In this week's parsha, Exodus 13:17-17:16, we get a daring escape, a song of victory, a day of rest, a great food, and perhaps a bit of genocide on the side. For the bonus round, we get another song of victory, including uses for common household items you may never have thought of. Oh, and we're also celebrating Tu B'Shevat, the New Year for the trees. How does all of this fit together? Read below the orange squiggle to find out.
In last week's section, the Israelites were allowed out of Egypt, and received a series of commandments that taught them how to observe the first Passover. Navy Vet Terp, in his excellent diary, discussed the moral issues found therein: how can God, who is supposed to be omnipotent, choose to kill off the Egyptian first born? Why did he need to? Unfortunately, he never found an answer. Fortunately, however, this week's reading has a very different progression: first God's power, then God's power assisting man, and finally woman (actually, two women) taking matter into their own hands. Let's explore each of these occurrences in order.
When the section begins, God sends the Israelites via a fairly circuitous route. For anyone looking at a map, the natural route from northern Egypt to the land that God is promising will become Israel (the ancient one) is by the Mediterranean Sea. It's no longer than any other route, it avoids having to cross bodies of water (something nigh impossible for the 600,000 people described in various places in the Bible, and difficult even with a smaller number), and you're on the coast, so you have access to fishing and to sea breezes. Granted, the Sinai is hot, but the Sinai is hot no matter what. Yet God orders the Israelites to avoid going that way,
פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה--וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָהThe Philistines, also known as the Sea Peoples, fought a number of battles with the Israelites later in the Bible, and historically fought a number against the Egyptians as well. It is the Philistines, located in what is today Gaza, that God is telling them to avoid.
Lest the nation repent when they see war--and return to Egypt (incidentally, all translations here are mine, unless otherwise noted. And the language sort of demands the use of the word "lest," despite it sounding a bit dated."
The fascinating thing about this passage is the worry about regretting the Exodus and returning to Egypt. If you've read the Bible before, you know that on many occasions the Israelites had precisely that regret (in fact, they'll have it in this parsha shortly after the splitting of the sea). Moreover, the worry is war- we'll see later on in this parsha that the Israelite do fight a battle, albeit with God's help. But in Numbers, the Israelites refuse to fight their way into Canaan and lose the chance to go in for 40 years. And the same thing happens on a smaller scale in the haftorah, the additional portion referenced above. God's fears seem fairly well justified. It's worth noting that at this point, all the agency is God's- the people are not involved in pushing forward.
Jumping a chapter, the Israelites find themselves pushed up against the sea, with Egyptian chariots bearing down on them. They immediately do just what God warned of- they lament leaving Egypt. God therefore continues to take matters into his own hands, and splits the see for the Israelites, closing it only as the Egyptians are inside of it. God again repeats his earning of glory (for the discussion of the moral issues there, see Navy Vet Terp's diary from last week, linked above).
The rabbis, however, were not satisfied with this explanation. In the Talmud, Sotah 36b-37a, a story is told, in the course of a debate, that the different tribes were debating who would go into the sea first. Rabbi Judah says that Nachshon ben Aminadav, who is later listed as the prince of Judah, jumps in, and then the sea split. The verse that Rabbi Judah quotes Nachshon as saying is literally a verse about drowning, implying that Nachshon jumps in before the sea has split. This is, in some ways, the beginning of human agency in the story of redemption from Egypt (except perhaps the midwives at the beginning of the book). Moses does plenty of things, but his actions are generally at God's command, and God is insistent when he kills the first borns that he is doing it himself. Here, Nachshon jumps in, and then God splits the sea, in part to save him. Note that this doesn't appear in the Bible, but the Rabbis felt some human agency was required.
After being saved, the Israelites sing a song, celebrating their salvation. This song, written in a poetic form. In it they celebrate God's saving them, and say a number of things about God's prowess in battle. Of note are the references to kingdoms that show up later in the Bible (though many have been referred to earlier), like the Philistines, Moabites, and Canaanites. In some ways it would seem a little odd to find this here, and a number of Biblical critics point to this as evidence of later authorship. Also worth noting is that the women are also singing, along with Miriam. That will become more significant as we discuss the haftorah.
