Book of Exodus

Chapters 1 & 2

While Chapter 2  has usually been summarized in the movies, to be Moses being sent in the river, and his growth in, and subsequent departure from, the palace, the chapter can not be summarized that easily. There is much more depth to the stories than the superficial read, and the characters are more complex than they are portrayed.


In popular culture, Moses is usually portrayed as being the hero of the Jews, from the time of his birth, and is generally thought to have never done anything wrong, and possess the same baby's innocence he did when placed in the river . The way he is described in the Chumash though, is much more complicated than that. The first thing that we hear Moshe do is leave the palace and murder an Egyptian for striking a Jew. While this would appear to be a noble thing to do, protecting a fellow Jew from harm, Moses appears to be unsure about whether it is appropriate. ״ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש״ - Moses first looked around and made sure nobody was looking. This seems like suspicious behavior because if Moses was convinced that what he was doing was just, as opposed to overreacting, since Rashbam (2:11) says the Egyptian was only striking the Jew not killing him, why would he look around before killing?

Later on in the chapter though, Moses is linked with the stories in Genesis of the forefathers meeting their wives by the well. This story of Moses by the well and feeding the sheep of Yitro's daughters echoes the stories of how both Yitzchak and Yaakov met their wives. It is almost as if the Torah is trying to cover up some of Moses' shadier actions of murder and the subsequent story of how he confronted the two Jews, by linking him with the forefathers as a way of showing that he is just as righteous as they were.

Rashbam Question of the Week

This week's question is a factual one: if as Rashbam explains (1:21) that "ויעש להם בתים" means that Pharaoh locked the midwives away so that they could not get to the Jewish women who were giving birth, how was Amram able to take Yocheved as a wife after this, and how could she conceive Moses? It might be possible that Rashbam believes that Yocheved was not Shifra as Rashi (1:15) explained, because there is no reason to assume that/ it does not effect the simple understanding of the psukim.

Birth Legend of Sargon and Chapter 2

There is an interesting Akkadian legend of the birth of Sargon that bears striking similarity to the description of Moses' birth:

While these two stories seem to be very similar, there are some key differences that reflect on the different personalities involved. Our story in Exodus contains a key part that is missing from Sargon's legend. Moses' sister watched by the side of the river to make sure nothing happened to him, and also went up to בת פרעה and asked if she should get a Jewish woman (the boy's mother) to nurse the child. This way Moses still maintained some level of connection to his roots. Sargon though, had no such figure, and it was only through the love of the goddess Ishtar that he was able to flourish. Moses was thus able to also maintain a connection to his mother and people, while Sargon was not.

Additionally, and this might be a minor difference, Moses' savior is royalty, the daughter of Pharaoh, while Sargon was saved by a lowly gardener Aqqi. This reflects on the character of the leader as well. Moses was worthy of being saved by royalty, and grew up as a member of Pharaoh's household. Sargon though, had a much lowlier upbringing and is much more of an unlikely leader. Moses who was already royalty, knew the ins and outs of the system, and is far more likely to have been recognized by Pharaoh.

Rashbam on Moses

From the text itself there are many things unclear about Moses' childhood and development. The Rashbam notices these gaps in understanding and helps us understand them. For instance in 2:6 בת פרעה proclaims that the baby she found is from the Jews, but how did she know? Rashbam (2:6) explains that this is because she saw that he was circumcised. While the Ramban (2:6) asks how this makes sense because she would have had to remove his clothing to discover this, this question isn't so difficult to answer because: a. she might have taken off his clothing to change him, or b. perhaps he wasn't wearing any clothing at all.

The Rashbam though is noticeably silent on some of the other narrative gaps found in the chapter. He makes no comment on where Moses grew up, how did he find out he was Jewish, or what motivated him to go out amongst his brothers. This could be because the Rashbam did not feel the need to comment on such narrative details because they do not add anything to the story, or that he just agreed with the other approaches that were already known.

