We must not speculate about the motivations of the ineffable God, but there are the times when He chooses to explain them Himself. Speaking in the ear of Moses, the Lord says that He hardened Egypt’s heart — to its natural degrees of hardness, we might well suppose — so that it required His spectacular interventions to achieve the Children of Israel’s manumission. And He says, “I will glorify Myself before Pharaoh and all his army of warriors and chariots and horsemen so that Egypt will know I am the Lord.”
What luck — call it grace — that the Israelites are their father’s favorite and that their father is the almighty and all-knowing Lord. Lucky and strenuous. After 400 years of slavery the Children’s cries reach into heaven, and the Lord remembers them and sends Moses to set the Passover in motion. The Lord personally captains the exodus. He makes 24-hour travel possible by leading the way as the wonderful pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When the enemy pursues, the Lord separates the two armies, turning His light toward the Children, His darkness to the enemy.
As strategist God has the advantage of knowing how humans feel and act: He sends the 600,000 freed and apparently armed slaves the long way around by the wilderness of Sin, skirting the land of the Philistines because, He says speaking to His own heart, at the threat of war, the Children might turn around and go back where they came from. Their slavish yearning to return to Egyptian servitude becomes a recurring irritation. How many times must the Lord remind them of all He did for them to get them out!
In His aspect as His Children’s Father, the Lord reminds us of human parenting — though not of the Upper West Side of Manhattan sort which is never quite convinced the children mightn’t know better. God is the model for the idea of the Victorian father who knows everything and brooks no backtalk from the Children whom, at the same time, he tenderly loves. Sometimes the Lord allows for their weakness and gives in to their wants; sometimes He gets so angry He could kill them.
And the Children of Israel have the very human tendency to forget or deny the sufferings they have so recently escaped. What they remember is the plentiful food back in Egypt, so retrospectively delicious. Here, now, in the desert, they thirst and see their children go hungry. If the cattle starve they will lose everything they have. Sometimes they get so angry with Moses, they want to stone him.
There are two views. There are always two narratives: The Children say, The water of Marah was undrinkable. Moses says, But the wood I threw in sweetened it. The Children say, There was no water at Meribah, and Moses says, But I struck the rock with my staff and water flowed. They say, We’re hungry. He says, God sent you manna. Yes, but it is so boring day after day after day! He sent you so much quail, it came out of your ears. That is just it. He gave the quail in anger. He hedged it about with threats, prohibitions and rules about when it may and may not, and how much and no more may be garnered. The least infraction disintegrates or makes it wormy and inedible. It is a test of the Children’s obedience where disobedience proves lack of faith. How many fail the test? They don’t trust the manna to last; they feel more secure if they have more of it than the Joneses in the next tent. Maybe there is enough to satisfy them and the children and the animals today, but who knows if there will be any for tomorrow?
After the 10 plagues, after He opened a path for them through the middle of the waters, after he drowned the Egyptians, they and all their army of warriors and chariots and horsemen may have been convinced, but His Children still don’t trust Him.
And still He wants what He cannot have: Knowing man’s imagination to be evil from his birth, He wants His Children to be a holy nation. Foreknowing they will worship golden cattle, He demands that they love Him and Him alone. In His aspect as a father of children one might almost grieve for Him.
Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).