Jewish people and thence to humanity God’s role in controlling nature and human history. Since God controls nature, He must also at a subatomic level control chance.

A revelation at the Burning Bush

 

The closer Moses approached the bush the stranger it looked. The flames were in the center of the bush and not on its periphery and the bush was not being burnt up by the flames: 

 

“An angel of YHVH appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the bush. He gazed and behold! The bush was ablaze in fire, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said: I will turn aside now and look at this wondrous site – why will the bush not be burned? YHVH saw that he turned aside to see, and Elohim turned out to him from amid the bush and said: ‘Moses, Moses, and he replied: ‘Here I am!’ He [Elohim] said: ‘Do not come closer to here, take off your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:2-5).1

 

To Moses’ amazement, he discovers that he is beholding a manifestation of the God of the Israelites and this God is now attempting to recruit him for a mission!

 

"And He [YHVH] said: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. … ‘ God (YHVH) said: ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people that is in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of its taskmasters, for I know its pain. I shall descend to rescue it from the hand of Egypt and to bring it up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the outcry of the Children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Now go and I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall take My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt” (ibid 3:6-10).

 

This passage shouts out the oppression of the Jewish people. God hears their “outcry”, their “pain,” their “oppression,” their being “oppressed.” These are words that would resonate with someone who feels strongly about injustice.2 

 

But Moses is doubtful that he is the right person for this mission (Exodus 3:11).3 He also wishes to know God’s name, since in the ancient world the name of a god reflected its attributes. He needs this for his own understanding and also to convey this understanding to the Israelites. In His reply to Moses’ question, God signs off so to speak on His name Elohim and provides understanding of a new name YHVH:

 

“Moses said to God (Elohim): ‘Behold, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them: ‘The God of your forefathers has sent me to you, and they say to me what is His name? What shall I say to them?’ God (YHVH) answered Moses: ‘I Shall Be What I Shall Be.’ And He said: ‘So shall you say to the Children of Israel: ‘I Shall Be has sent me to you.’ God (Elohim) said further to Moses: ‘So shall you say to the Children of Israel; YHVH the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My remembrance from generation to generation” (ibid 3:13-15).  

 

As discussed in the first chapter, two main names for God are mentioned in the Torah – Elohim and YHVH. Each describes a different manifestation of God. The name Elohim, first mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis, reflects the transcendent aspect of the One God who created the universe and who is concerned with the general providence of mankind. The name YHVH describes the immanent aspect of God, a God concerned with individual providence Who desires relationships with humanity. 

The forefathers of the Jewish people Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were familiar with the YHVH aspect of God and brought their relationship with Him to new heights of trust and intimacy. However, this knowledge of YHVH becomes distant to Jacob and his family when he left Laban’s home in Mesopotamia and returned to the land of Canaan. Jacob’s sons never refer to God by the name YHVH. When Joseph speaks about God (which he does frequently), he mentions only the name Elohim. Nevertheless, The Torah makes it clear that YHVH continues to work behind the scenes to further His plan for Jacob’s descendants.4  

 

This episode of the Burning Bush is also unique in that it is the only instance in history in which a Divinity names Himself in a way that reflects His own attributes rather than being named by man.5 The name Elohim, for example, reflects the human perception of the power of God.

God also reveals that His name YHVH is based on the future tense of the verb “to be.”6 YHVH is the God of relationships who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Who is now forging a relationship with him and “will be" with him throughout this mission.7 

It is noteworthy that God specifically refers to the Israelites as “My people,” and is now identifying Himself as the tribal God of the Israelite people. As such, He also “will be” with the Israelite nation as they tread their way through world history. 

 

Moses has been promised God’s assistance in this mission. He is now provided with “signs” that can be used to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his revelation from God, and is also offered the assistance of his brother Aaron as his spokesman. Moses acquiesces to God’s request. He now returns home to Midian to prepare his family for returning to Egypt. 

He has again become a social activist. 

 

Why Moses?

God needed a leader who would work with Him to redeem the Israelites from Egypt and lead them to the land of Canaan. 

 

What type of person was He looking for? 

 

A major requisite would be someone who could present himself as an equal to the Egyptian royalty and thus garner their respect, as well as someone who was familiar with the inner workings of the Egyptian court.  

 

But this alone would be insufficient. The CEO of an organization needs to reflect the values of that organization, particularly when the organization is owned by God! Moses would need to exemplify the values that God wished imprinted on His people. He would also need to feel a strong identity and empathy with the people he was about to redeem.  

 

Having been being brought up in the Egyptian court, there would have been no concerns as to how Moses would present himself to Pharaoh. However, having spent many of his adult years as a shepherd in Midian it is far from obvious that he would exemplify Jewish values and identify strongly with the Jewish people.  

