2.4. Divine Revelation Happens First in Egypt, not Israel

As we read the Book of Exodus, we learn that the first nation to whom God is revealed is not the Jews, but the Egyptians! At first this seems counterintuitive, but the Torah expresses in very plain terms that the Egyptian plagues are needed so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (14:4). Not the Jews, but the Egyptians, shall know. God will later reveal himself to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai, at the giving of the Torah. But the Ten Plagues is a revelation specifically for the Egyptians, and it happened before God revealed Himself to the Jews.

All of Western civilization has its roots in Ancient Egypt (by way of Greece and Rome)[1]. Thus, God’s revelation to Egypt was potentially a revelation to all mankind.

God had to reveal Himself first, at the Exodus, to all the nations, and only then could He charge the Jews at Sinai with the task of bringing God’s message to all humanity. The Jews could not have advanced the human race from its primitive, “natural” positions if God had not first set those positions in motion for all of humanity. This is just what He did through the Ten Plagues with which He smote the Egyptians.

Egyptian culture incorporates an unusually robust Divine principle, but Egypt’s worship of nature suppresses that foundation. Egypt is first mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis, where the rivers that flow forth from the Garden of Eden are enumerated (Gen. 2:13)[2]. Thus, Egypt draws its spirituality directly from the Garden of Eden, but it applies that spirituality incorrectly. Egypt is described in Torah as the “house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2), i.e. the bondage constitutes its essence. Egypt turns its inhabitants into slaves of Pharaoh and the society into slaves of nature. Egypt incorporates the Jewish people into this system. And that is why Egypt must be destroyed.

God’s Revelation in Egypt consists in destroying Egyptian self-confidence, in destroying its reliance on nature and on the cyclical aspect of nature and its determinism. With the dismantling of these attitudes, the Divine foundation of Egyptian civilization is set free, part of which the Jews must bring out of Egypt with them. This is the “stripping” of the Egyptians that accompanies the Exodus (3:22).

Unlike the book of Genesis, which tells of illustrious individuals, Exodus recounts the life of the nation as a whole. And although any individual of this nation, including even Moses himself, was of course spiritually lower than any of the Patriarchs, the essence of the Patriarchs was that they were “forefathers,” parents, whose task was to give birth to a nation. The life of the nation therefore represents a more advanced stage of development as compared with that of the Patriarchs.

Therein lies a certain paradox in the spiritual element of the historical process, as Jewish tradition sees it. The greatness of Jewish leaders steadily “decreases” (the Patriarchs were greater than Moses, who was greater than the other prophets who followed him, who were greater than the sages of the Talmud, who were greater than the sages of the post-Talmudic era). But at the same time, the spirituality of the world and of society generally is increasing. Apparently, the level of the great leaders is decreasing because most of the hard work has already been accomplished, with the leaders of each subsequent era standing on the shoulders of their predecessors. One who stands on the shoulders of giants sees further than they do, although he is himself shorter than they are[3].

Genesis is the story of individual holiness, while the book of Exodus speaks of the holiness of society, of an entire nation. God gave the Patriarchs His promise that they would give birth to a nation, because only a nation can re-educate humanity, which consists of other nations.

As the human species progresses in its development, holiness must become the lot not only of individuals, but of society as a whole. It should extend not only to specifically religious areas of life (commandments, prayer, and so on), but to social life and the life of the state, to the economy, to the development of science, technology, and art, and to the entire social structure. All aspects of “secular” life must collectively participate in acquiring holiness. Individuals cannot attain that level, not even righteous individuals can. Only a nation is capable of that.

In the book of Exodus, therefore, the first step must be the creation of a nation – the future subject of holiness. Only then can that nation receive the Torah and take up residence in its own Land, building its life on a sacred foundation.

The holiness of the nation as a whole and the holiness of secular life are fundamental biblical concepts, but the Jewish people have even now not yet managed to convey their understanding of those concepts to humanity. The world accepted monotheism from the Jews, along with the idea that God exists and has given them His commandments, all of which are aspects of personal dialogue with God.

But the world has not yet adopted the ideas of national holiness and a national dialogue with God; these remain ideas whose time is yet to come (according to the theory of religious Zionism as developed by Rabbi A. I. Kook, the peoples of the world will receive the ideas of “the sanctity of secular life” as a part of the historical, political, and spiritual development of the modern Israeli state).

[1] For a more detailed discussion of these points, see Bible Dynamics, Genesis §13.8.

[2] See Bible Dynamics commentary to Gen. 2:13.

[3] In Jewish tradition this process of “diminishing returns” among the leadership is known as yeridat ha-dorot, “the decline of the generations,” which refers to the leaders specifically. This does not mean that every leader of any later era stands necessarily lower than the leaders of all prior eras. Rather, it means that the sum total of all the leaders of any later era will be less than that of the leaders of any earlier era.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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