Some 50 years ago, on a radio program called “Invitation to Learning,” Mark Van Doren argued that we betray biblical literature by reading it as literature instead of sacred text. I have always remembered this and sadly. If it’s so, the deficit is mine. I read the book not as a believer but as a lover.
Whether historical event or inspired invention, the end days of the Israelites’ Egyptian enslavement make a vast drama 440 years long. Our protagonist is the good and magnificent Moses, who has a worthy antagonist — I speak in dramatic terms — in Pharaoh. Aaron, Pharaoh’s court and the sorcerers are the minor characters. There are two crowds — the Israelite people and the Egyptian people.
God has chosen Moses, brought up in the foreign court but passionately loyal to his own, at the critical moment. The time has come to translate an enslaved people into a nation. Famously modest, Moses doesn’t trust the effectiveness of his own eloquence and needs his brother at his side. When he is overwhelmed and scattered by too many duties he can accept a foreign father-in law’s advice because it happens to be right. Moses will complain to God that God’s people hang on him like so many babies, but have eloquence enough to come up with the arguments that talk God down from His murderous rage against His all too human favorite children.
This is a drama where the characters behave at once metaphorically and so very much like — people. Don’t we know folks like Pharaoh who, under the stress of calamity, acknowledge fault, reform and, when the calamity is past, promptly revert to the old behavior? There is something curious that Pharaoh shares with the Nazis: They both wanted us gone and used all their power to prevent our going. Whatever it is that Pharaoh wants, the drama makes us see the intensity with which he wants it. Nor does he have it in him to measure the power arrayed against him. Interesting that the smaller minds of Pharaoh’s court see sooner and more clearly — “Knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?” — while Pharaoh is still bargaining: Go but only as far as I permit; go but leave your herds behind; go but leave the children. We can watch him get angrier and more frustrated, become rude and sarcastic, start shouting and threatening until he shows the Lord’s representatives the door. The Lord foreknows that, after the killing of the firstborn, the Egyptians will “thrust out” those whom they have been holding on to.
When you were a child did you worry about those firstborns? Some of them, it’s true, might well have been middle-aged Egyptian businessmen, but don’t we imagine children? Again, isn’t it interesting — the human propensity, whether in fact or fiction, in times biblical or modern, to kill children? Moses is saved from Pharaoh’s attempt at a pre-emptive genocide by killing the Hebrew baby boys; the babies at the breast are specifically included in the ban against the Amalekites; and Bathsheba’s baby compensates for King David’s adultery. You can think of more and others. What Maisy knew was that adults use children as weapons and as means of punishment.
And there is, finally, the divine dramatist Himself. Four hundred years may have been to Him as a night waking when He comes down, at the sound of Israel’s groaning, from His transcendence, to precipitate and take part in the action.
He tells Moses that it’s He who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. It is He who softens the hearts of the Egyptians so that the slaves can get a measure of restitution in Egyptian gold and silver. The Lord, who could stretch out His hand and wipe Pharaoh and his people off the face of the earth, allows humans to play out their natures and punishes Egypt with plagues the likes of which the earth has never seen before and will not see again, following hard one upon the other. Don’t we know what it is like to get a hit on the left when we’re still reeling from the punch to our right?
Only in Goshen where Israel dwells there is zero damage, for the Lord wants to show the difference between us and them. Then He details for us the plan of our escape and drowns the pursuing enemy whose heart has got promptly hardened again.
The purpose of the drama, the Lord says, is to teach the Egyptians the measure of His power and to embarrass not only Egypt’s sorcerers but also Egypt’s gods. And it is to demonstrate His faithfulness to His own often badly behaved children, who are to tell the story to their children, as it was told to me and made me the kind of Jew who loves this Bible and worries and quarrels with it.
Lore Segal is a novelist and writer of children’s stories, including “Why Mole Shouted and Other Stories” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).