“And they believed in God and in Moshe, His Servant”: God Takes Down the Egyptian Empire Aim

: God has to show not only the Egyptians that He is capable of defeating them; He also has to prove to the downtrodden Israelites that He is more powerful than their mighty oppressors. Location, location, location: How is geography an important part of the story?

Mitzrayim is a plural noun. Upper and Lower Egypt were unified in pre-Dynastic times, before 3500 BCE. Upper Egypt is “below” Lower Egypt because the parts of Egypt were named according to the direction that Nile flows. This shows us how central the Nile was to Egyptian existence.

In fact, look at how Egyptian cities flank the Nile. What part of the body does the Nile remind you of?

Note: The Egyptians believed that the west was the land of the dead, because they thought when the sun set in the west it was traveling to another land where the spirits of the dead king lived.

“Time laughs at all things, but the pyramids laugh at time.” – Old Arab proverb Take a look at the people in proportion to the Great Pyramids at Gizeh. These monumental structures, from the time of the Old Kingdom, ca. 2500-2400 BCE, dominated the Egyptian landscape. (Just to put to rest an old misconception: the Israelites didn’t build them. The Exodus story took place about 1000 years later.) Oriented to the cardinal points of the compass, the pyramids were once faced with limestone and would have glittered in the sunlight. Their slanted shape mimicked the sun’s rays and so the structures stood as reminders that the Pharaoh was an incarnation of one of the most powerful gods, the sun god Re. The Pharaohs could and did conscript, or enslave, their people, or peoples they conquered from other lands, to work on their tombs: for example, Khufu’s pyramid is made of 2,300,000 limestone blocks with an average weight of 2.5 tons, and 84,000 workers worked 80 days per year for 20 years to build Khufu’s pyramid.

This detailed wall painting is from the tomb of Rekhmire, 15th century BCE, a vizier to Thutmose III. Notice on the top register the pool from which slaves take water to keep the mud wet; moving to the right, one can see the slaves shaping the mud into bricks and then carrying them away once they have dried. In the lower register, slaves make a mastaba tomb, a tomb that is smaller than a pyramid. One can see the limestone facing that covers the mud brick.

Death was such an important part of life to the Egyptians, who thought of life as a cycle of life-death-rebirth. Here are the tombs studding the Egyptian landscape.

Now we can better understand the Israelites complaints to Moshe in the midbar: ‫ מַה‬:‫במִדְ בָר‬ ַ ‫קחְתָ נּו לָמּות‬ ַ‫ל‬ ְ ‫ְרי ִם‬ ַ ‫מצ‬ ִ‫ב‬ ְ ‫ָרים‬ ִ ‫קב‬ ְ -‫אין‬ ֵ ‫בלִי‬ ְ ‫מ‬ ִ‫ה‬ ֲ ,‫מֹשֶה‬-‫וַי ֹאמְרּו אֶל‬ ‫ְרי ִם‬ ָ ‫מצ‬ ִ‫מ‬ ִ ‫להֹוצִיָאנּו‬ ְ ‫שיתָ לָנּו‬ ִ ‫ע‬ ָ ‫ז ֹאת‬ “And they said to Moshe: Was it for lack of graves that you brought us into the wilderness to die? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” So far we’ve learned: The Pharaoh was a god-like figure in Egypt who controlled the lives of his people and reminded them of his power by building colossal statues and gargantuan mortuary complexes. He had utter control over his subjects’ lives. How is God going to convince not only the pharaoh of His power but also a people who have been beaten down by oppression? First, God starts with Moshe: Before we turn to God’s encounter with Moshe, we have to understand how important MAGIC was to Egyptian life.

Egypt was the land of magic. Here is the Egyptian god Ptah (petah, like the Hebrew word opening, because he opened his mouth and formed the world). The Egyptians believed in the power of incantations: spoken words that have magical effects. Abracadabra: Aberah ke’dabra. Egyptians used magic to protect, to curse, and to ensure the dead’s passage to afterlife. The group therefore to perform magical acts was the priests.

