Making Them Strange

New book, new Pharoah, new problems, new leader

"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.

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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.

But at the same time, the foreboding words in the early lines of Exodus, "And there rose a new king who did not know Joseph," drive home a sense of violent interruption. How things have changed since Joseph enjoyed his privileged status as Pharaoh's vizier and fed his brothers and father. This line communicates with poetic efficiency that the Hebrew-Egyptian symbiosis, in the passing of one generation, has gone terribly bad.

And this line sets off the dramatic events that crowd this portion: the improbable rescue of Moses from the decree of infanticide; Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush; and his first confrontation with Pharaoh. God's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob finally becomes more palpable, more imminent.

The result is an astonishing reversal: Egypt, that iconic place of bounty, to which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob's sons all fled, is suddenly a place of exile and suffering.

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