Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Is Goodness Really an Anomaly in This World?
This week I want us to take a look at a curious verse which in its tone seems to be clumsily dropped into the text. To the Hebrew speaker, this verse stands out oddly in tense and perspective. Furthermore it does too for the lay person and scholar alike when we see how conspicuously it arises.
After nine of the plagues have decimated Egypt we see that G-d tells Moses that there is just one more plague to come upon Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. But after that Pharaoh will let the Israelites go, actually he’s going to kick them out all together. Therefore G-d tells Moses to speak privately to his people, instructing them to ask their neighbors for their silver (kesef) and gold (zahav) utensils; they need money (kesef) to get away. (see Exodus 11:1-2)
Then the text continues, interjecting the following statement:
“And Hashem gave favor
to the people in the eyes of the Egyptians.
Moreover the man Moses was very great
in the land of Egypt,
in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants
and in the eyes of the people.”
| ha’am be’einei Mitzrayim
| gam ha’ish Mosheh gadol me’od
| be’eretz Mitzrayim
| be’einei avdei-Far’oh
| uve’einei ha’am.
This verse stands out to us for a few reasons. Lets look at a few of them for a moment.
First off, the language is odd. It switches harshly to the third person when speaking of Moses. For some reason the verse turns into less of a mere transcript that identifies who is speaking when, it now even speaks about Moses as “ha-ish Mosheh / the man Moses” in a tone as if someone else is narrating here in this verse.
Second, the verse is almost an exact repeat to another reference later in Exodus chapter 12:35-36. This verse just drops in almost needlessly. This first reference begins to set up how the Israelites are going to later nitzel Mitzrayim– they are going to plunder or despoil Egypt. In the Torah, for reasons of being concise we do not have needless repetitions. There is no seemingly purposefulness for this interjection here at this time. One can assume that maybe a later editor just got ahead of himself when adding this as a gloss to the text.
Thirdly, and probably more obvious, this just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. The people of Egypt have been battered by nine devastating plagues that have caused pestilence, illness and terror upon them and yet it says that the Israelites had “chen / favor” with them. It also says of Moses that he was even well-respected by the advisors of Pharaoh and the public at large. How can this be when he is a figurehead of all this misery? It’s illogical.
For all these reasons the above verse seems oddly out-of-place. So much that people will debate out the validity of the text and come to many long discussions about biblical authorship based on the oddity of this verse. Modern translations, even those produced by hardened fundamentalists of other religions, often feel apprehensive about this verse. Some even place the entirety of verse 3 in brackets, hinting that it may not be authentic to the text.
Now, I’m not a bible critic. I have nothing to gain from trying to disprove the authenticity of the scriptures. I am a student of Torah, I take what is written and try to find meaning in it. I don’t deal with what’s “true,” I concern myself with Truth. But if I was asked why I can find merit in this odd and maybe even dubious verse, I would point out that the argument made against this text is larger than the problem itself. No one really questions the rest of the verses that deal with the instructions to request for silver and gold, it’s just verse 3. The greater bulk of this text appears genuine by all measures. This means this occurrence is hardly an artifact of transcription that we should just push to the side. I believe this verse, like most oddities seen in the Torah, is meant to stand out as a red flag to catch our attention to a hidden truth.
If we consider it for a second, if this is a scribal emendation then all it appears to be doing is balancing out this text to the reference that comes after the tenth and final plague – the death of the firstborn – as seen in the following chapter. All it would be adding to this first reference in the beginning of chapter 11 is the reason why the Egyptians would give up their possessions to the Israelites at their request, which cites “favor” as being the motivation in both cases. It has to have some point other than just mere textual symmetry.
No matter what position one holds, critical or not, this verse must hold some very important point to be included at all, and it all encircles this verse relating to the Israelite’s favor.
Before we go any more forward we must understand what we mean by favor – chen in Hebrew. It means to have grace or charm. Essentially it means the attractiveness or charm that one experiences upon encountering a person. Colloquially when one says that they have found favor in the eyes of someone, it means that a person gracefully acquiesces to the request of another. A person feels nothing but charmed to helping out someone just out of simple fondness for them.
And this is really the last thing that we should be seeing this point in the Exodus story, that the Egyptians people all the way up the to cabinet of Pharaoh would have favor upon the Israelites and Moses. This is really a phenomenal statement. The entire nation of Egypt has been struck down with all these plagues that decimated their society in this battle of ego between Pharaoh and G-d, and yet the people still were able to look favorably upon the Israelites. So much so that the Israelites would come to depend on these Egyptian neighbors for their provisions. They Egyptians would even give their silverware and jewelry away to help in their cause.
