Bo & Beshalach: Winds

A plague of locusts descended on Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). A swarm of Egyptian charioteers pursues the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Both the locusts and the charioteers are frightening in their numbers and  destructiveness—and the God character controls both hordes with winds, to spectacular effect.

Locust winds

The eighth of the ten plagues the God character creates in Egypt is a plague of locusts that eat all the vegetation remaining after the previous plagues.

And Moses held out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a ruach kadim through the land all that day and all the night. And in the morning the ruach hakadim carried in the locust swarms. And the locusts went up over the whole land of Egypt and settled down very heavily throughout the territory of Egypt. There were no locust swarms just like it before, and there will be none after. (Exodus 10:13-14)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, disposition, mood.

ruach kadim (רוּחַ קָדִים), ruach hakadim (רוּחַ הַקָּדִים) = wind from the east; dry east wind.

Actual desert locusts in northern Africa and southwestern Asia (Schistocera gregaria) breed in areas where there has been sufficient rainfall (to moisten the ground for egg-laying) and vegetation (for the larvae to eat). The breeding grounds in the early spring, when the locust plague in Exodus occurs (see map above) are different from the breeding grounds in summer. Adult locusts congregate into swarms when there is enough vegetation. They can fly short distances, but for long distances they take advantage of winds, catching a ride only on warm, relatively humid winds. Locust swarms from winter and spring breeding grounds around the Red Sea would need to catch a warm wind from the south to southeast to reach Egypt to the north.1

So why does the Torah say the wind that carries the locusts into Egypt is a ruach kadim, a dry east wind? One theory is that the Israelite wrote down this story was thinking in terms of winds in Canaan or Judah. When a wind brings disaster there, it is a dry wind from the eastern desert.

The God character ends the plague of locusts by changing the direction of the wind.

And God turned around a very strong ruach yam, and it lifted the locusts and blew them toward the Yam Suf. Not one locust remained in all the territory of Egypt. (Exodus 10:19)

yam (יָם) = sea, Mediterranean Sea; west.

ruach yam (רוּחַ יָם) = wind from the sea; wind from the west.

suf (סוּף) = reed, reeds, water plants.

Yam Suf (יָם סוּף) = Sea of Reeds; Red Sea.

If the God character reverses the wind from the southeast, it becomes a wind from the northwest. A strong wind coming down from the Mediterranean northwest of Egypt would indeed blow locust swarms in Egypt back toward the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds.

The important point in the book of Exodus is that God controls the locust plague, bringing the devouring swarms into Egypt with one wind, and removing them with another.

The Hebrew Bible also uses the word for wind, ruach, to refer to someone’s mental spirit, ranging from calm wisdom  to insane jealousy or rage. And in the land of Canaan, dry desert winds were dangerous because they stripped crops, dried up ponds, and made people sick. Moist winds from the Mediterranean left dew in the morning that helped keep plants alive during the summer.

So a ruach kadim could be someone’s bad attitude or a dangerous mood—which plagues any people nearby like a swarm of locusts. A ruach yam could represent someone’s pleasant and kindly spirit, which gives others comfort and relief.

Chariot winds

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave Egypt after God’s final plague, the death of the firstborn.2 On the second day of their exodus from Egypt, just when they thought they were free, the God character makes Pharaoh change his mind. God tells Moses:

“I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them. Then I will be honored by Pharaoh and by all his forces, and the Egyptians will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:5)

The God character in this part of Exodus cannot resist staging one more dramatic miracle to drive the point home that the God of Israel is more powerful than any other.3

And the Egyptians chased after them and caught up with them [when they were] encamped on the yam, all of Pharaoh’s chariot horses and riders and his army … (Exodus 14:9)

The Israelites panic when they see charioteers approaching, but God halts the action for the night.  The supernatural pillar of cloud and fire that has led the Israelites to the shore of the Sea of Reeds circles around their camp and stands between them and the Egyptians, so they cannot get any closer.4

Then Moses held out his hand over the yam, and God made the yam go with a strong  ruach kadim all night, and [God] made the yam dry up, and the waters split. Then the Israelites came through the middle of the yam on dry ground (Exodus 14:21-22)

When a strong east wind blows into Egypt or Israel, the air is so dry that ponds can evaporate and shallow lakes can shrink in an afternoon. Blowing sand increases the effect. Was the biblical Yam Suf shallow enough so a strong east wind could expose part of its bed–enough for people and livestock to walk across on the mud?

