The pharaoh is not impressed when Aaron’s staff swallows the staffs of the Egyptian court magicians. He will not listen to the request of the two men, Moses and Aaron, to let the Hebrew slaves go on a three-day journey to worship their god. Probably he suspects they will never come back. Certainly he does not believe their god has any power.1
It is time for the first plague to prove him wrong. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“and he saw”) God tells Moses:
Go to Pharaoh in the morning. Hey, he will be going out to the water, venitzavta on the shore of the Nile, and the staff that had changed into a snake you shall take in your hand. And you shall say to him: “God, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say: ‘Send out my people so they can serve me in the wilderness! And hey, so far you have not listened.’” (Exodus/Shemot 7:15-16)
venitzavta (וְנִצַּבְתָּ) = and you shall stand, take a stand, station yourself, stand firm. (A form of the verb nitzav, נִצָּב = took a stand.)
Moses does so, and then Aaron obeys God’s next order.
Then he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile, in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile changed into blood. (Exodus 7:20)
Pharaoh and those who advise him see for themselves that the Nile is transformed exactly when the staff touches the water, so they cannot invent another explanation for the plague of blood. But the Pharaoh still refuses to listen to Moses.
After two more plagues, God tells Moses to catch Pharaoh at the waterfront again.
Then God said to Moses: “Get up early in the morning vehityatzeiv in front of Pharaoh. Hey, he is going out to the water, and you shall say to him: ‘Thus says God: “Send out my people and they will serve me!” Because if you are not sending out my people, here I am sending out against you and your courtiers and your people and your houses mixed vermin2, and they will fill the houses of Egypt, and even the ground that they are on!’” (Exodus 8:16)
vehityatzeiv (וְהִתְיַצֵּב) = and station yourself, establish yourself. (Another form of the verb nitzav.)
There is no obvious reason this time for Moses give his warning on the bank of the Nile. God does not even tell him to use his staff. It is certainly more dramatic to interrupt Pharaoh’s regular morning routine than to arrive at the palace with all the other petitioners of the day. But why is the Pharaoh going to the shore of the Nile in the mornings?
Over the centuries commentators have generated a variety of answers. According to Exodus Rabbah, Pharaoh always sneaked out to the river to relieve his bladder, so nobody would know he was not a god.3 Others proposed that in the morning Pharaoh went out to exercise.4 The Talmud suggested that Pharaoh was a magician and went to the Nile to do divination.5 Ibn Ezra wrote that the king of Egypt went to the Nile to check the water level during the summer flood season.6
Contemporary scholar Scott B. Noegel has argued that none of these explanations fit what we now know about the New Kingdom period in ancient Egypt.7 In fact, Pharaohs spent the whole morning indoors. They bathed and performed their ritual duties indoors. During flood season, officials in the Pharaoh’s bureaucracy measured the level of the Nile, not the Pharaoh himself.8
Noegel concludes that the Torah invented Pharaoh’s morning trips to the Nile in order to set up a literary structure dividing the ten plagues into three sets of three followed by the final catastrophe. “The first plague in each of these series (1st, 4th, 7th) contains Yahweh’s commandment to Moses to “station himself” before pharaoh, each time employing the Hebrew root נצב. Each also contains the phrase “in the morning.”9
But plagues #1, #4, and #7 do not agree on the location where Moses should intercept Pharaoh. Only plagues #1 (blood) and #4 (mixed vermin) call for Moses to catch Pharaoh at the Nile. Before plague #7 (hail) God instructs Moses to “Get up early in the morning vehityatzeiv in front of Pharaoh.” But the Torah says nothing about Pharaoh going out to the water; the confrontation could happen anywhere.
I think Moses intercepts the Pharaoh at the Nile because it dramatizes this Torah portion’s contrast with an earlier part of the Exodus story the part in which Moses’ sister stations herself at the Nile to intercept Egyptian royalty.
When Moses is only three months old his mother can no longer protect him from the previous Pharaoh’s command that all Hebrew infant boys must be drowned in the Nile. So she puts him in a little ark among the reeds at the edge of the river.
His sister, vateitatzav at a distance to find out what would happen to him. And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe on the Nile, and her girls were walking at hand [along] the Nile. And she saw the ark in the midst of the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, who fetched it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—it was a boy, crying. And she took pity on him and she said: “This is one of the Hebrews.” (Exodus 2:4-6)
vateitatzav (וַתֵּתַצַּב) = she stationed herself.
