Is there any figure more truly tragic than Moses? Moses had the shittiest job imaginable (he was the first middle manager), and he was also in a deeply abusive relationship with God. You want to reach back in time and grab him by the collar, shake him, and say, “Moses! He doesn’t really love you! No one who really loved you would ever treat you this way!”
Exodus begins with a bit of a time jump — Joseph’s family had been proliferating in Egypt since the end of Genesis, and at some point, a Pharaoh realized the Hebrews were outnumbering the Egyptians and also doing better than they were, so the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews and forced them to build “treasure cities” for Pharaoh. But those damn Jews just kept reproducing! (Imagine a time when the dominant people in a country would be so threatened by the prospect of minorities outnumbering them.) So Pharaoh called in the midwives and instructed them to kill all the male babies, and the midwives were like, “Absolutely, will do!” and then absolutely did not do it. And when Pharaoh called them back in to ask them why they weren’t following instructions, they said that, unlike Egyptian women, Hebrew women gave birth like sneezing, so by the time a midwife got to a birthing bed, the boy would already be out, free (well, enslaved), and living large. God loved this and he rewarded the midwives with houses. One wonders why He couldn’t also just deliver them all from slavery, if He was this involved in their daily affairs, but the Lord is mysterious.
The beginning of Moses’s story will be very familiar to anyone who grew up watching The Ten Commandments. Having failed with the midwives, Pharaoh ordered all the Hebrews to throw their male babies into the river directly, and so Moses’s mom put him in a basket and floated him downstream hoping he that he would somehow escape his death sentence. And indeed, Pharaoh’s daughter fished Moses out and decided to keep him as a pet. She hired his mother to nurse him for her, which is an incredibly painful thing to imagine, and once he was weaned, she basically adopted him. Then one day when he was presumably a young man, Moses went out walking and saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew man, so Moses just up and killed the overseer and hid his body in the sand. When Pharaoh heard about this, he determined to kill Moses, so Moses ran off to a little village, and rested near a well. We know from Genesis that wells were the singles bars of the Fertile Crescent, and soon enough the usual meet cute happened — a gaggle of women came along, some other guys were dicks to them, Moses intervened on their behalf, and because their dad was so pleased that Moses had enabled them to get their chores done in half the time it usually took them, he gave one of them, Zipporah, to Moses.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Pharaoh died, and the children of Israel all prayed and cried to God about being, you know, ENSLAVED, and God suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, you people! I super promised your ancestors that I would always take good care of you, my bad!” Now, God could very easily have just freed them from slavery immediately without harming anyone, being God and all, but instead, he decided to turn their delivery into an epic.
God began by communicating very cryptically with Moses via the burning bush. He told Moses that He planned to deliver the Hebrews from slavery and lead them to the land of milk and honey, and He wanted Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him he must let them all go. Moses tried hard to get out of this; he did not want to do it at all. First, he said that nobody was going to believe he had actually spoken to God (one gets the sense that, with the exception of giving the midwives houses, God had been somewhat absent for a few generations), and so God demonstrated three magic tricks by which Moses could prove he was down with the divine: Moses’s rod became a snake, his hand became leprous, and he could pour water on the ground and it would transform into blood. Then Moses protested that he was stupid and bad at public speaking, and God said He would tell him just what to say. Then Moses straight up asked that God pick anybody but him, and God finally lost His temper with Moses and said, “Fine, your brother Aaron can do all the talking, but I’ll tell you what to say, and you tell Aaron.”
I have a few questions about this.
First of all, where the hell did Aaron come from? All the male babies were murdered, that was Moses’s whole origin story! But here he suddenly has a brother?
Second, why doesn’t God just deal directly with Aaron, or for that matter, directly with Pharaoh? I could understand God wanting to delegate more. He presumably has some other worlds He’s made since we last left Him, and so He’s busier now than He was in Genesis. But delegating isn’t His intent, because all of Exodus is God doing things the hard way and making a ton of work for Himself.
