Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

December 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment
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In the last portion of the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the pharaoh welcomes the extended family of his viceroy, Joseph, to settle in Egypt. The clan is called the “children of Israel” because 70 of them are direct descendants of Joseph’s father, who has two names:

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob; he grasps by the heel.

Yisra-el (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel; y-s-r (ישׂר) + eil (אֵל) = god, God.  Y-s-r is either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.

Jacob earned the name Yisra-el after wrestling with a mysterious being. The meaning of yisra-el is uncertain, but likely translations are “God strives”, “He struggles [with] God”, and “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their ongoing and active relationship with their god.

During the next 350 years, according to the Torah, a new dynasty takes over Egypt, and the population of the children of Israel explodes. The new pharaoh in the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”) panics.

And he said to his people: Hey! The people, the children of Yisra-el, are more numerous and more mighty than we… If a war is declared, they might even be added to our enemies, and wage war against us and rise up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:9-10)

The pharaoh refers to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves. He is superficially respectful at the beginning of his campaign against the Israelites, perhaps so as not to alarm Egyptians who previously had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

But then Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project). They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live. This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

The king’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn boys. At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot = ivri women.

ivri (עִבְרִי) =  a Hebrew person; Pass through! Cross over! Pass by!

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (and the English word “Hebrew”). Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants who lived on the fringes of society in their own countries. Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.

In the Hebrew language, the word ivri is also the imperative form of the verb avar, which refers to crossing over or passing through. Nomads and temporary resident aliens are indeed people who pass through a country, but do not stay permanently.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living and raising livestock in Egypt for at least 210 years. Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”. At the very least, this change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt. Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh may also be implying that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.

Inciting people to murder requires denigrating the intended victims. The pharaoh does this partly by imposing corvée labor on them, and partly by using a racial slur.

But the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse to let the baby boys live. Although the pharaoh does not punish the midwives, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones die without a new generation to replace them. His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls? Commentators have pointed out that men carried the identity of a tribe or nation. Women became members of their husbands’ tribes when they married. If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group. If the pharaoh emphasized that the Hebrew boys would grow into wild young men who might “rise up” and “wage war”, he could incite enough fear in Egyptian men to overcome any reluctance about murdering their neighbors’ babies.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery. After the pharaoh’s general order, they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.  Only a hero and a miracle can reverse the situation. The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt. His mother hides him for three months before putting him into the Nile in her own way.

When the pharaoh’s daughter opens the papyrus box (or ark) floating among the reeds of the Nile and sees a baby boy, she says: This is one of the children of the ivrim. (Exodus 2:6)

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri. Although Moses grows up with the status of a grandson of the pharaoh, he knows that the persecuted “Hebrews” in Goshen are his people. But only during his sojourn among the Midianites on the Sinai peninsula does Moses become the archetype of Yisra-el, someone who struggles with God. Then God sends him back to Egypt to liberate his people. After God’s miracles have broken the pharaoh’s strength, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan: the land where ivrim come from, and the land where they can live as children of Yisra-el.

The word ivri, in its singular and plural forms, occurs a number of times in Genesis and Exodus when the action is taking place in Egypt. Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the rest of the “Hebrew” (or Jewish) Bible rarely calls them ivrim. References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelites consider themselves “children of Israel” (unless they are degraded by slavery), but outside their own land, they continue to go by a name that implies they are just hobos or bandits passing through.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent; the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, the Israelites’ last stronghold, in 586 BCE. It took 2,534 years before there was an independent nation of Israel again. During much of that time, in many different countries, Jews were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.

The modern state of Israel was declared a nation in 1948 CE, but the Jews who “returned” there were very different, ethnically and religiously, from the Israelites who were swallowed by the Babylonian empire. Similarly, the people of modern Egypt are very different from the Egyptians of 3,000 years ago.

No group of people is permanent. Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is ultimately a useless enterprise. Demagogues can stir up fear and hatred for a while, but then every country and its people will inevitably change.

