Light from the Sidra

Beshalach. 22nd January 2016. 13th Shevat 5776

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

Of snakes and men

In Shakespeare’s play, the old and foolish King Lear has three daughters with whom he cuts a deal; he will hand over his kingdom to the most flattering. But once the two older daughters have power they renege on the agreement. 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 (the non-fictional King of the universe) experienced after he delivered Israel from Egypt.

In a couple of months’ time, Jews the world over will sing Dayeinu (‘It would have been enough’) but the generation that came out of Egypt felt no such sense of gratitude. After experiencing HASHEM’s salvation from the plagues of Egypt, the death of the firstborn and the cream of Egypt’s military power, the Israelites began to complain. In Exodus 15:24, they moaned 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 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 Moses 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 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 the redemption of Israel took place before the Torah was given to Israel and at a time when Israel was anything but worthy. The people grumbled and murmured against God and against Moses, and they broke God’s covenant. They had to learn the lesson that 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 15:2-5.

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.

Compare that to Deborah’s song in Judges 5:21-23.

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.’

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 that a seed of a 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. The period of the Judges was a time of national apostasy but God kept his promise 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’ he agreed on the condition that Deborah go with him. Because of Barak’s reluctant obedience the glory of conquest would go to a woman. Barak was a seed of a woman and Sisera a seed of the serpent. Because of Barak’s partial obedience, the glory of victory went to Jael, a non-Israelite woman who nailed 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 is found in the account of Abimelech, the violent and cruel son of Gideon who took power by killing all his brothers and assuming kingship. Abimelech attempted to burn the entire population of a city to death but as 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. No deliverance of Israel has ever taken place because Israel was worthy. And Messiah, the ultimate seed of the woman, came to save Israel from their greatest enemies, the Satan and the Yetzer haRa. And he did so because Israel could never make themselves 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 Jesus the Messiah is Israel’s true righteousness, as it is written:

Behold the days are coming… 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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