 

Nevertheless, the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize that Moses possessed the foundational aspect of Judaism in that he was a self-made person with extremely strong feelings about social justice. 

The Bible relates Moses’ birth in the following way:

 

A man went from the house of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son.” (ibid 2:1) 

 

This seems so anonymous. The Bible may be indicating in this way that Moses never truly becomes part of a nuclear Jewish family. In fact, it will be several chapters later before the Torah even tells us that Moses’ father was called Amram and his mother Yochebed (Exodus 6:20). The Torah may also be emphasizing that Moses was free from the values of both Egypt and from a family enduring slavery. His assertiveness was reflective of someone brought up in the Egyptian court, but his moral values were those he determined for himself.8 In this respect, he is in the mold of Abraham who also determined his own values rather than absorbing them from his environs.  

 

By the time Moses reached maturity, he was displaying the assertiveness of an Egyptian noble and a passion for social justice:

 

And it was in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and witnessed their burdens: and he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man (ish Ivri), one of his brothers. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, and he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (ibid 2:11-12).9

 

These are pivotal sentences. Despite his unusual upbringing in the Egyptian palace raised by a princess, Moses was clearly aware of his Jewish background. Twice this passage emphasizes the words “his brothers.” He "went out to his brothers” and the slave being beaten was not only “a Hebrew man” but also “one of his brothers.” It could be that the palace made no effort to hide his ethnic background. He may even have experienced teasing from His Egyptian playmates. Whatever the reason, Moses was drawn towards the Israelite slaves and the injustice being perpetrated against them. 

Moses’ killing of the Egyptian was an extremely bold step. In effect, it was an act of rebellion against the entire institution of Egyptian slavery and the enslavement and harsh treatment of the Israelites in particular. He was also strongly declaring his identification with their suffering. However, from a political perspective it was not a particularly smart move. In the absence of a political plan, it would have no effect whatsoever on Israelite servitude. Moreover, if the death of the Egyptian taskmaster was discovered, the blame would automatically fall on the Israelites. This could only be prevented by their denouncing Moses. The Israelite slaves would have had little compunction about doing this, since it is doubtful they recognized Moses as being one of the tribe.

The next day, Moses continues his social activism in the belief that injustice needs to be righted whatever its source:

 

He went out the next day and behold two Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the offender: ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He replied: ‘Who made you a man, a ruler, and a judge over us? Are you going to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (ibid 2:14.)

 

His killing of the Egyptian had become generally known. It would not be long before “Pharaoh heard about this matter and sought to kill Moses” (ibid 2:15).

Moses’ attempt at combating injustice had failed dismally, and there was no alternative for him but to flee Egypt.  

 

Despite this setback, Moses’ feelings about moral rectitude remain unabated. On arriving in Midian, the seven daughters of the priest of Midian begin drawing water for their father’s sheep from a well but are driven away by shepherds. This arouses Moses ire:

 

Moses got up and saved them and watered their flock” (ibid 2:17).

 

To these young ladies, Moses looked like an Egyptian and acted like one. He is invited into the home of Ruel, the priest of Midian and marries one of his daughters. Yet Jewish by birth, culturally an Egyptian aristocrat, he is unable to relate to either of those identities any more than being a Midianite, the people with whom he is now living. This may be why he named his son Gershon:

“He named him Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land” (ibid 2:22).10

In his identity Moses is rootless, but it will not take much to draw him back to his Jewish origins. 

 Yet another reason is provided by R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch as to why Moses was such an appropriate leader for redeeming the Jewish people.11 God was not seeking an individual with an ego that would jump at the opportunity for leadership. During God’s recruitment speech, Moses expresses considerable doubt he is the right person for this mission and feels the task is beyond his capabilities. He also lacks oratory skills. Such humility was precisely what God was looking for, since Moses was not undertaking his own mission but God’s. 

God’s second recruitment speech

 

When Moses arrives in Egypt, the people are much heartened by Moses’ message:

 

And the people believed and they heard that YHVH had remembered the Children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves” (ibid 4:31).

 

However, as he had been previously warned by God, Moses’ first encounter with Pharaoh fails abysmally. Pharaoh not only refuses permission for his Israelite slaves to leave Egypt for a 3-day festival but they are now charged with finding their own straw for brick making. The Israelites are devastated and understandably blame Moses for this reversal. Moses in turn questions God as to why this has happened:

 

My Master,” Moses complains, “why have You harmed this people, why have You sent me?  From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, but You have not rescued Your people” (ibid 5:22-23).

