Israel Drazin

Obscurities in the Biblical Portion Shemot

Exodus begins to relate the events that followed Joseph’s death. He was second in power to Pharaoh and could protect his family while alive. A new Pharaoh assumes the throne and enslaves the Israelites. We read of Moses’ birth and early life, that the new Pharaoh enslaved Joseph’s family, his and his brothers’ descendants, who are now very numerous, and he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. God appears to Moses and instructs him to return to Egypt to rescue the Israelites from slavery. Most of the events in this portion are obscure and open to interpretation, intended to prompt us to think and learn. The following are examples.

  • It is well-known that Exodus, Shemot in Hebrew, is the second book of the Torah. What is generally unknown is that the division into five books is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. The first time that we find that the Torah is divided is in the works of the Jewish philosopher Philo (circa 25 BCE – 50 CE) in his books “Abraham” and “On the Eternity of the World.” The first time the Torah became known by the Greek name Pentateuch, literally “five scrolls,” is found in a second-century CE document. The word in Hebrew is Chumash, meaning “Five.” When and why was this division created? Why was it done? Why divide into five and not seven or another number? Why wasn’t the division done previously? What is the origin of the name Chumash?
  • Exodus is part of the Torah. But what is Torah? In the Pentateuch, the word does not refer to the Bible but to a single or small group of teachings. When did the term Torah acquire the meaning of Bible?
  • The Torah is divided by the ancient rabbis into 54 portions called parashas, “portions” in Hebrew, so that the entire Torah can be read by Jews yearly. There are eleven portions in Exodus. The first letter of ten of the elven is the Hebrew letter vav, usually translated as “And.” Is this translation correct for the opening of most portions? Would the translation “Now” be more appropriate? Perhaps we should realize the use of the vav in the Torah was the way of speaking when the Torah was composed, adds nothing to the meaning, and ignore the letter when we translate the Bible into English.
  • Exodus begins in chapter 1, verse 5, by telling readers that seventy nefesh, “souls,” came to Egyptwith the patriarch Jacob when they were invited to travel and live there. The people who came are listed. Verse 5 and the listing of names seem like simple verses with simple statements. However, at least three issues are obscure. One, the listing does not name seventy people. Why? The answer is simple once one looks at the other times that this number is used, such as “The word of God was pronounced on Mount Sinai in seventy languages (Shabbat 88a; Exodus Rabba; compare Acts ii. 5). and Jewish law required that every member of the Sanhedrin should have enough knowledge of the seventy languages to be able to do without an interpreter (Sanhedrin 17a; compare Megillah 73b; Menahot 65a). The Torah is not giving a count. The use of the number seventy in the Bible indicates “a large number.” Thus, when the Hebrew scripture states seventy nations, it tells us that there are more than seventy nations besides the Israelites.
  • The second problem is why only males are listed and not wives and female children.
  • Why isn’t Dinah mentioned? The Torah narrates how she was raped by Shechem and the revenge by her two brothers and is now silent. What happened to her?
  • A Midrash suggests that the 70 number implies that Moses’ mother was born when the family entered Egypt. Doesn’t this emphasize the problem of the failure to mention females? Why did the rabbi who offered this solution to the count not notice that other women were also not mentioned?
  • The third problem is that it speaks of “souls,” nefeshin Hebrew. Why does it do so? Once one realizes that nefesh in the Torah means “person,” that the concept of a soul is not contained in the Torah and was only first introduced around 300 or 400 BCE, it becomes clear that the verse is speaking about people. Genesis 12:5 states that Abram took “souls that they (he and Sarai) had gotten in Haran, and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan.” It is not saying, as Rashi claims, that they brought people with them whom they converted to Judaism. Rashi is basing his view on a homiletical Midrash. The verse is saying that the pair brought slaves with them.
  • The Torah states that Moses was saved from a basket floating in water by Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him apparently in the palace. When he grew up, the Torah says he “went out to his brothers.” How did Moses know he was related to the Israelite slaves?
  • When Moses left the palace, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite and killed the taskmaster. Did Moses overreact? Did the taskmaster deserve to be killed?
  • When Moses realized his homicide was seen, he fled from Egypt to Midian. Why flee? He was the adopted grandson of the Pharaoh. Shouldn’t he know that his rank would protect him from punishment?
  • The Talmud in Sanhedrin 19b has a legend that Pharaoh’s daughter fled Egypt with Moses and later married the Israelite hero Caleb. Why did the Talmud tell us this tale?
