Sunday, March 02, 2008

Pharaoh, Pharaoh, oh baby, let my people go: Exodus 4-6

The following is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary funded by the Church of the Orange Sky.

A couple of months ago, a few of us were sitting around remembering lyrics to asinine religious children’s songs, and this line is from one of them. One of the more morally dubious ones, interestingly; the last verse jeeringly celebrates the literal “dead man’s float” being performed by Pharaoh’s massacred army. That's the story we're coming to in the next chapters, so I thought I'd point out some wholesome, childish praise songs for interested readers.

After leaving Egypt, marrying a priest's daughter (a pagan priest's daughter), and becoming a shepherd (also a recurring theme in the Old Testament), Moses sees God in the form of a burning bush. God equivocates about his identity in strikingly Platonic terms, defining himself solely by his own existence. Moses effectively bargains with God to have his brother Aaron speak on his behalf, and then he heads back into Egypt to conduct a divine insurgency.

Moses and Aaron return to Egypt as guerrillas, bringing together “the elders of the Israelites” and telling them of God's reappearance. This first meeting seems to go fairly well: the elders “believed,” and then “bowed down and worshiped.” Perhaps encouraged by this early success, Moses and Aaron then go directly to Pharaoh.

What follows is an interesting case of political and diplomatic manipulation authorized by God. Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh that they have come with a request from “the Lord, the God of Israel”: his people must go into the desert to “hold a festival.” The trip will involve “sacrifices” and take three days. The Pharaoh is to let the Israelites go, or God “may strike us with plagues or with the sword.”

Moses is essentially proposing the first religious retreat in Judeo-Christian history – a three-day trip away from work and home to meditate in the desert. These days, we go to a hotel, a resort, or perhaps a campground; these evidently weren't available at the time, so God chose the desert. What is unclear, however, is whether God – or Moses – really believed such a retreat was going to take place, or whether the proposal was simply a pretext cooked up to justify the later suppression of the Pharaoh and liberation of the Israelites. God confessed at the burning bush that the Pharaoh would “not let you go unless a mighty hand compels you,” but afterwards he does seem to imply that the Pharaoh will ultimately permit the sacrifice. If we are to assume that God in fact sees and intends events to transpire as they ultimately do, this is a shrewd bit of political manipulation, certainly of Pharaoh and possibly of Moses as well. The retreat is a sham and a pretext: it is proposed in order to trap the Pharaoh into disobeying God, and this disobedience is then used as the justification for bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.

At this point the Pharaoh is, we may assume, Moses's legal uncle (being the son of the Pharaoh and therefore the brother, at least to some degree, of Moses's stepmother). This accounts, perhaps, for the familiarity with which they are greeted; the Pharaoh complains to Moses and Aaron not as leaders of the rebellious Israelites but as fellow elites who are, through their religious rabble-rousing, “taking the people away from their labour” and thus harming the national economy. The Pharaoh is evidently worried that the troublesome two would carry some influence with the Israelites, since he decides, in classic counter-insurgency fashion, to punish the people for the rebels' misdeeds by withholding the traditional payments (in straw) given to the Israelites for their brick-making. He reasons that the people “are lazy; that is why they are crying out, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.' Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.” The Israelite foremen protest directly to Pharaoh and are told much the same thing: “Lazy, that's what you are! That is why you keep saying, 'Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.' Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.” Strikingly, with the exception of this last bit, the Pharaoh's work ethic seems very much like the modern Protestant work ethic. I wonder how conservative Christian capitalists would react to the Bible’s apparent criticism of this “work ethic” capitalism as a means of oppressing the faithful and the poor.

The Pharaoh's counter-insurgency seems to have some initial success: the Israelite foremen, rather than blaming the government for their new suffering, blame Moses and Aaron, telling them that “you have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Moses seeks new guidance from the divine, complaining that despite the grand promises in the desert “you have not rescued your people at all.” God promises that he will indeed perform the promised rescue, reminding the Levite of his history with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but adding that “by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them... I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.” God seems to be suggesting he wants a more intimate relationship with Moses than with the patriarchs: he has revealed his name to Moses, something not done before. Moses returned to the Israelites with promises of the new gifts from God, “but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” So God told him to go back to the Pharaoh instead – a strange decision, as Moses noted, since “if the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh?”

God's answer this time is perplexing. Moses has again questioned God's judgement and God this time replies, apparently, with the intention of overwhelming Moses with God's impressive knowledge of human affairs. He gives them a lengthy list of heads of families: the sons of Reuben and Simeon, then a more extensive genealogy of the patriarchs of the Levites. God closes with a new command: “Bring the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.” Once again, Moses has no recorded response, but we may assume it was acquiescence. This was a strange move by God, but well in keeping with the revealed Biblical obsession with genealogies and censes.


Anonymous said...

high, nice title you´ve got there! Unfortunately it has an error, it should be "Pharaoh, pharaoh, obey me, let my people go"

Gods blessing and greetings from Holland,


Alan Wolfinger said...

Straw was not payment but was used in brickmaking. With straw the same amount of mud could make more bricks. That's why withholding it increased the workload so much.

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