Saturday, February 12, 2011

Power Plays and Pity Parties

Although Exodus begins in the fertile Nile Delta, where the land has been made rich by flowing water, we sense immediately a drought of sorts. It’s a spiritual drought, marked by the absence of God, who has been off the scene since the Israelites Egyptian adventure began back in Genesis. God, who was directly present up through his wrestling match with Jacob, has kept quiet throughout the Joseph story and now, through the Egyptian captivity. In the final chapters of Genesis and the first two chapters of Exodus, we get a sparse reference here and there to God, but no intervention by God.

Finally, at the end of Exodus 2 we learn that, “The children of Israel groaned because of their labors and cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the labors. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then God looked down upon the children of Israel and was made known to them.”

Really? It’s as if God’s attention had been diverted elsewhere for the past several hundred years. What was He doing? Maybe trying out that creation thing on another, far away planet to see if He could get it right? We’re not told, but all in all, it’s a rather strange passage, suggesting that the covenant had somehow slipped God’s mind all these years.

That changes in a spectacular way in chapter 3, when God makes a physical reappearance, not to the enslaved Israelites but to Moses, who is off in Midian working as a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro (who was briefly introduced as Reuel before being renamed). Although in previous appearances – walking in the garden where the evening breeze cooled his skin, visiting Abraham in his tent, wrestling with Jacob over a long, troubled night – God seemed to take a human form, this time he appears in the famous burning bush. Actually, we are told (at least in translation) that an angel of God appeared, but then it is God’s voice that speaks to Moses.

It is interesting that in a story dominated by the element of water, God takes a form that may in some ways be considered the opposite of water. And since fire can be quenched by water, it’s not necessarily a superior element. In some ways that sets the tone for the subsequent chapters, where God seems to be impressive but not all-powerful in the eyes of those who witness his appearances and his actions. What we see is a God struggling to assert his authority.

Moses is afraid to look at the sight – all in all, a sensible reaction when confronted with a fiery, talking plant – but not afraid to argue with the instructions that emanate from the vision. Moses repeatedly questions God’s order that he return to Egypt to rescue His people, reiterating that He became aware of their suffering when He heard their cries. Famously, Moses argues that he is “weak in speech and slow of tongue,” leading many generations of biblical scholars to speculate that he had a speech impediment. If so, that handicap doesn’t stop him from spending the rest of his career delivering long speeches.

Moreover, Moses says, why should either the Israelites or the Pharaoh listen to Moses? It’s a reasonable question, compounded by the fact that at this point in the story, we haven’t even been told that Moses knew his own heritage. As readers, we know that Moses was the child of a slave from the tribe of Levi, but does Moses know this? He was nursed by his birth mother, but later raised in Pharaoh’s court by his adoptive mother. God tells him that Aaron the Levite, his brother, will speak for him, and it’s said in a way that suggests Moses knows Aaron, but when and how did he learn that Aaron is his brother?

Omissions like this have inspired scholars – the rabbis of the Midrash,as well as Josephus, Philo and many others – to attempt to fill in the gaps. Perhaps the most famous of the retellers, Cecil B. DeMille, acknowledges these sources in the opening credits of his film, The Ten Commandments, which, among other things, includes an elaborate episode in which Moses’ true parentage is revealed to him on the night of the first Passover when both his birth mother and his adoptive mother show up. In fact, the first couple hours of the film are based almost entirely on elaborations external to the Bible, including Moses’ return from a military campaign in Ethiopia (in one ancient story, Moses actually reigns as king of Ethiopia after fleeing Egypt and before heading off to Midian) and the sinister plotting of his rival Dathan, who in the Bible itself only appears in Numbers 16 when he leads a rebellion against Moses and is swallowed up by the ground, but who in DeMille’s version, as well as some Midrashic writings, is the witness to Moses’ murder of the Egyptian. DeMille also portrays Dathan, in the form of Edward G. Robinson, fixated on the nubile girlfriend (Debra Paget) of young Joshua, nubile girlfriends of biblical figures being an important fixture in DeMille’s oeuvre.

