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The Biography of Ancient Israel

National Narratives in the Bible

Ilana Pardes (Author)

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Paperback, 222 pages
ISBN: 9780520236868
September 2002
$29.95, £19.95
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The nation--particularly in Exodus and Numbers--is not an abstract concept but rather a grand character whose history is fleshed out with remarkable literary power. In her innovative exploration of national imagination in the Bible, Pardes highlights the textual manifestations of the metaphor, the many anthropomorphisms by which a collective character named "Israel" springs to life. She explores the representation of communal motives, hidden desires, collective anxieties, the drama and suspense embedded in each phase of the nation's life: from birth in exile, to suckling in the wilderness, to a long process of maturation that has no definite end. In the Bible, Pardes suggests, history and literature go hand in hand more explicitly than in modern historiography, which is why the Bible serves as a paradigmatic case for examining the narrative base of national constructions.

Pardes calls for a consideration of the Bible's penetrating renditions of national ambivalence. She reads the rebellious conduct of the nation against the grain, probing the murmurings of the people, foregrounding their critique of the official line. The Bible does not provide a homogeneous account of nation formation, according to Pardes, but rather reveals points of tension between different perceptions of the nation's history and destiny.

This fresh and beautifully rendered portrayal of the history of ancient Israel will be of vital interest to anyone interested in the Bible, in the interrelations of literature and history, in nationhood, in feminist thought, and in psychoanalysis.
Acknowledgments
1. Introduction: Split Conception
2. Imagining the Birth of a Nation
3. Suckling in the Wilderness: The Absent Mother
4. At the Foot of Mount Sinai: National Rites of Initiation
5. The Spies in the Land of the Giants: Restless Youth
6. Crossing the Threshold: In the Plains of Moab
7. Epilogue: Mount Nebo
Notes
Bibliography
Index
Ilana Pardes is an Professor of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (1992).
“Pardes successfully demonstrates the Bible may be read in the manner she proposes.”—Alexander H. Joffe Journal Of Near Eastern Stds /Jnes
"Pardes has a remarkable gift for asking new questions about familiar texts and providing fresh insights into old problems. By looking closely at the key metaphors and the narrative details of the biblical story of the formation of the Israelite nation, she has teased out of the text a compelling biography."—Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley

"Ilana Pardes elegantly recasts the mythic story of Israel's emergence as the story of the birth, individuation, initiation, and maturity of an emergent subject. Ambivalences, deferrals, power struggles, and multiple memories all characterize Israel's development and the stories told about it. Through a set of close and graceful readings, Pardes persuasively argues that the first five books of the Bible constitute, not the history, but the biography of a nation." —Elizabeth A. Castelli, Barnard College, author of Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power

"The book of books has generated many other works, but Ilana Pardes's The Biography of Ancient Israel is in a class by itself. In beautiful, spare prose, she reconstructs the way the biblical authors imagined the history of ancient Israel. Artfully weaving literary and psychological insights, she has given us an entirely fresh view of the Bible as original as it is brilliant. This is a book for every reader of the Bible who wishes 'to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.'"—David Biale, author of Eros and the Jews

"This is a wonderful book and a delight to read. The idea of treating the exodus story as a collective biography is quite original, and makes possible a genuinely illuminating reading of the story."—Michael Walzer, author of Exodus and Revolution

CHAPTER TWO

Imagining the Birth of a Nation

  The metaphor of national birth is probably the most resonant anthropomorphic image in national biographies from antiquity to modern times. In fact, it is so resonant one tends to forget that nations are not born literally but rather are imagined in these terms. Every nation, however, has its own birth story, or birth stories. The Book of Exodus provides an intriguingly complex representation of Israel's birth in keeping with the preliminary imaginings of the nation in Genesis. The opening verses of Exodus 1 make clear that God's reiterated promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the grand national annunciation scenes of Genesis—are finally realized. The descendants of Jacob, whose names are listed solemnly, multiply at an uncanny pace and turn into a "mighty" nation: the nation of the "children of Israel."1 "Israel" for the first time is not merely Jacob's second, elevated, name but rather a collective designation of a burgeoning community that "fills" the land. But then we discover that God's darker prophecy, in the covenant of the parts, is equally fulfilled: Israel is born in a prolonged exile against Pharaonic bondage.

