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yesh omrim

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Dances With Monotheism

12 January 2010

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen some controversy in political and SF blogs regarding a certain Hollywood movie, in which a white American human takes on the form of a blue-skinned alien. I was reminded of this when I read last week’s parsha (Exodus 1:1–6:1), because one could argue that the young Moses is an Egyptian prince who has the form of an Israelite. Pharoah’s daughter describes him as “from the Hebrew children” in 2:7, and Jethro’s daughters describe him as “an Egyptian man” in 2:19. This dual identity gives us a new way to understand one of the most cryptic passages in the Torah, Exodus 4:24–26, which the new JPS version tentatively renders as follows:

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying: “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Moses is on his way back to Egypt, to deliver his first “let my people go” message to Pharoah. And now God wants to kill him? What’s going on here? Rashi cites a midrash that Moses was condemned for not circumcising his son, but this explanation raises problems of its own. Given that Moses could have argued that circumcising an infant before taking him on an arduous journey is dangerous, and given that failure to circumcise promptly is not a capital offense in halakha, why did God suddenly judge Moses so harshly? Better scholars than myself have put forth a variety of answers to this question, but I’d like to put forward my own.

Let’s back up to 4:18, when Moses tells his father-in-law, “Please let me go and return to my brothers in Egypt, and see if they are still alive.” The phrase “my brothers in Egypt” is ambiguous; maybe even strategically ambiguous. Does he mean his Hebrew blood relatives, who are being worked to death as slaves? Or does he mean his adoptive Egyptian family, which might have suffered a purge when the new pharoah (2:23) took power?

After Moses takes up wife, children, donkey, and staff, God reviews his mission, but adds a detail (4:22–23) that He had not previously mentioned:

Say to Pharoah: “This is what the Eternal says: Israel is My first-born son. I am saying to you, ‘send my son so he can serve Me’, and if you refuse to send him, behold, I will execute your first-born son.”

I submit that this message is a veiled threat against Moses himself. God is asking: do you consider yourself a member of the nation that is My first-born son, or are you the first-born son of Pharoah’s daughter? Whose side are you on?