Light from the Sidra

Va'era ('I appeared')

Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35. Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

Pump up the volume

As a kid, I was small, skinny and frequently ill and like so many little people I felt I had to prove myself. So I was known for never passing on a dare. As a consequence, I was a frequent visitor to the city hospital and the doctors became used to me turning up with broken limbs and deep cuts that needed stitching. At school I was regularly in fights with bigger boys and was rarely without a black eye or a fat lip. I just never learned. And neither, it seems, did Pharaoh; until it was too late.

‘Who is YHWH, that I should hearken to his voice to send Israel free?’ he asked Moses in Exodus 5:2. They say that actions speak louder than words and YHWH answered Pharaoh’s question with deafening eloquence through the plagues of Egypt.

Ancient Egypt was dominated by an oppressive religion that permeated every area of life. The gods were everywhere. Cattle, lions, jackals, hawks, ibises, frogs and many other animals were sacred to the gods. The Sun was a god and the Nile had several guardian gods. Even Pharaoh was a god and, as such, possessed absolute authority and power.

None of the plagues of Egypt were random or arbitrary. All of them struck in some way at the religion of Egypt and at one or more of the gods. YHWH, the God of Israel, was the creator of all that the Egyptians worshipped and through the ten plagues he showed himself to be the one true God. The more Pharaoh refused to listen, the more God pumped up the volume, as it were.

In Exodus 7:9, at the command of God, Moses turned his shepherd’s staff into a snake. In ancient Egypt the serpent was a wise and magical creature. Wadjet, the patron goddess of lower Egypt was represented on Pharaoh’s crown as a snake, which was also a symbol of the power of Pharaoh. But Apopis, the enemy of the gods, was also personified as a snake and represented the forces of chaos. It was not arbitrary that the first sign given to Pharaoh involved a serpent because to the Egyptians no other creature was so ominous. Although the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could change rods into snakes in the same way that stage magicians today pull rabbits out of hats, Moses serpent ate them up. At one fell swoop, Moses and Aaron are seen to be greater than the priests of Egypt and YHWH is seen to be wiser and more powerful than Egypt’s gods.

If Pharaoh had only recognised the sovereignty of YHWH, he could have avoided the systematic destruction of Egypt’s agriculture and economy. Egypt’s gods were unable to protect the country, and the areas under their jurisdiction became the very weapons YHWH used to defeat them.

The Nile was the bloodstream of Osiris, one of Egypt’s greatest divinities. It was the lifeblood of Egypt. Egypt’s survival depended on the annual flooding of the Nile that deposited fertile soils along the river’s 4,132 miles. A number of deities protected the Nile, including the morbidly obese Hapi who personified its annual inundation. Even if the blood-red colouring of the Nile is to be attributed to the excess of red earth and bright red algae and its bacteria, both of which accompany a heavier than usual flooding, the life-stream of Egypt brought death rather than life.

The goddess Heqet who was the patron goddess of childbirth was portrayed as a frog. The frogs of the Nile deserted the river that had become clogged with decomposing fish. Heqet was defeated and became a curse rather than a blessing to Egypt.

Instead of learning the lessons from these plagues, Pharaoh hardened his heart. The Hebrew verb means ‘to make heavy’: Pharaoh made his heart heavy. This is familiar Egyptian imagery. In the judgment scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the heart of the deceased is weighed in the balance against a feather (representing Maat, the goddess of truth and justice) in order to determine whether the individual was to be ushered into an afterlife of happiness or to be devoured. Increasing the ‘weight’ of Pharaoh’s heart forweshadowed his fate in the afterlife.

Cleanliness was important to Egyptian religion and bites from the gnats, or mosquitoes that would have bred in the stagnant pools left from the flooding of the Nile rendered the priests of Egypt unfit for serving their gods.

Swarms of flies would have thrived on the rotting fish and frogs and decaying vegetation. As both pests and carriers of disease swarms brought ruination to the land and also rendered the priests unclean..

The plague on the cattle was probably anthrax contracted from the bacteria that had come down the Nile and infected the fish and frogs and may have been spread by the flies. Hathor, the goddess of love, took the form of a cow and the sacred Apis bull was so highly venerated that it was embalmed and buried in a necropolis with its own sarcophagus at death. What must the Egyptians have thought when they saw the living symbols of two of their greatest deities dying in droves?

The ashes taken from the brick kiln no doubt symbolised the hard labour of the Israelites. The furnace may also have been the place where the carcasses of the dead animals were burned. In ancient Egypt, the scattering of ashes was part of a magical ritual intended to bring an end to pestilence. In Exodus, the scattering of the ashes translates into human misery producing boils. The boils might have been symptoms of skin anthrax caused by the bites of the flies. Hail is destructive to crops as well as to humans and animals. But even after this onslaught on Egypt and its puny gods, Pharaoh refused to acknowledge YHWH the almighty God of Israel.

What can we learn from all this? First of all, the Parashah shows that all religions are not the same and that all religions don’t worship the same God. YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not Allah and he can’t be fitted into the Hindu pantheon. Tragically, YHWH is not even the God some Jewish people today worship. Many Jewish people today are atheists or are turning to the pantheistic religions of the East.

There is an account in the Talmudic tractate Baba Metzia 59b of a group of rabbis debating a matter of Jewish law. According to the Talmud,

On that day R[abbi] Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but [the other rabbis] did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me’.’

So in the Talmud, we have a picture of the rabbis being greater in knowledge and wisdom than God and rejecting his voice.

Worst of all, the Jewish people have rejected their Messiah even though he fulfilled all that was spoken of him through the Prophets. Nevertheless, in spite of being heavy and hard of heart like Pharaoh, YHWH has promised to open the eyes of the Jewish people to recognise their Messiah (see Zechariah 12:10) and in the Haftarah we see a bright messianic future for Israel. The difference between Egypt and Israel is that YHWH is in covenant with Israel; he wasn’t in covenant with Egypt. Therefore, although Israel has often broken the covenant, their heavenly husband will not renege on his promises. As the New Testament says in Romans 11, the Jewish people are ‘beloved for the sake of the Patriarchs’ and his ‘gifts and calling’ are ‘irrevocable’.

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