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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Thora, EXODUS, part 2

Inside NOAHs Arch



1. This passage is more than simply a repetition or variant form of 4:16. The earlier verse concerned the functions of Moses and Aaron in their dealings with the people of Israel; here Moses is to fill the role of God in negotiations with Pharaoh, who claimed divinity for himself. Moses’ divinely endowed power and authority will expose the hollowness of that claim.

your prophet Your spokesman. Hebrew naviʾ, is derived from a stem meaning “to call, proclaim,” that is, the divine word.

2. Moses and Aaron speak not on their own initiative but as agents of God’s will.

3–4. These verses allude to the forthcoming plagues. At the same time, they constitute God’s response to Moses’ protestations in 6:30, as though to say, “Of course Pharaoh will not be easily swayed, but not on account of your inadequacy. Rather, it is because I utilize his stubbornness in order to demonstrate My active Presence.” Indirectly, Moses is once more warned against harboring unrealistic optimism in the discharge of his mission, for such may lead to demoralization.2 On the “hardening of the heart,” see Comment to 4:21.

4. ranks See Comment to 6:26.

chastisements See Comment to 6:6.

5. the Egyptians shall know … The ultimate response to Pharaoh’s contemptuous declaration, “I do not know the LORD.” See Comment to 5:2.

6. A retrospective summation; the details are given in the subsequent chapters.

7. eighty years old Moses commences his career at an age that was taken in biblical times to be the completion of unusual longevity.

In order to verify his authenticity as a divinely appointed emissary to Israel, Moses had earlier performed his corroborative signs before the people. Now he must do the same before Pharaoh.

9. say to Aaron Henceforth, Aaron performs the signs as long as the Egyptian magicians are present. This enables Moses to negotiate with the Egyptian king as an equal.

your rod See Comments to 4:2–3.

a serpent In 4:3 the Hebrew term is naḥash; here it is tannin, a more general term for a large reptile. Lekaḥ Tov and Bekhor Shor plausibly suggest that tannin has special relevance to Pharaoh, who is addressed as follows in Ezekiel 29:3: “Thus says the Lord GOD:/I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt,/Mighty monster [Heb. ha-tannin ha-gadol].”

11. for his part Hebrew gam is used here as an emphasizing particle.

magicians Hebrew ḥartumim derives from an Egyptian title meaning “chief lector priest.” Its bearer was a learned scribe whose skills included expertise in magic and dream interpretation. Several postbiblical sources11 identify Pharaoh’s magicians as Jannes and Jambres, said to have been the two sons of Balaam.13

with their spells The Hebrew stem l-w-t means “to enwrap,” so that the noun would mean “things kept under wraps,” or closely guarded secrets. The use of “spells” contrasts strongly with the simplicity of Aaron’s act, which is unaccompanied by any incantation or praxis. The term itself suggests that the wonder belonged to the magicians’ conventional repertoire of tricks. In fact, to this day Egyptian snake charmers practice the deception of turning a rod into a serpent.15 They are able to induce catatonic rigidity in the native cobra by exerting strong pressure on a nerve just below its head. In this state, the snake assumes a rodlike appearance and can even be handled by onlookers. The jolt it receives when thrown to the ground restores its mobility.

12–13. In the present case, Aaron does nothing further, but the rod—a real one—appears to act on its own and should establish the superiority of the power of Aaron’s God over that of the magicians’. Nevertheless, Pharaoh is unmoved.
The Plagues (7:14–11:10)

Pharaoh’s intransigence—as foretold—sets off the “extraordinary chastisements” mentioned in verse 4. These take the form of ten disasters that strike Egypt in the course of a year. They are popularly known as the “Ten Plagues,” in Hebrew ʿeser makkot.
The Hebrew Bible features three accounts of the plagues. The longest and most detailed narrative is the prose version set forth in the ensuing chapters. Psalms 78:43–51 and 105:27–36 present highly condensed poetic paraphrases. The three sources vary in the sequence, number, and content of the plagues. Psalm 78 makes no mention of lice, boils, and darkness, whereas Psalm 105 ignores boils and pestilence. Due to the uncertain meaning of some of the Hebrew terms in those psalms, it is difficult to determine exactly how many and what kind of plagues the two compositions respectively present. Nor can one establish with certainty whether the differences represent variant traditions or poetic license.
The present narrative is a sophisticated and symmetric literary structure with a pattern of three groups each comprising three plagues. The climactic tenth plague possesses a character all its own. The first two afflictions in each triad are forewarned; the last always strikes suddenly, unannounced. Furthermore, in the case of the first, fourth, and seventh plagues Pharaoh is informed in the morning and Moses is told to “station” himself before the king, whereas in the second of each series Moses is told to “come in before Pharaoh,” that is, to confront him in the palace. Finally, in the first triad of plagues it is always Aaron who is the effective agent; in the third, it is always Moses.19
The controlling purpose behind this literary architecture is to emphasize the idea that the nine plagues are not random vicissitudes of nature; although they are natural disasters, they are the deliberate and purposeful acts of divine will—their intent being retributive, coercive, and educative. As God’s judgments on Egypt for the enslavement of the Israelites, they are meant to crush Pharaoh’s resistance to their liberation. They are to demonstrate to Egypt the impotence of its gods and, by contrast, the incomparability of YHVH, God of Israel, as the one supreme sovereign God of Creation, who uses the phenomena of the natural order for His own purposes.21
In addition to this dominant motif of the plagues narrative, a secondary theme is also discernible: Israel as well as the Egyptians must “know” YHVH. This is made explicit in 10:2. The early Exodus narratives are very clear about the lack of the people’s faith in its relationship with God. In this regard, the mysterious silence of the Israelites throughout the course of the plagues may well be significant. True, the people is said to be shielded from the effects of the catastrophes, but only in the course of five of them;23 nothing is said about this in connection with the others. It is only after the culminating miracle at the sea that “the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses” (14:31).

This plague has been explained as the extreme intensification of a well-known phenomenon that occurs periodically in the Nile valley. The river is fed by melting snow and summer rains that pour down from the highlands of Ethiopia and carry with them sediment from the tropical red earth that characterizes the region. Following from this explanation, the plague must have resulted from an abnormally heavy rainfall that led to an excessively high rise of the Nile and washed down inordinate amounts of the red sediment. The neutralization of this substance, which normally occurs in the course of the flow of the river, was now retarded, so that the entire river took on a bloody hue. As a result, flagellates and purple bacteria washed down from the high mountain lakes, together with the particles of red earth, disturbed the oxygen balance and killed off the fish, which produced a foul stench.
The Nile inundation, which reaches its height in September/October, has a bearing on the explanation for the next plague as well.
The Egyptians personified and deified the river Nile as the god Hapi, to whom offerings were made at the time of inundation. The flooding itself was regarded as a manifestation of the god Osiris. It is quite possible, then, that the contamination of the river served to discredit Egyptian polytheism. Also, by commencing the series of plagues with the striking of the Nile waters, the text suggests an underlying notion of retribution, measure for measure, for Pharaoh’s iniquitous decree that all newborn males be cast into the river.28
This type of calamity is found elsewhere in the literature of the ancient Near East. A Sumerian text about the goddess Inanna tells of three plagues that she brought upon the world; in the first she turned all the waters of the land into blood. An Egyptian literary work by a certain Ipuwer, which purports to be a description of contemporary chaotic conditions, mentions that “the river [Nile] is blood” and “people thirst for water.”30 In another Egyptian text, supposedly centering on the exploits of a magician who is one of the sons of Ramses II, the young man tells his mother that should he be defeated in a contest, the water she drinks would take on the color of blood.

15. as be is coming out to the water The significance of Pharaoh’s act is unexplained. Perhaps it involves some ceremony associated with his morning rituals, or it may be for worship of the god of the Nile during the inundation period. It may also have been to measure the height of the river.33

17. Thus says the LORD See Comment to 4:22.

18. The Nile and its pools teemed with fish, an important ingredient of the popular daily diet, though taboo in certain pious Egyptian circles. The rotting of the fish was therefore a heavy blow.

impossible The Hebrew stem l-ʾ-h means “not to be able.”

19. in [vessels of] wood and stone “Vessels” is not in the Hebrew text, but is so understood by early exegesis. However, the Hebrew phrase may be figurative, the opposites constituting a merism for nature in its entirety, that is, “everything.”37

22. The magicians’ success offsets the ominous effect of the plague.

25. The NJPS translation connects this verse with the next, implying that the second plague followed the first by a week.38 The Hebrew could also signify that the first plague lasted seven days, a rendering favored by the Masoretic division of the Hebrew.
THE SECOND PLAGUE: FROGS (tsefardeaʿ) (7:26–8:11)

During their reproductive period, frogs concentrate in particular areas such as ponds and lakes; as the Nile begins to recede in September/October, they usually mass on land. In the present circumstances their habitat had become polluted by the putrefying fish, so the amphibians would have been forced to invade the land much earlier than usual. But the dead fish would have been a source of infection carried by insects, so that the frogs died en masse.
It is possible that this plague, like the first one, was regarded as a judgment on Egyptian polytheism, for a frog-headed goddess named Heqt was the consort of the god Khnum, who was credited with having fashioned man out of clay. She was associated with fertility and was thought to assist women at childbirth. Hence, the plague may have been taken as retribution for the decree ordering the midwives to kill the newborn males at birth.

26. Go to Pharaoh That is, to the palace.

28–29. The victims are recorded in descending order of social status.

4. The process of humbling Pharaoh now begins. His magicians can add to the number of frogs but cannot remove them.

plead with the LORD Pharaoh acknowledges the existence of YHVH for the first time. He makes a sweeping concession, only to rescind it soon after.

5. triumph over me The Hebrew phrase hitpaʾer ʿal usually means “to vaunt” but here seems to connote “I defer to you” to select the time for removing the frogs.
THE THIRD PLAGUE: VERMIN (kinnim) (vv. 12–15)

In accordance with the pattern, the third in the series comes without warning. The land is suddenly hit by a devastating infestation of insects, identified by some as mosquitoes. These carriers of deadly diseases, normally troublesome enough in Egypt during October/November, would have multiplied astronomically all over the land in the wake of the preceding plagues.

14–15. The magicians retire from the scene, their powers entirely exhausted.

15. the finger of God A supernatural phenomenon beyond human control.
THE FOURTH PLAGUE (ʿarov) (vv. 16–28)

The second triad of plagues now begins. Pharaoh is warned as he goes down to the river. The plague cannot be identified with certainty because Hebrew ʿarov occurs only in the present context. Indeed, diverse interpretive traditions already existed in ancient times. The word itself was taken to mean “mixture,” and the most widely accepted understanding was “various kinds of wild animals.” An alternative tradition understands “swarms of insects,”6 which the Septuagint and Philo specify as the dog fly. This would be the stable fly, or Stomoxys calcitrans, a vicious, bloodsucking insect that can multiply prodigiously in tropical and subtropical regions, given the proper environmental conditions. It is known to transmit anthrax and other animal diseases. If ʿarov indeed refers to this species, it would explain why Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was exempt, for its climate is Mediterranean. At any rate, for the first time a clear distinction is made between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and the time of the onset of the plague is fixed, both particulars leaving no doubt that the source of the plague is not just any god (v. 15) but YHVH, God of Israel.

18. the region Hebrew ʾerets is used here in the sense of a defined territory or district.

Goshen In Genesis 45:10 this is the name given to the area of Israelite settlement in Egypt. The name has not been identified as Egyptian and is most likely Semitic. It is probably connected with Hebrew gush, “a clod” (Job 7:5), referring to a type of soil. This element appears as a place-name in Gush-Ḥalav (Giscala) in Upper Galilee. Another “region of Goshen” is a strip of land south of Hebron in the Land of Israel; it is mentioned in Joshua 10:41 and 11:16. A hill city of the same name, situated in the southern extremity of Judah, southwest of Hebron, is listed in Joshua 15:51. The presence of such a name in Egypt accords with other Semitic place-names such as Succoth (Exod. 12:37), Migdol, and Baal-zephon (Exod. 14:1) in the same region, thus attesting to its early occupation by Semites.
Although no source defines the precise geographic location of Goshen, the cumulative effect of various items of evidence is to place it in the area of Wadi Tumeilat, which stretches from the eastern arm of the Nile to the Great Bitter Lake. Egyptian texts confirm the presence of Semites and other Asians in the northeastern part of the country, both at the end of the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2250 B.C.E.) and about 1700 B.C.E., in the wake of the Hyksos invasion. Exodus 12:38 refers to a “mixed multitude,” that is, foreign tribes, dwelling in the area of Israelite settlement.

19. a distinction While the context requires such a meaning for Hebrew pedut, it is unclear how it is obtained, for the other biblical usages of the noun mean “rescue, redemption,” and the stem p-d-h invariably conveys “to ransom, redeem.”

21. For the second time Pharaoh makes a concession, this time more limited.

within the land Not in the wilderness.

22–23. The Israelites do not yet know what animal sacrifice the Lord may demand of them. It may turn out to be one that Egyptians would regard as a sacrilegious provocation, given that their religion represents deities in animal form. Hence, the Israelites can only worship their God outside Egypt.

22. untouchable Moses employs a deliberate ambiguity: Hebrew toʿevah can mean “that which is taboo” to the Egyptians and also “that which is an [Egyptian] abomination” in the sight of Israel,12 namely, their animal divinities.

will they not stone us! Would not such a sacrifice on our part evoke a violent reaction?

23. three days See Comment to 3:18.

24. Pharaoh seems to accept Moses’ reasoning.

I will let you go The Hebrew adds the personal pronoun before the verb to emphasize the subject. In this way Pharaoh asserts his superior authority while at the same time making a concession.


Allusion to the importance of sacred animals in Egyptian religion is now followed by a visitation that exposes the inherent absurdity of such a notion. The God of Israel strikes the animals with pestilence. Most likely, the soil, contaminated by mounds of rotting frogs, became the breeding ground of disease, probably the highly infectious anthrax, which strikes the cattle in the fields. Once again, the livestock of the Israelites are unaffected, the time of the plague’s onset is forecast, and Pharaoh is warned in his palace.