The dwarf god Bes, who was thought to protect women during childbirth. And following is a magical incantation the Egyptians would recite to cure someone of cataracts. They would mix brain-of-tortoise with honey and say: There is a shouting from the sky darkness. There is an uproar in the northern sky. The Hall of Pillars falls into the waters. The crew of the sun god bent their oars so that the heads at his side fall into the water. Who leads hither what he finds? I lead forth what I find. I lead forth your heads. I lift up your necks. I fasten what has been cut from you in its place. I lead you forth to drive away the god of Fevers and all possible deadly arts. This combination of science and religion was common in the pagan world, and it’s interesting to note that the Egyptian empire was quite advanced technologically, as one can see from pyramid building and the medicinal practice mentioned with this incantation. Honey does have medicinal properties, we know, and we also have records of the Egyptians’ placing moldy bread on wounds – ancient “penicillin” – and conducting such complex surgeries as brain surgery. So not only did the Pharaohs constantly advance the notion that they are gods and assert their power with the colossal statues and tombs they built throughout the kingdom. They also had another daunting trick up their PR

sleeve: magic, which made them seem mighty and awesome. Don’t worry, God has a plan. Let’s turn to the Torah to see what it is:

‫י ִתֵּ ן‬-‫כִי ֹלא‬--‫אנִי י ָדַ עְתִ י‬ ֲ‫ו‬ ַ ‫יט‬ ,‫ְרי ִם‬ ַ ‫מצ‬ ִ ‫מלְֶך‬ ֶ ‫אתְ כֶם‬ ֶ .‫חזָקָה‬ ֲ ‫בי ָד‬ ְ ,‫ וְֹלא‬:‫להֲֹלְך‬ ַ ‫הכֵּיתִ י‬ ִ ‫ו‬ ְ ,‫י ָדִ י‬-‫לחְתִ י אֶת‬ ַ‫ש‬ ָ ‫ו‬ ְ ‫כ‬ ‫אשֶר‬ ֲ ,‫פלְא ֹתַ י‬ ְ ִ‫ בְכ ֹל נ‬,‫ְרי ִם‬ ַ ‫מצ‬ ִ -‫אֶת‬ ‫שלַח‬ ַ ְ ‫ י‬,‫כֵּן‬-‫ֲרי‬ ֵּ ‫ִרבֹו; וְַאח‬ ְ ‫בק‬ ְ ‫עשֶה‬ ֱ‫א‬ ֶ .‫אתְ כֶם‬ ֶ

19 And I know that the king of Egypt will not give you leave to go, except by a mighty hand. 20 And I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. And after that he will let you go.

Now it’s more clear why God has to be a kind of magician and do so many “wonders” in order for the king of Egypt to let B’nai Yisrael go. What’s interesting is that in Egypt the Pharaoh did not do his own magic. The priest class did. Pharaoh had his assistants who did magic. Who is doing the wonders in the case of B’nai Yisrael?

-‫והֵּן ֹלא‬ ְ ,‫ וַי ֹאמֶר‬,‫ויַעַן מֹשֶה‬ ַ ‫א‬ ‫ כִי‬:‫ וְֹלא י ִשְ מְעּו בְקֹלִי‬,‫אמִינּו לִי‬ ֲ ַ‫י‬ .‫אלֶיָך י ְהוָה‬ ֵּ ‫ִרָאה‬ ְ ‫נ‬-‫ ֹלא‬,‫י ֹאמְרּו‬ -‫מה‬ ַ ( ‫ מזה‬,‫אלָיו י ְהוָה‬ ֵּ ‫ב וַי ֹאמֶר‬ .‫מטֶה‬ ַ ,‫בי ָדֶ ָך; וַי ֹאמֶר‬ ְ )‫זֶה‬ ,‫ַארצָה‬ ְ ‫שלִיכֵּהּו‬ ְ ‫ה‬ ַ ‫ג וַי ֹאמֶר‬ ‫ויָנָס‬ ַ ;‫לנָחָש‬ ְ ‫ויְהִי‬ ַ ‫ַארצָה‬ ְ ‫לכֵּהּו‬ ִ‫ש‬ ְ ַ ‫וי‬ ַ .‫פנָיו‬ ָ‫מ‬ ִ ,‫מֹשֶה‬

1 And Moses answered and said: 'But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.' 2 And the LORD said unto him: 'What is that in thy hand?' And he said: 'A rod.' 3 And He said: 'Cast it on the ground.' And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.

