Making Them Strange

New book, new Pharoah, new problems, new leader

BY: Alyssa Quint


"And these are the names of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob: Ruben, Simeon, Levi, Judah." So begins the book of Exodus, known as Shemot--literally, "Names"--in Hebrew.

In its first word and its first lines, the second book of the Torah conveys a sense of seamlessness with the previous book, Genesis, rather than a new beginning. "And," the opening word, indicates this is a recovery of a narrative that has already begun; the names that spill out of the first verses--the names of Jacob's descendants--reposition the reader with the same cast of characters that was left at the end of Genesis. These opening lines also remind us of the same form of text that characterizes Genesis, embedded as it is with long genealogies.

But there are more subtle evocations of Genesis as well. The story of the Israelites in Egypt that Shemot introduces is marked by the same benchmarks of "genesis" that mark the formation of mankind in Genesis. When we learn that the Hebrews were "fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied" in Egypt, we are reminded of the first commandment, "Be fruitful and multiply," in the first chapter of Genesis.

And Pharaoh's decree, that all male Hebrew babies be cast into the waters, reminds us of the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of the Flood. And of course, Moses, like Noah, is rescued in an "ark," a "teyva" in Hebrew in both instances.

Finally, Moses, like Isaac and Jacob, will meet his wife at a well. The well of Genesis is revisited as a layered symbol representing spontaneous generosity between strangers and the intimate love between man and woman fated to flow from it.

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