  • What prompted Pharaoh’s daughter to reject her father’s decree to kill all Israelite newborn males?
  • Why doesn’t the Torah tell us Pharaoh’s daughter’s name? She was a heroine.
  • Midrashim suggest that her name was Batyah, meaning daughter of God. Why did the rabbis make this suggestion?
  • Why didn’t Pharaoh take Moses from his daughter and kill him since he killed all other male newborns he could find?
  • Did Pharaoh’s daughter give Moses a Hebrew or an Egyptian name? Midrashim say he was given an Egyptian name that the Torah translated into Hebrew, and Moses is Hebrew. But we know that Moses was used in Egyptian names. There were even several Pharaohs called Tutmosis.
  • Did Moses act improperly by marrying the daughter of an idol-worshiping priest?
  • Jacob’s son Joseph also married the daughter of an idol’s priest. The two became leaders of their brethren when they reached maturity. Each had difficulties with their brethren. Each left their family because of a problem. There are other similarities. Should we learn something from the comparisons?
  • Moses’ father-in-law is called by different names in the Torah, such as Reuel in 2:18 and Yitro in 3:1. Why?
  • Why did God wait until the Israelites cried for help before God sent Moses to save them?
  • God tells Moses to return from Midian to Egypt to rescue the Israelite free from slavery. God tells him that his brother will meet him and help him. How did Moses know he had a brother?
  • Is it significant that Moses is a Levite? If yes, why?
  • Why is the mountain where Moses speaks to God called the “mountain of God” in 3:1 and elsewhere?
  • Why does the mountain have two other names, Sinai and Horeb?
  • Is Mount Sinai holy?
  • Why does God appear to Moses in a burning bush? What does the burning bush symbolize?
  • Why does God tell Moses to remove his shoes when he approaches a burning bush in 3:5? What is the significance of shoes? Why do Muslims remove their shoes before praying?
  • Why are God and Moses not concerned when God sends Moses to Egypt that he will be arrested for killing the Egyptian taskmaster? He fled Egypt to avoid being captured for this crime.
  • Moses asks God to tell him God’s name so that when the Israelites ask him, “what is God’s name,” he can tell them. What is the significance of a “name”? I suggest that in the Torah, “name” frequently denotes “power,” as in the biblical phrase “God is one and His name one.” God is called by more than one name. It states that God is the one most powerful.
  • Why does the Torah praise Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey, as in 3:8? Aren’t there more significant benefits to Israel?
  • What is the meaning and significance of God stating His name is “I will be what I will be”?
  • Is Talmud Pesachim 50a’s statement on verse 3:5 sensible when it says the Hebrew word for “Forever” in “This is My name forever” misses the letter vav to teach that God’s name should not be spoken and we should substitute Adonai, “Lord”?
  • When Moses complains that the Israelites will not listen to him, God teaches him three magic tricks to demonstrate that God sent him. How do the tricks prove God sent him? Do they have any significance or teaching?
  • When Moses says he is not eloquent in 4:10, “I am not a man of words,” God assures him that He has the power to make him eloquent. Is it proper to try to reject what God commands? Shouldn’t Moses know that God has this power?
  • Midrashim suggest that Moses had difficulty speaking because a coal scorched his tongue. Why did the Midrash invent this tale?
  • Moses tries to avoid the mission a third time by requesting that God send another person. God says he will send Moses’ brother Aaron to help him. Why was Aaron chosen as Moses’ helper?
  • What is the significance of the repeated use of three: three tricks and three complaints? Is there a connection with the repeated use of three in fairy tales, such as three bears and three pigs, and other uses of three in the Bible, as when Abraham took his son on a trip of three days thinking God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22?
  • What is the obscure meaning of the inexplicable three-verse drama in 4:24-26 where Moses is threatened with being killed and is only saved by his wife’s strange act?
  • Moses spoke to the Israelites apparently in their language Hebrew. When did Moses learn Hebrew?
  • Why does Moses call the Israelites “Hebrews” in 5:3 when he speaks with Pharaoh?
  • Jewish tradition developed the current practice of reading portions of the Five Books of Moses each week and finishing the reading in a year. The first portion of Exodus, like the book itself, is called Shemot in Hebrew. It ends with the first verse of chapter six. Why does it do so? Shouldn’t it finish at the end of chapter 5? It is important to know that the division of the Pentateuch into chapters was done by Christians to make reading the Bible more assessable and to facilitate identifying verses. Frequently, as here, Jews do not agree with the divisions. A classic case is at the start of the Bible, where the divine creations during the first six days of creation are in chapter 1, but the acts of the seventh day are mistakenly placed in chapter 2, where it does not belong.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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