Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

December 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment
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In the last portion of the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the pharaoh welcomes the extended family of his viceroy, Joseph, to settle in Egypt. The clan is called the “children of Israel” because 70 of them are direct descendants of Joseph’s father, who has two names:

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob; he grasps by the heel.

Yisra-el (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel; y-s-r (ישׂר) + eil (אֵל) = god, God.  Y-s-r is either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.

Jacob earned the name Yisra-el after wrestling with a mysterious being. The meaning of yisra-el is uncertain, but likely translations are “God strives”, “He struggles [with] God”, and “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their ongoing and active relationship with their god.

During the next 350 years, according to the Torah, a new dynasty takes over Egypt, and the population of the children of Israel explodes. The new pharaoh in the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”) panics.

And he said to his people: Hey! The people, the children of Yisra-el, are more numerous and more mighty than we… If a war is declared, they might even be added to our enemies, and wage war against us and rise up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:9-10)

The pharaoh refers to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves. He is superficially respectful at the beginning of his campaign against the Israelites, perhaps so as not to alarm Egyptians who previously had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

But then Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project). They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live. This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

The king’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn boys. At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot = ivri women.

ivri (עִבְרִי) =  a Hebrew person; Pass through! Cross over! Pass by!

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (and the English word “Hebrew”). Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants who lived on the fringes of society in their own countries. Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.

In the Hebrew language, the word ivri is also the imperative form of the verb avar, which refers to crossing over or passing through. Nomads and temporary resident aliens are indeed people who pass through a country, but do not stay permanently.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living and raising livestock in Egypt for at least 210 years. Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”. At the very least, this change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt. Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh may also be implying that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.

Inciting people to murder requires denigrating the intended victims. The pharaoh does this partly by imposing corvée labor on them, and partly by using a racial slur.

But the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse to let the baby boys live. Although the pharaoh does not punish the midwives, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones die without a new generation to replace them. His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live. (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls? Commentators have pointed out that men carried the identity of a tribe or nation. Women became members of their husbands’ tribes when they married. If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group. If the pharaoh emphasized that the Hebrew boys would grow into wild young men who might “rise up” and “wage war”, he could incite enough fear in Egyptian men to overcome any reluctance about murdering their neighbors’ babies.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery. After the pharaoh’s general order, they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.  Only a hero and a miracle can reverse the situation. The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt. His mother hides him for three months before putting him into the Nile in her own way.

When the pharaoh’s daughter opens the papyrus box (or ark) floating among the reeds of the Nile and sees a baby boy, she says: This is one of the children of the ivrim. (Exodus 2:6)

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri. Although Moses grows up with the status of a grandson of the pharaoh, he knows that the persecuted “Hebrews” in Goshen are his people. But only during his sojourn among the Midianites on the Sinai peninsula does Moses become the archetype of Yisra-el, someone who struggles with God. Then God sends him back to Egypt to liberate his people. After God’s miracles have broken the pharaoh’s strength, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan: the land where ivrim come from, and the land where they can live as children of Yisra-el.

The word ivri, in its singular and plural forms, occurs a number of times in Genesis and Exodus when the action is taking place in Egypt. Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the rest of the “Hebrew” (or Jewish) Bible rarely calls them ivrim. References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelites consider themselves “children of Israel” (unless they are degraded by slavery), but outside their own land, they continue to go by a name that implies they are just hobos or bandits passing through.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent; the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, the Israelites’ last stronghold, in 586 BCE. It took 2,534 years before there was an independent nation of Israel again. During much of that time, in many different countries, Jews were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.

The modern state of Israel was declared a nation in 1948 CE, but the Jews who “returned” there were very different, ethnically and religiously, from the Israelites who were swallowed by the Babylonian empire. Similarly, the people of modern Egypt are very different from the Egyptians of 3,000 years ago.

No group of people is permanent. Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is ultimately a useless enterprise. Demagogues can stir up fear and hatred for a while, but then every country and its people will inevitably change.

I believe that none of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history. None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land. All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth. We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary. Some of us embrace a further challenge: to dedicate the rest of our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el, wrestling with mysteries and struggling with our relationship with God.

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