The Scene at the Sea (Shmot 14)
2010 S.H. Parker

All Hebrew transcription and translations are from the Mechon-Mamre on-line chumash, unless otherwise noted.

ט  וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיַּשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתָם חֹנִים עַל-הַיָּם, כָּל-סוּס רֶכֶב פַּרְעֹה, וּפָרָשָׁיו וְחֵילוֹ--עַל-פִּי, הַחִירֹת, לִפְנֵי, בַּעַל צְפֹן. 9 And the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
י  וּפַרְעֹה, הִקְרִיב; וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד, וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶל-יְהוָה. 10 And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were sore afraid; and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.
יא  וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר:  מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם. 11 And they said unto Moses: 'Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?
יב  הֲלֹא-זֶה הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת-מִצְרָיִם:  כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת-מִצְרַיִם, מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר. 12 Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.'
יג  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ--הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם:  כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת-מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם--לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד, עַד-עוֹלָם. 13 And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will work for you to-day; for whereas ye have seen the Egyptians to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever.
יד  יְהוָה, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.'
טו  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מַה-תִּצְעַק אֵלָי; דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִסָּעוּ. 15 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Wherefore criest thou unto Me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.
טז  וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת-מַטְּךָ, וּנְטֵה אֶת-יָדְךָ עַל-הַיָּם--וּבְקָעֵהוּ; וְיָבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם, בַּיַּבָּשָׁה. 16 And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground.
יז  וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מְחַזֵּק אֶת-לֵב מִצְרַיִם, וְיָבֹאוּ, אַחֲרֵיהֶם; וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-חֵילוֹ, בְּרִכְבּוֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו. 17 And I, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall go in after them; and I will get Me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.
יח  וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם, כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה, בְּהִכָּבְדִי בְּפַרְעֹה, בְּרִכְבּוֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten Me honour upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.'
יט  וַיִּסַּע מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים, הַהֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵי מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶם; וַיִּסַּע עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן, מִפְּנֵיהֶם, וַיַּעֲמֹד, מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶם. 19 And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them;
כ  וַיָּבֹא בֵּין מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם, וּבֵין מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיְהִי הֶעָנָן וְהַחֹשֶׁךְ, וַיָּאֶר אֶת-הַלָּיְלָה; וְלֹא-קָרַב זֶה אֶל-זֶה, כָּל-הַלָּיְלָה. 20 and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet gave it light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night.
כא  וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, עַל-הַיָּם, וַיּוֹלֶךְ יְהוָה אֶת-הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה; וַיִּבָּקְעוּ, הַמָּיִם. 21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
כב  וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם, בַּיַּבָּשָׁה 22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground...

 

To set the scene, I want you to think about Cecile B. DeMille's movie "The Ten Commandments." Picture yourself in Charlton Heston's role (not his politics or other ... uh, atavistic attitudes, just his portrayal of Moshe).

The sea is at your back. There is wilderness all around ("wilderness" indicates inhospitable, usually mountainous, territory, not necessarily dessert). Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price, at their dastardly best, are in your face, fomenting rebellion. If I recall correctly, the "were there not graves enough in Egypt" line is put in Edward G's mouth. And, as if all this isn't enough, Yul Bryner, in none too good a mood, is coming up behind with the armored cavalry. (N.B.: cavalry, loose among people on foot, is an unbelievable killing machine; until modern times, infantry tactics are almost exclusively designed to prevent cavalry from breaking through to unleash their unopposable power; in modern times, armor officers who understood that tanks were cavalry -- and, today, helicopters -- and not mobile artillery were the successful battle commanders.)

Can you say "high tension situation"? Not simply has everything that could go wrong gone wrong, but a couple of things Moshe didn't think about have gone wrong too. (I've always maintained that Murphy truly was a cock-eyed optimist.)

Now, consider the story as told above. Our text is beautifully rendered, whether read in Hebrew or English, verging on poetry. Even if translated into modern, idiomatic English (no more "thou"s and "thy"s, "wherefore"s and "ye"s  and the like), this would still be so.

