Shemot: Demagogue

Demagogue (noun): a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Egypt has too many immigrants! says the pharaoh says at the beginning of the book of Exodus/Shemot. If they increase we’re in trouble!

Here are the pharaoh’s words in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1):

“Hey, the Israelite people are countless, more numerous than we are! Come, let us use our wits, or else they will increase. Then it will happen that war will be proclaimed against us, and [these people] will actually join our enemies and make war against us, then go up from the land!” (Exodus/Shemot 1:9-10)

Semites visiting Egypt, Tomb of Knumhotep II, c. 1900 BCE

A few centuries before, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a pharaoh appreciated Joseph’s service so much he invited Jacob’s clan of 70 people to migrate from Canaan to Egypt. Now they have so many descendants that some of the native Egyptians are nervous. The pharaoh escalates their fears by predicting both that the Israelites will rise against the Egyptians, and that they will leave Egypt and, presumably, stop contributing to its economy.

Today demagogues in many western nations spread the notion that immigrants and their descendants will take away jobs, use up public resources, and change the culture of the country. Why did the pharaoh at the beginning of the book of Exodus raise the specter of civil war instead?

The scenario the pharaoh describes in this week’s Torah portion may have actually happened when a Semitic people called the Hyksos conquered northern Egypt and ruled it from 1638 to 1530 B.C.E.. A recent analysis of teeth found in skeletons in the remains of Aravis, their capital in the Nile delta, indicates that the Hyksos came from an established immigrant community within Egypt.1

Ramesses II capturing enemies, c. 1250 BCE

None of the pharaohs in the book of Exodus are named, but the first one to speak is sometimes identified with Ramesses II, who ruled in 1279–1213 B.C.E. and built a new capital city, Pi-Ramesses, near the old site of Avaris. During his reign Canaan was a colony of the Egyptian Empire, populated by Semites but controlled by Egyptian administrators and soldiers. Nevertheless, historical memory of the Hyksos might have haunted Egyptians.

After fomenting fear and loathing of the Semitic Israelites living in Egypt, the first pharaoh in Exodus takes two actions. First he takes advantage of the anti-Semitism he has revived to get free labor for his own projects.

Then they set over them [the Israelite men] overseers for corvée labor in order to oppress them with their forced labor, and they built cities of warehouses for Pharaoh: Pitom and Rameseis. (Exodus 1:11)

Native Egyptians are probably glad their pharaoh is conscripting resident aliens instead of them. However, this corvée labordoes not address the pharaoh’s original claim that the Israelites are dangerous because they might fight on the enemy’s side in a war. Even though the Israelite men are supervised by Egyptian overseers, they might revolt if an army from another country promised them liberation.

(The first book of Kings provides an example of rebellion due to forced labor. King Solomon imposes corvée labor on his own people, sending Israelite men in shifts to quarry stone in Lebanon for building Jerusalem’s new temple. Unlike the Israelites in Egypt, Solomon’s laborers work in the quarries one month, then get two months off at home.2 The levy continues for further building projects in the northern part of Solomon’s kingdom.3 When Solomon’s son and successor, Rechavam, announces he will work the northern Israelites harder, they revolt and set up their own kingdom.4)  

The first pharaoh in Exodus, besides taking advantage of the anti-Semitism he has revived in order to levy forced labor, attempts to commit gradual genocide. He orders the midwives for the Israelites to kill the male infants of Israelite women, but let the females live.5 Perhaps his rationale is that the boys would grow up to become soldiers fighting against the native Egyptians. A more efficient way to commit genocide would be to kill the girls as well, since they will give birth to future generations. But the cultural assumption was that girls could be trained as servants and concubines and safely absorbed into the Egyptian population. Why deprive the native Egyptians of a class of docile domestic servants?

But the midwives disobey the pharaoh.

Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them: “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Ivriot are not like the women of Egypt, because [they are] chayot. Hey! Before you come to them to serve as a midwife, they have given birth.” (Exodus 1:18-19) 

Ivriot (עִבְרִיֺּת) = female Hebrews.  (Plural female of Ivri, עִבְרִי. The term Ivri may be related to the term habiru in letters sent from Canaan to Egypt in the 14th century B.C.E.. The habiru were a marginal social class of outsiders, often outlaws or mercenaries. In Hebrew, Ivri is related to the verb avar, עָוַר = pass through, cross over; an ivri is a boundary-crosser or a nomad. Today the Hebrew language is called Ivrit, עִבְרִית.)

chayot (חָיוֹת) = wild animals.

The midwives probably refer to the Israelite women as Ivriot and chayot in order to sound as if they are as anti-Semitic as the pharaoh.6 They get away with their excuse; the pharaoh refrains from punishing them.

Although classic commentary says the two spokeswomen for the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and actually Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh would hardly respond positively to their excuse if they were Semites! But why would the Israelite women use Egyptian midwives? The Torah offers no explanation. Why complicate a juicy story?

Even though the pharaoh lets the midwives off the hook, he still needs to pander to the masses he has inflamed. So he incites the native Egyptians to take violent action.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive.” (Exodus 1:22)

Vigilante groups of Egyptian men must have responded by searching Israelite houses, seizing infant boys, and drowning them. The next two sentences in the Torah portion are:

And a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2:2)

This baby boy is Moses, who is later adopted by a daughter of the pharaoh who does not share her father’s anti-Semitism.

I believe the pharaoh in this story acts unethically by inciting murder, by imposing corvée labor on residents of his country in a time of peace, and by encouraging prejudicial acts against native-born children of an immigrant population. But not everyone today would agree with me. Demagogues have risen in more than one modern Western nation in the 21st century, and a few have even been elected as heads of state.

Since the pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion is an absolute ruler, he can issue inflammatory orders without fear of reprise. I pray that all demagogues who incite violence in our time will be brought to justice.

  2. 1 Kings 5:27-31.
  3. 1 Kings 11:26-28.
  4. 1 Kings 12:1-20.
  5. Exodus 1:16.
  6. Exodus 1:17-19. See my post Shemot: Disobedient Midwives.

Shemot: Disobedient Midwives

What if someone who should have moral authority orders you to do something immoral?

The Israelites have lived in Egypt for generations when the first Torah portion of Exodus, Shemot (“Names”) begins. But they are still not native Egyptians, and the new pharaoh thinks that in the event of a war, they might join the enemy. And there are too many of them!

Slaves making bricks, detail from tomb of Egyptian vizier Rekmire, c. 1450 C.E.

Pharaoh’s first attempt at population control is to conscript the Israelite men for corvée labor building cities. Assigning this hard labor to a large immigrant population may be popular among native Egyptians. But why does Pharaoh think it will reduce the Israelite population? Ibn Ezra suggested that they were driven ruthlessly so that the semen of the men would dry up. Chizkuni wrote that Pharaoh expected they would be too overworked to engage in marital intercourse.1

Yet the Israelite population keeps on increasing.2

Then the king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Ivriyot, of whom the first was named Shifrah and the second was named Puah—he said: “When you deliver [the children of] the Hebrew women, then you must look at the pair of stones. If it is a son, then you must kill him, but if it is a daughter, vachayah.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:15-16)

Ivriyot (עִבְרִיֺּת) = Hebrews. In Genesis through 2 Samuel, Egyptians and Philistines sometimes call an Israelite an Ivri as an ethnic slur implying the person is a foreigner with low social status.

vachayah (וָחָיָה) = and/then she shall live. (A form of the verb chayah, הָיָה = lived.)