Representing the birth of a nation is not a simple task. Let me suggest that the imagining of this dramatic event in Exodus is facilitated by the interweaving of two biographies: the story of the birth of Moses and that of the nation. The fashioning of Israel as character, here as elsewhere, is inseparable from a complementary narrative strategy: the marking of individuals whose histories are paradigmatic. The nation's life story, in other words, is modeled in relation to the biographies of select characters. We have already noticed the national dimension inscribed in Abraham's story: the fashioning of his departure from Ur as prefiguration of the nation's exodus. Abraham, however, is only the first exemplary figure. The heterogeneity of national imagination in the Bible depends on a variety of representatives. Fragments of the biographies of Isaac, of Jacob, the eponymous father, and even of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid, whose affliction foreshadows the nation's enslavement in Egypt, are also linked in different ways to the nation's biography and take part in its construction.

On the question of birth, Moses' biography is of special importance. The analogy between the one and the multitude in this case is more immediate. Unlike the patriarchal biographies that pertain to a distant past and flicker over the chasm of time, Moses' story is fashioned within the same historical setting. Moses is a national leader whose history blends with the history of the nation. He is one of many Hebrew babies persecuted by Pharaoh. His story, however, is marked as the exemplary account that sheds light on the collective birth story as it prefigures the deliverance of the nation as a whole from bondage.

Moses' birth story, as Otto Rank aptly suggests in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, shares much in common with mythical birth stories. What characterizes the birth of a hero? Rank offers a list of recurrent motifs, relying on a variety of myths—from the birth legend of Saragon, the third-millennium b.c.e. king of Akkad, to the renowned story of Oedipus's exposure and the tale of Remus and Romulus, the legendary founders of Rome. The conception of the hero, he claims, is usually impeded by difficulties such as abstinence or prolonged barrenness. During or before pregnancy there is a prophecy, or an oracle cautioning the father against the hero's birth; the father tries to shape a different future and gives orders to kill his newborn son; the babe is then placed in a basket or a box and delivered to the waves. Against all odds, however, the hero is saved by animals or by lowly people and is suckled by a female animal or by a humble woman. When full-grown, he discovers his royal parents, takes revenge on his father, and, recognized by his people, finally achieves rank and honors.

Following Freud, Rank reads the myth as an expression of Oedipal struggles between fathers and sons. The hero is he who is capable of standing against his father and overcoming him. The myth traces this struggle "back to the very dawn of the hero's life, by having him born against his father's will and saved in spite of his father's evil intentions."8 What we have here in Freudian terms is a "family romance," the kind of story a child fabricates when feeling deserted. Resentful of his parents' neglect (opportunities arise only too often), the child thinks of himself as a foundling, an adopted child, whose true parents—royal, needless to say—will eventually be revealed.

Moses' story is indeed compatible in many ways with Rank's model: a threatened child, the exposure in the basket, the miraculous deliverance of the foundling, the two sets of parents, and the final acknowledgment of the hero's power. But then there is a significant difference that Rank smooths over by claiming that the original story had been distorted by the biblical scribes: Moses' true parents are not the royal ones but rather the poor Hebrew slaves.

What Rank overlooks—as does Freud in the opening section of Moses and Monotheism—is that at a moment of national birth the inversion of the two sets of parents is purposeful. Moses' "true" parents are higher in rank despite their lowly position precisely because they are members of the chosen nation to be. This lapse in their readings of Moses' story derives in part from their failure to see the relevance of the myth to the representation of the nation as a whole.

The juxtaposition of Moses' story and that of the nation entails an adaptation of the myth of the birth of the hero on a national plane. Put differently, it enables the construction of a myth of the birth of the nation. Israel's birth, much like that of Moses, takes place against Pharaoh's will.

