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D'var Torah: Va-era

In religious writings we frequently find stories that portray one god as being compared to or pitted against another. Creation stories of the ancient world abound in such tales, and even the Bible contains examples. The most famous of these is found in 1 Kings 18:1–46, the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal, where Elijah challenges the priests to have Baal ignite a sacrificial fire. In this week’s sidra, indeed, in the entire account of the Exodus, we can find many examples of such polemical writing. But before we begin, let’s look at some preparatory verses from last week’s parashah.

One of the more interesting features of the story of the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh is the deep knowledge of Egyptian culture and history that the Bible reveals. For example, in the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” the commands and statements uttered by the gods are introduced by the words, “Thus says [name of god] ...”1 So we find this verse:

And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: “Thus says YHVH, the God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.’” (Ex. 5:1)

And soon after, the following is spoken concerning Pharaoh’s orders:

And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spoke to the people, saying: “Thus says Pharaoh: ‘I will not give you straw.’” (5:10)

The story in today’s sidra is setting up Pharaoh for the events yet to come. Our story is saying to its listeners: “Look here now, Pharaoh may be a god to those Egyptians but does he really think that he can challenge the true God, YHVH?” Pharaoh may have been regarded as a god by his people, but that means nothing to YHVH, who makes certain that the playing field is level for both competitors, Moses and Pharaoh. To achieve this equality, God gives Moses a promotion.

YHVH replied to Moses, “See, I have made you a god [elohim] to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.” (7:1)

Thus the biblical author has God making Moses appear as divine to Pharaoh! This is important because the Hebrews knew that the knowledge of one’s own power itself conferred power, and in Egyptian texts Pharaoh is credited with divine powers, possessing “a strong hand”; he is the “possessor of a strong arm” and even is “the one who destroys armies with his arm.”2 What better way would there be to denigrate the power of Pharaoh than to first declare that Moses will appear godlike to Pharaoh, and then use the terms of power ascribed to Pharaoh for the description of Egypt’s punishment and humiliation by God?

In Exodus 7 we find the first direct confrontation between Pharaoh and God: the serpent contest.

When Pharaoh shall speak to you, saying: “Show a wonder for yourselves”; then you shall say to Aaron: “Take your rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.” (7:9)

This confrontation, together with the final one at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, frame the entire series of events involving Moses and Pharaoh—the plagues, and both of these framing events, as well as the plagues, rely on elements rooted in Egyptian folklore. The story that relates the serpent confrontation even acts as a paradigm for the plagues and Egypt’s humiliation. The pattern is, usually, God commands, Moses (and Aaron at times) act, and Pharaoh reacts, at first by having his seers duplicate the sign, and by “stiffening his heart” (later done by God). Here, by having Aaron’s staff-cum-serpent swallow the staff-serpents of the court magicians, it foreshadows the final event of the sea’s swallowing Egypt’s army. The link between these two episodes is forged by the use of the same word for “swallow up” (bala’) which is used in both places (Ex. 7:12 and 15:12).

The imagery of a staff becoming a serpent is revealing, since we know from Egyptian texts that Egyptians were afraid of snakes, especially venomous ones. The “Pyramid Texts” attest to this and contain many charms and spells against snakebite.3 The Egyptians must have had a love-hate relationship with snakes, on one hand fearing them but on the other, revering them. Snakes were symbols of the gods and Pharaoh’s power and their images served as symbols of royalty—the uraeus. Thus the biblical story of Aaron’s staff-serpent swallowing those of the Egyptians would have its intended effect among ancient listeners—to mock Pharaoh’s power and hold the Egyptians’ beliefs up to ridicule.

