Notes from the Exodus

I would say the most concerted and continuous effort that I made in formal studies was in the area of biblical Hebrew. This is a sort of sad statement given the level of proficiency I have maintained. Recently though I have taken to preach on the OT passages of the Lectionary and, being summer, I find myself with a bit more time to work in the ‘original text’. This Sunday will be Exodus 1:1-2:10. I have greatly appreciated the small (and significant) nuances that have emerged from even a basic walk through the Hebrew.

Many of the observations can be made from the English as well.  The most clear is the precedent of ‘creation’ as a guiding motif in the Moses narrative.  We find Joseph and his brothers dead but the Israelites remained “fruitful and prolific” a common refrain in the creation story.

In light of this expanding foreign race Pharaoh decides to deal ‘shrewdly’ with them so they do not join the enemy.  The word join is a play on the name Joseph (to be added to) a figure of blessing for Egypt who has now been forgotten and his descendents are deemed a threat.

Pharaoh sets slave-drivers over the Israelites in work of ‘mortar and brick’ which is an allusion to the building of the Tower of Babel.

In response to Pharaoh’s increasing pressure on the people (and their increasing expansion) there is an order to kill the male children in child-birth.  Here we find the famous mid-wive’s of civil disobedience who do not follow the law.  What I find interesting is that their names, Shiphrah and Puah, indicate a type of ‘signalling’ of what is coming.  Shiphrah is a feminine form related to the Shophar which is a trumpet that is often used to refer to the coming of the presence of God (Ex 19:16).  Puah, as near as I can figure, is a variation on an onomatopoetic verb used to describe the sounds of a woman in labour, again ushering in the presence of something new.  The women here stand as the vanguard in the revolt creating space for the liberation of their people.

Verse 12 of chapter one contains two interesting expressions.  The NRSV reads,

the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

‘Spread’ is a suitable translation but does not have the visceral connotations as the Hebrew does in which there seems to be some implied ‘breach’ of a clear boundary.  When used in the relation to a holy space the word is often translated ‘break’ as in the Lord will ‘break out’ upon you.  ‘Dread’ is also a curious translation.  The word is not used often in the Hebrew Bible.  The term is used in several instances to refer to a sort of naseous sickness over a given situation.  It is the way the people feel after having eaten manna for too long.  It is the way a person can literally feel sick with fear.  Given some of the recent readings on abjection I picture this verse to be saying that the Egyptians tried to crush the Hebrews like a bug and ended up splattering guts all over them.

Thinking about the abject as neither subject (self) nor object (enemy)  also led me to consider another image that was not really illuminated by the Hebrew but important nonetheless.  Verse ten of chapter one reads,

Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.

In this construct the Israelite is neither self nor object.  They form a type of appendage to the Egyptian kingdom.  The abject is a part of what sustains the subject so long as it does not ultimately become the object (or worse become its own subject!).  So long as it does not ‘break out’ of the boundary set by the subject (read: colonialism).

And of course one of the more well known observations is how the ‘vessel’ that Moses is set adrift on is the same word for Ark used in the Flood account.

So anyway, we’ll see if this takes me anywhere closer to a coherent sermon.


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