Exodus with Dr. Koller

We are reading Sefer Shemot (The Book of Exodus) in class with Dr. Koller

A Blog for a Class at Yeshiva College, by Joshua Skootsky

Artist's Rendition of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra

Identity in Shemot

Assignment #1

Joshua Skootsky

    I would like to contrast the development of clan and national identities in Sefer Shemot with that of Sefer Bereshit. The primary nation-state in Sefer Bereshit in Egypt, whose King, Pharoh, and great wealth, appears to be perennial as the Nile. Avraham goes down to Egypt in hard times (Bereshit 12), and much later, Yosef, along with his brothers (Bereshit 39, 42) arrives in a “country” with a strong national identity, leadership class, and even unique cultural taboos. (Bereshit 46:34)

    In the first eight lines of Exodus, this status quo is challenged by the arrival of the “children of Israel,” who arrive as members of familial clan-houses (Exodus 1:1), whose descendants multiply prodigiously. (Exodus 1:7) A “new King” (Exodus 1:8) views this development as a demographic threat to the integrity of the Egyptian people and nation-state, saying to his “nation” that the “nation of the Children of Israel” is becoming “big and more powerful than us.” (Exodus 1:9)

    Into this clearly defined “national” struggle come ambiguous characters – the “Hebrew Midwives,” whom Pharoh seeks to enlist in his increasingly bloody struggle with a national group he views as distinct from that of the Egyptians. (Exodus 1:15-16) The “Hebrew midwives” have a constructed name which can be read, from the Hebrew, as either “the professional midwives who were of the Hebrew group,” or perhaps, just as plausibly, “the professional midwives who served members of the Hebrew group, but were not necessarily members of the Hebrew group themselves.”

    If the midwives are, in my terminology, members of the Hebrew group, then their acts of defiance (Exodus) serve as the first expressions of a distinct Children of Israel/Hebrew group identity, rather than merely being seen as different by the Egyptians. This active role in resisting the Egyptian's repression of their reproduction, and its novelty, also takes on a new perspective when we consider that the character of Pharoh apparently did not expect this form of resistance on behalf of their own Hebrew group members.

    Rashi (Exodus 1:16, s.v. “Shifra,” s.v. “Pu'ah”) labels the midwives as Hebrews, going so far as to identify them as Moshe's mother and sister, Yocheved and Miryam. Joining Rashi are (probably) Onkelos' translation and Rashbam, who through their interpretations remove the inherent ambiguity in the text itself as to the nationality of the midwives. Seforno, Ibn Ezra, and Ba'al haTurim do not attempt to clarify their nationality, which means that it is possible for the midwives to not be Hebrews according to their opinions.

    I would prefer to read the text in a way that the midwives are not members of the Hebrew group, based on textual evidence that I will discuss. In addition, this read increases the complexity of the story, since now not all Egyptians are united against the Hebrew group. If the rest of Exodus will tell us the story of the development of the Hebrew group, we will have to remember that the mercy of Egyptian midwives had some role in that story, the founding myth of the Jewish people.

    As previously mentioned, it would be highly unusual for Pharoh to involve Hebrews in the killing of Hebrews, unless their group identity was significantly fractured, complicated, and tenuous in the minds of the very people who view them as strong and numerous. This objection can be avoided, but not without some difficulty. We will proceed to read the text with the reasonable assumption that Pharoh called upon his fellow Egyptians to help him deal with this “rival” national group.

    Immediately, some aspects of the group labeling and “othering” practices of Pharoh begin to fit together. “When you (my fellow Egyptian) are helping the (specifically) Hebrew women give birth,” says Pharoh (Exodus 1:16), “... kill the males... ,” as if the Hebrew women are some “other” entity other than themselves, good upstanding Egyptians. The midwives fear “God,” (Exodus 1:17) in a Hebrew construction that is not unique to the Jewish people, i.e. not the Tetragrammaton. This could be suggestive of their non-Hebrew group identity, as Ibn Ezra late notes that this “generic” name for God is how the Egyptians refer to or know of the Supreme Diety. (Exodus 8:15, s.v. “Vayomru”) We also see the midwives refer to the specifically “other” Hebrew women as being “unlike the Egyptian women,” (Exodus 1:19) themselves continuing Pharoh's policy of “othering” the Hebrews.