I believe that none of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history. None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land. All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth. We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary. Some of us embrace a further challenge: to dedicate the rest of our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el, wrestling with mysteries and struggling with our relationship with God.

Shemot & Va-eira: Staff, Snake, Crocodile

January 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Shemot, Va-eira | Leave a comment

At the burning bush, in last week’s Torah portion (Shemot), God gives Moses his mission: to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses protests that the Israelites will not believe that their god appeared to him, so they will not listen to him. God responds by showing Moses two “signs” he can perform to demonstrate that God is with him.

God said to him: What is this in your hand? And he said: a matteh. Then (God) said: Throw it to the ground. So he threw it to the ground, and it became a nachash, and Moses fled from it. Then God said to Moses: Reach out your hand and grasp it by its tail. And he reached out his hand and he held it, and it became a matteh in his palm. (Exodus/Shemot 4:2-3)

matteh = staff, an official symbol of authority

nachash = snake, instrument of divination or bewitchment

Both a staff and a snake are phallic symbols, and I suspect the image of a snake stiffening into a staff when Moses holds it in his palm is a deliberate evocation of an erection. The staff and the snake represent two varieties of masculine creative power. God uses them to demonstrate, first to Moses and then to the Israelites, that the ultimate control over everything masculine belongs to God.

In the Torah, a staff is not only a stick used by a shepherd, but also a symbol of authority over a tribe or a country. Sometimes the twelve tribes of Israel are called mattot, staves. So I think that on another level, the staff-snake-staff  transformation illustrates God’s power over both the bewitching snake in the Garden of Eden, and the twelve tribes that God will liberate from Egypt.

God shows Moses a second “sign” to use if the Israelites are insufficiently impressed by the first one. At God’s cue, Moses puts his hand into the front fold of his garment, and when he withdraws it, the hand is covered with dreaded skin disease tzara-at, “like snow”. Then he puts his hand back in, and pulls it out completely healed. The underlying message is that God controls both sickness and health.

Moses has to use both signs to convince the Israelites that he really is speaking for their god, but then they do believe him. Next, Moses and his brother Aaron ask the pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves take a three-day vacation and go into the wilderness to worship their god. They refer to God by God’s personal name, the four-letter name related to the verb meaning “to be” or “to become”. God has already told Moses that the pharaoh will refuse, and he does, saying that he does not know any god by that name.

The pharaoh then increases the workload of the Israelite slaves. When they protest, he says Moses’ vacation request proves they are lazy. So the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for their unpaid overtime.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (And I appeared), God tells Moses to speak to the pharaoh again, and adds:

When Pharoah speaks to you, saying “Give for yourselves a mofeit“, then say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh”. It will become a tannin. (Exodus 7:9)

mofeit = portent, marvel (from the same root as mefateyha = deceiving, persuading)

tannin = a giant reptile (such as a crocodile), a sea monster

The pharaoh says exactly what God predicts. Some commentary assumes that the pharaoh is refusing to listen to another request until Moses and Aaron prove to him that they are bona fide magicians for a god. But I agree with the 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, who argued that the pharaoh is challenging Moses and Aaron to redeem their ruined reputation in public, by producing a wonder for themselves. He thinks that when they fail to produce a marvel, and his own magicians succeed, any whisper of a slave revolt will be nipped in the bud.

And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did thus, as God had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a tannin. Then Pharaoh also called for the sages and for the sorcerers, and they also, the diviners of Egypt, did thus with their flame-magic. And each one threw down his staff, and they became tanninim. And the staff of Aaron swallowed down their staffs. But Pharaoh’s heart was firm, and he did not listen to them, just as God had spoken. (Exodus 7:10-13) 

Why does the staff become a snake for the Israelites, but a tannin for the pharaoh? One theory is that the crocodile was important to Egyptian religion. The transformation of a staff into a crocodile would remind Egyptians of their crocodile god, Sobek, who both created the Nile and gave strength to the pharaoh. In the Torah, Aaron’s crocodile confronts the pharaoh’s crocodiles. When Aaron’s swallows down all the others, it is an obvious omen that the god of Moses and Aaron will triumph over the pharaoh.