3. the hand of the LORD As opposed to the “finger of God” in 8:15. The “hand” is the symbol of power, here exercised both punitively and coercively. In Akkadian, diseases are described as “the hand of Ishtar,” “the hand of Nergal,” or of other gods.

will strike Hebrew hoyah is undoubtedly a play on YHVH.

camels The presence of this animal here and in the patriarchal narratives is a problem because the camel does not figure in Egyptian texts and art until the Persian period. It is conspicuously absent from the published Mari texts from Mesopotamia, which are replete with information about pastoral nomadic groups and their way of life. Thousands of commercial and administrative texts from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1950–1530 B.C.E.) maintain complete silence on the existence of this animal. All available evidence points to the conclusion that the effective domestication of the camel as a widely used beast of burden did not take place before the twelfth century B.C.E., which is long after the patriarchal and Exodus periods.
The key word in this formulation is “effective,” for evidence of another kind does exist. Certain bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian lexical texts from Mesopotamia equate a domesticated animal called “donkey-of-the-sea-land” with a dromedary, thus proving a knowledge of the animal in southern Mesopotamia in Old Babylonian times (ca. 2000–1700 B.C.E.). Moreover, the scribes knew to differentiate between the dromedary and the Bactrian camel, and a Sumerian text from that period mentions the drinking of camel’s milk. A braided cord made from camel hair (ca. 2000 B.C.E.) has been found in Egypt; a tiny bronze figurine of a camel from before 2100 B.C.E. turned up at Byblos; a frieze of a procession of typically Egyptian animals, including a camel, decorates a pot (1500–1400 B.C.E.) uncovered in Greece; a steatite seal from Minoan Crete (1800–1400 B.C.E.) features that animal; and a ration list from the North Syrian town of Alalakh from the 18th century B.C.E. in Old Babylonian includes fodder for the camel.
In light of all this, mention of the camel in Exodus and Genesis can be taken at face value. First domesticated in southern Arabia in the third millennium B.C.E., its presence spread very slowly and long remained a rarity. A wealthy man might acquire a few as a prestige symbol. Only much later did it become a beast of burden.

7. Pharaoh’s need to learn whether the prediction made in verse 4 was fulfilled betrays a weakened self-confidence. Yet the incontrovertible testimony of God’s transcendent power only serves to reinforce his perversity.
THE SIXTH PLAGUE: BOILS (sheḥin) (vv. 8–12)

As the third in the triad, this affliction arrives without prior warning. The plagues now become more intense. For the first time one of the plagues directly imperils human life. If the interpretation given to the preceding scourges is correct, then the disease referred to here would be anthrax, known to be transmitted by Stomoxys calcitrans to both human beings and animals; the latter are infected through grazing on contaminated pastures. There is much irony in the fact that Pharaoh’s magicians were themselves afflicted by the disease to such an extent as to be totally immobilized. Incidentally, the disease called sheḥin must have been quite prevalent in Egypt and notorious for its exceptional virulence, for Deuteronomy 28:27 (cf. v. 35) singles out the Egyptian variety in a list of maledictions.

8. soot The significance of this substance and of the accompanying action is unclear.

in the sight of Pharaoh So that he knows that this particular outbreak is not the familiar, common type but one that has been sent by God for a particular time and purpose.

9. inflammation Hebrew sheḥin derives from a stem meaning “to be hot.”

breaking out Probably referring to the skin ulcerations and malignant pustules that characterize anthrax.

12. See Comment to 4:21.
THE SEVENTH PLAGUE: HAIL (barad) (vv. 13–35)

The third and final triad of plagues now begins. The escalation in terror and ruin sets the stage for the climactic catastrophe. This accounts for the extraordinary length of the warning given to Pharaoh at dawn. For the first time the Egyptians and their livestock are given the opportunity to take shelter, and some avail themselves of it. Also for the first time Pharaoh openly admits to being at fault.
The information given in verses 31–32 clearly dates the plague to early February.

14. all My plagues This phrase either introduces the last four plagues or alludes to their all-embracing consequences.

15–16. Pharaoh is instructed that he has thus far been spared, not because of any inherent merit or special power but solely by dint of God’s forbearance, which serves a weightier, didactic purpose still to be accomplished.

17. thwart The meaning of this unique Hebrew phrase is uncertain.

19. God shows concern for the needless loss of human and animal life. A rabbinic comment on this verse states: “Come and observe [the extent] of God’s compassion. Even in a moment of anger He has compassion on the wicked and on their animals.”

23–25. The description is clearly of a long-lasting, savage hailstorm marked by repeated thunderclaps and continual flashes of lightning.

26. Thunderstorms originating in Upper Egypt and moving northward may well be trapped within the narrow Nile valley, leaving unaffected the northeastern part of the Delta, where Goshen was located.

27. Pharaoh’s “this time” echoes the identical phrase used by God in His forewarning in verse 14.

28. Pharaoh’s concession now appears to be unqualified.

29. spread out my hands An attitude of prayer.

that the earth is the LORD’s He, not the Egyptian gods, is sovereign over nature.

30. Moses knows that Pharaoh’s confession of guilt is just empty words.

31–32. This note serves a double purpose. It creates suspense about Moses’ response to Pharaoh’s plea in light of verse 30, and it explains why, despite the devastation of crops caused by the hail, there still remained a residue for the locusts in the next plague (10:5). Ramban sees a didactic purpose in these verses, which he takes to be part of Moses’ speech to Pharaoh—the king is told that if he sincerely repents, the wheat and emmer can still be saved.
In Egypt flax was normally sown at the beginning of January and was in bloom three weeks later; barley was sown in August and harvested in February. Flax was grown primarily for its linen fiber, which was made into yarn, woven into cloth, and then bleached. The linen-making industry was of considerable importance in the economy of Egypt because linen was the preferred fabric for clothing. Barley was cultivated extensively in Egypt; it was used for bread and brewed into beer. The destruction of these crops would be a severe blow.

31. in bud Hebrew givʿol refers to the stage of development of the calyx.

flax barley, barley flax Note the chiastic design.

32. emmer A species of wheat that along with barley and winter wheat made up the three chief cereals of Egypt. The identification of Hebrew kussemet as spelt, found in many translations, is erroneous for the reason that this cereal did not grow in the land of Egypt. Kussemet is mentioned several times in rabbinic texts as one of the principal products of the Land of Israel.

ripen late Wheat and emmer are planted in August and harvested in late spring or early summer. Hence, they were less vulnerable than the flax and barley.

34. Once again Pharaoh yields to his obstinate and perfidious impulses.

35. through Moses This implies that Moses had conveyed to the people God’s fore-knowledge of Pharaoh.


THE EIGHTH PLAGUE: LOCUSTS (ʾarbeh) (vv. 1–20)

The locust swarm has always been one of the worst scourges to afflict humanity. An area of one square kilometer can contain fifty million such insects, which in a single night can devour as much as one hundred thousand tons of vegetation. Their mass multiplication is fostered by heavy rains and unusually moist conditions.
The introduction to the onset of the plague is again unusually lengthy. It also contains several new features. The king’s courtiers boldly challenge him; Pharaoh makes concessions in advance of the actual plague; the coercive function of the plague for the Egyptians is supplemented by an educative purpose for Israel.

1. I have hardened his heart See Comment to 4:21.

in order that … To the Egyptians, the multiplication of these “signs” enhances the evidence pointing to God’s force and power.

2. that you may recount The singular form of the verb shows that Moses is addressed as the personification of the people of Israel, for whom the message is really intended. Hence, the last verb is in the plural form.
As the cycle of plagues inexorably draws to its inevitable conclusion, its larger historical and transcendent significance is brought into view. The events are to be indelibly marked upon the collective memory of the people of Israel and thus become a permanent part of the lore that is transmitted from generation to generation. The constant instruction of the young concerning God’s mighty deeds is the medium of such transmission. Psalms 78 and 105 provide biblical examples of this practice. The idea is that through the evocative power of narration, rather than by abstract theological discourse, the true knowledge of God is understood, is established in the mind of Israel, and is sustained. See also the Comment to 13:8.

I made a mockery By humbling the mighty Egyptian state, by humiliating Pharaoh, its “divine king,” and by exposing the impotence of its gods.

6. your … fathers’ fathers A neat counterpoint to “your sons’ sons” in verse 2. For Israel, the future is invoked in a context of enduring inspiration and celebration. For Egypt, the past is recalled in order to paint a picture of impending catastrophe.

7. The threat of the plague of hail had fractured the ranks of Pharaoh’s courtiers (9:20). The predicted invasion of locusts now leads to an open break with the king’s policies.

this one A disrespectful allusion to Moses.

a snare We court disaster.

9. the LORD’s festival See Comment to 5:1.

10. The LORD be Hebrew yehi … YHVH—another play on the divine name and the verb “to be,” as in 3:14 and 9:3.

you are bent on mischief The literal meaning of the Hebrew—“evil is before your faces”—is ambiguous and has given rise to various interpretations: “You have evil intentions,” that is, you do not intend returning after three days; “you are foredoomed to disaster,”4 an understanding that would seem to be supported by 32:12. Another explanation construes Hebrew raʿah, here “mischief,” as the name of a star; Pharaoh makes an astrological prediction that its configuration is an omen of disaster for the departing Israelites. Finally, raʿah has also been taken to be a Hebraized form of the name of the Egyptian god Re.

11. The women and children are to be held hostage to ensure the return of the menfolk.

13. an east wind Hebrew kadim is generally the hot, dry, withering wind known as the khamsin, or sirocco, such as in Genesis 41:6. Here, as in 14:21, it may signify the south wind that blows in from the Sahara, since Egypt was oriented southward to the source and headwaters of the Nile. The kadim is often used in the Bible as the instrument of God without any directional implication.

all that day The locust migrates vast distances.

14–15. A bold overstatement to convey something of the magnitude of the plague.

18. Moses and Aaron, having been recalled by Pharaoh, make no response to his plea. Their cold silence must have been especially humiliating to Pharaoh, since he had summarily dismissed them only a short while before (v. 11).

19. west wind Literally, “sea wind.”
THE NINTH PLAGUE: DARKNESS (ḥoshekh) (vv. 21–29)

Once again, the third in the series arrives without prior warning. For three days the land is engulfed in darkness, a spell corresponding to the three-day journey for worship that Pharaoh had repeatedly refused to grant the Israelites. This affliction can be explained in terms of the khamsin referred to above. This scorching sirocco wind blows in each spring from Saharan Africa or from Arabia, enveloping the land in thick sand and dust. It may often persist for several days and blacken the sky in its wake.
In the present case, the first khamsin to arrive in March would have been far more intense than usual. It would additionally have borne aloft the red soil deposited by the earlier torrential rains and now sunbaked and particulate following the destructive action of the locusts, which had already denuded the land of vegetation. Since the khamsin may travel northward in bands, rather than be diffused, the Israelite area of Goshen, situated at right angles to the Nile valley, could escape its effects.
The blotting out of the light of the sun for three days would have carried a powerful symbolic message for the Egyptians, for the sun was their supreme god, and its worship was pervasive in the official palace ritual. The sun’s diurnal rising was conceived to be a triumph over the demon Apophis, the embodiment of darkness, who struggled daily to vanquish him. The plague of darkness, therefore, would have had a devastating psychological impact. The impotence of the Egyptians’ supreme god is exposed, thus foreboding imminent doom.

21. that can be touched This probably refers to the vast quantities of sand, dust, and particles of soil that filled the air.

25. You yourself He who contemptuously denied all knowledge of YHVH will, in the end, provide sacrifices for Him in acknowledgment of His reality and power; compare 12:32.


Pharaoh has closed the door on any further negotiations with Moses. Despite their concentrative force, their timing and intensity, the natural disasters have left the king even more uncompromising than before. Now one final, overwhelming blow is about to descend on the Egyptians, one that is wholly outside the range of nature or of previous human experience. This Moses announces to Pharaoh before he leaves the palace.
This chapter consists of three declarations. It connects with the past by registering the completion of the role of Moses and Aaron as the effective instruments of God’s chastening and coercive measures against the Egyptians. At the same time, it foretells the impending, unmediated, and decisive intervention of God. By focusing on the initial preparations for the Exodus, it forges a transition to the Passover account in the next chapter.

1–3. These verses are a parenthetic aside. It must be assumed that Moses received this communication in the palace just as he was about to leave, for verse 8 shows that he conveyed its content to Pharaoh.

1. he will drive you out The Exodus will no longer be a concession on Pharaoh’s part. He will earnestly desire your rapid departure.

one and all Without restriction, exactly as Moses had demanded.

2–3. See Comment to 3:22.

2. Tell the people Throughout the plagues episode, no communication of Moses with the Israelites has been reported. Now that his mission to Pharaoh is concluded, he once again turns his attention to internal affairs.

silver and gold The Septuagint and Samaritan texts add “and clothing,” as in 3:22 and 12:35.

3. disposed … favorably The Egyptians willingly parted with their possessions.

Moses himself An additional reason for the Egyptian people’s response.

4–8. This section is a continuation of 10:29.

4. Toward midnight When everyone would be at home. For psychological effect, the specific night is not disclosed.

5. For the first time, Pharaoh personally will be afflicted.

from … Pharaoh … to … the slave girl A merism, in which totality is expressed by the extreme opposites of social status. None will be exempt.

the millstones Hebrew reḥayim is a dual form. The utensil with which the grain was ground into flour was the quern and muller type. The grain was placed between two pieces of stone. The smaller, upper one (Heb. rekhev, literally “rider” in Deut. 24:6) was moved by hand forward and backward over the larger, stationary stone. This tedious, menial labor was performed by slave girls and captives. Sensitive to the problem as to why these unfortunates were to be victims of the tenth plague, the Mekhilta explains that they had gloated over the sufferings of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians.5

the first-born of the cattle These were included because they were objects of Egyptian veneration. The Egyptians might have ascribed their misfortune to the work of their own animal-shaped gods instead of to YHVH.7

6. a loud cry Hebrew tseʿakah is the very term used to give expression to Israel’s misery under Egyptian enslavement. The anguished cry of the oppressed yields to the cry of their oppressors and tormentors.

7. By contrast, the departing, liberated Israelites will not encounter the slightest show of resistance.

8. in hot anger At Pharaoh’s death threat (10:28).

9–10. This summary is needed because Moses’ negotiations with Pharaoh are over. He never speaks to him again. The verses conclude the saga that began in chapter 7, just as the summarizing verses of chapter 6 bring to completion the first section of the book.

The Last Act (vv. 1–51)

This chapter is a very complex composition. It divides into a number of clearly differentiated literary units, each centering on various aspects of the Exodus events. Some of these units deal with immediate concerns, such as the last-minute preparations for the departure from Egypt; others relate to the enduring impact of the events in shaping the future course of Israel’s life as a people. Appropriately, the entire complex is framed by the phrase “the whole community of Israel” (vv. 3, 47). Another salient feature of this composition is the sevenfold repetition of the Hebrew stem sh-m-r, “to observe, guard, preserve.” There is considerable overlap among the various units but no exact duplication. The repetition amplifies the preceding data in various ways, either by the addition of explanatory material or by supplementary details or instructions. Without doubt, the chapter is a composite of several strands of tradition.

1. in the land of Egypt The location is given because this chapter is an exception to the rule that all the laws were promulgated in the wilderness. The institution of the annual Passover celebration antedates the events it is to commemorate.

The impending Exodus is visualized as the start of a wholly new order of life that is to be dominated by the consciousness of God’s active presence in history. The entire religious calendar of Israel is henceforth to reflect this reality by numbering the months of the year from the month of the Exodus.

