Shemot – What’s to Know?

January 3, 2018
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What is in a name? This is an apropos question since this week’s parsha begins with lots of names. In fact it is called Names or Shemot in Hebrew. It begins v’aleh shemot b’nei yisrael (Exodus 1:1), “these are the names of the sons of Israel.” The narrative then goes on to name each of Israel’s sons by name. It tells how many children and grandchildren, seventy in all, moved down to Egypt and how they prospered and multiplied. The narrative serves as the divine voice, displaying not only a great knowledge of Israel’s prodigy, but an actual concern for them.

This is a direct contrast with the Pharaoh of Egypt. Verse 8 begins, vayakedem melech chadash al mitzraim asher lo yada et yoseph, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Of course the new Pharaoh would have had knowledge of Joseph and his service to the kingdom, saving it from the ravages of famine and making it the most powerful nation in its ancient world. He would have been raised with this information, as it would have been part of the history and lore of ancient Egypt. So what the meaning of this verse?

The Hebrew word to know in this verse is yada, and this is its first appearance in the book of Shemot or Exodus s it is commonly referred to. The verb yada and its derivative forms are key terms in the Exodus narrative, occurring over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters. “To know” is the usual rendering, but it hardly does justice to richness of its range of meanings. The bible rarely conceives of knowledge as being solely of the intellect or mental activity. Rather it is experiential and embedded in the emotions, so it encompasses qualities such as intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement. It suggests a callous disregard for another’s worth and humanity.

Pharaoh’s “not knowing of Joseph” is a direct contrast to God’s “knowing of the son’s of Israel.’ To Pharaoh they had no worth or significance, to the God of Israel they’re name and they’re destinies were intertwined. This sets the stage for the entire book of Shemot (Exodus). For the next twelve chapters the king of Egypt and the God of Israel will be embroiled in a winner takes all contest, and the prize is Israel. To God, Israel is a treasure, a beloved child, a new humanity conceived in his image. To Pharaoh though, Israel is a material possession, a work force, a symbol of his power subvert and dominate. In as much as his predecessor “knowing Joseph” brought about the salvation of Egypt, his “not knowing Joseph” would break the back of the kingdom’s military might and would kill the first born of its issue.

By the end of the sixth plague the courtiers of Pharaoh; the “joint chiefs” of ancient Egypt have already admitted defeat. “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go and worship the Hashem their God. Are you not yet aware the Egypt is lost? (10:7-8)” But Pharaoh was not aware, because “not knowing Israel” and their God had become his obsession. His advisors had called the God of Israel by his name (YHVH), the name by which he had entered into a covenant with Israel for the sake of their fathers, Abraham Isaac and Jacob. But Pharaoh could not recognize the unique relationship between God and his people. By “not knowing” Joseph, and by “not knowing” Israel, the king of Egypt had not known’ or acknowledged the Creator of the universe. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh on behalf of Hashem (lit. The Name) to ask that he release the children of Israel, Pharaoh responded, “Who is Hashem that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know Hashem, nor will I let Israel go (5:2).”

The God of Israel was calling Israel into a special relationship with Him. After the Exodus Israel is brought to Sinai to worship (l’avodah lit. to serve) him. By so doing Israel has left the service of a king representative of the corrupt principalities of this world to serve its true Creator who is a benevolent king. The last twenty chapters involve the instructions and then the process of building and furnishing the Mishkan, the place where the presence God would dwell intimately within the tents of Israel (40:34). There Israel would come to “know their God” as He had desired “to know” them.

The special relationship that Israel had with its God would cast the character by which others from the nations would be able to come “to know” Him. By being associated to Israel, through Israel’s greatest son Yeshua. Many from the nations have come into relationship with the God of Israel. Unfortunately as the years past, many became arrogant and did “not know” the son’s of Israel. This has had horrific consequences for Israel, for the church and for the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel once asked the sobering question, “Can the Church really claim the God of Israel without remembering the people of Israel.” This is a question I believe can only be answered in the negative.

As we continue over the next several months to read and study the book of Shemot, lets remember that this is a book about names, and about a particular name, the one that the God of Israel placed upon he people of Israel. It’s a good name, lets endeavor to live up to it and “to know” the one for whom we are named.

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One Response to Shemot – What’s to Know?

  1. Rabbi Paul on December 22, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Scripture tells us we are looking at a period of approximately 400 years give or take. most historical studies would put us between 400-600 years. First we have to remember that Scripture is not always shooting for precise historical accounting. So 400 years of captivity is an approximate measure since it is recording time in a phenomenological rather than an empirical style. But since I believe that scripture none the less is accurate in the method it is attempting to speak I would opt for the time to be approximately 400-450 years which would place this somewhere in the 15th century BCE. That would make the Pharaoh Amenhotep II.

    History tells us that for several years after 1445 BCE Amenhotep II was unable to carry out any invasions or extensive military operations. This would seem like very strange behavior for a pharaoh who hoped to equal his father’s record of no less than seventeen military campaigns in nineteen years. But this is exactly what one would expect from a pharaoh who had lost almost all his cavalry, chariotry, and army at the Red Sea.

    If the Exodus did take place in 1445 BCE., forty years of wilderness wandering would bring us to 1405 BCE. for the destruction of Jericho. Interestingly enough, John Garstang, who excavated the site of ancient Jericho, came to the conclusion that the destruction of the city took place around 1400 BCE (Garstang, The Story of Jericho, 1948, p. 122).

    This would put somewhere between 8-12 kings between Joseph and Moses.

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