Judaism 101

Chapters 4-7

chapter IV / Egypt and the Pharaoh’s Daughter

Remember where we left off? Baby Moses floating down the river in a leaky basket? Let’s pick up there.

So the Pharaoh’s daughter liked to bathe occasionally. Once a week? Once a month? Who knows. Anyway, she went down to bathe in the Nile River.. Any idea what’s coming next?

Yes, in a brilliant example of dramatic irony, she does in fact spot the floating baby, she falls in love, and she decides to adopt it as her own. “It” being “him.”  In a brilliant example of serendipity (see: Tiny sidenote II), Moses’s big sister happens to be close by, and offers to raise him.

Because she lives with her mum, Moses’s actual mom can handle the nursing duties, which is probably good. Because even in Egypt’s liberal interpretations of familial relationships (see: Tiny sidenote III), a sister nursing her little bro might be a little peculiar.  Of course when he’s past the annoying little infant stage, mom and sis will have to hand him over to his new mommy, the Princess.

Tiny sidenote: dramatic irony is when we the audience know exactly what’s going to happen, but the character doesn’t. I.e. in this scenario, we know she’s going to find Moses, but Princess doesn’t. Or does she? If she does, then that would be a great example of unreliable narration in storytelling. But that’s for another story. Or sidenote.

Tiny sidenote II: serendipity is kind of luck of the good variety. Like your house gets broken into and everything gets stolen, but then you’re on your way to Costco to buy a 20-pound barrel of cashews and you walk in right when they’re giving away 8K televisions, so you walk out of the store with something to eat and a brand new telly to watch Homeland on. Serendipitous timing. Lucky you.

Tiny sidenote III: Egyptian royalty had different ideas of close fraternal relationships than many of us do. Frequently a brother would marry his sister when they were old enough. One way to preserve a bloodline.

So Moses lives. Yay! He grows up with two families, and at some point learns of his Hebrew heritage. He now has to live with a troubling duality: the comforting luxurious life of privilege he enjoys as an Egyptian royal, and the difficult, oppressed life his people endure daily as Hebrew slaves.

Eventually, he snaps. He witnesses an Egyptian slave driver whipping a Hebrew slave and does something about it. I use  “does something about it” as a euphemism. What he does is he kills the slave driver. This should make him a hero to his people, but it’s kind of double-bad for him: his people are mad at him because now they’ll have to face the repercussions of his actions, and the Egyptians are mad at him because the one thing Moses is not allowed to do is to take a Hebrew’s side over an Egyptian’s. Especially when it involves deciding who to kill. Also, you shouldn’t kill.

Spoiler alert: God gives Moses some instructions later on about killing, and the importance of not doing so, et cetera.

So Moses, post-slave driver killing, runs away into the wilderness. The desert, to be exact. He has many epiphanies and opportunities to think while he’s out there for forty years. Oh, and God speaks to him about things, such as his lineage and the importance of having a good staff, etc.

Chronological lineagical list of important guys with the less consequential ones skipped (sorry, Mahalaleel and Methuselah) :

Adam > Enoch > Noah > Shem > Abraham > Isaac > Jacob > Joseph > Moses  

Also while he’s out there, he makes a friend. Jethro. They become such good friends that Jethro gives him a present. The type of present that friends at the time gave each other. Or perhaps the type of gift that could prove economically advantageous for both parties.

The present was his daughter. Jethro gave Moses his daughter as a gift. So he could marry her. Name was Zipporah.

Personally, I believe strongly that the gift of one’s personal friendship is better than the gift of giving away your daughter to a friend. Or, a well-made knife is another type of good present.

Anyway, Moses and Zipporah are a thing. They stick around Jethro’s place for a while and help look after sheep. What was Jethro’s wife’s name? I don’t know. Sadly, like Noah’s wife, her identity is simply “wife.” I have issue with this, but that is for another story. Or sidenote.

Remember:

Nile River, dramatic irony, serendipity, slavery, Zipporah,  

Chapter V / exodus

Like Abraham, the Bible’s first truly complex and flawed hero, Moses was a herder and thinker. He thought a lot about his people who were in bondage. The more he thought, the more he became convinced that it was wrong that he be free while his people were enslaved.