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we. (Exod. 1:8-9)
Interestingly, the expression 'am beney yisrael, "the nation of the children of Israel," is first used by none other than Pharaoh. Pharaoh's anxieties over the safety of his rule enable him to perceive the rise of Israel long before the Hebrews themselves can. Intimidated by the uncanny growth of the Hebrews, Pharaoh orders that every son who is born shall be cast into the Nile "and every daughter ye shall save alive" (Exod. 1:22). Much has been written about his curious choice to get rid of the male babies alone but with no consideration of the mythical background. What is at stake here is an application of the exposure motif (a male motif to begin with) to a community of sons. Pharaoh, the ruler of the parent-nation, fears the power of a budding nation of rivals growing within Egypt. Parental anxieties—what will emerge from the teeming womb?—thus conflate with racist anxieties—will the others overbear?

Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives whose names are associated with "beauty" (the former) and "birth sighs" (the latter), are the national correlate of Moses' female deliverers in Exodus 2. Here too a curious detail in the text—the fact that two midwives are considered sufficient for a national massacre—can be explained in terms of the mythical context and the interrelations of the two biographies. The midwives, much like humble rescuers of heroes, choose to violate the king's decree and save the threatened newborns. They trick Pharaoh by telling him midwives' tales: "And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them" (1:18-19). Shiphrah and Puah outwit Pharaoh by confirming his racist anxieties concerning the proliferation of the Hebrew slaves. Relying on a common racist notion, according to which the other is closer to Nature, they claim that the Hebrew women need no midwives, for unlike Egyptian women, they are animal-like (ki chayot hena) and can give birth without professional help. There is an outburst of vitality out there, they seem to suggest, that cannot be yoked to the legal apparatus of the Pharaonic court. The recurrence of the term "midwife" in this brief episode—it appears seven times—highlights the admirable power and courage of the two women.

 

The Politics of Birth

So far I have underlined the mythical qualities of the representation of the nation's birth, but one needs to bear in mind the ways in which myth here is set against the historical setting of slavery, or rather against slave narratives whose purpose is to document the concrete horrors of bondage and commemorate modes of resistance. Michael Walzer offers a cogent reading of the Egyptian oppression in his meditation on the political meanings of the Exodus. He defines the enslavement in Egypt as a form of cruel tyranny, exercised from the seat of political power, that insisted not only on making a profit through forced labor but also on crushing the slaves' spirits, on embittering their lives with humiliating work. Indeed, the Hebrews could not at first listen to Moses' revolutionary ideas "for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage" (Exod. 6:9). The Hebrew is kotser ruach, literally, "shortness of spirit," an idiom for impatience, but in this context it acquires, Walzer claims, the additional meaning of "dispiritedness."13

What needs to be added to Walzer's analysis is a consideration of the ways in which bondage distorts and undermines the process of reproduction. The phenomenon is all too well known from testimonies regarding other instances of slavery. Bartolomé de Las Casas's depiction of New World slavery is relevant in this connection:

Thus husbands and wives were together once every eight or ten months, and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides that they had no mind for marital intercourse, and in this way they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them with, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.
The great spokesman against North American slavery, Frederick Douglass, captures the dehumanization involved from the moment of birth even when a newborn slave does manage to survive. He begins his renowned Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, with a comment on his birth.

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.
To reclaim birth is thus a revolutionary act in the context of slavery. It discloses hope for the newborn and the power to imagine a different future, one without bondage and tyranny; it means

to reclaim subjecthood, to turn the birth of the oppressed into a meaningful event that needs to be recorded and narrated.

The story of the birth of ancient Israel is a story of trauma and recovery. The founding trauma in the nation's biography is bondage, the repression of growth. But then a process of recovery begins that entails the inversion of exposure from an antinatal act to a means of rescue. Yocheved casts her son into the Nile, but Moses' exposure is not meant to comply with Pharaoh's decree but rather to undo it. Similarly, the nation as a whole multiplies despite Pharaoh's tortuous measures and tireless attempts to restrict its growth: "But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew" (Exod. 1:12). The relation between affliction and growth is provocatively inverted. While Pharaoh expected a reduction in the birthrate, his harsh treatment of the Hebrews led to the opposite, to a mysterious increase.