 

The situation has now reached rock bottom for the Hebrew slaves. This occasions a second recruitment speech by God to persuade Moses to continue with this mission. His full speech is as follows:   

 

[Introduction] “And Elohim spoke to Moses and said to him, I am God (YHVH). 

[Section 1] And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and My name YHVH was not known to them. 

And I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, where they sojourned. (A1)

And I have also heard the wail of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: I am God (YHVH). (B1)

[Section 2] And I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt. And I shall rescue you from their service, I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people, and I shall be a God to you, and you shall know that I am YHVH your God Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt. (B2)

I shall bring you to the land about which I have raised My hand to give it Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I shall give it to you as a heritage. I am God (YHVH)” (A2) (ibid 6:2-8).

 

This speech has a literary format consisting of an introduction emphasizing that the Spokesperson is YHVH, followed by two sections, each section being framed at its end by the phrase “I am God (YHVH).”

 

The first section constitutes a summary of what God has already done up for the Israelites, and the second section summarizes what YHVH will do about each of these points, being directed at “you” the Children of Israel. 

 

Most writers nowadays answer points in the order in which they were posed. A frequently used literary style in the Torah, however, is a chiastic structure. This particular chiasmus is in the form A1, B1, B2, A2 with A2 being a promise to resolve the points raised in A1 and B2 to resolve the points raised in B1.  Its purpose with B1 and B2 at the peak of the chiasmus is to emphasize God’s exclusive role in redemption.  in listening to the cry of the people and taking them to Mt Sinai. The end result (A2 being the answer to A1) is that He will bring them to the land of Canaan.

 

Specifically, the first section says: “And I also established (i.e. set up) My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, where they sojourned” (A1) (Exodus 6:4). And this promise is addressed at the end of the second paragraph: “I shall bring you to the land about which I have raised My hand to give it Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I shall give it to you as a heritage” (A2) (ibid 6:8).  

 

The first section ends with: “And I have also heard the wail of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves and I have remembered my covenant” (B1) (ibid 6:5), and God’s response is at the beginning of the second section: “and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, And I shall rescue you from their service, I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments ……” (B2) (ibid 6:6). 

 

The equivalence between the first section containing God’s promises and the second section with God’s plan for redemption is also indicated in another way. From the beginning of the first section beginning with the sentence “And I appeared to Abraham ….” until the end of the first paragraph, which ends with “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: I am God (YHVH) (ibid 6:8)” there are 50 Hebrew words. From this point on until the end of the second section there are also 50 Hebrew words. The equivalence between God’s actions in the past and His promises for the future will be established to the last word!

Unlike numbers 7, 8 (and 40), use of number 50 is uncommon in the Torah. It is found only once when describing the Yovel year. After 7 repetitions of the seven-year Sabbatical year cycle in which the land is at rest for one year in seven, the fiftieth year is also a year of rest for the land and is called the Yovel year. Could these paragraphs be hinting at this? The Yovel year is the time in which you shall “proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants” and everyone returns to their “ancestral inheritance” (Leviticus 25:10). It is also a time of social justice in which those in slavery are able to regain their freedom, return to their ancestral possession and become servants only of God. These are also themes of the Exodus, in which freedom is bestowed on the Israelites to enable them to serve God in freedom in their own land.

 

The redemption from Egypt will be entirely God’s show and the people will be almost passive. Here too, an equivalence is apparent. The Israelites were passive in becoming slaves to Pharaoh and they will now be passive in their transfer to God’s service. Their sole involvement will be to demonstrate their allegiance to God before the plague of the firstborn by smearing blood on the doorposts of their homes from the blood of the Paschal lamb and to eat of this lamb roasted while dressed ready to leave Egypt.

The exclusive involvement of God in Israel’s deliverance described in the second paragraph is emphasized by seven expressions of delivery involving seven verbs, the number 7 indicating the exclusive involvement of the Divine:12  

“I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”

“I shall rescue you from their service.”

“I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.”

“I shall take you to Me for a people.”

“And I shall be a God to you.”

“I shall bring you to the land ….”  

“And I shall give it you as a heritage…” 

 

The second sentence of this speech in section one also warrants consideration, as it is somewhat enigmatic:

 

“And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I was not known to them by my name YHVH ….” (Exodus 6:2-3).

 

The question is an obvious one. How could the Torah say that the forefathers did not know the name YHVH when there are specific references in Genesis that they did know this name?13 How then can the Bible say that this name was not familiar to the forefathers?  

