Wibble Wednesday: Who is this Moses Guy, Anyways? (Exodus 3:1–6:1)

We’re continuing פָּרָשַׁת שמות (“Names” portion), which I stopped about a third of the way through last week. God damn, a lot happens in this section. We get a lot of the major pre-Plague events right away.

The quick snarky summary: Moses is extremely reluctant to leave his cushy shepherding gig to act as a labor organizer, so God has to poke him with signs and portents until he finally gets off his ass and hits the road. Then God tries to kill him for obscure reasons, and probably would’ve felt a bit foolish if he’d succeeded. Moses meets up with the leaders who have actually been in Egypt, and together they ask for back vacation time. This has about the same effect that labor-management disputes usually had up until quite recently in history.

So when we last saw him, Moses had settled down in Midian, married a priest’s daughter, had a son, and basically gotten accustomed, one imagines, to a fairly sedate life. But conflict’s on the horizon since God has noticed the plight of the Israelites, and Moses will be his tool of liberation.

One might wonder: why Moses? Unlike Aaron, he isn’t actually in the thick of things out in Egypt, and he’s not really part of this community that needs liberation. It seems like there should be more qualified redeemers than a child of privilege who’s only Jewish due to a quirk of ancestry. Moses himself seems pretty dubious on the proposition when it’s put to him: encountering God in a burning bush, and he spends a whole chapter coming up with completely different reasons than the ones I’ve given for why he’s not really up to this task.

But for now, we’re still in Chapter 3, where Moses encounters a burning bush, which has been imbued with much symbolism but appears to have been a simple shorthand for a physical impossibility: something which burns without being consumed. God’s speech at this point mirrors some of his speeches about delivering the land to their descendants which he promised the forefathers, but now there’s a specific narrative of redemption, in bringing them not only to the land, but out of servitude. This seems actually proto-Messianic in some ways, and parts of this Exodus promise will inform future explicitly Messianic prophecies.

God’s promises in Chapter 3 also go into specifics, detailing the adventures of the next several chapters. First he shares his name — a different name yet than those encountered in Genesis — and one with some odd, tautological meanings, suggestive of the phrase “I Am What I Am”*. God’s plan involves a calculated insult to the Egyptians, designed to fail in a way so as to justify revenge, which is promised. Finally, verses 3:21–22 suggest a peculiar interracial development: in spite of the fact that they’ll be permitting the Israelites’ departure only after heavy persuasion, and that the Israelites were their slaves, there’s the seemingly out of place promise that the Egyptians will lend the Israelites riches, which they can then abscond with, which makes neither sociological nor moral sense, as far as I can tell. But the morality of God’s plan is pretty dubious anyways: he’s engineering a crisis in order to have an opportunity to behave badly.

Chapter 4 presents the comedy of Moses’s demurral at length. He raises several arguably legitimate objections to God’s delegation: he’s an outsider and unfamiliar to the elders of Israel, and a talentless orator. God addresses the first point by giving Moses three neat tricks: a staff that turns into a snake, the ability to feign leprosy, and the power to transmute water to blood, and the second by parceling out the speaking role to Aaron. While none of these explain why Moses is a suitable or useful choice, God doesn’t need to explain to anybody and, stripping Moses of reasonable objections, sends him on his way, with his family in tow (incidentally, his father-in-law, referred to previously as Reuel, is here given his much better name of Jethro).

The material from Verse 4:21 on, after Moses sets out on his journey presents God in an extremely unpleasant light. First, a rather pernicious detail of the plan is revealed in 4:21, namely, that regardless of Pharaoh’s natural inclanation, God will compel him to behave badly to justify punishment. It’s difficult to come up with a moral system where that is an act of compassion, or mercy, or indeed anything except for psychopathy. In addition, Verses 24 to 26 include a singularly odd incident in which God comes upon Moses and tries to kill him. Verse 24 gives no good reason whuy God, who had so recently brought Moses under his protection, would turn around and try to kill him, and the answer “he’s God, he can do anything he likes” is starting to wear a bit thin. Verses 25 and 26 heavily imply that Moses is being attacked because he didn’t circumcise his son, which seems like it might’ve been bound up in some way with racial identity: in order to merit being the Hebrews’ redeemer, Moses must live and act as a Hebrew, and failure to do so is punished. That line of thoguht would make a lot more sense if it didn’t form the core of my doubt as to why he was a good choice of redeemer in the first place.

In the end of Chapter 4, Moses quickly brings Aaron, the Elders, and the people as a whole over to his side. And with the labor force behind him, he’s all ready to present his demands. Chapter 5 brings us to the comparatively modest demand that they hold a religious festival, to which Pharoah reacts badly, claiming ignorance of the Hebrew God. Verse 5:2 interested me, as it appears to be the first place in the Bible which actually presents YHVH as a uniquely Hebrew deity. Through Genesis, the narrative seemed to be that while God had a special destiny carved out for the Hebrews, he was unambiguously accepted as a deity by others: Abraham’s associate Melchizedek spoke in his name, and those who came into contact with the forefathers took their statements of divine favor at face value rather than doubting the identity of their God. Pharoah is the first character to actually demonstrate antagonism to the Hebrew God (he won’t be the last).

The rest of Chapter 5 chronicles the fallout from this fairly modest demand and Pharoah’s fury thereat. It’s kind of wrong to hold Pharoah wholly responsible, since he is (if we believe the tale of Chapter 4) under a divine mind-whammy compulsion. Pharoah’s punishment is to no longer provide straw to the brickmakers. That’s a bit esoteric in the modern day, but apparently straw was a necessary component to add fibrousness and porousness to bricks, so making “bricks without straw” wasn’t really an option and the brickmakers didn’t do without, but instead had to fetch their own straw. The final verses of Chapter 5 include the first instance of what will, over the next several books, become an extremely popular theme: the people whine at Moses about how he’s just made things worse, and Moses whiens at God about how ungrateful the Israelites are. No, really, 5:20–22 are basically a synopsis of most of the Book of Numbers, so be glad you’re getting the brief version now.

* Yes, apparently God is Popeye. Who knew?


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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