The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Questions from a seeker 2

September 14th, 2003 · No Comments · history, metaphysics, ritual

Dear Seeker —

You ask: I’m perplexed by the “magick” involved with Yahweh “one-upping” the Egyptian Magicians with various magick. Were these “magick-offs” a common occurrence? Are these things actually documented elsewhere? I’m curious as to what type of magick we’re talking about here. It is mentioned that some of the plagues did not affect the Jews, did the other ones affect them?

I’ve done some study on Egyptian magic, mostly funerary rites, and from my understanding of Egyptian history, there does seem to be some precedent for competitive hocus-pocus. Every major town in Egypt had its dominant god, and a coterie of priests who served that god. When one town took over another, the god of the victorious town would subjugate the god of the loser’s town. Priests would happily take credit for any successes and were not above using a little slight-of-hand to impress the populace that their god was smiling upon them. It’s not unlikely that the priests of one temple would hold a face-off against other priests to resolve matters of political control, but more typically, force of arms determined political issues. To this point, I have not come across any specific mention of dueling priests outside of the , I just expect this of human nature.

That being said, the actual stories of come from several sources and were edited together by men in the 5th century (BCE) with an agenda to include as many people as possible under their aegis. In truth, only a fraction of people who lived in the area of Canaan had migrated from Egypt: most had come from areas north or east of there. Probably, the 5th century aristocrats in Babylon who were compiling the Torah may have been among those who ultimately descended from Egyptians and it was important to them to appear to be the legitimate rulers of Canaan, whenever they got the chance to return. Consequently, the tortured gyrations of the Israelites through the wasteland was probably more fancy than fact — the road from Egypt to Canaan only took about four days to travel, and was littered with towns and villages.

If I may digress, the literary point of having the Israelites meander through the desert for forty years was to indicate that they had returned to a purer state of pastoral nomads after having been corrupted by the urban, agrarian, Egyptians. The story of Cain and Abel is, at root, a metaphor for the conflict between settled farmers and nomadic herdsmen. In Jewish mythos, the nomads were good and true, and they represented a life simpler and less compromised than those in the cities. This dichotomy between urban and nomad took on new importance to the exiled aristocrats in Babylon. They had a need to show that they were of honorable nomadic stock, not disreputable urbanites, in order to gain the respect of people who had relatively recently settled in Canaan.

To continue, the type of magic demonstrated by YHWH or the priests of the pharaoh is unknown, and the stories concerning them little better than fable. One could speculate that most of the magic was either slight-of-hand, or access to climate and astronomical information otherwise unknown to the general populace. Most of the plagues have been recently understood to be related to naturally occurring events; perhaps the priests knew to expect them. The point of that whole series is that YHWH is great and all-powerful: a theme repeated by Elijah in Kings during his magical combat against the priests of Baal.

Compared to the legerdemain of characters of modern fiction, the hand waving done by Moses and Aaron comes off as a little silly: a stick that turns into a snake, and a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t case of leprosy. (Would you shake hands with Moses after seeing that one?) Even under close inspection, the tales of the plague-matching contest seems a little suspicious. Moses turns the river red, then the priests of pharaoh turn the river red — not so hard once it’s already gone red!

The plague stories are, again, a set of stories that were told that got combined into one. Many scholars now agree that in the original forms, there were only seven plagues. When they were combined, we ended up with some plagues being initiated by Moses, others by YHWH, some effecting the Israelites, others not. The pox on the first born was probably one of the few that was consistent across all the stories, and it required that the Israelites perform a special blood ceremony to prevent being effected. Presumably, some of the others may have effective the Israelites indirectly, if not directly. When no one could drink from the Nile and everyone had to dig wells; that probably touched the Israelites as well as the Egyptians.

You ask: Why has Yahweh forgotten about the Israelites in Egypt? “During this long period the king of Egypt died. The Israelites, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God. God heard their groaning; God remembered his covenant with Abraham Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites and took note” (Ex 2:23-25)

“Oh yeah, those guys… I remember them now…” The short answer is that this is a narrative device concocted by the redactors to tie the stories of Genesis to the exodus tale. God forgot. Yeah, whatever. Try, “We want to claim that the Semites in Egypt are part of our spiritual clan so we can get the political power that comes from their support.” Which makes more sense to you?

From a slightly less cynical perspective, YHWH was one of the local gods of Canaan, and when the Yah and Baal worshippers migrated to Egypt, they became Ra and Amon worshippers. Perhaps a core group of Yah worshippers (likely the priestly families) maintained their worship of Yah and eventually convinced others to join them. However, it is clear that after the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Semitic tribes had fallen out of political favor in Egypt and it was expedient for them to return to Canaan. When they got back to Canaan, no doubt they ceased their worship of Egyptian gods in favor of Canaanite gods.

You ask: It seems to me that Yahweh is a revengeful, jealous bastard. The poor pharaoh (in Egypt) must have seemed skitzo — telling the Jews they can leave and then freaking out and telling them they couldn’t.

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. I totally agree with your characterization of YHWH, and it’s for this reason that he was disincluded from my private pantheon. As far as gods go, Yah is a jerk — let me add: capricious, rude, and careless. And this goes all the way through the Bible. That whole “God is Love” crap that dribbles through the New Testament is window dressing on a cesspit.

The puppet pharaoh of Exodus is clearly a literary fiction — to be more precise, on the scale of history to fiction, most of Exodus weighs heavily on the fiction side, with pharaoh being way out on the edge. Pharaoh wants to let the Israelites go, but “God hardens his heart”, thus, Yah is the real asshole here. If Yah really wanted his people to go, he could have made it happen very simply, instead of succumbing to this childish pissing contest.

Modern apologists have made a lot of hay over this episode, much like the book of Job, where an uncompromised perspective would view YHWH as the supreme jackass. Instead, these apologists would have you believe that there is some sort of purpose or message behind this unforgivable behavior. If you had a boss that acted like that, you’d quit your job to find another — you might even call the cops on him. There’s really no excuse, except to say that it’s all fairy tale.

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