 

This sentence clearly has to be understood in a different way. Jewish commentators are in agreement that “knowledge” of God’s name means something other than just knowledge that this name exists. One direction of the commentators is that this new aspect of YHVH relates to actions He will perform in the future that were heretofore unknown to the forefathers.14 Another approach more pertain to the direction of this essay is that the Torah is discussing an attribute of God encompassed by the name YHVH that was previously unknown to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The name YHVH previously encompassed God’s providence to the forefathers, but now encompasses His providence to their descendants as a people. This, the forefathers could have had no knowledge of.  

 

Finally, the third sentence of this passage (A1) makes reference to God’s “covenant.” God made two contracts with Abraham - the Covenant between the Pieces under His name YHVH and the Covenant of Circumcision under His name Elohim. In this speech in Exodus, God specifically refers back to the Covenant between the Pieces made under His name YHVH in which the aspect of a “heritage” is central (Genesis 15:1-21). This was promised and will now be bestowed (A2): 

I shall bring you to the land about which I have raised My hand [i.e. I swore] to give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I shall give it to you as a heritage. I am YHVH.” (Exodus 6:8)  

 

One might think that after thousands of years of studying the same Five Books of Moses, new methods of interpretation of the text would be unlikely. However, a new direction within Orthodoxy (in that they have been the main promoters of this technique) is the literary analysis of the Torah text. That this is revealing many gems should not surprise us, since the Torah is more than an ordinary text. It is an esoteric text replete with messages waiting to be revealed. It is also a carefully woven book with interlinking stories and passages. The search for harmony within the Pentateuch represents a sea change within academia, which in the past was inappropriately focused on searching for its disharmony as a consequence of its presumed multiple authorship. The two speeches made by God when recruiting Moses for a leadership position provide good examples of what can be revealed using this method. 

 

The Ten Plagues

The Ten Plagues were not just ten natural devastations that happened to affect Egypt at an opportune time, but were part of a planned sequence brought about entirely by the agency of God. This message is emphasized in a number of ways: 

  • God is able to turn the plagues on and off at will. 

 

Hence, when Moses asks Pharaoh when he would like the plague of frogs removed, Pharaoh brazenly tests Moses by asking “for tomorrow” (ibid 8:6).  Moses obliges: “As you say – so that you will know there is none like YHVH our God” (ibid 8:6). “Tomorrow” now becomes a feature of other plagues too, namely the removal of the mixed beasts (ibid 8:25) and the pestilence affecting the livestock (ibid 9:5).

  • God makes a separation between the Egyptians and Israelites for the plague of mixed beasts, the plague of darkness and the plague of the firstborn:

 

And on that day I shall distinguish the land of Goshen upon which My people stands, that there be no mixture of wild beasts there; so that you will know that I am YHVH in the midst of the land” (ibid 8:18).

  • With their incantations, Pharaoh’s magician advisors are able to replicate plagues that are already in existence, namely the plagues of blood and frogs. However, by the third plague, the plague of lice, they have to admit that this plague is beyond their ability to reproduce: 

 

And the lice-infestation was on man and beast. The sorcerers said to Pharaoh, ‘It is the finger of Elohim!’” (ibid 8:15). A finger, of course, is part of the hand of God. Unwittingly, they have announced that seven out of the ten plagues are yet to come!

 

There have been attempts to subdivide the plagues into different groups.15 A division of the plagues proposed by R’ Moshe Lichtenstein looks not so much at the details of the plagues but their purpose.16

 

On this basis, he divides the plagues into two groups – the first group being the first seven plagues and the second group the last three plagues of locusts, darkness and the plague of the firstborn.

 

The purpose of the first seven plagues was to instill in Pharaoh and his people recognition of the existence of God (YHVH0 and His sovereignty over the universe. Hence, before the onset of the plagues, Moses and Aaron request permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to go into the wilderness to celebrate to their God YHVH (ibid 5:1) to which Pharaoh exclaims:  

Who is YHVH that I should listen to His voice to send out Israel?  I do not know YHVH, nor will I send out Israel” (Exodus 5:2). In answer to this, before the very first plague, God announces: “ …..  through this [the first plague] shall you [Pharaoh] know that I am YHVH” (ibid 7:17).

 

Similarly, when introducing the seventh plague of hail God tells Moses to inform Pharaoh:

 

For this time I [God] shall send my plagues against your [Pharoah’s] heart, and upon your servants and your people, so that you should know that there is none like Me in all the world ….. On account of this I have left you standing, in order to show you My power and so that My Name may be declared throughout the world” (ibid 9:14,16). This same point is also emphasized by Moses when he disperses this plague: “Moses said to him [Pharaoh]: ‘When I leave the city I shall spread out my hands to YHVH, the thunder will cease and the hail will no longer be, so that you shall know that the earth is YHVH’s” (ibid 9:29).

