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Va’era: Where Jews & Christians Disagree

Last week, we got the name of Parshat Shemot by ignoring the first word of the parashah.  This week, we ignore the entire first verse of the reading to take its name from the first word of v. 3, וָאֵרָ֗א  va’era ‘I appeared’.  V. 2 is full of standard wording like “God spoke to Moses,” nothing that could serve as a name — with the possible exception of God’s own name, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH.  It was probably a good idea not to turn that into the name of some kid’s bar mitzvah portion.

What God means by saying “I appeared” is to tell Moses that he appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai.  They did not actually know his real name!  This, as many of you will know, is one of the spots that prompted the creation of the Documentary Hypothesis.  The old Hertz Chumash that was used in so many synagogues when I was a kid had a couple of indignant columns about how wrong it was.  For a fuller discussion, have a look at Umberto Cassuto’s book The Documentary Hypothesis, and for a responsible opposing viewpoint, I would send you to Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible?  But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I said that this week’s reading is named after the first word of v. 3, and I assume you agree that it’s reasonable that the name was not taken from v. 2.  But did any of you ask yourself why the week’s reading doesn’t begin with v. 1?

Plenty of the divisions between the readings in the book of Genesis don’t match the chapter divisions.  You may know that the chapter divisions of the Bible are not Jewish at all — they were invented by a Christian, a man named Stephen Langton, in Paris around the turn of the 13th century.  He eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury and in that capacity was present at Runnymede for the signing of the Magna Carta.  How’d you like to have inventing the chapters of the Bible and the Magna Carta on your resumé?

The chapter divisions instantly made it easier to reference different portions of the text.  The Jews began using them because that made it easier to talk with Christians who insisted on engaging Jews about the Bible.  But the intrinsic Jewish divisions are the verses, not the chapters.

This week we have a case where Jews divide the text in a different place than Christians do, but the difference is just a single verse.  When you start the reading the Christian way, at the beginning of Exodus 6, here is what you see:

YHWH said to Moses, “Now you will see what I do to Pharaoh.  For with a mighty hand he will let them go, and with a mighty hand he will expel them from his land.” God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name YHWH I was not known to them.”

Why was that division not good enough for the Jews, and why did Stephen Langton pick these words to begin the chapter?  “YHWH said to Moses” is the beginning of many sections in the Torah, and it certainly seems like a reasonable phrase to begin a new section.  But who are “them” in v. 1?

If you read the end of chapter 5 you’ll see the shotrim — “police” in modern Hebrew, but here they are the Israelite leaders of the work gangs.  Their Egyptian bosses gave them hell, and afterward the shotrim started up with Moses and Aaron when they came out from a meeting with Pharaoh:

 May YHWH see you and pronounce judgment against you for making us stink in the eyes of Pharaoh and his courtiers, putting a sword in their hands to kill us!

The amount of straw that was needed to make the Israelites’ daily quota of bricks was no longer being supplied to them.  Instead of shorter hours and a pay increase, Moses and Aaron’s negotiations with the Pharaoh had vastly increased their workload.  In vv. 22-32, Moses goes back to YHWH and says:

Lord, why have You made things so much worse for the Israelites?  Why did you send me here?  Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has treated this people much worse! — and you have not done a thing to save your people.

That is the point at which YHWH says to Moses, “Now you will see what I do to Pharaoh.”  When we read Exod 6:1 in that context, it is the logical reply to Moses’ complaint at the end of Exodus:  “You are not seeing the whole picture.  I’ve got the situation in hand.”

There’s another factor worth noticing, however.  There are four books of the Bible where the Jewish custom is to repeat the second-to-last verse of the book at the end because the last verse itself is somewhat negative.  I’m going to talk about the book of Isaiah; you can hear about the example at the end of Malachi here or read about it on p. 8 of my book The Bible’s Many Voices.

Here’s the end of Isaiah 66, the last chapter of Isaiah, in the NJPS translation:

23       And new moon after new moon,

         And sabbath after sabbath,

         All flesh shall come to worship Me

                                             —said the LORD.

24       They shall go out and gaze

         On the corpses of the men who rebelled against Me:

         Their worms shall not die,

         Nor their fire be quenched;

         They shall be a horror

         To all flesh.

         And new moon after new moon,

         And sabbath after sabbath,

         All flesh shall come to worship Me

                                             —said the LORD.

The Hebrew book of Isaiah, and Christian translations of it, all end with the equivalent of “They shall be a horror to all flesh,” which leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  That’s why the Jewish tradition is not to end the book of Isaiah that way, but to repeat the previous verse so the book can end with “All flesh shall come to worship Me, said the Lord.”  That’s a much pleasanter ending.

So not merely does Exod 6:1 seem to follow 5:23 more naturally than it precedes 6:2, but if 5:23 were the end of a weekly reading, that reading would end with Moses telling God, “You have not done a thing to save your people.”  I think that is another reason why last week’s reading ended with 6:1.

There’s a third rationale for splitting the reading the way the Jews do and not the way the Christians do.  Remember that in Exod 6:3 God explains to Moses that the patriarchs did not know his real name, YHWH.  Yet Moses has just complained to YHWH about being sent to Pharaoh to speak in his name — and that complaint comes after the shotrim have called on YHWH by name to judge Moses and Aaron!

That is, if you split the text between vv. 1 and 2 of Exodus 6, as the Jews do, you also have the same division that contemporary university scholarship finds in the text.  Where a different voice in the Torah begins according to the Documentary Hypothesis is just where the new Jewish reading begins as well.

There have been some quite traditional thinkers who were aware of what I like to call the different “voices” in the Torah.  (The one most well-known to me is R. Mordechai Breuer.)  I would say that the ancient rabbis who divided our reading and began something new at Exod 6:2 are also aware of those voices.  There’s a nice little convergence between tradition and modern scholarship here and that is just how I like it.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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