Fribble Friday: Movement of Jah People (Exodus 10:1–13:16)

OK, I had this mostly-written on Tuesday, and then I had a converence that kept me busy for a few days. Really, I am not slipping. Well, not much

We come to פָּרָשַׁת בא (“Go!” portion), which includes most of the actual exodus from Egypt. From here on it’s gradually moving into dull legalities, so enjoy the narrative while you have it. This week there’s a special treat, too, in that I’m using a Fox Bible, which eschews the English-language poetry in favor of greater accuracy of translation.

The quick snarky summary: Doubling down on stupid, Pharaoh fights to keep the Jews around, and the entire nation suffers until finally Pharaoh lets them go. During these trials, Moses instructs the Jews in protective sacrifices, and in commemorative feasts, which these days are trendy even if you’re not Jewish.

It’s rather surprising by now that there hasn’t been a palace coup. If we are to believe the report here, then over some (presumably fairly short) period of time, Moses has predicted trials ranging from mild inconveniences to dire disasters striking Egypt, and they’ve come all come to pass, and at this point, Egypt is on the brink of starvation: presumably the pestilence and hail, and possibly the other disasters, have completely ruined the livestock and early crops (we’re specifically told the late crops, like grain, are still viable).

A hint of the possibility of revolution is provided in 10:7, where, after Moses tells Pharaoh that the next stop is all-consuming locusts (specifically for the purpose of gobbling up what little is left in the nation), his advisors given him the sound advice to capitulate. Unfortunately, Pharaoh still seems to cling to the fiction that what the Israelites are angling for is a day trip, even though the tone of the negotiations has suggested that both parties are really discussing complete manumission. But this stall in the debate is long enough for the locusts to come and eat everything, and Pharaoh then begs Moses and Aaron to send them away, which by that time seems a bit pointless; by verse 15 everything that can be eaten has been eaten, so by then Pharaoh might as well just wait for them to depart of their own accord.

The next plague comes without warning, and it’s a pretty weird one: we’re told that there were three days of darkness, which seems pretty mild, in terms of property damage, for this late in the game. But we’re also told specifically in 10:23 that people can’t stand up, so either it’s a supernaturally paralytic darkness (which would indeed be horrible), or the Egyptians are just unwilling to blunder around in the dark. It’s kind of a pity that those Egyptian priests aren’t still hanging around to help out with things, since “Continual Light” is only a third-level spell and probably within their repertoire.

Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s capitulating pretty fast. His offer now is to let the Israelites leave as long as they don’t take any animals. Myself, I might take that offer, but I guess when you know God’s on your side you get to set the terms of debate, so even this slight salve for Pharaoh’s pride is denied so that God can end with a big finish, and with a rather dark prophetic barb in 10:28–29.

Most of the plagues have been presented in pretty perfunctory fashion, but here with this last one comes a major set of directives for the people of Israel. First off, they’re told to ask gold and silver of the natives: whether this is meant to be the polite fiction of a loan, or a gift, or a bribe, or what, but in any case it’s a preparation to run off with a lot of Egypt’s (remaining) wealth. I’d imagine that, were I an Egyptian asked for gold by an Israelite, my response would be along the lines of, “Fuck you, I need this gold to buy food to replace all the grain your damn God ruined.” But I guess that there’s not a bright line to use on an extortionist.

Chapter 12 proceeds with the instructions to the Israelites, which are but a hint of the avalanche of regulations they’ll get soon enough. These instructions pertain to the first of the several festivals that’ll be ordained by divine law, and thus start with the precise timing of the festival, from the tenth to fourteenth day after a new moon (exactly which new moon isn’t given in the text, oddly, but it was later established to be in spring, once the calendar was more fully regulated). The rest of the chapter describes the ceremonial aspects of the festival as well as the feast. The practice is actually rather interesting in its commonalities and differences from prevailing sacrificial practices (described in great detail later): as with sacrifices, the communal aspect, the burning with fire, and the ceremony (in this case, of placing blood on the doorframe) are meant to draw the people together and provide a spectacle of sorts, but this is a custom with less ostentatious sanctity than was practiced with sacrifice. Sacrifices could only be offered by a priest; this is emphatically a slaughter and successive ritual performed by a household, not a temple. Sacrifices were offered up, in whole or in part, to God; this roast is meant to be consumed in its entirety by the people.

