Wibble Wednesday: Signs and Portents (Exodus 6:2–9:35)

We move very quickly through the part of Exodus people remember, which is to say, the actual Exodusing part of it. This is פָּרָשַׁת וארא (“And I appeared” portion), getting us midway through the Israel-in-Egypt narrative.

The quick snarky summary: God tells Moses to repeat his demands, in the hope that maybe the second time around will work, but specifically engineers this attempt to fail just so that he can show off with flashy parlor tricks and malicious muschief.

So in Chapter 6 and 7, God tells Moses and Aaron to deliver a message to the people and to Pharaoh. This feels somewhat repetitive: the message being given to pass on to the people in 6:6–8 is of redemption, and is basically identical to the message of Exodus 3:16–22. There are a few interesting differences here: God now for the first time refers to himself by the Tetragrammaton, which is regarded as having mystical power (note that God has previously used a number of monikers, but it is asserted here, and in scholarly writings, that this is his “true” name. Another odd element of this section is that it differs from the previous telling in that here, instead of joyfully receiving the news, the people are despondent and unwilling to court hope.

Since this all seems a bit redundant, I’m wondering if these two quite different results from receiving the same news are, like similar repetitions in Genesis, the result of an attempt to merge two distinct written traditions derived from a single prior tale of redemption. The Israelites’ reaction at this juncture isn’t terribly important, so it’s entirely possible that two divergent versions of the tale had different embellishing details. I am surprised just how often what appear to be multiple variations on the same text ended up appearing in the Torah. Presumably this was a conscious choice on the part of the editors throughout the ages, fostering an inclusive text with variations. They might have subscribed to or intended to promulgate a different theory of authorship than is held by stricter denominations today, in which the authorship of the Torah is attributed directly to God; a theory with obvious appeal but quite at odds with these idiosyncrasies.

Exodus 6:14–25 is a peculiar genealogy. It’s peculiar both in place, in that is injected directly into a narrative it’s not really relevant to, and in its incompleteness. We get details of which clans are in the tribe of Reuben, which clans are in the tribe of Simeon, and which clans are in the tribe of Levi, and from Levi’s clans the lineages of Moses and Aaron are specifically highlighted. The lineage of Aaron and Moses, and by extension the structure of the Levites as a tribe, are at least germane to the recent-goings-on, even if they are somewhat narratively disruptive, but I can’t fathom what Reuben and Simeon’s kids are doing here. They’re Levi’s seniors, but that doesn’t seem like it should matter much. Simeon doesn’t even really have any recognizable status markers: Reuben has the firstborn privilege, Levi the priesthood, and Judah the monarchy. So to see his family given special notice here seems more than a little odd.

In Chapter 7, God outlines his plan, which basically boils down to being an omnipotent showoff shithead. Verse 7:3 is the core of this ethically odious grand design: Pharaoh will actually be willing to let the Israelites go, but God’s going to mind-whammy him into a lack of contrition just so as to be able to keep on doing horrible, flashy things to Egypt. The actual meeting includes the neat sticks-to-snakes trick from 4:2–4 (evidently both Moses and Aaron are 7th level or higher. Also, from 2nd Edition or earlier); that trick, along with the leprous hand and a water-to-blood conjuration, were supposed to be for the Israelites, but they were so well received that Pharaoh gets an encore performance, which adds a cute extra detail: apparently Egypt is chock-full of 7th-level clerics, and so converting a staff to a snake isn’t that impressive, but Aaron’s snake eats all the others, so his magic’s better.

But from 7:14 on the game is afoot and God’s ready to show Pharaoh just what a bad cop he can be. It’s not actually clear who’s acting in this section: God’s instructions in 7:14–18 suggest that Moses is instructed to hit the river, turning it into blood, while 7:19 indicates that Aaron’s supposed to turn all the water to blood by waving at it. The actual report of what Moses did supports the previous story, but here as elsewhere it seems like distinct narratives have been clumsily spliced together. Apparently the Egyptian magicians were also able to repeat this marvel, which doesn’t seem all that impressive under the circumstances (“And when I wave my staff and pronounce the magic word, the river will flow with blood!” “But it’s alread—” “Silence! Abracadabra! See? Blood!” “Yes, yes, you’re very clever. I don’t suppose you can change it back?”). This plague ultimately turned out mostly to be a minor inconvenience, since the groundwater was apparently uncontaminated. It’s also the only plague for a while which is manifestly supernatural.

