Friday, January 25, 2008

Yitro: wise... noble... Midianite

Although this week’s parashah may be most readily remembered for containing the Ten Commandments, it takes its name from Yitro (Jethro), a Midianite priest who is the father-in-law of Moses.

It contains two episodes. In the first, Moses relates the story of the exodus from Egypt, to which Jethro responds by rejoicing and praising God.

Jethro also brings sacrifices and seems to take the lead in them: the text states that Aaron came to join in the meal, not that he came to conduct the sacrifice for Jethro. It is remarkable that a foreign priest would officiate at such a sacrifice, and medieval commentators took this to indicate that Jethro had converted to the Hebrew religion.

There is, however, a precedent for it in Genesis 14, where Melchizedek, king of Salem, brings bread and wine and praises God after a victory on the part of Abraham.
But Melchizedek is described as “a priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18), and it can also be argued that the reason that Jethro can praise and sacrifice to God here is not because he becomes a proselyte, but because Israel and Midian share a belief in the same God. In fact, where medieval commentators attempted to read this episode as the story of Jethro’s conversion, later critics attempted to read it as the conclusion of Israel’s conversion to a Midianite YHWH cult.

In its context, the episode serves to glorify God by demonstrating how quickly the news of Israel’s liberation had spread. Jethro’s visit serves to confirm that this was not just a minor, local event, but the work of a “world-class” god: Jethro is the out-of-town expert whose observation provides the confirmation.

In the second episode, Jethro serves as a management consultant. It is tempting to read his advice to Moses as the meddling of a father-in-law who has already overstayed his welcome. The fact that Moses adopts the suggestion without hesitation, however, militates against such a reading.

Jethro’s plan for the organization of a civil judiciary seems alien to the culture of Israel. It has no apparent basis in the tribal structure, and it is strange that, after placing so much emphasis on the organization of tribes and families, the story should suddenly turn to a form of organization that supersedes tribal and family structure. Deuteronomy 16:18, on the other hand, envisions the appointment of magistrates and officials “for your tribes.”

Whether Jethro’s plan has any historicity is open to debate. Nahum Sarna concludes that the very attribution of it to a Midianite priest is evidence of its antiquity and authority, but also cites a parallel from II Chronicles 19, in which King Jehoshaphat appointed judges in Judah. This parallel suggests the possibility of a different source for the plan: not in antiquity, but in judicial reforms carried out during the monarchical period.

If this plan represents a program for the reform of the judiciary, it might provide a history for a plan that had actually been implemented by the time of the composition. Such a judicial reorganization has many parallels in feudal societies, and the plan attributed to Jehoshaphat in II Chronicles supports it. On the other hand, it is hard to see any reason for attributing it to a Midianite.

The second possibility is that this plan reflects not an actual reform of the judiciary, but a proposal for such a reform. The same objection could be raised to this possibility, but the case of a proposed rather than actual reform suggests a reason for it.

That reason lies in the character of Jethro. He is one of surprisingly few characters of whom the Bible expresses unqualified approval; in fact, the nobility of his character is striking.

Thus, the purpose of attributing a reform plan to Jethro would be to give it a special kind of sanction: the cachet of originating with a character whose every word and action represent wisdom of the highest order.

Sarna observes that Jethro “fills for Moses the role that Joseph had filled for Pharaoh.” But Jethro serves as a successor to Joseph in a much more important way. His quick recognition and praise of God are reminiscent of Joseph’s haste to attribute his own abilities to God and, in his maturity, to reflect that God brought good out of evil not only for him, but for all the people. In his advice to Moses, Jethro invokes God’s sanction for his plan not as a rhetorical device, but because he has come to possess this higher wisdom.

In such a reading, the parallel account of the judicial reform in Deuteronomy might represent an idealization of Israel’s history, but the attribution of it to Jethro in Exodus 18 would represent an effort to place it in a context neither of divine revelation, which does not seem to apply to it at all, nor of mere expediency, as the Deuteronomy account might suggest, but rather in the context of a wisdom tradition of which primarily Joseph and secondarily Jethro are the Biblical exemplars.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Beshallach: rejoicing--and grumbling

Parashat Beshallach begins as the Israelites leave Egypt, and its first major episode deals with the miraculous escape at the Sea of Reeds.