God is “doing the magic trick.” He asks Moshe: “What’s in your hand?” and establishes that it is a rod that turns into a snake, that powerful creature in Egyptian life. Why is it important to know that Moshe is surprised when the rod turns into a snake? Moshe seems to be starting to get the picture, but not completely. Being from Egypt, he seems to assume God is picking him out as a kind of magical assistant and

therefore may need Moshe to utter the proper magical incantations. Moshe’s insistence that he’s not a man of words takes on a whole new meaning with this interpretation:

‫ בִי‬,‫י ְהוָה‬-‫י וַי ֹאמֶר מֹשֶה אֶל‬ ‫ָרים ָאנֹכִי גַם‬ ִ ‫ ֹלא אִיש דְ ב‬,‫אֲדֹנָי‬ ‫ גַם מֵָּאז‬,‫שלְש ֹם‬ ִ ‫מ‬ ִ ‫מתְ מֹול גַם‬ ִ ‫פֶה‬-‫כבַד‬ ְ ‫ כִי‬:‫עבְדֶ ָך‬ ַ -‫ֶרָך אֶל‬ ְ ‫דַ ב‬ .‫ ָאנֹכִי‬,‫כבַד לָשֹון‬ ְ ‫ּו‬ ‫ מִי שָם‬,‫אלָיו‬ ֵּ ‫יא וַי ֹאמֶר י ְהוָה‬ ,‫אלֵּם‬ ִ ‫י ָשּום‬-‫ אֹו מִי‬,‫פֶה לָָאדָ ם‬ ‫הֲֹלא‬--‫עּוֵּר‬ ִ ‫ח אֹו‬ ַ ‫ק‬ ֵּ ‫פ‬ ִ ‫ֵּרש אֹו‬ ֵּ ‫אֹו ח‬ .‫ י ְהוָה‬,‫ָאנֹכִי‬ ‫הי ֶה‬ ְ ‫א‬ ֶ ‫ לְֵּך; וְָאנֹכִי‬,‫ועַתָ ה‬ ְ ‫יב‬ ‫אשֶר‬ ֲ ‫ְהֹוריתִ יָך‬ ֵּ ‫ ו‬,‫פִיָך‬-‫עִם‬ .‫תְ דַ בֵּר‬ ;‫ בִי אֲדֹנָי‬,‫ג וַי ֹאמֶר‬ .‫שלָח‬ ְ ִ‫ת‬-‫בי ַד‬ ְ ,‫נָא‬-‫שלַח‬ ְ

10 And Moses said unto the LORD: 'Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.'

11 And the LORD said unto him: 'Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the LORD?

12 Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt speak.'

God tells Moshe that He doesn’t need him to speak, thanks very much anyway. No, it will be God doing the wonders and Moshe as emissary.

13 And he said: 'Oh Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send.'

“Send someone else as your AGENT!”, Moshe says Moshe understands the role now; unfortunately, he doesn’t want it. Of course, God then gets angry and says to Moshe that He will have Aharon as a better mouthpiece, setting up Moshe as a main figure and Aharon as a kind of assistant to counter Pharaoh and his assistants. The difference, of course, will remain that God is constantly in control of what Moshe and Aharon are doing. Side point: Does magic exist? Ramban thought it did. Rambam, ever the rationalist, did not. He thought all magic was sleight of hand. It’s interesting to note that one of the tricks the Egyptian magicians do is to turn staffs into snakes. If one holds a snake by its neck, it will stiffen like a rod, and when one throws the snake down to the floor, it will resume slithering.

So Moshe has reluctantly assumed the role of God’s emissary. Now what?

,‫ בָאּו מֹשֶה וְַאהֲר ֹן‬,‫א וְַאחַר‬ ‫ָאמַר‬-‫ כ ֹה‬:‫ַרע ֹה‬ ְ ‫פ‬-‫אל‬ ֶ ,‫וַי ֹאמְרּו‬ -‫שלַח אֶת‬ ַ ,‫ְראֵּל‬ ָ ‫ אֱֹלהֵּי יִש‬,‫י ְהוָה‬ .‫בםִדְ בָר‬ ַ ‫וי ָח ֹגּו לִי‬ ְ ,‫םי‬ ִ‫ע‬ ַ ‫אשֶר‬ ֲ ‫מִי י ְהוָה‬--‫ַרע ֹה‬ ְ ‫ב וַי ֹאמֶר פ‬ -‫שלַח אֶת‬ ַ ‫ל‬ ְ ,‫מע בְק ֹלֹו‬ ַ‫ש‬ ְ ‫א‬ ֶ ,‫י ְהוָה‬-‫ ֹלא י ָדַ עְתִי אֶת‬:‫ְראֵּל‬ ָ ‫יִש‬ .ַ‫לח‬ ֵּ ‫ש‬ ַ ‫א‬ ֲ ‫ְראֵּל ֹלא‬ ָ ‫יִש‬-‫וגַם אֶת‬ ְ

1 And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said unto Pharaoh: 'Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness.' 2 And Pharaoh said: 'Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go.'