    We then see that maybe the Hebrews are not as united as Pharoh imagines. A man from the family-house of Levi marries a woman from the family-house of Levi (Exodus 2:1), suggesting that their identity is more strongly known as members of this smaller clan than of an imputed “nation” than consists of these united family-houses, and perhaps hinting to a degree of endogomy within these family-houses, which would be another sign of disunity among the Children of Jacob.

    The daughter of Pharoh refers to the baby born as “one of the children born to the Hebrews,” (Exodus 2:6) a characterization taken up by the baby's sister (“a wet nurse from the Hebrews,” ibid) who may be engaging in code-switching while talking to the daughter of the Pharoh, rather than refering to a belief among the family-houses that they constitute a united “Hebrew” entity.

    This rather cynical view of the Jewish people's initial unity would seem be supported by how, after Moshe strikes a blow against the Egyptian system of oppression (Exodus 2:12), two “Hebrews” (Exodus 2:13) take their personal, violent quarrel (ibid) and turn their words against Moshe, mockingly asking if he means to kill them as he kills the Egyptian. (Exodus 2:14) Their lack of discretion, or even solidarity with a fellow “Hebrew,” causes Pharoh to hear about the incident, Moshe to run away (2:15), and us to consider that the “Hebrews” are not yet above turning in one of their “own.”

    The absence of a distinct “Hebrew” identity might be further inferred from the Midianites' identification of Moshe as “an Egyptian man.” (Exodus 2:19) Yet Moshe's experience in Egypt, and his development of a non-Egyptian personality, can be inferred from the explanation given to the name of his firstborn son, “I was a stranger in a foreign land,” (Exodus 2:22) where the word “was” would allow the phrase to refer to Moshe's past in Egypt and Pharoh's household, not his current situation in the desert with Midianites. In a certain sense, the Egyptian's, and particularly Pharoh's, “othering” rhetoric has begun to change the self-perception of the imputed “Hebrews,” who know themselves as descendants of Jacob.

     The second chapter of Exodus concludes with how God remembers his “covenant with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob” (Exodus 2:24), and how God “sees the Children of Israel” (Exodus 2:25), using a verb for “sees” that is very similar to the word used to describe how the Egyptian midwives “feared” God, (Exodus 1:17, 21) perhaps literarily setting up an expectation for God to save and care for the Children of Israel, just as the midwives saved and cared for the Hebrew newborn babes.

The Identity of Moses - or Moshe

Joshua Skootsky


Dr. Koller

Part 1

Read the text "Birth Legend of Sargon," posted on Angel in this folder. Reflect on the similarities between this text and Shemot 2. Consider in this light what Moshe's birth story contributes to the Torah's portrayal of Moshe, and to our understanding of his character.

The Torah says that Moshe was born when a man of the family-house of Levi married a woman of the family-house of Levi. (Exodus 2:1) This lineage, although brief, would appear to be quite distinguished, especially since later in the Torah, the Levites play a decisive role in mitigating the damage done by the Golden Calf, and are subsequently entrusted with the care of the Mishkan and its sacrificial worship. In “The Birth-Legend of Sargon,” the narrator recounts that his mother was a high-priestess, although he did not know his father. This lineage may also be distinguished, on the mother's side, but “I did not know my father / My father's brothers dwell in the uplands.” Therefore, we might conjecture that Sargon's father was not an urban counterpart to his high-priestess mother, but a wild man of the rough hill country, maybe even a shepherd. Perhaps for this reason, “she bore me in secret / she placed me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch / She left me to the river.”