On the question of where Moses grew up and for how long, Ramban (2:11) explains that he was in his mother's house until he no longer needed to be nursed and then he was given over to בת פרעה. This seems to be the simplest way of reading the psukim, which might explain why Rashbam didn't comment because he felt it was so obvious.

The Ramban (2:11) also explains that Moses was told (הגידו) that he was a Jew. The only problem is that it is ambiguous who told him, whether it was his birth family, or בת פרעה's family. The Ramban doesn't offer any clues and the psukim don't either, but it is interesting to think about the ramifications of who did the telling.

There is also a dispute between Ramban and Ibn Ezra (both 2:11) about what is meant by going out to his brothers. Ramban assumes that this means the Jews, while Ibn Ezra says it means the Egyptians. This dispute reflects on the nature of what Moses was trying to do: was he trying to find Jews suffering to help them, or was he looking to support his Egyptian brethren and ended up seeing Jews suffering and feeling compassion for them and helping them. This would make a tremendous difference in Moses' motivations and our characterization of Moses.

Rashbam Question of the Week

This week's question is more ideological/methodological: why is the Rashbam so silent on so many of the details of Moses' character that the Torah leaves out? The other commentator's seem eager to fill the gaps, while Rashbam lets the Torah speak for itself. Is it because he feels the Torah's account is obvious and needs no expounding, that methodologically he feels no need to expound on Moses' character, or something else entirely? This has really puzzled me this week.

Chapter 12

Structure of the Chapter

Chapter 12 is a very complex and puzzling chapter. There are many disparate elements that seem to have been placed together for no real reason. There is an interruption in the narrative that took place through Chapter 11, and for the first time in the book of Exodus, there are some laws given as opposed to just stories related.

The structure of the chapter (in my opinion) is:

12:1-2 The new month

12:3-13 The command of karban pesach -how and what

12:14-20 The structure of the holiday of Matzot for future generations

12:21-24 Moshe's commanding of Bnei Yisrael on how to bring Karban Pesach

12:25-27 Moshe's commanding Bnei Yisrael how to keep holiday in future

12:28 Bnei Yisrael's acting on what they've been commanded

12:29  Makat Bechorot

12:30-36 The Egyptians kick the Jews out of Egypt as the Jews had requested

12:37-39 Jews leave Egypt

12:40-42 Summary of Jews time in Egypt

12:43-49 God commands Moshe and Aharon more laws about karban pesach

12:50 Jews enact God's commands

12:51 Recap/ introductory pasuk to the next perek.

As you can see, this structure is very strange, and seems to be very divided, with no real continuity. This structure raises the question: what does the first part, about the new month have to do with anything? The Rashbam (12:2) explains that the meaning of the pasuk is that this month will be used to count all other months, similar to when the Torah counts things from the Exodus. This month is thus the reference point for all other events in the Torah. Building off of this point, I think that the purpose of the new month command is to provide the Israelite slaves with a reference of time. As slaves, what month it was did not matter to them, because all their days were the same. However, much like an alcoholic would count how many days/months/years from the day he was sober, so too the Jews would use this month to set up their calendar; how many days/months/years since they became free and left Egypt. This command tells the Jews both that they will be leaving Egypt in this month, and provides them with a frame of reference for all subsequent events.

The summary of the length of time provided the Jews spent in Egypt is also strange. As many commentators point out, the Jews did not spend 430 years in Egypt, but only 210. Rashbam (12:40) explains that the 30 years are from Brit bein Habetarim until the birth of Yitzchak, and from that point that 400 years begin.

