A Curmudgeonly, Skeptical Look
by Bennett Muraskin
THE PASSOVER HAGODE celebrates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but provides few details. Its source document is the Book of Exodus — which on this holiday deserves a closer look.
Because Pharaoh fears that the burgeoning Israelite population will become a threat to his rule, he summons two Hebrew midwives and orders them to kill the newborn boys that they deliver from Hebrew women. Assuming they obeyed, how could two midwives, on their own, diminish the Israelite population?
If fact, why would Pharaoh want to reduce the number of slaves under his authority, anyway? Slave labor was the foundation for his wealth. In the American south prior to the Civil War, the slave masters always encouraged their slaves to reproduce.
In any event, Pharaoh apparently accepts the unbelievable excuse that the Hebrew women gave birth before the midwives arrived, and does not punish them. He does, however, issue an order that all newborn Hebrew males be drowned in the Nile river. As terrible as this sounds, there is nothing in the text to indicate whether the order was carried out.
Nevertheless, to save baby Moses’ life, his mother, Yokheved, sends him down the same Nile River that could be full of the bodies of drowned Hebrew baby boys, not to mention crocodiles. Of all the stories told about Jews trying to save their children from the Nazis, not one involves floating them down a body of water. This is madness.
As the story continues, Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter when she comes to the Nile to bathe. The Nile was no doubt contaminated by raw sewage and possibly by baby corpses. What princess would have dreamed to taking a dip there, especially in her birthday suit?
EARLY ON, God promises Moses that Pharaoh will let the Israelites go free, but only after God inflicts certain punishments on Egypt (Exodus 3:19-20). This is the first hint that God’s punishments will be collective and indiscriminate. It also becomes clear that God will not let Pharaoh off easily. God “will stiffen his heart, so he will not let the people go” (4:21, 7:3).
After appointing Moses as his messenger on a mission crucial to the fulfillment of His divine plan, God switches gears and threatens to kill Moses, apparently for failing to circumcise his son, Gershon. In a particularly barbaric passage, his wife Zipporah saves Moses’ life by performing the circumcision with a sharp stone. Poor Gershon is never heard of again.
Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh, but their demand is not to the let the Israelite slaves go free, only to let them go on a religious retreat for three days in the desert. And after that? From Pharaoh’s refusal, it might appear that he fears that they would not return, but if this is the case, why doesn’t Moses come right out and say, “Let my people go?” That exact phrase is actually never used in the Torah as a demand for liberation from slavery.
Moses attempts to impress Pharaoh with some miracles, but Pharaoh’s magicians successfully duplicate the first few. After the plague of the frogs, however, Pharaoh first agrees to Moses’ demand, and then reneges. At this point, it is clear that Pharaoh himself is to blame. He is “stubborn” (8:11, 14). The pattern is repeated after the plague of the lice — Pharaoh promises to give in, then changes his mind.
A new pattern begins to emerge with the sixth plague of boils. Now it is God who “stiffens Pharaoh’s heart ” (9:12) to stop him from agreeing to Moses demand. God’s motive becomes clear. It is “to show you My power and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world” (9:16).
After the plague of hail, Pharaoh appears to give up, but his own stubbornness gains the better of him again. Yet in the very next line, God tells Moses that “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart…” In response to Moses’ threat to inflict the plague of the locusts, Pharaoh partially agrees to Moses’ demand, which, strange as it may sound, continues to be limited to a three-day religious retreat. However, Pharaoh will only allow the men to depart. This is not good enough for Moses, who follows through with the eighth plague.
God is not done with Pharaoh. He stiffens his heart once more (10:20), setting up the ninth plague of darkness. In response, Pharaoh makes more concessions, insisting only that the Israelites leave behind their “flocks and herds” during their desert pilgrimage. Moses, on the other hand, insists that Israelites must be permitted to take their livestock because the religious retreat involves animal sacrifice (10:24- 26). Whether negotiations would have led to further concessions is not known because “the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not let them go” (10:27).