Next up Moses threatens frogs. Aaron does the exact same thing as before, but this time it brings frogs out of the water, whch, again, sounds like a disgusting inconvenience rather than an actual tribulation. This time, too, the magicians demonstrate that they can do the same thing (sooner or later somebody’s bound to call them out for taking credit for stuff that’s already going on. Also, for not actually being remotely helpful). Oddly, this disturbs Pharaoh more than the whole blood thing did, despite the reasonable possibility that it might be a natural occurrence, and one he can presumably work his way through, and he capitulates, offering to let the Israelites leave, and Moses lifts the plague (leaving piles of dead frogs all over the place). We’re told Pharaoh then went back on his word, which would make him seem a lot more villainous if God hadn’t specifically said he was going to make Pharaoh behave badly.

Lice come up next. Aaron’s at bat again, and this time he’s hitting the ground to make the earth teem with lice. We’re not told in any particular detail on how the lice troubled the Egyptians, but I’m going to assume they itched, so this too comes under the general heading of “extremely irritating” rather than “genuinely threatening”. Also, for the first time, the magicians say they can’t reproduce this trick (why they don’t just point to a random bit of teeming ground and claim to summon lice out of it, I don’t know). As before, Pharaoh doesn’t capitulate, and we’re not told how this one ends: does everyone just stay itchy through the next seven plagues,or was the louse-summoning a one-time thing and any delousing after the original summoning could get people clean?

The next plague is notable for being something not easily translated. Nobody actually knows what the hell ערב are. Best guesses are that it refers to a “mixture” or “swarm”, which gives us either “insects” (which seems kinda redundant with the lice, who are already filling the same ecological niches) or “wild beasts”. If you want to be more bizarre, the Rambam held that ערב, a cognate with the word for “evening”, meant, more or less, “werewolves”. And in modern Hebrew I’m given to understand it can mean “Arabs” (not, AFAICT, a deliberate slur; it’s the most straightforward set of consonants to represent the phonetic form “Arab”). So whatever this plague was, it was definitely fun, with bears or flies or werewolves or Arabs or mixtures or all of these wandering into Egyptian houses. We’re told almost nothing about what they did which might help us winnow down this list, except that they ruined things, but not in Goshen, where they stayed away to prove that the Israelites were super-special. I bet the tribes would’ve liked it if you’d done that a plague or two earlier, God, you dick. Oh well, at least they aren’t being pestered by Arabs while they’re scratching at their lice. Depending on the translation, this plague was either a minor nuisance or a serious threat. Waking up to find a werewolf sitting on your bed is no joke.

Next up is an unambiguous act of terrorism, or what would be qualified as a serious attack on an agrarian society. God kills all the Egyptian livestock (but no Israelite livestock). We’re not told that the Egyptians then repossessed the Israelites’ animals, although it seems the obvious thing to do in a disaster that your slave underclass weathered better than you did. This one isn’t very flashy or sexy, and the author doesn’t spend a lot of text on it (neither really did the exegetical commentators, who didn’t find sick livestock to have that special divine something they wanted to build crazy theories on).

And now an act of teamwork! Since God did the last two plagues solo, he’s letting Moses and Aaron both have a go at this one, throwing soot in the sky to become boils and blisters causing the Egyptians pain. I can’t help but notice that God’s taking all the serious property damage for himself, and leaving Moses and Aaron with nuisance crimes. We’re told that this time the magicians were too sick to even see Moses and Aaron, which is an odd inclusion, since they had nothing at all to say about the last two plagues. I assume summoning a bear or making a cow die is not that hard for a 7th-level cleric.

Now Moses promises hail, powerful enough to kill anyone outside. I’d think Pharaoh’s got to have figured out the cost-benefit analysis here’s tipping pretty badly against the proposition of keeping the Israelites, and I feel pretty bad for him, because he’s irrationally devoted to not capitulating, presumably thinking they’ve got to run out of plagues soon. Maybe God smote him with the sunk-cost fallacy? Either way, some Egyptians have figured out that this is a bad scene for them and have the presence of mind to move their livestock (where’d they get new cows after they all died in Verse 9:6? Kinda supports my reposession theory), and some others, who are apparently complete idiots, leave their animals out and venture into the storm. We’re colorfully told it’s a very fierce storm, with details which sound vaguely supernatural: fire from the sky, but in concert with a thunderstorm, we might read that as lightning. And now all the trees and crops are dead too thanks to the shredding force of the hail, except in Goshen (I assume the Egyptians then went and stole Israelite crops). It goes without saying that this is, again, Serious Property Damage (and it’s summoned by Moses instead of God! Guess he’s growing into his power.)

This plague suggests that they’re making some progress with Pharaoh, because for once he actually calls for them instead of waiting for them, and begs for them to stop. But again God hypnotizes the poor sap into staying stubborn, just so that the nation can be completely destroyed. But the last couple strokes are yet to fall, and they’ll have to wait for next week, when Israel finally departs in triumph.


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

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