In contrast, Moshe's parents are equals in terms of status, yet they are living under the evil decrees of the Egyptian Pharoh, an external human actor, who enacts a policy that threatens death to all Hebrew boys. (Exodus 1:22) Yet also Moshe, unlike Sargon, is not abandoned in a reed basket with some pitch, is watched by Miryam, (Exodus 2:4) and she cunningly reunites Moshe with his mother (Exodus 2:7) before he is weaned.

The strongest parallels are the reed basket, sealed with pitch as a waterproofing measure, taken down to the river, “to see what would happen to him.” (Exodus 2:4) This ought to be compared with infanticide in other cultures, including death by exposure in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (a Greek context). In both stories, the river allows the baby to be found by a stranger (Pharoh's daughter for Moshe, Akki the Irrigator for Sargon).

The narrator signals Moshe's future destiny as a national leader through the strong parallel motifs present in both stories. Paradoxically, this does not shed any light into his character, since Sargon, like many leaders, projected absolute strength and single-minded power. When we think “Gilgamesh,” we do not think, “rich inner life.” The mask of command hides aspects of character that are not expressed either in private or while conducting national affairs. This allows the enigma of Moshe, as a possible bridge between the Egyptian and Hebrew people, to grow.

Part 2

For these questions, please use your own commentator to look for specific answers, but also reflect on the text independently, and feel free to respectfully evaluate the compellingness of what you find in the מפרשים. You may not find answers to all of these questions in any given commentator, so you are encouraged to also think about them on your own, or to draw on different commentaries.

פרק ב: The Growth of Moshe

1. How does Pharaoh's daughter know the Moshe is a "Hebrew" when she sees him?

2. Where does Moshe grow up, for how long?

3. When does Moshe find out that he is actually Jewish?

4. What motivates him to "go out to his BROTHERS"?

5. What do we learn about Moshe from his two interactions in vv. 11-14?


  1. (Ibn Ezra to Exodus 2:6), Pharoh's daughter saw Moshe's circumcision, and “knew he was a Hebrew.”
  2. Moshe grows up in the Royal Palace (Ibn Ezra to Exodus 2:11) for a period of time that is not well-defined, but basically ends “when he grows up.” (Exodus 2:11)
  3. It seems that Moshe had an Egyptian identity (Ibn Ezra to Exodus 2:11) at least until he “grew up.” He “went out from his [Egyptian] brothers... and saw a Hebrew from his brothers.” Ibn Ezra explains that the second “brother,” which comes after the word for “Hebrew,” does not refer to identity but family bonds, or consanguinity, citing from the usage in Bereshit 13:8. It would therefore seem that Moshe always knew that he was related to the Hebrews, but he grew up among and as one of the Egyptians.
  4. According to Ibn Ezra, “going out to his [Egyptian] brothers” was not some epoch-defining life-decision. He may have done this many times, going around and inspecting the work done by the Hebrew slaves, maybe even assisting in overseeing the work being done.
  5. Although not a traditional read, in Exodus 2:11-14, Moshe displays some of the same personality traits and problem-solving techniques that a mafia boss might employ. Other people's problem's are the Don's personal problems to inject himself into and solve, sometimes with force, and sometimes with a few gentle worlds – perhaps backed up by the threat of force. From this perspective, the response of the two fighting Jews, (Exodus 2:14), “Are you going to kill us?” sounds less like a wildly unfair taunt and more like a jibe at Moshe's apparent modus operandi.

I would read Moshe as less torn between his loyalties to either the Egyptian or Hebrew side, but rather as a fiercely independent problem-solver, who feels compelled to solve other people's problems. This characterization will need to be examined when, later, God asks Moshe to fix the Hebrew people's problems, and how Moshe resists accepting this problem.