It is written that “Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people” (11:3).If Moses, is so estimable, how do we explain the final plague — the death of the first born Egyptians — “from the first born of Pharaoh to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones, and all the first born of the cattle” (11: 4-5), as well as the first born of “the captive who is in the dungeon” (11:29)? This is a horrible crime, based purely on ethno-religious grounds. God is determined to make “a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (11:7) and even the most downtrodden Egyptians are to be counted among the victims. Today this would be called a crime against humanity.
TO REITERATE, not once does Moses actually insist to Pharaoh that the Israelites be set free. It is always about a three-day leave to worship God in the desert. Is this just an attempt at deception? The God of Israel is hardly the type to resort to subterfuge, yet He does not convey his message consistently, sometimes telling Moses to demand freedom for the Israelite slaves, at other times to demand a temporary leave of absence to worship Him.
The famous phrase “Let my people go” has been, therefore, been misunderstood. The objective becomes liberation by default only, and this may only be due to the attitude of the Egyptians. Fearing for their lives, they longer want any Israelites in their midst (12:31-34).
Egyptian slavery must have been not as severe as depicted. It is clear that the Israelites owned “flocks and herds.” Further God decrees that upon departure, the Egyptians will freely “lend” the Israelites “gold and silver . . . and clothing” (12:33). In fact, these goods were not lent, but rather the slaves “stripped the Egyptians” (12: 36). Perhaps this act was the equivalent of reparations, but why the deception?
God is still not done with Pharaoh. It is not enough for God to free the Israelites. That could have easily been accomplished by keeping the Egyptian army at bay while the Red Sea parted and then closed again. Even as the Egyptian soldiers declare, “Let us flee from the Israelites for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt” (14:25), God forces them into the sea, where they all drown. “I will stiffen the hearts of the Egyptians so they will go in after them, and I will gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen. Let the Egyptians know that I am Lord…” (14: 17-18), This is the behavior of a megalomaniac.
I can hear someone say: Tell that to Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr.!. Indeed, the Exodus story was a major inspiration to the African-American freedom struggle. Yet they, too, had to overlook the literal meaning of the text. And the real agenda of Moses was quite different from Tubman’s and King’s. They wanted freedom here in the U.S., not freedom to leave the U.S. for some “promised land.” Moreover, for the God of the Torah, “freedom” was inseparable from the giving of the law, which the Israelites were not free to reject, and from the ultimate objective of establishing the Israelites in the Promised Land. The Israelite invasion and conquest of Canaan is explicitly depicted in the Torah and the Book of Joshua as an act of genocide against the native Canaanites. That is the antithesis of freedom.
The Exodus story is, to a significant extent, a fraud. There is no slave revolt and no attempt to escape. God calls the shots, for better or worse. He ultimately provokes Pharaoh to expel the Israelites and then compels him to renege, not for the sake of the oppressed Israelite slaves, but to establish His reputation as a fearsome, vengeful deity.
Fortunately, historians and archeologists have discovered that the Exodus story is basically a myth. Perhaps a small number of Israelites experienced slavery in Egypt, but the actual details are unknown. I would say that it a good thing, because the story is basically horrid.
Why, then, was it written? Judaism emerged in a polytheistic world, where the Jewish God was considered one of many. The authors of the Torah were determined to show that the Jewish God was superior to the pagan gods. It essence, the Torah is a polemic against paganism. This is why God is exalted in the book of Exodus at the expense of Egyptians and their gods. The welfare of the Israelites themselves is a secondary consideration.
How, then, should secular humanistic Jews celebrate Passover? There are many fine hagodes to choose from, but it is impossible, for me at least, to ignore that there would be no hagodes without the Exodus story in the Torah, a story incompatible with progressive ideals. Therefore, the less said about the original story the better. There are other Jewish exodus stories — from Spain and from Eastern Europe, as two examples –that deserve to be told, as is the story of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, timed to coincide with the first seder on April 19, 1943.
When it comes to plagues. a discussion of contemporary ones can take up the entire seder. But that would be too depressing, so I recommend drinking a few cups of wine and breaking out Rise Up Singing for some inspirational songs about freedom, justice and peace. Who can resist “Go Down Moses”? But if you are truly concerned about human rights, do yourself a favor and skip the verse about “striking your first born dead.” The murder of children is to be condemned, not celebrated.
There I go again. . . .
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.