The Hebrew in the Torah implies that Aaron’s crocodile does not swallow down the others until after it has changed back into a staff. According to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, God arranges it that way because it is more impressive for an inanimate object to swallow things. The Midrash says the pharaoh is amazed, and afraid that the staff might swallow up him and his throne next. Nevertheless, he strengthens his psyche with firm resolve, the first of a series of heart-hardenings.

Modern Torah readers are familiar with the concept that God is omnipotent. The magic tricks that God arranges with a staff seem like a sideshow before the main action of the ten plagues begins. Yet it is necessary for Moses to prove to both the Israelites and the Egyptians that he really is speaking for a powerful god, and that his God is more powerful than any Egyptian god or Egyptian magic. Otherwise the Israelites will never follow him out of Egypt, and the pharaoh might attribute the plagues to other deities.

Therefore the staff is not Moses’ phallic symbol, nor Aaron’s. It is God’s phallic symbol, as God shows off to the simple-minded people in Egypt, from slave to monarch. It would be easy for me, as a feminist, to mock these crude displays of male power. Yet even today, that is what it takes to get some people’s attention.

Moses notices the subtle miracle of the bush that burned without being consumed. But not everyone is able to notice subtle cues and then question their views of reality.  In the Torah, the pharaoh does not give up on his assumption that he must keep his slaves until he is hit with the death of his own first-born son. I know people like that today.

I do not know how much I can notice subtle cues and change my approach to life accordingly, and how much I am mired in habits of thought I do not even recognize. But I hope–and I pray–that I will become more like Moses than like either the Israelites or the pharaoh. I’d like to wake up without being hit by either a disaster or a phallic symbol.

Shemot: Holy Ground

January 2, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Posted in Shemot | 2 Comments

This week we open a new book in the cycle of Torah readings, the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”). The Israelites, who were welcome guests in Egypt at the end of  Genesis/Bereishit, are now slaves under a genocidal pharoah. This week’s Torah portion, also called Shemot, tells the story of Moses from his birth to Hebrew slaves, up to his return to Egypt as God’s prophet.

Later in the story, Moses will become more intimate with God than anyone else in the Hebrew bible. But here, his life story does not mention God until after Moses is settled in the land of Midian with a wife and child. He knows that he was born a Hebrew, and that his people have their own god, but he does not know the god’s name. Moses must learn about Egyptian gods while he is growing up as the adopted son of the pharaoh’s daughter. He must also learn about the gods of Midian, since he lives with the Midianite priest Yitro (or Reuel) and  marries one of his daughters. In Midian, Moses leads a introspective life as a shepherd, deliberately taking his flock to remote places where he will be alone.

Moses was shepherding the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he guided the flock achar hamidbar, and he came to the mountain of ha-elohim, to chorev. (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

 achar = behind, after, in the back, in the future

hamidbar = the wilderness; the mouth (as the instrument of speech)

ha-elohim = the gods; God

chorev =  dry desolation; “Horeb” (in English), the  name of a mountain and a region also identified as Sinai

A simple translation is that Moses “guided the flock beyond the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of God, to (Mount) Chorev”.

Alternatively, maybe Moses “guided the flock to the future of the speaking mouth, and he came to the mountain of the gods, to dry desolation”. The second translation is non-standard, but it does describe Moses’ psychological journey. He takes what he was given by his father-in-law the priest (literally sheep, but perhaps also theology), and goes beyond his accustomed life into his own future. He is about to become a prophet, a mouth speaking for God. He is also about to feel dry and desolate, because he does not want the mission God thrusts upon him.

Meanwhile, God has noticed the groaning of the enslaved Israelites, and is about to recruit Moses as the instrument for liberating and leading the Israelites. But God does not suddenly speak to Moses, or appear in a dream, as God did with Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob in the book of Genesis. Instead, God arranges a small miracle off to one side of Moses’ route.

