Parashat Shemot (Names)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We have finished reading Bereshit – “In beginning” (Genesis) and go into the second of the five books of the Torah called Shemot – “Names” (Exodus) and the name of the Parsha is the same as the name of the book. We read from Exodus 1:1 to 6:1

The names of the sons of Jacob who came out of Canaan to go down to Egypt were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar and Zebulon. Including Joseph and his family who were already in Egypt, the number of the male descendants of Jacob in Egypt was seventy souls.

From that seventy the descendants of Jacob prospered and multiplied until they became a significant part of the total Egyptian population.

Then a new Pharoah came to the throne who knew nothing of the recent history of his nation and what Joseph had done. He took a completely different view of Jacob’s descendants to the Pharoah who reigned at the time of Joseph. He questioned where the loyalty of this people really lay. They had become numerous and influential. What would happen if war broke out and they decided to join the enemies of Egypt? Something had to be done so they set them to work as slaves building two huge store cities, Pithom and Raamses.

There was however a major problem for the Egyptians. The more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more they grew. It became a vicious circle. Israelite growth led to greater oppression which led to yet more growth. Something else needed to be done so Pharaoh’s Plan B kicked in. The Hebrew midwives were to kill every boy and let the girls live The midwives however feared God and spun Pharoah a yarn about the Hebrew babies being born so quickly that the midwives arrived too late and it was not possible to carry out Pharaoh’s orders. God blessed the Hebrew midwives for doing that and gave them their own families as a reward. In desperation Pharaoh’s next idea was to order that every baby Israelite boy that was born should be thrown into the Nile while the girls would be allowed to live.

A Levite woman married, and she gave birth to a son. He was a fine baby, and the mother hid him for three months. She couldn’t hide him much longer so she made a basket of rushes from the Nile, placed the boy inside and left it in the Nile among the reeds The baby’s sister watched it float down the river to see what would happen to it.  Pharaoh’s daughter came out to bathe in the Nile, noticed the basket and told her slave to fetch it. Inside she found the baby crying and took pity on it. She named him Moshe (Moses) from the word meshithu meaning ‘drew out’ since she drew him out of the water. The word may have been Egyptian in origin since it was Pharaoh’s daughter who named him. Nevertheless, the name Moshe stuck.

The baby’s sister then perked up and offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse it. She took the baby back to its mother who was paid by Pharaoh’s daughter for nursing her own son. When the child was weaned and grown it was taken back to Pharaoh’s daughter and the boy grew up in the palace as her own son.

When the young Egyptian grew up, he decided one day to go for a stroll and see how the people he was born into were getting on.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He killed the Egyptian taskmaster and buried his body in the sand. Another day he saw two Hebrews arguing and told them they should not be fighting among themselves. The two Hebrews not understanding the motive of Moses, turned to the young Royal toff saying ‘who made you a ruler over us? Will you kill us as you killed the Egyptian?’   Then Moses knew that what he had done had become known. Even Pharoah had heard about it and was after his life. This left Moses with little choice but to get out of Egypt and seek asylum in the wilderness.

He finds himself in the land of Midian where a Midianite priest with seven daughters lived. When the girls normally went to water the sheep by a well, they had to give way to local shepherds who would not allow them to join the queue. However, when Moses arrives, he stands up for the girls and makes sure they get access to the well. When they arrive home early, to the surprise of their father, they explain to him that an Egyptian had drawn water for them. The man says ‘why did you leave him there? Invite him back for dinner’.

Moses then lived with the man who was called Reuel, Jethro or Hobab. The name changes in different parts of Scripture. Moses marries his daughter Zipporah, meaning “bird”. She gives birth to a son and Moses names him Gershom meaning ‘stranger there’ since Moses had become a stranger in a strange land.

Over the passage of time, the Pharoah who knew about Moses’s felony dies but the Israelites continue to suffer in hard bondage. They cry out to God in their distress and God hears them.

One day as Moses was going about his daily business of tending the sheep. He led the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, when he noticed something very strange. There was a bush on fire, but it wasn’t consumed. The fire raged but the bush was not burned up.  Moses went closer to get a better look when the Angel of the Lord spoke from the middle of the bush saying

am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Exodus 3:6 NKJV)

Moses was afraid to look at God, but the Angel continued explaining that He had seen the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and heard their cries.  He had come to deliver then and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey and by the way Moses I’m sending you to do it.

A conversation was struck up between Moses and God which went something like this.

MOSES: Why me? That’s far too much of a big job for me to take on.

GOD: I’ll be with you all the way, and when you have done it you will serve me on this mountain.

MOSES: Who shall I say you are?

GOD: Tell them “I AM WHO I AM. (Exodus 3:14 NKJV) and that I am the God of their fathers Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and I’ve heard their cries and have come to rescue them and take them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Then say that you are going to ask the King of Egypt to let them go on a three-day journey into the wilderness. He is not going to agree straight away but I have ways of persuading him and when he does finally let you out, I will make you so favoured in the sight of the Egyptians that they will shower you with gifts as you leave.

MOSES: remembering his failed intervention in the fight between the two Hebrew slaves

But what if they don’t believe me?

GOD starting to get exasperated  What’s that in your hand?

