Israel Drazin

Obscurities in the Biblical weekly portion Va-ayra

                                                                 Exodus 6:2-9:35

The second parasha in Exodus is called Va-ayra, meaning “And I appeared.” It is the first word in the second verse of the portion. As usual, the rabbis called the Bible books and portions after the first significant word, in this instance, the ninth word in the parasha. When the five books were translated into Greek around 200 BCE, the translators gave names to the books that referred to their contents. Hence this book dealing with the Israelite exodus from Egypt is called Exodus, The parasha has God tell Moses some history of His encounter with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, gives some genealogy, again excluding women except Moses’ mother and Aaron’s wife, describes Moses still trying to avoid the divine mission to rescue the Israelites, Moses and Aaron making their request to Pharaoh and being rejected, Moses performing magic tricks before Pharaoh and his staff with no change in Pharaoh’s refusal, the beginning of ten plagues, and Pharaoh tries to compromise with Moses who refuses it. As previously, virtually all that is stated is obscure, as seen in the following examples. The Bible wants us to think.

  • Why does God identify Himself as Y-h-v-h when he begins to speak to Moses in this portion? Is the commentator Rashi correct that the words “I am Y-h-v-h” imply that God punishes people who profane His name and rewards those who keep His commandments? If not, why does Rashi say this? Is God warning Moses to cease trying to avoid God’s command to return to Egypt?
  • When God tells Moses that he did reveal the name Y-h-v-h to the patriarchs but the name El Shadai, shouldn’t we understand that, as explained in the previous chapter, the word “name” in the Bible frequently denotes power? God is saying, “I did not show them or speak to them about the power indicated in Y-h-v-h, but what is implied in El Shadai,” a word denoting “an almighty God.” If not, why is God having this part of his conversation with Moses?
  • If, on the other hand, we understand that God is not speaking to Moses, but the Bible is stating what Moses is thinking, how do we interpret this verse? What is Moses thinking?
  • The Bible commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) suggests that God wanted the Israelites to borrow objects from Egyptian to give the Egyptians an additional reason to pursue the Israelites when they realized they were trying to escape. God, according to Abarbanel, wanted the Egyptians to rush into the water to catch the Israelites, where they would be punished by drowning. They killed Israelite male children and tossed the carcasses in the river. Now they will be thrown. Is this how we want to picture God acting?
  • Realizing that the reason for the divine decree to borrow items from Egyptians is obscure, and we need to develop our idea, should we reject Abarbanel’s view and offer another idea? Is it reasonable to say that God wanted to make it clear to the Israelites and Bible readers that not all Egyptians supported Pharaoh’s brutal treatment of the Israelites and proved it by showing the kindness of many Egyptians who lent items to the slaves to use during their three-day holiday?
  • If we accept Maimonides’ view in his Guide for the Perplexed chapter 2:48 that God neither speaks in the Bible nor acts and all that occurs are natural events, shouldn’t we understand that the ten plagues were natural occurrences? A former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi J. H. Hertz, takes this view in his commentary “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs.” He states, in essence, that the Bible reveals that acts have consequences. If you kill many babies and toss their bodies in the Nile, you will pollute it, kill the animals in it, and their carcasses will cause other pollutants. He does not explain the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn.
  • I explained the last plague that the biblical practice is to exaggerate events to make a point. When it states that Moses spoke to the people, it does not mean he addressed every person. Just many of them. Similarly, when it states that all the firstborns of Egypt died, it is saying that the disease that resulted from the murder of Israelite sons was so huge that it even killed some of the higher classes of Egyptians. This also explains the significance of the plague. Pharaoh tried to eliminate male Israelites with the ironic result that he killed many top-level Egyptians, even the preferred firstborns.
  • God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh that if he doesn’t allow the Israelite slaves to leave Egypt for three days, his country will suffer another plague. Yet, no warning is given for the third plague three times, 3, 6, and 9. Why is there no warning? Why the third plague three times?
  • Besides three and seventy having some non-numerical significance, the number four is treated similarly in the Bible. Four appears 325 times in the Bible. Forty is used 137 times, including a flood of 40 days in Genesis 7:17, and the Israelites are punished to remain in the desert for 40 years in Numbers 14:33. God tells Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved for 400 years in Genesis 15:13. But the rabbis use a gematria and give the enslavement years as 210. They say the 400 number is when the enslavement will end, but about half this time is years preceding the enslavement. Are 40 and 400 the biblical version of the fearful number 13?
  • We do not know when a Jew first thought to calculate years from creation. We understand that the talmudic rabbis knew nothing of this calendar, called anno mundi, “year (of the) world,” and that they used the Greek calendar. Azariah de Rossi, in his The Light of the Eyes, speculated that the anno mundi may have originated around the sixth century, after the talmudic period. While this seems to be the date of its origin, it was not until relatively recently that Jews began to use it. Maimonides, for example, dated his documents with the Greek calendar in the thirteenth century. Jews adopted it recently simply because many forgot about its late origin and thought it was a divine revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Other Jews accepted it because it is a “tradition, and one doesn’t question traditions.”
