Exodus 1:1 - 6:1  Notes Lesson 13
Torah Portion  Shemot


A. We begin study today of the book of Sh'mot, Names, better known to us as Exodus. 

The name, Sh'mot, is based on its first word and topic, the names of all who came down with Jacob to Egypt. This is important because we see in it the transition from these particular people and their families to the nation and later even more broadly to all people of faith. Names suggests that this is a story of people of faith who survive and how they are saved. Further, it's a story of the God who redeems them and for what purpose. And it beautifully is a story, as we will see and dwell on considerably in a few moments, of Divine names as well.  

The latter, Exodus, conveys a notion of the main action of the book, the deliverance from Egypt. As we will see, the content of the book goes well beyond all this, importantly, to the Revelation at Sinai, the beginning of wilderness wanderings, experiences of apostasy and rebellion, and the design and construction of the tabernacle. In other words, we see how the path of exodus from enslavement leads us to be a people of God. 

So, we will keep these and other ideas in mind as we journey on through the book. 

B. We won't spend much additional time by way of introduction, except to say this book is:

1. A remarkable narrative of a sort of heroic adventure tale;

2. A powerful story of God's might and role in the world and our relationship with, and duties to, the Divine, as manifested in God's direction of specific ways in which we should live; 

3. A stunning story of passage for Moses and the people, extending from the patriarchs and matriarchs into Egypt, through the development of a people, their enslavement and liberation, God's revelation and their wandering toward the Promised Land, in the midst of God's presence; and 

4. An account historical in nature, though perhaps outside of accounted for history, and with mythic resonance. 

I. Read 1:8.

What are the various possibilities about the meaning of the new king who arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph? Know that yadah, the Hebrew word here for "know," includes notions of emotions and relatedness as well as intellect. So, we shouldn't be limited in our understanding to concluding it's as simple as cognitive awareness.

( • the king simply didn't know or appreciate him

he didn't appreciate his service or the God he served and helped save Egypt

he felt no duty to his children

he represented the prevailing gods, values of Egypt and the ancient world, counter to God

he represented the interests who lost the most under Joseph's economic regime

he used this "ignorance" to further distance and .)

II. Read 1:17:22. 

A. In the midst of increasing oppression, the midwives act in a God-driven way. They had yirat elohim, fear of God, which as we discussed in our study of Proverbs, is the foundation of wisdom. What explains the attention given in the text to the midwives?

(Is it that there's a real power in people who would rather risk the ire of human power rather than act contrary to God's expectations that arouse Divine wrath? Is it that God is available to support people who step up?  Or that had others acted like the midwives they all could have effected a successful resistance to the Pharaoh and perhaps stopped the degradation?)

B. Does this raise the issue of: where were the others? Has the God-tradition weakened, or is there something else at work? 

 (The absence in this part of the text of God-reliance surely at least raises our curiosity. We learned that God promised Jacob that the Divine would come down to Egypt with him. Yet, after the families come, there's no other mention of God, which certainly is very concerning as we read that the pain and degradation of slavery increases. 

Some  commentaries see the Israelites as having fallen away from God and adopted the pagan ways of the Egyptians.  

Others generally aren't critical of the people and see the enslavement differently. They see no clear evidence of wrongdoing. Further, Pharaoh's words are full of pure hostility and increasing malevolence. Many choose not, especially after the Holocaust, to "blame the victim" anywhere when the perpetrator is so evil as here. 

Another possibility, as we studied in the psalms, is that feeling of despair when for reasons that are not altogether clear to us God seems far away and distant. 

And/or there's an underlying sense of destiny in the text going way back to Genesis when God conveys to Abram that there would be an enslavement in a strange land and a Divine redemption after a period of time. Was this simply divinely ordained?

Is it one of these? Or several?

III. Read 2:1-4. We have cues and symbols we should recognize here.

A. Note Moses is a Levite! Recall our discussion last week about the restoration and redemption within this tribe. 

B. Note the ark into which Moses is placed in the Nile. The Hebrew word is tevah, the same word as for Noah's ark. This leads to comparisons of a saving quality of the enclosure on the water - a kinship to not only our Flood story but to similar stories in other traditions. Some sages liken the ark to Torah itself, a container of God's saving direction. 

C. We also get introduced to the place of water in Moses' story. Drawn out of the water and indeed one who draws out of the water. We recall, too,  the association of water with spirituality. 

IV. Read 2:11-14, 16-17. Then 23-25. 

A. As Moses goes out from Pharaoh's house (for the first time we know), what are the first things we learn about him?

(It's not clean and arguably excessive, even involving what is a killing, though possibly excusable; Moses is not perfect. He has flaws and must grow and does. 

But, crucially, he has a deep and powerful instinct for justice. Empathy. Seeing the burdens of brothers. Defending the weak one regardless of what group he/she belongs, even with exceptional effort and at the risk of losing his advantage and position. In the last instance, he also "draws water" for the Midian daughters from a well (another well!) and waters their flocks (more watering of flocks!). Then shepherding for Jethro, going further into the wilderness. He gives up the palace for the wilderness. He takes on life as a husband, a father, a shepherd, perhaps even a student with Jethro.

It's interesting to think of and compare the journeys of the young men that we've studied so far, those of Jacob, Joseph, and now Moses. We don't have time to ponder today what happened to Moses during this time in the wilderness, but I invite you to do so on your own.)

B. Though time passes, the next moment in the text is the cry of the people to God for help. God remembered (zachor) and recalled covenant and took notice of them. Why now? What's going on? What does this mean?

(Hard to know why the Israelites called out now. God does re-enter the story, as described in the text. Whatever else, God does respond to our cry, though not on "our timetable," and remembers the covenant. 

