2018-01-17 / Religion Column

What makes Israel’s G-d greater than Egypt’s gods?

Lions Gate Rabbi Emeritus

Parashat Bo
Ex. 10:1-13:16

“And I will execute judgments to all the gods of Egypt, I am HaShem”—Exodus 12:12

God is the hero of the Exodus story. All the other characters including Moses play only supporting roles. From the moment God hears the Israelites outcry, through the 10 plagues and until the waters of the Red Sea crash down upon the Egyptian army, every act of the drama reveals God’s mighty hand.

God’s unexpected victory over Egypt and Egypt’s gods casts a literary motif that we have already seen a number of times in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis onto the cosmic scale. It is the reversal story of the unexpected hero. It is the story in which the younger, weaker, smaller child receives the promises and blessings one would expect to have gone to the first born—the older, stronger, greater child. Here, however, it is not Isaac supplanting Ishmael or Jacob taking Esau’s place. Here it is the unknown God of a small, enslaved people overthrowing not only those who oppress his people, but also their gods. It is a story in which the world has been turned upside down—the weak are now strong, the slaves are now free, the oppressed are receiving tribute, and the tyrant is begging for mercy.

But more than this, in the Exodus story, creation itself is disordered. With the 10 plagues God not only afflicts the Egyptian people, but also challenges their gods. God directs each plague against a specific manifestation of the power of one of Egypt’s many deities— from the smiting of the life giving River Nile to the death of the firstborn, including the son of the Pharaoh, the god-king of Egypt. In the final act, the splitting of the Red Sea, God reenacts creation by once again reasserting God’s control over the unruly waters, the symbols of primordial chaos.

To our Israelite ancestors, the world was full of powerful creatures and beings that for us exist only as folk memories of characters in ancient myths and forgotten legends. While the Israelites generally thought that it was foolish to attribute divine powers to the statues and images other people made of their gods, they sensed that the divine beings worshipped by other nations were in some fashion real.

In this way our ancestors were not unusual. It was the common belief that struggles between peoples and nations took place not only in the physical world but reflected a similar struggle in the world of their gods. The victory of one nation over another demonstrated both the superiority of the victor’s army and the victor’s gods.

If the epic of Israel ended at the Exodus, our ancestors’ memory of a powerful Israel led and protected by Israel’s powerful God overcoming the armies and divinities of Israel’s Egyptian adversaries would have fit in nicely into the general worldview of the ancient world. But Israel was never powerful. Egypt remained a strong, powerful nation long after our people left. There was never a great Israelite empire. For most of biblical history, our ancestors were acutely aware of being surrounded by more powerful nations and the story of biblical Israel ends with exile and foreign domination.

The spiritual breakthrough of our ancestors can be seen in the reversal of the ancient pattern— a revaluation of what it means to be great and powerful. Just as the promises to the Patriarchs do not pass to the physically powerful son, the God of Israel is not great because Israel is a powerful nation. Like the younger son whose greatness grows from his character, the God of Israel’s greatness emerges from that which God does for the weak and vulnerable. Israel’s God is greater than all other gods because Israel’s God is the God who feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, cures the sick, raises the downtrodden and frees the enslaved. Israel’s God is the God who could render judgment against the gods of Egypt, because ultimately justice, mercy, and love will overcome oppression, cruelty, and hatred. Israel’s God is great because Israel’s God created a world that is inherently good and whose goodness cannot be suppressed forever. Sadly, Pharaoh forgot this truth so his world and his gods were shaken and, thankfully, out of that chaos, our ancestors were able to find a path to freedom.

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