It takes a couple of miracles – transforming Moses’ shepherd’s staff into a snake and back, turning Moses’ hand white with disease – as well as the promise of Aaron as a mouthpiece before Moses is convinced to take on God’s mission, but then he travels back to Egypt with his wife and sons. Along the way comes another strange, mystifying encounter with God, in which He appears, presumably in human form, to try to kill Moses, the man he has just appointed as his messenger. He is stopped from his deadly mission only when Mrs. Moses, Zipporah, performs an impromptu circumcision of one of her sons – with a sharp stone! -- and flings the bloody foreskin at God’s feet (many interpreters suggest that “feet” is used here, as elsewhere in the Bible, as a euphemism for the genitals). That episode, ignored by DeMille and by most retellers of the Moses story, has been argued over for three millennia, with no consensus on what prompted God’s murderous impulse.

Back in Egypt, Moses connects with Aaron and the two proceed to meet with a very accessible Pharaoh. Was Pharaoh so available to Moses because they were raised together? It seems likely, but is never addressed directly, and anyway, Pharaoh seems also to be directly accessible to the slave overseers when they come to complain about their hardships.

Thus we enter into the story of the ten plagues, where God’s spectacular series of natural disasters is met not with awe and submission, but with resistance and prevarication. When Aaron repeats the miracle God first taught Moses, of turning a rod into a snake, Pharaoh’s magicians easily replicate the transformation with their own sticks. They do the same with the first two plagues, turning water to blood and causing frogs to spring from the water, only getting stumped by the third plague, variously called an infestation of lice or mosquitoes.

The Israelites, for their part, are just as resistant to Moses as Moses had predicted they would be. And Pharaoh’s hard-headedness is epic. I love his reaction to Moses’ first exhortation to “Let my people go.” The Egyptian god-king is defiant, and seems to be insulted that Moses would suggest there is a power greater than his own: “Who is He, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the lord, nor will I let the people go.” The words are spoken with peerless arrogance by Yul Brynner in DeMille’s film, and they resonate because they seem such an appropriate reaction from a figure who has been raised to believe he is the supreme power. I never ceased to be amazed at the Bible’s spot-on depictions of human attitudes and reactions: These stories, set thousands of years ago, show us people whose behavior we might encounter on any given day. Hosni Mubarak’s reaction to the protests of the Egyptian people is, after all, not that far removed from Pharaoh’s reactions to Moses and to God’s plagues.

The entire episode of the plagues is presented as a power play between God and Pharaoh, a clash of the titans. Each time God ups the ante with a new horror, Pharaoh suggests he will comply with God’s wishes, but then either tries to negotiate terms or simply changes his mind before the Israelites can make their way out out of Egypt. Even after the final plague, when all of the Egyptian first-born, including Pharaoh’s son, are killed, Pharaoh’s submission is only temporary. He allows the Israelites to leave, but then sends an army after them, leading to the astonishing parting of the sea to provide safe passage for the Israelites and sudden death to the pursuing troops.

If Pharaoh’s arrogance becomes predictable and tiresome after a while, so does the complaining of the Israelites. Despite their delivery from servitude, it’s seemingly a matter of only hours before they start asking what God has done for them lately. Over and over again, God provides sustenance – water from a rock, manna from heaven, multitudes of birds for roasting – and over and over again, the Israelites keep up their complaints and rebellions. Their self-pity and ingratitude are, again, recognizably human traits that help to connect us three millennia later to the story. Gratitude is a notoriously short-lived feeling for many of us, something we have to work at sustaining beyond the immediate circumstances that inspire it.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the efforts of archaeologists to unearth evidence of the Egyptian captivity and the Exodus. There is precious little to suggest that either occurred in anything like the form described in the Bible. That’s fine with me. It doesn’t detract from the importance of the Moses story, which lies not in history or in the recounting of miracles, but in the very human ways that the characters respond to their circumstances, questioning and challenging even the most persuasive evidence, changing their minds with lightning speed, forgetting the goodness that has been visited upon them, focusing their thoughts not on the events surrounding them but on their own delusions of power and entitlement. It’s not the magic of an unearthly God that connects us to Exodus, it’s the fact that God’s creations haven’t changed at all in the ensuing time.

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