 

In Thy Blood Live

In his explicit and rather graphic use of the metaphor of birth vis-à-vis the nation, Ezekiel sheds much light on the representation of national formation in Exodus. In a famous passage in Ezekiel 16, which relates the story of national birth, Jerusalem stands for the nation:

And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee, but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the lothing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. I have caused thee to multiply as the bud of the field, and thou hast increased and waxen great, and thou art come to excellent ornaments: thy breasts are fashioned, and thine hair is grown, whereas thou wast naked and bare. Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness. (4-8)
Israel was ruthlessly deserted by its parents at birth, soaking in blood helplessly without even receiving elementary postpartum care. The horrifying aspects of parental neglect are depicted in vivid detail. The newborn was not washed in water, her umbilical cord was not cut, her body was not salted (a practice that was apparently perceived as essential for the newborn's skin), nor was she swaddled. But then God passed by and adopted the neglected nation, adjuring Israel to live in her blood, to regard the marks of blood on her body as a source of life. What is more, He raised the nation and enabled her multiplication and growth. He provided her with the much-needed care and compassion that she lacked, washing the blood off her skin and furnishing her with excellent ornaments. Being a foundling nation is a traumatic experience, but it ultimately turns out to be beneficial: it leads (as is the case in the myth of the birth of the hero) to the discovery of / by more distinguished parents and ensures the transition from rags to riches, or rather from nakedness to royal garments.

The story of the Exodus is indeed the story of Israel's rescue and adoption by a more distinguished Father who is not merely royal but divine as well. It is a Father who has the force to wash off the signs of a collective trauma, to turn a helpless late-born nation into a powerful chosen one. In Ezekiel the adoption is construed as a marital bond between God and the nation, whereas in Exodus it entails a bond between the Father and His firstborn son. In both cases the chosenness of Israel is defined in familial terms. The change in the representation of the nation's gender allows for a multifaceted treatment of the complex relation of Israel and God. Suffice it to say within the limited scope of this discussion that whereas the representation of the nation as female accentuates the erotic aspect in the relationship of God and the nation, the father-son dyad is far more concerned with questions of pedagogy and heroism.

 

Revenge

Birth and revenge—or rather revenge fantasies—go hand in hand in Rank's analysis of birth myths. The hero's triumph over the "evil" father who tried to prevent his birth is a sign of utmost valor. A similar triumph may be traced in Exodus. Pharaoh, the antinatal force with respect to both Moses and the nation, is defeated, at first by the ongoing multiplication of the Hebrews and then in a direct confrontation: the ten plagues. Early commentators noted the gradual escalation of severity in the plagues beginning with nuisances and pests, continuing with destruction of livestock and crops, and ending with the gravest of all—the death of human beings.

This final plague seems to represent the final push in Israel's delivery. It is the night of Passover. Pharaoh, who has refused to set the Israelites free, suffers from a symmetrical punishment. The Egyptian firstborn die while God's firstborn, Israel, is saved. The differentiation between the Egyptians and the Hebrews is now enhanced by means of blood. God demands that the children of Israel take of the blood of the Paschal sacrifice and "strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door posts of the houses" so that it serve as "a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt" (Exod. 12:7-13).

The blood that marks the Israelites is not only apotropaic. Its location on the two side posts of the door evokes natal imagery. The Israelites are delivered collectively out of the womb of Egypt. National birth, much like individual births (and all the more so in ancient times), takes place on a delicate border between life and death. It involves the transformation of blood from a signifier of death to a signifier of life. It also involves the successful opening of the womb, the prevention of the womb's turning into a tomb. The term "opener of the womb" (peter rechem) is introduced in Exodus 13:2 as a synonym for "firstborn." It appears in the depiction of the law regarding the firstborn, a law that is construed as a commemoration of the last plague: "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine." Although the term is not used explicitly with respect to the nation as a whole, this is precisely what is at stake in the context of the Exodus. The first opening of the womb (an act that is reminiscent of deflowering) is a unique and dangerous occurrence that requires divine vigilance. Those who do not deserve divine protection—namely, the Egyptians—find their death in the process, but Israel, God's firstborn, is consecrated as it opens the matrix.

