By Daniel Pinner
“G-d said to Moshe:…You will come – you and the elders of Israel – to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews, happened upon us; so now, let us make a three-day journey into the desert, and we will sacrifice to Hashem our God” (Exodus 3:13-18).
“…Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says Hashem, G-d of Israel: Send out My people, for them to celebrate to Me in the desert. And Pharaoh said: Who is Hashem, that I should hearken to His voice, to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, neither will I send Israel out. And they said: The G-d of the Hebrews happened upon us. Let us make a three-day journey into the desert, and we will sacrifice to Hashem our G-d, lest He smite us with the plague or the sword. And the king of Egypt said to them: Why, Moshe and Aharon, do you disturb the people from its work? Go and mind your own business” (Exodus 5:1-4).
Moshe and Aharon’s approach to Pharaoh was foredoomed to failure. It was obvious that Pharaoh would refuse a demand made in the name of the G-d of the Hebrews. Had they demanded emancipation of the slaves in the name of Ra, or Ptah, or Anubis, that might have got Pharaoh’s attention. But speaking in the name of Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews? This is the equivalent of Nat Turner approaching President Andrew Jackson with the demand: “In the name of Yemoja and Oshun, the gods whom we worship, free the slaves!” Obviously, any national leader thus confronted will kick the petitioners out.
Why, then, did Moshe and Aharon choose to confront Pharaoh in a way that virtually ensured that he would refuse their demands?
I suggest here two reasons, which complement and resonate with each other.
First of all, the fundamental purpose of the redemption of the nation of slaves was Kiddush Hashem – sanctification of the Name of G-d. Therefore, it inevitably had to be wrought in the name of Hashem, G-d of the Hebrews. After all, just as G-d brought ten plagues on Egypt, He could just as easily have freed the slaves in a seemingly natural manner: a foreign power could have invaded Egypt and thrown open the borders; Pharaoh could have died, and his successor could have had a more liberal policy; the Jews in Egypt could have mounted an armed insurrection; Moshe himself, according to Midrash Divrei ha-Yamim de-Moshe, had become king of Midian in the decades that he had lived there – he could have raised an army and freed the Jewish slaves.
But none of these would have sanctified the name of Hashem, G-d of Israel. Though the Jews would have been redeemed, the purpose of that redemption would not thereby have been fulfilled.
There is another reason that Pharaoh had to hear that the demand to free the Hebrew slaves came from Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews, a reason of simple justice. Four hundred and thirty years earlier, G-d had forged His covenant with Abraham, promising him: “Know for sure that your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs; they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge. And after this, they will go out with great property” (Genesis 15:13-14).
G-d’s precise words are important here: not “the nation that they will serve, I shall punish” but “the nation that they will serve, I shall judge” – they will be judged for good or for bad. As the Ramban expresses it: “Even though I decreed upon your seed to be strangers in a land that is not theirs, that they will serve them and they will oppress them, nevertheless I will bring the nation that they will serve to justice for what they will do to them. And they will not be acquitted by reason of having done My will” (commentary to Genesis 15:14). The Ramban goes on to explain that the Egyptians were eventually punished because they went way beyond what G-d had decreed: oppression did not include murdering all the baby boys; their cunning and duplicity in preventing the Jews from multiplying (Exodus 1:10) was not part of G-d’s plan. “The meaning of the phrase ‘I shall judge’ is that I will judge whether they did according to what was decreed upon them, or if they committed additional evil” (Ramban, ibid.).
It is possible that even with the additional evil that the Egyptians added on their own initiative, the fact that the very slavery was Divinely pre-ordained might have been a mitigating factor. For this reason, Pharaoh and all Egypt had to be given a fair chance of acquitting themselves before G-d judged them: “Thus says Hashem,
G-d of Israel: Send out My people”. Pharaoh and Egypt could have decided at that moment that they would, indeed, heed the word of Hashem, the G-d of Israel, and send the Jews back to Israel; after all, the same G-d Who had decreed slavery upon them, now decreed that the time had come to release them. They could also have looked at the conclusion of the prophecy – “after this, they will go out with great property” – and fulfilled their end of the bargain by paying us for the generations of slave labour.
Had they done so, they might indeed have been judged and exonerated – or at least, condemned to a lesser punishment than what they actually received.
But Pharaoh’s response was “Who is Hashem, that I should hearken to His voice, to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem”. This was not only monumental arrogance; it was also the death sentence for him and his nation. It was his arrogant declaration that “I do not know Hashem” that ensured that upon being judged, they would be found guilty. After this confession, there was no way that Pharaoh and the Egyptians could ever claim that they were persecuting the Jews in order to fulfil the decree of Hashem.
And the result was slow, painful destruction – a destruction so complete that Egypt would sink into obscurity for the next five hundred years: we would not hear anything else from Egypt until King Solomon would forge an alliance with the rebuilt Egypt by marrying a much later Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 3:1).
“Thus may all Your enemies, O Hashem, be destroyed” (Judges 5:31).