Quite honestly, we should not be seeing favor motivating the Egyptian people. We should instead see them heaping their belongs on the Israelites in fear, just to send them on their way. And in all honesty, that is more what the actually despoiling of Egypt sounds like in chapter 12 after the terrible blow of the final plague kills their firstborn. They had enough, take it all and go, don’t worry about paying us back. I guess understandably so, how else could they feel in this situation. Yet even in this occurrence it mentions favor and not fear as the drive behind this benevolence.
This statement says a lot about the Egyptians. Though Israel was being blamed for the calamity that befell Egypt, the people looked graciously upon the Israelites. This is hard enough to be gracious to strangers in times of fortune let alone times of cataclysm. Even during times of prosperity the unique people are usually feared, and not favored. People often feel threatened if strangers do well, and perform exceptionally in society; to be blunt, especially if they do well! This is no less true when the people are in their own land, as the scriptures state:
“And all the peoples of the earth shall see
that the name of the Hashem is called upon you;
and they shall be afraid of you.
And Hashem will make you
over-abundant for good,
in the fruit of your body,
and in the fruit of your cattle,
and in the fruit of your land,
in the land which Hashem swore
unto your fathers to give you.”
וְרָאוּ כָּל–עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, |
כִּי שֵׁם יְהוָה נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ; |
וְיָרְאוּ, מִמֶּךָּ. |
וְהוֹתִרְךָ יְהוָה |
בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ |
וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ |
וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתֶךָ— |
עַל, הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה |
לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, לָתֶת לָךְ. |
The paradigm above shows us the truth of it. When people often look upon Israel, that distinguishes itself by honoring their G-d and His Torah that bares His name, they become fearful. When people see Jews and their peculiarity to endeavoring to be a light to nations as spoken of in the prophets (Isaiah 42:6), living up to the promise that through us the nations would be blessed as spoken to our father Abraham (Genesis 22:18) – to always try to strive better for prosperity and abundance of society, to give their all to be a productive citizen – on lookers often feel fear instead of being overjoyed. They see competition or grow suspicious of success at their own expense. This was Pharaoh’s mentality. This suspicion and apprehension is enough between foreign nations, let alone when people are foreigners in their very land. It says a lot about the humanity of the common Egyptian, and the miraculousness of this favor they showed the Israelites despite the propaganda from the top.
In some ways our verse says a lot about the Torah’s perspective about the common man in general. It just uses the Egyptians as an example. Despite the Egyptian people losing so much in this epic clash between Pharaoh and G-d, our Torah contends that the average citizens were still decent and could be depended on in time of need. The Torah breaks with its normal tone in order to quickly reinforce a positive view of the average man, that they can be counted on to do good even in the face of calamity. They were able to see “ha-ish Mosheh / the man Moses” and his Israelites as mere people, not ideologies, and it caused their humanity to rise up in the Egyptians to have favor and grace upon them. That’s just how real people are in real life many times.
With this verse we are presented with a choice, to ignore the verse as an oddity or embrace it as strange possibility. We can look at this verse and say that it doesn’t sound right and likewise say it’s almost impractical up against what we think we know about human nature. Or we can say there really is a lesson being stressed herein, that people are better than their situation and even their evil leaders. I would hope that we would embrace this verse and this spirit behind it.
The reason I would hope that we would see the better humanity in people is because the history of the Jewish people has many situations to illustrate such favor for us. We have ample examples for how people caught up in crossfire of senseless violence against Jews showed benevolence to their Jewish neighbors. I call to remembrance the many people in Nazi occupied Europe that gave all they could to escaping Jews. There are not just a handful of selected cases, there are many examples. Numerous examples through out the ages of kind-hearted gentiles who showed favor to helpless Jews; saving them from the raging pogroms in Eastern Europe, shielding them during raids and crusades in the middle-east, and hiding them away from harm in the Orient and Asia. This insensible favor, as illogical as it may seem, is not so odd. It’s common to the Jewish experience through out all the ages.
This verse in the Torah asks us to consider human goodness, but our struggle with this verse is to be able to see it and the human virtues displayed in it as more than just mere anomalies. And, I for one, I guess I am just an optimist when it comes to this. I feel that if we have this verse in our Torah, we must find some way of giving it meaning for us. And I believe this is one of the best ways to interpret this text for these complicated times.
I also choose to never forget the acts of saving grace shown in times of trouble.
Read about the heroic acts of non-Jewish people who helped save their Jewish neighbors during the The Shoah – the Holocaust. The Vaad Vashem Memorial has an entire department related to this, explore the good deeds of many people honored by them as Righteous Among the Nations.
- Parshat Shemot (2013) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)
- Parshat Beshalach (2011) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)