Then comes the climactic moment of the delivery that includes the ultimate revenge: the scene by the Red Sea. Moses parts the waters at God's command. The Israelites walk on land in the midst of the sea, and the Egyptian soldiers, who are pursuing them, drown as the waters return. The downfall of the parent-nation seems total. Pharaoh, who wished to cast the Hebrew babies into the Nile, now finds his soldiers and fancy chariots sinking "like a stone" in the waters of the Red Sea.

"Did not old Pharaoh get lost, get lost, get lost in the Red Sea," marvels a famous African-American slave song. Lawrence Levine argues that the song promises that "power relations [are] not immutable" and conveys confidence in "the possibilities of instantaneous change."18 Even if the scene by the Red Sea is something of a slave fantasy—there is no evidence in Egyptian sources of such a defeat, nor did the great Egypt disappear from the map at this time—the importance of the moment lies in its carnivalesque spirit, in the reversal of hierarchies. The master falls and the oppressed spring to life.

From now on, time will be perceived differently. Everything will be measured in relation to the moment in which God delivered Israel from Egypt. "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you" (Exod. 12:2). A new calendar is established with the birth of the nation as its point of departure. It is a revolutionary moment that marks a wondrous new beginning. Slavery is left behind, and the intoxicating smell of freedom is in the air.

 

Wonder

God performs a variety of wonders in Egypt (the ten plagues in fact are perceived as such), but the parting of the Red Sea seems to surpass them all. It marks the nation's first breath—out in the open air—and serves as a distinct reminder of the miraculous character of birth. Where there was nothing, a living creature emerges all of a sudden. If the myth of the birth of the hero accentuates the wonder of birth on an individual level, here the miracle is collective. Much like Moses, the nation is drawn out of the water against all odds. It is an intensified miracle: a wonder on a great scale. The two enormous walls of water, the ultimate breaking of the waters, and the exciting appearance of dry land all seem to represent a gigantic birth, a birth that is analogous to the creation of the world. The parting of the waters evokes Genesis 1, and the "blast" of God's "nostrils" on the waters (Exod. 15:8) calls to mind the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." Accordingly, God is defined as the "maker" of the nation ('am zu kanita), a term that otherwise is used only in the context of the creation (Exod. 15:16).

On witnessing this great wonder, the people as a whole burst out singing. The Song of the Sea, with its fast tempo, celebrates the singularity of the nation's miraculous delivery. "Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?...For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea" (15:11-19). It is at once a breathtaking and breath-giving moment. All doubts and fears dissolve. Everything seems possible. Crossing the Red Sea is a leap of faith, a leap into life.

Martin Buber offers an insightful description of "The Wonder on the Sea" in Moses. He defines it as a moment of "abiding astonishment" that "no knowledge, no cognition, can weaken."

The great turning-points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group...wonder and keep on wondering; at a natural phenomenon, a historical event, or at both together....Miracle is not something "supernatural" or "superhistorical," but an incident, an event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history; the vital meaning of which, however, for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him, and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named "Nature" and "History."20
The birth of the nation involves a bewildering blurring of the boundaries between nature and history. Nature participates in the shaping of this grand historical event, which is why the Song of the Sea is the Song of the Birth of the Nation. The sudden break in the rhythm of natural phenomena is used here to express the intense excitement of a nascent people.

 

Divine Midwives

Much has been written on the image of God as Warrior in the Song of the Sea. Umberto Cassuto emphasizes the mythical dimension of God's victory over Pharaoh's host, pointing to other divine wars that hover in the background, above all, the crushing of the revolt of the sea by the Creator in the cosmic beginning. He relies on Prophetic renditions of the parting of the Red Sea (e.g., Isa. 51:9-10) as well as on Mesopotamian texts such as the Babylonian creation myth, where Marduk overpowers Tiamat and then cuts her aquatic body into pieces.

