Exodus Journal

The book of Shemot begins in a peculiar way. Chapter 1 lists the specific ames of Jacob's descendants who came to Egypt with their households. 1:8 then turns the table, saying that the new king didn't know any of these people anyway and doesn't care. This already tips us off that identity will be a major component of the narrative here. In 1:19, the midwives respond to Pharoah that "the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women," setting up a sharp contrast between the Hebrew and the Egyptians. This paradigm dichotomy is something which the narrative will play off of soon.

Chapter 2 launches into a host of ambiguities. A nameless man takes a nameless women and has a nameless child, the only significant thing here being they're affiliation with the house of Levi. The story of Pharoah's daughter discovering the child serves as an example of what happens when the Egyptian and the Israelite clash. Though we do now know for sure, this may be one of the first instances where the lines of identity between Hebrew and Egyptian begin to blur. All of the other characters are strictly one or the other, yet Moses will straddle the boundary. Despite the cold dichotomy that was set up before, this child was born a Hebrew, and yet is being raised as an Egyptian: "And he became a son unto her, and she named him Moses." This melding of identity is part of what makes Moses so significant as a protagonist. We would normally expect the 'hero' to be something like a classic Hebrew who rebels and stands up against the Egyptians. Instead, the Bible complicates our notions of what can make a leader- though he is a Hebrew, Moses is very much an Egyptian, culturally and perhaps intellectually as well.

We are immediately confronted with this dilemma. Moses goes out and sees "his kinsmen" suffering. But wait: who are his kinsmen, anyway? Does he identify with the Hebrews? Did he discover his own heritage? Perhaps Moses doesn'teven care that the beaten man was a Hebrew, he simply cares about fighting injustice (this would be proven by the very next verse, where he objects to two Hebrew fighting each other as well). Moses is rejected by both his fellow Hebrews as well as his Pharoah (and step-father?).

Rejected by all, Moses flees away to an altogether different place, Midian. He marries and names his son Gershom, for "I have been a stranger in a foreign land." This phrase is particularly clever and poignant, as it could refer to Moses' not only being a stranger among the Egyptians, but being a stranger among everyone. Moses does not feel at home among Israelite or Egyptian alike. He must eventually make a decision with whom he will align himself when he is confronted by God, but for now he relishes the opportunity to get away from all the confusion he once knew and start what appeats to be a new life in Midian.  


Reading the ancient birth story of Sargon of Akkad, we notice a few interesting similarities with the birth and upbringing of our hero Moses. Both mothers give birth to their sons in secrecy and send their sons out on the river in reed baskets. Both Moses and Sargon are discovered in the water and raised by another, eventually gaining stature in the land in which they grow up (albeit with different peoples). However, Sargon's birth story (at least in this version) leads directly into his ruling as king and bragging about his many incredible conquests. Sargon grows up to eventually reclaim his birthright, his mother having been the high priest. Other than the concealed beginnings, Sargon's story here is essentially a straightforwad one about an upward ascent to kingship and reclaiming his roots.

Moses upbringing, on the other hand, does not lead into any sort of fanfare or boasting in the text. In fact, Moses does not 'officially' become the leader of a nation for another few chapters. Moses birth is meant, at least in a literary manner, to foreshadow the complexity he will face in defining his own identity as an Israelite and an Egyptian. Moses does not reach immediate success by any means; no, our first exploration into Moses adult life is quite the opposite- Moses getting himself into trouble with both the Egyptian polity as well as the Israelites. It ultimately culminates with him running away to Midian, which will set the floor for Moses growing into a leader. In this case, leadership begins with conflict and confusion, not with a fairly simple upward spiral. Whatever stature Moses acquires in Egypt ends up being more problematic than helpful...

1. After explaining the simple read that she opened up the teivah and discovered a male child (presumably clearly Israelite by his circumcision) Hizkuni suggests another interesting read: the "na'ar" Pharoah's daughter saw crying was Aaron, who was clearly this child's brother, so she deduced that the child was Israelite as well. However, this does not work as well with "vatihmol alav," the logical antecedent of which is the na'ar just mentioned.