Egyptian goddess Isis giving birth on two stones, attended by Hathor figures

Women giving birth in ancient Egypt squatted or kneeled on two parallel stones or bricks. A midwife knelt in front of the woman and caught the baby as it came out between the stones, while two women stationed on either side gave the laboring woman physical and emotional support.

Since only Shifrah and Puah are named in the passage above, some Jewish exegesis imagines only two midwives for hundreds of thousands of Israelite women.3 A more reasonable interpretation is that Shifrah is the foremost midwife, perhaps the head of her guild, and Puah is her second-in-command.

Although Shifrah and Puah are Semetic names,4 it is hard to believe that Pharaoh would give Israelite midwives instructions to kill every male newborn among their own people.5 Furthermore, Pharaoh would not want the Israaelites to know about his order; if they did, they would stop using Egyptian midwives.6 We must assume that midwifery was monopolized by native Egyptians, and Pharoah expects professional Egyptian midwives to obey the king and feel no concern over the deaths of immigrant children.7

But Pharaoh is wrong.

And the midwives feared the gods, and they did not do what the king of Egypt spoke to them. Vatechayeyna the boys. (Exodus 1:17)

vatechayeyna (וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ) = and they kept alive. (Another form of the verb chayah.)

What does it mean that the midwives fear the gods? One meaning of “fearing God” in the Torah is feeling awe and respect for God. The other meaning is being averse to doing an immoral deed.7 Torah assumes that a sincerely religious person is an ethical person. Here “fearing the gods” means that the midwives have strong moral intuitions.

But they also face a moral dilemma. For millennia cultures throughout the world assigned a high moral value to maintaining an orderly society by doing one’s duty, respecting each person’s station in life, and obeying legitimate authorities.8 (This moral value continues in traditional cultures today.) A king’s subjects have a duty to respect his authority and obey his orders. And who could be a more legitimate authority than the pharaoh, who is the sacred mediator between the people and the gods, maintaining the balance of the world?9

On the other hand, two universal moral intuitions are that it is wrong to harm another human being, and that it is wrong to abuse one’s power by oppressing others.10 Killing the baby boys is a case of harming humans without justice. (These infants are innocent, healthy, and wanted by their parents.) The fact that Pharaoh ordered the killings indicates that he is abusing his power and acting as an oppressor.

When people face circumstances in which two or more moral values conflict, we have to either choose the most important  value in that situation, or act for a non-ethical reason. If the midwives were to make a non-ethical choice, they would obey Pharaoh’s orders and avoid any trouble with the government.

Instead, they apparently decide that Pharaoh’s unreasonable order proves that despite his birth and position, he is no longer a legitimate authority. The moral thing to do is to save the lives of the infant boys and disobey the oppressor.

Shifrah and Puah are brave enough to do what they believe is right. Instead of submitting to Pharaoh’s authority, they “fear the gods”—and “the gods” are a higher authority.

Pharaoh and the Midwives, James Tissot, c. 1900

And the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them: “Why did you do this thing, vatechayeyna the boys?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Ivriyot are not like the Egyptian women, for they are chayot before the midwife comes to them, and they give birth.” (Exodus 1:18-19)

chayot (חָיוֹת) = wild animals. (Same spelling as the infinitive plural form of the verb chayah.)

Shifrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh. They invent a story that calls Israelite women Ivriyot who are wild animals in contrast to civilized Egyptian women. This lie appeals to the king’s anti-Semitic prejudice.  Now the midwives have added lying to disobedience, but both of these actions are in service to a higher morality—and saves their own lives, as well as those of the Israelite boys.

And God was good to the midwives. And the people increased and became very mighty. (Exodus 1:20)

Taking the moral high road is not only dangerous at times, but also confusing when the road forks. May we all become as virtuous as Shifrah and Puah, who confront an ethical contradiction, make an independent decision, and act courageously to do what our inner “gods” know is right.

  1. Commentary to Exodus 1:11 by 12th-century C.E. exegete Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra; and 13th-century C.E. rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, author of Chizkuni.
  2. Traditional midrash on Exodus 1:12 imagines that the women went out to their husbands on their lunch breaks and seduced them with mirrors, bantering over who was more attractive. (This story appears in Midrash Tanchuma, circa 500-800 C.E.)
  3. Ibn Ezra pointed out that Shifrah and Puah can only be the supervisors of many other midwives.
  4. Shifrah is similar to the Hebrew shafrah (שָׁפְרָה) = was pleasing, polished. Puah is similar to a Canaanite name meaning “girl”; alternatively, it might be related to pa-ah (פָּעָה) = groaned (as in childbirth). The Talmud (Sotah 11b) fancifully identifies the two midwives as Yocheved (mother of Moses) and her daughter Miriam, who apparently are using pseudonyms. Although the Torah does include some Egyptian names spelled phonetically, it also sometimes translates foreign names. Examples of foreign names (or titles) translated into Hebrew are Malkitzedek (Genesis 14:18) and Avimelekh (Genesis 20:2).
  5. This point was made by 15th-century C.E. commentator Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, and assumed by 1st-century C.E. historian Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Matityahu) in his Antiquties For more detail on the ethnicity of the midwives, see Moshe Lavee and Shana Strauch-Schick,
  6. This point was made by 19th-century commentator Shmuel David Luzzatto.
  7. See Genesis 20:11, Jonah 1:12-16.
  8. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Random House, New York, 2012, p. 165-169.
  9. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, “The Title ‘Pharaoh’”,
  10. Haidt, pp. 153-158, 197-205.

Repost: Shemot


Entrance to synagogue in Split, Croatia (photo by M.C.)

The people we now call Jews have had many names over the past four millennia.  The names they chose for themselves changed as they evolved from a cluster of Canaanite tribes, to an ethnic group with their own religion and country, to the scattered adherents of a religion and ancestry, to the varied people we know as Jews today.  So did the names other people called them.

Click on this link: Shemot: Hebrews versus Children of Israel for an improved version of the essay I wrote in 2013 on two ancient names for the people we call “Jews” today: Hebrews and Israelites.  In the Ancient Near East, the word corresponding to “Hebrews” (ivrim) meant outsiders, while the words corresponding to “Israelites” (benei Yisraeil) meant the children of an active engagement with God.

Both names appear in the Torah portion Jews are reading all over the world this week, Shemot (“Names”).  It is the first portion in the book of Exodus, also called Shemot in Hebrew.

At least Jews who follow the cycle of Torah readings are opening the book of Exodus again.  But what about Jews who pay little attention to the religion, yet stand firm in their ethnic identities?

