Parashat Bo 5780

Rabbi Pete Tobias – 31 January 2020

Let My People Go?

It was just another day in plague-ravaged Egypt. The Egyptians had grown used to the consequences of their stubborn leader’s refusal to release the Israelite slaves from their captivity. Rivers turned to blood, there were frogs and insects everywhere, fiery hail fell from the sky, cattle died – all this, apparently because the God of those slaves was angry. So the threatened arrival of a plague of locusts (as described at the start of chapter 10 of the book of Exodus that would be written by the descendants of those slaves several centuries hence) was just another consequence of that Pharaonic obstinacy. When would it end? the people of Egypt wondered, as they saw the darkening cloud of invading insects on the horizon…

Except that this plague was different. The Egyptians didn’t know it. The Israelites didn’t know it. Even Pharaoh didn’t know it (though he should have had his suspicions. Interestingly the adjective ‘pharaonic’ is not recognised by my computer: its suggestion for a replacement is ‘paranoic’… If Pharaoh had know how chapter 10 of the Israelites’ book of Exodus would eventually begin, then he might well have become paranoid!)

Because, to paraphrase a popular question associated with this story, this plague was different from all other plagues. It begins with God’s traditional instruction to Moses to go to Pharoah to deliver news of the latest punishment to be visited upon him and his people. Unlike the previous seven such instructions, however, Moses is given some additional information. He is told by God that ‘I (God) have hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Eternal One’. (Ex 10:1-2)

Wow. This is a game changer. Up until this point, Pharaoh has enjoyed the vital human attribute of free will. The decision not to release the Israelite slaves has been entirely Pharaoh’s. Now the opportunity to make independent decisions has been taken from him. God has hardened his heart. His stubbornness is no longer voluntary; it is divinely ordained. Instead of being a free thinking, despotic and rather callous individual, Pharaoh is now no more than a puppet, controlled by the God of the Israelites.

And why has the situation changed? God makes that crystal clear in the explanation to Moses. It’s so that God can do all his brilliant miracles to show Pharaoh and his servants how inferior they are and how God has the power to humiliate them and prove how powerful God is. Seriously? This is extraordinary behaviour. It belongs in the school playground, where the class bully declares that he or she intends to make someone else’s life a misery. It’s the kind of attitude that would be frowned upon in whatever school it happened to appear, and said bully would be summoned by the headteacher and asked what was the problem – was there some pressing domestic situation that caused the sense of inadequacy that might be the underlying cause of this unpleasant behaviour?

But this is not an incidence of childhood bullying. This is God, the self-proclaimed redeemer of the Israelite people, apparently pitting himself against a human king, seeking to assert his power and his reputation. It is appalling behaviour. To my mind, it undermines the message of the story of the Exodus, which is supposed to be a story of the human triumph over slavery and injustice, and the demand to seek freedom, not just for ourselves but for anyone who is unjustly enslaved. That’s a worthy message, of course, but if it requires the intervention of a bullying divine figure to implement it, and if that divine figure makes self-aggrandising claims when embarking upon this vendetta, then the motives must, at best, be suspect.

I have in the past outlined my belief that the decision of the slaves to escape from captivity in Egypt was more likely a spontaneous and courageous reaction to the chaos that descended upon the land in which they were enslaved following the eruption of a volcano in the Mediterranean.1 If the idea of a bullying God punishing an annoying human being by raining terror upon him and his people doesn’t seem to you to belong in our holy scripture, bear in mind that the story was written some 600 years after the events by a person or persons who were determined to exaggerate the powers of their divine leader and emphasise the uniqueness of their heritage. And although he clearly wasn’t a particularly nice person, on the basis of the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, poor Pharaoh really didn’t have a chance.
1 I wrote it in one of these articles many years ago; it can also be found in my book ‘Never Mind the Bullocks’, (2009) p.47ff

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