2. It appears that Moshe grows up in Bat Pharoah's house, though the length of time is quite ambiguous in the text.

3/4. I am inclined to agree with Ramban that at some point Moses found out about his Israelite origins (rumor gets around the block), so he decided to go out and see what exactly they were up to and discovers the kind of behavior going on (by everyone). This would also explain why suddenly the text shifts into talk of "ehav," presumably referring to the Israelites. Ibn Ezra claims that "ehav" means the Egyptians once and the Israeliets once, but that is a stretch (or apparently there is a typo in Ibn Ezra...?)

5. As I mentioned in my last entry, we simply learn Moses' commitment to fair treatment. His alegiance is not clear because in one verse he condemns an Egyptian for hitting an Israelite, and in the next condemns an Israelite for hitting an Israelite. Moses seems to find fault more in the ways of the society as a whole than in a particular nation. He is a man who cannot stand conflict, but also appears to be hasty in the way which he deals with his own frustrations.

Exodus 12

Chapter 12 begins with a sudden shift in the text from narrative to what is essentially law. Until now, the text had been describing the story of the plagues; suddenly, God begins to instruct  Moshe and Aharon. It starts with soem sort of introduction about this being first month, which segues into the actions they will need to take on this particular day of that month. God commands the basic framework of the pesah offering, which appears to be a one-time event exclusive to the night of the plague of firstborns, with specific ramifications accordingly. The lam is to be eaten quickly, and none should be left over, because the Jews will be leaving soon after. The blood of the lamb even serves a practical purpose here: as a sign to 'differentiate' between Israelite and Egyptian homes for the purposes of the plague. The text then segues into the laws of Passover, explaining that this will actually be a holiday to be kepe throughout the ages with particular prohibitions. Moshe then relays these commandments to the elders and the people.

The text shifts back into narrative mode: the people do all of these things, and God goes ou to strike the firstborns of Egypt. In verse 43, however, the narrative shifts back into law, with God seemingly elaborating more laws on the passover offering (which was already eaten the night before...). Thus the narrative portion of this chapter  seems to be bookended by laws, particularly the laws of the korban pesah. This leaves an obvious question of why God seems to give a number of its laws after the actual original pesah meal. One could respond that these laws pertain more to situations after the Israelites reach Israel, in which they will have different scenarios of slaves or other non-Jews in their households. Already these two different portions of law and their literary separation may seem to indicate some sort of distinction between the original passover offering in Egypt and the future one which will be eaten yearly. While the pesah is an actual event in the context of the exodus, it acquires a new, broader identity in the context of Jewish history as a community-based ritual activity.

Hizkuni acually suggests here that his portion at the beginning of chapter 12 took place prior to the previous part about the final plague, but the Torah did not want to interrupt the consecutive warnings of all the plagues. He further explains that he text here wants to go in order of the commandents which relate ot the month of Nissan; this would explain the segue of the law of Rosh Hodesh (1st of Nissan) into the laws of korban pesah (10th of Nissan) into the laws of Passover the holiday (14th of Nissan). This would in fact explain some of the structure of these passages, which go in order of chronological relevance (though Rosh Hodesh itself isn't particularly relevant here at all).

We also notice some peculiarities when it comes to the purpose and symbolism of the matzot. The first time  matzot are mentioned is in 12:8, where it seems to simply be part of the meal of korban pesah. Although we do not know why God commands these particular foods to be eaten in this particular way from the text, these are the instructions. The next time matzah appears is 12:15, where it is now incorporated as an essential component of a festival which will be celebrated "ledorotekhem." In fact, matzah may even be the name of the holiday ("Ushemartem et haMatzot" is translated by NJPS as "You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread. Pesah never seems to be used as the actual name of the holiday here). However, this still leaves us with a nagging question: why are the matzot considered so important? If they are simply an accompaniment to eating lamb (with vegetables too), then why do they become what is apparently the primary ritual act of the holiday period? And why is consuming leaven so bad during this period? At this point in the text the contrast of matzah vs. hametz/se'or and why it is so central is not entirely clear.