He left his wife and children - temporarily - and headed to Egypt, to whatever is the opposite of a triumphant return. His brother Aaron accompanied him.

Somehow, they got an audience with the King (a.k.a. Pharaoh) and demanded the Hebrews be released from slavery.

“Let my people go!”

Moses commanded..

This demand was not received with joy or acquiescence, despite Moses assuring the Pharaoh that the true Lord God of the Hebrews was backing them.

Pharaoh took great delight in listing off the Egyptian gods and reminding Moses of how puny his one god was in comparison to their many.

The situation escalated, and there were various demonstrations of power, some involving blood and rivers, and others involving frogs and flies and hail and darkness -

These were known as the Plagues. There were nine of them, and they were all either gross, or annoying, or terrifying, or sad, or all of these things, but then there was one more. And it was a tragic one. Remember the historical context of Moses’s birth? The Hebrew boys being killed? The last plague is what we refer to as ‘coming full circle.’ Or I like to call it ‘bookending.’ It’s one of my favorite narrative devices ever, and pretty much all the best stories involve some use of it.

  • and still Pharaoh refused to budge.

So the final Plague came down to this: the death of the firstborn.

Tragic. Absolutely tragic.

But finally, the Pharaoh bent.

Go!

The Hebrews, prepared to exodus, left.

Left for the Promised Land. Canaan.

Canaan, according to my buddy at Wikipedia, is “present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.”

But the Egyptian drama wasn’t over. Sometimes powerful leaders change their minds, and sometimes this is a good thing. Other times, it is not a good thing. Pharaoh changed his mind about letting them go, and sent his army to bring their freed slaves back.

And thus ensued great terror as the Hebrews’ emotions continued to see-saw. Initial exultation at escaping from bondage turned to terror as they found themselves trapped between the the approaching army and the Red Sea. In the book of Exodus, which coincidentally is about their exodus, we find one of the great cinematic descriptions of deus ex machina in history

Sidenote: deus ex machina is a storytelling device invented by the Greeks and later stolen by everyone else (this happened a lot), that means literally “god from a machine.” But the interesting part is its figurative meaning, which is basically the idea that if a character in a story is trapped and something terrible is about to happen, then the author can quickly write a solution to rescue them. “God pulling the strings.”

The story in Exodus of the Hebrews escaping from the Egyptian army is one of the greatest examples of deus ex machina. In this case, deus ex machina is literal and figurative. They are literally rescued by God parting the waters, letting them through, and then drowning the Egyptian army as they attempted to follow. Awesome story. I don’t want to express happiness at others’ misfortunate - the Germans would call this schadenfreude - but it’s hard to not be clapping in giddiness at the karmic coolness of the Egyptians slave masters coming what they had coming to them.

But those foot soldiers  had wives and children too. Yeah. Sad. There’s a lot of stories in the Old Testament that sound really happy, and then you think from the perspective of some of the more tragic figures, and it gets a little sad.

So the Hebrews are out of Egypt, and free from the Egyptians. Home free?

Nope. Again, Exodus (the 2nd book of the Torah) describes the grumbling people wandering through the desert for forty years, and frequently reminiscing about the good old days of slavery. A key moment is at Mt. Sinai, where Moses hikes up for 40 days and comes down with The Ten Commandments of Jehovah, which he brings back to the people, who are waxing nostalgic for the old Egyptian idols.

Moses delivers these to the people, and here’s the thing: most of them weren’t necessarily new. Other civilizations had a lot of the same ideas about. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t like, stuff like that. But there were two commandments that were different than anything they had known before:

  1. As slaves, the Hebrews had worked seven days a week, every day of the year. And now here was a commandment, the Fourth one,  telling them to rest every seventh day. This was a new concept. Don’t work. Rest on this day. Once a week.

  2. The First Commandment said: you shouldn’t have any other gods before me. I added the italics and underlining. Why is this so different? It’s not saying specifically here that Jehovah is the only god. It’s saying that the children of Israel should swear allegiance to no god but Jehovah. It was an agreement. A serious agreement called a covenant between Jehovah and the Israelites. They would be His chosen people, and He would be their only God.

So they got some of this stuff worked out and kept heading north toward Jordan, and beyond that, Canaan. A.k.a. The Promised Land.

