What really happened at the Red Sea. Does the truth ooze to the surface?

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D’var Torah, given on January 10, 2014 at Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia.  Torah portion:  B’Shalach.

I just finished Black Water Rising a novel by California writer, Attica Locke.  I identify with the main character, a young lawyer who goes out at all hours of the night to find evidence.  The lawyer uncovers a plot by a big oil company to create an artificial shortage thereby forcing a rise in prices.  The plot unravels when the lawyer discovers crude oil oozing to the surface from the salt mine where the oil was hidden.

The oozing crude oil reminds me of B’Shalach.

We just read how the Israelites complained before the Red Sea and how Moses inspired them to trust in God for deliverance.   But oozing from just beneath the text is a second tradition.   The Israelites were not just grumbling—-there were in rebellion.

Back when there was Borders in Chestnut Hill, I purchased The Bible as It Was by James Kugel, a Harvard professor.  Dr. Kugel cites Psalm 106 which points to this alternative tradition.

“Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your miracles, they did not recall your many mercies, and they REBELLED AT THE SEA, AT THE RED SEA."  (Psalm 106:7, JPS)

The Vulgate (numbered as Psalm 105:7), the fourth century translation from Hebrew to Latin, uses the term "provoked to wrath” instead of rebellion.

Flavius Josephus tells the story.  Josephus is a controversial and troubling character.   A member of a prominent Levite family, in the year 63 C.E. he went to Rome to free some imprisoned priests.  He returned to Jerusalem in the year 65 to find Judea in revolt.  He became the Jewish commander defending the Galilee.  Captured by the Romans, Josephus became a literary Benedict Arnold.  He moved to Rome, took Roman Citizenship, and assumed the family name of the Emperor—Flavius—and wrote histories of the Jewish people.

Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 16) images the scene.

The Israelites were pinned between the Red Sea on one side and mountains on the other.  Egyptian troops sealed the passes.  To make things worse, the Israelites looked up and saw the guardian angel of Egypt hovering over the Egyptian army.

One would think that the Egyptians wanted to recover their slaves alive.  But the Israelites feared that the Egyptians wanted to annihilate them in revenge for the plague of the first born and for lying about their intentions to return after three days in the desert to make sacrifices to God.

Professor Christine Hayes of Yale University—you can find her lectures of You Tube—adds to the setting.  

She points out that the Red Sea is the Yam Suf—the Sea of Reeds—a marsh.  Psalm 69:3 (JPS) says

“I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing; 
I am come into deep waters, and the flood overwhelmeth me.”

Professor Hayes points out that “sinking in deep waters” is a metaphor for distress.

So the Israelites are pinned between the swamp and mountains.  They are overwhelmed by the numbers of Egyptians troops, they panic.

Josephus reports that he Israelites threw stones at Moses.

The Israelites break into four factions. 

Sephir Ha Yasher, Chapter 81—-the Book of the Upright or the Upright or Correct Record"—published in Hebrew in 1613—recounts:

The first division was the children of Reuben, Simeon, and Issachar.  They wanted to cast themselves into the sea.  They were afraid of the Egyptians.  

Moses told them to fear not, stand still and see the Salvation of God.

The second division was the children of Zebulon, Benjamin and Naphtali.  They wanted to go back to Egypt with the Egyptians.

Moses told them to fear not, for you will no see the Egyptians again.

The third division was the children of Judah and Joseph.  They wanted to fight the Egyptians.

Moses told them to stand in place, remain silent, and God will fight for you.

The fourth division was the children of Levi, Gad and Asher.  They wanted to go into the midst of the Egyptians to confound them.

Moses told them to remain in place, fear not, and call upon to God so God may save you out of their hands.

Professor Louis Ginzburg recounts a similar version in his Legends of the Jews, Volume III.

Moses follows God’s instructions, the Red Sea splits and the rest is history.

The 18th century Kabbalist, Or Ha Chaim, teaches that upon seeing the Guardian Angel of Egypt, the Israelites must have thought that God had turned against them.

The appearance of the Angel brought the Jews to a higher level of repentance and prayer. 

B ‘Shalach is about faith and the power of God.  But the suppressed tradition oozing to the surface makes a better movie.

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