Does One Crime Justify Another?

Understanding why God hardens Pharaoh's heart.

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An Evil God

retaliation road signPerhaps the most satisfactory approach is to keep the theological problems ever-present. In The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (1995), Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that the liberation story of the Israelites, what she calls the "master narrative," gives rise to "counter-narratives" that throw the justification of God's triumphal power into question. Indeed, as Zornberg argues, the master narrative of God as loving and benevolent redeemer of the Israelites is challenged by the killing of the Egyptians' first-born, including "the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon" (12:29). This prompts a counter-narrative from the perspective of the plague's victims that asks: What sin could the babies and the captives possibly have committed to deserve this punishment? The answer posits an evil God. This narrative appears again later, in the story of the Golden Calf, when Moses convinces God not to murder the Israelites for their transgression, arguing that otherwise, the Egyptian story will prevail: "Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he delivered them" (32:12). Although the Midrash attempts to silence and "neutralize" potentially heretical answers to such queries, Zornberg maintains that "the Torah, even God's quoted words, gives rise to interpretations that radically contradict its own master-narrative, and that cannot, moreover, be totally repudiated by its accredited expositors" (p, 143).

For Zornberg, an alternative for dealing with the dissonance between narrative and counter-narrative is "the model of endless questioning, in which the answer does not totally silence the questioner" (p. 143). In fact, implicit and explicit questions play an important role in this parashah. God mandates that the story of the Exodus be told in response to children's queries: "And when your children ask shall say..." (l2:26-27). This is the basis for the Passover seder's custom of the Four Questions. Further, two more verses from this parashah and one from Deuteronomy instruct us to answer our children's questions about the Exodus. The rabbis understood all these verses as referring to four kinds of children, the Haggadah's Four Sons, each with varying aptitudes, each eliciting a different perspective on the narrative: the Wise Son (Deuteronomy 6:20-21), the Wicked Son (Exodus 12:26), the Simple Son (13:14), and the One Who Is Unable to Ask (13:8).

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Rabbi Singer currently serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA as rabbi and educator.