The image of the Warrior is indeed a central image, but not the only one. God has feminine facets as well, though partially hidden. Behind and against the "right hand" of the Warrior one can detect, I believe, a feminine hand: the strong magical hand of a grand Midwife drawing the newborn nation out of the depths of the sea, "the heart of the sea" (Exod. 15:8), into the world of the living, beyond the engulfing Flood. God, as it were, follows in the footsteps of the two midwives who loom so large in the opening chapter of Exodus, only here the Israelites need to be rescued from the "mighty waters" of the Red Sea rather than the Nile. Ezekiel's depiction of the postpartum care that God bestows on the foundling nation reinforces the impression that the Father is something of a Midwife. The washing of the baby and the cutting of the umbilical cord were tasks usually performed by the midwife. More important, they were at times, at least in Egyptian mythology, performed by divine midwives. A Middle Kingdom story records the miraculous birth of the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty. The mother Rudjedet is attended at birth by the four goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, and Hekat. Each birth is represented in a similar manner:

Isis placed herself before her [Rudjedet], Nephthys behind her, Hekat hastened the birth. Isis said: "Don't be so mighty in her womb, you whose name is 'Mighty.'" The child slid into her arms...They washed him, having cut his navel cord, and laid him on a pillow of cloth. Then Meskhenet
approached him and said: "A king who will assume the kingship in this whole land."26

In the Bible, however, the mythical delivery is not merely that of a king but of an entire nation that is treated as if it were royal.

That the Song of the Sea is sung by the women alone in the concluding lines of the scene adds yet another feminine touch to this miraculous birth. "And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord" (Exod. 15:20-21). Miriam, who stood between the reeds by the Nile watching over Moses' ark, orchestrating his deliverance, now dances by a Sea of Reeds (yam suf), with a timbrel in her hand, celebrating the redemption of the nation with an entire community of women.

 

The Question of National Identity

The figuration of Israel's birth is a forceful unifying strategy, but the metaphor does not provide what Benedict Anderson calls "unisonance." Nations may try to fashion a coherent conception of identity, or origin, to seek unity at points of clear disjunction, but they are bound to fail. The intertwined biographies of Moses and Israel poignantly disclose the problematic of defining national identity both for the individual and for the community. Moses' birth story differs from that of his heroic counterparts at another point as well. He is transferred back and forth between his Hebrew and Egyptian mothers. Yocheved places him in a basket at the Nile; he is found by Pharaoh's daughter who then hands him back to Yocheved (believing her to be a wet nurse). Later Moses is brought back to the palace, where the princess adopts him and endows him with a name. He is raised in the palace but ultimately returns to his family and people.

The very fact that there are two sets of parents in the myth of the birth of the hero already intimates the difficulties involved in fashioning an identity. The myth addresses primary questions: Who am I? Who are my parents? Where do I come from? But the questions of origin become all the more complex when the two sets of parents pertain to two different nations. Moses' split national identity at birth will follow him for the rest of his life. When his first son is born in Midian he chooses to name him Gershom, saying, "I have been a stranger in a strange land" (Exod. 2:22). His naming speech relies on a pun that links the name "Gershom" with the word stranger (ger). But in what sense is Moses a stranger at this point—in relation to Midian (Jethro's daughters regard him as an Egyptian), or Egypt (his words echo the oracular announcement of Israel's troubling future as "a stranger [ger] in a land that is not theirs" in Gen. 15:13)?28 Moses will devote most of his life to constructing the concept of Canaan as homeland and will lead his people persistently toward the land of "milk and honey," but ultimately he will die in the wilderness, between Egypt and the Promised Land.

