5.6. How God’s Message to the People Differs from His Message to Pharaoh (3:16-18)

 (16) “Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, ‘I have taken note of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt,

(17) and I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.’

(18) They will listen to you; then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God.’

(16) Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: The elders must be persuaded first. While enslaved in Egypt no Jew could feel individual autonomy or independence. The chain of command was therefore of utmost importance to them – they obeyed their leadership.

We shall soon see that at the initial stage of the Exodus, the position of the Jewish “elders” poses a significant problem.

The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appeared to me and said … (17) … I will take you out of the misery of Egypt: When Moses addresses the Children of Israel, he must speak of “nationalist” considerations, viz., the Patriarchs, deliverance from slavery, and returning to the Land to lead happy, productive lives. Here we see a deep personal connection with God (“the Lord, the God of your fathers, appeared to me”), but there is no mention of the rituals that are observed in serving God.

And said, ‘I have taken note of you: These words, pakod pakadti, are an echo of the same words by which Joseph, before his death, foretold the future Exodus from Egypt (Genesis 50:24). Thus, this directive connects Moses with the national collective memory, and should help to persuade the elders.

(18) They will listen to you; then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God.’: However, when Moses goes to Pharaoh with the elders (that is, he goes not merely as an individual, but accompanied by the appointed representatives of the people), they will need to present their request to Pharaoh in completely different – thoroughly religious – terms, as if their avowed purpose is strictly “ritual-ecclesiastical” – to offer sacrifices to the Jewish God.

Moreover, contact with God is here indicated by the use of a different term: “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, manifested (nikrah) Himself to us,” which speaks not of a personal connection, but of establishing one-time contact with higher worlds[1]. This alteration is intentional: Pharaoh can more readily consent to a demand framed in those terms, which have the “feel” of typical Egyptian witchcraft.

In fact, both objectives are equally valid: the wording as originally communicated to the Jewish people, and also as later reworded for Pharaoh’s benefit. But we need to transmit to each receiver only that part of our message that he can hear and accept.

Pharaoh is unable to accept the nationalist message, but he accepts the religious message, namely, that everyone worships his own God, Who requires some semblance of services and rites. Pharaoh is prepared to respect the religious peculiarities of minorities, so if this is about a religious need, then he will allow it. But if the request is motivated by nationalism, then he can only take it as a personal insult: A substantial segment of the Egyptian population wants to abandon its Egyptian homeland.

Conversely, as concerns the Jews themselves, the ecclesiastical-ritual objective is not something that a nation striving for life in its own Land can easily identify with. But it would be a mistake to think that that desire is not also significant from a religious point of view. On the contrary, that desire demonstrates a very deep connection with God, as we shall see.

[1] A very similar verb is used twice in the story of God’s conversation with Balaam (Num. 23:4,16).

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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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