God’s Debut: Another Perspective on Passover

Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv - en:Beit Hatefutsot. The Note says: "And Miriam took a timbrel in her hand. (Exodus 15:20). Sarajevo Haggadah (?), Barcelona (?) , Manuscript on parchment, Spain, 14th Century. The National Museum, Sarajevo."

In Exodus, the Torah tells us that about 400 years have passed since Jacob, Joseph, and their immediate families died in Egypt. (By the way, it never says that their descendants were “slaves.”) And in that hiatus, we may infer that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been silent, speaking to no person nor through any prophet.

In fact, things have been quiet for so long—with such a big gap between the experience of the patriarchs and the present—that it leads many, including RASHI, to ask: Why doesn’t the Torah simply start with Exodus and the story of the liberation? The truth is that it could.

The world in which Moses is born (about the 14th Century BCE) is a world full of gods: male and female, moral and evil, animal and celestial. Almost no tribe or community limits itself to one god, and even those would not claim that there is only one god for the whole universe.

In this sense, one may say that, at the beginning of Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a family god, one that favors a certain clan, protects it and arranges for its prosperity (the two main jobs for gods). And another way of looking at the Passover narrative is as the debut of the family god and the beginning of his push to become better known and more feared in the community of rival deities.

When Moses is said to be 80, living quietly with Zipporah and their sons in Midian, God appears to him and asks him to facilitate a plan: namely, to persuade the 600,000 or so alleged Israelites to break away from Egypt and the Egyptian gods and be loyal to him instead.

Much is made of the absence of Moses in the texts of the Haggadah. (Technically, there are a couple of oblique mentions of him in cited passages from the Talmud, but they do not appear in most current editions.) One sage proposed adorably that when, a year after the Exodus, Moses retold the story to his family in the desert, he didn’t want to sound like he was bragging. But the usual explanation is that the story is meant to glorify God, not Moses. And this is one of the rare cases when I think the conventional wisdom is correct!

The Haggadah can just as easily be thought of (along with the middle three books of the Torah) as a chronicle of God’s progress, from household god (largely forgotten by the Israelites) to the mightiest of all desert sheiks,  leading an army of the downtrodden to a land of endless promise, simply in exchange for their willingness to glorify his name, forsake other gods, and follow a long list of arcane regulations, most of them meant mainly to differentiate the practices of his followers from those of their neighbors.

The crisis of the plagues is his grand entrance on the world stage. Many have noted that every time Pharaoh is about to give in to Moses (who keeps increasing the scope of his demands) it is God who hardens his heart, forcing him to endure more plagues. Israel’s God is less interested in liberating the Israelites, it would seem, than in humiliating the Egyptians and defeating all their favorite deities. God even manages to put out the lights of Ra, the Sun God.

Once the Israelites are on the way, the parting of the sea, the making of manna, the excess of quails, the opening of the earth to swallow up rebels, the volcanic delivery of the Ten Words, the authorized slaughter of dissidents, the genocidal elimination of rivals…these and other acts are meant, mainly, to impress any Israelites who might still doubt whether their God is the biggest and baddest around.

Keep in mind that upon their arrival at Canaan, Israelites were NOT monotheists. (A small group of scholars, including Rabbi Richard Eliot Friedman, believe there was a small group of monotheists in Egypt ant the time.) The Israelites were either monolatrous (worshipping only one god) or henotheists (believing that theirs was the best of the extant gods).

Most scholars agree that the notion of a single God for everyone/everywhere emerged during the Babylonian exile (6th Century BCE), at about the same time that Israelites started to be called Jews.  And the Haggadah was written well after he won that title, as the story of how and why.

Have a sweet and meaningful Passover.

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