Ramses II is one possible contender for the Pharoah in Shmot. He reigned from 1279-1213 BCE, during the time of the New Kingdom. His temple, shown above, is Abu Simbel and is fronted, as you see, by colossal statues of Ramses, 65 ft. high. In the interior chapel are four gods, Amen-re, a sun god; Raharakht, the true sun god of Heliopolis; Ptah, a creator god; and Rameses. The temple is oriented to the east, so that the rays of the early morning sun penetrate this inner chapel and fall on the two central god figures, Amen-re and Rameses.

With all this worship of the gods and of himself, the Pharoah, as we know, is not interested in the Israelite deity. It’s not a God he knows and respects. Not a problem for the Creator: let the plagues begin. The plagues are going to take down the Egyptian way of life, not only economically but also religiously. They are going to attack the notion that Pharaoh is god and is in absolute control of his empire and universe:

Plagues One and Two:
Plagues one and two hit the Nile, the life force of Egypt and the place where the Exodus story gets started, as Pharaoh had decided to decimate the Israelites by throwing them into the river. Two gods, one minor and one major, were associated with the Nile: Hapy, who’s depicted here with bent papyrus stalks in the shape of lungs, showing Egyptian knowledge of the human body and how Egyptians used that knowledge in symbolic ways: the Nile was how they breathed, the Egyptians are telling us:

Hail to thee, O Nile! Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt! Mysterious is thy issuing forth from the darkness, on this day whereon it is celebrated! Watering the orchards created by Re, to cause all the cattle to live, you give the earth to drink, inexhaustible one! Path that descends from the sky, loving the bread of Seb and the first-fruits of Nepera, You cause the workshops of Ptah to prosper! Hymn to the Nile, ca. 2100 BCE

Osiris, shown on the left with a green face to represent fertility, was one of the major gods of Egypt and the main god associated with the Nile. If you recall, the Nile looks like a spine, and Osiris was considered the backbone of Egypt. He was a resurrection

god, that is, he came back to life each spring, in a replication of how the Nile flooded and receded during the spring and winter seasons, respectively. Hitting the Nile, turning it to blood, was not only an economic disaster but a huge psychological blow to the Egyptians as their theological beliefs were challenged.

Heqet, the frog goddess, was associated with the moon, as goddesses in the ancient world often were. The moon was said to control the ebb and flow of water and therefore anyone who was associated with the moon was a fertility goddess. Heqet was one of the eight gods or goddesses associated with creation and is the consort of Khnum, the ram-headed god who molds beings out of clay. Heqet’s job was to bring the clay mounds to life. And that is probably why she is the patron goddess of:

So the first two plagues not only undermine a central part of Egyptian life and attack Osiris, a god central to Egyptian belief, they also right the wrong of Pharaoh’s decree to kill the Israelite males.

Plague Three:
This one attacks physically and theologically as well, but in a different way. Commentaries have noted the pattern the plagues follow, of first attacking the land and then the individual. We’ve been saying that the plagues are an attack not only of the economic but also of the theological way of life for the Egyptians. That’s true of the plagues that attacked the people’s bodies. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, said of the Egyptians:

“They are very careful to wear newly-washed linen all the time. They circumcise their children for the sake of cleanliness; they would rather be clean than better looking.” Cleanliness was next to godliness for the Egyptians in a way it was not for other ancient peoples, so attacking the body was also a way of attacking Egyptian theology: “A man says this speech [for the Judgment of the Dead] when he is pure, clean, dressed in fresh clothes, shod in white sandals, painted with eye-paint, anointed with the finest oil of myrrh.” Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.131

