Light from the Sidra

Beshalach ('Sent out') 10 January 2014. 10 Tevet 5774.

Torah: Exodus 13:17-17:16. Haftarah: Judges. 4:4-5:31.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Of snakes and men

The old and foolish King Lear, the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s play, has three daughters with whom he cuts a deal in which he will hand over power to the two most flattering of them. There are just two conditions: first, that Lear retains the respect due to a king and, secondly, that he holds onto his small private army. Once Goneril and Regan, the two older daughters, have the power, they renege on the agreement. And when Goneril, as a pretext for disbanding her father’s miniature army objects to their rowdiness, the king is furious. Her ingratitude, he says, is ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth.’ He demands that Nature render his impertinent daughter infertile or, if she must give birth, that her child be a ‘thwart disnatur’d torment’ to her, as she is to him.

When Lear lamented that ‘a thankless child’ was ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ the fictional monarch was experiencing something akin to what God (who is not fictional) experienced after he delivered Israel from Egypt.

In a couple of months, Jews around the world will sing Dayeinu (‘It would have been enough’) at the Passover Seder but the generation that came out of Egypt felt no such sense of gratitude. After experiencing YHWH’s preservation from the plagues that fell on Egypt, his protection from the death of the firstborn and after witnessing the obliteration of cream of Egypt’s military power at the Red Sea, the Israelites began to moan. In Exodus 15:24, they complained because of the bitter waters of Marah, and in 16:3 they grumbled because they had no food.

Once again, we witness the candour of the Hebrew Bible. What other religious document reveals the moral weaknesses and character flaws of its ancestors? Living, as we do, in a secular age, many twenty-first century, secular westerners find the concept of miracles difficult to accept. However, lest we be tempted to think the account of the miracles of the first fourteen chapters of Exodus and the account of the manna in the wilderness difficult to swallow (no pun intended) let’s not forget that these stories are inextricably mixed with accounts of unbelief and rebellion of the part of the very people for whom the miracles were performed.

If the writer of Exodus were composing a fictional account of the miraculous origin of the Jewish nation hundreds of years after the supposed events had taken place, would he not have painted a more flattering picture of the first generation of Jews? Would he not have composed a more positive account of Israel’s response to the words of God?

If you have been to Israel in recent years you can’t have failed to notice the adverts announcing King Moshiach and the coming Redemption. The organisation behind the ads believes that when Israel is worthy, Redemption will come. The outstanding lesson of the book of Shemot, however, is that redemption of Israel took place before the Torah was delivered to the people at Sinai and at a time when Israel was anything but worthy. The people grumbled and murmured against God and against Moses, and they broke the Sabbath. They had to learn the lesson that grace always comes before law. Obedience to Torah is the grateful response to God’s grace, not the other way around.

This week’s Haftarah is a judicious choice because of the similarities between the confrontation of Israel and the Egyptians in the book of Exodus and the Canaanite forces under the command of Sisera in the book of Judges. Both enemy armies – the Egyptians and the Canaanites – had the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art weaponry available for the time at which they lived but in both incidents Israel’s enemies were defeated by God, and in Deborah’s song of triumph in Judges 5 there are powerful echoes of Miriam’s song in Exodus 15:

I shall sing to HASHEM for he is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea. The might and vengeance of God was salvation to me. This is my God and I will build him a Sanctuary; the God of my father and I will exalt Him. HASHEM is Master of war — his name is HASHEM. Pharaoh’s army He threw into the sea, and the pick of his officers were mired in the Sea of Reeds. Deep waters covered them; they descended into the depths like stone. (Exodus 152-5)

Kishon Brook swept them [Sisera’s army] away — the ancient brook, Kishon Brook — but I myself trod it vigorously. Then the horses’ heels were pounded by the gallopings, the galloping of their mighty riders. ‘Curse Meroz,’ said the Angel of HASHEM. ‘Curse! Cursed are its inhabitants, for they failed to come to aid [the nation of] HASHEM, to aid [the nation of] HASHEM against the mighty.’ (Judges 5:21-23)

Echoes of the Exodus are heard throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but echoes of another Scripture are also heard in Judges 4 & 5. That Scripture is Genesis 3:15, the verse in which God cursed the serpent and announced: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will pound your head and you will bite his heel.’

The promise of the offspring (Hebrew: zerah, ‘seed’) of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent is kept alive in a remarkable way throughout the Tanakh, not least in the book of Judges. In Numbers 24, the pagan soothsayer Balaam, who had been called by King Balak of Moab to curse Israel, blessed Israel on three separate occasions. On the third occasion he declared concerning Israel: 'I shall see him but not now; I shall look at him, but it is not near. A star has issued from Jacob and a sceptre-bearer has risen from Israel, and he shall pierce the nobles of Moab and undermine the children of Seth’ (Numbers 24:17). According to the prophecy of Balaam, which was inspired by the Spirit of the true God, the head-crushing seed of the woman who was to ‘pound’ the head of the serpent, would come from Israel. ‘It is of King Messiah,’ says Rashi, ‘that [Balaam] is thus speaking, of whom it is said, (Ps. LXXII. 8) And he shall have dominion from sea to sea.’

The period of the Judges was a time of national apostasy but God kept his promise of the seed of the woman alive in a couple of remarkable ways. In Judges 4, Deborah was judging Israel but when she ordered Barak to go and fight ‘the battles of HASHEM’ against Sisera he agreed to go but only on the condition that Deborah would go with him. Although Barak’s request was granted, Deborah warned him that because of his partial obedience the glory of conquest would go to a woman. Barak was the seed of the woman and Sisera the seed of the serpent. There would be victory but the glory would go to a woman, rather than the seed of the woman. And the glory went to Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite who crushed the skull of the seed of the serpent by pounding Sisera’s head into the ground with a tent peg! As a result, one of the longest songs in the Hebrew Scriptures (Judges 5) celebrates the victory of a woman over Sisera: ‘Most blessed among women is Jael...’

The second occasion on which God kept alive the promise of Genesis 3:15 was in the account of Abimelech, the violent and cruel son of Gideon, who took power by killing all his brothers and assuming kingship. The interesting thing about Abimelech is that he was killed when he attempted to burn the entire population of a city to death by driving them into a tower. But as he and his men piled up wood in order to destroy the people a woman dropped the bottom half of a millstone with remarkable accuracy on Abimelech's head, crushing his skull.

Even at a time of national apostasy, God was faithful to his promise to crush the head of the serpent through the seed of the woman. No deliverance of Israel ever took place because Israel merited it. So it was that when Messiah, the ultimate seed of the woman, came into the world, it was to save Israel from their greatest enemy, the Satan. And he did so because Israel could never make herself worthy. It was Israel’s very unworthiness from which the Messiah came to redeem her. Israel as a nation will be saved when the Jewish people repent of attempting to establish their own righteousness and recognise that the Messiah, who is Israel’s true righteousness, as it is written:

Behold the days are coming—the word of HASHEM—when I will establish a righteous sprout from David; a king will reign and prosper and he will administer justice in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. This is the name people will call him; HASHEM is our righteousness.’

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