Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles

January 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim, Va-eira | 3 Comments
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Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

Pharaoh Merneptah subjugating Semites

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

It takes two Torah portions (Va-eira this week and Bo next week) to describe the miraculous “plagues” that force the Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelites walk out of Egypt. Two psalms, Psalm 78 and Psalm 105, offer briefer versions of the story. And the festival of Passover/Pesach tells the story of how God rescued the Israelites from Egypt in such detail that the seder (“order”;  ritual retelling of the story) can last half the night.

In the Torah portion Va-eira, God lays out the plan to Moses:

Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am God, and I will bring you out from under the burden of Egypt, and I will rescue you from enslavement, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your god. And you will yada that I am God, your god, who is taking you out from under the burden of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7)

yada (יָדַע) = know, realize, recognize, become acquainted, come to understand through direct experience. (Yada is the root verb. The Hebrew here uses the form viyda-etem (וִידַעְתֶּם) = and you will yada.)

Why does God inflict “great acts of judgement” on Egypt? The first reason given in this week’s Torah portion is so that the Israelites will yada God.

Pharaoh Mernptah, son of Ramses II

Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II

The second reason is so that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians will yada God, or at least recognize God’s existence and power:

And Egypt, they will yada that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and I bring out the children of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5)

(The Hebrew in this verse uses form veyade-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will yada.)

How many plagues does it take before both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada God?  Anyone who has participated in a Passover seder, spilling a drop of wine for each plague, knows the answer is ten. And in the book of Exodus/Shemot God does indeed inflict ten miracles on Egypt—the first seven in Va-eira (And I appeared), and the last three in Bo (Come).

However, the ten plagues are described in two different voices. Any close reader of  Va-eira and Bo, even in translation, notices points where the narrative suddenly stops and restarts, rephrasing a bit of the story that has already been told. Scholars examining the language itself have discovered that two stories of the plagues are woven together (but not seamlessly).

Both strands have something to say about the plagues of blood, frogs, and death of the firstborn. The other seven plagues are described by one strand or the other, not both. Maybe each of the two original stories had fewer than ten plagues. Or maybe the redactor(s) who combined the two stories decided to give both descriptions of three plagues, but chose only their favorite descriptions for the other seven.

Psalms 78 and 105 report fewer than ten plagues, and the order is different than in Exodus.

plagues-table

What accounts for these differences? We cannot identify any of these accounts as the original story. At least one strand in the composite story in Exodus was probably written in the 8th century B.C.E. Psalm 78 may have been written as early as the 10th century B.C.E., soon after the first Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem. Psalm 105 could have been written any time after that, maybe before the book of Exodus, maybe as late as the period of the second temple. Probably the story of God’s miracles in Egypt was familiar to all the authors before they began to write down their own versions.

The two psalms and the composite in Exodus borrow language from each other, not only using the same words for the plagues, but sharing pieces of description. For example, Exodus describes the plague of blood this way:

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain

…and he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the waters of the Nile turned into blood. And the fish that were in the Nile died. And the Nile stank and the Egyptians were not able to drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:20-21)

Psalm 78 focuses on the lack of drinking water:

And [God] turned into blood the Nile and its streams;

            They could not drink. (Psalm 78:34)

Psalm 105 focuses on the loss of an important food:

           [God] turned their waters into blood

                        And it made their fish die. (Psalm 105:39)

Whether the story is expanded in the book of Exodus, or contracted in a psalm, it is always offered as a decisive example of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites.

In the book of Exodus, the purpose of the plagues is to get both the Israelites and the Egyptians to yada God. But the Torah portion Bo also gives instructions several times for the earliest Passover rituals, which were conducted about 3,000 years ago. The purpose of these rituals is to remember the story of the exodus.

This day shall be for you for remembrance, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for God, through [all] your generations. It is a decree forever: you shall celebrate it. (Exodus 12:14)

While Exodus only calls for remembering the story of God’s miracles in Egypt, Psalms 78 and 105 tell the story in order to motivate the Israelites of Judah to action.

Psalms 78 hopes that if the Israelites remember the miracles God did for them, then they will stop backsliding, trust God, and obey God’s rules.

           What we have listened to, and we yada,

                      and our ancestors recounted to us,

           should not be concealed from their descendants,

                      to the last generation recounting

           praises of God and Its strength

                      and Its wonders that It did. (Psalm 78:3-4)

(The Hebrew in verse 3 uses form vaneida-eim (וַנֵּדָעֵם) = and we will yada.)

Why must God’s miracles be recounted to every generation?

           Then they will place their kesel in God,

                      and they will not forget the deeds of God,

                      and they will comply with Its commandments. (Psalm 78:7)

kesel (כֶּסֶל) = conviction, certitude, unwavering belief regardless of other evidence or arguments; folly, stupidity.