In addition to the snake imagery, examples of polemic can be found in the all the plagues, but we only have time now to examine three, the plagues of blood, lice, and darkness. Turning the Nile, the source of life in Egypt, into blood was imagery familiar to Egyptians from early times. The Nile was one of the major symbols of Egypt’s gods, indeed, the god Hapi was the divine personification of the Nile, or Hep in Egyptian. From the Hymn to Hapi:

Hail to you Hapi, sprung from earth, come to nourish Egypt.… Food provider, bounty maker, who creates all that is good!… Conqueror of the Two Lands, he fills the stores, makes bulge the barns, gives bounty to the poor.4

In ca. 2180 BCE, between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, a text known as “The Admonitions of Ipu-wer” was composed that shows consistent parallels with the biblical account of the ten plagues. Here we will just consider the Nile turning to blood. The text contains the following:

Indeed, the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water.5

The collapse of the Old Kingdom civilization is generally attributed to a repeated failure of the Nile to inundate the flood plain; the river was likely low and dark with red silt giving the appearance of blood. Egyptians would have been very familiar with a silty river during times of its failure to flood; such times usually heralded famine.

What did the plague of lice have to do with Egyptian culture? Upper-class Egyptians, and especially the priests, were known to be clean-shaven, even in ancient times. Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote in ca. 431–425 BCE the following about the Egyptian priests:

The priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods.6

So by becoming infested with lice the priests would be impure and wouldn’t be able to perform their religious duties. Score another point for God.

Now let us jump ahead to next week and consider the plague of darkness. From the “Prophecy of Nefer-rohu,” a text attributed to a priest from ca. 2000 BCE who, according to the text, foretold the end of the period of turmoil that followed the collapse of the Old Kingdom:

This land is [so] damaged [that] there is no one who is concerned with it, no one who speaks, no eye that weeps. How is this land? The sun disc is covered over. It will not shine [so that] people may see. No one can live when clouds cover over [the sun].... No one knows when midday falls, for his shadow cannot be distinguished.7

The fact that these elements of Egyptian culture were used as the means of punishment of Egypt by God for Pharaoh’s intransigence is revealing for what it says about the extent of knowledge about Egypt possessed by the author of the Exodus story.

Now consider the final insult to the Egyptians—the destruction of their army. The event of the parting of the sea also has its roots in Egyptian mythology; Egyptians had their own story of the magical dividing of a body of water. According to the “Westcar Papyrus,” which was composed as early as Dynasty 12 (ca. 1991–1783 BCE), the bored king Sneferu, while punting on a lake, a woman in his barge dropped a charm into the water. He summoned his chief priest to help retrieve it. Through magic sayings the priest split the lake, located the charm, and with some more magic restored the lake.8

One can easily see how the author of the Exodus story could have used the idea behind this old Egyptian tale. The parting of the Sea of Reeds by God certainly looks very much like a polemical response to the Sneferu story—a bored Egyptian king has a lake divided by his priest to find a trinket, but the God of the Hebrews divides a sea to allow the passage of an entire nation on dry land. Thus the dividing of the sea may well be an “ironic, belligerent critique of Egyptian magic and its spells,” to use John D. Currid’s apt phraseology.9

Many scholars have compared biblical writings with written materials from other cultures from the same period (or earlier) and have concluded that much of the material of the Bible that parallels material from other cultures was borrowed from those cultures. However, an analysis of the material from the Egyptian period of the Exodus story appears to demonstrate that the biblical versions of these tales having themes similar to those of the other cultures may not be borrowed after all, but may very well be polemical responses to the beliefs of those cultures.

Shabbat shalom.

January 2011


1. See, e.g., C. Andrews, ed. and R. O. Faulkner, tr. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, University of Texas Press, 1990, p. 28.

2. J. K. Hoffmeier, “The Arm of God Versus the Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives,” Bible 67 (1986), p. 378–87.

3. See, e.g., B. Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic, Harper Paperbacks, 1998; and J. P. Allen, tr. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Brill Academic Publications, 2005.

4. M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume I, The Old and Middle Kingdoms, University of California Press, 1975, p. 205–209.

5. The Admonitions of Ipu-wer, from part II.

6. Herodotus, Second Book: Euterpe; Sec. 37.

7. J. Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East, Volume I / An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 445.

8. M. Lichtheim, op. cit., pp. 216–222.

9. J. D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997, p. 84.

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