Ancient Egyptian toilet box Here’s a quick list of the rest of the plagues and suggestions for the gods they attack: 1. Nile water into blood a. Hapi: god of the Nile 2. Frogs a. Heket, Hekhet, or Heqt: Egyptian goddess of Fertility, Water, Renewal; frog-headed 3. Gnats or Lice from dust a. Geb: Egyptian god of the Earth; also b. Khepri: Egyptian god of creation, movement of the Sun, rebirth; beetle-headed c. Thoth: one time considered god of magic, failed along with magicians (or priests) to duplicate

conjuring of gnats or lice. 4. Flies (gadflies) a. Khepri: Egyptian god of resurrection, creation, movement of the Sun, rebirth; beetle-headed 5. Cattle/livestock disease a. Hathor: goddess of love and protection; possibly absorbed Bat, the cow-headed goddess. b. bull cult gods Apis, Buchis, and Mneuis c. bulls sometimes considered embodiment of Ptah and Ra 6. Boils a. Isis: goddess of medicine and peace b. Im-Hotep: real person turned deity, patron of wisdom and medicine c. Sekhmet: lion-headed deity of plagues, believed to bring about or prevent epidemics or pestilence 7. Thunder/hail a. Nut: Sky goddess b. Shu: god of air; associated with calm or cooling c. Tefnut: goddess of water/moisture; linked to sun and moon d. Seth: associated primarily with chaos but also thunder, the desert, and infertility. 8. Locusts a. Senehem: possibly locust-headed, god of protection from ravages of pests 9. Darkness a. Ra or Amon-Ra: god of the sun b. Horus: sky god; sun was his right eye, moon his left. 10. Death of the firstborn

a. Pharaoh himself b. Min: god of reproduction c. Ra: god who was believed to create all things d. Anubis: god of the dead and embalming; Ex 11:7 refers to no dogs barking, possibly referring to jackal(or dog)-headed Anubis having no power over Israelites during this plague. It seems that God saves the best for last. We began by showing Pharaoh as the sun god, whose monuments to himself glittered brightly in the sun and whose power seemed as unshakeable as the pyramids themselves. But God slowly brings this great man to his knees, ending the plagues with darkness, an extinguishing of the celestial object associated with the Pharaoh himself, and the death of the first-born, who were vital to the Egyptian monarchic system in which the Pharaoh would appoint his first-born as successor. The last two plagues even attack the cycle of lifedeath-rebirth that the Egyptians loved and that was central to how they viewed and lived life: God says with the last two plagues that the Pharaoh living now is extinguished and none will come along to rise in his place. Moreover, God chooses an emissary who is the antithesis of the Pharoah, the arrogant, self-centered ruler. Time and again we find examples of Moshe’s being an anav. But when we first encountered Moshe, he was reluctant to serve God. Does his attitude change over the course of his encounters with Him?

-‫ אֶת‬,‫ל וַיֹושַע י ְהוָה בַיֹום הַהּוא‬ ‫ְראֵּל‬ ָ ‫ַרא יִש‬ ְ ‫וי‬ ַ ;‫ְרי ִם‬ ָ ‫מצ‬ ִ ‫מי ַד‬ ִ --‫אל‬ ֵּ ‫ְר‬ ָ ‫יִש‬ .‫הי ָם‬ ַ ‫שפַת‬ ְ -‫ מֵּת עַל‬,‫ְרי ִם‬ ַ ‫מצ‬ ִ -‫אֶת‬ ,‫הגְדֹלָה‬ ַ ‫הי ָד‬ ַ -‫ְראֵּל אֶת‬ ָ ‫ַרא יִש‬ ְ ‫וי‬ ַ ‫לא‬ ‫ִיראּו‬ ְ ‫וי‬ ַ ,‫ְרי ִם‬ ַ ‫מצ‬ ִ‫ב‬ ְ ‫עשָה י ְהוָה‬ ָ ‫אשֶר‬ ֲ ,‫ בַיהוָה‬,‫אמִינּו‬ ֲ ַ ‫וי‬ ַ ;‫י ְהוָה‬-‫ אֶת‬,‫העָם‬ ָ }‫ {ר} {ש‬.‫עבְדֹו‬ ַ ,‫ּובְמֹשֶה‬

30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-shore. 31 And Israel saw the great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the LORD; and they believed in the LORD, and in His servant Moses. {P}

We say these important words every day: God accomplished His task. He showed not only the Egyptians but also the enslaved and hopeless Israelites that He did indeed have a power mightier than the Pharaoh’s.

Moreover, God’s reluctant emissary Moshe becomes a willing servant. Moshe evolves from being hesitant, even unwilling to do God’s task into a true eved Hashem. His evolution, juxtaposed as it is with Pharaoh’s tragic fall, sets an example, then and now, for B’nei Yisrael, showing us how to turn ourselves away from narcissistic and dangerous choices in favor of ones that will bring us closer to God and to a servitude that is not marked by loss of dignity and personal choice but rather one that enhances our humanity and that of others.

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