If you don’t accept the story of miracles and divine intervention as the reason, then on sheer rational grounds it’s hard to explain why Pharaoh lets the Hebrew slaves go. When else in history has a powerful ruler let his slave population leave in the middle of a large public works project, one dedicated to his glorification, no less? Imagine the impact on the economy, let alone the damage to his public image and vanity.
If you do believe the central story has some roots in historical events – and accumulating archeological evidence shows some mysterious population emerged from somewhere to conquer Canaan around 1200 BCE – then what awesome event could possibly have compelled Pharaoh to submit to Moses’ demand to let his people go?
To delve the mystery, let’s look at the third plague, which is the first hint of victory for the Hebrews in their prolonged struggle against Pharaoh.
God tells Moses to tell Aaron to strike his rod to the dust of the ground. He does so, and all the dust of the earth transmutes into tiny insects throughout the land to plague people and beasts alike. Pharaoh’s specialists were able to match the Hebrews’ blood and frogs in plagues one and two, but when they see this spectacular performance, they throw in the towel:
And the magicians did so with their secret arts to bring forth lice, but they could not and there were gnats on man and on beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God’. (Ex 8:14-15)
Why does this plague of lice work and not the much more graphic and grotesque blood or frogs? What is it about dust mutating into swarms of tiny insects that defeats the wizards to the point that they are compelled to acknowledge the intervention of a superior God of the Hebrews, or at least His Finger?
The media demo war in Pharaoh’s court
The key lies in the astonishing mistranslation of one word in this verse.
The Hebrew word usually translated as ‘wizards’, ‘magicians’, or ‘sorcerers’ is chartumim. TheBrown-Drivers-Briggs etymology says the first meaning of the word is “writers on stone or engravers,” deriving from another Hebrew word, cheret – stone. Thus a more literal and better translation would be “hieroglyphic scribes.” In fact, the word for hieroglyphics even in modern Hebrew is ktav hachartumei: “writing of the engravers.”
Once we translate the word in its original sense, it opens up a whole new story within the story. It explains why the scribes declare defeat at the third plague of so-called lice (which we will explore in a bit). It also explains the central, sheerly sociological or historical mystery: Why did Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go?
The answer is that the competition in Pharaoh’s court between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh’s scribes was a war of scripts, of writing systems. It was a war between competing demos of new writing media to see which was more powerful. On one side was the old, cumbersome pictographic system of Egypt, the hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs required mastery of 800 or more signs to become literate. On the other side was the sleek new phonetic alphabet. All you needed was to download the twenty-two signs. It was free and you could learn it in a day or so and spread it to your friends. It was a viral app, making the new gift of universal literacy possible.
Pharaoh’s scribes, if not Pharaoh himself, immediately see they are being faced with an awesome, disruptive weapon in the hands of slaves. Any sensible leader would have recognized the threat. The phonetic alphabet might do to the hegemony of Egypt’s totalitarian system what later history showed any new disruptive media could do, what the printing press did to the Catholic Church or feudal Europe, and what the Internet did to the Soviet Union. Imagine if all the slaves in the South suddenly were given iPhones while their owners were stuck on pen, ink and the mail. The Civil War would never have been necessary. The alphabet was a cultural atom bomb. And the old writers in stone, the hieroglyphic scribes, were the first to recognize the threat. For them, the war was already over.
Further, it is obvious why writing and sorcery would be conflated. If your pictographic writing system requires you to learn eight hundred signs, then most of the population will be illiterate, and mastery of the tool grants you the aura of super-human powers. Obviously, a totalitarian ruler will secure this power and further surround it with mystique and power. So rulers of ancient pictographic cultures set scribes apart as a priestly class and surrounded them with the aura of transcendent, magic and sorcery, an extension of their reach as living gods, a national religion. Hieroglyphics are an extension of your hierarchical power. The earlier Sumerian language from 3000 BCE, also a pictographic script (written on clay) captures this: the sign for priest and scribe are the same. No wonder modern autocracies, like China and Iran today, make sure they nationalize newspapers, phone companies, tv, and the Internet, and control those who operate them tightly, either through fear, reward, or some combination of both. At the first sign of disruption, they shut off the Internet.
So why do hieroglyphics fail here?
Turning water into blood and making frogs appear are tricks that the wizards can imitate by prestidigitation, stagecraft, like pulling rabbits from hats or flocks of doves from your sleeve. But why not something smaller and less spectacular like little insects? The Hebrew kinim, usually translated as lice or gnats, although its etymology is uncertain. They are clearly, however, a different order of insect, even by the Bible’s logic, otherwise, why would there be a separate descsription of “swarms” – presumably of other kinds of insects, in the fourth plague? Some sages call them a kind of parasite (Talmud, Shabbat 12).