  • According to the anno mundi, which is filled with errors, the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Decalogue, which people call “The Ten Commandments” despite containing more than ten, occurred in 2448. Abraham was born in 1948 according to the anno mundi, Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old in 2048, and the 400 years until the exodus, mentioned above, began with Isaac’s birth. The calculation works, but there is no hint in Genesis 15, where the 400-year prophecy is given, that there is a connection to Isaac’s birth.
  • The Jewish anno mundi calendar is not unique in having mistakes which I will not discuss here. The Christian calendar, also developed around the sixth century, was supposed to begin with the birth of Jesus. But it has a fundamental mistake. The calendar creator forgot that a New Testament book states that King Herod tried to kill the predicted savior, and Herod died in 4 BCE. As a result, according to the mistaken Christian calendar, Jesus was born four or five years before Christ.
  • In 6:9, we read that the Israelites could not accept Moses initially because the harsh slavery broke their spirits. Does it make sense that the Israelites were unable to accept Moses’ assurance that God would help free them from slavery? Why?
  • Should we understand that the Israelites could not absorb Moses’s message because the arduous physical and mental tortures of slavery plunged them into a state of hopelessness? Does slavery have this effect? Does working at a job today that one dislikes have this or a similar effect?
  • The Provence sage Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344), also known as Gersonides, placed the blame for Moses’ initial failure with the Israelites on Moses. He did not communicate effectively because he could not relate to the people at that time. He tried three times to avoid the mission and was still not sufficiently enthused to speak properly.
  • What made the Israelites begin to take Moses as their leader?
  • God tells Moses in 7:3-4 that He hardened Pharaoh’s resolve. Some rabbis opined that God did so to lead him into a situation where he would be punished severely for his mistreatment of the Israelites. Is this how we want to see God acting? Shouldn’t we accept Maimonides’ view in 2:48 that Pharaoh was acting according to human nature? He had convinced himself that his treatment was just that he could not back down.
  • God caused the Nile to be filled with blood as the first plague. Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same. God then caused frogs to rampage over Egypt. The magicians were able to do so as well. Then without warning, God caused gnats as a third plague, which the magicians could not duplicate. Why couldn’t they do so? Why did God do the first two plagues that the magicians could also do? Didn’t God know the first two plagues would impress no one?
  • The magicians say, “This is the finger of God.” Were these idol worshipers so impressed that they admitted that the Israelite God exists and has more power than them?
  • We are accustomed to hearing the phrase “hand of God,” as in 9:3. What is the significance of God’s finger? Is Abraham ibn Ezra correct in saying that the finger indicates that God can act on small and subtle matters, unlike a hand that is larger and seemingly stronger?
  • Why does God instruct Moses to use magic tricks to impress the Egyptians? Was it because magic was involved in so much of Egyptian lives that they relied on it, and it influenced their thinking?
  • Why was Pharaoh unimpressed by God showing His power?
  • Should we seek to find what each plague symbolizes? For example, the first plague of blood in the Nile reminds us of Pharaoh killing Israelite male children and tossing their bodies in the river. The last tenth plague killing the firstborns seems to say, you tried to act superior to the Israelites; now the Egyptians you most cherish are struck down.
  • Koren Press published “The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel – Exodus,” in which the book shows how each plague reminded the Egyptians of Egyptian writing or event and showed how it was wrong. “God uses Egyptian cultural motifs so that Pharaoh and the Egyptians realize the gravity of their situation.” For example, “River as blood is a literary motif in an Egyptian wisdom text called “The Admonitions of Power.” In it, a Pharaoh saves Egypt. Unlike the Egyptian text, Pharaoh was unable to save Egypt from God’s plague. The Egyptians saw that the Israelite God was more robust.
  • Similarly, as another example, Koren Press reveals that scholars know that large lakes in Egypt disappeared during the summer months. They held a large population of frogs. The frogs also disappeared. They returned when the water returned. The Egyptians saw this as proof that their god assured them of an afterlife. God showed His power again by destroying the frogs and leaving their carcasses throughout Egypt.
  • Frogs are unusual. They live in both water and on land. Does this disclose why it is a plague?
  • Frogs is a comedy written by the Greek playwright Aristophanes (about 445-385 BCE). Aristophanes performed it at a Festival for Dionysus in Athens in 405 BCE. Some commentators on this comedy state that frogs represent wealth, abundance, wisdom, rebirth, and good luck. Some add that frogs symbolize fertility. Do these ideas disclose why it is used as a plague?
  • In 9:19, God tells Moses that the seventh plague will be hail and instructs Moses to advise Egyptians to secure their animals in shelters. Was the advice given to persuade at least some Egyptians that Moses was speaking the divine truth?
  • The seventh plague of locusts is not unique. Egypt was infected by swarms of locusts often. How, then, was this plague impressive? Was it because it had far more locusts than usual?
  • Is it clear that there are multiple ideas of how we can explain the ambiguities in the Bible? There are “seventy” ways we can find to clarify what the Bible is prompting us to think.
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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