Then a malakh of God appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of  the seneh; and he saw it; and hey! the seneh was burning in the fire, but the seneh was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)

malakh = emissary, messenger (often translated as “angel”)

seneh = a particular type of bush

In the entire Hebrew bible, the word seneh appears only in this scene (five times), and once in Deuteronomy/Devarim. It is probably related to the Arabic word sina = thornbush, and the Latin senna = a family of woody flowering perennials with straggling branches, about knee-high. The seneh may or may not come from the same Hebrew root as Sinai, the other name for the mountain where Moses repeatedly meets God. But as Martin Buber pointed out, repeating the word seneh three times in one sentence certainly evokes the name “Sinai”.

Later in the book of Exodus, God manifests at Mount Sinai in volcanic fire and thunder. But here, God’s fire appears in a small plant, and burns quietly without consuming it. Why does God choose this manifestation?

The symbolic meaning of the burning bush according to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of sayings from rabbis of the first few centuries C.E. (the Common Era for Jews, called A.D. by Christians) is that Moses is afraid Egypt will destroy Israel, just as a fire would normally destroy a bush. Since this burning bush is not consumed, it represents a promise that the Israelites will never be destroyed by their oppressors.

I agree with 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz that the fire in the bush is an implausible symbol for the Egyptians. Since God’s messenger (angel) appears in the midst of this fire, the fire would more plausibly represent divine revelation. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the burning bush means that anyone who opens their heart to God will not be destroyed by the divine power.

Moses said: Oh, I must turn aside so I will see this great sight! Why does the bush not burn up?  (Exodus 3:3)

The “messenger” of God is simply the sight of something outside natural law—and therefore numinous. Moses is a person who will notice something unusual and turn aside. Maybe  he is curious about the nature of the universe; or maybe he is searching for God. After all, why did he take the flock beyond the grassy wilderness to this dry and desolate mountain, where there is nothing good for sheep to eat? His father-in-law the priest must have told him where to find the “mountain of the gods”. Now Moses is alert for any sign of the divine.

God does not speak to Moses until after he has turned aside to look at the bush. Apparently alert curiosity and a willingness to approach the numinous are essential traits that God requires in his prophet.

And God saw that he had turned aside to see, so God called to him from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses! And he said: Here I am. (Exodus 3:4)

According to Midrash Rabbah, God chose to speak to Moses from a mere thorn-bush in order to demonstrate that that God is everywhere, even in the lowliest places: a scrubby shrub as well as a tall cedar of Lebanon, a small and barren mountain as well as a lofty peak.

I smiled when I read this, since I have heard many friends say they feel God’s presence the most when they are out hiking and surrounded by tall trees or snow-capped peaks. I confess that I, too, feel touched by something numinous when I see the awesome natural wonders here in Oregon. Yet I know that if we want to seek the divine, we need to look at straggly little plants as well as cedars, and pray in uninteresting rooms as well as cathedrals.

And God said: Don’t come closer to here! Take off your sandals from upon your feet, because the place that you are standing upon is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)

Moses cannot come closer to God right away. No matter how much he wants to understand the divine, he must learn about God during the course of a long relationship.

In my experience, that is also true for God-seekers today. A mystical experience can be a message, but it does not change your life, or even your soul. The next day, your old behaviors come right back (even if your feeling of transformation keeps you from noticing them). One experience cannot change you into someone who walks with God—someone who thoughtfully does the right things and remains aware of a larger view of reality. You have to change yourself over the course of many years, noticing when it is time to turn aside, noticing when you have made another mistake, and remembering over and over again that a divine fire hides in the weedy bushes of life.

At least that’s what I believe. So I take comfort from knowing that even Moses cannot walk right into the divine fire and become one with God. His encounter at the burning bush is only the beginning. But at least God tells him he is standing on holy ground. If only we could realize that we are all standing on holy ground!

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