A few of my friends in the United States fit that description.  And so do most of the one hundred Jews in Split, Croatia, according to a Jewish man I met in Split’s only surviving synagogue.  The survivors of World War II dismissed their parents’ religion.

West end of sanctuary, Split

“We gather mostly to eat dinner together,” said the man who called himself Albert to English speakers like me.  His eyes twinkled.  “We eat kosher lobster!  We get it straight from the fisherman, and he tells us which lobster is kosher.”

The Jewish community also dedicates itself to maintaining the synagogue, which was created in the 16th century out of the upper floors of two older stone houses inside the wall of Diocletian’s Palace.  The interior of the sanctuary was remodeled in 1728, and has been maintained that way.

During the past year, a rabbi has been coming down from Zagreb about once a month to lead a service.  The first service he led lasted three hours, Albert said.  “We were thinking 45 minutes.  People started to get up and leave.  Afterward I told him he could come back, but we had to have a shorter service.  He asked how long, and I said: 35 minutes.  He said he couldn’t lead a service in only 35 minutes.  I said okay, you can pray as long as you as you want to, but after 35 minutes we’ll go downstairs and have dinner.  He got the idea.”


I converted to Judaism 33 years ago, but I am still aware of the difference between being an ethnic Jew and being a Jew for the religion.  I can never have a Yiddish-speaking grandmother.  I will never acquire the Ashkenazi taste for herring, either pickled or in sour cream.  (I do not know what the traditional Jewish foods were for Croatians.  Not lobster!)  I will never know what it is like to grow up Jewish; I can only guess based on reports from my Jewish friends and memories of how as a child I was excluded and teased for other reasons.

I cannot be described as a “religious Jew” either, because in some ways I am not very observant, and my beliefs are idiosyncratic.  Yet I remain passionately engaged with the religion.  The longer I am away from the two Jewish communities I belong to in Oregon, the more I notice that I am a Jew and I can never be comfortable with any other religion.

When we visit old synagogues in Europe, I always take time to decipher the phrases written in Hebrew letters over the ark or on the wall.  (For my own Torah study I use the Masoretic text, which includes vowel markings (nikudim).  But the words on the walls are always painted or carved without vowels, like the writing in a Torah scroll, and like modern Hebrew in Israel.  I hope to get better at reading unvoweled Hebrew when we spend a month in Israel at the end of this winter.)

Ark on the east wall, Split

Each time I pronounce a phrase in Hebrew and then translate it to myself, my heart lifts, and I feel a surge of homecoming.

The Hebrew over the ark on the east wall of the only synagogue in Split is in Aramaic, but I managed to read it.

Du lifney mi atem omdim, “Know before whom you stand.”  (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 28b)

It’s a tall order.  But as a Jew, as an adopted member of the children of Israel, I will keep striving to do so.

Beshalach & Shemot: Knowing the Name

Six weeks after they leave Egypt, the Israelites grumble that they are starving, and they would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs.1

Manna rains from heaven, Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250 CE

So in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (“When he sent away”), God promises to provide bread and meat in the form of manna and quail every day.

Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites.  Speak to them, saying: In the evenings you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be sated with bread.  And you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.”  (Exodus/Shemot 16:11-12)

Y-H-V-H (yud-heh-vav-heh) = the “tetragrammaton”, God’s most holy and personal name.  (In Jewish tradition this name may no longer be pronounced, and can only be spelled in Hebrew in sacred texts.  When prayers are said aloud, the tetragrammaton is read as “Adonai”)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.

Being God’s personal name, the tetragrammaton is not a reference to God’s status as a god, or even as a lord, master, or ruler.  The common English written translation of Y-H-V-H as “LORD” can be deceptive.  So can the Jewish practice of saying Adonai for Y-H-V-H in prayers, since Adonai literally means “my lords”.  When God says that people “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, God wants them to know that the god they are thinking about is the one named Y-H-V-H.

But surely the Israelites know by now that the name of their god is Y-H-V-H.

The book of Genesis/Bereishit calls God by several different names, including Y-H-V-H.  (See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.)  But the personal name of God becomes more important in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  In the first Torah portion (also called Shemot), God chooses Moses as a prophet at the burning bush, and Moses asks for God’s proper name:

Hey, I come to the Israelites and I say to them: “The Elohim of your forefathers sent me to you”.  And they say to me: “What is his name?”  What shall I say to them?  (Exodus 3:13)

First the voice from the burning bush replies:

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Ehyeh sent me to you.”  (Exodus 3:14)

Ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה) = I am, I will be, I become, I will become.  (A form of the verb hayah (הָיָה) = be, become, happen.)

In the next verse, God amends the answer.

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Y-H-V-H, the Elohim of your forefathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, sent me to you.” …  (Exodus 3:15)

The name Y-H-V-H may also be a form of the verb hayah, which also appears as havah.2  Biblical Hebrew lexicons list no hifil (causative) form of either root.  But if there were a hifil form, one conjugation would use the letters Y-H-V-H and would mean “He/it brings into being.”3

Thus the first name God gives to Moses might mean “I become” and the second name might mean “He makes [things] become”.  God decides to stick with the second name, Y-H-V-H.

… This is my name forever; this is how I shall be remembered forever.  (Exodus 3:15)

Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, by Marc Chagall, 1931

But the name is unfamiliar to the Pharaoh of Egypt when Moses and Aaron first ask him to grant the Hebrew slaves a leave of absence.

Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send away Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H.”  (Exodus 5:2)

After that, God wants someone to “know that I am Y-H-V-H nine times in the book of Exodus/Shemot.4  Five times God declares that the Pharaoh or the Egyptians will “know that I am Y-H-V-H once God has performed a miracle that damages Egypt.5

And four times in Exodus, God declares the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H”: after God has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 6:7), mocked the Egyptians with miracles (Exodus 10:2), given them manna and meat in the wilderness (Exodus 16:12), and dwelled among the Israelites after they have made a sanctuary (Exodus 29:46).

After the book of Exodus, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers sometimes disobey or rebel against God, but at least they know the name of the god who has adopted them.  The statement that somebody “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H does not appear again until the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, when Moses reminds the Israelites that God took care of them in the wilderness, giving them water, manna, and quail, and ensuring they would not need to spend time on making clothes.

I led you across for 40 years across the wilderness; your clothes did not wear out upon you, and your sandals did not wear out upon your feet.  You ate no bread and drank no wine or liquor—so that you would know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.  (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)


Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, circa 1320

In short, people shall know that God is Y-H-V-H when they witness or remember miracles.  The miracles might be as benign as the provision of manna in this week’s Torah portion, or as devastating as turning the whole Nile River into blood.

If Y-H-V-H means “He brings into being”, then a miracle demonstrates that even though the natural world was created long ago, the god of miracles can still bring major new events into being.

And if Y-H-V-H has a different meaning?  Some modern scholars have suggested that the four-letter name may derive from a more ancient god-name used by nomads living in an area south of the Dead Sea called “the land of Yehwa”.6  Three of the most ancient poems in the bible refer to Y-H-V-H as coming to Israel from an earlier home in the south: the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4, part of this week’s haftarah reading), and the Song of Habbakuk (Habbakuk 3:1-3).

