The Three Great Lies of the Exodus
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Understanding Moses’s Miracles in Egypt
Rabbi Fohrman introduces the three signs that God gave to Moses to instill faith in God within the people and to prove His might to Pharaoh. Rabbi Fohrman, then, delves a bit more deeply into these three signs, questioning them and their effectiveness and looking to a connection between them and belief.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Aleph Beta.
Well it is Pesach season and there's lots of really interesting things we can talk about. We can talk about the pyrotechnics of the plagues, the tense bargaining sessions between Moses and Pharaoh – you name it. But today we are not going to talk about any of the really interesting parts of the exodus, we're going to talk about the boring stuff. The stuff that gets cut out of almost every cinematic representation of the exodus story; from The Ten Commandments, to The Prince of Egypt, you name it, no one talks about this. We're going to talk about the three signs that take place at the Burning Bush.
Three Miracles by Moses: One New Lens to Explain the ExodusYep, you might not even know that there are three signs that took place at the Burning Bush, but it happens. Moses in his conversation with God at the Burning Bush says, look You've got the wrong guy, just forget about it, they're never going to believe me, they're not even going to think God appeared to me. This whole thing isn't going to work. To prove that it will, God gives him three signs that he can reproduce to inspire belief in anyone who sees them.
These three signs at first glance, are the sort of supernatural magic tricks that Moses can perform. But what I want to suggest to you is that they are far more than this. They are actually a lens through which to view the entire Exodus story. Because 3000 years later you can start asking questions about the Exodus, questions that you might not have asked had you actually lived through the events.
It's a very violent story. We're telling R-rated violent stories to our kids at the Seder, about blood everywhere, about thousands of first-born dead. It just seems so violent and so awful and what would have been wrong with a nice, G-rated version of the exodus? God could have just made the hapless Egyptians stand aghast as magic carpets escorted happy Israelites to freedom and everything could have been happy. Why is it that it has to be so awful, so violent, so dark?
These questions about why the exodus had to happen this way, I think we can get a lens through viewing it all through these three signs. They explain to us how to look at these events. What were these signs? What did they mean?
Explaining the List of Miracles Performed by MosesFirst God tells Moses to take his staff, to cast it down, and then as if by magic it turns into a snake. Moses recoils but God says, no, no, no, grab hold of the tail of the snake. Moses does and then it turns back into a staff.
So God says, they should believe you if they see that sign, but if they don't, take your hand and bring it in your cloak next to your chest, and then take it out. Moses does so and his hand is white as snow.
So then God says, so those are two things that really should inspire belief in anybody who sees them, but if that doesn't work take some water from the river Nile, pour it on the ground, and when it hits the ground it will turn into blood. That's it. Those are the three signs.
If you just think about them in a vacuum, just the way I presented them to you, you say, oh wow that's pretty cool, I don't know anybody who can do that, if I saw that I'd probably believe too. But let me ask you a couple of questions.
Question Number 1, is there any meaning to these particular signs? Are these just Divinely-inspired magic? Could God just as easily have said, and now Moses to prove that you in fact represent the Almighty, take Aaron and put him behind this black cloak and take the saber and slash him in two, and then magically he's going to step right out from behind that cloak and he's going to be whole again, he won't have been harmed? Then if they don't believe that, here's a big top hat, reach your hand in and take out a rabbit. Is that what these are? Are these just sort of random, really impressive, magic tricks? Could it have just been anything? Is there any rhyme or reason to why these particular things were shown to Moses? Why these were the things that were supposed to inspire belief?
Okay so that's one question. But here's another question, let's talk about the effectiveness of these signs, how effective were they at achieving their aims?
Were Moses's Miracles Effective for Pharaoh or Israel?If you actually look how this played out, for example, one of these signs Moses performs in Pharaoh's palace, there's that moment when very dramatically, Aaron cast down his staff and it turns into this great snake. So it's very impressive, right? But what's the next thing that happens?
Pharaoh's magicians, his astrologers take their staffs and they cast their staffs and they also turn into snakes. Now what's the deal with that? I mean if you're God, if you're the master of the universe, couldn't you have come up with a magic trick that no one else could do? I mean if you're counting on this to inspire faith, if Pharaoh sleight of hand magicians can do it too, so who cares? How impressive is that, it's just garden-variety magic? So you could say, well, you know at the end of the day, Aaron's staff ends up swallowing all the other snakes, so you see that God's magic is a bit of a higher caliber than the Egyptian's magic. But couldn't God have picked a sign that no one else could replicate? It doesn't seem to be a very good belief-instigator that Pharaoh's astrologers can replicate it.
