So here we are, at the beginning of Exodus, and the descendants of Joseph have become an oppressed people living in Egypt. It’s controversial whether or not there was ever any substantial population of Israelites living in Egypt, but that’s somewhat irrelevant to me- I understand that a lot of people get very invested in how historically accurate the Bible is, and certainly it’s interesting, but… I don’t know. Especially for the oldest bits, where there’s just so much we don’t know, I just don’t find it productive to worry about it, I guess.
In any case, we’ve now got classist warfare going on- the Egyptians are worried about this very fertile underclass they’ve got going on; the Hebrew women are “vigorous”, and there keep being more and more Israelite babies. So the midwives are told to kill all the male babies, and refuse. This is an interesting passage, because it tells us two things- a) the Egyptians are not concerned about intermarriage (cause what’s going to happen to all the girl babies with no Israelite men to marry?) and b) there’s already mixing of the population. The midwives are referred to as “Hebrew”, but they have Egyptian names, and are apparently under Egyptian authority. This is a pet peeve of mine, and a theme that will be repeated again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible- we want (and the texts encourage us) to think of the populations as very discrete, but that is simply never the case when it comes to humans. (Interesting tangent- drowning the male babies in the Nile is, deliberately or not, sacrificing them to Osiris- anyone who drowns in the Nile, at least in later eras in Egypt, is considered holy and sacred to Osiris.)
And then we have Moses, who is mysterious, and violent, and has a speech impediment, and is somehow chosen by God to lead a nation. He’s saved by his sister, and raised by the daughter of Pharaoh, and yet considers himself Hebrew enough to kill an Egyptian who is beating an Israelite slave. The slave, apparently, feels differently, which is interesting. No good deed/murder goes unpunished, however, and Moses flees into Midian (Saudi Arabia) where he meets some women at a well, and marries one of them (now where have we heard this before?).
Also of note- Moses’ father-in-law (who is first Reuel, then Jethro, in the remnants of what must have been two separate stories combined) is a priest. Of what? For all the Sturm und Drang that was raised about the chosen people intermarrying with the local pagans in Genesis, this seems to have fallen completely by the wayside in Exodus. Also, Zipporah has got to be my favorite Bible name.
In this way we come to the burning bush*, which is frankly one of my all-time favorite stories because of what it tells us about Moses. He’s curious- he sees something out of the ordinary, and he goes to investigate. He’s also not afraid to ask for clarification, or argue (we’ll come back to this with the Magnificat, heh). He doesn’t think he’s a good choice, and he says so. He’s credulous, though, following God’s instructions as God shows him the miracles he will perform to convince the Egyptians. However, he’s still not convinced, and finally God gets fed up with him, and tells him his brother will go too, and help him, and really now, go the fuck to Egypt, you are out of excuses.
Much gets made of the declaration of the name of G-d here, and rightfully so- it’s interesting. All the other gods at this time either have person names or attribute names- Ba’al is simply “Master/Lord”, and El Shaddai is “God of the Mountains”, etc. This god, however, names himself with a verb- “I am alive”, or “I am Living”, or “I will be what I will be”. It’s actually a very hard thing to translate into English, but the function in the story is clear- this god IS, and that’s all that’s relevant to Moses and the Israelites. This god EXISTS, is ACTIVE, and has come for them.
*in one of Romanos‘ Byzantine hymns to the Virgin, he refers to her as “she who held the undying flame within her womb, and yet was not consumed”, equating Christ to the burning bush. I will spare you my papers on symbology, but suffice it to say, the eternal spark of divine life is encased in the primordial chaos, and neither is harmed. What a great image.