Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Exodus 12:31 - 18: Into the Desert

Leaving Egypt

So the Pharaoh finally gives up. "Leave my people, you and the Israelites!" he shouts. "Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me," he says. No matter how mad this guy gets, he can't pass up the chance for a good blessing.

The Israelites pack to leave. In addition to their own belongings, they also "borrow" household goods and clothes from their plague-impovershed and bereived Egyptian neighbors: The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians. (12: 36) Wait, I'm confused. Who are the good guys again?

Now, when you picture Noah leading the Israelites, how many Israelites do you imagine? A few thousand, maybe? Yeah, me too.

But no: There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and birds. (12: 37-38) Wow! This is a big undertaking!

So, this column of more than a million people heads for the Red Sea, God being afraid that if they run into the Philistines who are occupying their putative homeland, they'll get attacked, chicken out, and go running back to the Egyptians.

But before they get to their famous crossing, God lays down a few laws. For instance, several diverse policies about Passover are lain down: no foreigner can take Passover (oops! I had no idea!), although a slave is all right if you have had him circumcised; all Israelites have to take part; it has to take place indoors; and you can't break bones. There is also a law that every first-born male animal must be "redeemed" and every first-born male human must be "consecrated." There is no guidance at all to what this means, however, which leaves me somewhat at a loss for how to redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey. (13:13) We're finally getting clear directives, but they're like those machine-translated instructions that come with discount electronic goods.

The Red Sea

In the last entry, I talked about God's disturbing habit of "hardening Pharaoh's heart," then unleashing scorching devastation on the Egyptian people to punish them for Pharaoh having such a hard heart. He is not done with this trick. Behold!

Then the Lord said to Moses.... "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue [the Israelites]. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." (14:1-4)
Which means that the well-known destruction of the Egyptian army that follows, from which not a single Egyptian soldier survives, is another punishment given out by God not because Egyptians were being willfully evil in this instance, but just because God wanted to do some punishing. Because punishing sends a message of power. Is God good? It is really hard to view this whole episode as to his credit.

Biagio de Antonio -- The Crossing of the Red SeaThe mechanics of the Red Sea crossing gives pause for thought. It is accomplished in a single night. And remember, this is more than one million people on foot, plus their flocks and herds; animals aside, that means that they are crossing at a rate of 100,000 people per hour, or more than 1500 a minute. It begs the question of which is more impressive, the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, or the miracle of the immaculate logistics. (The Bible doesn't make a big deal out of the fact that they are crossing over a body of water that averages 280 kilometers in width, so neither will I.)

Pharaoh's poor army. God toys with them for a while, first breaking off their chariot wheels and throwing them into panicked retreat back towards Egypt, away from the Israelites, before drowning them. You just can't say "Uncle" to this guy, if you're an Egyptian. And this isn't a couple hundred soldiers, either; this was a force that was deemed adequate to capture and return a fleeing population in excess of 1,000,000 people. Their destruction is a slaughter of, well, Biblical proportions. Afterwards, the Isralites sing a long and rather gloating song of celebration about the event, which takes up more text than the event itself did.

Grumble, Grumble, Grumble

There is a lot of grumbling that goes on as the Israelites head off into the desert. It quickly falls into a repeating pattern:
  1. Israelites grumble at their terrible situation, asking Moses why they ever let him lead them into this mess.

  2. God provides a miracle to save the Israelites' skin, and to prove his might.

  3. Israelites rejoice at the mightiness of their God, then find something new to grumble about.
The pattern is regular enough that I wonder if it might be some kind of Bronze Age comedy bit. Here is a synopsis of the action:

Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dirk BoutsThe Complaint: We're doomed! The Egyptian army is coming! The Miracle: The Red Sea parts, then contracts.

The Complaint: The water is too bitter! The Miracle: God gives Moses a piece of wood which, when thrown into the water, makes it drinkable.

The Complaint: "If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." (16:3) The Miracle: Manna (and, often overlooked, quail) from heaven.

The Complaint: We're thirsty! Are we there yet? The Miracle: Water from a rock, when Moses smacks it with his staff.

The Amalekites v. the Israelites

We're not sure why, but a group called the Amalekites show up and offer battle to the Israelites. One Joshua leads the troops, while Moses, Aaron, and somebody named "Hur" climb up on a neighboring hill, and the battle gets fought like so: Nicolas Poussin. The Battle of Joshua with Amalekites. c. 1625
11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses' hands grew
tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
I can imagine Joshua's grunts, down there dealing and suffering lethal broadsword wounds in the blistering Sinai heat, might object to this version of the battle, in which Moses so heroically keeps his arms lifted. One wonders if it might work for the Ducks?

Delegation is the Key to Good Management

The final event before the Israelites make it to Mount Sinai is a visit from Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, who is something of a clear thinker and immediately notices in Moses a tendancy to micromanage. He watches as, the day after his arrival, Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. (18:13) And remember: more than 1,000,000! Anybody with a gripe, Moses was handling it. "That's nuts," says Jethro -- "you need some assistants." So together, they set up a hierarchy of civil offices, with Moses no longer sweating the small stuff. He retains the positions of Commander-in-Chief, High Priest, and one-man Supreme Court.

Did Someone Say "Supreme Court"?

We are often told that the Ten Commandments are the "foundation of Western and American law." Are they? Let's take a look this Sunday night, May 13, in a very special Mother's Day episode of Michael Reads the Bible.

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