The opening chapters of Exodus plunge us into a midst of epic events. Moses passes from Prince of Egypt; to Midianite shepherd; to leader of the Israelites, through a history-changing encounter with God, at the ‘Burning Bush’.
The narrative begins with a new King of Egypt, “who did not know of Joseph” (1). However, the descendants of Jacob had multiplied and prospered, over several generations. The Pharaoh said to his people: “Get ready, let us deal with them shrewdly, lest they increase, and a war befalls us” (2).
The Pharaoh had heard some of the history of ‘these people’ and their Almighty God. He knew that when Enosh (grandson of Adam) had turned to idolatry, God destroyed the entire world (3). The generation of the ‘Flood’ was considered sexually immoral; and, an entire generation was killed, because “The world was considered corrupt before God” (4). Finally, the builders of the Tower of Babel were characterized as people with no regard for the sanctity of human life; and, were spread across seventy different nations (5). With this knowledge, the Pharaoh was in a frenzy to destroy the entire population of these people, referred to as Israelites.
In desperation, the Pharaoh spoke to the Egyptian midwives (Shifrah and Puah): “when you deliver the Hebrew women, and a son is born, drown him in the Nile River” (6). Shifrah and Puah are considered the first individuals in history to engage in ‘civil disobedience’. They did not follow the Pharaoh’s orders (7).
Yocheved (wife of Amron) gave birth to a baby boy. When he could no longer be hidden, his mother placed him in an ark and put him into the Nile River “His sister, Miriam stood afar, to see what was to become of him (8). Pharaoh’s daughter, Princess Batya, was bathing in the Nile. She saw the child, and said: “This is one of the children of Israel. She named him ‘Moses’, “for I drew him from the water” (9).
Years go by, as Moses is raised as an Egyptian Prince. One day, he wandered into the area where the Israelites were living, and noticed two Jewish men quarreling. He interfered, and one man asked him: “Who made you a prince and judge?” (10). A new Pharaoh heard of this incident, and sought to slay Moses, who fled, in fear to Midan
While Moses was tending sheep in Midan, God appeared to him in a burning bush. He told Moses that He had heard the pain and cries of the Jewish people, and that He chose Moses to be the one to redeem them from Egypt. Shockingly, Moses asked: “Who am I to be their leader?” This question was not raised as a reflection of Moses’ humility. He was raised in Egyptian royalty; spent many years in Midan; and, is now asked to be the leader of the Jewish people. Throughout the next twenty-four verses of Shemot, (which the Midrash claims occurred over a span of a week), God continued to implore Moses, promising that He would be with him (11).
Moses expressed his concern that the Israelites would not believe him, as well as his doubts about the Israelites. His comments were amply justified. The Israelites were known to be both fractious and stubborn. However, according to Maimonides: “In Judaism, a leader is someone, who is mindful of the people’s faults; but, also convinced of their potential greatness” (12).
Ultimately, Moses assented to God’s request, after informing Him that he was ‘not a man of words’. God told him to bring his older brother with him, to display two miracles to the Pharaoh (i.e. converting a staff into a serpent; and making his hand into one of a leper.)
The Pharaoh rejected the power of Moses and Aaron. When Moses reported their failure to convince the Pharaoh of God’s power;
God responded: “Now you will see what I do to the Pharaoh, with a mighty hand” (13).
(1) EXODUS (1:8)
(2) EXODUS (1:9)
(3) Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry)
(4) BERISHIS (6:11)
(5) Pirkei D’Rabbi (Eliezer 24)
(6) EXODUS (1:15)
(7) Jewish Women’s Archive
(8) EXODUS (2:4)
(9) EXODUS (2:10)
(10) EXODUS (2:14)
(11) RASHI (4:10)
(12) MAIMONIDES (Epistle)
(13) EXODUS (6:1)