The book of Exodus raises many interesting questions. These questions deepen our understanding of the Bible and life in general.
The Beginning of Israel’s Slavery (Chapters 1 and 2)
Exodus starts by stating that after Joseph and his generation died, and their descendants multiplied exceedingly, “a new king arose who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This phrase has many interpretations. It could mean: “who did not fulfill Joseph’s decrees” (Targum Onkelos); he behaved as if he didn’t know Joseph (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a); and he didn’t know him personally (Gersonides). Which makes the most sense? Should we say, “This is obscure”?
With a single sweep, the Israelites moved from being a protected people to slaves. Pharaoh’s pretense for turning against the Israelites was that they would join with Egyptian enemies, wage war against Egypt, and leave the land. Some commentators say Pharaoh was hinting the Israelites would “force us to leave our land.” Is this another obscurity or a euphemism?
There is no external historical evidence to verify these events. The fact that there are no Egyptian records describing the destruction heaped upon them by the Ten Plagues and their other humiliations, including their defeat at the Red Sea, is understandable. The ancients rarely kept records of their humiliations. Even today, many Egyptians claim that they recently won a war against Israel and recaptured the Sinai. I heard the claim when I visited Egypt a couple of decades ago.
Moses Encounters God and Receives His Mission (Chapter 3)
In Exodus 3:2, God is revealed to Moses in a burning bush that is not consumed. What is the significance of the bush as the choice for God’s first revelation to Moses? What meaning is there in the fact that it wasn’t consumed? What purpose was served by having Moses remove his shoes? Was it an “angel of the Lord” (Exodus 3:2) or God (Exodus 3:6) who was revealed to Moses, or neither? Was it an insight? What, exactly, is a “revelation”? What do you think of the opinion that the bush didn’t burn due to a miracle but because it was drawing from the oil beneath the ground? This was claimed by the scientist Colin J. Humphreys in his “The Miracles of Exodus. Are you bothered or not bothered by this, and why?
It is instructive that God reveals Himself to Moses only after he “turned aside to look” at the burning bush to see “why the bush did not burn up” (Exodus 3:2–4). Is this fact telling us something about Moses or revelation? Or does it tell us we get no “revelation” without our action?
Moses asks God what His name is. Why? What is the biblical meaning of “name”? When we say that “God is one and His name is one,” what do we mean by “name”? Some scholars and I understand that the Bible frequently uses the term “name” when it means “essence.” When God responds that His name is Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, God is not revealing His name but His essence—how He is seen to act.
The three Hebrew words in God’s name can be translated as “I will be as I will be,” indicating that God is eternal. It could also mean, “I will be with them (the Israelites) in this difficulty, and I will be with them in other difficulties” (Rashi). Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translates the phrase as “the One who spoke and the world came into being, spoke and all was.” The Septuagint treats Eheyeh as if it reads Ha’hoveh, “the One who is,” and ignores the last two words.
How many other names of God can you think of, such as Shaddai, Elohim, Ha’kadosh Baruch Hu (“the Holy One, blessed be He”), or Ha’makom (“the Place”)? There are many more names. Aren’t all of them different ways of expressing how we see God behaving?
Moses Reluctantly Accepts God’s Mission (Chapter 4)
Was Egyptian bondage an accident of history or an integral part of God’s involvement in the unfolding of Jewish history? Should we understand that God told Jacob to go to Egypt, where his descendants would be enslaved, and then had the Israelites detour through Egypt before entering Canaan.? If God caused it, why did God want the Israelites to experience the suffering and indignities of Egyptian bondage? Can the Israelites’ early harrowing experiences help mold and educate them and serve as an example of how life works—that all good things result from early difficulties, struggles, and setting goals? Is it true if things are easy, they are probably wrong?
Moses requested God to give him something to prove to the Israelites that God had sent him. God then tells him to perform three miracles: turning Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, making Moses’ hand leprous and then healthy again, and transforming water that Moses takes from the river into blood when poured on dry land. How do the three prove that God sent Moses (Exodus 4:1–9)?
What is the purpose of the staff that God told Moses to use in performing “the signs” and miracles that later played a role in the Exodus story (Exodus 14:16, 17:5–6)? Would you agree with Ibn Ezra that Moses used a staff like a cane because he was eighty years old? Is it significant that Moses performed two of the “signs”—with the serpent and the blood—before Pharaoh and his magicians, and they could do them as well? Why didn’t he also show the leprosy “sign” to the Egyptians? Why doesn’t the Torah state that the water turned into blood and later turned back into water?
God informs Moses that the king of Egypt will not agree to liberate the Israelites from bondage in the beginning (Exodus 4:21). He tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. Classical commentators grapple with this. It seems unfair. Some claim that this hardening was a punishment. Others say that Pharaoh was punished only for the wrongful acts he willingly performed. Still others maintain that the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” somehow enabled him to endure the harsh punishments inflicted upon him.
Rationalists, like Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed 2:48, explain that the Bible means that Pharaoh hardened his heart. The text states that God did so because God, as the creator of the universe and its laws of nature, is the ultimate cause of everything that happens on earth.
If Pharaoh was wicked, why should the Egyptian people suffer? Also, why should God cause the Israelites to be enslaved longer than necessary to punish Pharaoh with ten plagues? Were the Ten Plagues natural events? Why was it important that the Israelites not leave empty-handed (Exodus 3:21–22)? Were the Israelites stealing from the Egyptians when they took silver and gold from them?
Moses’ Life Is Threatened, and Zipporah Intervenes
The episode in Exodus 4:24–26 is one of the most complex three verses in the Bible. Moses and his family are traveling to Egypt. In the JPS translation: “The Lord met him and sought to kill him. Zipporah, Moses’ wife, takes a flint and cuts off the foreskin of her son, and casts it at his feet; and she says: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So, He leaves him alone. Then she says: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’”
- Who is “the Lord” who “met” Moses? (The Hebrew uses the Tetragrammaton, Y-h-v-h.)
- Why did the Lord want to kill him?
- Why did Moses’ wife try to rectify the situation; why didn’t Moses do something?
- Why did she take a flint? This was the Bronze Age. She could have performed the circumcision with a knife.
- Which of the couple’s two children did she circumcise?
- Why was the circumcision done at that time and not before the trip’s beginning?
- Why did she “cast” the flint?
- At whose feet did she cast it, the Lord’s or Moses’?
- Is the word “feet” a figure of speech for something else, and if so, what?
- What is a “bridegroom of the blood”?
- Does it refer to the Lord, Moses, or her son?
- What is the significance of the blood?
- Who “let him alone”?
- Why did she make a second exclamation? What does it mean?
- Does it differ from her first statement?
- Why is this story told at this point in the Exodus drama?