Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody. (Bob Dylan)
The pharaoh of Egypt is an absolute ruler in the book of Exodus/Shemot. His word is law, and everyone in the country must serve him almost as if he were a god. There is no conflict between serving the pharaoh and serving Egyptian gods. But the God of Israel is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service.1 One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.
When Moses and Aaron first speak to the pharaoh, they only request a leave of absence for the Israelites so they can make a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer animal sacrifices to God, Y-H-V-H.2 The implication is that then they will return to the corvée labor the pharaoh has imposed on them. But the ruler of Egypt refuses, sensing that there is a deeper issue.
And Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice [saying] to send out Israel? I do not know Y-H-V-H, and neither will I send out Israel.” (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)
He increases the workload of the Israelites instead. A demonstration miracle turning a staff into a snake does not change his mind.3 Following God’s order, Moses now warns the pharaoh about the first “plague” or miraculous disaster, which will turn the Nile into blood, and tells him that God said:
“Send out my people so yavduni in the wilderness!” (Exodus 6:16)4
yavduni (יַבְדֻנִי) = they will serve me. (A form of the root verb avad, עָבַד = work for someone, serve as a slave, employee, or attendant.)
The pharaoh does not change his mind. After the second plague, frogs, the pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, then hardens his heart and refuses as soon as God has ended the disaster. After the fourth plague, mixed vermin, the pharaoh offers to let the Israelites sacrifice to their god inside the land of Egypt, but Moses insists on the three-day journey into the wilderness.5 Again, the pharaoh agrees at first, but then refuses as soon as God removes the vermin.
During the seventh plague, hail, the pharaoh actually admits to Moses and Aaron that he is morally inferior to their god, Y-H-W-H:
“I am guilty this time. Y-H-W-H is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones. Pray to Y-H-W-H and enough from being thunder and hail, and I will send you out, and you will not continue to stand [against me].” (Exodus 9:28)
Moses agrees to do so, though he adds:
“But you and your avadim, I know that you still do not fear Y-H-V-H, God.” (Exodus 9:30)
avadim (עַבָדִים) = servants, courtiers, slaves. (Plural of the noun eved, עֶבֶד, from the root verb avad.)
Moses is right; once the hail and thunder have ceased, the pharaoh hardens his heart again and refuses to let the Israelites go.
This week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come!”) begins when Moses announces the eighth plague, locusts.
And Moses came, and Aaron, to the pharaoh, and they said to him: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Send out my people, so yavduni!”
In effect, Moses and Aaron admit that the contest is about who is superior, God or the pharaoh.
And the avadim of the pharaoh said to him: “How long will this be a stumbling block for us? Send out the people and ya-avdu Y-H-V-H, their god! Don’t you know yet that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7)
ya-avdu (יַעַבדוּ) = they will serve. (Another form of the verb avad.)
The pharaoh calls back Moses and Aaron and says:
“Go, ivdu Y-H-V-H, your god! Who and who are going?”
ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = serve! (An imperative of the verb avad.)
Moses says all the people will go, including the children and even the flocks and herds. The pharaoh replies that only the men may go. So the plague proceeds. After every green plant in Egypt has been consumed by the locust swarms, the pharaoh admits his guilt. Yet his heart is unmoved when Moses describes the ninth plague, darkness, in which blindness strikes everyone in Egypt except the Israelites.
After three days of darkness the pharaoh offers to let even the children go, as long as the Israelites leave their livestock behind. Moses refuses, saying they need their flocks and herds to serve God.
“Because we will take from them la-avod Y-H-V-H, our god, and we will not know with what na-avod Y-H-V-H until we arrive there.” (Exodus 10:26)
la-avod (לַעֲבֹד) = to serve.
na-avod (נַעֲבֹד) = we will serve.
Moses knows that God intends to take the Israelites out of Egypt and give them a new land. Is he making up an excuse so that when the people leave for good they can take their animals with them? Does the pharaoh ask them to leave their livestock behind because that it just what he suspects? The pharaoh threatens to kill Moses if he ever sees his face again.
Then Moses gets angry, and tells the pharaoh about the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn.5 When it comes, the pharaoh and all the Egyptians practically push the Israelites out of the country. But the pharaoh, accustomed to hardening his heart, changes his mind after they have left. He sends an army to capture them.
In next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites believe they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the Reed Sea.
And they said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you take us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you [about] in Egypt, saying: Leave us, vena-avdah the Egyptians, because it is better for us avod the Egyptians than dying in the wilderness!” (Exodus 14:11-12)
vena-avdah (וְנַעֲבְדָה) = and we will serve.
avod (עֲבֹד) = serving.
The Israelites would rather serve the reality they know, however grim, than serve the invisible source of the ten miraculous disasters. God is an intangible idea that they are unable to trust.
I do not blame them. Human beings are naturally suspicious of change and skeptical about new ideas. We might experiment in small ways, but laying one’s life on the line is heroic and unusual—unless the boss orders it and everyone else is doing it, as in a war. Given a choice between certain slavery and risking death, many of us would choose slavery and hope that things would improve in the future even if we take no action.
Yet when we read a story like the one in the book of Exodus, most of us root for the Israelites to stop serving the pharaoh and throw in their lot with God. After all, serving God does not usually mean dying. Only once in a while.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody. What if the choice is between going along with an immoral status quo or rebelling against it? What do you choose?
- This jealousy appears even in the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:2-6.
- See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name on the sacred four-letter name of God, which I transliterate here as Y-H-V-H.
- Exodus 7:8-13.
- See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness.
- Exodus 8:21-28.
- Exodus chapter 11.