Shemot – “Names”

This week’s Torah potion is Sh’mot, translated “Names,” and covers Exodus 1:1-6:1. It chronicles God’s providence and faithfulness, delivering His people from the oppression of a ruthless Pharoah.

Chapter 1 opens with the “Names” of the sons of Israel, who migrated with Jacob to Egypt. His descendants totaled 70. God had used Joseph’s wisdom and administrative skills to save Egypt, and the world from a terrible famine. That generation died out, and a new pharaoh began to reign, to whom Joseph meant nothing. Threatened by the increase of the Israelis, he enslaved them, appointing taskmasters to afflict them with heavy labor. Still, they increased in numbers. So, the Egyptians worked them mercilessly, forcing them to mix mortar and make bricks in the fields. It didn’t work. Pharaoh then directed the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all Israeli male babies at the time of birth. But they feared God, and defied Pharaoh. All this infuriated Pharaoh, who then ordered his people to throw all newborn male babies into the Nile River.

In Chapter 2, Amram and Jochebed, from the house of Levi, bore a son. Seeing that her son was extraordinary, Yocheved hid him three months. When that was no longer possible, she entrusted him to God, laying him in a papyrus basket, waterproofed with tar, and setting it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister followed at a distance to see what would happen. Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing nearby and noticed the basket. She opened it, saw this Israeli baby, and felt sympathy for him. His sister suggested to her that an Israeli woman could nurse him. She agreed, and ironically his own mother was paid to nurse him. Subsequently, the princess adopted him, naming him Moses, because she’d lifted him from the water. His first 40 years were lived as royalty.

One day, Moses observed an Israeli brother being beaten by an Egyptian; feeling compassion, he struck down the Egyptian and buried his body. The following day he tried to make peace between two quarreling Israelis and was rejected. He realized his killing of the Egyptian was known, even to the king.

So, he fled to Midian where he lived forty years, married Zipporah daughter of Jethro, a priest, shepherded Jethro’s sheep, and fathered Gershom and Eliezer. Meanwhile, Pharaoh died, but the Israelis were still enslaved. Yet God heard their cries, and would honor His covenant with Abraham.

In chapter 3 God wondrously appeared to Moses at Horeb. He saw a bush on fire, yet not burning! Fascinated, he moved closer, but God warned him to remove his sandals, because that ground was holy. He revealed Himself to Moses as the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses hid his face in fear. Adonai acknowledged the suffering and cries of His people Israel, and told Moses He’d chosen him to deliver them out of Egypt. Moses insisted he wasn’t up to the task, nor did he know God’s name. God promised to be with him, and identified Himself as, “I AM WHO I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and that Moses should tell the elders of Israel that “I AM” has sent him. Adonai also forewarned Moses that Pharaoh would not allow the Israelis to leave, and that He will strike Egypt in judgment, performing amazing miracles. Under compulsion Pharaoh would finally allow Israel to leave… but with an abundance of wealth.

In chapter 4 Moses was still hesitant, but was reminded that the Israelis would believe because of God’s miraculous power. Adonai gave three remarkable signs of confirmation; Moses’ staff would become a snake, and change back into a staff, his hand would become leprous and then be restored, and water from the Nile River would turn to blood.

Moses then protested that he couldn’t speak well. God reminded him that only His power determines who speaks or hears, and that He would guide Moses’ words. Finally, Moses begged God to send someone else, which angered Him. God consented to allow Moses’ brother Aaron to be the spokesman, and Moses would represent God to the Israelis, using his staff to perform miracles.