And the nation? Israel's lineage is far more complicated than Moses' family tree, but here too the multiple parental figures point to diverse national origins. The conflict between God and Pharaoh is but one expression of the issue. The nebulous national identity of the two midwives is another case in point. Are the two midwives who deliver the Hebrew babies Egyptian or Hebrew? The problem stems from the indefinite use of "Hebrew" ('ivriyot) in Exodus 1:16. If it is to be read as an adjective, then Shiphrah and Puah are Hebrew midwives. But then there is another possibility. The verse may mean that these are Egyptian midwives who specialize in delivering Hebrew women. Numerous commentators have tried to solve the problem. Thus Josephus suggests that the king chose Egyptian midwives, assuming that they "were not likely to transgress his will." Similarly, Abarbanel claims that "they were not Hebrews but Egyptians, for how could he trust Hebrew women to put their own children to death." The midrash, however, perceived them as Hebrews and identified the two midwives with Yocheved and Miriam. What these commentaries neglect to take into account is the significance of the indeterminate origin of the midwives, the extent to which the nation's story repeats the confusion about identity embedded in Moses' biography.

The children of Israel are torn between the two lands, between their deep ties to Egypt and their desire to seek another land. They were not raised in the Egyptian court, as Moses was, but nonetheless Egypt is not only the site of traumas for them: it served, however partially, as a nurturing motherland of sorts, especially the luscious land of Goshen. The birth of Israel entails a painful process of individuation from Egypt that is never fully resolved. Just before the parting of the Red Sea, God promises the children of Israel that they shall see the Egyptians no more (Exod. 14:13). But the drowning of the Egyptians does not lead to the effacement of Israel's strong longings for the land of Egypt. National identity is thus poised on the brink of a "loss of identity."31

 

The Emergence of the National Voice: Internal Antinatal Forces

The nation's first words are delivered on the way out of Egypt, marking the rise of what Homi K. Bhabha calls "counter-narratives of the nation."32 On seeing the Egyptian chariots pursuing them, the children of Israel cry out unto the Lord:

And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness? (Exod. 14:11-12)
National birth means gaining consciousness and the power of verbal expression. During their bondage in Egypt, the Israelites could only moan and groan. They were in a preverbal and preconscious state, unaware of God's providence. Or else their discourse was silenced (as they now claim), not deemed worthy of attention. Something changes with the Exodus. They acquire the capacity to verbalize their needs and cry out to the Lord through Moses. And yet the emergence of the voice of the nation is accompanied by antinatal cravings. They use their new power of expression to convey their discontent, their desire to return to Egypt, to undo the birth of the nation. In a fascinating way they question the official biography. God here turns out to be not the Deliverer of the nation but rather the bearer of death, an abusive Father who seeks to kill His children in the wilderness. God now seems to be just as bad as, or even worse than, Pharaoh.

The children of Israel are masters of complaint. This is just their first complaint, but it initiates a long series of murmurings in the desert. It has the characteristic rhetorical questions, much anguish, and anger. Nehama Leibowitz points to the obsessive evocation of the land they left behind in their grumbling. "'Egypt' is an eternal refrain in their mouths, recurring five times. They yearned for 'Egypt' as a babe for its mother's breasts."33 Egypt seems to have far more to offer than the desert—even its graves (and Egypt does indeed excel in its death culture) are more attractive than those available in the wilderness. The primary national biography is far from linear. Birth does not necessarily move the children of Israel unambiguously forward.

Pharaoh, then, is not alone in wishing to stop the birth of the nation. Antinatal forces erupt from within as well. "The problem," as Bhabha claims, " is not simply the 'selfhood' of the nation as opposed to the otherness of other nations. We are confronted with the national split within itself, articulating the heterogeneity of the population."34 Bhabha attributes such fractures to the disruptive power of minorities. The story of Israel is somewhat different. In this case, it is the majority—the vox populi—that questions the national presuppositions of the leading minority: Moses, his limited supporters—and God. The split is thus even more radical than in Bhabha's account of the modern nation, given its centrality. It stems from the conflicting desires of the bulk of the nation.

In a famous passage in "What Is a Nation?" Ernest Renan claims that "a nation's existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life."35 For Renan, the nation is a spiritual principle, represented in the will to nationhood. It is this will that unifies a people, endowing them with a past, a future, and the lust for life. Renan, much like the biblical writers, cannot but rely on a personification of the nation in his exploration of nationhood. What the Bible adds to the picture, however, is an understanding of the complexity of national imagination; it reveals the extent to which the national affirmation of life may be accompanied by counterforces that do not see the formation of the nation as an urgent or essential project. A "daily plebiscite" in ancient Israel would have been a disaster. The children of Israel oscillate between a euphoric celebration of their deliverance—as is the case after the parting of the Red Sea—and a continual questioning of the official consecration of national birth.