If the name Y-H-V-H came from the name “Yehwa”, what did “Yehwa” mean?  It might be related to the later Arabic word hawaya = love, passion.7  And if Y-H-V-H means “He is passionate”, then a miracle demonstrates that this god is deeply emotional about human beings at the collective level, and does extraordinary things to arrange their fates.  In Exodus the God of passion makes the Egyptians suffer and helps the Israelites—except when they enrage him by worshiping the golden calf, and he kills 3,000 of them with a plague.  Y-H-V-H also gets furious over some Israelite actions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and kills many thousands more.  (See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and 1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4.)

Today most people do not believe in miracles, and those who do often apply the word “miracle” to events that do not defy the laws of nature and could just as well happen by coincidence.  They might be awed by the pseudo-miracles they notice, and they might consider God responsible.  But their concept of God is different from the God in Exodus: either more abstract, or milder and kinder.

What would it be like today to believe that God is Y-H-V-H, “He brings into being” or “He is passionate”?

  1. Exodus 16:2-3.
  2. This verb is most often conjugated from the root hayah (היה), but occasionally the bible uses a conjugation of the synonymous root havah (הוה)—for example, in the imperative in Genesis 27:29, Isaiah 16:4, and Job 37:6.
  3. The verb spelled with the letters Y-H-V-H would be the third person singular imperfect hifil.  A more elegant but slightly less literal translation is: “He who brings things into being”.  Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004, p. 321-322, footnote on Exodus 3:14.
  4. In addition to these nine times, God also wants the Israelites to know that there is none like Y-H-V-H in Exodus 8:6, 9:14, and 18:11; to know that Y-H-V-H owns the earth in Exodus 9:29; to know that Y-H-V-H distinguishes between Egyptians and Israelites in Exodus 11:7; and to know that Y-H-V-H sanctifies them with Shabbat in Exodus 31:13.
  5. The miracles are bringing the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 7:5), turning the Nile and all the surface water in Egypt into blood (Exodus 7:17), releasing swarms of mixed vermin (Exodus 8:18), and eliminating Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:4 and 14:18).
  6. The “land of Yehwa” appears in a 14th-century BCE Egyptian list discovered in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple.  Israel Knohl, “YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name”,, 01/01/2019, .  Also see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus, HarperCollins, 2017, pp. 122-123.
  7. Knohl, ibid.

Va-eira: Taking a Stand at the Nile

Aaron’s Rod Changed into a Serpent, Foster Bible Pictures, 1873

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.)

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain,

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.

Moses Saved, by Marc Chagall

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.

  1. Exodus 5:2.
  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.
  3. From Midrash Tanḥuma 2:2:14, 5thcentury E.  (Translation from Scott B. Noegel, “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.).
  4. 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)
  5. Talmud Bavli, Mo-ed Katan 18a.
  6. Ibn Ezra (12th century) according to Noegel, ibid.
  7. The Exodus story is set in the New Kingdom period in Egypt, during the 16th-11th centuries B.C.E.
  8. Noegel, ibid.
  9. This week’s Torah portion reports Moses’ age as 80 and Aaron’s as 83 (Exodus 7:7).
  10. 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).
  11. 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.

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.

Va-era & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2

Moses flees Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, because he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man.1  He returns to Egypt as God’s prophet, but the new pharaoh responds to his request by increasing the work of the Israelite slaves.2

Egyptian brick-making

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses tries to convince the Israelite slaves that God really has sent him to liberate them.  But they are unable to listen, because they are short of breath (or spirit) from their hard labor.3  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh again, he balks, saying:

“Hey!  The Israelites would not listen to me, so how would Pharaoh listen?  And my lips are aral!”  (Exodus 6:12)

aral (עָרַל) = uncircumcised, possessing a foreskin.

Power of Speech

Moses expresses the problem more literally in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.  When he sees the burning bush, he notices something numinous that others might overlook—a fire that burns but does not consume—and he steps closer to it.  So God speaks to the potential prophet and orders him to return to Egypt and demand that the pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their own god.

But Moses is unwilling to accept the job.  He tries to turn down his mission five times, and each time God answers his objection.4  For his fourth attempt to excuse himself, Moses says he is the wrong man for the job because he is not a good speaker.

And Moses said to God: “Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, yesterday, nor the day before, nor earlier than when you spoke to your servant; for I am kaveid of peh and kaveid of lashon.”  (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = (When used as an adjective for a body part): heavy, dull, hard, insensitive, clumsy.  (When used as an adjective for a person): honored, impressive, oppressive.

peh (פֶּה) = mouth; statement, spoken command.

lashon (לָשׁוֹן) = tongue; language.

A kaveid mouth and tongue are like aral lips.  Some thickness, covering, or blockage prevents Moses from speaking effectively.

Moses could merely be making another desperate excuse to avoid the mission in Egypt.  But since he claims his lips are aral in the portion Va-eira, after he is already in Egypt, he must be truly blocked, either physically or psychologically.

Commentators have proposed that Moses has a speech impediment or stutter5, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language6, and that he lacks the enthusiastic dedication to be eloquent enough to persuade anyone.7

In the Torah, circumcision of the foreskin is not just the removal of a covering, but a sign of consecration to God’s covenant with the people of Israel.8  The symbol of a man’s power in the Torah is a staff.  Circumcision dedicates a male’s power to God.

I think Moses feels powerless in both Shemot and Va-eira because he has had no authority to speak.  When he is accused of murder in Egypt, he flees instead of defending himself.  Then he serves for decades as a shepherd under the Midianite priest Jethro/Yitro, and defers to his authority.  Moses has been silent so long that his mouth, tongue, and lips feel too heavy to move.

Furthermore, he has never spoken as a Hebrew or Israelite before.  Once he was weaned, he lived in the Egyptian court as the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter.  He arrived in Midianite territory as an Egyptian, and married the daughter of a Midianite priest.  Only at the burning bush does Moses discover the God of his ancestors.

When Moses pleads that his mouth and tongue are too kaveid to speak well, God replies:

“Who puts the peh in humankind, or who appoints the dumb or the deaf, the clear-sighted or the blind?  Is it not I, God?  Now go, and I myself will be with your peh and I will instruct you what you shall speak!”

But he said: “Excuse me, my lord, please send by the hand of whom you will send!”  And God burned in anger against Moses.  (Exodus 4:11-14)

After God overrides Moses’ fourth protest, he has no more excuses.  He merely begs God to send someone else.  God gets angry, but tells Moses he can use his brother Aaron as a go-between.  Finally Moses gives up.  He returns to his father-in-law and asks his permission to go to Egypt.

Power of Blood

Moses, Tzipporah, and sons,
Rylands Haggadah

On the way, at a lodging-place, God met him and sought to put him to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his raglayim, and she said: “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!”  And it/he desisted from him.  That was when she said: “A bridegroom of bloodshed for the circumcisions”.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet, pair of legs; a euphemism for genitals.

The only clear information in this brief ambiguous story is that the is that one of Tzipporah’s sons still has a foreskin, and she circumcises him.  Which son is uncircumcised?  Whom does God seek to put to death?  If it is Moses, why would God attack him?  Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?  Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?  Why does this save him from death?