This month Elsewhere termed “the month of Abib,” literally “when the ears of barley ripen,” the spring (March/April), now known as Nisan. In other words, the calendar is lunisolar, the lunar reckoning being accommodated to the needs of agricultural life.

first of the months The Hebrew months, like the days of the week, are given in ordinal numbers. The absence of names for either is probably due to a desire to avoid any confusion with the polytheistic calendars that associate days and months with astral bodies or pagan deities and rituals. There is evidence that at least some months once had names, for the biblical sources refer to the months of Ziv, Ethanim, and Bul. The Hebrew month names now used by Jews were borrowed from the Babylonian calendar during the first exile.3

The laws relating to the sacrificial meal that is to occur immediately before the Exodus are now set forth in elaborate detail.

3. community of Israel Hebrew ʿedah is the premonarchic technical term for the people of Israel acting as a corporate political entity, a sort of people’s assembly.

the tenth of this month The completion of the first decade of the lunar month apparently held some special significance. Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the religious calendar, falls on the tenth of the seventh month, and in ancient times this same date ushered in the Jubilee year. Joshua chose the tenth of the first month to cross the Jordan.

a lamb As verse 5 and Deuteronomy 14:4 indicate, Hebrew seh covers both a lamb and a kid of the goats. In light of the assertion in 8:22, this act broke the code of fear enforced by the Egyptian bondage and thereby removed the psychological barrier to liberation. According to a tradition in Shabbat 87b, that day was a Sabbath, which is one of the reasons adduced for entitling the Sabbath before Passover “the Great Sabbath” (Heb. shabbat ha-gadol).

a family Hebrew bet ʾavot, literally “a house of fathers,” is a subunit of a tribe. It comprises a man, his wife or wives, unmarried daughters, and sons with their wives and unmarried children.

a household The original festival was a domestic celebration. Later it became a pilgrimage festival held at the central sanctuary.

4. too small According to Josephus, a minimum quorum of ten participants was required for this ritual in Second Temple times. The actual slaughtering of the animal was performed in groups of no fewer than thirty.11

in proportion to the number

will eat The consumption of the animal is an indispensable element of the ritual. By means of this sacrificial meal, kinship ties are strengthened, and family and neighborly solidarity is promoted, while communion with God is established.

5. without blemish A defective gift is an insult to the recipient; hence, the harmony between the devotee and his God would be impaired by such a donation. The physical perfection of the sacrificial animal is therefore repeatedly demanded in the sacrificial regulations. An extension of this principle is the rabbinic precept of hiddur mitsvah, the obligation to perform an act designated a mitsvah in the most elegant and choice manner.

a yearling Rather, “one within the first year” of life. An animal is acceptable as an offering once it is eight days old.

6. keep watch The animal, selected on the tenth of the month, is to be carefully protected from blemish for four days until it is slaughtered. No reason for the interval is given. It may be an act of defiance of the Egyptians—in light of 8:22—and a time of testing for Israel.

at twilight Hebrew bein ha-ʿarbayim literally means “between the two settings.” Rabbinic sources take this to mean “from noon on.”17 According to Radak, the first “setting” occurs when the sun passes its zenith just after noon and the shadows begin to lengthen, and the second “setting” is the actual sunset. Josephus testifies that the paschal lamb was slaughtered in the Temple between 3 and 5 P.M.19

7. It is clear from verse 22 that the blood of the slaughtered lamb was first collected in a basin. According to verses 13 and 23, the daubing at the entrances served to identify the houses of the Israelites, for the blood is designated “a sign.” Blood was a readily available coloring substance; it also possessed symbolic significance because it was looked upon as the life essence. There is no warrant for the theory that it played a magic, apotropaic role, that is, as a means of averting or overcoming evil or danger. The deliverance of Israel is ascribed solely to divine decision.
The lintel and doorposts form the demarcation between the sacred Israelite interior and the profane world outside.

8–9. The roasting is an indispensable requirement either because it is the quickest means of preparation when time is short or because it is the most effective way of extracting the blood, the consumption of which is strictly forbidden.22

unleavened bread Hebrew matsot (sing. matsah) is introduced without definition and without explanation. The implication, justified by biblical texts, is that matsah is already well known and, hence, a product independent of the Exodus events. The contexts suggest a kind of flat cake that can be speedily prepared for unexpected guests. The present verse witnesses the integration of the originally distinct matsot festival with the Passover celebration, on which see Comment to verses 14–20.

bitter herbs Hebrew merorim (sing. maror) is a generic term and probably referred originally to the kind of pungent condiment with which pastoral nomads habitually season their meals of roasted flesh. Mishnah Pesaḥim 2:6 specifies five kinds of herbs subsumed under the term maror. Traditionally, the preferred plant has been lettuce, in Hebrew ḥassah, a vegetable known to have been cultivated in ancient Egypt. This choice allows for word play with Hebrew ḥ-w-s, “to have compassion,” one of the meanings of the root of pesaḥ (Passover). According to Rabban Gamaliel, the maror is a tangible symbol of the bitterness of the servitude endured by the Israelites, as related in Exodus 1:14 (Heb. va-yemareru).

10. A sacrificial animal is devoted in its entirety to a sacred purpose. This is so even when the offering is of the kind that is eaten by the worshipers and not wholly burnt on the altar. The intentional act of eating at the designated time is an indispensable part of the ritual. Any leftovers (Heb. notar) retain their sacred status but can no longer be consumed and must therefore be burnt. In rabbinic terminology sacrificial flesh that the officiant even intended to eat beyond the allotted time is called piggul, “repugnant, offensive,” that is, to God.

11. loins girded The standard dress consisted of a flowing shirtlike garment that was tightened by a sash wrapped around the waist when greater maneuverability was called for. Since the climactic moment of liberation is imminent, the Israelites must be ready for immediate departure.

hurriedly Hebrew ḥippazon expresses a sense of haste informed by anxiety. The noun is used only in connection with the Exodus. The prophet Isaiah (52:12) implicitly contrasts the future unhurried and unagitated redemption of Israel from exile with the circumstances of the Exodus: “For you will not depart in haste [ḥippazon],/Nor will you leave in flight.”

a passover offering Hebrew pesaḥ has given birth to the English adjective “paschal,” used to designate both the Passover lamb and Easter. Like matsah, pesaḥ is assumed to be an immediately intelligible term, so it too must have a history antedating the Exodus. Three traditions about the meaning of the stem p-s-ḥ have survived. The oldest, and apparently the most reliable, is “to have compassion”;30 another is “to protect”; a third is “to skip over.”32 Although this last is the interpretation that has gained the widest currency, it is the least likely because the term was originally independent of the Exodus events. Strictly speaking, as noted below in the Comment to verses 14–20, only the fourteenth day of the month can be called pesaḥ, but in the course of time this term was extended to cover the entire week of the festival.

to the LORD The frequency with which this modifier occurs with the paschal sacrifice reinforces the conclusion that a pre-Israelite technical term has been adapted, transformed, and monotheized—and thus wholly disengaged from any previous association.

12. I will go through An anthropomorphism, or ascription to God of human activity, in order to make His active Presence in history more vividly and dramatically perceived.

to all the gods of Egypt God’s power to take Israel out of Egypt manifests His own exclusivity, mocks the professed divinity of the pharaoh, and exposes the deities of Egypt as nongods.

13. This first section of the chapter is rounded out with an assurance that no harm will befall the Israelites. This is needed because fulfillment of the foregoing instructions is fraught with peril, and the ensuing period of inaction engenders anxiety.

when I see the blood See Comment to verse 7. Baḥya ben Asher explains this as follows: “The blood does not thwart the plague nor does its absence occasion it. Scripture teaches that the one who had perfect faith and confidence in God, and was not perturbed by Pharaoh’s terror and evil decree but publicly sacrificed what to Egypt was an abomination, and who daubed the blood of the paschal offering on the doorposts and lintels—such a one was a righteous person, having confidence in God, and was worthy of divine protection from the plague and the destroyer.”

destroy you See Comment to verse 23.

The foregoing rites relate solely to the specific situation at that time—the Passover of Egypt. In this section the events of the Exodus become an experience indelibly stamped for all time on Israel’s memory and imagination, permanently shaping its religious consciousness and practice. Verse 14 establishes an annual commemorative festival; the succeeding verses explain how it is to be observed.
The focus is on the festival of matsot, unleavened bread. Without doubt, throughout the biblical period this remained a distinct celebration separate from the one-day paschal rite. Witness the fact that the next chapter (13:6–8) features the laws of matsot without so much as a mention of the paschal sacrifice. Leviticus 23:5–6 similarly differentiates the one from the other: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the LORD, and on the fifteenth day of that month the LORD’s Feast of Unleavened Bread.” During the Babylonian exile Ezekiel (45:21) likewise ordains: “On the fourteenth day of the first month you shall have the passover sacrifice; and during a festival of seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten.” Finally, we are told in Ezra 6:19–22 that when the exiles returned from Babylon they “celebrated the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month,” and then “joyfully celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days.”
The paschal sacrifice is characteristically rooted in the life of the pastoral nomad who follows a lunar calendar; the matsah is grounded in the life of the soil and the farmer, which is governed by a solar calendar. Since the two festivals occurred in close propinquity to each other, and both coincided with the time of the Exodus, all three elements merged and were fused into a unified entity. The pre-Israelite ingredients were stripped of their former content and were invested with completely new associations and meanings connected with the events of the Exodus.

14. remembrance Hebrew zikkaron involves action. See Comment to 2:24.

throughout the ages Literally, “for your generations,” that is, for future annual celebration. This is referred to in rabbinic parlance as pesaḥ dorot. Mishnah Pesaḥim 9:5 notes that the initial requirements—to select the offering on the tenth day of the month, to daub the blood with hyssop on the lintel and doorposts, and to eat the meal in haste—do not apply. In addition, in the future the celebration, with the prohibition on leaven, is to last seven days instead of the original one day.

15. The essential characteristics of the newly ordained festival are now set forth. These are specified as being one week’s duration, the eating of matsot, and the removal of leaven.
Based on the emphasis “at evening” in the parallel description of verse 18, rabbinic interpretation understands that only on the first night is there a positive duty to eat matsah. For the rest of the week this is optional, although the independent prohibition on leaven remains in effect.

unleavened bread Extraordinarily stringent regulations govern the manufacture of matsot. Their sole ingredients are flour and water. The flour may be made only from grains that are susceptible to fermentation. These are listed in Mishnah Pesaḥim 2:5 as wheat, barley, emmer, rye, and oats, although in practice only wheat is used. The water to be mixed with the flour is first left standing overnight. Matsah shemurah, “carefully guarded matsah” which many Jews use to fulfill the obligation to eat matsah on the first night of Passover, is made from flour milled from wheat that has been scrupulously supervised from the time of the harvesting on. Regular matsah is baked from wheat flour that has been specially milled for the purpose and has been carefully supervised from the time of milling through the baking. The entire manufacturing process from the kneading to completion must take no more than eighteen minutes, during which period the dough is continuously manipulated in order to retard fermentation. As a further precaution, perforation is applied to allow any bubbles of air to escape.

on the very first day Since festivals commence in the evening, this injunction has traditionally been taken to mean that the leaven must have been removed prior to the time for the paschal offering on the fourteenth of the month.41

remove leaven The positive command to eat matsah is supplemented by the strict prohibition on retaining or eating leaven or leavened food throughout the entire festival. This rule is repeated in verses 19–20 and again in 13:7. Leaven, Hebrew seʾor, is the leavening agent known as sourdough; “leavened food,” Hebrew ḥamets, is food to which sourdough has been added to accelerate the rising of the dough. The term traditionally also includes the above-mentioned five species of grain that are subject to fermentation as they decompose.
No reason is given for the prohibition on leaven. Verses 34 and 39 intimate that it is in reenactment of the original circumstances at the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites left Egypt in haste before the dough they had prepared had time to rise. However, since leaven is also forbidden with certain types of sacrifices that are wholly unconnected with the Passover, it must be banned on other grounds, perhaps because of its use in some pagan rite. In postbiblical times fermentation was associated with decomposition and decay and taken figuratively to symbolize moral and spiritual corruption.
No instructions are given as to the manner in which ḥamets is to be “removed.” In Jewish law any food containing even a minute admixture of it must be disposed of at least two hours before noon on the eve of Passover. Thereafter, one may not own it, possess it, eat it, or derive any benefit from it. Immediately after dark on the night preceding the eve of the festival, a search for leaven, known in Hebrew as bedikat ḥamets, takes place—even though the dwelling has previously been thoroughly swept and cleaned. Then a declaration of nullification is made over the residual leaven, which is burnt the following morning and again annulled. Another mode of disposal is by sale to a non-Jew (Heb. mekhirat ḥamets).

shall be cut off There are thirty-six instances of this formula in the Torah, all listed in Mishnah Keritot 1:1. This punishment, known as [hik]karet in rabbinic parlance, is peculiar to ritual texts and is largely confined to offenses of a cultic and sexual nature. The Torah gives no definition of karet, and no analogy exists in Near Eastern sources. In most texts the impersonal, passive form of the verb is used, as here, so that not only the type of punishment but also the executive authority is uncertain. In Leviticus 20:1–6 the active first person is used with God as the subject of the verb: “I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people.” This reasonably presupposes that karet is not a penalty enforced by the courts but a punishment left to divine execution. Such is the understanding of the term in rabbinic literature, where it specifically means premature death and, according to some, also childlessness. Certainly the general idea is that one who deliberately excludes himself from the religious community of Israel cannot be a beneficiary of the covenantal blessings and thereby dooms himself and his line to extinction. See The JPS Torah Commentary to Leviticus, Excursus 1 and Numbers, Excursus 36.

16. The first and last days of the festival possess special sanctity but not quite to the same degree as the Sabbath and Day of Atonement. The preparation of food on those particular days is exempted from the prohibition on performing labor; other leniencies pertain as well.

17. The rationale for the festival is now given.

the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread This understanding of the Hebrew phrase as ellipsis is based on the ensuing expression “on this very day” as well as on the parallel passage in 23:15. However, traditional Jewish interpretation is literal: “guard the matsot,” that is, supervise the process to ensure that no fermentation occurs.

I brought This is an example of the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as having already occurred because God’s will inherently and ineluctably possesses the power of realization so that the time factor is inconsequential.

your ranks See Comment to 6:26.

18. As specified in Leviticus 23:32, the duration of all festivals is from evening to evening.

19–20. a stranger Hebrew ger is a foreigner who has taken up permanent residence in Israel. Like his fellow Israelite, he is required to abstain from possessing leaven for this one week because its presence within the closely knit community interferes with the ability of others to fulfill their religious obligation. But only the Israelite has the duty to eat matsah. See further verses 48–49.

Moses relays to the people the divinely given instructions and supplements them with some clarifications.

21. Go, pick out Lekaḥ Tov and Abravanel construe the two verbs as alternatives: “Select a lamb from your flock if you possess one; otherwise, purchase one.”

22. a bunch of hyssop This explains how the directive of verse 7 is to be carried out. Three of the hyssop’s thin, woody branches make an ideal applicator. It is often so used in purificatory rites.

the basin This is how Rabbi Akiba understood Hebrew saf. It has much philological support. The Septuagint, however, translates “threshold,” which is also the rendering of Rabbi Ishmael. It too can be sustained,52 but it implies that the paschal offering was actually slaughtered at the entrance to the house and that the entire doorframe was daubed with its blood. The absence of any mention of the threshold in verses 7 and 23 favors Rabbi Akiba’s interpretation.