Before the Israelites actually leave Egypt, Moses already turns the Exodus into a ritual to be cherished now and in days to come. He demands that they commemorate the event and pass the story on from one generation to another.

And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place: there shall no leavened bread be eaten. . . . And thou shalt shew thy son in that day saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. (Exod. 13:3–8)
Yerushalmi offers a fascinating analysis of the biblical injunction to remember the Exodus and the consequent ritualization of the event. What Yerushalmi overlooks is the extent to which the children of Israel cherish other memories as well. Against the recurrent command to remember the Exodus, they set up a countermemory: Egypt. Relentless, they persist in recalling life by the Nile, where they took pleasure in fleshpots and other Egyptian delights. Individuation from Egypt does not seem to be the only route. Memory can be shaped in a variety of ways.

Such counternarratives would seem to deflate national pride. Israel's heroism does not follow traditional perceptions of male courage. There is a good deal of fear of life in the nation's nascent voice and an acute horror of what lies ahead. God Himself often regrets having delivered the nation. The children of Israel do not succeed in fulfilling His expectations, and He never hesitates to express His disappointment in them. "You neglected the Rock that begot you, Forgot the God who brought you forth" (Deut. 32:18), claims Moses in God's name.36 The people are blamed for being ungrateful, for forgetting even the unforgettable—the God who miraculously begot them. Of the numerous unflattering national designations God provides, the most resonant one is His definition of Israel as "a stiffnecked people" (Exod. 32:9). The nation withholds its body from God and in doing so reveals a sinful lack of faith and an unwillingness to open up to the divine Word.

But then Israel's challenge to the national plans of Moses and God is not merely a sign of weakness. There is something about the stiff neck of the nation and the refusal to take national imaginings for granted that reveals an unmistakable force. The nation's very name "Israel" means to struggle with God, and in a sense this is the nation's raison d'être. In this respect the biography of the eponymous father is also relevant to the understanding of national birth. Already in the womb Jacob struggles forcefully, trying to gain priority over his elder brother, Esau. Rebekah, who asks the Lord to explain the significance of the turmoil in her womb, is told, "Two nations are in thy womb, and two manners of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). We have seen the significance of the reversal of the primogeniture law on the national level, but what this primal scene equally emphasizes is the importance of the struggle for national formation. Not only the struggle with the other (Esau or Edom in this case) but also a struggle from within, a struggle with the Ultimate Precursor: God.37 The uterine struggle between Jacob and Esau prefigures the momentous struggle with the angel. It is through wrestling in the night with a divine being that Jacob acquires the nation's name. "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel," says the divine opponent, "for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed" (Gen. 32:28). Jacob does not become angelic as a result of this nocturnal encounter, but the struggle reveals a certain kind of intimacy with God that is unparalleled.

The nation, not unlike the eponymous father, is both the chosen son and the rebel son, and accordingly its relationship with the Father is at once intimate and strained. From the moment of Israel's birth, mutual adoration and disappointment mark the bond of the nation and God, and this is true of later stages in the nation's life as well. The tension between Israel and God only increases as the nation becomes a restless adolescent in the wilderness. In its rendition of the ambivalence that characterizes the father-son relationship, the primary biography of ancient Israel offers a penetrating representation of national ambivalence, making clear from the outset that the story of the nation is not a story without fissures and lapses.

The national biography of Israel surely relies on certain heroic motifs, but it does not omit unflattering moments in the nation's history. The representation of national birth in Exodus is not an idealized narrative about a flawless birth but rather a text that takes into account the darker aspects of national formation as it explores the baffling emergence of a new people. What makes nations come into being is one of the greatest enigmas that national biographies attempt to tackle. Exodus, I believe, can contribute much to our understanding of the imagining of such formative moments in its examination of how one nation jumped into the water despite itself and wondered why.

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