The whole practice seems to be a peculiar and possibly theologically pointed deviation from priestly practice. The ostensible purpose of the ritual at the time is that the blood (a symbolic sacrifice) will differentiate the houses of the Israelites from the houses of the Egyptians and shield them from harm, but such a distinction wasn’t needed earlier, even in the several plagues specifically said to have not affected the Israelites individually or the land of Goshen generally. It’s far more likely that the protection was meant to be symbolic than literal, as 12:14–27 refer to an annual tradition, rather than the one-time events of the liberation from Egypt, which would have been the only time possible for the protective ritual to be literal.

From a chronological and narrative standpoint, 12:14–27 are actually kind of peculiarly placed. A great deal of language is spent on the prohibition of leavened food and the consumption of unleavened bread, but this is narratively unjustified at this point, since it’s a memorial referring to a specific later event, the departure in haste of 12:34–39. And the focus on future ritual practice, although clearly motivated by the narrative here, is a bit disruptive to it.

But once we get past this somewhat incidental bit of traditionbuilding, we return to see the final plague unfold. It’s described sparingly but effectively: firstborn people and animals died (animals that, uh, weren’t already dead of the pestilence or the wild animals or the hail, I suppose), and every single household mourned. Simple, but it gives a good feel for the scope of the carnage. And then Pharaoh goes to visit and capitulate to Moses and Aaron, which actually seems to me to be a narrative misstep, making Moses’s dark prediction in 10:29 an unfired narrative gun (seriously, with a line like that, you’d expect Pharaoh to die, and his successor to free the slaves). We’re given something of a view of the average Egyptian here, in that they urged the Israelites to leave and surrendered a fortune to do so. I can’t help but feel sorry for the common Egyptians here, who lose everything because their king’s a prick.

The end of Chapter 12 brings us some very suspicious numbers: we’re told that the Children of Israel numbered “about six hundred thousand”, and that their settlement in Egypt was “four hundred thirty years”. Both of these numbers seem way too large. The former one we’ll see again with the logistics of the desert-dwelling, so I won’t go into it in detail now, save to point out that 600,000 is an obscenely large number of people for a Bronze Age community, and for a nomadic group at any point in history. But that figure of 430 years bears closer inspection, because a few parshot ago I was pointing out that there were somewhere from 4 to 6 generations between Jacob and Moses, and 430 years seems way too big. We can shave a bit of that off of both ends: Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years before his death, and Moses was eighty years old when he confronted Pharaoh, leaving 333 years unaccounted for between Jacob’s death and Moses’s birth, which is a length of time which, even with Biblically-inflated life expectancies, seems to be too long for the few generations between.

The narrative breaks abruptly here, between the departure and the pursuit, which fit together well, to deliver a few laws. This is something of a precursor of things to come, as the next several books will cover many, many laws and traditions of the Jewish community. Oddly, the laws are a bit tangled up, suggesting a clumsy merge or reordering of some sort of pre-existing source. We have in verses 12:43–49 and 13:3–10 a recapitulation of the Passover laws; the only addition here is the emphasis that only the circumcised may partake of the Passover meal, although anyone meeting that requirement can, even if not from the community. But woven in among that is the apparently unrelated matter of redemption of firstborn children and livestock, in verses 13:2 and 13:11–13. This is meant to be a reference to the killing of the Egyptian firstborn, of course, but with its message strung out among the more general circumstances of the Passover meal, it seems completely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

That brings us to the end of the departure. We’ll see the last of the Egyptians next week, when they decide they want the Israelites back after all.


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

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