Fox Tales: Parashat Bo–Sacred Interruption

This section, in which the final three plagues are recounted, is marked by a set of lengthy insertions that appear to take away from the flow of the dramatic narrative. After the “locust-horde” comes, brought on by Pharaoh’s stubbornness (Ex. 10:1-20), and then the disorienting plague of darkness, whose effect likewise fails to move the Egyptian ruler (10:21-27), we are told that “one more blow” will fall on the Egyptians, and it will be the decisive one:

In the middle of the night
I will go forth throughout the midst of Egypt,
and every firstborn shall die throughout the land of Egypt,
from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne
to the firstborn of the maid who is behind the handmill,
and every firstborn of beast (11:4-5).

This horror, not explainable as a natural phenomenon, unlike the previous nine plagues, promises to produce a cry in the land, “the like of which has never been, the like of which shall never be again” (v. 6).

Soon afterward the text changes gears, and we find ourselves in a long chapter (12) describing what Jewish tradition calls “the Passover of Egypt”—twenty-eight verses setting out the rules for the slaves’ meal in great detail, including what may and may not be eaten and what will happen to one who breaks the rules. The text is connected to the previous narrative by the smearing of the lamb’s blood, in order to provide protection from the soon-to-destroy divine hand, but on balance it still feels like a long interruption. It ends with a requirement to teach “your children” the meaning of what is transpiring, when they arrive in the Promised Land. Only then can the story pick up again with the brief but hair-raising drama of the final plague (vv. 29-42).

But there is more. A few additional Passover regulations follow (vv. 43-50), ending with the observation that the Children of Israel did exactly as they were commanded. Now we await the resumption of the journey. But instead of continuing where the story had left off, there is yet another set of exodus-related rules, including the treatment of firstborns: with sacrifice, if an animal, and with redemption, if a person (13:1-16). And this section concludes, as the opening rituals of chapter 12 did, with another reminder of the need to explain the meaning of the story to future generations. At this point, the narrative is finally able to return to the wilderness journey, with an explanation of what the route will be, how the Israelites will bring Yosef’s bones with them, and in what form God will accompany them. It will climax in the stunning confrontation at the Sea.

I have long felt that the way in which this part of Exodus is put together is rather like some theatre experiences. In the midst of a gripping story, which rides on a crescendo of words and actions as we get closer to the moment of liberation, the actors turn to face the audience—no, they go into the audience, and invite them up on stage, as it were. The details of how the Passover is to be observed function on one level as a break after the detailed plague stories of the previous five chapters, but more importantly, they serve, in the way they are presented—as prescriptions—to integrate the audience into the story itself. The recounting of these rituals, familiar in one form or another to generations of Jews, encourages the listeners to see themselves as participants, and collapses the gap between past, present and future into a perpetually-repeated “mythical time.”

In this manner, which is characteristic of the Torah as a whole, in distinction to most other ancient literature, the blending together of narrative, law and ritual in the text creates a multi-layered, multi-vocal experience, moving the story of origins into the active world of the community. The narrative invites us to take part in a meal of remembrance, along with the sacred obligation to pass its message down to children. The text thus moves from the realm of story to that of “Instruction” (Heb. torah).

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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