In last week’s post (Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1) I argued that the uncircumcised son is probably their firstborn, Geirshom, and that God seeks to put Moses to death.  The remaining enigmas in the “Bridegroom of Blood” passage can all be related to Moses’ feeling that he is incapable of serving as God’s prophet because his lips are aral.

Why would God attack Moses?

According to one Talmudic opinion, God wants to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his son, and therefore left the boy outside the covenant between God and the Israelites.  (See Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1.)

But there is a more psychologically compelling reason for God to attack Moses: God is still angry about Moses’ five attempts to reject his assignment.  (Three later prophets in the bible are initially reluctant, but accept their vocation after one demurral.9  Only Moses continues to argue with God.  Rashbam6 wrote that God’s anger over Moses’ rejection leads to the attack on the way to Egypt.)

In the 21st century, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote: “It is striking that when he complained about his speech problem at the Burning Bush, God made no move to heal him; he did not even promise him that his situation would change, for this problem is expressive of a radical resistance on Moses’ part, which arouses God’s anger and almost brings about his death …”10

It is Moses’ responsibility to rise to God’s challenge and remove his own impediment.  So far he has failed.

Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?

The Hebrew Bible requires an Israelite father to circumcise each of his sons eight days after birth, in order to enroll the infant boy into the covenant between the Israelites and God.11  Although Moses knows his birth parents were Israelites12, he grew up in the Egyptian court, then joined the family of a Midianite priest.  Only at the burning bush does he discover the God of Israel.

After Moses finally accepts the job God gives him, it may not even occur to him to mark his firstborn son as a member of the Israelites’ covenant with God.

While Moses lies helpless under God’s attack, his Midianite wife, Tzipporah, takes action.  Her first thought might be to appease God through an animal sacrifice.  The Midianites as well as the Israelites shared the Canaanite custom of sacrificing animals to their gods.13  But the only animal they have with them is the donkey that Tzipporah and the boys need to travel through the desert.

Then Tzipporah has an inspiration.  She can sacrifice a small bit of blood and flesh from their own son to the God who has commandeered Moses.  She knows that this God approves of circumcision, since Moses is circumcised.14

Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?

The Torah says only that Tzipporah touches the foreskin to “his” raglayim—to someone’s feet, or legs, or genitals.  I believe she uses Geirshom’s foreskin to dab blood on Moses’ genitals as a symbolic second circumcision, a rededication to the God of Israel.  Her explanation “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!” is an incantation that completes the sympathetic magic.

If circumcising Moses’ firstborn son is not enough to appease God, this additional ritual, she hopes, will do the trick.  And it works.

Why does this save Moses from death?

If God is angry at Moses, why would Tzipporah’s actions solve the problem?

The book of Exodus presents God in two different ways.  Usually God speaks like an intelligent but easily offended human being.  This anthropomorphic God is the character who talks with Moses at the burning bush, and gives him further instructions just before he sets off for Egypt.

Painting blood on the doorposts, Paris Bible c. 1390

This God-character also gets angry, and “his” anger sometimes releases a divine force which slaughters people indiscriminately.  Before the tenth plague strikes Egypt, Moses warns the Israelite slaves about the coming “death of the firstborn”, and tells them to daub lamb’s blood on their lintels and doorposts.

And God will pass through to strike Egypt, and “he” will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and God will skip over the entrance, and “he” will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to strike.  (Exodus 12:23)

Here “the Destroyer” refers to God’s raging alter ego, which does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent and cannot stop itself without a dramatic visible sign.15  The blood on Moses’ genitals proves as effective as the blood on the Israelite doorways in halting this primitive aspect of God, which does not distinguish between individuals.

Power of Dedication

Moses is not merely reluctant to become God’s prophet; he is afraid of speaking for God and getting it all wrong.  The anthropomorphic God-character becomes angry with Moses for trying to excuse himself from the job instead of trusting God’s assurances.  A silent, more primitive aspect of God seeks to kill Moses on the way to Egypt.

Tzipporah responds by physically circumcising their son.  Then she symbolically re-circumcises her husband, rededicating him to the covenant with God.  This act also serves to metaphorically circumcise Moses’ lips, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.

At first Moses does not realize the full extent of what his wife has done.  He sends Tzipporah back to her father, along with their sons—perhaps for their own safety, now that he knows how deadly God can be.  (See my post Yitro: Rejected Wife.)  When he first arrives in Egypt, he uses Aaron to speak to the pharaoh for him, believing his lips are still aral.  Only when the ten miraculous plagues begin does Moses find his own voice.


What does it mean to be dedicated to God?  A Jewish ritual dedicating eight-day-old boys only shows how their parents identify them.  Adults might follow all the extant rules of a religion out of habit and to fit in with their community, but lack the personal and vitally serious dedication that Moses accepts after the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode.

Can that kind of dedication to God come only out of necessity, as a life-and-death choice?  What about those of us who are not threatened?  Can we at least choose to dedicate ourselves to seeking out God?

  1. Exodus 3:11-15.
  2. Exodus 5:1-9.
  3. Exodus 6:9. The Hebrew word ruach (רוּחַ) can mean wind, breath, or spirit.
  4. The first three times are in Exodus 3:11-12, Exodus 3:14-15, and Exodus 4:2-9.
  5. Exodus Rabbah 1:26 tells a story in which Moses burns his lips as a child. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh ben Yitzchaki) wrote that Moses stammered and mumbled.
  6. Rashbam (12th-century rabbi Samuel ben Meir).
  7. g. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Exodus 4:10; and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 176.
  8. Genesis 17:9-15.
  9. Isaiah feels unworthy until an angel purifies his lips (Isaiah 6:1-8); Jeremiah protests a single time that he is too young to know how to speak (Jeremiah 1:4-9); and Jonah flees because he does not want to obey God and give his enemies a chance to repent (Jonah 1:1-3).
  10. Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 161.
  11. Genesis 17:10-14, Leviticus 12:1-3. By the fourth century C.E., there were also professional circumcisers called mohalim.
  12. Exodus 2:11.
  13. Tzipporah’s father, Yitro, demonstrates animal sacrifice when he comes to visit Moses and the liberated Israelites camping near Mount Sinai (Exodus 18:10-12).
  14. Moses would have undergone circumcision either as an infant with Hebrew parents, or at puberty as an upper-class Egyptian. Talmud tractate Nedarim 32a and Exodus Rabbah 5:8 imagine Tzipporah watching the angel of death swallow Moses from his head down to his genitals, where Moses’ circumcision stops the process.
  15. Besides Exodus 4:24-25 and 12:29, other examples of God as a mute, irrational force of destruction, unable to distinguish the innocent from the guilty without an obvious sign, appear in Numbers 11:1-3 (fire), Numbers 25:1-9 (plague after Baal Pe-or worship), and 1 Samuel 6:19 (the ark).

Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1

Moses at the Burning Bush,
by Rembrandt

Moses’ quiet life as a shepherd for a band of Midianites ends when he sees a bush that keeps burning without being consumed.  When Moses comes closer, God speaks to him and gives him a mission:  to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go.

Moses tries five times to refuse the job.  (See next week’s post, Shemot & Va-eira: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)  But God will not let him get out of it.  Finally Moses gives up, takes the flock home, and gets permission from his father-in-law to go to Egypt.

As soon as he leaves, God speaks again, warning him that despite the miracles to come, Pharaoh will not let set the Israelites free to worship their own god.

“Then you shall say to Pharaoh: Thus said God: My firstborn son is Israel.  And I say to you: Let my son go, and he will serve Me—[or] hey, I will be slaying your firstborn son!”  (Exodus/Shemot 4:22-23)

God has plans for the Pharaoh and Egypt that include the tenth plague, “death of the firstborn”.  God creates this miracle in the Torah portion Bo, and Pharaoh’s firstborn son dies.  But why does God give this information to Moses in Shemot (“Names”, the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot)?

The sudden focus on firstborn sons comes after Moses leaves for Egypt with his wife and two sons, and immediately before a mysterious passage in this week’s Torah portion that commentators call the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode.

Moses, Tzipporah, and sons,
Rylands Haggadah

On the way, at a lodging-place, God met him and sought to put him to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his raglayim, and she said: “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!”  And it/he desisted from him.  That was when she said: “A bridegroom of bloodshed by the circumcision”.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet, pair of legs; a euphemism for genitals.

God is uncharacteristically silent in this brief, spooky tale.  And the language is so ambiguous, the only clear information is that one of Moses and Tzipporah’s two sons still has a foreskin, and she circumcises him.

Which son is uncircumcised? 

The birth of Moses and Tzipporah’s first son was reported earlier in this week’s Torah portion:

She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Geirshom, for he said: “A geir I have been in a foreign land.”  (Exodus 2:22)

Geirshom (גֵּרְשֹׁם) = a name used for three men in the Hebrew Bible.1  Moses says he chose the name because it combines two words:

geir (גֵּר) = stranger, resident alien.

sham (שָׁם) = there.

Moses and Tzipporah’s second son is not mentioned until after the Israelites have left Egypt and are near Mount Sinai.  Then Moses’ father-in-law arrives, bringing Tzipporah—

And her two sons, of whom the name of one was Geirshom, because he said “Geir I have been in a foreign land,” and the name of the other was Eliezer, because “Eli of my father was my ezer and rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh.”  (Exodus 18:3-4)

Eliezer (אֱלִיעֶזֶר) = a name used for at least eight men in the Hebrew Bible.2  The name combines two words:

eli (אֱלִי) = my God.

ezer (עֶזֶר) = help, aid.

This is the first time in the book that a second son is mentioned.3  When was Eliezer born and named?  Moses sends Tzipporah and their son(s) back to his wife’s father, Yitro (Jethro), after the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode, and before Moses and Aaron meet near Egypt proper.  He does not see his wife again until Yitro brings her to him in Sinai, along with both sons.  A consistent story requires that Moses named Eliezer before he left for Egypt.

When his second son was born, Moses must have been remembering his youth in Egypt, including his Hebrew parents, his adoption, the death sentence Pharaoh imposed on him when he was a young man, and his flight to Midian.4  Pharaoh’s gods would not have helped him, nor would the Midianite gods he had never worshiped.  So, I imagine, Moses credits his parents’ God with helping him escape.  Given Eliezer’s name, it is reasonable to assume that he then circumcises the infant in honor of the God of his parents.

But the name Geirshom has no reference to God.  Moses feels rootless and alienated when he names his first son, perhaps even alienated from his parents’ God. The name Geirshom and the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene inspired a pre-Talmudic story that Moses and his Midianite father-in-law agreed that Moses’ first son would not be circumcised.5

It makes sense that Moses’ firstborn son, Geirshom, is the uncircumcised one.

Whom did God seek to put to death?

Did God seek to kill Moses, or his uncircumcised son?  In the Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 32a, two rabbis gave two different opinions.  Rabbi Shimon b. Gamaliel said the “satan”, the spiritual adversary, came to kill the boy who was uncircumcised.  Rabbi Yehudah b. Bizna said God sent two angels of death to swallow up Moses because he had neglected to circumcise his son.  Moses could hardly represent God in Egypt when he had left his own firstborn son outside the covenant between God and the Israelites.

Commentators are still divided on the question of whom God sought to kill.  One theory is that the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene foreshadows God’s announcement in Exodus 12:7 and 12:12-13 that when the tenth and final miracle arrives, “the destroyer” will strike down the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt—except the Hebrews who have painted lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses.6  The act of painting blood on the doorways resembles the circumcision in the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene—as long as it is Moses’ uncircumcised son Geirshom whom God intends to kill on the way to Egypt.

However, I think God seeks to put Moses to death, because in the verses immediately preceding the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene, God is addressing Moses.  No other male is mentioned between verse 23 and verse 24.

And there is another reason for God to attack Moses.  In next week’s post, Shemot & Va-eira: Uncircumcised, Part 2, I will explore God’s anger at the man God has chosen as a prophet.

The God-character in the Torah is, after all, an anthropomorphic version of second Isaiah’s God:

            Forming light and creating darkness,

            Making peace and creating evil,

            I, God, do all these.  (Isaiah 45:7)

God gives with one “hand” and takes away with the other.  It is up to us human beings to find meaning in the twists of our life stories.

  1. The name Geirshom refers to the firstborn son of Moses and Tzipporah in Exodus 2:22 and 18:3, Judges 18:30, and 1 Chronicles 23:15-16 and 26:24. It is used for a son of Pinchas/Phineas in Ezra 8:2, and for a son of Levi in 1 Chronicles chapter 6.
  2. The first Eliezer in the bible is Abraham’s steward in Genesis 15:2. Moses’ son Eliezer is mentioned in Exodus 18:4 and 1 Chronicles chapter 23.  At least six other men named Eliezer appear in Ezra 8:16, 10:18, 10:31, and 10:23; 1 Chronicles 7:8, 15:24, 26:25, and 27:16; and 2 Chronicles 20:37.
  3. Modern biblical scholarship explains that a redactor combined two or more accounts of the exodus: one (sometimes called J) in which Moses and Tzipporah have only one son, and another (sometimes called E) in which they have two sons.
  4. Exodus 2:11-15.
  5. Jethro said to him: ‘The son that is born to you first will be given over to idolatry [and hence will not be circumcised]; those born thereafter can be given to the worship of [your] God.’ He accepted the condition … For that reason did the angel seek to kill Moses at the inn, whereupon “Zipporah took a flint and cut the foreskin of her son.”  (James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible, Free Press, New York, 2007, p. 219, translation from Mekhilta de R. Ishmael, Yitro.)

At this point, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro is still a Midianite priest, and might well want his grandson to worship the gods of Midian.  (It is an unrealistic detail, however, for Yitro to call his own religion “idolatry”!)

