Splitting the Red Sea- A Pre-Ordained Miracle

When the Israelites left Egypt, God did not lead them to the Promised Land by the shortest route, in case they became regretful ‘when they see war and return to Egypt’. The Bible does not explain what war they would have seen. A Midrashic tradition speculates that would have seen the corpses of the Ephraimites, of whom a legend states they left Egypt before their due time, travelled by the shortest route and were attacked and slaughtered by the Philistines.

A more straightforward explanation is that the Israelites themselves might have been attacked as they travelled through the inhabited coastal lands, causing them to lose heart and return to Egypt. Continue reading “Splitting the Red Sea- A Pre-Ordained Miracle”

Moses’s Staff: Pageantry or Miracle?

Moses’s staff is the stuff of legend. It was one of ten miraculous objects created at twilight at the beginning of the first Sabbath. Made of sapphire, given to Adam and handed down throughout the generations, the staff will one day be wielded by the Messiah itself. That in a nutshell is the rabbinic tradition. None of it is in the Torah.

Instead, the biblical account tells us of two staffs, one belonging to Aaron, one to Moses. It tells us nothing about either of them. We picture them as ordinary pieces of wood; walking sticks or shepherds’ crooks. Continue reading “Moses’s Staff: Pageantry or Miracle?”

What Moses Can’t Teach Us About Leadership

We live in a world diminished by the absence of clear, effective, ethical leadership. Brexit, populism, fake news, the upsurge of the far right; these are all symptoms of, at best, weak and ineffectual leadership, at worst of a political class that is wilfully perverse and deceitful.

The opening chapters of Exodus are in part about leadership, about the call Moses receives to lead his people out of slavery, his response to that summons and his growth as a leader. Moses of course has one great advantage; he has God on his side. The advantage is not just that God is his religious source of inspiration giving him the confidence to succeed. God is actually, there, by his side, commanding him, telling him what to say, telling him in unmistakable words that whatever action he is about to do perform will have the desired effect. Continue reading “What Moses Can’t Teach Us About Leadership”

Embalming Jacob – A Lesson to Diaspora Communities

The book of Genesis ends with death in Egypt. First Jacob dies, then Joseph. Following the Egyptian custom, they were both embalmed. The Torah makes no mention of how the embalming was carried out, which parts of the body were removed or which embalming fluids were used. Indeed it gives no detail at all, other than the fact that they were each embalmed.

This is a little surprising. Embalming was not a Hebrew custom; no other corpse in the Bible is subjected to the process. There is little doubt that the only reason they were embalmed was because they lived in Egypt, yet the whole subject is dealt with very casually: ‘Then Joseph ordered his servants, the doctors, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel’ (50,2). Continue reading “Embalming Jacob – A Lesson to Diaspora Communities”

Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty

The sequence of events in the Bible is often confusing, leading to multiple, seemingly conflicting interpretations. Even though the Talmud declared long ago that “There is no before or after in the Torah”, in other words it is not written in chronological order, this did not solve all the problems.  Indeed, some biblical commentators, most notably the great 12th century exegete Ramban rejected this principle, because as far as he was concerned it just doesn’t work.

An example of chronological confusion occurs when Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt for the second time. Joseph finally makes himself known to them. he reassures them of his good intentions by saying that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives, because there were still five years of famine left to run. He means that they are now in the second year of the seven year famine which his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream had foretold. Continue reading “Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty”

Why Was Joseph Flawed?

Joseph, Mordechai and­­­ Daniel have much in common. So much so that the two later accounts, the stories of Mordechai and Daniel, appear to be literary reworkings of aspects of the Joseph tale.

Each of the three ascends from the depths and humiliation of exile to become the ruler of a foreign land. Joseph is elevated to high office because he is the only person in Egypt who could interpret Pharaoh’s mysterious dreams. Daniel similarly; he may have been a mere youth but he did what none of the wise men in Babylon could do, he explained the meaning of the terrifying image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream.

Mordechai, like Joseph, was wreathed in royal finery and led in procession through the streets.  Daniel and Mordechai both refused to compromise their religious behaviour. Mordechai would not bow down to Haman; Daniel would not eat the king’s food or wine. Continue reading “Why Was Joseph Flawed?”

Hinting at Optimism- Joseph, Judah and Tamar

The tale of Judah and Tamar has long been recognised as a deliberately constructed antithesis to the Joseph story. The Torah inserts the narrative immediately after Joseph has been thrown into the pit and directly before his arrival in Egypt. According to the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 85,2) the 3rd century rabbis Yohanan and Elazar each offered a reason for the story’s insertion at this point. Continue reading “Hinting at Optimism- Joseph, Judah and Tamar”

A Poetic Way to read the Psalms

My review of Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen’s poetic translation of the Book of Psalms appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 12th November 2018

Continue reading “A Poetic Way to read the Psalms”

Who Was Jacob Wrestling With? Does It Really Matter?

Jacob’s fight with the angel is one of the best known and most frequently interpreted narratives of the Torah. Most modern commentators consider it to be an allegory, reading psychological interpretations into it. They see it as reflecting Jacob’s fears and apprehensions as he prepares to meet Esau, the brother he had not seen for over twenty years, whom he cheated and who had threatened to kill him. The struggle with the angel symbolises Jacob’s internal conflict.

Ancient and medieval commentators did not have an awareness of psychology or a knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. They took the text at face value, imposing upon it the beliefs and assumptions of their own times, ideas in which they had as much faith as we have in the science of our own age. Continue reading “Who Was Jacob Wrestling With? Does It Really Matter?”

Strategic Revelation

Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob has very little direct contact with God. The first time he appears is when Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau, having stolen their father’s blessing. Esau has vowed to kill Jacob so their mother packs him off to the house of her brother Laban in Padan Aram. On his own for the first time in his life, rightly terrified of both his brother and the journey Jacob is also, according to a convincing analysis by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, penniless. Night falls, he lies down to sleep with nothing but a rock as a pillow and dreams his famous dream of the ladder ascending to heaven. Continue reading “Strategic Revelation”