Exodus: A Synopsis

Then Israel entered Egypt…
— Psalms 105:23

The story of the Exodus dots the Hebrew Bible. One of its most fascinating appearances is in Psalm 105, a brief overview of Israelite history from Abraham onwards, in case you didn’t have time to read all Five Books. It is in this synopsis, that we encounter what those who lived later thought were the most salient or durable memories for our preservation. After all, a précis should give just enough relevant detail to be informative without too many specifics.

So what is the elevator speech of the Exodus? Let’s have a look at how the psalm collapses 15 chapters into 15 verses:
Then Israel entered Egypt; Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham. The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants. He sent Moses his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them, his wonders in the land of Ham. He sent darkness and made the land dark— for had they not rebelled against his words? He turned their waters into blood, causing their fish to die. Their land teemed with frogs, which went up into the bedrooms of their rulers. He spoke, and there came swarms of flies, and gnats throughout their country. He turned their rain into hail, with lightning throughout their land; he struck down their vines and fig trees and shattered the trees of their country. He spoke, and the locusts came, grasshoppers without number; they ate up every green thing in their land, ate up the produce of their soil. Then he struck down all the firstborn in their land, the first-fruits of all their manhood. He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold, and from among their tribes no one faltered. Egypt was glad when they left, because dread of Israel had fallen on them. [105:23- 38]

1)    We moved to Egypt. Our host country became our enemy.
2)    God sent Moses and Aaron to be our leaders.
3)    There were many plagues.
4)    We left with wealth.
5)    The Egyptians were relieved that we left.

Boy, the entire Seder just got a whole lot shorter. Yet there are a few details here that are missing in the original, and these make us curious about the additions. One noticeable feature is the reference to Egypt as the land of Ham. The land of what?

As it happens, the identification of Ham with Egypt is information offered in I Chronicles: “The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan” [1:8]. This correlation also appears elsewhere in psalms: “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” [106:21-22]. Josephus, a historian of Jewish antiquity, claimed that Ethiopians descended from Cush the son of Ham: "For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites." [Antiquities1.6]. It would seem that Ham’s children dominated the northeast regions of Africa.

One might claim that the identification of Ham with Egypt is geographical. But it seems as if a richer interpretation awaits. Ham was one of Noah’s three sons who left the ark. As it happens, in Genesis 9, Ham saw his father Noah naked and drunk in his tent and went out to belittle Noah to his brothers. Noah awoke, startled at what his youngest son did and cursed Ham’s son. He wanted Ham to feel that the consequence of dishonoring a parent is that Ham would be dishonored by his children. Noah’s curse is specific: “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”  Noah’s other sons were quick to cover up their father and turn their gaze away from him. 

In this story, Noah was making an observation about his family and about humanity, the new world he was consigned to repopulate. In this new world there would continue to be evil - immorality, enmity, envy and small-mindedness – represented by one of his sons. There would be children who could be saved by a parent and still ridicule a parent. But in this new world, this behavior would be overshadowed by goodness, by children who honored and obeyed. Those who are little in spirit would become little in stature. Instead of being leaders, they would be slaves – slaves to pettiness and thoughtlessness.

In this vast epic narrative that is the story of our people, Egypt would forever be associated with slavery, a place that reduced people to suffering and, as a result, was itself to be humbled. Our small suffering people rose above our situation when we left Egypt and were commanded to bring others out of suffering as a result.  Thus, the story of Genesis is replayed on a national scale in the story of Exodus and replayed throughout history when the underdog stakes a claim for justice and goodness.

Shabbat Shalom