The Complete Book of Exodus
Exodus, Chapter 1 Exodus begins with a population crisis. Jacob's descendants have multiplied and prospered in Egypt, "and the land was filled with them." The new Pharaoh is alarmed and "oppressed them with forced labor." But "the more they were oppressed, the more [the Israelites] increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites." This is the classic demographic anxiety: too many of them, not enough of us. Even Israel has its own version of it today.
Here's something curious: The Bible, or at least the translation I'm reading, never describes the Israelites as "slaves." The Israelites perform forced labor for Pharaoh, and they have Egyptian taskmasters who "ruthlessly imposed" on them. But they don't seem to be slaves in the way Joseph was a slave to Potiphar. The Israelites aren't owned by Egyptians. There appear to be limits on their maltreatment: They are compelled to supply labor, but there's no mention of them being deprived of property or banned from other work. None of this minimizes their suffering. I'm just struck by the absence of that word "slave," which is thrown about so casually everywhere else in the Bible (and which we repeat endlessly at the Passover Seder: "We were slaves in Egypt …") Can anyone explain this? Or is it just a gremlin in my translation?
You can't keep an Israelite down! They keep multiplying, so Pharaoh then orders Hebrew midwives to kill all boys born to Hebrew women. When that doesn't work—the midwives seem to duck the order—a panicky Pharaoh demands that all newborn Hebrew boys get thrown into the Nile. The Bible is extremely keen on tit for tats: Very often, when you do a wrong, the very same wrong is visited on you later. Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, but then their descendants end up in bondage (or whatever) to Pharaoh. Jacob uses mistaken identity to trick Isaac out of a blessing. Laban, in turn, uses mistaken identity to trick Jacob out of his chosen wife. (And yet another turnabout, as Jacob changes the identity of Laban's goats and sheep to trick him out of his best animals.) And here Pharaoh tries to kill the Hebrew firstborn sons, but in a few chapters, it will be the firstborn Egyptian sons who die. It's divine retribution, or as we Jews prefer to call it, using that term from biblical Aramaic, "karma."
Moses' mother saves him from drowning in the Nile: Why? Because he's "beautiful."
I don't know where the Disneyfied ideas about Moses, prince of Egypt, come from, but it's certainly not the Torah. Exodus has just sketchy details: Baby Moses floats in wicker basket and is rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, who then pays his own mother to raise him. That's it. The story jumps immediately from here to Moses as an adult. There's nothing—not a word—about Moses as a prince. Pharaoh's daughter is not mentioned again, much less described as his mother. Moses never carouses with Pharaoh's sons, or chariot races with them, or competes with them for the big guy's attention. Is Prince Moses just a modern confection, manufactured to lend some courtly glamour and the frisson of fraternal rivalry to the Exodus story?
Unlike greedy young Abraham, boring young Isaac, deceitful young Jacob, and proud young Joseph, young Moses doesn't require any seasoning. He emerges fully formed, righteous and ruthless, standing up for justice and the little guy. His very first recorded act (not counting being plucked from the river) is his murder of an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew worker. Moses flees Egypt to escape Pharaoh's retribution.
His civil rights activism continues in exile. As soon as he arrives in Midian, he rousts the obnoxious shepherds who are preventing a young woman from watering her flocks. And then, reader, he marries her! (Her name is Zipporah, which clears up a family mystery. My Israeli father-in-law, who has a terrible memory for names, calls all men "Moishe" [Moses] and all women "Zipporah." I always thought they were just two common Israeli names. Now I get the Biblical joke.)
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the Israelites' "cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant. … God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."
Well, my Lord, what took you so long? What were you doing during all those years of hard labor? At the beginning of Genesis, God was a hands-on Sovereign of the Universe—fashioning man from dirt, wandering through Eden in search of Adam, sniffing thoughtfully at Noah's burnt offering, dropping by Abraham's tent to discuss Sodom and Gomorrah. But as Genesis passed, God was increasingly an absent father. He never appeared to Joseph and then left the Hebrews hanging in Cairo for hundreds of years. What was He busy with that He didn't have time to check up on His chosen people for generations? Was God just testing the Israelites? If so, why? Or is it just that God is mysterious and capricious and it's none of our business why the Hebrews had to suffer for so long?
Incidentally, Exodus is now referring to the Israelites as the "Hebrews," which is why I am using the term, too. But how did they become the Hebrews?
Chapter 3 and Chapter 4
No more absent father. When God comes back, He really comes back. He throws up the burning bush to stop Moses in his tracks, then calls out to him, "Moses, Moses." Moses answers, "Here I am." (This exchange—the double name-call, followed by "here I am"—exactly repeats the one between Abraham and God when the Lord stops the sacrifice of Isaac.)
The scene that follows between Moses and God is both high drama and low comedy. It is the most profound encounter between a man and his maker, and it previews all the themes of Exodus (particularly the tension between God's impatience and human willfulness, etc.) At the same time, it feels like nothing so much as a discussion between an enthusiastic, overeager father and his extremely sullen teenage son. God tries so hard with Moses. The Lord begins with a straightforward attempt to persuade Moses to help Him. He outlines the whole big story for Moses—My people are suffering, I have heard them, I am going to rescue them and bring them to a land "flowing with milk and honey." Then He says, rather gently, that He wants to send Moses to Pharaoh to negotiate the Israelites' release. But—the gall of this young prophet—Moses resists, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?"
So, God gets a little more insistent: "I will be with you." This isn't good enough for the lawyerly Moses, who now wonders what he should tell the Israelites about who sent him. "They ask me, 'What is His name?' What shall I say to them?" God, moving into thunder-and-lightning-bolts mode, declares, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh," which is usually translated "I am that I am." Clearly getting peeved at Moses' hesitation, God repeats the whole exhortation He made already, even more emphatically, "I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to … a land flowing with milk and honey," etc.
But does this satisfy Moses? Of course not. He complains: "What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?" So, God tries the David Blaine route, turning Moses' rod into a snake. He causes white scales to appear and disappear on Moses' hand. Moses now moans that he can't go because he's a poor speaker, "slow of speech and slow of tongue." God would have smitten any other human who tried Him so, but He merely rebukes Moses: "Who gives a man speech? … Is it not I, the Lord?" This doesn't deter the vexatious prophet. If he lived in the 21st century, this is the point when Moses would be showing God two doctors' notes diagnosing chronic fatigue syndrome. Instead he counters, "Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent." After all this whining and rebuffing, the Lord has had enough: He finally "became angry with Moses."
But here's the key point: Moses gets what he wants. God appoints Moses' brother Aaron to speak for him. As with Abraham at Sodom, God shows that He loves a challenge. He has no use for lumpish yes men. His truest favorites so far—Abraham and Moses, as well as Jacob and Joseph—don't back down from Him. In this meeting with God, Moses is incredibly, maddeningly frustrating. But he also asks all the right questions about his mission; he plans for every contingency; and he negotiates a better deal for himself. That's the kind of prophet I want on my team.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.