The section of Psalm 78 that tells about the miracles God inflicted on Egypt (78:42-51) is not designed to mention every single plague, but rather to bring the story to life in ten short verses. Psalm 78 leaves out the kinim, the shechin, and the darkness, but it adds a few details that are not in Exodus:

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

Plague of Hail, Haggadah by Judah Pinchas, 1747 Germany

—that the action happened at Tzoan, a specific place in the Nile Delta. (78:43)

—that the arov, the mixed hordes of vermin, ate the flesh of the Egyptians. (78:45)

—that when God sent hail, Egyptian flocks were hit by lightning. (78:48)

—that the hail killed grapevines and fig trees (important crops in Canaan, but not in Egypt). (78:47)

These additional details would make the story more vivid in the listener’s imagination.

Psalm 105 is less concerned than Psalm 78 about lack of faith and commitment among the people of Judah. I believe its purpose is to whip up enthusiasm for God and the religion among the worshipers at the temple.

           Thank God, call out Its name,

                      hodiyu among the peoples Its deeds!

           Sing to [God], make music to It,

                      consider all Its wonders!

           Revel in the name of Its holiness!

                      Let the heart of those who seek God rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

hodiyu (הוֹדִיעוּ) = make known, inform, announce. (A different form of the root verb yada.)

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Rylands Haggadah, 14th century Spain. Left: livestock pestilence. Right: Shechin.

Psalm 105 then tells the story of the people who became Jews, starting with God’s covenant with Abraham and ending with the Israelites’ conquest of part of Canaan. When it describes the plagues, it omits both livestock pestilence and shechin, perhaps because the thought of rashes and boils would depress the congregation.  Or, according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, because diseases do not seem supernatural enough to count as miracles. But Psalm 105 uses some of same vivid details as Psalm 78.

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Do the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt achieve their purpose?

Direct experience of miracles works in Exodus; both the Israelites and the Egyptians yada—know, realize, and recognize—a powerful god acting on behalf of the Israelites. The instruction to perform a ritual to remember what happened also worked; we have been celebrating Passover for about 3,000 years.

Does the account in Psalm 78 work, leading people to kesel, an unshakeable belief in God, and to a determination to obey God’s rules? I think it would depend on the listener. Some people believe any account that is vivid (like Psalm 78’s selection of details) and comes from an accepted source (such as the temple priests, or a particular news station, or a friend’s e-mail). Other people are skeptics by nature; they examine a story to see if it is logical and how it fits with personal experience and other information. This type of person would probably need direct experience, yada, to achieve kesel and commit themselves to obeying all the rules of the religion.

What about Psalm 105? I believe that an account of past miracles can inspire both kinds of people, especially when it is poetry set to uplifting music. Even natural skeptics can get caught up in singing joyful praise, and leave the temple (or synagogue) with a better attitude toward their God and their religion. And natural believers might be moved to proselytize, following the instruction hodiyu—make known, announce!

The singing of the psalms continued as part of both Jewish and Christian prayer after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It continues today. But Jewish liturgy concentrates on other psalms. It quotes only one verse from Psalm 78 and fifteen from Psalm 105, none of which are verses addressing the plagues in Egypt.

However, serious-minded Jews study the story of the plagues in the Torah portions Va-eira and Bo every winter, when we reach this time in the cycle of Torah readings. And in the spring many more Jews celebrate Passover, a festival of dramatic rituals, prayers, songs, and stories about how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The haggadah (“the telling”), the book that provides the texts and ritual instructions, includes many quotes from our two Torah portions in Exodus. Psalms 78 and 105 are not traditionally included. In a modern American haggadah, the song “Go Down Moses” usually is.

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

from an Iraqi haggadah, printed in Vienna 1930

Out of all the stories of God’s miracles in Egypt, I would say Passover is by far the most effective at getting Jews to remember the claim that God created miracles to rescue our people from Egypt. The ritual itself has changed and grown over the millennia, so it can speak to new generations. Even Jews who grew up in families that managed to conduct a boring seder  every year cannot help but remember the symbolic foods, the song that the youngest child must sing, the exodus story, spilling a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, and hunting for the hidden piece of matzah.

Thus Passover still serves the purpose given in the book of Exodus: remembering the story. Whether we can go further and yada God (as in Exodus), or commit ourselves to kesel (as in Psalm 78), or be moved to joy and a desire to recommend the religion (as in Psalm 105) depends on the individual.

Personally, I have a skeptical nature, and I actively try to avoid kesel—while remaining committed to studying Torah and being a Jew in a liberal sense. But I remember the exodus story every winter when I study it in the Torah, as well as every spring when I participate in Passover. I do not yada the God of the ancient Israelites, but I do yada something I cannot describe that I call God. And when I sing psalms that have uplifting words and melodies, I am indeed moved to joy. I would recommend that to anyone!

Hafarat Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God

January 3, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Ezekiel, Va-eira | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 28:25-29:21.

Apparently God really wants Egypt to know who God is. The god of Israel asks the prophet Moses to tell Pharaoh “and you will know that I am God” three times in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira. And God tells the prophet Ezekiel how God will bring down the Egyptians “and they will know that I am God” four times in this week’s haftarah.