The Israelites are very upset that they are now without food and water. They complain substantially, still not willing to take up a role in their own redemption. God shows them a well and sends them food, letting them know that they will get a double portion before the Sabbath. They complain mightily, wanting everything handed to them.
And then we get to the latter part of chapter 17. In this section, starting with verse 8, the Amalekites attack the Israelites. It's not mentioned here, but Deuteronomy, in relating this story, says that the weakest among the Israelites were the ones attacked. The Israelites now have to fight, and yet another level of human agency is gained. But the Bible isn't willing to have this be a fully human war: when the hands of Moses are raised, Israel wins, and when they are lowered, Amalek wins. Ultimately, though, the Israelites prevail. As evidence that this is not a purely human victory, God then says to Moses:
כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר, וְשִׂים, בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ: כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.A few verses later, Moses says that God will war with Amalek from generation to generation; one of the commandments for Israelites is to wipe out Amalek. The rabbis twist this somewhat, as by their time there were no Amalekites. They end up saying that Amalek is not only a nation but also a mindset, and that those who wish to wipe out the Israelites join Amalek. This has a whole different set of moral implications, which should probably be dealt with in detail elsewhere.
I'm going to use the 1917 JPS translation, which is both accurate and poetic in ways I could never hope to be: Write this as a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.
Thus far, we've had God's agency in leading the Israelites away from the Philistines, a bit of human agency (according to the rabbis) in splitting the sea, and yet more in fighting Amalek. The haftorah (Judges 4:4-5:31), however, the additional portion from the prophets, moves this agency yet again towards that of men...or rather, women.
In this story, Deborah the prophetess reminds Barak (meaning lightning...the name is the same as in Ehud Barak, and not Barack Obama, who says his name derives from baruch, blessing), who is a war leader in Israel, that he's supposed to go fight a Canaanite king. Barak isn't willing to do so, because he's scared, unless Deborah, who presumably has God on her side, will go with him. And Deborah warns him that if she goes, he won't get any honor, because God will turn over the Canaanite General Sisera to a woman. They go off to fight Sisera, and God does something to the chariots, which allows Barak to win. Note that God is still involved here, but reduced to essentially a saboteur; the fighting is done by people. Sisera, who runs off in defeat, goes to the tent of Heber the Kenite. Heber, however, seems to be out, and Sisera is invited in by his wife, Yael. He asks for water, and instead he is given milk; exhausted, he falls asleep. The bible then tells us:
וַתִּקַּח יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת-חֶבֶר אֶת-יְתַד הָאֹהֶל וַתָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַמַּקֶּבֶת בְּיָדָהּ, וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו בַּלָּאט, וַתִּתְקַע אֶת-הַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ, וַתִּצְנַח בָּאָרֶץ; וְהוּא-נִרְדָּם וַיָּעַף, וַיָּמֹת.Up come Deborah and Barak, chasing after Sisera, and Yael invites them in to show them Sisera (literally, she tells them to come in, and she will show them the man they are looking for). After seeing this, the Bible praises God, and then Deborah sings a song, relating the events in poetic form, as with the Song of the Sea.
And Yael, the wife of Hever, took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went quietly to him, and drove the peg into his temples, and it pierced the ground. And he was sleeping heavily, and swooned, and died
So, what can we draw from this? Many things, but I think one of the most important is human agency. Over the course of this sequence, we go from God doing everything to God being praised, and helping, but people doing the work. And we start moving from a world in which the moral dilemma of God killing people moves towards a world in which God intervenes only minimally. Even while recognizing that we "did not build that," the note is, in fact, that we work together to build things. Never fully on our own, as the Israelites need help from Nachshon and Barak requires Yael's aid, but little by little, we can wipe out the memories of intolerance and push into a world where anyone, even a woman in a patriarchal society, can take matters into her own hands. And in case that still feels like too much of a violent message, it's worth noting that we recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day- a day celebrating a movement where human agency, by someone in a disadvantaged position, could battle hatred and intolerance with words and with the support of people. Similarly, in an era of global climate change, we can use the Sabbath as a day to consider the value of nature and the ways in which we can save it.
Of course, Dr. King felt that God was on his side, and that comfort didn't hurt. We have to continue pushing, though, as God's actions only come through our modern day people who dare to try.