For example, as soon as Moses finally agreed to this plan and got on the road, God told Moses that the plan was still the same, but that He (God) was going to intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not listen to Moses.
Immediately after that, something disturbing but unclear happened (“disturbing but unclear” could be the Bible’s tagline) — I’m not sure, but it reads as if the Lord popped down to an inn where the family was staying and attempted to kill Moses’s son, but Zipporah (who was metal af) quickly hacked off her son’s foreskin with a stone and threw it down at the Lord’s feet, and so the Lord let him live. Zipporah then got mad at Moses about this. Zipporah could see what they were getting into — she knew they were heading into 80 years of mess.
This scene is especially confusing, because Moses himself was not circumcised. God’s position on foreskin could not be clearer, and yet for some reason, He had no issue with this when it came to Moses, who was His most chosen one yet.
Anyway, they got back to Egypt and Aaron and Moses had no trouble selling themselves to the Hebrews, but when they asked Pharaoh to let their people go to the desert for three days for religious sacrifices, Pharaoh the Petty got very pissy and not only said no to that, but also, just for asking, he condemned the Hebrews to gather their own straw for brick-making (as opposed to having it provided for them), but with no reduction in their production targets.
With this incident, the pattern of Moses’s life was established: the people were furious at Moses for making their lives harder, Moses appealed to God about the impossible situation that God had placed him in, and God monologued at him saying He’s got a grand plan and keep the faith and hold the course, and then God continued to do nothing at all and did not provide any sort of timeline for when things would improve. I’m going to beat this drum a lot, but anyone who has worked in management can surely relate to Moses here! He’s in a shit sandwich, getting it from both sides. And this is just the very beginning.
The rest of the Egypt stuff is all pretty repetitive — Moses kept going back to Pharaoh and demonstrating miracles, but the Lord kept helpfully hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Then the Lord sent a plague into Egypt via Moses and Aaron: first, they turned all the water to blood for seven days. This is one of the more dramatic plagues, so it’s weird that they don’t build up to it — like, the second plague was frogs, and I mean, fine, frogs. But “all the water is blood” seems like a few escalations beyond frogs. Next was lice. Fair play. Next, flies. Then, the Lord slaughtered all the Egyptians’ livestock. Then, all the Egyptians were covered in boils. Then, hail and fire (now we’re talking). Next was locusts, then three days of darkness.
One funny sidenote in all this — because Pharaoh wanted to prove that the things that Moses and Aaron were doing were not of divine origin, he had his team of magicians (apparently kings used to have a cadre of magicians on staff?) attempt to replicate each of these plagues, and there’s an ongoing narrative about what they were and weren’t able to manage. For example, they were able to replicate the plague of frogs (so Egypt got twice the frogs! Take that, God), but they weren’t able to manage the lice. When the boils came, they were too embarrassed to show up and try to copy Moses, being, well, covered in boils themselves. I kind of love the magicians.
Overall, I don’t think that God respected narrative convention in the ordering of the plagues — they do not proceed from least to most dramatic. However, He did end with a true closer: he had Moses tell Pharaoh that at midnight, every firstborn in Egypt would die (but, as with all the plagues thus far, none of the children of Israel would be touched).
Before he got started with this plague, God carefully described to Moses how He wanted Passover to be observed every year going forward. God loves to sweat the details — building and clothing design and party planning really get His creative juices flowing. God told Moses exactly what sort of lamb should be sacrificed, what it should look like, how old it should be, where it should come from, how it should be kept until the sacrifice, exactly how to sacrifice it and what to do with its blood and each of its parts, exactly how to eat it, and what to eat it with. He planned a whole menu, and explained what everyone should wear to the feast and how they should stand.
Then, He wrapped up by saying that this feast would be because that night, He would smite every firstborn in Egypt, but He would not enter any home with lamb’s blood smeared above the door.
Now, God already knew where all the Hebrews lived because He’d avoided them in every other plague up to this point without their having to paint their houses with lamb’s blood, so it seems this instruction was just because God wanted the dénouement to all this to be scenic and dramatic.