Some say God saw signs of caring that triggered Divine compassion. [God's appearance does indeed follow in the text the three acts of Moses' caring, though with some apparent passage of time. This is not accidental.])

V. Read 3:1-15. So much here!

A. The angel of God appears in a fire in the midst of a thornbush? Why the thornbush? 

(I love the answer in Midrash Rabbah: to teach that there is no place in the world that is devoid of the Divine Presence, even the narrow and lowly thornbush. Another insight: there is no place too humble to become a resting place for God's spirit, that even the lowest in the eyes of man is intended and fit to become the bearer of the Divine.

Also, the thornbush is painful to birds that fly into it, as Egypt was for the Israelites. Out of the pain of the thornbush, God's Presence shows commisseration and support . 

B. Why does it burn but is not consumed?

Again from Midrash Rabbah: we burn with the influence and impact of God's presence; we create a haven for the Presence, but we are not consumed by it. We live in the mundane not caught up or consumed in the other-worldly. Ours is to harness the mundane and sanctify it, becoming Godly human beings to raise the earthly heavenward. 

Another: the people would not be consumed in exile. It emerges stronger and God-infused. Purified or at least inspired by the fire, preparing for the fire at Sinai.)

C. Moses turns to see and is called. God announces that He is the God of the fathers. Moses is afraid and hides his face (though he later seeks to see  his glory (impossible to see God's essence but wants to see what God had here intended to show him.) Is this fear out of reverence? Or is Moses himself uncertain of the God tradition?

Once called to help God who has seen the abuse of His people and now will rescue them from Egypt, Moses asks "who am I to do this" and why to take them out, as if to wonder how could he accomplish this and for what purpose. God says the Divine will be with him and the redemption has a purpose, to bring the people to serve God.  

D. When asked the name of the one who spoke to Moses (presuming they've lost contact with a close awareness of the fathers) , God says: ehyeh asher ehyeh. What translations do you have? I Shall Be What I Shall Be. What does that mean? And why does God further tell him to tell them "I Shall Be" said it? Is this just obscure, or does it reveal important insights?

(There are sages on all sides of this, but all look for meaning. 

1. For some: it means God is to be called by the Divine's  deeds: Elohim, when judging creations; Tzevaos, when waging war against the wicked; El Shaddai, when suspending judgment for a person's sins and withholding deserved punishment; when merciful, Hashem (compassionate and of grace) OR

2. I am the God of the past, the God of the Present, and the God of the Future to Come. I shall always be. I will be what tomorrow demands.  This is the notion more simply of "I Shall Be."

 3. God will not be limited or put in a box my any created being or as if a created being. In this way, the answer may be deliberately vague. God cannot and will not be defined, thus giving rise to a vague answer. 

4. Or God will be with them, no matter what. In their distress and in their redemption. And in their yoking. And they won't ultimately be able altogether to throw off the yoke, or should, and that God is always there, the Divine Shall Be There. 

5. Alter says it even could mean "I am He Who Endures" or, more broadly, "He Who Brings Things Into Being," or, simply, "He-Will-Be."

6. Ramban tells an interesting story. He says that God is saying that He will be with the people in this affliction as He will be in all afflictions. Moses says back that this present sorrow is sufficient and enough, why put on the people the idea of further sorrows. God agrees, and that's why it's shortened to simply "I Shall Be."

7. But here's Ramban's own opinion: it means "I will be in judgment and I will be in mercy." Then the use of the single name Ehyeh teaches the unity of the two attributes. Further, this single word is close in meaning to the Tetragrammaton, the word we don't say, but rather refer to as Adonai or the Lord, which bends toward compassion and mercy. 

 At bottom, this matter of God's Name, essentially, as we have discussed before, is a verb notion - exist, act, create, redeem, is with us, judges, holds accountable, loves, supports, shows mercy, and will be and do what the Divine intends. Not a noun, not an object, not capable of  objectification. 

Beyond the material, rather transforming and conquering and saving from the material. Spirit or the non-material overcoming all notions of material power/history of the ancient world and indeed into and through all later time.  This is absolutely essential for Moses and the people to understand, and for the world to understand, as this God is about to defeat Pharaoh,  the premiere symbol in that world of material power. 

VI. Read 4:10-17.

Moses' doubts and delays have gone too far and actually anger God. What's the matter here? What's the lesson?

(It's always God's words that have power, whatever the strength or weakness of the human speaker. Yet, it's surely human nature to worry about one's effectiveness, even in service of God's mission, if one has defects and limitations.)

VII. Note 4:21-23. We will return again and again to this notion of Pharaoh toughening  his own heart and even God's toughening Pharaoh's heart. We don't have time today to explore it, but we will in a future class. In the meantime, I want you to wrestle with its meaning. What does it mean to toughen the heart, keeping in mind that heart means seat of understanding, intention, feeling (and that toughening the heart here is more about resolve than cruelty).  

For what purpose would God toughen or strengthen the heart, say, as opposed to softening the heart, to get to a solution? And is this God's toughening the heart, or is it simply a recognition of a condition in the heart that has "gone so far" as to be destined a certain way? Or both?

There's failure at the beginning of the mission, a painful failure that causes disillusionment among the people and further doubts for Moses. This isn't easy. Moses has growing to do. The people must be stronger and readier. God will redeem, but though painful for us, it will come in God's time, not necessarily ours. 


We'll explore that and so much more in the coming weeks. We may fall short of the current movie of the Exodus in special effects in this experience. But something tells me we'll more than match it in terms of understanding the underlying word of God and its meaning and importance in our lives. Come back next Sunday. The saga continues!

Audio 13 >

Torah Portion  Shemot Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

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