None … shall go outside On this night of danger and vigilance, the security of the Israelites lay in maintaining family solidarity within the portals of their hallowed homes.

23. the Destroyer The plague, although personified, is not an independent demonic being. It can only operate within the limits fixed by God.

24. observe this As Ramban notes, the reference is to the slaughtering of the Passover offering, not to the daubing of the blood.

25. when you enter the land Apart from the celebration on the first anniversary of the Exodus, as described in Numbers 9:1–5, no further mention of the actual observance of Passover appears in the account of the wilderness wanderings until after the crossing of the river Jordan, as recorded in Joshua 5:1–12.

as He has promised To the patriarchs. See Comment to 6:8.

26–27. The ritual has a pedagogic function. Its peculiarities arouse the curiosity of children and so afford the opportunity to impart knowledge of the national traditions to the young.

27. our houses The passage of time never diminishes the contemporaneity of the events. The national culture is nurtured by the memory of them and by their continual reenactment, a theme stressed in the Passover Haggadah.

28. The reference is to the selection, guarding, and slaughtering of the lamb and to the application of its blood.
THE TENTH PLAGUE (vv. 29–36)

All preparations having been completed, the stage is set for the anticipated climactic plague that will finally secure the release of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The Torah recognizes societal responsibility; thus, the entire Egyptian people is subject to judgment for having tolerated the inflexibly perverse will of the pharaoh.

29. See Comment to 11:5.

30–32. The king himself has to rise during the night, thereby compounding his humiliation at having to surrender unconditionally to Moses’ demands. By summoning Moses and Aaron, he must retract the arrogant threat made at their last meeting (10:28). For him to seek their blessing is thus the ultimate humbling of the despot.

31. the Israelites Pharaoh uses this term for the first time, thereby granting recognition at last to Israel as a national entity. The story of the oppression, which opened with this term (1:1), now closes with it.

34. before it was leavened In verse 39 this note is amplified in such a way as to provide a clear, if implicit, explanation for the eating of matsot on Passover. A similar reason is given in Deuteronomy 16:3: “You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of distress—for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly.” That statement is intelligible only in light of the two verses in the present chapter. Since the eating of the matsot was ordained and presumably carried out before the tenth plague struck (v. 8), the present rationale is a reinterpretation, transformation, and historicization of a preexisting practice.
THE EXODUS (vv. 37–42)

37. Rameses This city served as the assembly point for the departing Israelites. For its location, see Comment to 1:11.

Succoth This is apparently Egyptian Tjeku, mentioned on several monuments and in a hieroglyphic papyrus. It is said to have been a day’s journey from the royal palace at Rameses. Tjeku was the capital of the eighth nome of Lower Egypt in the eastern part of the Delta. The region is known to have served as pastureland for Semitic tribes and was the usual Egyptian gateway to and from Asia.

six hundred thousand This figure would yield a total Israelite population of over two million souls, a number that poses intractable problems. True, it reflects the phenomenal growth referred to in chapter 1, for over a sufficiently long period the original seventy adult male immigrants could have increased to that number. Further, the demographic data given for the forty years of the wilderness wanderings are more or less internally consistent and accord with this figure.57 Nevertheless, serious questions may be raised in relation to an estimated total Egyptian population of four to five million in the fourteenth century B.C.E., and in view of the inability of either the eastern part of the Nile Delta or the peninsula of Sinai to sustain such a vast population with water and food. There is, further, the logistics involved in moving two million people together with their cattle and herds across the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian chariots in hot pursuit.
In response to these problems, it has been suggested that Hebrew ʾelef, usually rendered “thousand,” here means a “clan” or that it signifies a small military unit—the number of fighting men levied from each tribe.59 Another theory construes the total number as envisaging the Israelite population at the close of the “Exodus era,” which culminated with the completion of the Temple by King Solomon: 600,000 adult males would be a realistic statistic for this period.

38. a mixed multitude Varied groups of forced laborers seem to have taken advantage of the confused situation and fled the country with the Israelites. Ibn Ezra identified them with the people referred to as “riffraff” in Numbers 11:4.

40–41. This historical summation does not exactly accord with the four hundred years of Egyptian oppression predicted in Genesis 15:13. The Mekhilta resolves the discrepancy by attributing the thirty-year difference to the interval between God’s covenant with Abraham and the birth of Isaac, although the text speaks clearly enough only of the Egyptian episode. The inclusion of the sojourn in Canaan in the computation is explicit in the texts of the Samaritan recension and Septuagint translation. The variant in this latter is noted in rabbinic sources.63 Ibn Ezra begins the reckoning with the departure of Abraham from Haran for Canaan. And, in fact, exactly two hundred and fifteen years elapsed between that event and Jacob’s migration to Egypt, yielding the same time span for the stay of the Israelites in Egypt. This kind of symmetry follows a pattern well established in the patriarchal narratives and elsewhere in the Book of Genesis.65 Thus, Abraham lived seventy-five years in the home of his father and seventy-five years in the lifetime of his son Isaac. He was one hundred years of age at the birth of Isaac, and he lived one hundred years in Canaan. Jacob lived seventeen years with Joseph in Canaan and a like period with him in Egypt. Ten generations separated Noah from Adam, and another ten generations, Abraham from Noah. In the light of these facts it may be that the neatly balanced periods of time are intended to be rhetorical rather than literal; that is, they underline the biblical ideal of history as the fulfillment of God’s deliberate design. In the world view of the Bible, history cannot be merely a series of disconnected and haphazard incidents.

42. The final night in Egypt is described as one of vigil for both God and Israel. It was one that God, so to speak, watched over, having long designated it to be the night of redemption. In turn, it was a night that Israel was enjoined to safeguard for all time. According to a talmudic interpretation, it was “a night ever under protection from malevolent beings.”67 Later Jewish history gave this particular exposition of the text an ironically tragic twist, for throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, and in many lands even into the twentieth century, the night of Passover became a night of anguished vigil for Jews on account of the “blood accusation,” the monstrous fabrication that Jews use Christian blood for the Passover rites. As a consequence of this calumny, the frenzied masses, incited by the clergy, would perpetrate bloody pogroms against Jews, and the night of vigil became a night of vigilance against malevolent human beings.

This final section bears its own caption: “The Law of the Passover.” It largely defines who is ineligible to celebrate the festival, with primary emphasis on the practice of circumcision. Being the physical token of God’s covenant and a symbol of consecration and commitment to a life lived in the consciousness of that covenant, it is the indispensable prerequisite for those who participate in the paschal offering.69
Thus the emphasis on the importance of that rite frames the story of Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery. This emphasis was forcefully expressed in 4:24–26, when Moses set out to return to Egypt to commence his mission of liberation, and it is now stressed once again at the moment of the successful fulfillment of that mission.

43. foreigner Hebrew ben nekhar is a non-Israelite who resides in the land temporarily, usually for purposes of commerce. He does not profess the religion of Israel and does not identify with the community’s historical experiences. He is therefore exempted from the religious obligations and restrictions imposed on Israelites.71 It is to be noted that an invocation for foreigners is included in King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple. Rabbinic interpretation, based on the literal meaning of nekhar, “alienation,” extended the exclusionary rule to a Jew who has apostatized and thereby alienated himself from the community of Israel.

44. The privately owned slave, once circumcised in accordance with the law of Genesis 17:12–13, is treated as a member of the family and may participate in the Passover.

45. bound or hired laborer Two categories of non-Israelite wage earners who do not have the status of members of a household.

46. in one house This logically connects with the preceding verses, which stress that only those included within a household may participate. None may leave the house because every Israelite must be accounted for and accessible when the signal is given to depart.

not break a bone Presumably, to suck out the marrow. Baal Ha-Turim suggests that such behavior would imply that they were still hungry, even though the Passover meal should have been completely satisfying.

48–49. These instructions relate unmistakably to the situation envisaged in verse 25. The stranger in Israel enjoyed numerous rights and privileges, such as the benefits of the Sabbath rest, the protection afforded by the cities of refuge, and access to a share of certain tithes and to the produce of the Sabbatical year. He could offer sacrifices if he so pleased77 and could even participate in religious festivals. He was also obligated to refrain from certain actions that undermined the social, moral, and spiritual well-being of the dominant society, such as immorality, idolatry, blasphemy, and the consumption of blood. He was not required to celebrate the Passover; but if he desired to do so, and thus identify himself and his family with the national experience of Israel, he had first to submit to circumcision.79 Having done so, no discrimination between him and the citizen was allowed. Just like an uncircumcised non-Israelite, so an uncircumcised Israelite also was excluded.81

50. This refers to the eating of the paschal offering.

51. A resumptive repetition of verse 41. It picks up the narrative of verses 37–41 following the digression concerning ritual regulations. The Masoretic scribal division seems to reflect a tradition that connects the verse to the following chapter, indicating that the ensuing law of the first-born was promulgated on the very day of the Exodus. Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ralbag all construe the verse in this manner.

Commemorative Rituals (vv. 1–16)

This section continues the process of historicizing existing institutions by reinterpreting them in terms of the Exodus experiences. The revitalized ancient rituals, now charged with new historical meaning, serve to perpetuate the memory of those events by making them living realities for succeeding generations.
In this section, the key to the association of topics—historical and natural events—is the coincidence of the liberation from Egypt with the spring (v. 4), the season of nature’s rebirth. It is the time of the new barley harvest and the season when animals begin their reproductive cycle.

1. This simple formula always introduces some specific instruction given to Moses personally—a communication not relayed to the people. It usually requires that he initiate some action—in this instance, the consecration of the first-born.

2. In many ancient cultures the miracle of new life was considered to be a divine gift. It was widely believed that the first fruits of the soil, of animal fecundity, and of human fertility were endowed by nature with intrinsic holiness. The present instruction to Moses to consecrate the first-born may therefore be a polemic against such pagan notions. The first-born belongs to God solely by reason of an act of divine will decreed at the time of the Exodus and not on account of any inherent sanctity. Their status is dissociated completely from the then contemporary ideas and practices.
It is explicitly related in Numbers 3:12 and 8:16, 18 that in the course of the wilderness wanderings the Levites supplanted the first-born in assuming priestly and ritual functions. It may therefore be safely inferred that Moses is here instructed to install the first-born to fulfill priestly duties. Mishnah Zevaḥim 14:4 expresses the developments this way: “Before the creation of the Tabernacle, shrines (Heb. bamot) were permitted, and the worship was performed by the first-born; once the Tabernacle was erected, the shrines were prohibited, and the worship was performed by the priests [of the tribe of Levi].”

Consecrate to Me This instruction usually involves both a purificatory rite and an induction ceremony. The former requires bathing, laundering of clothes, and abstention from ritual defilement on the part of the initiate. The latter entails an investiture performed by a superior.

beast Verse 12 restricts the requirement to the male animal, which would more likely be expendable, since animal breeding requires many females and few males.
Nothing is stated concerning the law of the first fruits of the soil because they cannot be connected with the events of the tenth plague and the Exodus itself, but only with the conquest and settlement of the land. They are treated in later texts.

the first issue of every womb According to Baḥya ben Asher, the first-born of the mother rather than of the father is dedicated because paternity cannot be proved.

Israel’s liberation from Egypt is to be an event that is indelibly imprinted upon its memory, individually and collectively. A set of symbols is created to actualize the experiences.

3. Remember See Comment to 2:24.

this day The fifteenth of the first month.

the house of bondage Literally, “house of slaves.” This designation for Egypt, frequent in Deuteronomy, gives voice to the particular experience of Israel in that land. It may derive from the Egyptian practice of settling the labor gangs in workmen’s villages in proximity to the site of the project for which they were conscripted. These villages were wholly enclosed by walls. One such has been uncovered at Deir el-Medinah, near Thebes. It served the laborers engaged in the construction of royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. To the Israelite conscripts, such a village may have appeared to be a gigantic “slave house.”

no leavened bread Denying oneself all benefit from anything containing leaven during Passover is one means by which the command to “remember” is fulfilled.

5. See Comment to 3:8.

practice Hebrew ʿavodah is word play on “bondage” in verse 3. Service of God in freedom in Israel’s own land is contrasted with the service to the pharaoh in Egyptian slavery.

6. Another commemorative stratagem, this one a positive action: the eating of matsot.

the seventh day By tradition it was on the seventh day of the Exodus that the pursuing Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds. The emphasis here—before the Exodus—on the special character of the seventh day disengages it from any celebration of Egypt’s defeat.

7. See Comment to 12:15.

8. you shall explain Not necessarily in response to any question. The parent must take the initiative in instructing the children. From Hebrew ve-higgadta comes Haggadah, the title of the book containing the rituals and readings for the Passover night ceremonials.

9. As Rashbam recognized, the idea is that observance of the foregoing precepts possesses the same commemorative function in relation to the Exodus as do physical memory-aiding devices placed on the hand and head. Traditionally, the verse has been interpreted as instituting the tefillin (commonly rendered “phylacteries” in English), the wearing of which is incumbent upon adult Jewish males during the weekday morning prayers. See Excursus 5.

your hand Which one is not specified. Tradition takes it as referring to the left arm.

forehead Literally, “between your eyes”; the Hebrew has always been interpreted to refer to the forehead. This is confirmed by Deuteronomy 14:1 and by the context of an Ugaritic passage in which the same phrase appears.

Teaching of the LORD Hebrew torat YHVH. While this first appearance of this biblical phrase cannot yet refer to the canonized Torah, it does presuppose a fixed text that can be memorized and recited.

Verse 2 ordained the immediate consecration of the first-born. This section deals with the treatment of the first-born following settlement in the promised land. The animal firstling is to retain its status and so belong to God, but the priestly status of the human first-born is to be revoked and their functions taken over by the tribe of Levi. Hence, first-born sons are to be desacralized by “redemption,” which explains why this section does not immediately follow verse 2.

12. set apart Hebrew le-haʿavir le- denotes transference of property.

issue of the womb A first-born by cesarean section is thus exempt from the redemption requirement.

your cattle drop The Hebrew stem sh-g-r is used in biblical Hebrew only as a noun form sheger (construct shegar). In Aramaic the stem means “to cast, throw”; hence, the present translation. Elsewhere in the Torah the noun always appears in the phrase shegar ʾalafeikha, “the calving of your herd,” and always in parallel with ʿashterot tsoʾnekha, “the lambing of your flock.” ʿAshterot (construct pl.; sing, ʿashtoret) can be traced back to the name of the Canaanite goddess of generation and fecundity, identified with the Mesopotamian Ishtar and the Greek Astarte (the latter assimilated to the goddess Aphrodite). This makes it likely that the parallel sheger, too, is a term for fertility that is derived from the name of a fertility deity. Indeed, shgr as a divine name appears in a Punic personal name from Carthage, ʿbdshgr, “Servant of Shgr,” and has turned up in a list of gods from Ugarit following ʿṯtr (Ishtar). Moreover, in the Balaam inscription from Deir ʿAlla in Jordan, a deity shgr occurs together with ʿshtr. There is no doubt that Hebrew sheger is a pagan divine name—the origin of which was lost in Israel—that was used as a metaphor for fecundity.