Then, God backed up a bit, and further described the seven days leading up to this yearly feast and how He wanted everyone to behave and what they should eat and so forth on each of those days. Mostly, no one was to have any leaven in their house at all; if anyone ever did, they were to be cast out from the congregation of Israel forever. This seems a bit of an overreaction to possessing a common household ingredient, but maybe God was anxious about the slaughter He was about to pull off and so was getting a little batty with the food-based control.
That night, God killed all the firstborns in Egypt (including animals) and this very exciting scene is barely touched on after we just slogged through endless chapters about Passover rituals, because the Bible is terribly written. After this, Pharaoh and the Egyptians told the Hebrews to get the fuck out and quick, and God instructed the Hebrews to take all their Egyptian neighbors’ jewels and gold and so on on their way out.
Six hundred thousand Hebrews headed out of Egypt that night, after 430 years of living in slavery in Egypt. God showed up while they were packing, and nattered on to Moses and Aaron again about various rituals He wanted observed in future — how to treat strangers and neighbors, what and how to eat, a lot about what kinds of food uncircumcised people can touch at which times, what to do with all firstborn children and animals.
If I’m the Hebrews right now, I’m thinking that I’ve just exchanged a life of fairly straightforward slave labor for a life of attempting to please a psychotic overlord obsessed with minutiae, punishment, and obeisance. But we’re not told what they thought about any of this.
God led them all into the wilderness. He appeared to them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They barely got out of Egypt when God told Moses that He was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart again and have the Egyptians come after them.
Why? Who knows! God is just a messy bitch who loves drama; that’s why He created this whole planet in the first place, and it’s the only thing that explains everything He does all the way through the Old Testament.
So then the Red Sea thing happens, and it seems very dramatic and all, unless you think about how fucking traumatized these people’s children must have been by all this. First, a life of slavery and bondage. Then, months of terrifying plagues concluding with everyone huddled under a sheep’s blood-smeared doorway hoping they perfectly performed the intricate ritual of lamb and bread they’d just been told how to do so that they or their eldest sibling doesn’t accidentally get slaughtered by a confused God. Then, running from the only homes they’d ever known and camping in the middle of the wilderness, following a literal pillar of flame that talks. And now, walking through the middle of a divided ocean with all of the Egyptian army hot on their heels. If those kids ever had made it to the land of milk and honey, it would have needed to be the land of milk and honey and brilliant child psychologists for them to get anything out of it, but in the end (spoiler alert), they all died in the desert anyway.
Through all this, you can just see God, bouncing on the balls of His feet and clapping His hands and giggling as He thinks up His next big twist. What an asshole.
Anyway, after they crossed the Red Sea, Moses sang a long song about everything that had just happened and how amazing the great Lord was, because Moses was fully in an abusive relationship. I’m sure what the Hebrews really wanted to do after all this was sit there and listen to Moses (with his infamous stutter) sing an endless song about the trauma they’d just lived through, but I’m also sure they were too frightened to pretend they weren’t delighted by it.
Then everyone spent three days traveling through the desert with no water. Three. Days. With. No. Water. God apparently went off to watch some TV after the Red Sea incident and forgot about them all for awhile. So Moses cried out to God, and God showed up again and gave them some water and then said:
“If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.”
Where have I heard this speech before? Oh, yes.
Then the people began to starve so the Lord sent game birds every evening and bread from the sky every morning. At first, there were some snags because Moses and the Lord got mad whenever anyone ate anything other than exactly the right amount in precisely the right way at precisely the right times, or if they got confused and tried to gather some food on a Sunday or whatever, but eventually they figured out how to take every bite exactly as the Lord dictated and so things were peaceful for a bit.
But then the people ran out of water again, because God was a terrible pet owner and kept forgetting that you can’t just give people food and water once a month. So, the people nagged at Moses about it until Moses the Middle Manager finally appealed to God again, who told him to strike a rock and He would send water forth from it. Which Moses did.