 

Since the intent of the first seven plagues is for Pharaoh to understand the existence of God (YHVH), it is Pharaoh’s necromancers or magicians who are his advisors, since the Egyptians considered them to have a direct line to the spiritual world. Nevertheless, the Torah subtly pokes fun at their inability to impact on the spiritual forces they profess to control: “The necromancers could not stand before Moses because of the boils, because the boils were on the necromancers and all of Egypt” (ibid 9:7).

 

By the end of the seventh plague, Pharaoh is prepared to acknowledge God’s omnipotence and is prepared to release his Israelite slaves: “Pharaoh sent and called to Moses and Aaron and said to them:

 

This time I have sinned, God (YHVH) is the righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones. Entreat God (YHVH). The thunder of God and hail has been much. I shall send you out, and you shall stay no longer” (ibid 9:27-28).

 

Pharaoh has come a lot way in his education! Nevertheless, he still cannot bring himself to issue the order that will bring about the slaves’ release. Despite his words, an extra push is going to be needed.

As distinct from the first seven plagues, R’ Lichtenstein contends that the aim of the last three is intended to persuade Pharaoh to finally give permission for the Israelites to leave Egypt and to buttress the faith of the Israelites in the omnipotence of God. This is explained in God’s speech to Moses prior to the eighth plague: “God (YHVH) said to Moses: ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order to place these signs of Mine in his midst; and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son how I made a mockery of Egypt and My signs that I placed among them – that you may know that I am YHVH” (ibid 10:1-2).

 

God is now making sport with Pharaoh and his courtiers so that the Israelites will learn from these three plagues that the power of God has brought about their release and they will relay this information to future generations. 

 

This leads to a number of differences in this last group of plagues compared to the previous seven:

  • In the previous 7 plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, whereas in the last three Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by God.  

 

  • Until now the plagues had constituted a severe nuisance factor. They now become devastating. The plague of locusts covers the entire land of Egypt and destroys its agriculture. The 3-day plague of darkness brings Egypt to a complete standstill. It is a darkness described as being darker than dark. Finally, there is the plague of the firstborn which completely breaks the will of the Egyptian people.

 

  • Because YHVH’s powers are no longer a theological issue, the nature of his advisors changes after the sixth plague of boils. From the eight plague on, his advisors will no longer be his magicians but his “servants,” namely his counselors and civil servants. The plagues are leading to grave economic consequences for Egypt and it is only fitting that his civil servants be involved in the decision-making of the state. 

 

  • There are also additional dimensions to the tenth plague, the plague of the firstborn, related to Pharaoh’s recognition of the Israelites as God’s firstborn. 

 

Hence, while on his way back to Egypt, God tells Moses:  

When you go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have put in your hand and perform them before Pharaoh; but I shall strengthen his heart and he will not send out the people. So shall you say to Pharaoh: ‘So said God (YHVH), My firstborn son is Israel. So I say to you: ‘Send out My son that he may serve Me - but you have refused to send him out; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son” (ibid 4:21-23).

 

Nevertheless, all this does raise the question - why it was it so important for Pharaoh to acknowledge the supremacy of YHVH? Was it God’s intention to convert Egypt to monotheism? The pressures against this from Egyptian society would have been tremendous. There is also no evidence from Egyptian writings that such a mass conversion ever took place. 

 

One answer given is that in reality all the plagues were for the sake of the Jewish people, but that the lessons of the Exodus would impress themselves more on the Jewish people if they were also accepted by Pharaoh.  

 

Another answer that seems closer to the literal meaning of the text is that the verses of the Ten Plagues are describing a struggle between Moses and Pharaoh as to the ownership of the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh as leader of Egypt assumes he can do with his slaves as he wishes since he owns them. But YHVH, the God who walks with Israel through history, is now claiming that all power resides with Him, that the Israelites belong to Him as His people, and that they should leave Egypt to worship Him. Release of the slaves can only occur once Pharaoh acknowledges the supreme power of YHVH over the entire world and transfers ownership of the slaves to God. This Pharaoh does by the end of the seventh plague of hail (previously quoted - ibid 9:27-28) - although further prodding will be necessary to actualize their departure. 

 

This also relates to Moses’ (although in reality God’s) disingenuous request that the Israelites leave Egypt for three days at his first meeting with Pharaoh (ibid 5:3). Who was he trying to fool? It would have been clear to everyone that once the slaves left with all their possessions they would never return. This is why it becomes an issue of contention between them. However, by requesting that the slaves leave for a distance of 3-days, Moses is suggesting a clear separation of ownership. If the slaves were only allowed to worship God within the boundaries of Egypt, even with their families, and even with all their possessions, then to all intents and purposes the slaves are still be under Pharaoh’s jurisdiction. They needed to leave Egypt for at least a three-day journey to pass beyond the borders of Egypt.   