13. firstling ass This is the only ritually unclean animal that needs to be redeemed, in this case by giving a priest a sheep as a replacement. The ass was the standard means of transport and a beast of burden for nomadic peoples. As Ibn Ezra observes, it was most likely the only unclean domestic animal possessed by the Israelites in Egypt. The present instruction is repeated in 34:20.

break its neck Because the owner deprives the priest of a sheep by refusing to redeem the ass, he himself is denied the use of that animal. In rabbinic tradition the “breaking of the neck” was performed by a blow from behind with a hatchet.19 The reason for this exceptional form of slaughter is to avoid the appearance of performing a sacrifice of an unclean animal.

redeem every first-born male The mode of redemption is not given, presupposing some familiar and established practice. Numbers 18:16 makes clear that a payment of five silver shekels is to be made to the priest when the first-born is a month old. The ceremony of pidyon ha-ben, “redemption of the [first-born] son,” continues to this day. It is performed on the thirty-first day of life, unless it is a Sabbath or holy day, in which case it is postponed until the following day. It is the father’s duty to have his son redeemed. Should he neglect to do so, the son is obligated to redeem himself on reaching the age of maturity. The son of a Kohen or Levite or of the daughter of a Kohen or Levite married to a Jew is exempt, as is one born by cesarean section.
The details of the ceremony are set forth in the traditional Jewish prayer book. It is customary nowadays to use special “redemption coins” minted for the purpose by the State of Israel.

14. See Comment to verse 8.

in time to come Hebrew maḥar, usually “tomorrow,” sometimes refers to the indefinite future.

this The ceremony of redemption.

15. The “mighty hand” (v. 14) is explained as referring to the slaying of the Egyptian first-born.

16. See Comment to verse 9.

a symbol Hebrew totefet (pl. totafot) has not been satisfactorily explained. The term replaces zikkaron, “a reminder,” of verse 9, and it appears again in the same context in Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18. In Mishnaic Hebrew it denotes a head ornament of some kind, explained in the Gemara as encompassing a woman’s head from ear to ear.24 An alternative explanation cited there is “a charm containing balsam,” apparently worn as an amulet to ward off the evil eye.26 In Aramaic totaftaʾ is the Targum’s equivalent for Hebrew peʾer, “a turban,” in Ezekiel 24:17, 23, and also for Hebrew ʾetsʿadah, “an armlet,” in 2 Samuel 1:10. The Arabic stem ṭāfa, “to go around, encircle,” may underlie the term.

The Exodus (13:17–14:31)

The narrative, which was interrupted at 12:42, now continues.

17. let … go The Hebrew verb shillaḥ is richly allusive. First, it reconnects with 12:33. Second, it carries the double juridical sense of divorce and of emancipation of a slave and is highly evocative. Finally, because shillaḥ is the key term in each of the three divine promises of redemption given to Moses, its presence here intimates their fulfillment.

God … lead them Not Moses but God is the supreme actor.

by way of the land of the Philistines The shortest land route from the Nile Delta to Canaan. It was the southern segment of the thousand-mile (1,600 km.) international artery of transportation that led up to Megiddo, into Asia Minor, and then on to Mesopotamia. Beginning at the Egyptian fortress city of Tjaru (Sile), the highway followed the shoreline fairly closely, except where the shifting sand dunes and the land formation dictated otherwise. The army of Thutmose III took ten days to cover the 150-mile (240 km.) distance to Gaza. The Egyptian name for this part of the road was the “Ways of Horus”; it was the standard route followed by the pharaohs for incursions into Asia, and the pharaohs were considered to be the living embodiments on earth of the god Horus.
The “land of the Philistines” is the name given here to the stretch of territory in Canaan alongside the highway—and the descriptive “Sea of Philistia” in 23:31 is used for the section of the Mediterranean adjacent to it. These terms testify to the dominant role later played by the Philistines in that part of the country. This people is first mentioned in historical records from the time of Ramses III (1183–1152 B.C.E.). They were one of a confederacy of “sea peoples” who invaded Egypt in the eighth year of that king’s reign. They may have been among earlier waves of invaders who apparently came from the regions of Mycenae in Crete; their ultimate origin is unknown. Repulsed by Ramses III, the Philistines settled along the southern coastal plain of Canaan and, at first, became mercenaries of the Egyptian administration.

a change of heart Preferring Egyptian slavery to war.

when they see war Since the days of Pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1305–1290 B.C.E.), the coastal road to Canaan had been heavily fortified by the Egyptians. A chain of strongholds, way stations, reservoirs, and wells dotted the area as far as Gaza, the provincial capital. Many of these are pictured in great detail in the reliefs on the exterior of the walls of the temple of Amun at Karnak in the plain of Thebes, and they are also mentioned in Egyptian papyri. Excavations at Deir el-Balaḥ, in the Gaza strip, unearthed an Egyptian garrison fortress, the components of which bear a striking correspondence to those on the Karnak reliefs.
It is quite clear that it was the better part of wisdom for the Israelites to have avoided the “way of the land of the Philistines.” They thereby avoided having to contend with the strongly entrenched Egyptian forces on what would have been hopelessly unequal terms.

18. by way of the wilderness This must refer to one of the ancient, natural tracks that traverse the Sinai peninsula. The vagueness of the designation and the inability to identify and locate most of the many wilderness stations recorded in the Torah make it impossible to chart the route followed by the departing Israelites.

Sea of Reeds The literal translation of Hebrew yam suf; not the Red Sea, which is more than 120 miles (192 km.) from the probable site of Goshen, too great a distance to cover even in a week in those days. Further, Hebrew suf is derived from the Egyptian for the papyrus reed, which grows in fresh water; therefore, yam suf would not be an appropriate designation for the present Red Sea because the latter is saline and, as a consequence, does not favor the growth of that plant. Since no lack of water is experienced until after the crossing of the yam suf, it may be surmised that this initial stage of the march took the Israelites to the far northeastern corner of Egypt, to one of the lagoons near the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

armed Hebrew ḥamush(im) is apparently a military term meaning “equipped for battle.” See Comment to 6:26.

19. Joseph’s dying request is implemented. The text reproduces almost verbatim his words as given in Genesis 50:25. The Mekhilta notes that while the other Israelites were busy plundering the Egyptians, Moses was preoccupied with disinterring Joseph and keeping faith with him. Joshua 24:32 records the reburial of Joseph in Shechem.

20. Succoth See Comment to 12:37.

Etham The site, mentioned again in Numbers 33:6–8, has not been identified; nor is the distance between it and Succoth given.

21–22. A theme that recurs in the narratives of the wilderness wanderings is that God manifested his active, dynamic Presence throughout. This is conceptualized in accordance with the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a Being who transcends the limits of time and space, and thus surpasses human imagining. Hence, God’s indwelling Presence in the world is symbolized, however inadequately, by the mysterious, intangible, incorporeal elements of fire and cloud—actually a diaphanous, luminescent mist visible both by day and by night. In these verses it functions to escort and guide the people through the untamed wilderness.41 In other texts its movements signal the journeying and encamping of the people, and it also provides a protective screen for the imperiled Israelites.43 It should be noted that although God is portrayed as speaking “from the midst of the cloud,” as in Exodus 24:16, this should always be understood as figurative language. There is never a question of His actually residing inside the cloud or being identified with it, as is clear from Exodus 19:20, when God “came down” upon Mount Sinai after it had been enveloped in cloud (v. 16).

21. The LORD went Hebrew holekh is a participle, suggesting continuous occurrence. Verse 22 emphasizes the uninterrupted nature of the manifested Divine Presence.


The liberated Israelites, having reached the edge of the wilderness, were suddenly ordered to change course. This new direction, fraught with great danger, was actually a stratagem to mislead the Egyptians and lure them to their doom. It was the culminating defeat of Pharaoh. Thereafter, Egypt does not again appear in Israelite history until the time of King Solomon.
The miracle of the parting of the sea—known in Hebrew as keriʿat yam suf—left a deep impress on subsequent Hebrew literature and became the paradigm for the future redemption of Israel from exile. Remarkably, the overwhelming majority of the texts that celebrate the crossing of the sea relate solely to God’s sovereign control over nature and history and do not mention the drowning of the Egyptians.

2. None of the place-names mentioned here, and repeated in Numbers 33:7–8, can be identified with certainty.

Pi-hahiroth This may be a Hebraized form of Egyptian Pr-Ḥtḥr, “the house of [the deity] Hathḥor,” or it may be connected with the Hebrew stem ḥ-r-t, “to dig,” perhaps referring to one of the canals of the Nile and meaning “the mouth of the canal.” Jewish commentators associated the name with Hebrew ḥerut, “freedom.”

Migdol A pure Semitic word meaning “a watchtower” or “fortress.” Several locations bearing this name are known. They testify to the heavy Semitic influence in the northeastern delta of the Nile.

Baal-zephon In Ugaritic literature the second element of this name is a holy mountain associated in particular with the Canaanite god Baal. The present combination also appears as a divine name.7 Baal was the storm-god and also the patron of mariners. Several cult sites dedicated to him were built along the shores of the Mediterranean. A Phoenician letter from the sixth century B.C.E. seems to identify one Egyptian site named Baal-zephon with Tahpanhes, modern Tell-Defneh, some 27 miles (48 km.) south-southwest of modern Port Said.

3. astray Hebrew nevukhim in the present context has the sense of “disoriented” or “hopelessly confused.” The Israelites are hemmed in on all sides—by Egyptian border fortresses, by the wilderness, and by the sea.

4. Pharaoh will be irresistibly drawn to chase after the Israelites. On the “stiffening, or hardening, of Pharaoh’s heart,” see Comment to 4:21.

that I may gain glory Or “and I will …” The Hebrew leaves unclear whether this is the purpose of the tactic or its consequence. Either way, the idea is that the destruction of the wicked is a reaffirmation of the fundamental biblical principle that the world is governed by a divinely ordained moral order that must ultimately prevail. God is thereby glorified. This point is further emphasized through the use of the stem k-v-d, which underlies the phrase “gain glory” and which is also frequently employed to express Pharaoh’s obstinacy. This character flaw of the monarch is self-destructive, and his downfall redounds to the glory of God.12

the Egyptians shall know See Comments to 1:8 and 5:2.
The Egyptians Relent and Give Chase (vv. 5–9)

5. the people had fled It is clear that the Israelites are not coming back, for the “three-day journey” that Moses repeatedly requested has come and gone, and they have not returned.

What is this … “We have forfeited a most valuable source of cheap labor.”

6. He ordered his chariot Literally, “hitched.” A midrash utilizes this to suggest that in his perverse eagerness to pursue the Israelites, the king personally performed this menial task.15

took his men Hebrew ʿam, “people,” sometimes has the specific connotation of “armed force.”

7. Pharaoh leads an elite chariot corps of six hundred, apparently the standard military unit.

and the rest of the chariots Literally, “every chariot/all the chariots/all the chariotry of Egypt,” that is, in addition to the elite corps. The chariot was a revolutionary and powerful innovation in the art of warfare. It was introduced into Egypt from Canaan. Drawn by two horses, the weapon was used for massed charges; it required a crew with a high degree of skill and training. The charioteers enjoyed high social standing and became a military aristocracy.

officers Hebrew shalish, perhaps meaning “thirdling,” may originally have been the third man in the chariot. Among the Hittites and Assyrians the chariot crew was comprised of a driver, a warrior, and a shieldbearer, but Egyptian chariots generally had only a two-man team. Hence, shalish may have assumed the extended meaning of “officer.”

8. departing defiantly Literally, “with upraised hand,” a metaphor drawn from the depiction of ancient Near Eastern gods menacingly brandishing a weapon in the upraised right hand. The self-confident Israelites are oblivious of the renewed Egyptian threat.

9. his horsemen Horseback riding was introduced into Egypt only in the fourteenth century B.C.E., and the use of mounted cavalry in warfare was unknown before the end of the second millennium. Hence, Hebrew parash must here have the meaning “steed,” as in a few other biblical texts and in Arabic faras; or it may be a term for “charioteer”—the one skilled at handling a horse.

overtook them Genesis 31:(23)25 shows that this refers not to direct contact but to being within sight of one another; that is, the Egyptians suddenly appeared on the horizon.
The Peoples Reaction; Moses’ Response (vv. 10–14)

10. advancing The singular form of the Hebrew verb suggested to the rabbis that the Egyptians were of one mind, acted in concert, and thus were deserving of their mass destruction.22

cried out to the LORD The self-assurance mentioned in verse 8 dissipated quickly. God alone can save them. The Hebrew here employs the same phrase as in 2:23, with a dialectic variant; thus, the entire narrative of Israel’s oppression and liberation is framed by a record of Israel’s heartfelt cry to God for help in dire distress.

11. This rebuke to Moses is a piece of bitter irony, for Egypt, with its death-obsessed religion, was the classic land of tombs.

12. Neither of the two previous repudiations of Moses, not that of 5:21 nor that of 6:9, contains this statement, which must reflect some incident not otherwise recorded in the Torah. Psalm 106:7 preserves a tradition of Israel’s rebellion at the Sea of Reeds.

13–14. Moses ignores their censure and, instead, calms them and assuages their fear.
God’s Response (vv. 15–20)

15. It is time for action, not for lengthy prayer. Moses is addressed as representative of the entire people.

16. Moses is not instructed to strike the sea. In verse 21 the action of Moses with his rod is the signal for the strong wind to blow back the waters. Isaiah (63:12) makes clear that it is God who splits the sea.

17–18. See Comment to verse 4.

19. The symbol of God’s indwelling Presence, the luminous pillar of cloud mentioned in 13:21 as leading and guiding the people, now serves as a protective screen separating the two camps. This same tradition is recalled in Joshua 24:7: “They cried out to the LORD, and He put darkness between you and the Egyptians.”

20. cast a spell This rendering derives the verb from the stem ʾ-r-r, “to curse.” The usual meaning of Hebrew va-yaʾer, “it lit up,” would not seem to be consistent with the “cloud and the darkness.” Traditional interpretation took it that the side of the cloud facing the Egyptians remained dark, while the other side illuminated the night for the Israelites.
The Parting of the Sea (vv. 21–29)

21. Moses implements the instructions detailed in verse 16. It is not he but God who is the effective cause, the one who controls nature.

a strong east wind See Comment to 10:13.

23. Impelled by evil purposes, their judgment deranged by their brutal obstinacy, the Egyptian forces plunge headlong into the turbulent waters.

24. the morning watch Between the hours of two and six A.M. In Israel the night was divided into three watches, the others covering the hours of six to ten P.M. and ten P.M. to two A.M.

a pillar of fire and cloud The absence of the definite article may indicate that this is not identical with that mentioned in 13:21–22 and verse 19 above. Nevertheless, this pillar too is certainly a poetic objectification of God’s immanence and providence.

