Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), one of our generation's great Bible teachers, notes the significance of Pharaoh's opening response in what will prove a lengthy dialogue with Moses.
"Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness.' But Pharaoh said, 'Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.'" (Exodus 5:1-2)
Leibowitz notes that the theme of "knowing God" recurs ten times during the plague narrative and the events at the Red Sea. Consistent with her view, the Book of Exodus generally refers to the plagues as "signs" ( otot ) and "wonders" ( moftim ). Only three times does the narrative refer to these afflictions as a form of punishment or judgment ( sh'fatim ) against the Egyptians (Ex. 6:6, 7:4, and 12:12).
It's worth noting what the Bible seems to want the Israelites and the Egyptians to "know" about God.
After Moses and Aaron's first meeting with Pharaoh, the king orders the Israelites to gather their own straw to make bricks:
"[God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites] I am the Lord...I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians." (Exodus 6:6-7)
Before the first plague, God announces that "the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst" (Ex. 7:5). After this simple statement, we find a gradual elaboration of what God wants the Egyptians to know: "that there is none like the Lord our God," "that I the Lord am in the midst of the land," "that there is none like me in all the world," "that the earth is the Lord's."
Do you tend to think of the plagues more in terms of punishing the Egyptians or of teaching them something about God?
If you think of the plagues as an educational strategy, is it successful? Who learns what?
Do the Israelites come to "know God" through the plagues? Before the cycle of signs and wonders, the Israelites seem a sullen bunch. Since Moses' first visit to Pharaoh, the Israelites' plight has grown only more desperate. The foremen of the Israelites angrily confront Moses. "May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers - putting a sword in their hands to slay us" (Ex.5:21).
Throughout the plagues, the Israelites remain mute. They neither complain when the first three plagues strike them along with the Egyptians nor rejoice when the subsequent afflictions spare them. All we hear of them is that by the time the last blow falls upon the Egyptians they've begun to follow orders. Moses ttells the Israelites how they should sacrifice the paschal offering: "The people then bowed low in homage. And the Israelites went and did so, just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did." (Ex. 12:27-28).
Their faithful posture doesn't last long. With the Egyptians in hot pursuit, the Israelites speak at the Red Sea for the first times since the plagues began. "And they said to Moses, 'Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?'" (Ex. 14:11).
After the sea parts, the children of Israel seem to have changed their tune. They sing: "The Lord is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance" (Ex. 15:2). But how enduring is their faith now?
Soon enough - three days later - they are grumbling about a lack of water and whining about the food. Manna from heaven was not sufficient. Three months later they worshipped the Golden Calf. Despite the mighty signs and wonders they witnessed, the Israelites do not come to "know God" in a lasting way.
We can explain this in several ways. Perhaps their spirits had been destroyed to the point that "knowing God" in any enduring way was impossible. Or maybe awesome signs and wonders didn't make quite the impression that God imagined they would.
Or maybe God was really more interested in punishing the Egyptians and humiliating their gods than in using the plagues to teach anyone anything. Maybe the goal was simply to instill fear. Perhaps God equated fear with faith.
Eventually God will discover, as it were, that human faith arises not from impressing us with awesome gestures, but from touching us during quiet, intimate moments of openness. And even after countless fleeting glimpses and whispering intuitions - often overlooked, forgotten, or misunderstood - the sense of God's presence consolidates only slowly.
Like the Israelites of the Exodus, how often do we find ourselves blind to the very insights that yesterday seemed so compelling? In the end, God discovers a cornerstone of rabbinic thought: "Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven."
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