Once the princess has expressed sympathy for the plight of the Hebrews, Moses’ older sister Miriam speaks up.
And his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: “Shall I go and summon for you a nursing woman from the Hebrews, so she can nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: “Go.” And the girl went and she summoned the child’s mother. (Exodus 2:7-8)
The princess even pays Moses’ mother for the service. When Moses is weaned, his mother brings him to the princess, and she adopts him.
Miriam stations herself where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter will come down to the water. She asks the princess to rescue the Hebrew child, and it works.
Eighty years later9 Moses stations himself where he knows the current Pharaoh will come down to the water. He asks the Pharaoh to rescue the whole Hebrew people, and—as God predicts—it does not work, not even when he confronts the Pharaoh at the Nile again after three plagues.
The difference is that Miriam, her mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter are collaborators, not competitors. All three women want to save the baby’s life more than they want personal control over him.
Moses and the next Pharaoh cannot collaborate because the Pharaoh wants personal control over his kingdom at all costs, while Moses wants to free the population of Hebrews from any Egyptian control. Both men were brought up in the Egyptian court, both order the death of both Hebrews and Egyptians without flinching,10 and both are the leaders of large populations. When the two men face one another at the Nile, they stand as two alternatives for rulership.
Moses keeps taking a stand for the well-being of the Hebrew people, defying both Pharaoh and God.11 His goal is to change the status quo in Egypt through a revolutionary emigration to Canaan, at that time a distant part of the Egyptian empire.
Pharaoh takes a stand against any change in Egypt, or in his way of government.
We all know people who go into denial about the facts when they feel threatened by change. We know people who are eager for changes that may be improvements, and willing to take the risk of moving forward. And we know people in the middle who recognize history in the making and adapt to it, like the courtiers who beg Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go before Egypt is destroyed, or like the Hebrews who cannot take a stand against slavery until Moses shows up with an alternative.
The best outcome is when Pharaoh’s daughter can join Miriam and her mother on common ground, cooperating to save a child’s life. But what about when the Pharaoh and Moses stand against one another at the Nile and find no common ground?
The Torah shows that in the long run slaves will be freed, and a kingdom devastated by its own ruler will recover and become great again.
May such a recovery happen to us, speedily and in our own time.
- Exodus 5:2.
- There is no consensus about how to translate the Hebrew word for plague #4, arov (עָרֺב). It is usually translated as “insect swarms” or “wild animals”. Arov appears to be related to a root meaning “mixture”, which is also the root for arov spelled עֲרוֹב = becoming evening. It is hard to imagine a plague of evenings. Through another etymology, arov spelled עֵרוֹב = mortgaging.
- From Midrash Tanḥuma 2:2:14, 5thcentury E. (Translation from Scott B. Noegel, “Why Pharaoh Went to the Nile”, www.thetorah.com/why-pharaoh-went-to-the-nile/, 04/07/2017.) This explanation also appeared in Exodus Rabbah 9:8 and in the commentary of Rashi (Shlomoh Yitzchaki, 11th century C.E.).
- Rashbam (R. Shlomo ben Meir, 12th century) suggested Pharaoh went riding, Ramban (Moses men Nachman or Nachmanides, 12th century) that he played in the water, Bekhor Shor (12th century) that he went hawking, and Abarbanel (15th century) that he was strolling or playing ball. (Michael Carasik, editor and translator, The Commentators’ Bible; The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 48)
- Talmud Bavli, Mo-ed Katan 18a.
- Ibn Ezra (12th century) according to Noegel, ibid.
- The Exodus story is set in the New Kingdom period in Egypt, during the 16th-11th centuries B.C.E.
- Noegel, ibid.
- This week’s Torah portion reports Moses’ age as 80 and Aaron’s as 83 (Exodus 7:7).
- Moses kills an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12) and orders the killing of Hebrew golden calf worshippers (Exodus 32:26-28). The Pharaoh orders the execution of every male Hebrew infant (Exodus 1:15-22) and refuses to prevent the deaths of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 11:4-10).
- Moses talks God out of abandoning the Hebrew people in Exodus 32:9-12 and 31-32, after the golden calf episode, and in Numbers 14:11-17.