Remember this — it mattes later.
Next, the Hebrews come across some other people in the desert, so of course, they warred with them, and Moses went up onto a hill over the battlefield and discovered that if he held his staff above his head, Israel began to win, but if he lowered his arm, Israel began to lose. His arms got tired, though, so he had to have Aaron and some other guy hold them up for him. Now, I admit this is hilarious, but it’s also just God being an abusive shit to Moses for fun again; there’s no need for this at all.
Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, who apparently didn’t think much of Moses up until this point in the story, heard about this victory and decided to take his whole family and Moses’s wife and two kids and join the Hebrews in the desert. When he got there, he learned that all this time, Moses had been hearing all the disputes of everyone in the community personally. Jethro told Moses that this was terrible management and a sure path to quick burnout and he taught Moses how to delegate and how to set up a tiered management structure that would function as a sort of simple court system. We don’t hear a lot about Jethro, but he seems like the smartest person we’ve been introduced to so far! First, he waits and observes this new nation’s chances of survival before he takes his family out to join them in their desert wanderings. I think he clearly made the wrong call, but still, at least he exercised some caution. Then, he demonstrates some actual forethought about the societal structure, and some actual empathy for Moses’s wellbeing, and he quickly comes up with a logical and sustainable method of judicial organization that we still use today.
Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai and camped there, and the Lord appeared and crowed about what a great job He’d done for them all so far. Then, He announced that He would appear before the people and make a speech, but He wanted it to be a big production and ritual. He tells them to do all sorts of shit to prepare for Him and make His entrance very dramatic, and they aren’t to touch the mountain on penalty of death, and so on and so forth.
This interlude with the Lord becomes a huge to-do that goes on for the rest of Exodus and the timeline gets a bit confusing, but somewhere in here, the Lord delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. Interestingly, it’s pretty casual and they aren’t especially marked as any more special than any of the other big lists of commandments the Lord is eternally issuing, so I’m not sure how they became The Big Ones. There were actually a lot more than ten commandments, but the others involved things like how long men can keep slaves of varying nationalities, and how a man may sell his daughter into slavery and then her new master is allowed to sell her again if she doesn’t fuck him good enough. Then they got into things as granular as what happens if a man digs a pit and someone else’s ox falls into it, so overall, I get why we’ve since consigned all but the first ten to the dustbin of history.
To be fair to the Bible, there are a (very) few progressive ideas in here — the Lord dealt harshly with murder and abuse (other than raping women and killing “witches”, both of which were compulsory activities). People were to care for the poor and be kind to widows and orphans. There’s even stuff about the ethical treatment of animals (who apparently ranked a good deal higher than women). But most of it is eye-for-an-eye Old Testament shit. And of course, God also detailed many more elaborate feasts and rituals and so on that He wanted observed all the time in His honor.
While the Lord was dictating these commandments to Moses, the Israelites were involved in days of ritual and ceremony and the Lord kept appearing in various ways to various people. Eventually, Moses went up the mountain alone for 40 days and 40 nights while God carved all His commandments into stone tablets. It only took God seven days to make the whole world and everything within it, but no one who has ever signed a contract should be surprised that this paled in comparison with what it took to compile the first legal document.
Also, while Moses was up there, the Lord designed the ark of the covenant. I’ve spoken before about God’s love of design, and oh boy, does He ever indulge it here. He lay on His back waggling His foot in the air, dreaming up the beautiful gems and colors and carvings and statuary and candlesticks and bowls and lamps and curtains and embroidery of the ark, like a young girl planning her dream wedding. Then, He went all through the Tabernacle he wanted the ark kept in. Then, He started in on Aaron’s new wardrobe, what he and his sons were to wear, each individual item of clothing and all their accessories, and how it should all be sewn, with detailed instructions as to the needlework and folding and embroidery and jewels and engravings on the jewels. Then He composed some signature scents.