It’s a scene that we know from films, but the Biblical text differs somewhat from familiar treatments. Many of us have an image of walls of water that suddenly spring away to allow the Israelites to pass through, and that equally suddenly spring back into place to trap the Egyptians.

Although God tells Moses, “hold out your arm over the sea and split it” (13:16), the narrative goes on to say, “Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night” (13:21). There’s a subtle difference: Moses doesn’t split the sea by magic (as Pharaoh’s magicians might have tried to do). Instead, he does as God directs and then God accomplishes the miracle by manipulating natural forces.

The same is true with the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers. Moses holds out his arm again, and at daybreak (not immediately) the sea returns “to its normal state” (13:27). The Egyptians flee but then, according to the text, God hurls them into the water.

The image of God’s throwing the Egyptians into the sea may come from what follows this episode, the Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayyam). This celebratory poem, in which Moses leads the Israelites, is thought by many scholars to be much older than the narrative that surrounds it. (The same is sometimes suggested of other “songs” in the Bible, such as those of Deborah and Hannah.) Some scholars also think that the song in which Miriam subsequently leads the women represents an equally old, but different, tradition of which just one line remains.

This passage is noteworthy in another respect, because it describes Miriam as “the prophetess.” Only three other women in the Bible are described as prophets, and of them only Deborah appears more than briefly.

The Song of the Sea expresses extravagant, almost unimaginable, joy. Although its description of God as “a man of war” may be at odds with what we would teach our students, it is a credible representation of the Israelites’ need for a God who protects and defends them.

Despite the joy and gratitude expressed by the Song, the Israelites almost immediately become dissatisfied. In the two verses after the fragmentary song of Miriam, we are told that the Israelites traveled for three days without finding water, only to arrive at Marah where the water was too bitter to drink (15:22–23).
The people “grumble” against Moses. This is something that we will see repeatedly through the wilderness narrative, and that eventually grows into rebellion.
God has Moses throw a piece of wood into the water, whereupon it becomes sweet (15:25). A few commentators have argued that this represents some form of natural, rather than miraculous, purification; it is qualitatively different from its nearest parallels, as when Moses brings water from a rock.

What is striking, however, is how quickly Israel’s sentiments turn. Just a few verses ago, no praise was too great for the God who had brought about the escape from the pursuing Egyptians. Now, the people grumble against Moses, much as they had said, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out to die in the wilderness?” (14:11) at the edge of the sea. Perhaps it’s noteworthy that before and after the miracle, they complain to and about Moses, but immediately after it they thank and praise God.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bo: reading the book—which one?

Parashat Bo begins with the last several of the ten plagues, but the narrative is interrupted by detailed instructions about the Passover observance at the beginning of chapter 12.

Scholars believe that much of chapter 12 is a retrojection from a later period: some of it seems excessive and unnecessary for the exodus itself. Part of it, however, may represent customs that predate the exodus.

In particular, the Passover observance seems to fuse what may have originally been two separate celebrations. One is a festival of matzah, an agricultural festival that began on the 15th of Nisan, just as other agricultural festivals begin on the 15th of the Hebrew month.

The other is the Pesach sacrifice, which the Torah places on the 14th of Nisan, beginning late in the day. While the matzah festival would have originated among farmers, the Pesach sacrifice would have originated among herders. The Torah presents the Israelites as a group of nomadic herders, but the grain storehouses established by Joseph should remind us of the importance of agriculture in Egypt.

Deuteronomy, which is almost certainly of later origin, adds a third aspect to the Passover observance: the dedication of the first-born to God. This obviously relates to the last of the ten plagues, but probably reflects an even older Near Eastern tradition in which first-born sons would have held a quasi-priestly status within the family. Furthermore, the exodus narrative understands Israel to be God’s first-born, that is, the first among nations.

