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Shemot/Exodus 8:18(22) And I will set apart on that day the land of Goshen on which my people stands ... so that you will know that I am the L-rd in the midst of the land.
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Pharaoh is to hear these words fromHaShem, delivered by Moshe, when he goes out to the water early in the morning. Part of the preamble to the fourth plague, the plague of flies, this will rather spoil Pharaoh's day. Not only is Egypt to be subject to a further annoying and, this time, damaging disruption to normal life - "Heavy swarms of insects invaded Pharaoh's palace and the houses of his courtiers; throughout the country of Egypt the land was ruined because of the swarms of insects" (Shemot 8:20, NJPS) - but, to make matters worse, those pesky Israelites who were responsible for the whole affair in the first place were not to share in the misery!
Verbs are often a key to understanding what is happening in a text and this verse is no exception. is the Hif'il 1cs affix form of the root , to be treated differently or to be distinguished, with a vav-reversive to generate a future event. Moshe is prophesying that HaShem will, is just about to, treat the Israelites differently from the Egyptians: the plague of flies will not affect the land of Goshen where the Israelites currently live. , on the other hand, is the Qal 2ms prefix form of the root , to know. Pharaoh will know that HaShem's arm does indeed reach as far as Egypt (and beyond) to show His sovereignty in the land.
It seems that the Egyptians laboured under two powerful delusions. The first, common to most the ancient world, was that gods were territorial: a god could only operate on a local basis or in a particular area of activity. Hence there were different fertility gods or goddesses, one for each country or region where people lived. The gods were limited in their range of action by their geographical position. You could not expect the Egyptian fertility god to be any help in, say, Greece, because he only controlled fertility in Egypt; if you wanted to pray for fertility in Greece, you had to pray to the Greek fertility god. Similarly with the field of operation: it was no use praying to the god of the seas for healing from a snake-bite. If you wanted healing, you had to pray to the god of healing and, on the contrary, praying to the wrong god would not only not get you what you wanted, you would annoy the right god so that he wouldn't help either.
We can see this first delusion at work in two ways. The first is the way Pharaoh responded to Moshe and Aharon when they first delivered HaShem's demand to set the Israelites free: "Who is the L-RD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the L-RD, nor will I let Israel go" (Shemot 5:2, NJPS). Pharaoh didn't know the name, hadn't heard of HaShem and so assumes that the G-d of Israel is impotent in Egypt, out of His home territory. The second is the Israelites' lamentable fascination with the Canaanite fertility god Ba'al. Ba'al worship was a pernicious problem in Israel throughout the years from the early possession of the Land until the end of the period of the kings. Why? Because Ba'al was the god worshipped by the Canaanites and credited by them with the fertility of the soil and crops in the Land. If Ba'al did that for them (the Canaanites), then perhaps he will do it for us (the Israelites) too now that we live here.
The second Egyptian delusion was that G-d is in heaven and so unable to directly affect or influence anything down here on earth. He could control the weather, the sun and the moon because they too were in or originated from the heavens. They thought that there was a fog or barrier that obscured G-d from seeing in too much detail what was going on down here and prevented Him from actually doing anything. It was as if, rather like the modern idea of the blind watchmaker, having set the world in motion, He was restricted to the heavens; while He might rant, He was essentially powerless on earth. RabbiHirsch addresses this delusion when he puts these words in HaShem's mouth to Pharaoh: "You are to realise that it is not only above the earth, in some unreachable height, from which I have the general direction of matters on the earth, but that I also guide detailed events directly down on the earth according to My will." Terence Fretheim adds, "For the first time, the knowing is associated with the distinction between Israel and Egypt. Israel's G-d is not one who stands afar off, dealing with the world in general terms. G-d is involved in the very midst of the life of the entire earth."1
Our text, then responds directly to these two delusions. The separation or distinction between Israel and Egypt is a graphical demonstration not only of G-d's care and provision for the Israelites, in that they do not suffer from the plagues while the Egyptians do, but that He has the power to operate perfectly well on the earth and in Egypt - in the midst of the land. Gunther Plaut comments that "G-d's might is demonstrated both by the sign and by the special treatment accorded to Israel," while Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that "this can be understood in terms of the meaning of the divine name, thus meaning, 'So that you will know that I am the one who causes being in the land.'" It is the very existence of G-d that enables everything else, including the Egyptians themselves to be, to exist, in their land.