Yes, if two or more of the lakes between the Sinai peninsula and Egypt proper were connected during Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty, as some scholars claim. No, if it was the Gulf of Suez on the Red Sea, as other scholars believe.

If Yam Suf refers to the Red Sea, the water would be too deep for an east wind to dry out a path across it. But the narrative gives two different accounts of the depth of the yam before God parted it. First it describes an east wind drying up the sea. Then the narrator says:

Then the Israelites came through the middle of the yam on dry ground, and the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:22)

Many of us picture walls of water rising almost vertically from the dry sea bed, as in this illustration:

The Waters Are Divided, by James J.J. Tissot, 1896-1902

An east wind drying up part of a shallow lake does not make walls of water. But after the Egyptian army has drowned, the Israelites on the other side rejoice by singing an ancient song or poem. (We know Exodus 15:1-18 dates to a much earlier time than the narrative because the Hebrew is older.) In this poem, the wind comes not from the east, but from God’s nose. And instead of exposed mud at the bottom of a shallow sea, the deep waters congeal or freeze solid.

And by a ruach from your nostrils the waters piled up;

            The watercourses stood up like a dam.

            The deeps congealed in the heart of the yam. (Exodus 15:8)

Nevertheless, whoever wrote the narrative that precedes this poem knew about harsh, dry east winds, and therefore could easily imagine walking across dry ground in the middle of a sea.

If the “Sea of Reeds” is a shallow salt lake, the miracle would lie in the inability of the Egyptians to follow the Israelites an hour or two later.

This week’s Torah portion says that the Egyptian charioteers followed the Israelites as far as the middle of the sea—on dry ground that was probably still muddy—and then were drowned by the sudden return of the water.

Then God made the wheels of their chariots fall off, and they moved laboriously. And the Egyptians said: “Let me flee from before Israel, because God is fighting for them against Egypt!” Then God said to Moses: “Hold out your hand over the yam, and the waters will come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and over their riders!” And Moses held out his hand over the yam, and the yam came back to its normal position. And the Egyptians were fleeing from meeting it, but God shook the Egyptians off (their chariots) in the middle of the yam. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the riders and all Pharaoh’s soldiers coming in after them into the yam; not one of them remained. (Exodus 14:25-28)

The Egyptians Are Destroyed, by James J.J. Tissot, 1896-1902

The narrative does not say how God made the waters return to their normal level so quickly. But the poem that follows it says:

You blew with your ruach; the yam covered them;

            They sank like lead in the majestic waters. (Exodus 15:10)

The ancient poem tells us the wind from God’s nostrils opens a path through the sea and closes it again. The later narrative says God summons an east wind to expose the sea bed, and then makes the waters return through some unknown means.

Either way, the Yam Suf opens or closes according to God’s whim. And the word ruach can mean mood or spirit as well as wind. In the Torah portion Beshalach, the God character rescues the Israelites and drowns the Egyptians in a spirit of pride and determination to demonstrate superior power.

In the story of the plague of locusts, the God character dooms all the innocent people who stay in Egypt to a year of famine. In the story of crossing the Sea of Reeds, God dooms the army unit that pursues the Israelites to instant death.

But the God character’s objectives are achieved. The Israelites are free to march on to Canaan, and both the Egyptians and the Israelites know God is supreme.

And Israel saw the great power that God used against Egypt, and the people feared God and had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Imagine you were an anthropological god and you wanted to rescue a downtrodden ethnic group from one country, motivate it to travel to another country, and make it the ruling class there. Could you formulate a proposal that killed fewer innocent people than the divine plan in Exodus?

  1. World Meteorological Organization, “Weather and Desert Locusts”, In the book of Exodus, the last four plagues take place in the early spring.
  2. Exodus 12:29-32.
  3. See my post: Va-eira: Pride and Ethics.
  4. See my post: Beshalach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire.

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