SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moses Whacks Egyptian, Solves Nothing
Posted by gvillecw
The Exodus story so far has unfolded against the backdrop of the oppression of the Israelites by Egyptian state power (under the direction of the Egyptian “god-king,” Pharaoh), as well as the resistance of both Hebrew and Egyptian women (the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids) to the official policies of the repressive regime. In this week’s passage, Exodus 2:11-15a, the story moves forward with the introduction of the person who will become the major character in the story, Moses. (While Moses appeared in a passive role as a baby in our earlier passage, it is here that he first asserts himself by becoming an agent of action and speech.)
The opening verse, verse 11, serves several purposes. The first is that it reveals for us who it is that Moses understands himself to be. The repetition of the phrase “his kinsmen/kin/kinsfolk” both at the beginning and at the end of the verse helps us to see that Moses considers himself to be a Hebrew. This might seem obvious to us because of our familiarity with the rest of the story, but we need to remember that the previous verses have Moses being “adopted” into the royal family of Pharaoh where Moses must have been at least somewhat shielded, if not completely oblivious, to the plight of his kinsfolk, the Hebrews, who have been treated as slaves. We can imagine that Moses has probably enjoyed a comfortable, even luxurious, lifestyle under the protection of Pharaoh or Pharaoh’s daughter despite his Hebrew identity. Second, the statement that Moses sees the Hebrews’ “forced labor” and “an Egyptian striking a Hebrew” reasserts for us the power dynamic of the time: the brutal oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians for the benefit of the Egyptian social and economic system.
Moses’ reaction to what he witnesses—the unjust treatment of and the use of violence against those he considers his people—is both passionate and calculated. The text reads, “Looking about and seeing no one, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Moses doesn’t simply fly into a rage, but rather discerns what he could do to rectify the injustice he has just witnessed without having to face retribution for his actions. He kills the Egyptian, the person he identifies as the perpetrator of the violence and injustice, and he gets rid of the evidence.
The next verse has Moses repeating the action of verse 11, i.e. “he went out again,” but this time the scene is somewhat different—or at least the players are. This time the violence is between two Hebrews. Moses asks the first great question of the passage, “Why?!” “Why?” he asks the one “in the wrong” or “the culprit.” “Why are you striking your fellow Hebrew?” There is something here he doesn’t understand. Based on yesterday’s experience, maybe he thought he understood the situation. Maybe he thought he had “rectified” the situation, solved the problem—the problem being the individual actions of a particularly corrupt or abusive Egyptian overseer toward his Hebrew workers. But why, Moses wonders, would two people who share the same ethnic identity, his kinsmen who share the same general situation in life, act with such violence toward one another? Moses thought he understood the situation, but his simplistic analysis and attempt at solving the problem have not changed the overall situation of the Hebrew people. Perhaps the situation is more complex than Moses has understood. Perhaps there is a “systemic” problem here, one in which even some of the Hebrew people have internalized, and his simple recourse to violence has not changed anything except to give him some momentary satisfaction for his deep abhorrence of the injustice and violence he witnessed first-hand yesterday?
The response that Moses gets is equally unsettling. Perhaps he had thought his action in killing the Egyptian the day before had won him some good will among his kinsfolk, or proven his identity as one of them. But in verse 14, the Hebrew worker puts forward the second great question of the passage: “Who?” “Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us?” He goes on to query whether Moses plans on killing him, intimating that he understands Moses to possess the opportunity, wherewithal and power to kill him and get away with it, just as he killed the Egyptian. The question, “Who?” reverberates over this passage just as the question “Why?” did from the verse prior. For, as one of our folks in the study last night quickly pointed out, Moses’ identity is a central motif of this passage. Or in other words, Moses is having an identity crisis. Who does he see himself to be? Who do his fellow Hebrews, aware of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household, understand him to be? Is the question about being appointed ruler and judge rhetorical on the lips of the Hebrew who knows where and among whom Moses was raised? Moses considers himself to be Hebrew, but what is it to truly be a Hebrew in Egypt at this moment in history? Does Moses really have any understanding of this? Has he lived as a Hebrew—oppressed, forced into slave labor, worrying over the safety of his newborn baby boy, etc? Who is he?
With these two great questions—“Who am I?” and “Why is it like this?”—Moses, realizing that he has lost the protection of Pharaoh by killing an Egyptian, and that no amount of pleading or justifying to any Egyptian institution will ever make it okay that a Hebrew killed an Egyptian, decides to flee. But he does not flee or seek refuge among his kinsfolk, his Hebrew family, with whom he so strongly identified at the beginning of the passage. Maybe the precariousness and systemic brutality of their life under Egyptian oppression is suddenly dawning on him. Where does he flee? To Midian, away from Pharaoh, and away from “his kinsfolk”—no longer with answers, now only questions.