Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’eira – Sh’mot (Exodus) 6:2 – (chapter) 9
One of Moshe's roles, at the time recorded by our Parasha, was to connect the Children of Yisrael with their forefathers, history and destination, but not before establishing (for them and even more so for himself) the identity of their Elohim. This was no easy task! YHVH had already revealed Himself to Moshe in the desert, both in sight and in speech. And while Moshe was trying to negotiate with Par'oh on behalf of the Master of the universe, as well as to 'introduce' Him to his own people, he himself had a hard time grasping the awesome revelation which was unfolding before his eyes. Our Parasha opens up with yet another monologue of Moshe's heavenly Father, displaying great patience with His child, who, at this point, is still not quite adjusted to the dimensions of his call, destiny and relationship. The opening, "I am YHVH," together with the subsequent words, serves as another reminder to Moshe designed to anchor, steady, and prepare him for what is ahead - to build up his trust and faith. Last week, upon Moshe's inquiry as to Elohim's Name, YHVH gave him a somewhat elusive answer (3:13,14): “Ehe'ye asher ehe'ye,” adding also, “thus you shall say to the Children of Israel, Ehe'ye has sent me.” These words are (typically) translated ”I am that I am”; yet if we glance back at verse 12 (of chapter 3), we find that “ehe'ye” means “I will” (as it says there: “I will be with you”). It appears that YHVH was not about to divulge His real (or 'full') Name at that moment. His response and the tone by which it was conveyed, sounds almost like a (temporary) discharge or dismissal: thus paraphrased it may be read: 'never you mind Moshe…I Am and Will be Who I Am - what is it to you?' (Compare Yeshua's response to Shimon Keifa - Peter - in John 21:22).
Found in the verb “ehe'ye” – I will be - is the very same root contained in the title “YHVH,” in 6:2, which Elohim is now , by His own initiation, revealing to Moshe. This most venerated ‘tetragrammaton’ includes the letters h.v.h (hey, vav, hey), which are tantamount to h.y.h (hey, yod, hey), meaning “to be”.1 "Being" and "present" in Hebrew are of one and the same root. Thus, it would seem, that the tetragrammaton speaks primarily of "being" and of the "present."
Now that Moshe knows that it is YHVH who is addressing him, and that this is His name, he hears Him say something quite surprising and unexpected, namely: “I appeared (literally – was seen by – va’eira) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai, but My name YHVH, I did not make known to them” (v. 3). However, the name YHVH is mentioned in connection with the Patriarchs. In fact, there is evidence of them using this name in addressing Him (e.g. Gen. 15:8). While the Sages discuss this point at length, we will not delve deeply into the subject other than to say that since He revealed Himself to them as “El Shaddai,” the “mighty breasted One,” or by implication, the ”Mighty One Who is Sufficient,” it was this aspect of His being which they must have been most familiar with. In the course of His on-going and progressive revelation of Himself, the Elohim of Yisrael is about to demonstrate that He is in control of the present, the One Who Is Present, and truly the One who IS the Present: Yah-hoveh. (Yah, as His name, is used quite a few times, e.g. Ex. 17:16, and in many instances in the Psalms, such as in “hallelu-Yah”.)
The passage, which starts in verse 3 of Chapter 6 and continues all the way to verse 8, constitutes a unique and significant unit, both in content and form. The beginning statement, I am YHVH, is also found at the end (v. 8). In verse 3, reference is made to the Patriarchs, a reference which is repeated just before the end of the passage, in verse 8. This emphatic pronouncement was made by YHVH also in last week’s Parasha regarding His Name (ref. Exodus 3:15,16) and its connection to the Fathers. The third point in this monologue deals with the Land (v. 4), and is echoed in the beginning of verse 8. Verse 5 mentions the groaning (and therefore sufferings) of the Children of Yisrael, and verse 7 also deals with this theme. Thus, the four elements mentioned appear both in the first and second half of the passage, although the second time round the order of these themes is reversed.
The central part of this passage stands firmly on its own, as a precious stone set in fine filigree work, surrounded and framed by the four repetitions mentioned above (i.e. the name YHVH, Patriarchs, Land and Sufferings). It reads as follows: “Therefore say to the children of Israel: `I am YHVH, and I will take you out (ve'hotze'ti) from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver (ve’hi’tzalti) you out from their bondage, and I will redeem (ve'ga'alti) you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take (ve'la'kach'ti) you to me for a people’” (6:6-7 emphases added). Here too there is a ‘foursome,’ this time of four verbs which describe a process. First comes the "taking out" from one place to another, second is the “deliverance” from the enemy and the rigors of the desert. The third level, “redemption,” is basically another form of deliverance with an added spiritual implication. The "redeemer" is a “go'el,” which in the Bible is synonymous with a "relative." Therefore, the Divine announcement in and of itself renders - yea pronounces - the Divine Redeemer to be like a blood relative who has the means and willingness to purchase the object of his redemption, and to take it upon Himself to recover and restore everything (including that which has been lost) back to its right order, as well as to be an avenger of wrongs (e.g. Lev. 25:26; Num. 5:8; Ruth 3:12, Ruth 4; Josh. 20:5). Finally, the "taking" here is much like the "taking of a wife" in marriage (Gen. 25:20, for example).
