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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.

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