  1. For example, see Serge Frolov, “A Murderous Bridegroom”, in



Beha-alotkha: Father-in-Law

When the Israelites strike camp at the end of almost a year at Mount Sinai1, we discover that a Midianite named Chovav has been camping with them. This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), says:

And Moses said to Chovav, the son of Reueil the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses:  “We are journeying to the place of which God said:  I will give it to you.  Go with us, and we will do good for you, because God has spoken of [doing] good for Israel.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:29)

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton,
19th century

Chovav (חֺבָב) = One who loves.  (From the verb choveiv (חֺבֵב) = loving.)

Reu-eil (רְעוּאֵל) = Friend of God. Rei-eh (רֵעֶה) = friend + Eil (אֵל) = God.

The syntax is ambiguous in the original Hebrew, as it is in the English translation.  Is Moses’ father-in-law Chovav or Reu-eil?

The name “Chovav” appears only in one other place in the Hebrew Bible:

And Chever the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, from the descendants of Chovav, the father-in-law of Moses, and he pitched his tent as far as the great tree in Tzaananim… (Judges 4:11)

This verse clearly identifies Chovav as Moses’ father-in-law.  Yet when Moses gets married in the book of Exodus/Shemot, his father-in-law seems to be Reu-eil.

The Midianite priest,
Bible Moralisee, 13th century

A priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came [to the well] and drew and filled the watering-troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away. And Moses stood up and saved them and watered their flock. And they came back to Reueil, their father … (Exodus/Shemot 2:16-18)

Medieval commentators and modern scholars have generated many explanations for this discrepancy.2 I believe the difference between “Reu-eil” in Exodus and “son of Reu-eil” in Numbers is a scribal error.

Both early commentators and modern scholars identify Chovav as another name for Yitro, who is called Moses’ father-in-law ten times in the book of Exodus. But if Chovav is Moses’ father-in-law, what motivates Moses to invite him to journey with the Israelites to Canaan?

Moses meets his future father-in-law when he is a young man fleeing Egypt. He stops to rest by a well in Midian territory, and comes to the aid of the seven daughters of the priest of Midian called Reu-eil. The young women tell their father what happened, and he invites Moses to dinner.

And Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses. (Exodus/
Shemot 2:21)

The purpose of the marriage seems to be to tie Moses to the family as the priest’s son-in-law. Moses shepherds for him, and gives him two grandsons. The Midianite priest apparently has no sons of his own, since they do not help with the flock.

In the next story in the book of Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law is named Yitro.

And Moses was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he guided the flock behind the wilderness and came to the mountain of God… (Exodus 3:1)

Yitro (יִתְרוֹ) = his yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, surplus. (Yitro is usually translated in English as Jethro.)

Moses has a long conversation with God at the burning bush, then asks his father-in-law for permission to go back to Egypt to see how his relatives are doing there. Yitro wisely tells him to “go in peace”.3 Moses takes his wife and children, then sends them back to Yitro before he reaches Egypt. (See my post Yitro: Degrees of Separation.)

After the exodus from Egypt, as soon as Moses and the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, Yitro stages a family reunion.

And Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses …said to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.” And Moses went to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and he kissed him, and each man asked about his fellow’s well-being, and they entered the tent. (18:5-7)

Yitro Advises Moses,
Figures de la Bible,1728

Moses completely ignores his wife and children, but he welcomes his father-in-law. Yitro says the God of Israel is the greatest of all gods, and burns an animal offering for God.4 The next morning, Yitro tells Moses how to delegate his workload and set up a judicial system for the Israelites.

Then Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went away to his [own] land. (Exodus 18:27)

Moses and Yitro part on good terms, but Moses does not press his father-in-law to stay. Yitro leaves Moses’s wife and sons behind.

Over the next eleven months at Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments (twice) as well as many more laws. He has people killed for worshiping the Golden Calf, and he supervises the creation of the portable tent-sanctuary and the holy items in it.

Finally, in this week’s Torah portion, everything is organized for the journey to the border of Canaan. Then Moses suddenly asks Chovav to come with them. Apparently his father-in-law returned to Mount Sinai for another visit; it was not a long journey from his home.

He [Chovav] said to him:  “I will not go, because I would go to my land, to my kindred.”(Numbers 10:30)

Then he [Moses] said:  “Please do not forsake us, because you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us.  And if you go with us, then by that goodness with which God does for us, we will be good to you.” (Numbers 10:31-32)

Moses gives Chovav two reasons to travel with the Israelites: to help them navigate the wilderness, and to receive a share of the land that God promised to give them in Canaan.

Transporting the ark

What kind of help do the Israelites need? “You can be eyes for us” might be a request for Chovav to scout ahead for the best routes and camping places. But then the Torah says the ark itself is their scout.

And they set out from the mountain of God on a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of God set out in front of them on a journey of three days to scout out a resting place for them. And the cloud of God was over them by day, when they set out from the camp. (Numbers 10:33-34)

Earlier in this week’s Torah portion, we get a preview of the Israelites’ departure.

the cloud was taken up from over the Dwelling Place of the testimony, so the Israelites set out for their journeys away from the wilderness of Sinai. And the cloud stopped in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

This cloud hovers over the Tent of Meeting when the ark is in residence.5 Now we learn that when the Israelites travel, the cloud travels with them. It may even lead them, as God’s pillar of cloud and fire did when they traveled from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

Whether the cloud or the ark is doing the scouting, the Israelites do not seem to need Chovav as a guide. Rashi6 proposed an alternate meaning of “you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us”.  If anything occurs that Moses and the elders do not understand, Chovav could enlighten them. In that case, perhaps Moses begs his father-in-law to go with him because he remembers how the man enlightened him about delegating judicial authority. Since then, the incident of the Golden Calf might have made Moses even less confident that he could handle everything himself.

There is no transition between Moses’ second plea to Chovav (Numbers 10:31-32) and the announcement that the Israelites set out with guidance from the ark and the cloud (Numbers 10:33-34). The Torah does not tell us whether Chovav changes his mind and accompanies his son-in-law and the Israelites after all. I imagine he is torn between his duties as a father and a priest of Midian, and his deep affection for his son-in-law.

Yitro adopts Moses into his family when he is homeless. When Moses arrives at Mount Sinai with thousands of Israelites, his father-in-law comes, embraces him, and gives him good advice. When Moses leaves for Canaan, he begs his father-in-law to come with him.

Perhaps it is Moses who gives Yitro the name Chovav, “one who loves”. He has cherished his father-in-law’s love, and wants it to continue.

1  The Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt (Exodus 19:1-2) and leave Mount Sinai for Canaan on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 10:11-12).

2  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), Ibn Ezra (12th-century rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), explained that Moses’ father-in-law was called Yitro until he decided to worship only the God of Israel4, and then his name was changed to Chovav—according to Ramban3, because he “loved” God’s teaching. Reueil was actually Yitro’s father, but Tzipporah and her sisters also called their grandfather “Father”.