Plague of Blood, as depicted in 14th century CE

Plague of Blood, as depicted in 14th century CE

Before God inflicts the first of ten terrible miracles on Egypt, God instructs Moses to meet Pharaoh on the shore of the Nile and warn him that the water will turn into blood.

And you shall say to him: YHVH, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go and they shall serve Me in the wilderness’, but hey—you did not listen before now. Thus says YHVH: ‘By this teida that ani YHVH’. (Exodus 7:16-17)

YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah  or hayah (הוה or היה) the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, but it is a form that does not fit any Hebrew verb conjugations.

teida (תֵּדַע) = you will know, experience, be acquainted with, recognize, realize, have intercourse with.

ani (אֲנִי) = I [am].

Pharaoh hardens his heart during the seven days of bloody water, claiming it is not a divine miracle, so he does not experience or recognize the god of Israel.

God’s goal of being known by Pharaoh reappears when Moses talks about the second miracle, the plague of frogs:

… so that teida that there is none like YHVH our god. (Exodus 8:6)

—and again when God tells Moses the fourth plague will be more miraculous, because the swarm will be excluded from the place where the Israelites live,

…so that teida that ani YHVH in the midst of the land. (Exodus 8:18)

It takes ten miracles or plagues before Pharaoh finally knows YHVH, and can no longer harden his heart in denial. The knowledge comes from experiencing what God can do in the world.

The haftarah for this week’s Torah portion is a passage from the book of Ezekiel, set many centuries later during the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Israelite nation of Judah in 597 BCE. Judah had asked Egypt to help it fight the Babylonians, and Egypt had not come to the rescue. So Ezekiel prophesies that God will restore the land to the Israelites and punish Egypt, and both peoples will “know” God.

build houses and plant vineyards…then they will dwell on their soil that I gave to My servant, to Jacob. And they will dwell on it in safety, and they will build houses and plant vineyards, and they will dwell on it in safety when I have passed judgments on all those who despise them from all around; veyad-u that ani YHVH their god. (Ezekiel 28:25-26)

veyad-u (וְיָדְעוּ) = and they will know, realize, experience, etc. (A form of the same verb as teida.)

The Israelites will once again know YHVH is their god when they have first-hand experience of this amazing reversal in fortune.

The hafatarah continues with a poem describing the future downfall of Egypt. Then Ezekiel says:

Thus said my master, YHVH: Here I am over you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt …To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the sky I have given you for food. Veyade-u, all the inhabitants of Egypt, that ani YHVH; because you were a walking-stick of reed to the House of Israel; when their hand grasped you, you would break…(Ezekiel 29:3-6)

The implication is that because Egypt failed to support the Israelites, God will make sure all Egyptians know from experience who YHVH is.

And the land of Egypt will become a deserted place and a ruin; veyade-u that ani YHVH, because he [Pharaoh] said: The Nile is mine and I made it. (Ezekiel 29:9)

Egyptians must also realize that although their pharaoh claimed he created the Nile, really YHVH created everything. In order to accomplish this, God will reduce Egypt to the lowest of nations.

And never again will they inspire trust in the House of Israel … veyade-u that ani the lord YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:16)

Therefore, thus says my master YHVH: Here I am, giving the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. And he will carry off her wealth and loot her loot and plunder her plunder, and she will be a reward for his army. …On that day… veyade-u that ani YHVH. (Ezekiel 29:19, 29:21)

In all of these cases in Exodus and Ezekiel, people are expected to realize who God is after they have experienced an unexpected disaster or triumph, a miraculous change in fortune. The experience is supposed to be so powerful that both Israelites and Egyptians will realize that only the most powerful god in the world could create such a miracle, and that this supreme god is the god of Israel.

Furthermore, both peoples will know God by the name YHVH, the four-letter name based on the verb “to be”.  Is this detail repeatedly included simply because it is the name the Israelites use for their god? Or does it carry another meaning?

In last year’s post on this Torah portion (Va-eira: The Right Name) I suggested that the idea of God as “being” or “becoming” is intellectually appealing, but too abstract for an emotional relationship with God. Now I notice that the phrase “know that I am YHVH” always occurs in the Torah and haftarah portions in the context of knowing God’s power to change fate and to create. What is most important is for the Egyptians and for the defeated and deported Israelites to realize that the god of Israel is the god of existence itself. Nothing can have power over YHVH.

I have experienced no inexplicable miracles or reversals of fortune in my own life. I do not know God in that way. I acknowledge the reality of being, that there is something rather than nothing, and I could call that God, even if it is irrelevant to the anthropomorphic god of the Bible.

But I will not. My unmiraculous life is full of meaning and my soul is full of awe, so “I know”—yadati (יָדַעְתִּי)—that there is something I might as well call God that goes beyond the fact of existence.

Teida that ani YHVH = You will know that I am Being.

Then what, or who, is the “I”?

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