 

Conclusions and additional thoughts

The claims seem almost unbelievable. The God YHVK who controls every aspect of the natural world as well as the course of world history demands from Pharaoh that he release his Israelites slaves so that they can serve Him. He will also protect the Jewish people (provided they are worthy) as they walk through human history. From this time on, Jewish history will become of the central dynamics of world history, and the Jewish people will have dealings (often unfavorable ones) with almost all the major empires and religions of the world.

 

Israel is also to become God’s “firstborn son” (ibid 4:22). As R’ Joseph Soloveitchik explains:

 

This phrase implies that God had other children. Every nation is a child of God, for every human being was created in the divine image. At the moment that God revealed Himself to the Jewish people and gave us the Torah, we were chosen as a “treasured nation”; but God did not abandon the rest of the world. We are God’s firstborn – and a critical task of a firstborn child is to be a role model and an effective teacher for the other children. This is accomplished not only through learning, but by setting an example in our daily lives of sanctifying the Divine Name … This is what God had in mind when He gave Moses the task of redeeming the Israelites from slavery”17 

 

The Jewish people will carry these messages through world history for themselves and the rest of the mankind through their observance of the Jewish holidays and the symbols of the Passover night – the Paschal sacrifice, the Haggadah service, the matzah and the bitter herbs – and the observance of other rituals such as phylacteries, mezuzot and fringes on their garments. 18

But can God really claim that He controls nature? Until the discovery of quantum physics, this would have been an extremely difficult assertion to make, since quite simply there was no room in the natural world for Him except as an observer. The universe is like a snooker table. Every action leads to a reaction that follows the laws of Newtonian physics. To control nature, God would have had to continually break the laws of nature. But this is not the message of the Ten Plagues, and we now know that it is not the laws of physics either. From quantum physics we have discovered that the subatomic world is a very strange place indeed, in that the position and momentum of subatomic particles can never be precisely determined (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). This means that the positions of electrons in an atom can only be described in terms of probabilities. Potentially, electrons can be found at any distance from the nucleus, although depending on their energy level they exist more frequently in certain regions around the nucleus than others. The quantum world is not a precise, deterministic world but a fuzziness of probabilities. This means that God controls chance at a subatomic level and do with nature as He wishes. At a subatomic level it will still look as if nature obeys the laws of chance as defined by the laws of physics. It is only when one views the entire picture that one realizes the improbability of nature being random. This is true for every aspect of nature, and the Egyptians and the Israelites were able to perceive this by means of the Ten Plagues.18

 

But can God really claim to control history and promise Moses that He “will be” with the Jewish people throughout history? It is an axiom of Judaism that everyone has free will, and history results from the interplay of individual free wills.  Simply put, there should be no room in history for God. However, all the prophecies made in the Torah and their fulfillment, the Ten Plagues, the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, and the survival of the Jewish people tell us that the situation is otherwise. God is very much involved in human history.

 

There is no psychology research demonstrating how God is able to interfere with our decision-making processes, and it is unlikely there ever will be. However, when the Torah relates that “I have hardened his [Pharaoh’s] heart and that of his servants” (Exodus 10:1), it is announcing that He does have this capability. It is also telling us that God moves history by influencing the movers and shakers of this world. As the Book of Psalms says: “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hands of God, whatever He wishes, so He directs it” (Psalms 21:1). This is similarly stated in the Book of Kings in relation to the king Rechavam when he was confronted with the decision as to how to handle the complaints of the northern tribes: “The king did not listen to the people, for it was something brought about by God (YHVH), in order to fulfil His word that He had spoken through Achiya the Shilonite to Yeravam, the son of Nevat.” (I Kings 12:15). Rechavam’s bad decision would lead to the separation of the northern tribes from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and their eventual exile. 

Jewish philosophers debate how God could have “hardened” the heart of Pharaoh without interfering with his free will.19 Sforno suggests that God made it possible for Pharaoh to ignore the evidence that was blatantly obvious to everyone else so that he could continue to harden his own heart as at the beginning of the plagues. In a similar vein, Nachmanides explains that God gave Pharaoh the ability to withstand the pain of the plagues so that he could continue to resist sending out the slaves, just as he wanted to do at the beginning of the plagues. He still had the ability to choose between good and evil so that His free remained intact.20 The Ralbag, on the other hand, sees kings as pawns in God’s hands to do with as He wishes:

 

Behold, the king’s heart and will are in the hands of God like streams of water that can be directed according to their need. So too, God directs the heart of the king wherever He desires. Here, we see that the acts of and thoughts of a king are limited by God, with the king being like an agent of God concerning matters of the state. This is just and wise, for if acts of a king were left to his total freedom, there could be great danger to that nation.”21

 

Two more questions. 