The Structure of the Plagues

Joshua Skootsky

Dr. Aaron Koller


Plagues Writing Assignment

Plague Narrative: Structure and Meaning

What is the point of the plague narrative in Exodus, which concludes with 12:29-36, as God smites the Egyptian Firstborn, and the Egyptians send the Jews out with “gifts” of silver, gold, and clothing? Why did a story have to begin with the presentation of snake signs (Exodus 7:8-13) and the transformation of the Nile to blood (Exodus 7:15-25), and stretch so far, with repetitive tropes, such an explanation of the plague to Moshe, followed by a warning to Pharoh.

I would, roughly, divide the plagues into five sections. The snake signs of Exodus 7:8-13 serve as an introduction. Then we have a section of three plagues, which finish with the absence of warning before 8:12, when Aaron causes gnats or lice to strike all of Egypt. This second section is also unified by Aaron as an actor, as in Exodus 7:19, 8:2, and 8:12, along with the importance of the “rod” in all three of those versus, which describe the blood, frogs, and gnats or lice, respectively. Furthermore, this is bracketed by the failure of the Egyptian magicians to reproduce the plague (Exodus 8:15), which stands in contrast to their earlier appearances within the narrative, both within the introduction (Exodus 7:11-13) as well as in the plagues of blood (7:22) and frogs (8:3). The magicians are not given speaking roles again.1

The third and fourth sections are a repetition of this three plague cycle, of two preceded by warnings and one without a warning, as in Exodus 8:25, Moshe warns Pharoh about a swarm of animals or flies, and in Exodus 9:5 God tells Moshe to warn Pharoh about an animal disease that will strike, but the plague of boils (Exodus 9:10) is not preceded by a warning. In all three of the plagues in this, the third section, Moshe takes an active role. This pattern is then repeated for the next triad, of hail, locusts, and darkness.

The fifth section is the super-plague of the Firstborn, which is preceded by a warning, and succeeds in breaking the spirit of Pharoh. This causes me to believe that we are not well-served by attempts paint the plagues as historical artifacts of Egypt's biosphere and geographic peculiarities. Narratively, according to my read, the warnings that precede most of the plagues are a core narrative feature, which serves to illustrate and strengthen the purpose of the plagues: demonstrations of God's mastery. How else can we ignore Pharoh's repeated pleading to Moshe for the plagues to stop? Ziony Zevit, in his article “Exodus and the Egyptian Plagues,” plays down the success of the plagues in educating the Egyptians. Yet, I see a clear progression: the monarch who said, “Who is [the Tetragrammaton], such that I should listen to his voice? … I do not know [the Tetragrammaton], and I will not the Jews go!” (Exodus 5:2), by the last plague, must say the exact opposite, “Get up and go from amidst my people, you along with all of Israel, go and serve [the Tetragrammaton], as you have asked.” (Exodus 12:31)

Further supporting the centrality of this point, during the plague narrative, Pharoh must repeatedly recognize [the Tetragrammaton] as the God of the Jews and the master of nature, and asks Moshe to stop the plague, culminating in Exodus 10:16, Pharoh must ask Moshe to pray to [the Tetragrammaton] to remove the locust plague, and admit “I have sinned against [the Tetragrammaton], your god... ”

We also see evidence within the plague narrative that amoung the Egyptian slaves of Pharoh, some “fear the word of God” (Exodus 9:20), and that leading up to the Slaying of the Firstborn, we hear that Moshe is “great within the land of Egypt, in the eyes of Pharoh's servants and the people.” (Exodus 11:3). If we understand “the people” to be Egyptians not part of Pharoh's court, we can detect in the narrative a successful educational campaign towards the Egyptian audience as to the greatness of God and justness of the Israelite's cause, despite the material losses suffered by the self-same Egyptians - a remarkable success of psychological warfare that is a core narrative goal and repeatedly emphasized throughout the plague narrative.