When this series of actions is completed “…you shall know that I am YHVH your Elohim” (v. 7). This progressive process evidences that there is only One who can act on every level, with nothing ever being required of the recipients. This IS the grace, “which is not of yourselves [but] it is the gift of Elohim!” (Ephs.2:8). However, for this grace to be appropriated faith is required, and thus we move on to the anticlimactic end: “So Moses spoke thus to the sons of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage."
"Despondency" is literally “shortness of spirit/breath,” sometimes meaning impatience, while "cruel bondage" is actually “hard labor” (v. 9). And so we see the declaration “I am YHVH," pronounced both at the beginning and end of the passage, as it powerfully denotes His all-encompassing view and position, contrasted with the restricted perspective and vantage point of the sons of Yisrael.
Following this 'introduction' or preamble, the rest of the Parasha mostly details the implementation of the action plan described above. Moshe and his brother Ah'aron are sent to speak to Par'oh (6:11, 29). In this scene Moshe responds twice with “…I am of uncircumcised lips” (vs.12 and 30), obviously trying (once again) to dodge his responsibility by claiming that he is not a fit speaker. But whereas last week we read that he used the expression: “I am not eloquent… but I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue” (4:10), this time he feels the need to press the point even further, since "uncircumcised lips" could also denote uncleanness. YHVH is not 'impressed,' and does not take up the issue over this matter with His messenger.
It is the condition of Par'oh's heart that YHVH is about to address, as He says to Moshe”…And I will harden Pharaoh's heart…” (7:3a). The Apostle Shaul (Paul) elaborating on this says: “Therefore He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardens” (Rom. 9:18). Romans 1:18-21 may help us to further understand this idea: “…For the wrath of Elohim is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness, because that which may be known of Elohim is manifest in them, for Elohim has shown it unto them. For from the creation of the world the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. For when they knew Elohim, they neither glorified Him as Elohim, nor were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (italics added). Back to where we left off in Exodus 7:3, the second part of the verse reads, “… and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt,” with the result being, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am YHVH when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt and bring out the Children of Israel from among them” (v. 5 italics added).
One of the last things Moshe is supposed to convey to the king, just prior to inflicting the first plague upon him, his people and his land, is”…Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (7:16). “Serve” here is from the root “work," and thus it says: “va'ya'avduni.” We vividly remember from last week's Parasha the many negative references to work and labor. Here "work" becomes the ”worship” of YHVH, as it is found to be in most other references to worship. The hard working slaves (“avadim,” of the root a.v.d) of the Egyptians are about to be liberated and become free to carry out “avodat Elohim” – that is, rendering service unto YHVH.
If YHVH’s name, being attached to the Fathers (the Elohim of…), is how YHVH wanted Himself to be known by Yisrael, so as to convey to them that He is in charge of the historical developments, particularly theirs, now His actions show Him to be also in control of all of nature, both animate and inanimate: mankind, beasts, and the elements. First to be affected is Egypt's source of water and life, the Nile, which He turns to blood. As a symbol of life and atonement, blood here becomes a deadly substance in the river, which in the second plague is seen swarming with frogs (8:3).
The fourth and fifth plagues are the first not to occur in the vicinity of the Israelites' dwellings, which means that the land of Goshen is free of them. The swarms of insects, as they are called, and the pestilence, are both terms with familiar roots, which we have previously encountered. "Swarms of insects" (and other translated versions) are “a'rov,” and "pestilence" is “dever.” “Arov” (which shares its root, a.r.v., with the root for “erev” – “evening”) means a “mixture,” hence the mixed variety of species. Last week we looked at “midbar” - desert - noting that the “dever” (i.e. “pestilence” or “plague”), sometimes "drives" (of the same root, once again) us to the desert. This time it is 'real' pestilence, not the figurative type, which is plaguing the herds and flocks of the Egyptians (ch. 9).
“Boils and hail with fire flashing… in the midst of… it” (9:24) are the next two plagues, both of which have no tangible effect on the Israelites, because YHVH made “a division between My people and your people” (8:23). “Division” here is “p'dut,” which actually means “ransom.” It is the ransom which always separates those who are "My people" from those who are Par'oh's. The basic meaning of the Hebrew root [p.d.h] is to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute.2 More about this idea in next week's Parasha…
1 In Hebrew, the "v" sound (vav) and the "y" sound (yod) are often interchangeable, such as in the
name Chava (Eve), which denotes “life”, although the noun “life” is “chayim”, and to “live” is “
2 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980.