 

The Torah informs the Jewish people that their history will be one of exile and redemption depending on their adherence to the Covenant. Is the Exodus from Egypt to be a model for all future redemptions, or does this redemption have specific purposes that will never need to be repeated? A prophecy of Jeremiah seems to suggest that a future redemption will occur in a blaze of messianic revelation: “Assuredly the time is coming, declares the Lord, when it shall be no more said: As the Lord lives who brought out the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, but rather As the Lord lives who brought the Israelites out of the northland” [Jeremiah 16:14-15). Yet the experience of the Jewish people with two more redemptions after the Egyptian exile indicates that open manifestations of God’s providence were a one-time event and it is up to the Jewish people to extract the messages of the Egyptian redemption and apply them to later redemptions. And indeed, if we delve deeply into the history of these subsequent redemptions, we will see that they are as wondrous as the redemption from Egypt in their involvement of God, although His presence is not as openly manifest. 

 

Secondly, can we be sure that the Exodus from Egypt really happened? Could it be that it is a Jewish myth, or at the very least a highly exaggerated account? A lot of Jewish theology is hanging precariously on this isse. Because it is such an important question, the authenticity of the Exodus will be examined in the very next chapter.

 

References 

1.   Jewish commentators see symbolism in this Burning Bush. It could, for example, represent the lowly position of an eternal Jewish people being burnt but not consumed by Egyptian oppression. This is the explanation of Midrash Sh’mos, Hizkuni and Rabbeinu Bachya. Shemos Rabba 1:9 explains that no place, even a bush, is devoid of the Divine Presence. Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra view the Burning Bush as “the sign for you that I have sent you” (Exodus 3:12). Another idea suggests itself that is linked to the impending revelation. The Burning Bush is a reflection of YHVH Himself. A bush that burns but is not consumed is not fettered by the dimension of time. Its past, its present and its future have merged into one. 

2.   In The Two Consecrations of Moses by Rav Yonatan Grossman in Torah Mietzion, New Readings in Tanach. Shemot, p23, Editors Rav Ezra Bick and Rav Yaakov Beasley, Maggid Books, Yeshivat Har Etzion. In this insightful essay, the author points out that the nature of God’s recruitment speech at the Burning Bush fits in nicely with the notion that God was directing Himself primarily to an individual with a strong sense of moral rectitude, but not necessarily someone with a strong sense of Jewish identity at this stage.

3.   Also in Exodus 4:1. Maimonides views Moses’ hesitation as reflecting his concern that signs alone would be inadequate to further belief of the people in his mission (Mishna Torah, Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 8:2). Other commentators view Moses’ hesitation and his concern that Pharaoh and the people would not believe him as being an inappropriate response to God’s request (Ve’Eilleh Shemos Rabba, Abarbanel, Sforno, Nachmanides). 

4.   The name of God YHVH is mentioned by Jacob in Genesis 32:10 just before he enters Israel while still on the other side of the Jordan and once more towards the end of Genesis (49:18) when he blesses his sons. Nevertheless, the book of Genesis indicates that YHVH is still involved behind the scenes with Jacob’s family. For example, Genesis 38:7, 39:2 “And YHVH was with Joseph, and he became a successful man….”, and Genesis 39:21 “YHVH was with Joseph ….”.  

5.   This name possesses special reverence both in its writing and in speech. However, how exactly it should be pronounced has been lost through the generations as it was only pronounced in the Tabernacle and Holy Temple. 

6.    To anyone but God, the tense of the verb to be should be in the third person - “He Will Be” (yihiye). However, if this were the case, the Hebrew spelling of YHVH should be YHYH, with the Hebrew letter yud (y in English) instead of vov (v in English) being the third letter of His name. This suggests that the letter vov indicates that God's name also contains within it aspects of the present tense, since the present tense of the verb "to be" is hava (הוה) containing a vav.  Also within this name is the past tense of the verb to be haya (היה). The combination of all tenses of the verb “to be” in His name indicates God’s complete independence from time and His complete mastery over the past, present and all aspects of the future.  This explanation is based on First Paragraph. The Theophany on Mount Horeb in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus by Umberto David Cassuto, p37, Vara Books, Skokie IL, USA.

7.   Based on a midrash (Shemos Rabba 3:6) and the Talmud (TB Berachos 9b), Rashi in one explanation sees in this name that God will be with the Jewish people during the difficulties of the Exodus as well as during future difficulties. Onkelos sees rather that God will show mercy and favor to whomever He wishes. R' Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the name YHVH describes the nature of God in relation to the universe He has created. Everything in the universe is the product of the laws of nature. Only God can “be” (and can do) whatever He wishes “to be” (and do), since He is not bound by the constraints of causality (R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch Commentary to the Pentateuch on Exodus 3:14).