Switching our attention now to the verb 'know' - "that you will know that I am the L-rd in the midst of the land" -Nechama Leibowitz points out that "the whole of the parasha and the first half of the next describe the relentless attempt to break Pharaoh's arrogant heart and teach him to 'know the L-rd' (7:5,17; 8:6,18; 9:14,29; 10:2; 11:7; 14:4,18). Ten times in all do we find mention of 'knowing the L-rd', in the chapters dealing with the ten plagues, corresponding to the Ten Words or commandments given to Israel." What is it that Pharaoh does not know? Umberto Cassuto proposes that it has to do with sovereignty: "throughout the whole earth everything is done according to My will."2 Pharaoh still sees himself - and perhaps the Egyptian nation - as the ultimate source of power and authority; I/we call all the shots around here! Targum Onkelos makes this explicit, changing the Hebrew , "I am the L-rd" to Aramaic , "I the L-rd am the ruler"; Pharaoh is not the ruler he thinks he is - this is what he and the Egyptian nation need to know. HaShem is!
Lastly, before we turn our attention to what this says for ourselves today, Peter Enns makes an important point: "This [text] is not a hope that Egypt will turn and be saved. Rather, it is simply that the Egyptians may know that the G-d of Israel is no foreigner on Egyptian soil, that He is here, in their country, and that He will divide it up as He pleases."3 These words, this objective for truth and reality in Pharaoh and the Egyptians concerning the position, power, status and authority of the G-d of Israel, is not primarily an invitation for them to enter into relationship with Him. G-d is not recruiting; He is redeeming His people and part of that process involves the necessary acknowledgement of His rights, His reach and His abilities - the awesome strength and power at His disposal - so that the Israelites may be released and sent on their way. That is His pleasure, plan and purpose.
But what does these words and the story of G-d's ancient people being released from slavery in Egypt more than three thousand years ago mean for us as followers and disciples of Yeshua today? Simply this: G-d is not geographically, temporally or cognitively limited. In the text, the word can be translated 'land' or 'earth'; in the immediate context of this verse, perhaps 'land' is the more obvious choice: the land of Egypt, the land of Canaan. G-d is G-d in both places, both now and then, and whether Pharaoh and his court like it or not. Their knowledge or approval of Him make not the slightest difference to His existence, power, authority, right and absolute sovereignty. Exactly the same is true today: He is the G-d of the whole earth, even in areas where He is rejected or opposed. He is G-d in countries and people who deny that He exists at all, such as Russia; He is G-d in countries and peoples where they worship a false god, following a false religion, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or India. "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?" (Psalm 2:1, ESV) - "He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity" (98:9, NASB).
In just the same way, Yeshua is both "King of Israel" (John 1:49) and "designated High Priest" (Hebrews 5:10), whether He is accepted or rejected by any individuals or groups, including the State of Israel and mainstream Judaism! As His disciples we are to acknowledge and proclaim the truth, no matter who likes it or doesn't - that makes no difference to the validity of the truth or the certainty of His soon return to "judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth" (Isaiah 11:4, ESV). Come soon, L-rd Yeshua!
1. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 119.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 108.
3. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 213.
Further Study: Psalm 2:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-5; John 17:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-8
Application: Have you lost sight, in all the petty squabbling and posturing of the nations and their leaders, that G-d is G-d over all the earth, at all times and in all places, now and forever? His power and sovereignty are absolute and without limit; His kingdom is an eternal kingdom and will never fail. He is the L-rd and that's all there is to it. Get used to it, world!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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