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D'var Torah: Va-era

Two years ago I spoke about religious polemic in this parashah. In that d'rash I concentrated on the polemic embodied in the plagues. In case you missed it, I'll review some of those points to illustrate another polemic zinger in this reading. A frequent theme of ancient religious writings portrays gods pitted against each other. The Bible has tales like this too; however, in the Bible the competition is one-sided with only God’s actions being described. A famous example is illustrated by Elijah’s challenge to the priests of Ba’al to have Ba’al demonstrate his existence by igniting a sacrificial fire (1 Ki 18:1–46). That story provides an example of theomonic polemicism, but the Bible contains plenty of examples of henotheisic polemic too and many are contained in the story of Moses versus Pharaoh, which takes place over the next few weeks’ readings.

One of the more interesting features of this extended story of the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh is the deep knowledge of Egyptian culture, theology, and history that this story reveals. Culturally, a common Near Eastern idiom that is used to introduce a proclamation derived directly from the gods begins, “Thus says (god’s name)….” This idiom is found in many ancient Egyptian sources.1 So in the Moses-Pharaoh pericope we find verses that use that same formula, but here, it’s Moses, not a god, who uses it:

And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: “Thus says Adonai, the God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.’” (Ex 5:1, cf. 8:16, 9:1, 10:3)

Last week we saw that idiom used on behalf of Pharaoh in delivering his orders to the Hebrews:

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.’” (Ex 5:10)

The polemic intent in using this proclamation idiom is to set up Pharaoh: see, Pharaoh may be a god to the Egyptians but if he thinks that he can challenge the true God, Yahweh, he’s got another think coming. Pharaoh may be regarded as a god by his people, but that means nothing to God, who makes certain that the playing field is level for Moses by making him equal to Pharaoh. Near the beginning of today’s parashah, it reads:

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

The text’s 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. Egyptian texts deified Pharaoh and credited him with divine powers; their texts say he has “a strong hand”; he is the “possessor of a strong arm” and he even is “the one who destroys armies with his arm.”2 Soon we will see the Torah use these identical terms of power ascribed to Pharaoh to describe Egypt’s punishment and humiliation by God. What better way would there be to denigrate Pharaoh’s image than to first make Moses appear to have an equivalent godlike status and then show Pharaoh becoming subdued using the same words that describe his own attributes? Well, actually our text’s author manages to come up with not one, but several better ways.

In today’s parashah we find the first demonstrative 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.” (Ex 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 rely on elements rooted in Egyptian theology. The serpent imagery serves two purposes. The serpent, symbolized by the uraeus worn on the royal headdress, was the emblem of Pharaoh’s power, so Aaron’s serpent swallowing the staff-serpents of the court magicians was emblematic of overcoming Pharaoh. Second, this swallowing imagery foreshadows the later event of the sea’s swallowing Egypt’s army. The link between these episodes is supported through the use of the same word for “swallow up” (bala’), an uncommon word which is used in both places (Ex 7:12 and 15:12).

In addition to the snake imagery, other examples of henotheistic polemic can be found in many of the plagues, Specifically, the plagues of blood, frogs, pestilence, locusts, hail, and darkness have elements that appear to be directed against the Egyptian gods (other plagues do too but less strongly so). In particular, the plague of darkness specifically nullifies the power of the chief deity, Amon-Re, the sun-god and god of life. The rising sun each day was viewed as the god’s self-creation; the renewal of the god’s life each day. When the sun did not appear for several days, it demonstrated that Amon-Re could no longer re-create himself and could no longer renew life.

Now I’ve saved the best for last. Last week the rabbi mentioned another of the primary themes of the Moses-Pharaoh confrontation, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Another comment pointed out that three different Hebrew words were used to describe this “hardening”; this particular imagery illustrates just how deeply knowledgeable the text’s author was about Egyptian culture. Why, after all, is “hardening a heart” important in the context of Pharaoh’s stubbornness? The Hebrew wording provides our answer when we consider Egyptian theology.

The Hebrew terms used are hazaq (Ex 4:21, 7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:2, 12, 35, 10:20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 17), qasa (Ex 7:3, 13:15), and kaved (Ex 8:15, 32, 9:7, 34, 10:1). These translate as “strong/tough,” “difficult” (with a connotation of stubbornness), and “heavy” respectively, but the overall sense of the three terms when they are considered as synonyms, as they are in this story, is “heavy.” To the ancient Egyptian, the heart (ib) was the seat of the person’s essence, his wisdom, will, intention, desire, courage, self, thoughts (and more), according to E.A.W. Budge’s Dictionary of Hieroglyphics. In a vivid description from the “Papyrus of Ani” in the Book of the Dead, upon one’s death the person’s heart was weighed in Anubius’ balance of truth against a feather. If it tipped the balance against the feather, the deceased would not receive the reward of eternal life, instead he would be cast to Amenit, the Devouress. A heavy heart meant that the person had led an evil and sinful life. We can see how the meaning of the three Hebrew terms as “heavy” fits the polemical intent of the story. The linking of sinning and heart-heaviness is actually made explicit at the end of our parashah where the words chato (“his sin”) and yakhbaid (“he made heavy”) are juxtaposed.

Pharaoh ... vayoseif lachato va-yakhbaid lebo, increased his sinful ways and made his heart heavy.... (Ex 9:34, my tr.)

Not only does the linking of Egyptian theology to Pharaoh’s behavior serve a prominent role in the polemic—Pharaoh “hardens his heart” all by himself, but God causes it to happen to him also. Why? Why does God need to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” at all? The answer will come in two weeks hence when we read parashat Beshallach, but I’ll share a preview.

Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart ... that I may gain kavod through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord. (Ex 14:4; also 17–18)

This statement contains a pun. God gains honor—kavod—through Pharaoh’s heart made heavy. Kavod shares the same root as kaved, “heavy,” one of the synonyms used to describe Pharaoh’s heart. God’s honor and glory come at the expense of Pharaoh, who suffers the affliction of a heavy, or sinful heart. Pharaoh, viewed as a god by his people and therefore by definition possesses a pure and untainted character, was forced by God to be judged as evil using the Egyptians’ own theological beliefs.

The most successful polemic results from beating the opponent on their own terms while increasing one’s own honor. This polemic was a winner.

January 2013


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.

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