Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ey’ra – Sh’mot (Exodus) 6:2 – (chapter) 9

One of Moshe's roles, at the time recorded by our Parasha, was to link 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 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 had not fully adjusted to the dimensions of his newly found destiny and relationship.  The opening "I am YHVH," together with the subsequent words, serve as another reminder to Moshe, designed to anchor, steady, and prepare him for what is ahead and to build up his trust and faith.  Last week, upon his inquiry as to Elohim's name, YHVH gave him a somewhat elusive answer (3: 14): “Ehe'ye asher ehe'ye,” adding, “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 3:12, 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 point.  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).

The verb “ehe'ye” – I will be – is contained in “YHVH,” the name which Elohim is now, by His own initiation, revealing to Moshe (6:2). Thus the letters h.v.h (hey, vav, hey), which are tantamount to h.y.h (hey, yod, hey) meaning “to be”1 form the root of the venerated tetragrammaton.  "Being" and "present" both originate from this one root. The tetragrammaton, therefore, speaks of "being" and of the "present."

Now that Moshe learns Elohim’s name, he hears Him say something quite surprising and unexpected, namely: “I appeared (literally – I was seen va’ey’ra) 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 that they had used this name when addressing Elohim (e.g. Gen. 15:8).  The Sages discuss this point at length, but 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 with which they must have been most familiar (e.g. Gen. 35:11).  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 a number of times, e.g. Ex. 17:16, although lost in the translation, and in many other instances in the Psalms.)

The passage, which starts in verse 3 of Chapter 6 and continues all the way to verse 8, constitutes a unique and significant unit, in both content and form.  The beginning statement is also found at the end (v. 8), that is, "I am YHVH."  In verse 3 reference is made to the Patriarchs, while a similar reference shows up just before the end, in verse 8, in the form of a very emphatic statement (cf. last Parasha, Ex. 3:15,16). The third point in this monologue deals with the Covenanted Land (v. 4), and is echoed in the beginning of verse 8.  Verse 5 talks about the groaning (and therefore sufferings) of the Children of Yisrael, while verse 7 again deals with the same 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, surrounded and framed by the four repetitions mentioned above (i.e. YHVH’s name, 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 impending desert journey. The third level, “redemption,” is also deliverance, but connotes “judicial ransoming.”  The "redeemer" is a “go'el,” which in the Bible is synonymous with a "blood relative." Hence, this announcement in and of itself renders  the Divine Redeemer as a blood relative who has the means and will to purchase the object of his redemption, take it upon himself to recover and restore everything (including that which has been lost) to right order, and 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). Immediately following this YHVH continues to promise to “bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am YHVH” (v. 8, emphases added). The declaration “I am YHVH" pronounced both at the beginning and end of the passage, powerfully denotes His all-encompassing view and position, contrasted with the restricted human perspective and vantage point of the sons of Yisrael. The progressive process we have been following 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 (v. 9 ): “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). 

Following this 'introduction' or preamble, the rest of the Parasha is mostly devoted to the implementation of the action plan described above.  In 6:11, YHVH calls out to Moshe to (literally), “come - BO - speak to Pharaoh…” Notice that above He promised to “bring” – ve’heveti – His people to the land. “Come” – bo – stems from the same root as “bring” – la’ha’vee (that is, “cause one to come”). Thus the “coming” that Moshe is commanded to do before the next phase, which will include verbal ‘combat’ with Egypt’s ruler, may be a “coming” first to Elohim. However, prior to the second plague (of frogs), Moshe is charged once again by YHVH to “bo” – come - but this time to Par’oh (8:1, and likewise in 9:1 and in next week’s Parasha’s opening verse).   

Moshe responds to YHVH’s commission twice with “…I am of uncircumcised lips” (6:12, 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 matter over this matter with His messenger.

It is the condition of Par'oh's heart that YHVH is about to deal with, as He says to Moshe”…And I will harden Pharaoh's heart…” (7:3a). 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). It should be pointed out that the “hardness” of Paroh’s heart is qualified by three different words – ka’she – hard (e.g. 7:3); chazak – strong (e.g. 7:13; kaved – heavy (e.g. 8:15). Interestingly where it says that YHVH hardened the monarch’s heart the first two verbs are used, but when the latter is doing it himself, the verb utilized is “kaved,” which is also related to “honor” and “glory,” thus exposing Par’oh’s inner motivation (for the same idea see 9:17, though there a synonymous verb is used). More on that verb and idea in Parashat Beshalach, especially in chapter 14, where k.v.d will appear several times in a ‘multi-directional’ fashion.

Just prior to inflicting the first plague, Moshe speaks for YHVH saying to Par’oh, ”…Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (7:16). “Serve” here is from the root “work." We remember vividly from last week's Parasha the many negative references to work and labor.  Here "work" becomes ”worship” of YHVH, as it is in most other references to worship.  The hard working slaves (“avadim,” of the root word, 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 at first YHVH made His name known to Yisrael by attaching it to their ancestors’ names (the Elohim of…), thereby demonstrating His faithfulness, now He wants to convey to His people that He is in charge of their present circumstances, in control of all of nature - both animate and inanimate; of mankind, beasts and the elements.  The first to be affected is Egypt's source of water and life, the Nile, which He turns to blood.  Blood, in its turn, is also a symbol of life and atonement but it now becomes a deadly substance in the very body of water, which in the second plague will be swarming with frogs (8:6). The Nile became the grave of many of Yisrael’s infants (ref. Ex. 1:22), and now that blood is crying out, not from the ground, but from the water… In addition, all of Egypt’s other water sources were also turned to blood (7:19).

The fourth and fifth plagues (8:21; 9:3) are the first ones not to occur in the vicinity of the Israelites' dwellings, which means that the land of Goshen was free of them.  The swarms of insects, as they are called, and the pestilence, are both terms with familiar roots, which we have already 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) its victim to the desert.  This time it is 'real' pestilence, not the figurative type, which is plaguing the herds and flocks of the Egyptians (9:8, 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 literally 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 on 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 “ lich’yot”.
2 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2,
ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, P 198