There is one other point that I would like to discuss in Chapter 12, and that is the multiplicity of names given for the future holiday. At first it seems to be called Matzot, and all the commands have to do with ridding the home of chametz, and only eating matza. Of course, it is strange why the holiday should be preoccupied with matza, if the matza was only a result of the hurry to leave Egypt and had not occurred yet, but Rashbam (12:17) explains that this command to eat matza is because the dough did not have time to rise when they left, so it would appear to be slightly out of order, since first they would have known that their bread did not rise before this command. Later, while no new name is given, the holiday seems concerned with explaining to kids (12:27) why they celebrate this holiday, and the focus is on the karban pesach and God passing over the houses of the Jews. So the holiday here would best be called Pesach, not Matzot. It would appear that the actual holiday is an amalgam of these two commands: a combination of Matzot and Pesach. Additionally, it is possible that these commands were given at different times, and originally the focus of the holiday was only with the Pesach, but then after they left and realized their dough did not rise, it became concerned with Matzot as well.

Rashbam Question of the Week

This week's question is once again concerned with why Rashbam comments when he does. The question is why does the Rashbam (12:41) comment on the derivation of the number 430, and how to calculate it? Is it important to the understanding of the text to understand how the number is derived? The fact that Rashbam feels the need to explain it, seems to imply that it is crucial to the story, but what significance could a mere number, a summary statement have?

פסח מצרים vs. פסח לדורת

Just to return briefly to the topic that we discussed last time: there are two important features of the command of the קרבן פסח that we have not yet discussed: the differences between the command for the current generation and for future generations. Ibn Ezra is very concerned with establishing these differences, and contends that only a שה can be offered in future generations, and that there was no prescription of roasting, חפזון, or of spreading the blood on the doorposts for future generations.

If you look at Devarim 16:1-8 though you get a slightly more nuanced picture. In the recapitulation here of what you are supposed to do for Pesach, the Torah says the sacrifice should come from either צאן or בקר. Ibn Ezra addresses this in our perek, but his explanation is not very compelling, and the simple reading of the text leads to the conclusion that this animal need not only be a שה. Additionally, there is no mention of spreading blood on the doorposts at all, or of any sort of חפזון. There is also no mention that the sacrifice need be roasted, rather the Torah says ובשלת which is commonly understood (in most contexts) as cooking, not roasting. And finally, the sacrifice was meant to be offered in the place that God chooses, presumably the mikdash, as opposed to in individual homes, as it appears to have been done originally in Egypt.

But what to make of these differences? It could be that the nature of the holiday changed slightly from in Egypt to later generations. The focus in Egypt was on getting out as quickly as possible, that is why it needed to be roasted. Additionally, there was no central place of worship, so it was a very family oriented holiday, as each family offered their own sacrifice in their own abodes. In future generations though, the holiday takes on more of a communal function, and the sacrifice, while each family is still obligated to bring their own sacrifice, is now brought in the communal place of worship. There is more of a sense of community in subsequent generations, and less of an emphasis on the individual. Pesach is one of the 3 regalim, where everyone is supposed to come together in Jerusalem, so the holiday takes on more of communal nature.

Shirat HaYam (Ch. 14-15)

Just a couple of thoughts about Shirat HaYam:

1. As Rashbam points out throughout, the poetic structure involves a lot of coupling: for example: ימינך ה׳ is repeated twice in 15:6. I don't know what type of poetic structure this is, but the poem definitely uses a lot of coupling within verses to tell the story.

2. It is interesting to note what is missing from the poem. I noticed that there is no account in the poem of God going down in a pillar of fire and cloud and causing the Egyptian camp to panic. Additionally, there is seemingly no mention of Moshe's involvement in the miracle, as it says נטית ימינך presumably in reference to God (Rashbam however explains this as a reference to the command to Moshe to raise his arm). So there is an interesting changing of the focus to limit it to what happened on the sea, as opposed to what God did to the Egyptians before they entered the sea.

Comment Stream

2 years ago

I like the question of the week. It might be worth thinking about what kinds of questions Rashbam addresses, and what kinds he doesn't. Perhaps questions around the text, or between the texts, attract his attention less than questions about the text itself. I.e., maybe he sees his job as interpreting what the text says, not what can be reconstructed of Moshe's biography.

2 years ago