Okay, now perhaps you'd respond to that, you'd say, well look, that's what happened in the palace, but actually Pharaoh wasn't the main intended audience, the intended audience were the Israelites themselves. After all, Moses' issue that he expresses to God is that the people, the Israelites, won't believe me. So maybe they were there to inspire faith among the people, not for Pharaoh? So let's examine that, let's ask, how good were these signs at inspiring faith among the people?
So what happens? Moses comes back from the Burning Bush, he gathers everyone together and he shows these signs, and the text says; Vaya'amein ha'am – the people believed like God said. So end of story, right, it worked? But how well did it really work? If you keep on reading the story, the people actually seem to lose this faith rather quickly because early on in the narrative of the exodus from Egypt, Pharaoh, annoyed at Moses, doubles the workload of the people, and when that happens the people seem to lose whatever faith they had. Vayifke'u et Moshe v'et Aaron – they went and they met up with Moses and Aaron and they said to them, what are you guys doing? Let God judge between you and us, you've just made everything worse. By demanding our rights to Pharaoh, you've done nothing but given them a sword in which to kill us. Leave us alone with all this talk about the exodus, just let us serve Pharaoh in peace.
It doesn't seem like the signs are doing much at this point. Why even bother with them? It's no wonder that every movie representation of this leaves that out. Why are they there?
What Was the Significance of Moses's Miracles?So here's the beginning of a very tentative theory. According to the text the signs are there to inspire belief. But what exactly do we mean by belief? The Hebrew word for it is; Vaya'amein ha'am – and the people believed. Moses complained; Hem lo ya'aminu li – they won't believe me. What exactly do we mean by this kind of belief?
Interestingly, this word is going to appear one more time in the exodus story, at its culmination, in the story of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. After Israel triumphantly crosses and after the pursuing Egyptian army is smashed by the waves, the text says; Vaya'aminu baHashem u'beMoshe avdo – the people believed in God and in Moses His servant. You see it's not so easy to figure out exactly what it means. Because if you would have asked me pick a moment in the exodus story where a non-believer might look at events and say, if that's stuff is really happening I'm changing my mind, now I believe, I don't think I would have picked either of the places in which the Torah talks about belief. The three signs on the one hand or the splitting of the sea on the other hand.
I wouldn't have picked the three signs because they're not dramatic enough, they just seem to be magic tricks, so I don't know if that would have done it for me. But when we look at the story of the splitting of the sea, I [have got to say 8:15] say yeah, that's pretty impressive, but I think I would have believed even before then. Because what happened in the middle? Huge, grand, epic plagues; the entire Nile turns to blood, hailstones raining down with fire and ice frozen to the same hailstone. One by one the forces of nature conspiring against Egypt in obviously miraculous ways.
Indeed, if you go back to our course on the exodus we did two years ago I made the argument there that the 10 plagues were explicitly designed to demonstrate that there was a creator to the universe. If you saw the 10 plagues, those are the things that would make you believe. So I would have believed long before the splitting of the sea, it wouldn't take the splitting of the sea to make me believe.
The problem is that the two times the Torah talks about belief don't seem to be the moments where most people would turn the corner on belief. The three signs, it's too little. The splitting of the sea, is too late. Yet the text is telling us it's not so. The text says the moments to look at when you think about belief are the three signs and then again, much, much later on at the splitting of the sea.
How the Passover Miracles Help Us Understand the ExodusWhat I want to suggest to you with these videos is that the three signs that take place at the Burning Bush are not trivial things to be glossed over or written out of the story, they're not cheap magic tricks, they're something else entirely. They're nothing less than a lens through which the entire redemption of Egypt can be seen.
They give us a new way of understanding that process of redemption. They give us a way of understanding the dark side of the process of redemption, the violence inherent in the plagues. The signs tell us that the exodus from Egypt didn't just make us free, it didn't just help us understand that there was a Master of the Universe, inspired us to understand something about the Master of the Universe, about this Being who redeemed us and set us free. It inspired us to understand why we ought to be loyal to Him, why we have a right to believe that He can actually connect with us. When we really begin to understand these three signs, I think we really begin to understand not just what the Exodus means, but what it means to us. Follow me into the next videos and let’s take a look at these three signs more closely, and let’s try to discern what story they have to tell us.