If they were scribes, and the Hebrews and Egyptians are squaring off over writing system, then it may hold the answer: water, blood and frogs had hieroglyphic signs in the 14th century BCE. Any scribe could write them. There were hieroglyphs for bees, flies and scarabs. But there was no hieroglyph for lice.
When Aaron touches the dust and transmutes it into swarms of lice, this performs a transformation beyond any power of abstraction that hieroglyphics can manage. If you’ve ever struggled to pick out lice in your child’s hair, you know they are nearly invisible, American southerners call them “noseeums.” Not only do they strike everywhere in Egypt, man and beast alike, they are universal: all the dust, the Torah reiterates a second time, transforms into lice. The scribes recognize the transcendent, cosmic manifestation for what it is. Like God Himself, the third plague is ubiquitous, invisible, abstract and universally effective. No wonder the wizards cry etzbah HaShem! This is the [mere] finger of God. What will happen when He brings down His entire hand?
But Pharaoh is still conflicted. He’s not such a fool that he can’t recognize the threat posed by this new weapon. But the press would humiliate him if he let them go so publicly, started an economic recession, and conceded defeat to slaves and their invisible God. No wonder he hardens his heart.
The finger of God writes
If we accept this new view of Exodus, it reveals a powerful story within the story: besides revealing the story of the Hebrews emerging from Egypt, the Bible is also narrating how it became the first document in the history of the world written in the phonetic alphabet.
When Moses sees God for the first time on Sinai, several things happen, all of which could only be written in the new medium of the alphabet. First, Moses sees a bush that burns but isn’t consumed. How could hieroglyphs possibly described this metaphysical – in the sense of beyond physical – event? Then, God reveals His ineffable name as a set of four letters, the Tetragrammaton in Greek. Third, God instructs Moses in a set of mysterious “signs.” On the surface, the text refers to Moses’ hand turning white and returning to normal and Moses’ rod turning into a snake and back.
But the word in Hebrew is oht – aleph tav. Oht is also the word for letter. God assures Moses that when he goes back to Egypt to persuade the Hebrews, if they don’t listen to the voice of the first sign, they will heed the voice of the last sign. God is punning in a very subtle (and, of course, Divine) way, or at least, the text is. The first sign is the aleph, the last sign is the tav. Together, they embrace the alphabet, the alephtav. The two letters also allude to God Himself, as the first and last of all things, the alpha and omega. This is another layer, a feat of meaning-making, that can only be managed in the new medium of an alphabetic text. Moses is persuaded to go back and teach the Israelites these signs and unleash the media revolution.
In these puns and in the display of the plagues, written Hebrew is showing off its new powers, especially the power of abstraction and punning, what linguists call paronomasia – multiple names. The play on words involving the letters isn’t possible in any other medium. Hieroglyphs were limited to describing what can more or less be depicted, but can now express anything in spoken language and, we can argue, anything that can be thought or imagined. It is more than ironic that the two media also contrast the nature of the gods they conjure: one is only that which can be touched and seen, in stone or matter, the other an all-powerful transformative abstraction, invisible and metaphysical.
The alphabet also for the first time in history enables anyone to capture their inner reality and communicate it to others through space and time. In a real sense, the subjective lives of others are now open for publication and posterity for the first time. We know what Jacob dreamed by the river and what evil Esau plotted in his heart. It is the birth of an individual consciousness as an historical event. It is also the beginning of poetry.
In addition to all the other things it achieves, the Torah is also about its own textuality, its own status as an object produced by writing, its writtenness. There are many self-reflexive passages describing how it comes to be written, like the story of the letters on Sinai. One midrash tells us that Aaron’s rod had the alphabetic acronym for the plagues written on his rod. Was he writing in the dust when he summoned the invisible swarm?
But the Torah’s most powerful self-reference to its own textuality is later on in Exodus, when the finger of God makes its only other appearance in the Torah: “And He gave to Moses, when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”
It’s hard to resist the connecting the dots between the two fingers: the third plague is about writing, too.
If any trait, beyond Divine intervention, explains the success and survival of the Jews among the nations, it is its literacy and its inveterate cultural practice – one might say gift – for multiplying meaning. No wonder the first written alphabetic text not only tells us the story of its birth and progress in the world, its autobiography, it also declares that its origin is divine, and it commands every Jew to imitate its Author and write their own.
San Mateo, Va’eira 5780
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