At First Glance: Shemot 2021

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you like to keep track of the many “firsts” in your life? How about (if you have them) your childrens’ lives? How might that activity add value to our lives?

In this first portion of the book of Exodus, God promises that nothing will interfere with the people God cares about the most:

The Pitch: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’” – Exodus 4:22-23

Swing #1: “Ties between a deity and his or her worshipers, a king and his people, human treaty partners, members of professional classes, and friends are all shaped, at least in part, by the rhetoric and/or presuppositions of idealized familial relations according to our texts. Yhwh, a father to Israel his firstborn son, ought to be honored as a father is honored by his son.” – Saul M. Olyan, Friendship in the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “The question posed … in what sense could Israel be God’s ‘firstborn son’? – engendered two rival motifs, ‘God’s Thought of Israel First’ (found only in Jubilees) and ‘Firstborn by Dint of Discipline.’ According to the latter motif, Israel was not born Israel’s firstborn at all; that is, God’s assertion … was not intended in any genetic or chronological sense. Instead, ‘firstborn’ here was a title that Israel received after it was already in existence, in consideration of its special standing with God.” – James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and his Children

Swing #3: “The magic tricks that Moses was empowered to perform with the rod of God – turning a staff into a snake and water into blood – were feeble when compared to the terrible fate that God had already decreed for Pharaoh … So Moses rode on, perhaps comforted by the knowledge that God intended to back up his promises with blood, but not suspecting who the first target of God’s bloodthirstiness would turn out to be.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Moses: A Life

Late-Inning Questions: Why is it important to God for Israel to be God’s “firstborn”? How is the firstborn motif carried throughout the story of the Exodus? Given how often firstborns are passed over in the book of Genesis, why would God frame the Israelites in this way? Why do we focus so much on birth order?

On-Deck at TBT: Starting January 8th, our Shabbat Learner’s Service will move from monthly to weekly. We’ll continue to meet on Zoom from 9:00-9:30 am. You’re welcome to join the discussion, whether or not you’re learning for the first time.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of firsts, it’s possible that, for the first time in a while, the Baseball Writers Association might not elect someone to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the second year in a row. This is a residue of the steroid era; many journalists don’t wish to be in a position to evaluate the historical place of players from that time period. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

Shabbat Shalom!