25. He locked The wheels got bogged down in the mud.

with difficulty The same stem k-v-d that underlies “glorified” in verse 4. The verb is often used of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart—a subtle word play intimating causal connections.

Let us flee Literally, “Let me flee”; see Comment to verse 10.

the LORD is fighting for them The fulfillment of the prediction in verse 14.

27. its normal state Literally, “to its perennial flow.”

hurled … into the sea They were buffeted about in the sea.

28. Pharaoh’s entire army.
Recapitulation (vv. 30–31)

These two verses round out the preceding narrative and, at the same time, preface the following “Song at the Sea.” Psalm 106:9–12 reflect this associative sequence: “He sent His blast against the Sea of Reeds;/it became dry;/He led them through the deep as through a wilderness./He delivered them from the foe,/redeemed them from the enemy./Water covered their adversaries;/not one of them was left./Then they believed His promise,/and sang His praises.”

30. from the Egyptians Literally, “from the hand of Egypt.”

on the shore of the sea Rashbam and Ibn Ezra understand that the Israelites beheld the corpses of the Egyptians from the safety of the opposite shore. Bekhor Shor construes the verse to mean that the Israelites saw the Egyptian corpses that had been washed ashore by the waves.

31. the wondrous power Literally, “the great hand” of God that cut off the tyrannous “hand of Egypt.” Hebrew yad, “hand,” is a key word in this chapter, occurring seven times.

they had faith “Faith” in the Hebrew Bible is not belief in a doctrine or subscription to a creed. Rather, it refers to trust and loyalty that find expression in obedience and commitment.

His servant Moses As the faithful instrument of God’s will, having successfully fulfilled his mission, it is fitting that the distinguishing title “servant of the Lord/of God” now be bestowed on Moses. He is so designated over thirty times in the Hebrew Bible, although he is never the object of a cult of personality. His faults are not obscured, and he is even punished for transgressing in anger the divine command. Yet he is Israel’s leader par excellence. Of Moses, God says, “He is trusted throughout My household,” and it is to him that God speaks “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:7–8). The verdict of the Torah on his life is: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the LORD singled out, face to face” (Deut. 34:10).

The Song at the Sea: Shirat ha-Yam (vv. 1–19)

The Poetic and Prose Accounts After the narrative prose account of the extraordinary events at the Sea of Reeds, there follows what may be the oldest piece of sustained poetry in the Hebrew Bible: a paean of praise to God, the biblical way of expressing gratitude. It is not an epic narrative but a spontaneous, lyrical outpouring of emotion on the part of the people who experienced the great events of the Exodus. Because the topic is the glorification of God, a drastic shift of focus takes place. For this reason, it would be a misreading of the Song at the Sea—shirat ha-yam, as it is known in Hebrew—to expect from it a simple, poetic version of the prose report. The poem assumes that the audience is familiar with the course of events; there is no need, therefore, to repeat the pertinent facts, and there is considerable telescoping and condensation. The Song, little concerned with events on the human scene, is preoccupied with celebrating the mighty acts of God as He intervenes in human affairs. Thus, in place of the naturalistic “strong east wind” that blew through the night (14:21), there is the poetic “blast of [God’s] nostrils” (15:8)—a sudden, brief, yet devastatingly effective breath that humbles human arrogance. Similarly, the change in perspective, together with the poetic diction, leads to a different description of the action of the waters and of the manner in which the advancing enemy is hurled to his destined fate. Moses, of course, plays no active role, for it is not he who holds out his arm over the sea, as in 14:16, 21. Rather, it is the “right hand” of God that is extended (15:12). Nor is there any mention of the angel, the cloud, and the darkness, all so prominent in 14:19–20. These intermediaries signal the distance between God and Israel; by contrast, the “Song at the Sea” celebrates God’s direct, unmediated, personal incursion into the world of humankind.

Analogues Chapters 14 and 15 in Exodus find a parallel in the Book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5. The latter tell of the battle against the Canaanite king Jabin of Hazor in the days of Deborah and Barak. There, too, a historic prose account is followed by a triumphal ode extolling the victory. Both compositions are Hebrew counterparts of an Egyptian literary genre, dating from the days of the New Kingdom, that features two accounts of the same event, the one prose, the other poetry. Examples are the narratives recounting the epic battle of Pharaoh Ramses II (1290–1224 B.C.E.) against the Hittites at Kadesh-on-the-Orontes, and the battle of Pharaoh Merneptah (1224–1211 B.C.E.) against the Libyans.
What distinguishes the shirah, as it is known in the tradition, from its analogues is its dominant God-centered theme. Whereas the Egyptian models are hyperbolic panegyrics to the superhuman heroic exploits of the pharaohs, in the Torah it is God alone who attracts the poet’s interest.

Structure and Content There is little agreement among scholars as to how to demarcate the component units of the Song. Four main strophes seem to be discernible:

1. Verses 1–10 celebrate God’s great triumph over the Egyptian foe;
2. Verses 11–13 tell of the incomparability of God;
3. Verses 14–16 describe the impact of these extraordinary events upon the surrounding peoples;
4. Verses 17–18 are forward-looking and anticipate future developments.

An inner logic binds together the four units, aside from the past, present, and future time sequences, respectively, of the first three. God’s total and effortless destruction of the mighty Egyptian forces unqualifiedly demonstrates His total “otherness,” which, in turn, provides infallible assurance of future victories. Israel responds with a glorious affirmation of God’s eternal sovereignty.
The composition is encased within a historical prose framework that comprises an introductory statement identifying the singers and a concluding recapitulation of the event that occasioned that triumphal ode (vv. 1a–b, 19). The shirah itself opens and closes with an exaltation of God voiced in the third person.

The Language The language of the poem is thoroughly archaic, employing several features commonly found in Canaanite poetry: the heavy use of sentences structured in a variety of parallel forms, especially incremental repetition; the prefixed verbal yqtl (imperfect) construction is the standard narrative tense form; and the definite article never once appears with a noun. Another peculiarity is the frequent use of the pronominal suffix -mo. Other archaic features are noted in the Commentary.

The Antiphonal Arrangement The extensive use of parallel clauses, the opening prose statement that attributes the shirah to “Moses and the Israelites,” and the notice about Miriam and the women also singing—all these suggest that it was sung antiphonally. As early as the first century B.C.E. Philo of Alexandria imagined the Israelites forming two choruses, Moses leading the males and his sister, the females. Rabbinic interpretation understood that the shirah was sung responsively by Moses and the people. Exactly how the antiphony was to have operated is left unclear and remains a matter of dispute. One view was that the people repeated or completed the phrase or verse that Moses initiated. Another held that the verses were recited by them in alternation. Still another view had the people reciting the entire song after Moses had finished it.

Scribal Convention Recognition of the distinctive nature of the language and patterning of the shirah left its mark on scribal traditions. Along with one or two other highly poetic passages, the Song at the Sea enjoyed special treatment at the hands of the professional Torah scribes. Rabbinic laws governing the particular mode of transcribing a Torah scroll stipulate that the shirah be copied so that the column imitates the bricklayer’s art, with “a half brick over a whole brick and a whole brick over a half brick”; that is, the words must be spaced so that the writing on each line has a blank space below it, and the blank space will in turn have writing beneath it. The medieval biblical manuscript codices and later the printed editions largely adopted this aesthetic arrangement in a standardized manner.9 The Hebrew of the present edition illustrates the convention.

The Shirah in the Liturgy The Song at the Sea assumed a special place in the Jewish liturgy quite early. In the days of the Second Temple it was customary for a Levitical choir to accompany the priestly tamid offering on Sabbath afternoons with a singing of the shirah in two parts, verses 1–10 being intoned one week and the rest on the next Sabbath. After the destruction of the Temple, the Palestinian communities perpetuated the Levitical custom, although without the sacrifice. The Jews of Rome incorporated the entire shirah into the fixed, daily morning service, a practice that gradually became universal among Jews. This daily recitation assumed ever greater meaning as an affirmation of God’s moral governance of the world, itself an assurance of the ultimate and inevitable downfall of tyrants. Such unassailable convictions took on increasing significance for Jews during the long dark nights of exile and persecution. The Sabbath in the annual lectionary cycle on which the Torah reading is Exodus 13:17–17:16 (Beshallaḥ), receives the special designation shabbat shirah. The Song is also the scriptural reading for the seventh day of Passover, when the original event is believed to have occurred.

1. Then Hebrew ʾaz inseparably connects the shirah to the situation summarized in 14:30–31

to the LORD As the Mekhilta observes, “to the Lord—and not to any mortal being.”

I will sing The first person formulation can refer only to Moses.

for This gives the occasion of the Song.

triumphed Literally, “is most exalted,” that is, He displayed His transcendence.

driver Hebrew rokhev here means the rider in the chariot, not one on horseback. See Comment to 14:9.

2. The LORD Hebrew yah is an abbreviation of the divine name YHVH, which, in this form, is used exclusively in poetry. Otherwise, it appears as an element in proper names such as Jeremiah (Heb. yirmi-yahu) and has survived in English in “hallelujah” (Heb. hallelu-yah).

my strength and might The source of my survival. Hebrew zimart is a double entendre, for its stem can mean both “to sing, play music,” and “to be strong,” so that the phrase could also be rendered “my strength and [the theme of my] song.”

The LORD … my deliverance This passage appears in its entirety again in Isaiah 12:2 and Psalm 118:14: it must have had a liturgical function in ancient Israel as a personal confession of faith.

This Baal Ha-Turim notes that the Hebrew demonstrative zeh may be used in reference to the unseen, as in Exodus 32:1.

I will enshrine Him Build Him a shrine or temple. This rendering is based on the Hebrew noun naveh, “a habitation.” See Comment to verse 13. Another interpretation takes the stem as a variant of Hebrew naʾeh, “beautiful, lovely”; hence the alternative translation, “I will glorify Him” in song. Rabbi Ishmael construed “glorifying God” to imply the performance of religious duties in the most elegant and attractive manner.21 See Comment to 12:5.

The God of my father See Comment to 3:6.

3. the Warrior This divine epithet responds to 14:14, “The Lord will battle for you” and to verse 25, “the Egyptians said … the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Because the Egyptians came against Israel as an armed force, the Lord—to whom alone victory is attributed—is metaphorically described as a warrior. In the biblical view, the enemies of Israel are the enemies of God, so that Israel’s wars for survival are portrayed as “the battles of the LORD.” Indeed, the Bible at times refers to a “Book of the Wars of the LORD,” which is no longer extant. A corollary of this concept is the humbling recognition that the decisive factor in war is ultimately not human prowess or the force of arms, but the free exercise of God’s will. As David retorted to Goliath: “This whole assembly shall know that the LORD can give victory without sword or spear, for the battle is the LORD’s.…” The prophet Zechariah expresses the same idea this way: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the LORD of Hosts.” The poetic biblical notion of God as a warrior has nothing in common with the idea of “holy war” as it found expression in the crusades of medieval Christendom and in the Christian “wars of religion,” or in the Islamic jihad, which regards the propagation of Islam by waging war against unbelievers as a religious duty.

LORD is His name! The divine name YHVH is invested with a dynamic quality. Thus, the statement evokes that essential power of God with which the Name is associated. See Comment to 6:3.

4. The pick of his officers On Hebrew shalish, see Comment to 14:7.

5. The deeps Hebrew tehomot is the intensive plural form of tehom, the term for the cosmic, abyssal waters that lie beneath the earth, as mentioned in Genesis 1:2.

6. An example of incremental parallelism. The first line, incomplete, receives its full expression in the second line.

glorious The Hebrew stem ʾ-d-r has the semantic range of “majestic, mighty, awe-inspiring.”

7. fury Hebrew ḥaron, a term used exclusively of divine anger, here carries its primitive sense of “burning.”

8. The waters are positioned in three stages.

the blast of Your nostrils Similar poetic imagery for the wind is found in 2 Samuel 22:16.

piled up An ancient tradition, preserved in Targum Onkelos and the Mekhilta, construes the unique Hebrew neʿermu as though deriving not from ʿaremah, “a heap, pile,” but from ʿormah, “cunning, shrewdness.” This is taken as an allusion to retributive justice. The Egyptians “dealt shrewdly” with the Israelites, a policy that led to the decree to drown the Israelite males; now the waters deal with equal shrewdness in drowning the oppressors.34

like a wall Literally, “like a mound [of earth].”

froze They coagulated and formed a solid mass.

9. The poet reproduces what he imagines went on in the mind of the pharaoh. By means of a rapid, alliterative succession of words, he mimics the arrogant self-confidence and vainglorious boasting of the foe. The omission of the conjunctions imparts to the series of verbs a staccato effect that bespeaks expectation of easy victory.

I will divide the spoil This promise is an inducement to the reluctant soldiers to give chase.

desire Hebrew nefesh, like Ugaritic npš and Akkadian napištu, often has the sense of “throat, gullet, appetite.”

shall subdue Literally, “my hand shall dispossess them,” here meaning “I shall force them into slavery once again.”

10. The first section of the Song at the Sea closes with a recital of God’s effortless act that exposes the machinations of the enemy as mere empty rhetoric. It is to be noted that the waters do not act on their own accord but only when God energizes them.

wind blow Most likely, the same blast as in verse 8. One brief, light puff, and the rampant sea engulfs the Egyptians.

They sank Hebrew tsalelu in this sense is unique. The verb may be formed from metsulah, “the depths,” that is, “they plummeted.”

the majestic waters The same phrase occurs in Psalm 93:4, where it parallels “the mighty waters,” a phrase that alludes to the cosmic ocean.

11. The foregoing recitation of God’s sovereign control over nature logically culminates in an affirmation of His incomparability. This attribute is voiced through a rhetorical question that allows only an unqualifiedly negative response. The Book of Psalms several times echoes this phraseology. Often the peerlessness of God is asserted categorically.45
It needs to be emphasized that the expression of God’s uniqueness in comparative terms, and the mention of other celestial beings, cannot be interpreted literally to imply recognition of the existence of divinities other than the one God. Parallels in Mesopotamian religious poetry show that the poet is simply employing conventional, stereotypical language. Moreover, many biblical texts utter similar statements along with an explicit denial of the reality of deities worshiped by other nations. Thus, the uncompromisingly monotheistic Narrator of Deuteronomy can state that “the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (4:39) and can refer to God’s “powerful deeds that no god in heaven or on earth can equal” (3:24). The psalmist can declare, “There is none like You among the gods, O LORD,” and can then add, “You alone are God” (Ps. 86:8, 10). A psalmist can state that God “is held in awe by all divine beings./All the gods of the peoples are mere idols” (Ps. 96:4–5), and can assert that “Our LORD is greater than all gods,” and then deride the gods as being nothing but fetishes of silver and gold (Ps. 135:5, 15–18).

the celestials While Hebrew ʾelim (sing. ʾel) may certainly mean “gods,” in some texts, as here, it refers to heavenly beings, the hosts of ministering angels that were imagined to surround the throne of God and to be at His service.

majestic in holiness Another possible translation is “majestic among the holy ones”—the members of the divine retinue. Some ancient versions so render it.