It is therefore interesting to hear ideas about how these events could have been actual natural disasters, but it would just as plausible to say that the plagues were inspired by real Egyptian natural disasters. Yet, within the Exodus plague narrative, these events are totally repurposed and imbued with meaning, both for the Jews and also the Egyptians who experience them, and therefore to view them as natural disasters, with the help of modern scientific speculation, detracts from the clear literary purpose of this “conscientiously articulated and tightly wrought composition.” (Zevit)

I end my consideration of the plague narrative with the plague of firstborn because it is the first to be interspersed with legal material. Despite not being preceded by an explicit warning, it does contain elements of educating the Egyptians (Exodus 14:2), yet their complicit role of charging after the Israelites, right into an open miracle, changes the “plague” from an ambiguous affliction into something that they deserved. By making war on the Israelites, it became only fair for God to make war on them. “God is a man of war,” (Exodus 15:3) exclaim the Israelites, who celebrate that God, “has led with kindness the nation that You redeemed.” (Exodus 15:13)

Works Cited

Zevit, Ziony. “Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues.” Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeology Society. May 5, 2014.

Web: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/exodus/exodus-in-the-bible-and-the-egyptian-plagues/

1We do hear that the Egyptian magicians cannot “stand before Moshe” during the plague of boils in Exodus 9:11

Shemot 12 - Questions and Comments

Joshua Skootsky

Dr. Aaron Koller


November 5, 2014

Twelfth Chapter of Exodus: Structures and Subjects

… with Ibn Ezra

1. What is the connection between the calendar reform in 12:2-3 and the Exodus?

Ibn Ezra notes that this is, above all else, the beginning of the Mitzvot that were given to Moshe and Aharon, “Since they are the Prophets of the Torah,” and all other instructions were temporary. Ibn Ezra also quotes a Ka'arite, who said that previously, the Jews had counted time according to the Solar Calendar, just like anyone else. And Ibn Ezra mericlessly mocks him for saying something so stupid.

But what was so stupid? Amidst an extended astrological discursion, Ibn Ezra mentions that the Arab tribes use the moon to count the passage of time, which proves that this dumb Ka'arite is wrong, since some non-Jews use the moon. I am sure that Ibn Ezra would be interested by how the Greeks used a lunar calendar, and how the Dead Sea Scrolls group used a solar calendar.

The Ibn Ezra, therefore, sees the Calendar as just one of the new mitzvot that everyone is being inducted into, along with the whole concept of being commanded by God.

2. What is the meaning and significance of matzah in 12:8, prior to the Exodus taking place?

Ibn Ezra does not say. It appears to go along with the Korban Pesach, instead of having its own significance.

3. What is the festival in 12:14-20 called, and what characterizes it?

Ibn Ezra to 12:2 refers to it as “Chag HaMatzot,” the Festival of Matzot, but on those verses, this festival does not give itself a specific name, and neither does Ibn Ezra.

4. What role(s) does the ger play in the rituals described in Exodus 12?

It appears in 12:19 that the Ger, along with the Ezrach Ha-Aretz, form Adat Yisrael, a collective of these two types of people.

In 12:48, the Ger must be circumcised before he may eat from the Korban Pesach. “Then he may draw close to do it, and will be 'like' the Ezrach Ha-Aretz,” the verse emphasizing how through circumcision, the Ger becomes similar to the Ezrach Ha-Aretz. This is followed up by 12:49, which emphasizes how there shall be “one Torah” for both the Ger and the Ezrach Ha-Aretz.

It is unclear whether or not the Ger maintains their distinct identity after the Korban Pesach, or whether the Ger becomes “one” with the Jewish collective, taking on the identity of “Ezrach Ha-Aretz” through participation in the Korban Pesach. The requisite preparation of undergoing circumcision highlights the possibility of using the Korban Pesach, along with other symbols of Jewish peoplehood, as a means to becoming “Jewish.”

5. In what ways do Moshe’s instructions in 12:21-28 agree with, and in what ways do they disagree with, what we have read until this point?

