Light from the Sidra


Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35.Haftarah:Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

God is the greatest

I’m writing this the day after Mohammed Ali’s seventieth birthday. One of the headlines heralded that Ali was ‘still the greatest’. If that means Ali is the greatest boxer there has ever been, few would dispute the claim. If, however, the headline writer means the greatest there still is, he should get out more. Even if Ali was a fit septuagenarian, the claim would be no more than a nice birthday thought. To see the trembling hulk that Ali now is, ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease and hardly able to raise a smile, let alone float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, there is no way it could be true.

As a boxer, Ali was the greatest, and he knew it. And knowing he was great, he found it impossible to be humble so he gave up trying. Pharaoh had the same problem. He was the ruler of the greatest superpower in the ancient Middle East. He was a god incarnate with an entire pantheon to protect and serve Egypt. In his hand was the power of life and death. In a word, he was the greatest and woe betide anyone who thought to differ. Until, that is, an 80 year-old shepherd from the backside of the desert gained entrance to his throne room and demanded in the name of some unknown deity called Yahweh that Pharaoh was to set his entire slave labour force free. You can almost hear the laughter.

The ancient Egyptians worshiped a host of gods, including Khnum the guardian of the Nile and Hapi the spirit of the Nile. The Nile was believed to be the life-giving bloodstream of the great god Osiris, the giver of life. Also in the Egyptian pantheon were the frog-headed Heqt, the mother goddess Hathor who took the form of a cow, Apis the bull of the god Ptah, Nut the sky goddess, Seth the protector of crops as well as several ‘sun gods’ including Re, Aten, Atum and Horus. And we must not forget that Pharaoh himself was a god. Little wonder than that Pharaoh saw no need to serve Yahweh, the god of his slave army.

Over the next few months, the God of Israel would systematically destroy Egypt economically, agriculturally and militarily. He would execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12). Every major and many minor Egyptian gods would be exposed as nothing more than figments of the Egyptian imagination, and Pharaoh would end up as a body floating in the Sea of Reeds (the Hebrew Yam Suph means ‘Sea of Reeds’, not the ‘Red Sea’) while the Israelites would sing, ‘Who is like You, O Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?’ (Ex 15:11)

How tragic, therefore, that the very people God redeemed out of their bondage to the gods of Egypt have forgotten how great their God is. Ten years ago, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Jonathan Sacks had his knuckles rapped for claiming in his book The Dignity of Difference that ‘the world faiths embody truths unavailable to economics and politics, and they remain salient even when everything else changes’ (p. 195).

The Chief Rabbi may be an urbane and articulate moral philosopher but can you imagine Moses writing such a sentence? Can you imagine the prophets of Israel suggesting that there were ‘salient’ truths in the religions of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria?

For me, one of most astonishing passages in the book is found on page 205 where Rabbi Sacks refers to Isaiah 19:19-25 to prove ‘There are multiple universes of faith, each capturing something of the radiance of being and refracting it into the lives of its followers.’

Isaiah 19 foretells a time when two of Israel’s greatest enemies will, along with Israel, be God’s chosen people and will worship Israel’s God. This is not, as Rabbi Sacks appears to think, ‘pluralism’; this is conversion! No one can become one of God’s people while giving allegiance to other deities. According to Isaiah, Egypt and Assyria will do what Pharaoh refused to do; they will forsake their false gods and worship the God of Israel. They will recognise what poor Christopher Hitchens found out too late, God is not only great he is also ‘the Greatest’.

Today there are worshipers of the God of Israel in Egypt and Assyria. All round the world, in fact, every day idol worshippers are abandoning their false gods and their fantasy religions to worship the true and living God. Every moment of every day, someone, somewhere builds an altar, as it were, to Yahweh. Sadly, it is not Jewish rabbis who are bringing about this change for the better; it is the very people the rabbis regard as their enemies: Christian missionaries!

Can you see the bitter irony? The British Jewish community’s spiritual leader is expounding a postmodern, multi-faith message that the Hebrew prophets would roundly condemn. Meanwhile, pagans, idolaters and atheists around the world are daily coming to acknowledge a life-changing truth the Chief Rabbi appears unable to see: ‘There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Messiah Jesus.’

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