A common modern theory is that the story of Moses’ marriage in Exodus 2:16-21 was written by the “J” source, someone from the southern kingdom of Judah, who thought of Moses’ father-in-law as Reueil.  The other three stories in Exodus that include Moses’ father-in-law were written by the “E” source, someone from the northern kingdom of Israel, who thought of the man as Yitro. The redactor who compiled the book of Exodus from these two sources left in both names. (See Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003.)

3  Exodus 4:18.

4  The classic commentators cite Exodus 18:11-12 as proof of Yitro’s “conversion”. I suspect that the Midianite priest was already familiar with the God of Israel, and may have pointed out Mount Sinai to Moses, since it was in Yitro’s territory.

5  Exodus 40:36-37.

6  Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Shemot and Psalm 137:  Cry Like a Baby

This week begins the reading of the book of Exodus/Shemot in the Jewish tradition. This year my posts on Exodus will relate each Torah portion to one of the psalms.

Too many foreigners live in the country, from the Pharaoh’s point of view in this week’s Torah portion. Unlike those who fear immigrants in our own time, the Pharaoh is not afraid that the Israelites will take jobs from native Egyptians. He is afraid that if another country makes war on Egypt, these foreigners will join Egypt’s enemies.

Pharaoh's decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332
Pharaoh’s decree, by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Instead of integrating the Israelites into Egyptian society to win their loyalty, the Pharoah enslaves them, requiring that the men do forced labor. He also tries to reduce the population.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive”. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

And a man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and she bore a son, and she saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2)

Commentators have suggested many reasons why the baby (later named Moses) is “good”. But since his mother (later identified as Yokheved) is able to hide the baby for three months, the simple answer is that he is placid and quiet. As long as his mother is there whenever he wakes up, Moses does not cry.

Why could Yokheved no longer hide him after three months? The commentary offers different theories. I suspect that Moses happens to be three months old when Egyptian bullies start searching the houses of Israelites for baby boys to drown.

It occurs to Yokheved that the best hiding place for an Israelite baby boy is the Nile itself. She tars a floating box made of papyrus stems, and places Moses inside. Then she carries it to the pool where a woman of the royal family goes to bathe, and wedges it among the reeds so the current will not carry it away. The care with which Yokheved picks the spot shows that she hopes her baby will be discovered and adopted.

detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain
detail, Golden Haggadah, c.1420 Spain

And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking next to the Nile. And she saw the floating box among the reeds, and she sent her slave-girl to fetch it. (Exodus 2:5)

The princess sees the box; she does not hear any crying. Moses, rocking gently inside, is probably asleep.

And she opened it and she saw the child, and hey! It was a boy, bokheh! And she felt pity for him, and she said: “This is one of the children of the Ivrim”. (Exodus 2:6)

bokheh (בֺּכֶה) = weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing. (From the root bakhah, ּבָּכָה = wept.)

Ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; immigrants. (From the root avar, עָבַר = passed over, crossed through, emigrated.) Egyptians in the book of Exodus sometimes call the Israelites the Ivrim.

The story continues like a fairy tale, as the Pharaoh’s daughter ends up paying Moses’s own mother to nurse him, then adopts him after he is weaned. But why does Moses begin to cry when the princess opens the lid of the box? Probably the sudden sunlight wakes him—and then, instead of seeing the familiar face of his mother, he sees a stranger.

All infants cry when they are suddenly deprived of their primary caregivers, just as adults cry when someone they are deeply attached to dies. The world is strange and frightening without that familiar presence.

People may also cry when they are forced to leave their homes and live in a strange place. Yet when the Israelites and their fellow travelers follow the adult Moses out of Egypt, they “leave with a high hand” (Exodus 14:8). They rejoice rather than weep because they are choosing to leave a life of slavery and seek a new land to make their home.

On the other hand, in Psalm 137 the Israelites weep when the Babylonian army deports them from Jerusalem many centuries later, circa 586 B.C.E. They have no choice; they are forced to leave their homeland and live as foreigners in a strange place.

           psalm-137-1By the rivers of Babylon

           There we sat down, bakhinu,

           when we remembered Tziyon. (Psalm 137:1)

bakhinu (בָּכִינוּ) = we wept, cried, sobbed, wailed. (From the same root, bakhah, as in Exodus 2:6.)

Tziyon (צִיוֹן) = Zion; a hill overlooking Jerusalem; Jerusalem itself as a religious center.

The deportees weep when they see the place where they must now live. It even looks different from their motherland.         

Prisoners playing lyres from Sennacherib's palace, Nineveh, circa 700 B.C.E.
Prisoners carrying lyres, palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh, c. 700 B.C.E.

           Upon the poplars in her [Babylon’s] midst,

            Our lyres will remain hung. (137:2)

            Because there our captors asked us for words of song,

            Our oppressors for rejoicing:

            “Sing to us some song of Tziyon!” (137:3)

The Babylonian officers ask the deportees to entertain them by singing one of their quaint, provincial songs from Tziyon. If the officers merely wanted a folk song, they might have asked for a song from Jerusalem or Judah. By using the word Tziyon, the Babylonians are referring to Jerusalem as a religious center. Thus they remind the Israelites how helpless they are, even in matters of religion, now that the Babylonian army has razed the temple and deported them.

            How can we sing a song of God

           On the soil of a foreign land? (137:4)

The Israelites, and the Jews descended from them, do eventually sing sacred songs in foreign lands—including the psalms once sung in the temple. But in Psalm 137, they recoil from the idea of singing a hymn to God in order to let the Babylonians mock and humiliate them.

            If I forget you, Jerusalem,

            May my right hand forget. (137:5)

            May my tongue cling to my palate,

            If I do not remember you,

            If I do not exalt you, Jerusalem,

           Above my highest joy. (137:6)

            Remember, God, the Edomites

           On the day of Jerusalem, who said:

            “Strip it! Strip it down to the foundations!” (137:7)

According to the book of Obadiah, probably also written in the 6th century B.C.E., the men of the nearby land of Edom joined the Babylonians in sacking the city of Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-13).

            Babylon the despoiler,

            Fortunate are those who will retaliate for your retaliation against us! (137:8)

            Fortunate are those who will seize and smash

           Your little children on the rock! (137:9)

I picture the Israelites reacting like children, full of desperation at the loss of their mother land and religion, suddenly under the thumb of cruel and all-powerful foreigners. Toddlers in that situation might well scream with outrage and hatred at the mean strangers who have kidnapped them. It takes time to cool down, grow up, and consider the ramifications of one’s initial reaction. For a whole society, it can take centuries.

When the infant Moses cries at the sight of a stranger, it is because the stranger is not his mother, and he fears he has lost his mother forever. When the Israelite deportees cry at the sight of the rivers of Babylon, it is because Babylon is not their home, and they fear they will lose everything that means home to them: their identity, their way of life, and their religion.

They promise themselves they will never forget Jerusalem. Perhaps they recall the stories about Moses as an adult, who breaks with his royal Egyptian family to rescue the Israelite slaves.  He never forgets his mother and his own people.

May every one of us remember those we have loved and lost. May we remember our true homes—whether they are the homes we were born into (like the Israelites in Psalm 137), or the homes we adopt (like the Israelites that Moses leads out of Egypt in the book of Exodus).