Awesome in splendor Or “awesome in regard to His laudable deeds”—recounted in the following verses.

12. The earth swallowed them Figurative for “They met their death.” Hebrew ʾerets here may well mean the underworld, as in some other biblical texts.

13. With the Egyptian menace finally eliminated, the movement of the poem shifts from the events that occurred at the sea and now focus on the march to the promised land. The use of ʾerets in verse 12 smooths the transition from the one to the other.

In Your love Hebrew ḥesed is a key term in the Bible. Depending on the context, it can express conduct conditioned by intimate relationship, covenantal obligation, or even undeserved magnanimity. The Decalogue and other texts specify ḥesed as one of God’s supreme attributes.

You redeemed See Comment to 6:6.

You guide The Hebrew stem n-h-l originates in the vocabulary of shepherding and denotes leading the sheep to a watering place. Its use here thus evokes the idea of God’s tender, loving care for His people—His “flock”—whom he leads from slavery to freedom and guides through the wilderness, while supplying all their needs. The image is reinforced by the following Hebrew naveh, which basically means “pastureland, abode of shepherds.” Psalm 78:52 gives a graphic depiction: “He set His people moving like sheep,/drove them like a flock in the wilderness.”

Your holy abode This phrase has been variously understood as referring to Mount Sinai, the entire Land of Israel,56 and the Temple on Mount Zion. The account of the Exodus in Psalm 78:54 would seem to favor the first possibility because, following the notice of the drowning of the foe in the sea and preceding the conquest, the poet declares: “He brought them to His holy realm,/the mountain His right hand had acquired.” This also accords with the theophany to Moses at the Burning Bush, which ordains that, following the Exodus, the people will worship God at the mount in the wilderness (3:12).

God’s mighty deeds on Israel’s behalf strike terror in the hearts of Israel’s neighbors, their potential enemies. These are listed in the order that Israel would have encountered them. The Philistines are mentioned first because they were closest to the northeastern border of Egypt and because they were the most formidable. See Comment to 13:17. The other three appear in proper geographical and chronological order, according to the circuitous route followed: from south to north and then westward across the Jordan. The omission of the Ammonites from this list is puzzling; they are also omitted in Numbers 33:40–49.

14. the dwellers Hebrew yoshevei here may well mean “rulers,” literally “those who sit” [on thrones].

15. the clans Hebrew ʾalluf might also mean “chieftain.” Since it is used in combination only with the Edomites and with no other people, it may reflect local Edomite terminology.

Edom The Edomites are descendants of Esau, also known as Edom, brother of Jacob. They occupied the southernmost part of Transjordan. They would later become inveterate enemies of Israel.

The tribes An alternative is to take Hebrew ʾeilei literally as “rams” (sing, ʾayil), a reference to the unusual wealth of sheep and rams found in Moab, as noted in 2 Kings 3:4. The term would then be a nickname for the inhabitants of the country. More likely “ram” is an honorific title for “chieftain.” It is so used elsewhere in the Bible.

Moab The plateau east of the Dead Sea between the wadis Arnon and Zered. It was occupied by the Moabites, who are traced back to Lot, nephew of Abraham. Numbers 22:1–7 recounts the alarm felt by the Moabites at the appearance of the Israelites close to their border.

dwellers in Canaan Or, as in verse 14, “rulers”—the thirty-one kings of the city-states listed in Joshua 12.

are aghast Literally, “melt away”; they are enervated, demoralized.

16. The thought of the preceding verses is continued. The Israelites are perceived as a threat by the peoples who dwell in the vicinity of the wilderness route. This understanding requires that Hebrew yaʿavor be rendered “pass by,” unless it refers to the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan.

Till These last two clauses of the verse can hardly apply to the Canaanites, for they are to be dispossessed.

Your people The one You selected for a special relationship and destiny.

Yow have ransomed Hebrew kanita means literally “You acquired” (by purchase), “You own,” as though God had purchased Israel from the Egyptians to be His own servants. It is also possible that the Hebrew stem k-n-h is used here in its ancient meaning of “create.” The idea that God “created” Israel is expressed explicitly in Deuteronomy 32:6.
THE GRAND FINALE (vv. 17–18)

The Song at the Sea closes with an affirmation of confidence in the promise that God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt will culminate in the building of a Temple. This idea is expressed in Deuteronomy 12:9–11 and echoed in King Solomon’s dedicatory speech at the completion of the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:56). That this event closes the Exodus era is well illustrated by the author of the Book of Kings, who dates the building of the Temple according to the Exodus, the only such chronological reckoning in the Bible (1 Kings 6:1).

17. Your own mountain Hebrew har naḥalatkha, literally “the mountain of Your possession,” is a unique phrase in the Bible. It occurs in Ugaritic literature in relation to the sacred mountain Ṣapon on which stood the sanctuary of the Canaanite deity Baal. Here, this standard religious phrase, prevalent in the ancient Near East, is employed by the poet in monotheized form, totally emptied of its pagan content.

The place Hebrew makhon seems to mean the dais on which the divine throne rests.

O Lord The Hebrew text has ʾadonai in place of the usual YHVH, possibly so that the Tetragrammaton appears exactly ten times in the shirah.

The sanctuary There is a widespread notion that the earthly sanctuary is but a replica of an ideal celestial prototype. The two merge in the poet’s mind.

18. The shirah closes, as it opens, with the exaltation of God, now expressed in terms of kingship—the earliest biblical use of this metaphor. This climactic finale is the logical sequence of the basic themes of the poem: God’s absolute sovereignty over nature and history. The conception and designation of the deity as king was pervasive throughout the ancient Near East long before Israel appeared on the scene. It originated in the projection of the human institution onto the god. We do not know when Israel first adopted the concept, but it must have preceded the founding of the monarchy, for the prophet Samuel objected to the innovation on the grounds that it meant the rejection of God’s kingship over Israel (1 Sam. 8:7; 12:12).
The proclamation of the eternal kingship of God in the present context may suggest the contrast between the ephemeral and illusory nature of Pharaoh’s self-proclaimed royal divinity and the permanent reality of God’s sovereignty.
A CODA (v. 19)

A brief prose summary of the occasion for the celebration closes the composition and reconnects it with verse 1.
THE SONG OF MIRIAM (vv. 20–21)

This popular English title is somewhat misleading since the text states that Miriam recites only the first line of the shirah. However, a midrash has it that Miriam and the women actually recite the entire song. These verses affirm the custom, chronicled in Judges 11:34 and 1 Samuel 18:6, of women going forth with music and dance to hail the returning victorious hero, although in the present instance, it is God and not man who is the victor.

20. Miriam No longer anonymous as in Exodus 2:4, 7–9, she is here given two titles.

the prophetess The other women with whom she shares this designation are Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah. Rabbinic tradition adds another three—Hannah, Abigail, and Esther—for a total of seven prophetesses active in Israel in biblical times.76

Aaron’s sister Rashbam observes that the epithet reflects the practice of a younger daughter being known as the sister of the first-born male in the family; so Naamah, sister of Tubalcain; Mahath, sister of Nebaioth; and Timna, sister of Lotan. Behind this phenomenon may lie the well-documented Near Eastern social institution known as fratriarchy, in which, in certain circumstances, authority is invested in the eldest brother.78

timbrel Hebrew tof is most likely the portable frame drum, a percussion instrument constructed of two parallel membranes stretched over a loop or frame. It was apparently used exclusively by a special class of female musicians.
Crises in the Wilderness (15:22–17:16)

Freed from the Egyptian threat, the people begin the long trek through the wilderness toward the promised land. The rest of the Book of Exodus relates some major events of the first year of these wanderings, the central one, of course, being the experience at Sinai. But on the way to the mountain four crises occur: (1) a lack of drinking water (15:22–27), (2) a shortage of food (16:1–36), (3) a further lack of water (17:1–7), and (4) sudden, unprovoked aggression by a wild desert tribe (17:8–16).
These misfortunes reflect the harsh realities of life in the wilderness. The first three are imposed by the cruelties of nature; the last, by the cruelty of man. In each instance Israel’s need is very real, and the popular discontent is quite understandable. These experiences illustrate both the precarious nature of Israel’s survival and God’s providential care of His people. Although in no case is divine anger displayed, the first three narratives nevertheless leave the unmistakable impression of being a negative judgment on Israel’s behavior, an implicit critique of the people’s ingratitude to God and their lack of faith in spite of their very recent experience of His wondrous protection and deliverance. And moreover, where one might expect popular resentment to diminish in the wake of the divine response to each successive deprivation, in fact just the opposite occurs. It appears that “faith in the LORD and His servant Moses,” to which 14:31 bears witness, began to weaken under the strains of life in the wilderness.
These stories are part of a more extensive series of accounts about popular dissatisfaction and even rebellion in the course of the wanderings.
In serving its didactic purposes, the Torah focuses upon these particular incidents to draw a picture of a wayward generation. The same motif is taken up by both psalmist and prophet. But the number of infractions is relatively few, after all, given the forty-year period in question and the difficult circumstances; and both Hosea and Jeremiah depict the wilderness period in a positive light. The former refers to Israel’s future, loving response to God “as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hos. 2:16–17); the latter evokes memories of the halcyon days of the wilderness wanderings (Jer. 2:2): “I accounted to your favor/The devotion of your youth,/Your love as a bride—/How you followed Me in the wilderness,/In a land not sown.”

This section, framed by notices designating the initial stations in the wilderness, resumes the narrative interrupted at 14:29. Numbers 33 sets forth the full itinerary in great detail. The present story is clearly abbreviated, for it presupposes knowledge of some legislation promulgated at Marah.

22. Moses caused Israel to set out This rather unusual formulation gave rise to a midrash that Moses had to compel the people to move on because they were preoccupied with collecting the spoils of the drowned Egyptians.

the wilderness of Shur This region is designated “the wilderness of Etham” in Numbers 33:8. A location called Shur, along the route to Egypt, is mentioned several times in biblical texts. The name means “a wall” and most probably refers to the wall of fortifications built by the pharaohs in the eastern Delta of the Nile along the line of the present-day Isthmus of Suez. It was meant to protect Egypt from Asian incursions. The Prophecy of Nefer-rohu (Neferti), purporting to derive from about 2650 B.C.E., already mentions the “Wall of the Ruler” to be built in order to keep Asiatics out of Egypt. The Story of Sinuhe (20th cent. B.C.E.) similarly mentions the “Wall of the Ruler” made to oppose the Asiatics and to “crush the Sand-crossers.”

three days If intended literally, a distance of at most 45 miles (72.5 km.) would be involved. Three days is often used as a literary convention. See Comment to 3:18.

and found no water Since this would have been unlikely along the coastal region, it indicates an initial southerly march that had to be reversed for lack of water.

23. Marah Meaning “bitter” in Hebrew. The site has been plausibly identified with ʿAin Ḥawarah, a spring just south of Wadi ʿAmarah, a name that probably gave rise to Marah as word play.

bitter Tormented by thirst, the people find only undrinkable water. Desert springs are frequently bitter.

24. It is only the opening phrase that shows the seemingly innocent and justifiable question to be accusatory and confrontational.

25. Moses is not a wonder-worker; he can do nothing except by divine instruction.

a piece of wood Or “a log.” Supposedly, the water passed through the porous wood, which filtered out enough of the impurities to make it potable.
The Mekhilta turns the entire incident into a metaphor. The living, life-sustaining water symbolizes the Torah; to be deprived of its spiritual sustenance for three days is life-threatening. (Hence, the Torah is read publicly each Sabbath, Monday, and Thursday.) The parable is reinforced by the Hebrew verb va-yorehu, “He showed him,” which comes from the same stem as Torah, and by ʿets, “a tree log,” which is a symbol of Torah described in Proverbs 3:18 (cf. 3:1) as “a tree of life to those who grasp her.” The verse succeeding this Exodus passage further enhances the homily.

a fixed rule Apparently, the sentence is a parenthetic note that reflects a now lost tradition about some law(s) given to Israel at this site. The Mekhilta believes they were the Sabbath laws. The next episode indeed presupposes knowledge of these laws prior to the Sinaitic revelation.90

He put them to the test Rashbam understands the lack of drinking water to have constituted a test of Israel’s faith in God. The particular item of legislation might also have served the same purpose.

26. what is upright in His sight The Mekhilta understands this to refer to honesty in business dealings.

the diseases Not necessarily the plagues, but those maladies that were endemic in Egypt, referred to elsewhere in the Torah as “the dreadful diseases of Egypt,” “the Egyptian inflammation,” and “the sicknesses of Egypt.”

your healer God is the ultimate source of all healing. Just as He cured the waters at Marah, so will He heal the ills of an obedient Israel.

27. Elim So Numbers 33:9; a wooded, freshwater oasis, generally identified with Wadi Gharandel. Nearby is the plain of el-Marḥah, a convenient camp site.


It is now six weeks after the Exodus. With the oasis at Elim now behind them and the provisions brought from Egypt exhausted, the people face a severe shortage of food. The wilderness conditions offer little possibility of securing fresh supplies. Popular discontent flares, and harsh accusations are hurled against Moses and Aaron.
God responds to Israel’s material and spiritual needs: He supplies manna and quail and institutes the weekly Sabbath rest day.
The Complaint (vv. 1–3)

1. The wilderness itinerary set forth in Numbers 33:10–11 refers to an intermediate encampment by the Sea of Reeds on the way to the region of Sinai, a clear indication that the present record is condensed.

2–3. The hardships of life in the wilderness arouse nostalgia for life in Egypt. Another popular idealizing of the past is chronicled in Numbers 11:5: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

2. the whole Israelite community The suffering is more severe and more widespread than in the previous crisis, for in that instance the grumblers are described as simply “the people” (15:24).

3. died by the hand of the LORD That is, from natural causes. Death in old age in slavery is deemed preferable to premature death by starvation in freedom.2 These hypothetical options show a lack of faith in divine Providence.

fleshpots … bread Since the people left Egypt with their flocks and herds,4 they could hardly have been in danger of starvation. However, livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal. Besides, the people had probably already suffered losses for lack of adequate pasturage.
The Divine Response (vv. 4–5)

Even before Moses can “cry out to the LORD,” as in the preceding crisis (15:25), God responds to Israel’s needs. No anger is displayed at the people’s complaint; nor is any recorded in the historical recapitulation of this episode in Deuteronomy 8:3, 16. But in his sermon in Psalm 78:18–22, the psalmist portrays God as incensed at the disbelief and faithlessness inherent in the people’s grumbling.
It may well be that implicit in the Torah’s narrative is the biblical teaching that human beings have an obligation to imitate divine qualities (imitatio dei). This Jewish doctrine is based on such passages as Leviticus 19:2—“You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy”—and on the several texts in Deuteronomy that enjoin Israel “to walk” in God’s way. The Sifrei phrases the teaching this way: “Just as He is compassionate, so be you; just as He is gracious, so be you.” It follows from the present narrative that Israel would be expected to emulate God’s qualities of self-restraint in the face of base ingratitude and of solicitous concern for the hungry.