I can’t convey how long all this goes on for — just pages and pages and pages. Poor old Moses sat on that mountain for weeks on end taking exhaustive notes and trying to convince himself that this all made great business sense and his boss wasn’t a total nut job.
Meanwhile, while Moses was stuck up on the mountain taking down plans for the Lord God’s Barbie dream house, the people of Israel decided that Moses wasn’t coming back, and that they needed to make some new gods to worship. So Aaron told them to collect all their gold and he melted it down and created a molten calf that they then offered sacrifices to.
I understand that these people were all suffering from severe PTSD that wasn’t even actually P yet, but still, they had by this time spent months following an actual fire-and-smoke God through the desert who had frequently appeared before them and wrought actual miracles and devastating plagues, and had spoken to them in a thundering, disembodied voice complete with impressive pyrotechnics. Unlike that of religious people today, their faith was not inspired by a theoretical ineffable suspicion of, or desire for, God’s presence. He was RIGHT FUCKING THERE tormenting them on the daily. Yet, even so, after all this, these idiots spent one month left to their own devices, and they decided to immediately do the ONE thing that they know full well pisses God off more than ANYTHING else? I feel like they must have just wanted Him to murder them all and put them out of their misery; it’s the only explanation for their behavior.
Also, Aaron was the worst assistant to the regional director of all time. He didn’t even try to manage in Moses’s absence.
God predictably responded by saying, “You know what Moses, fuck these morons, why don’t I just wipe them all out, and we’ll rebuild Israel with just you? It worked ok with Noah.”
And if I were Moses, I would have said DO IT, but Moses was a good manager and he intervened on behalf of his team. He knew how to play God by this point. He convinced God that if He did kill all of Israel after going through all this trouble to free them from slavery, it would make Him look really bad to the Egyptians. He also reminded Him of the promises He made to His favorites, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
Then, the Bible says this:
“And the LORD repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people.”
This is very interesting! This says that God is not infallible, that He is capable of committing evil, and that it is possible for a human to know better than God, and to convince God to do the right thing!
I’m not really sure the Bible realizes it has said this, though, because we move right along.
Moses went down the mountain to deal with his people, and he absolutely melted down into pure Hulk smash rage. It’s really surprising it took him this long to entirely lose his cool. He smashed the stone tablets, and then he burned their gold calf, mixed its ashes into their water, and then made them all drink it (I suspect this was actually Zipporah’s idea). He gave Aaron a well-deserved dressing down, and Aaron deflected and blamed everybody else and took no responsibility. Then, Moses asked who among the people were ready to disagree and commit and follow the Lord, and the sons of Levi all stepped forward, so Moses told them to kill everybody else. They killed 3,000 people. Then, Moses told everyone who was still alive that he now had to go upstairs and face the wrath of the Big Boss on all their behalves, not that they would appreciate it, and he flounced back up the mountain.
I might not agree with Moses’s approach here, but I have to admit, I do understand where he is coming from.
Back atop the mountain, Moses very nobly told God that He can either forgive the people, or He would not have Moses to kick around anymore. And God said, “Fine, but I’m sending an angel to lead you the rest of the way to Canaan because I don’t want to be around you anymore, or I’ll surely kill you all.” Then there are some confusing bits where Moses just continued to work things out with God and flatter Him, and he asked God to let him (Moses) look upon God’s glory and God said He would put Moses in the cleft of a rock and cover him with His hand, and then pass by, and take His hand away just enough for Moses to see Him from the back. It’s obviously not supposed to be sexual at all, and yet…
Then, Moses had to sit up on the mountain for another 40 days and 40 nights not eating or drinking anything, and taking down the Lord’s dictation all over again on new stone tablets.
Finally, Moses went back down the mountain, and the people of Israel made all of the structures and ornaments and clothing and dishes that the Lord had just dreamt up, and the Bible actually repeats every detail of all of this stuff again as it describes how they made it all. Chapters upon chapters.
And then, the Lord descended into his tabernacle which was to serve as his litter for the rest of the desert journey, and here Exodus ends.
But Moses’s ordeal does not.