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Speaking from the burning bush, God commands Moshe to return to Egypt and deliver the following message to Pharaoh: “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has encountered us. And now please let us go on a three-day journey in the wilderness and we will bring offerings to the Lord, our God.”
God’s instructions to Moshe at the burning bush threaten to undermine our understanding of the entire Exodus narrative.
Where is the ringing, powerful demand for freedom, Let my people go? Why do we find in its place the seemingly tepid request, Please let my people go on a three-day journey to the desert to worship God? What could be more central to the Exodus story than the demand for complete freedom?
And…if Pharaoh had agreed to Moshe’s request, would the Israelites have returned after three days? If so, what would have been accomplished by their brief departure? If they would never have returned, if a three-day journey was not a truly viable option, why would God instruct Moshe to lie to the Egyptian king? Is the Jewish nation to be born through deceit? As the Abravanel exclaims: “How could the Almighty have commanded Moshe to lie in His name? It would have been better to clearly demand, ‘Release my nation from under the burdens of Egypt.’ ”
Finally, in the aftermath of the Exodus, after Pharaoh has released the Israelites from bondage, the text relates: “And it was told to the king of Egypt that the [Israelite] nation had fled.”
How are we to understand this bewildering statement? Clearly Pharaoh knows that the Israelites have left Egypt. The king himself, broken by the last of the ten plagues, ordered the slaves out of his country! Why must he now be told that the Israelites have fled? Can it be that Pharaoh, even after the devastation of the plagues, still believes he has released the Israelites only for a three-day religious holiday? Is that why the Egyptian king leads his army in pursuit of the Israelites three days after the Exodus, when the king concludes that the slaves are not returning? Has the entire Exodus been divinely structured, through the three-day request, to lead Pharaoh and his army inexorably to their deaths in the Sea of Reeds?
The classical commentaries are divided in their approach to the limited request for a three-day journey from Egypt.
Some scholars, including Abravanel and the Akeidat Yitzchak, view the request as an exercise meant to test and expose the limits of Pharaoh’s obstinacy. As the Abravanel puts it, “The Almighty proffered this request in order to demonstrate to the world the extent of Pharaoh’s stubbornness and to justify the divine judgment and punishment about to be brought upon Pharaoh and Egypt.”
This position implies that the request for a three-day journey was offered as a serious option. Had the Egyptian king shown flexibility by agreeing to this first request presented to him, the Israelites would indeed have returned and the Exodus might well have unfolded in a different, less painful, fashion.
Once Pharaoh refuses to accede even to this reasonable appeal, however, the three-day option is removed from the table and replaced with the demand for total freedom.
Other commentaries maintain that the limited journey was never really presented as a viable option at all. God certainly had no intention of allowing His people to return to Egypt after three days of freedom.
What, then, can possibly justify the request? Why would God order Moshe to deliberately deceive the Egyptian king?
On this point, two contrasting schools of thought emerge:
1. Some authorities simply refuse to accept the possibility that God – and upon His orders Moshe as well – could be deceitful.
Rabbi Yaakov Mecklenberg, for example, maintains that, notwithstanding the implied commitment to return to Egypt, Moshe never clearly verbalizes a pledge to come back. He was therefore not guilty of an outright falsehood.
The Chizkuni goes one step further and claims that the request for a three-day journey was factually truthful. He points to the fact that on the second day after the Exodus the Israelites encamp at Eitam in the “edge of the wilderness,” effectively halting their flight from Egypt.
2. The Midrash, on the other hand, embraces, without apology or excuse, God’s deliberate deception of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Commenting on the puzzling phrase “and it was told to the king of Egypt that the nation had fled,” Rashi, quoting a Mechilta, relates that Pharaoh sends spies with the departing Israelite slaves. When the third day after the Exodus arrives, the day on which the Israelites had promised to return, the spies see that no such return is imminent. These agents therefore report to Pharaoh, “The Israelites have fled.”
The idea of a three-day journey, according to the Midrash, was never truly abandoned by Pharaoh. Even after the devastation wrought upon his land, the Egyptian king fully expects the Israelites to return. When he realizes that he has been deceived, he immediately takes off in pursuit of the “fleeing” slaves. Numerous other commentaries mirror this Midrashic approach.
From this point of view, the three-day request emerges as an integral part of God’s planning from the outset. The Exodus is designed, from its earliest stages, to ultimately lead Pharaoh and his army to the banks of the Reed Sea. The Israelites will never truly be free of their taskmasters unless they witness the total destruction of Egyptian power in the roiling waters of that sea.
Concerning the moral issues raised by this divinely ordained deceit, Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) argues: “[The deception] was justified by the fact that Pharaoh would certainly have enslaved Israelites upon their return to Egypt. We should not be surprised, therefore, that God commanded the Israelites to give Pharaoh a taste of his own medicine.”
As Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni essentially argues in his discussion of an earlier moral quandary raised by the Torah narrative (see Bereishit: Toldot 4, Approaches C), “All is fair in love and war.” If we are obligated to kill on the battlefield in order to defeat evil, it stands to reason that we are obligated to use subterfuge, when necessary, to accomplish the same goal.
One final approach to the three-day request is offered by Rabbeinu Bachya, who views God’s instructions from the perspective of the Israelite slaves. Abrupt, total change in the human condition is impossible. Consequently, the Israelites would have been unable to even conceive of an immediate transition from slavery to freedom. God, therefore, proceeds slowly. He approaches the Israelites with a proposal that they can accept. In this way, God orchestrates the entry of the Israelites into the realm of responsibility through measured steps.
Points to Ponder
What if, as some of the sources quoted above maintain, the three-day request of Pharaoh was not a ruse at all, but a serious offer? And, what if Pharaoh had agreed to the request? Upon the return of the Israelites, how might the path of the Exodus have been altered?
While it is impossible to answer this question with any degree of certainty, we can suggest the one variable that would have changed: the Israelites themselves.
Granted a taste of freedom after decades of carefully orchestrated slavery and degradation, the Israelites would have returned to Egypt, in some measure, a changed people. Pharaoh knew this. He knew that he could not allow even a glimmer of hope to illuminate the lives of his slaves. Only through unremitting subjugation could he maintain their physical and spiritual servitude. A holiday from slavery, no matter how brief, could simply not have been countenanced. As the Exodus unfolds, a fundamental truth is mirrored in the depth of a demagogue’s fear – a truth that will be proven over and over again across the span of Jewish history. Even the most powerful subjugation and degradation cannot totally destroy the spark of human spirit burning deep in the hearts of the oppressed. Let the smallest glimmer of hope enter, and that spark will be quickly fanned into a rising flame.