Summary of Previous Knowledge

The offering, a sheep, must be taken on the 10th of the month (12:3)

If there are not enough people in a household, households must band together to eat the sheep. (12:4)

A one year old male goat or sheep must be used (12:5)

After waiting until the 14th of the month, the animal is killed (12:6)

The doorposts and lintel will be swapped with blood (12:7)

It should be roasted in fire, and eaten with matza and bitter herbs (12:8)

It should not be boiled or eaten raw, but only roasted, its head on its stomach (12:9)

Nothing should be left until the next day (12:10)

It should be eaten with belts fastened, sandals strapped, walking sticks in-hand, and quickly. (12:11)

On this night God will smite Egypt's might (12:12)

The blood will serve as a sign and prevent God from smithing the Jews (12:13)

This will be celebrated or commemorated forever (12:14)

Comparison with New Knowledge in 12:21-28

They must take sheep and swap the posts and lintels with blood (12:21), yet no mention yet of goats (12:5). No mention of first taking the animal on the 10th of the month (12:3)

They must use a bundle of hyssop to smear blood on the doorposts and lintel (12:22), yet previously, the smearing was not ritualized, in that there was no prescribed instrument or tool for this utilitarian, protective paint job. (12:7)

Furthermore, the Jews are newly enjoined not to exit from their buildings until morning's light. (12:22) This seemingly contrasts with how the Jews were to leave Egypt in the middle of the night.

As before (12:13), God will see the blood and not smite the Jews (12:23)

As before (12:14), this is to be celebrated or commemorated forever (12:24)

(12:25) When the Jews enter the Land of Israel, they shall do this worshipful service. This unique speaks about “Now, you are Egypt” and “In the future, you will be in Israel, commemorating this event.”

(12:26) Your children will ask you, “What is this worshipful service?,” not having lived through the original event. This emphasizes the educational mission of the eternal commemoration or celebration.

(12:27) If this occurs before the Jews actually leave knowledge, they are being told what will happen before it happens. God will smite the Egyptians, will not smite the Jews, “and the people bowed.” These same people go and do the Pascal service (12:28)

6. 12:40-41 are very explicit about the length of time the Israelites spent in Egypt. What problems does this number create, and how may it be resolved?

This creates problems because we don't apparently know of enough generations to give us 430 years. It seems that Moshe is the son of Amram, who in turn is the son of Levi, who is a son of Ya'akov/Yisrael.

We can start counting from Brit Bein HaBetarim or Akeidat Yitzchak to try and solve this problem. Dr. Bernstein believes the Genesis Aprocryphon tries to solve this problem by counting from 70-year-old Avraham's “pilot trip” to Eretz Canaan, although he does not explain why Nefesh B'Nefesh existed at the time.

7. What laws are added to the Pesah in 12:43-49? What are they doing here?


Now slaves can eat from the Pasah if they are circumcised, but no “strangers, inhabitants, or paid workers.” Now none of the meat can leave the house, and no bones can be broken. All of “Adat Yisrael” will participate in this ritual. We are now reminded to include Gerim in this process, but to circumcise them first.


These appear to be a repetition of the laws found in 12:21-28, with enough changes to justify the idea that perhaps these are from a different tradition. The detailed references to Toshav, Sachir, along with Ger, and especially Eved, make this seem particularly instructive towards those living in Israel. I don't think anyone had any slaves during Pesach Mitzrayim, or worried about how to classify the (agricultural) migrant workers in their midst.

8. What in the פרק is relevant only to פסח מצרים, and what to פסח דורות? Is such a distinction even evident in the פרק?

The clearest distinction comes at the end of the Perek, when specific laws come for situations that would only arise when the Jews were living autonomously in Eretz Yisrael.

If a distinction can be textually motivated by 12:43-49 to claim that the text itself is aware of two contexts for Pesach, then we could re-read some of the repeated presentations of the festival directly in the mode of two distinct Pesachim with two distinct sets of laws.

Such a read would turn on 12:14, “You shall remember this day, and celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for all generations, forever shall you celebrate it,” and construe it as applying only to verses that follow it, not the verses that precede it. From that section of the text alone (12:2-20), such a choice is ambiguous, and cannot clearly be motivated in one direction or the other.

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