4. the LORD said to Moses Moses is privy to God’s intentions, but he is not instructed to divulge the information to the people.

bread … from the sky This contrasts with the usual “bread from the earth.” The substance is also poetically called “heavenly grain,” “the bread of heroes,” “heavenly bread,” and “bread from heaven.”

each day Hebrew devar yom be-yomo is an administrative formula used in connection with work schedules, sacrifices, and rations. The fixed daily allotment of manna to each individual ensured fair and equal distribution of this scarce commodity (v. 16). The insecurity of the people’s day-to-day existence, wholly dependent on this unfamiliar substance, heightens their consciousness of absolute reliance upon God’s beneficence.

that I may thus test them Two interpretations of this phrase are possible: (1) the gift of manna is to be subject to restrictions that test Israel’s obedience and trust; and (2) God intentionally subjects Israel to hunger in order to demonstrate and inculcate the lesson of their absolute dependence upon Him for sustenance.12 This follows the understanding of the manna episode in Deuteronomy 8:2–3.

My instructions This may refer to laws specifically relating to the manna or to God’s laws in general. Exodus 15:25 leads us to assume a tradition about laws given before the Sinaitic revelation.

5. the sixth day Of the week. The sentence is elliptical, meaning that “on Friday, twice the usual daily amount shall be collected and prepared.” Verses 22–23 show that this is precisely what the people did. The Mekhilta takes the sentence to mean that the regular day’s allotment would miraculously double when brought home, but the Hebrew should then be ve-hayah le-mishnah.

Even though Moses and Aaron are not commanded to relay God’s message, they do so in order to pacify the populace. But they speak in generalities and say nothing about the sixth day. That is why the chieftains are later puzzled about the purpose of the double portion of manna (v. 22).

6. Aaron He is included because, along with Moses, he was the target of the people’s complaint.

all the Israelites The comprehensive formulation echoes verse 2.

it was the LORD And not we, as was charged in verse 2. The unexpected and timely satisfaction of the craving for meat will be incontestable proof that Israel’s experiences are determined by God’s sovereign will.

7. The Presence of the LORD This is the first biblical usage of the seminal Hebrew phrase kevod YHVH. Formerly rendered “the glory of God,” it is now recognized to be multifaceted in meaning, its precise signification determined by the context. The reference here, as Rashi and Rashbam note, is not to any visible symbol, as in verse 10, but to the manifestation of God’s essential nature, as He caringly and beneficently provides for His people’s needs.

against the LORD The carping against Moses and Aaron is really a questioning of God, from whom their mission and authority derived.

For who are we … A self-deprecating rhetorical question that is intensified by the use of Hebrew mah, literally “what,” employed of things rather than persons.

8. Moses reiterates the sentiment just voiced and expands it to emphasize that the people’s complaint is really a challenge to God.

to eat … to the full The varying expressions indicate that the cravings for both flesh and bread are to be satisfied but that the former is an unreasonable need.

9. Aaron acts as Moses’ spokesman—now to Israel rather than to Pharaoh.

toward the LORD Literally, “before the Lord,” a phrase that usually means in front of the altar, Ark, or Tabernacle. Here, as Rashi notes, it must refer to the direction of the cloud.

10. in a cloud Rather, “in the cloud,” that is, the luminous cloud that symbolizes God’s active, dynamic, indwelling Presence in Israel during the wilderness period; see Comment to 13:22. The sudden appearance of the cloud is an affirmation of the declaration, announced by Aaron.

The divine promise is fulfilled. The narrative is expansive on the manna but terse with respect to the quail, for several reasons: the cry for bread was reasonable, the craving for meat was not; the manna appeared with attendant supernatural features, but, except for its timing, the quail was a wholly natural phenomenon; and the manna was supplied continuously for forty years, whereas the quail was only occasional.

12. I have heard The repetition serves to introduce the account of the actual arrival of quail and manna. This is not fortuitous but determined by divine deliberation.

By evening On Hebrew bein ha-ʿarbayim, literally “at twilight”; see Comment to 12:6.

eat … have your fill See Comment to verse 8.

you shall know This echoes verse 6. Israel “knows” God through the experience of His actions on their behalf. On the meaning of the Hebrew verb y-d-ʿ, see Comments to 1:8 and 6:3.

13. quail These migratory birds of the pheasant family, scientifically known as Coturnix coturnix, are to this day caught in large numbers in northern Sinai and Egypt. They migrate in vast flocks from central Europe to Africa in the autumn and return in the spring. They are small in size and make the long and tiring journey in stages. Flying low and landing exhausted, they are easily captured with nets or by hand. Numbers 11:31–32 gives a vivid description of this process. The tender meat of the baby quail is regarded as a great delicacy. It requires no oil for cooking and is speedily prepared over a hot flame. There is no suggestion in the narrative that the quail was other than a one-time provision. This is supported by the account in Numbers 11:4, 6, 13, 21–22, which records that some people, bored with the manna beyond endurance, hankered after meat. Hence, the quail could not have been available regularly or even intermittently. That is why both Deuteronomy 8:3, 16 and Nehemiah 9, which recount God’s benefactions to Israel in the wilderness, ignore the gift of quail.

a fall of dew Numbers 11:9 reads: “When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall upon it.” That text, read in combination with verses 13–14, here yields a description of the manna as enveloped in two layers of dew. It would thereby remain clean until collected in the early morning. Because of its association with dew, which in biblical times was thought to descend like rain from the sky, the manna could be called “bread from heaven.”

14. To the description “fine and flaky, as fine as frost” must be added the specification in Numbers 11:7 that the manna was like coriander seed, of the color of bdellium, and it tasted like rich cream when prepared. No natural phenomenon in the Sinai region entirely matches these details. Closest is a white honeylike substance excreted from the tamarisk bush and called manna to this day by the Bedouin who collect it and eat it. This sap, rich in carbohydrates, is sucked by insects, which excrete the surplus onto the twigs. These form tiny globules that crystallize and fall to the ground. However, no naturalistic explanation can do justice to the manna tradition as it is presented in biblical literature. Here the substance possesses a numinous quality. Its bestowal is distinguished by certain wondrous features. However much one gathered, it amounted to only one omer; on Fridays the amount doubled; it did not fall on the Sabbath; any surplus beyond the allotted amount became rancid on weekdays but not on the Sabbath. What’s more, although the manna collected by Bedouins in the Sinai is seasonal and of limited quantity, the biblical manna nourished the entire Israelite population throughout the forty years of the wilderness wanderings.


15. What is it? Hebrew man hu is a folk explanation for the term by which the inhabitants of the wilderness knew the substance described above. The usual Hebrew would be mah hu, but the form man may be an ancient dialectic variant.

16. an omer Hebrew ʿOmer usually means a sheaf, but in this chapter it appears as a measure of capacity. Quite likely, ours is a different word, perhaps connected with Arabic ghumar, “a small bowl” that was used for measuring. See Comment to verse 36.

19. Ibn Ezra understands the purpose behind this restriction to be a test of faith that the manna would appear again the next day.

20. infested with maggots Hebrew va-yarum may be a play on rimmah, “a worm” (cf. v. 24), as Ibn Janah suggests.

Divine abstention from creativity on the seventh day is the climax of the biblical cosmogony, as recounted in Genesis 2:1–3. For this, the Hebrew stem sh-b-t is used in its verbal form, with God as the subject. Now, for the first time, the noun shabbat occurs to designate the fixed institution that recurs with cyclic regularity.

21. This verse introduces the entire section.

22. Presumably, the people had been told to collect double the usual daily amount on Fridays, but had not been told why. The tribal chiefs report that the order was followed, and they await clarification.

double the amount of food Hebrew leḥem mishneh occurs in the Bible only here. Verse 22 is the source of the Jewish custom of having two loaves of bread (referred to in later Hebrew as leḥem mishneh) on the table at the kiddush, the benedictory ceremony consecrating the Sabbath and festivals.

23. Rashbam takes this verse to mean that Moses deliberately withheld the information about the Sabbath from the people in order to use the clement of mystery as a pedagogic device.

a day of rest Hebrew shabbaton is an abstract form meaning “restfulness.” It is also applied to the holy day later known as Rosh Hashanah, and to Tabernacles (sukkot). However, the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement are designated shabbat shabbaton, a superlative signifying the highest degree of rest. Hence, “all manner of work” (Heb. melaʾkhah) is proscribed on the shabbat shabbaton but only “laborious work” (Heb. meleʾkhet ʿavodah) on the ordinary shabbaton.

a holy sabbath The holiness of the day flows from God’s infusion of blessing and sanctity, as related in Genesis 2:3. Because it is an integral part of the divinely ordained cosmic order, its blessed and sacred character is a cosmic reality wholly independent of human initiative. Hence the frequent designation “a Sabbath of the LORD.” See further the Comment to 20:8–12.

bake … boil A fuller description of the way the manna was prepared is given in Numbers 11:8. “The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes.” The present passage is the biblical source for the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath.

all that is left That is, what was neither baked nor boiled on Friday but remained in its raw, though still edible, state.

26. Six days … on the seventh The law of the Sabbath is frequently styled this way.

27. Some people were skeptical of Moses’ prediction that no manna would fall on the Sabbath (cf. v. 20), and they went out to test it. Ezekiel (20:10–13) most likely refers to this incident when he recounts that Israel had already violated the Sabbath laws in the wilderness. If so, it suggests that the number involved was far greater than the text might indicate.

28–29. There is an apparent disparity between the nature of the offense, which is lack of faith, and the content of the divine reproof, which refers to a violation of some law. Hence, either the text is also referring to the incident reported in verse 20, or it tacitly assumes that not keeping God’s “commandments and teachings” involves disbelief. At any rate, the verse—like verses 4 and 15:25—presupposes some prior lawgiving not otherwise detailed.

29. has given you the Sabbath The institution is God’s gift to Israel. As the rabbis of the Talmud expressed it, “The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Moses, ‘I have a precious gift in My treasure house, called the Sabbath, and I desire to give it to Israel.’ ”

Let everyone remain where he is … his place And not go out to collect manna. Early on this verse was more broadly interpreted as a general restriction on mobility during the Sabbath. The definition of the synonymous terms “where he is” (Heb. taḥtav) and “his place” (Heb. mekomo) was established to be two thousand cubits beyond the city wall. This distance was derived from Numbers 35:5, which fixes the boundaries of the Levitical cities. The same line of demarcation appears once again in Joshua 3:4 as a kind of cordon sanitaire separating the people from the Ark at the crossing of the river Jordan into the promised land.

This section contains a note on the purported origin of the name manna, a description of the substance’s appearance and taste, an instruction to preserve a sample, a historical retrospect, and a metrological note.
The appendix stems from a time later than the events just narrated. It presupposes the erection of the Tabernacle, the appointment of a priesthood, the termination of the fall of manna, the settlement in the land, and the obsolescence of the omer measure.
Medieval Jewish commentators recognized that verses 32–34 tell of events that took place later on. It was already well established in rabbinic times that the order of the pentatechal narratives does not necessarily conform to chronological sequence. This observation was formulated in two ways: “There is no early and late in the Torah” (ʾein mukdam u-meʾuḥar ba-torah); and “The pericopes of the Torah were not given in order” (loʾ nitnu parshiyoteiha shel torah ʿal ha-seder). This principle is the last of the “Thirty-two Rules” employed in the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, a compilation ascribed to Rabbi Yose ben Eleazar of Galilee (second century C.E.).

31. See Comment to verse 14. The information about the nature of the manna is provided for those who are no longer familiar with it. The comparison with coriander seed relates only to the shape and size, not to its color, which is dark. In Numbers 11:7 the manna is described as having the appearance of bdellium (Heb. bedolaḥ). It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the term, whose precise meaning is now uncertain. In Genesis 2:12 it is associated with gold and lapis lazuli, and so should refer to some precious stone. The Septuagint understands the depiction of the manna in this way, as do Rashi and Saadia. Josephus, however, compares the manna with “the spicy herb called bdellium.” The Akkadian cognate budulḥu is, in fact, an aromatic resin. Genesis Rabba 16:2 cites both a “precious stone” and “the bedolaḥ of perfumers.” This was a fragrant semitransparent resin derived from trees of the genus Commiphora.

like wafers Hebrew tsapiḥit is an unknown word. In Numbers 11:8 the taste is compared to “cream of oil,” that is, “rich cream.” Either we are dealing with varying traditions, or, as Bekhor Shor and Ibn Ezra suggest, our verse describes the taste of the manna in its raw state, while the passage in Numbers characterizes its flavor when cooked.

32–34. For educational purposes, a sample of the manna—an amount equal to an individual’s daily ration—is to be preserved as a kind of cultural relic. It is to serve future generations as a vivid reminder of God’s providential care of Israel throughout the wilderness period.

33. Since the priesthood in Israel has not yet been established, this instruction cannot be contemporaneous with the events previously described.

a jar Hebrew tsintsenet is a unique word. According to the context, it refers to a vessel of some kind. The Septuagint renders it stamnos, “a jar” (for storing wine). This is also the tradition of the Mekhilta. Lekaḥ Tov cites Jeremiah 32:14: “… put them into an earthen jar, so that they may last a long time.” Sealed with wax, jars of this type were the most common and effective receptacle for storing valuables. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the caves at Qumran had been preserved in earthenware jars.

before the LORD That is, in front of the Ark in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle, which was not erected until the first anniversary of the Exodus.

34. the Pact Ellipsis for “the Ark of the Pact.” Hebrew ʿedut is synonymous with berit, “covenant.” The Ark housed the two tablets of stone on which the Decalogue was inscribed. These are variously designated “the tablets of the Pact” (Heb. luḥot ha-ʿedut), as in 31:18 and elsewhere, and “the Tablets of the Covenant” (Heb. luḥot ha-berit), as in Deuteronomy 9:9, 11. Following the revolt of Korah, Aaron’s rod was similarly deposited “before the LORD,” that is, “before the Pact,” for safekeeping and for an educational purpose, as recounted in Numbers 17:19, 22, 25.

35. After the Israelites crossed the Jordan and celebrated the Passover in the Land of Israel for the first time, Joshua 5:11–12 reports that “on the day after the passover offering, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the country, unleavened bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.”

to the border of the land of Canaan This note is obviously not consistent with the above-cited tradition, unless, with Ibn Ezra, the reference concerns Gilgal, the first encampment of Israel west of the Jordan. That locality is situated “on the eastern border [Heb. ketseh] of Jericho” (Josh. 4:19).

36. The omer as a measure never recurs in the Bible. The note is needed here because the omer became obsolete and unintelligible to later generations. A tenth of an ephah is otherwise termed ʿissaron. The ephah, a word of Egyptian origin, was a dry measure frequently mentioned in the Bible.
Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (S. 36–92). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.


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