Remember:

Flawed hero, Plagues, Promised Land, Canaan, Red Sea, deus ex machina, the number 40, Mt. Sinai, Ten Commandments, covenant

Chapter VI / Rise of the United Kingdom

Now that they had the Ten Commandments and the covenant with Jehovah, the Israelites felt especially empowered. They conquered their way through a bunch of the land and vanquished all. Sometimes easily, sometimes with some creative thinking and Deus ex machina.

Eventually, they reached the fertile land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Oh by the way, Moses died somewhere along the way earlier on. So once they’re in Canaan, they have to start philosophically shifting from being nomads and warriors to being settlers and farmers.

REWIND: Okay, apparently Moses deserves a better ending than a passing reference to having died. This is what happened:

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Back to the present story.

Wandering around is great. But there’s one thing you don’t have when you’re wandering around, besides a solid foundation: neighbors. Once they settled down, they had neighbors. And they had to figure out how to make friends and get along with them. Or at least distinguish between friend and foe and who to trust and who to not.

And they had a land. Their own land again. No longer scattered and spread out and in servitude. Their own land and their own God. God of Palestine.

For three hundred years, Palestine was ruled by Judges (capital-J).

Eventually the Twelve Tribes organized themselves into a kingdom. A kingdom must have a king. So they chose a tall guy named Saul. He did some good things, and some bad things, and then some more bad things. Sad. Worse than sad. Tragic.

There were a total of three kings during the glory days of unity.

Saul established the kingdom.

David strengthened and expanded the kingdom.

Solomon enriched the kingdom and brought peace (after a bloody beginning).

So there were some good years.

Have you heard the phrase “calm before the storm?”

There’s a storm coming. Sad.

Remember:

Nomads, Palestine, Judges, United Kingdom, Saul,

Chapter VII / Fall of the United Kingdom

After King Solomon died, somewhere around a thousand years-ish before *spoiler alert* Jesus’s birth, there was some disagreement about the line of succession. After a lot of squabbling, which is a euphemism for a lot of blood and killing, then then the United Kingdom was split into two.

When a united kingdom is split into any smaller parts, it is, by definition, no longer united.

So now there were two kingdoms:

Israel in the north. They split because they felt like David and Solomon and their people in the south didn’t treat them like their own (remember, Solomon was the product of a union between David and the Hittite warrior Uriah, so she and her offspring were never fully accepted by some). So they started their own kingdom.

Judah in the south.

Is a divided kingdom stronger or weaker?

If you said weaker, then yes. You are correct. And a weak kingdom in those days (or probably nowdays too) makes oneself a ripe morsel  for stronger neighboring kingdoms to conquer. Which is exactly what happened.

Around 722 B.C., or only two hundred years after Solomon’s death (or just a little shorter than the length of time the United States of America has been a country), the kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.

My contact at Wikipedia has reminded me that that the modern-day location of Assyria is roughly northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Syria. Also known historically as Upper Mesopotamia.

The Assyrians took the Israelites as captives to other lands. Many stories have been told about them, but no trace has been found, and they are referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Sad.

Judah was better prepared and made it 150+ years longer. But eventually, big fish eat little fish and giant kingdoms devour little weakened ones, so finally the Babylonians attacked, burned the Temple (the capital-T one in Jerusalem), destroyed the city, and took the people into captivity. Far from home. In Babylon. Sad.

Seven hundred years from the time they left Egypt as slaves to the time they forcibly left the Promised Land...as slaves again. Sad.

So the kingdoms of Israel (vanished without a trace) and Judah (people in captivity) are gone. Destroyed. No hope.

Or...is there a light?

When they were living in Palestine, they thought of Jehovah as being their God.

But now that they were dispersed (remember that word diaspora?) and their holy cities and temples were annihilated...where was Jehovah?

They believed they were being punished for their poor choices and wayward ways. But they also believed that Jehovah was still with them and that He was their only God. Even in captivity.

And if He was with them in captivity, then He would be with them...everywhere and anywhere.

This was a big shift. The idea that Jehovah was with them everywhere.

Remember:

Israel, Judah, Assyria, Iraq, Ten Lost Tribes, diaspora,