In 12:34, we find out that the people took their dough before it was leavened, and in verse 39 we learn that the people baked their dough into unleavened cakes (ugot matzot). The connotation of matzah here seems to be the quickness with which the Jews left Egypt, such that theres was no time to even prepare proper food for the journey. Though this seems to be a different occurrence from the passover which was eaten that night, both of these instances are characterized by the sheer quickness of everything happening (the korban needed to be eaten "behipazon" as well). The matzah thus acquires a further symbolism here, its physical composition a testament to the amazement of the miracle of the Exodus.

Exodus 14-15

Chapter 14 tells the dramatic tale of the Jews' leaving of Egypt and crossing through the sea. The Jews are originally scared by the appearance of the Egyptians, who are pursuing them, but Moses reassures them that God will take care of things. Interestingly, God responds "mah titsak elai," presumably taken to mean that Moses should get on with it already. Moses miraculously splits the sea, and God takes down the entire Egyptian army, who are consumed by the water.

Chapter 15 begins an intricate poem, which appears to more or less describe these events while also adopting broader themes toward the end. Based on verse 1, the text seems to state that all of the people sang this song, although the song's composition is unclear. The song is also largely phrased in the first person singular. The poem seems to alternate between a more particular praise/commentary on the splitting of the sea and a broader style of praise more in the vein of Psalms (general praises of God's might and greatness). The poem takes quite a few lines to dwell on the brilliance of God's punishment of the Egyptians, waxing on about how His wrath consumed them and referring to their drowning over and over. The poem appeats to view these events as significant both in terms of the miraculousness of Egypt's defeat as well as the miraculousness of God's actions and showing mastery over nature and the sea.

We notice a few slight discrepancies in the poem's telling of the story, such as the reference to being swallowed by the "arets," or land, even though just previously the Egyptians are noted as having been swallowed by the water.  

It then appears to branch out from a historical telling into a more national narrative. God leads His people to "neveh kodshekha," and all of the other nations hear of God's might and are intimidated. At this point, we are forced to question the chronological textualization of the song: the song seems to refer to reactions and events which take place after the whole event. How does the poet know how the nations will react? In the context of the poem, truthfully, it does not really matter; the poet takes an omniscient view in order frame his concluding commentary on God's relationship to Israel and the other nations.

The poem utilizes this narrower event as a wider model for How God instills fear among the nations through demonstrating His might. The splitting of the sea and defeat of the Egyptians is now significant not only as a miracle being performed in the here and now, but as a springboard for what sounds like a discussion of the idealized future, in which the Israelites worship God more formally (on "har nahalatkha" in a "mikdash"). It sounds almost Messianic, especially with its concluding declarations of "Hashem yimloch le'olam va'ed." The educated reader can't help but recall the style of the latter prophets, who talk all about the nations reacting to the obvious display of God's glory and may or may not recognize the one true God of Israel.

Returning to the poem's literary devices, we observe that the poem "works" by playing off of the details of a particular event, but simultaneously using those details to launch into a wholescale praise of God and a broadly forward-looking social and historical commentary. The reader is supposed to feel awed and impressed by the brilliance of the event taking place, while the poet reminds him not to forget the wider implications for how we view God's mastery over the geographical world and its nations.

Interestingly, the chapter caps off the poem by bringing us back to the here-and-now: lest we get carried away with flowery talk of the future, we must remember that we are reading the account of an actual, historical event. We thus find an immediate and somewhat sudden transition from the inspiring prayer of "Hashem yimlokh le'olam va'ed" back to the narrative of verse 19. Although just when we think we are returning to pure narrative, we are again surprised with Miriam's (and the women's)  verbal and musical participation in the moment of ecstasy that is taking place. Verse 22 finally grounds us back in narrative-mode for a while.

So how exactly does the narrator want us to view this extended poetic interlude bookended by narrative? Although there have been brief sections of biblical poetry (Lemekh, etc), we have yet to see a poem of this magnitude interrupting the narrative-telling to focus on praise of God. Perhaps the narrator wants to make sure we view this event as unique, as ubiquitous in Jewish history so far. This is the kind of event which begins a new existence, a life out of Egypt. Though this passage is immediately followed by more hardship and complaints, the placement of the poem here fundamentally divides everything before from what happens thereafter.  

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