Reading these passages, were I casting this scene, Noel Coward or David Niven would seem more appropriate. If I were looking for a grittier portrayal (though, such a portrayal is not called for by the text as we read it), perhaps Sydney Poitier?

What's wrong with this picture?

What's "wrong," I think, is that the text gets in the way of understanding it, appreciating it. 

Any of a number of scholars have shown the important similarities of Torah's writing style to other ancient texts. Potok (Wanderings) shows how the britot (covenants) match Hittite suzerainty treaties (so, it turns out, do some passages that many heavily emphasize but turn out to be "just how they said things in those days;" specifically the terrible consequences of not living up to your side of the contract, the curses, are just the way suzerainty treaties were written in those days) and how the structure and cadence of many of the texts parallel Hittite and Sumerian histories. Halpern (David's Demons) shows how our texts specifically match the court histories of other near eastern cultures. 

What's "wrong" is that the very form of the Torah text gets in our way. We no longer understand this form of expression. Halpern argues that even contemporaries, not members of the royal household, i.e. the populace, didn't fully understand it either and that was part of the joke of the ancient steles, see my comment on Halpern's "Tiglath-Pileser Principle" and how understanding that form helps tell the sometimes hidden story.

We need, therefore, to look at the text, first, as a document. For Halpern, Albrecht, Friedman, the Sephardic school of Biblical interpretation and textual critics are right. If we understand the semantics, the way these histories were written, we can better understand any given passage we may be reading.

So let us start with basics. The Torah, whether divinely ordained or from the hand of man, is most obviously a literary document (that's just a fancy way of saying "it's written down"). Literary documents take different forms and come in different genres. Writing, generally, comes in two types: expository writing and creative writing. There are a number of literary forms: the novel, the play, the essay, the textbook, the short story and others.

What is the literary form of the Torah?

It struck me several years ago that there was a very distinctive characteristic of the Pentateuchal text. If I thought about the text as if it was the written version of a previous orally transmitted history (and, yes, I do suspect that this is the actual history of the Torah), I realized that Torah must be read aloud -- read, not chanted -- to truly make sense of it.

Indeed, until the invention of printing and it became possible for almost everyone to own a chumash (printed Torah text), Torah had to be read aloud to transmit the stories and lessons. The ability to study independently, as we know that today, is an entirely new phenomenon, less than five hundred years old only (vis-a-vis Jewish history, 500 years falls into that category I call "current events"). For the prior millennia, a single teacher, a single book (and, from comments I've seen in the Gemarrah, maybe not even a copy of the book but just memory and personal notes) and a group of students in discussion....

When I did that, I saw that in every scene, there were exactly three voices, three characters if you will. One provides background information. This voice tells us where we are, identifies locations and locales, where we're going or have been, how long it took or will take, how far, what's near by, other names by which a place is known. This voice tells us what, generally, is happening around us. Call this speaker the narrator, for that is just what s/he is.

The other two characters in each scene speak to each other. God and Abram, Abram and Sarai, etc. Moses and God, Moses and Paro, God and the people, Moses and the people (there may be many but they speak as one). Etc.

Compare the Pentateuchal text with the more narrative form of Judges, Kings, Chronicles, all of which are straight expository writing (the Priestly source material is largely in this style too). Compare the Pentateuch to the literary Prophets.

It's almost like the Pentateuch is a play or, as Rabbi Arthur Gould so accurately characterized it, a docudrama. Indeed, the literary form of the Pentateuch is that of a play, specifically a play where three characters are on stage at any given time, no more, no less. Narrator and two characters interacting with each other. Chorus, protagonist, antagonist. This is the structure of a Greek tragedia. Except for the fact that Torah is centuries older than the earliest known tragedias, the writers could have been working out of the same manual of style....

The moral of the story is fairly simple. When reading Torah, first figure out who is speaking. Then, ask yourself "If that was me, what would I be thinking, what would I be feeling at this point, in this place, in these circumstances?" Read the script that way and the text will be much more meaningful. Try out different psychologies ....