In this week’s portion, God reassures Moses that, despite the seemingly bleak outlook, all is going according to His plan. He then sends Moses back to Pharaoh to repeat His demands. The portion also outlines Moses’s genealogy and relates the account of the first seven plagues.
Moses’s Renewed Mission
Last week’s portion left Moses greatly discouraged. Not only did Pharaoh not release the Israelites from bondage, he made things even worse! God must reassure Moses that this, too, is part of His Divine Plan for the development of the Israelite Nation. He outlines the five stages of His plan, from taking them out of slavery to bringing them to the land of their forefathers as a heritage. Moses brings God’s words to the children of Israel, but they are too oppressed to appreciate them.
God then sends Moses back to Pharaoh to offer one more chance to make the right choice, but Moses is still skeptical that he is the man for the job. The Torah takes this opportunity to show the reader that Moses is, indeed, the ideal individual, by listing his righteous lineage from Jacob forward.
The Israel Bible points out a significant semantic distinction in God’s plan for the Exodus. When telling Moses of His promise to give the nation the land of their forefathers, he calls it a morasha, a heritage, and not a yerusha, an inheritance. This indicates the people will have to work for the land and will be responsible to care for it for the sake of future generations.
Over the centuries, the Jewish people have taken that responsibility very seriously. Even when the land was not under Jewish self-rule, many individuals and groups made great personal sacrifices to come to the land of Israel. Despite the hardships, they worked the land and laid the foundation for the thriving country it is today. From draining swamps for farmland to building a high-tech haven, Jewish immigrants to the land of Israel are committed to preserving their heritage from God!
Points to Ponder
Although the Torah is relatively progressive in its attitude towards women as compared to the surrounding cultures of the time it describes (think Deborah the Judge), there aren’t many female characters in leading roles in the text. Yet in Moses’s genealogy, three women are mentioned specifically: Moses’s mother, Jochebed, Aaron’s wife, Elisheba, and Aaron’s daughter-in-law, whose name is not given. Why do you think these women in particular are included? What is their significance in Moses’s life?
Moses and Aaron Return to Pharaoh
Moses and Aaron do go back to Pharaoh to repeat their request on behalf of the people. At God’s command, Aaron throws down his staff, which promptly turns into a serpent. When Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate the feat, God ups the ante by causing Aaron’s staff to swallow their staves. Pharaoh, however, remains unimpressed, and continues to refuse God’s demands.
The symbolism of the sign God tells Aaron to perform as a show of His power to Pharaoh is particularly meaningful. The Hebrew word employed by the Torah, Tanin (ta-NEEN), can also be translated as crocodile. The Egyptian god Sobek, god of the Nile, was often depicted as a crocodile or a man with a crocodile head, so by turning Aaron’s staff into a crocodile which then ate the others, God was telling Pharaoh that He was superior to any power Egypt might believe in.
Points to Ponder
God keeps giving Pharaoh opportunity after opportunity to change his mind, yet from the outset He told Moses that Pharaoh would keep refusing until God sends His wonders upon him. Why then does God keep sending Moses to ask for the Israelites’ freedom?
First Three Plagues
At this point, the suffering of Egypt begins. God sends plague after plague against the Egyptians, demanding that the Israelites be permitted to serve God in the desert.
A number of patterns emerge throughout the plagues, revealing their grouping by threes. The first plague, blood, is accompanied by a warning at the banks of the Nile. The warning for the second plague, frogs, is given in Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh receives no warning whatsoever for the third plague, translated in the Israel Bible as gnats but commonly known as lice. This warning pattern is repeated throughout the next six plagues (more about the tenth plague next week).
At first, the Egyptian magicians are able to duplicate the plagues, turning fresh water into blood and producing their own frogs. However, they are not able to recreate the lice, acknowledging for the first time that “this is the finger of God”.
The Israel Bible explains that the Nile is targeted for the first two plagues, blood and frogs, because it was the lifeblood of the Egyptian economy. Unlike Israel, which relies on rain for water and sustenance, Egypt depends on the Nile for its water (see Deuteronomy 11). When the Egyptians finally acknowledge God’s power with the plague of lice, His purpose — being recognized throughout the land — begins to be fulfilled.
Points to Ponder
Sages and scholars throughout the centuries have discussed the symbolic meanings of the various plagues. Can you suggest why these particular plagues might have been sent against Pharaoh and his people? Why blood? Frogs? Gnats/lice?
Three More Plagues
God sends Moses to deliver three more plagues: swarms, pestilence (murrain) and boils. The swarms (identified in the Israel Bible as flies, but elsewhere as wild animals) mark the first time God singles out the land of Goshen, where His people dwell, to be free of any sign of plague. Pharaoh is so moved by the show of power that he initially grants Moses permission to lead the Israelites in the worship of God, but rescinds when his suffering is alleviated.
During the plague of pestilence, too, the cattle belonging to the children of Israel remain untouched, which Pharaoh sends messengers to confirm. This does nothing, however, to convince Pharaoh to change his mind, as the text clearly states Pharaoh hardens his own heart against the idea.
Only after the plague of boils, under the influence of which Pharaoh’s magicians are unable even to stand in his presence, does the Torah specify that God actively hardens Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to withstand the pressure to release the Israelites from bondage.
Points to Ponder
In our previous topic, we mentioned one of the many patterns which suggest the plagues can be grouped together in threes. Can you find any other patterns which support this grouping? Do you notice anything to suggest a different grouping of the plagues?
The Seventh Plague: Hail
The final plague in our portion this week (the remaining three appear next week) is hail. God again sends Moses to warn Pharaoh of the impending plague early in the morning. What makes this plague different, however, is that God gives the Egyptians an escape: bring everything you own indoors, and it will stay safe. Those who fail to heed to warning will see their crops destroyed, their cattle killed, and worse.
The hail of the plague is unlike anything we have ever experienced, let alone the Egyptians, who live in a warm climate. The Torah tells us the hail combines ice with fire, a combination which does not typically exist in nature. As the Israel Bible relates, the miraculous combination shows us that anything can exist in harmony to do God’s bidding.
The hail terrified Pharaoh, who offered to allow the Hebrew slaves to leave and worship God, but once the danger passed, the Egyptian ruler again reneged on his promise and hardened his resolve to keep his slaves.
Points to Ponder
The Torah relates that every time Moses entreats God to end a plague, he first leaves Pharaoh’s presence. In fact, by our plague Moses says he must first leave the city! Why do you think that is? After all, isn’t God present everywhere?