MOSES: A staff

GOD: Throw it on the ground The staff becomes a snake

Pick it up by its tail – Moses does so and the snake becomes a staff again

Now put your hand inside your cloak Moses’ hand becomes white with leprosy

Now put it back again.  The flesh on his hand goes back to normal

If they don’t believe the first sign, they will believe the second. If they still don’t believe you then pour some water into the Nile, and it will turn to blood

MOSES: That’s all very well but I’m not a good speaker. I stutter a bit.

GOD: Who created speech and sight and hearing? Go and I will help you speak

MOSES:  Please send someone else.

GOD: getting angry. I’m going to send Aaron your brother with you. You can tell him and between the two you will be able to speak to the people

It finally dawned on Moses that he wasn’t going to win this argument. He took his family and headed back to Egypt. On the way down a strange thing happened. An angel tries to kill him. Why on earth would God do that after commissioning him for the great task ahead? Well, it seems that Moses had forgotten about Gershom’s Brit Milah (circumcision). Possibly Zipporah opposed it because it wasn’t a Midianite thing to do. However, when confronted by the angel she circumcises Gershom herself.

Moses and Aaron arrive in Egypt and speak to the elders of Israel. They believe him and bow their heads in gratitude that God had not forgotten His people.

Then Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and asks permission for the Israelites to make a three-day journey into the wilderness to make a sacrifice to the LORD.

Pharaoh’s response was not just negative but life for the Israelites became one lot harder. In Egypt bricks were strengthened with straw in the same way that steel rods are used to make reinforced concrete today. Before the straw was provided for them. Now they had to find their own straw, but the production quota remained as it was when the straw was provided for them.

The Israelite foremen complain to Moses and Aaron. “All you two have achieved is to make life even more difficult for us.”

Moses and Aaron turned to the LORD, but He reassures them that He had plenty more tricks up His sleeve and that Pharoah would be compelled to let the people go.

Haftarat Shemot                   הפטרת שמות

The Haftarah associated with this week’s Parsha is Isaiah 27:6 to 28:13 and Isaiah 29: 22 -23. Sephardim (Oriental Jews) read Jeremiah 1:1 to 2:3 but we deal here with only the Ashkenazi (German and European descent Jews) reading not for any reason of prejudice but there is a limit to how much one can write – so apologies to those of Sephardi heritage!

The passage as with much prophecy is a mixture of rebuke and promise. Rebuke at those drunkards in Ephraim but a promise that while God contended with his people in exile Jacob would fill the whole world with fruit. The connection with the Torah portion is the reference to exile and the promise of fruit. The passage refers to a return from exile not just from Egypt but also from Assyria. The Exodus came from Egypt and there has also been a return from exile in Babylon but no return from Assyria.  This leads us to believe that the fulfilment of this prophecy is what we see in contemporary Israel as Jews from all nations return to their home.

Messianic Message 

In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony during his oration at Caesar’s funeral says

‘The good is often interred in their bones’. That was certainly true of Joseph whom the Pharaohs of the generations after him totally forgot.

Many Jewish believers when they reveal their faith to family or friends get accused of being part of a Nazi holocaust as if the whole phenomenon of antisemitism is a direct consequence of Christian teaching. While it is true that Hitler quoted from Martin Luther those parts that suited his purpose, antisemitism existed long before that and the Exodus story is dated almost 1500 years before the early Church was established. It is the first documented history of antisemitism.

The reasons are chillingly familiar to us. The Jews are a fifth column in our country. How could the Germans, making so many gains in the First World War, suddenly discover that they had lost and were the subject of a humiliating treaty signed in a railway carriage at a siding in France?

Ignoring the fact that Great Britain had just invented the tank which could simply drive across trenches thus breaking four years of stalemate and the entry if the United States into the war, it was far less intellectually taxing to believe that Germany had been stabbed in the back by a fifth column consisting of Jews and Communists who were essentially the same since Communism was a Jewish ideology. As well as being Communists, the Jews were also seen as the Capitalists draining the blood from the ordinary German working man.

The story is told of two Jews sitting on a train in London. One was reading the Jewish News and the other a far-right fascist publication. The person reading the Jewish News asked why the other was reading something extreme and fascist. He replied that if he read the Jewish News, he read that Jews were being attacked and the Jewish community was declining all the time. “What I am reading now is that the Jews are rich and powerful and shortly to take over the whole world. It’s much better news.” Such was the perspective of Pharaoh.

However, underneath all this we see the hand of God planning redemption for his people. Like Yeshua he was misunderstood by those he came to rescue. Like Yeshua the whole of the future of the people depended on the obedience of one man. What would have happened had Moses declined the task? We would all still be languishing in Egypt. What if Yeshua had refused to go to his execution on the cruel Roman gibbet? We would all be consigned to Hell.

God has a job for all of us that no one else can do. We can’t all be high profile preachers or leaders, and many make the mistake of trying to copy someone else instead of obeying the calling only they can fulfill. Every believer has access to people who no one else will be able to reach.

There is an interesting verse in the Haftarah

For by people of strange lips
    and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people, 
(Isaiah 28:11 NIV)

Many Israeli Messianic believers today will testify that this prophecy has been fulfilled for them personally by non-Jewish believers from foreign lands provoking them to jealousy by sharing the fact that they are enjoying all the benefits of following Israel’s Messiah.

It’s not in this week’s Haftarah but the same prophet says elsewhere

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8 NIV)

When Moses is introduced to God he is told that God’s name is I AM

This has a familiar ring to the words of the Messiah

I AM the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  (John 14:6 NIV)

This article originally appeared on the BMJA website and is reposted with permission.