God of Wrath?
There’s an expression that appears periodically in the popular press that annoys me to no end: “The Old Testament God of wrath.” How’s that? God in the Tanakh vacillates between postures of patience and anger, justice and mercy. This nuanced and paradoxical portrait of God is evident throughout the Torah, most famously in Exodus 34:7, which describes God’s enduring mercies and tenacious retribution within a single verse. Most Christian scholars have long since abandoned the polemical notion that the Hebrew Bible sees God primarily in states of fury. Still, this distorted depiction is ingrained in the minds of many writers, presenting us with the question of how the God of Israel is perceived from within and without the covenant.
When reading Parashat Va’era (“I have appeared”), it is easy to get caught up in the dramatic narratives depicting Moses’ initial resistance to his prophetic mission, his early encounters with Pharaoh and the Egyptian wizards, and the increasingly deadly onslaught of the first seven plagues. Yet the portion’s deeper drama is discerned in its dual portrait of God. How is God perceived by Israel in Egypt, and how by the increasingly desperate Egyptians?
Recall that by the end of last week’s portion, Shemot, the people of Israel didn’t want to hear any more about their fabulous God. Ever since Moses arrived with his prophecies of redemption, their fate had devolved from dreadful to disastrous. But this week, God’s grandiose promises are matched with tangible demonstrations of His concern. Last week, God listened to Israel’s cries, remembered His promises, looked at their woes, and understood (2:24). Four verbs described the internal process of God’s perception. But this week, a string of four verbs describes God’s active redemption of Israel from slavery (6:6–7). God is back in the game.
The shift of Israel’s perspective from enslavement to emancipation is matched by an upgrade in its theological nomenclature. The opening lines of our portion are meant to convey a deeper revelation of God’s nature to Moses and Israel. While the sacred name YHVH has been used regularly in the Torah since Genesis 2, here it refers to a new level of activist compassion in which God is prepared to intervene on behalf of Israel. The seven plagues quickly clarify that the God of Israel is present, powerful, and poised to preserve His people. The covenant is not a hollow promise, but a road to redemption. In Parashat Va’era, God’s appearance to Israel is radically transformed from a tease into a tower of strength.
What about the Egyptians? What do they perceive about God? You can almost picture the smug smiles on their faces as Moses clumsily performs what appear to be magic tricks. His staff becomes a snake; so do theirs. He bloodies the Nile; so do they. True, Pharaoh’s wizards are better at replicating the plagues than at reversing them. No matter; God and His prophet initially seem to the Egyptians like just another magic act.
Each plague induces a measure of panic in Egypt, but then the threat subsides, and as is common, people return to routine. However, this dismissive dynamic changes with the seventh plague: hail. Something about this plague is so overwhelming that it evinces a spiritual response in Egypt. Immediately after the hailstorm, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and announces, “This time I have sinned; the Lord is righteous; I and my people are wicked” (9:27). Sinned? Righteous? Wicked? This doesn’t sound like Pharaoh! What is going on here?
It is tempting to say that by round seven of the plagues, Pharaoh has decided that might makes right. Until now, he has shrugged off the Israelite threat, but if God can make the sky fall, then it is worth showing Him some respect. Perhaps, but why does Pharaoh integrate the religious language of Israel?
If you read closely, there is a hint of something deeper developing in this narrative. This hail is an eerie admixture of fire and ice. “The hail was streaming fire [aish mitlakahat] within the hail; it was very heavy; nothing like it had been seen in Egypt since it was established as a nation” (9:24). How odd! Hail is made of ice, but this hail was mixed with fire. Midrash Shemot Rabbah calls it “a miracle within a miracle.”
Remarkably, Pharaoh beseeches Moses to pray to the Lord, saying, “Too great are the divine sounds [kolot Elohim] and hail.” Something has spooked Pharaoh. What? Open your Tanakh to Ezekiel, chapter 1. This is one of the most opaque and mysterious descriptions of God ever captured by a prophet. There in verse 4, Ezekiel sees what Pharaoh saw, aish mitlakahat, streaming fire. He too is overwhelmed.
Normally, fire evaporates water or is extinguished in the process. But this hail magically mixes fire and ice, a sight never seen on earth. In heaven, however, our ancestors noticed that fire (lightning) and water (rain and snow) coexist. This is how the Sages interpreted the famous words of Job: “[God] makes peace in the heavens [oseh shalom bimromav]” (25:2). There in the heavens, opposite elements can coexist, but on earth, they battle each other.
If so, then the hail is an unearthly incursion of fire mixed with ice that smashes into Egypt with great impact, first physical, and then spiritual. Forget hail. Imagine hearing a tremendous crash and then seeing a meteorite sizzling in your backyard! Looking at this bizarre and frightening phenomenon, Pharaoh is startled not only into submission, but also into admission of God’s wonder. The moment passes, and more tragedy will unfold before Pharaoh and his army are destroyed. But in this brief interval at the end of Va’era, the potentate of Egypt is on the verge of becoming a humble believer in God.
At first blush, the plague narrative is simply an example of the victory of overwhelming force. Upon reflection, we discern something different. Pharaoh is not only overpowered. He is stunned by the presence on earth of something formerly confined to the heavens. In Moses, he has met a messenger from God, who is the true master of the earth. For a fleeting moment, the Egyptian tyrant becomes aware that he is not lord of the land. He encounters not a God of fury, but the maker of heaven and earth before whom opposites coexist and distinctions dissolve. You can almost hear Moses, in anticipation of Shakespeare, saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Pharaoh, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Rabbi Daniel Nevins
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Va’era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.