8.   The Abarbanel writes “he was first exiled to Pharaoh’s palace so that he could learn the tactics of leadership and monarchy, which would cause him to develop courage and spiritual greatness.” Nachshoni makes the point that the Bible wishes to make a contrast with pagan literature which attributes leadership to being descended from the gods. (Y. Nachshoni. Studies in the Weekly Parsha; Sh’mos. P323, Artscroll Judaica Classics, Mesorah Publications Ltd, Brooklyn, NY.). My explanation is contrary to that of Abarbanel who feels that Moses would have developed an attachment to his biological mother and nursemaid Yocheved during the very early years of his life. 

9.   Rashi to Exodus 2:11 follows Shemos Rabbah 1:27 and notes that the text says that he saw into their burdens. In other words, this made an impression on him. Nachmanides has a similar explanation. 

10. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch Commentary to the Pentateuch on Exodus 3:12.

11. The name “Gershom” comes from the Hebrew word “ger,” meaning a stranger. There could also be another meaning to this name besides his feeling distant from Midianite society in that the root letters g-r-sh mean to drive out or to expel (legaresh). In other words, he also regrets being forced out of Egypt.

12. Jewish tradition considers four expressions of deliverance, and these are toasted with four cups of wine at the Passover eve Hagaddah service. The phrases “I shall take you to Me for a people” and “And I shall be a God to you” are joined together as one, and the last two expressions are left for Messianic times. Nevertheless, a division into seven expressions of deliverance is compatible with Biblical style of writing. 

13.  Some examples. At the Covenant between the Pieces, God said to Abraham: "….  I am YHVH who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it" (Genesis 15:7). Isaac was also familiar with the name YHVH and prayed to Him to relieve the infertility of his wife: “Isaac entreated YHVH opposite his wife because she was barren, and YHVH allowed himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rebecca conceived” (Exodus 25:21). And when awakening from his vision of a ladder extending to heaven Jacob says: “Surely, YHVH is in this place and I did not know!” (Genesis 28:16).

14. Rashi, for example, sees in this name God’s assurance that He remains faithful to his word and will fulfill the promises He made to the forefathers (Rashi to Exodus 6:3).  Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra suggest that this new aspect of YHVH expresses the ability of God to function above the natural order of the world. Abarbanel disagrees with Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra and feels that the forefathers also experienced supernatural events, as for example the plague that afflicted the Egyptian Pharaoh because of his conduct with Sarah, the overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah, the rescue of Lot, and the turning of Lot’s wife to a pillar of salt. Therefore, he suggests that the name YHVH expresses the open revelation of God as occurred at the Splitting of the Red Sea and at Mount Sinai. None of these suggestions, however, relate specifically to the meaning of the word YHVH as a form of the verb to be.   

15. The best-known grouping is that of R’ Yehuda described in the Haggadah service of the Passover evening who divides the plagues into a first group of the first three plagues, a second group of the next three plagues, and his final group is the last four plagues. The first three plagues were brought about by Moses’ staff, Moses used no vehicle for bringing on plagues 4 to 6, and plagues 7 to 9 involved Moses’ hands, with or without the use of his staff. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see any profound meaning within R’ Yehuda’s grouping. In Chapter 7: The Education of Pharaoh: Recognizing Literary Patterns in Between the Lines of the Bible. Exodus. A Study from the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary by Yitzchak Etshalom, p84, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York, 2012.

 

16. Between Va’era and Bo by Rav Moshe Lichtenstein in Torah Mietzion, in New Readings in Tanach. Shemot, Editors Rav Ezra Bick and Rav Yaakov Beasley, p101, Maggid Books, Yeshivat Har Etzion.

17.  “My firstborn son is Israel” in Chumash with commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Shemos, OU Press, New York. 2014.

18. Nachmanides covers these and other points such as the truth of prophecy and the hidden miracles of everyday life in his commentary to Exodus 13:16. Commandments such as phylacteries, fringes and mezuzot are also reminders of the exodus from Egypt. 

19. For a fuller discussion of this topic see Chapter 16, Hardening the Heart and other Instances Where God Seems to Remove Free Will in Illuminating Jewish Thought. Exploration of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era by Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank, pp 223-246, Maggid Books, 2018.

20. Nachmanides Commentary to the Torah, Exodus 7:3 and ibid, p232-233.

21. Ralbag to Proverbs 21:1. Quoted and translation from ibid, p236.

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