It would be productive, in teaching about Passover, to study Exodus 12 along with the Haggadah. This chapter of Exodus, even though it lays out observance in detail, embodies high drama in the instructions for the sacrifice and especially in the attitude the Hebrews were to adopt:

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a passover offering to the Lord. For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord. And the blood on the houses in which you dwell shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (12:11–13)

The Passover narrative in Exodus has a power that is largely absent from the episodes leading up to it, no matter how interesting we may find them. And yet, partly because we teach more from retellings in story form than from the Torah text itself, we tend to teach more about Moses, Pharaoh, and the plagues than about the Pesach. The observance comes in separately when we teach about Passover-the-holiday.

There are enormous differences between the narrative in this parashah and that in the Haggadah. Each is persuasive in its own way; when we read one, it takes a conscious effort to recall the other. Interestingly, the Torah narrative has an economical structure that seems logical and appeals to modern tastes, while the Haggadah narrative seems loose and disorganized.

But which is more compelling? One of my teachers commented that, as a scholar, he accepted all of modern Bible criticism and thus could not believe much of the narrative in this parashah. And yet, as a Jew, when he participated in a seder and read the Haggadah, every detail of it was true for him, at least for the moment. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes that this is a central function of ritual: to turn a story that is “too good to believe” into one that is too good not to believe.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Va'era: explaining plagues and miracles

The story of the exodus from Egypt began in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot. This week’s reading, Va’era, comprises the closing verses of the “call of Moses,” and the narration of seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, and hail.

Commentators have chosen different ways to break the ten plagues into groups. One way, based on the nature of each plague, is to see them as five groups of two. The first two arise from the Nile; lice and insects are similar; so are pestilence and boils; hail and locusts damage food crops; the last two directly threaten human life.

Another way breaks them into two groups of four, with the last two standing alone. In this arrangement, the first four are essentially warnings, while the next four cause serious harm.

A structural approach, based on other elements in the narration , treats them as three groups of three. In each group, Moses and Pharaoh meet outdoors before the first plague in the group, whereupon Moses presents a demand for liberation and then announces the coming plague. Before the second, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh in the palace, again warning him of the plague to come. They give no warning before the third plague in each cycle.

Traditional interpreters have been most troubled by the repeated statements that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” apparently delaying the liberation of the Hebrews and causing plague after plague to be inflicted on the people of Egypt. Liberal Jews, in addition, have been troubled by questions about the historicity of the plagues.

It is possible, as liberal readers have often tried, to explain the plagues and miracles of Exodus as natural phenomena. And teachers who attempt to teach strictly according to the Biblical account may find themselves in the position of the parent in a well-known joke. Startled by a child’s account of how Seabees built a pontoon bridge to cross the Sea of Reeds, after which Moses called in an air strike to destroy it before the Egyptians could follow them, the parents asks, “Did your Sunday-school teacher tell you all that?” The child replies, “No, but if I told you what we heard in Sunday school, you’d never believe it.”

There is reason to doubt at least some of the details of the plagues. References to them in the psalms differ in the number and order, suggesting that later editors might have reworked various traditions into the orderly, symmetrical account that we have here.

But whether the plagues and miracles actually occurred, or whether they came about through natural or through supernatural means, is a question that is barely worth pursuing. Would proving that Egypt suffered a series of natural disasters corresponding to these plagues—or, conversely, proving that it did not—change the way that we understand this text?

What matters most to us is that this narrative presents the experience of the liberation from Egypt as our ancestors understood it. In Jewish, Biblical tradition it is the exodus that turns Israel, until then an assemblage of tribes or clans, into a nation; it is the exodus that makes the God of Abraham the God of a nation; it is the exodus that brings Israel to Sinai and the covenant.

Even doubt about the historicity of the exodus itself—and some radical scholars do question it—would not change its meaning for us, or its standing as the formative experience of our people.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...