Shemot: Water Meets Fire

Does Moses have the temperament of a Levite?

The original Levi in Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob’s third son, is a ringleader in the massacre at Shekhem.  (See last week’s post, Vayechi: Three Tribes Repudiated.)  When Jacob, on his deathbed, prophecies about the future tribes of Shimon and Levi he says:

Accursed be their af because it is fierce, and their wrath because it is remorseless! (Genesis/Bereishit 49:7)

af (אָף) = nose.  (A common biblical idiom for anger is having a hot nose.)

The first mention of the tribe of Levi in the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”) is in the announcement of Moses’ birth.  After the first Torah portion (also called Shemot) describes how the Pharaoh calls for all Hebrew male infants be killed by drowning,

A man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.  And the woman became pregnant and she bore a son and she saw him, that he was good, and she hid him for three months.  Then she was not able to hide him anymore, and she took for him a ark of papyrus …  (Exodus/Shemot 2:1)

Moses Saved, by Marc Chagall

He is a “good” baby.  Moses cries only when his mother leaves him in a waterproofed box floating among the reeds at the edge of the Nile.1  An Egyptian princess has the little ark fished out, and pays the infant’s own mother to be his wet-nurse.

And the child grew, and she brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh, and he became her son, and she called his name Mosheh [Moses], and she said: “Because from the water meshitihu.”  (Exodus 2:10)

Mosheh (מֺשֶׁה) = a Hebrew variant of the Egyptian word moses = gave birth to him.

meshitihu (מְשִׁיתִהוּ) = I pulled him out of water.  (From the verb mashah, מָשָׁה = pull out of water, which sounds like Mosheh.)

Deep or flooding water is used in the Torah as a metaphor for an overwhelming threat—either from human enemies or from God.2  By adopting Moses, the Pharaoh’s daughter pulls him out of the danger of her father’s death decree.

The Torah uses water as a metaphor not only for danger, but for fear.  When people are afraid, their hearts or knees turn into water.3

As a young adult Moses sees an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew slave, and wants to kill the Egyptian.  But fear checks his impulse for a moment.

He turned this way and that, and saw that there was nobody [around].  Then he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  (Exodus 2:12)

Moses pauses long enough to make sure there are no witnesses (except the Hebrew slave), but not long enough to consider whether killing one Egyptian will do any good.  His rash act does not change any of the customs or institutions regarding the treatment of Hebrews in Egypt.  But it does get Moses into trouble.

And Pharaoh heard of this matter, and he sought to kill Moses.  So Moses ran away from Pharaoh, and he stopped in the land of Midian, and he stopped at the well.  (Exodus 2:15)

There he draws water for a flock shepherded by the seven daughters of the local priest.  The Midianite priest has taken him in and married him to one of his daughters, Moses’ personality changes from watery (fearful) to calm, deliberate, and occasionally fiery.

Moses at the Burning Bush, by Rembrandt

Moses was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock behind the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of the God …  Then a messenger of God appeared to him in the heart of a fire in the middle of a bush.  And he looked, and hey!  The bush was burning with the fire, but the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said: “I must turn aside, yes, and look at this great sight!  Why does the bush not burn?”  (Exodus 3:1-3)

Calm and deliberate, Moses notices the subtle miracle and stops to study it.  God calls to him from the bush, and for the rest of his life, whether he likes it or not, Moses is God’s prophet.  (In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission five times.)4

He returns to Egypt to be God’s mouthpiece as God carries out an elaborate plan to free the Hebrew slaves and lead them out of Egypt.  Moses remains impassive during the first nine divine plagues, even though Pharaoh waffles six times, promising to let the Israelites leave and then rescinding his promise.5  But when he tells Pharaoh about tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, Moses is finally fed up.

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, by Marc Chagall

Moses said: “Thus says God: ‘Around midnight I am going out among the Egyptians.  And every firstborn n the land of Egypt dies …’  Then all these, your courtiers, will come down to me, and they will bow low to me, saying: ‘Go, you and all the people who follow behind you!’  And after that I will go.”  And he went away from Pharaoh chari af.  (Exodus 11:4-5, 8)

 chari af = in anger.  chari (חָרִי) = in the heat of.  af (אָף) = nose.

After that, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers complain and criticize Moses five times during the journey to Mount Sinai, but Moses only loses his temper once, when he tells them not to try to save any manna for the next day (except on Shabbat), and some of them do it anyway, so the divine food gets maggots and stinks.6

Moses does not become angry or hot-nosed again until he comes down from the mountain and sees the people worshiping a golden calf.

And as he came near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing.  Vayichar, the af of Moses, and he threw down the tablets from his hands and he smashed them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

vayichar (וַיִּחַר) = and it got hot.

Moses loses his temper only a few more times in the books of Leviticus/Vayikra and Numbers/Bemidbar.  He expresses his anger by yelling at people or talking to God.  He hits a rock, but after his youthful murder he never hits another human being.7  God’s anger, on the other hand, burns frequently and causes plagues that kill thousands of people.

Moses even manages to transform the temperament of his fellow Levites.  In the book of Exodus the tribe of Levi is violent when it carries out Moses’ command to run through the camp and slaughter all the golden calf worshippers.8  After that the Torah records only one more violent act by a Levite; he skewers two intruders in the Tent of Meeting.9  Moses ordains five of his Levite relatives as priests, and assigns the rest of them to assist with the work of the sanctuary.  Since they are responsible for the holy work, the Levites are the only tribe he does not muster for battle.


Although Moses begins life strongly associated with water, he overcomes his early watery fear.  He has the fiery heart of a Levite, but his passion is for God and for the Israelite people.  His anger at the golden calf worshippers might be considered fierce and remorseless, like that of his tribe’s founder, Levi.  But then instead of flipping to the dangerous side of water and behaving like an overwhelming flood, Moses succeeds in setting limits on both his watery and his fiery natures.  Like the bush on the dry mountain, Moses is not consumed by fire.

Is Moses simply born “good”, like a placid baby?  Or do his encounters with God teach him to stay patient and level-headed even when outrageous things are happening?

I believe each human being is born with a natural temperament, a tendency to react to adversity with fight or with flight, with anger or melancholy or fear or serenity.  But I also believe that we can gradually modify our own natures if we keep reflecting on our experiences and questioning ourselves.  Moses modifies his nature as he struggles to deal effectively with a capricious and often angry God.

How can we modify our own natures?

  1. Exodus 2:6.
  2. 2 Samuel 22:17 & Psalm 18:17; Psalms 32:6, 69, 88:17-18, 124, and 144.7; Hosea 5:10; and Job 22:11.
  3. Joshua 7:5, Ezekiel 7:17, Psalm 22:15, and Job 27:20.
  4. Exodus 3:11, 3:13, 4:1, 4:10, and 4:13.
  5. Exodus 8:4-11, 8:21-28, 9:27-35, 10:8-11, 10:16-20, and 10:24-27.
  6. Moses becomes angry about the manna in Exodus 16:20. He does not get angry when the people complain in Exodus 14:10-14, 15:23-25, 16:2-8, or 17:1-4.
  7. Leviticus 10:16, Numbers 16:15, and Numbers 31:14. We can also assume Moses is angry in Numbers 20:10, when he yells at the people before hitting the rock.
  8. About 3,000 in Exodus 32:26-29.
  9. Only priests are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, and only well-defined holy activities are permitted there. The other Levites have a duty to guard the sanctuary from unauthorized entry.  When a Shimonite and a foreigner enter it to fornicate in Numbers 25:7, Pinchas grabs a spear and runs it through the couple.

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