mergers & circumcisions

parshat bo

Go explain how 70 Jews went down to Egypt (Genesis 46: 26) and less than 210 years later, close to 2 million left[i] . If you want to consider the math, here’s a start

If you don’t want to pull out a calculator, the only way to explain such exponential growth is:

  1. It’s an exaggeration especially given the fact that there is no mention of this mass of humanity leaving Egypt, let alone supporting what would have been the largest refugee camp in history… for 40 years.  One can only assume that while the Exodus story is huge as a paradigm for revolution and for Liberation Theology (see: Exodus  And Revolution by Michael Walzer), the number of Jews who left was considerably less than huge.  More reasonably, a disenfranchised band of slaves left Egypt and were joined by, or joined with indigenous rebels residing in and around Canaan (including the hapiru) into a confederation.  This confederacy of rebels grew over time and combined origin myths regarding Canaanite anti-establishment types and freed slaves.  The connecting myth was the decent of 70 Canaanites down into Egypt.
  2. There was a lot of intermarriage with native Egyptians who were also fed up with Pharaoh, wanted to join the movement or fell in love… after all… the two main protagonists of our story; Joseph and Moses, were both intermarried.
  3. Ye of small faith… the Hebrews who left Egypt were only a fraction (actually 1/5) of those in Egypt… the majority stayed.[ii]
  4. “In the modern Hebrew Bible all numbers are written out in full, but for a long time the text was written without vowels [which] made it possible to confuse two words which are crucial to this problem: ‘eleph and ‘alluph. Without vowel points these words look identical: ‘lp. ‘Eleph’ is the ordinary word for ‘thousand’, but it can also be used in a variety of other senses: e.g. ‘family’ (Judges 6:15, Revised Version.) or ‘clan’ (Zechariah 9:7; 12:5,6, RSV) or perhaps a military unit. ‘Alluph’ is used for the ‘chieftains’ of Edom (Genesis 36:15-43); probably for a commander of a military ‘thousand’; and almost certainly for the professional, fully-armed soldier.(see THE CONFUSION OF HEBREW NUMBERS)
  5. There is no exaggeration or problem here… the text was clearly written many years later, when the Hebrews were considerably larger in number and the writter and or editor of the text wished to anchor their present demography with their past a la the Haggadah: “In each generation we are obligated to see ourselves (lir’ot et atzmo) as though we left Egypt, as it is written: ‘And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, For this God did for ME, when I left Egypt'” (Exodus 13: 8 and Mishna Pesachim 9:5)

If you choose “all of the above” like I do then it is clear that our Hebrew ancestors grew less via internal growth and a high birthrate, and more through merger and acquisition… otherwise known as conversion.

Take a look in the mirror… do you seriously think that anyone who walked out of Egypt looked remotely like you?  Trust me… intermarriage (on a large scale) did not stop in Egypt or during the formation of the confederacy in Canaan…. Exogamy (marriage outside of the group) has played a large role in the growth and makeup of the Jewish people through time and into the present.

The text proves my point.  You would expect that when the Hebrews left Egypt that the last thing on their mind would be to define themselves and provide rules for joining the club.  That always comes later when the movement matures and is in need of a mission statement or when it overcomes adversity and the founders want to protect the integrity of the group.  But if we are to take the Biblical text at face value, prior to the last night of bondage, when the group had fused in a mold of adversity and should have had no questions regarding who was a team player, we read:

42 It was a night of watching unto the LORD for bringing them out from the land of Egypt; this same night is a night of watching unto the LORD for all the children of Israel throughout their generations.
43 And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘This is the ordinance of the Passover: there shall no alien eat thereof;
44 but every man’s servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof.
45 A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat thereof.
48 And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land; but no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.
49 One law (lit. Torah) shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.’

first seder

As an aside: Circumcision was not a strong point of the Exodus delegation/generation.  Remember that Moses had not circumcised his kids who were saved only when Zipporah, his wife, takes to the flint (Exodus 4: 25), and recall how Joshua had to arrange for the circumcision of all of the descendants of the ex-slaves: “For all the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, had not been circumcised” Joshua 5:5)

It is clear that much of what is written of the numbers and makeup of the Exodus and of the conditions for joining the Exodus… was informed by hindsight and edited with through a looking-glass of a later time when the Jewish People were many in number, established and dealing with issues of a mature people, settled in their land, already in exile or perhaps returning from exile and re-grouping.

The issue of who’s in and who’s out starts to have import.

In a wonderful book published recently (2012) by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis called: Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, the authors do a great job in summarizing conversion practice in the Bible.

At times, conversion in the Bible seems to be accomplished simply through marriage.  By virtue of marrying an Israelite, at least in some instances, a wife joined her husband’s community.  Judah married a Canaanite, joseph married and Egyptian, and Moses married both a Midianite and an Ethiopian….Requiring circumcision seems to be some form of what later generations might call a conversion ceremony, but it is important to note that the geir was not required to renounce any religious attachments…. Shaye J.D. Cohen puts the matter succinctly: “The foreign woman who married and Israelite husband was supposed to leave her gods in her father’s house, but even if she did not, it never occurred to anyone to argue that her children were not Israelites….”  Even the Bible’s word for “convert,” geir, reflects this conflict, for geir means not only “convert” but “stranger” as well.  The Bible refers to the convert as a geir even after he has joined the Jewish people.  In some sense, therefore, he remains a stranger forever… The Torah warns: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you”; “You shall not wrong a geir or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22: 20)..

The authors treat the Rabbinic contribution, where the prospective convert is dissuaded from joining such a despised nation:

“To be a Jew means to be “persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions.” A prospective convert has to accept that conception of Jewishness …  He is to be “other” among the “others”.

In a famous letter written by Maimonides to Ovadia the Convert, Maimonides answers the question of whether a convert (geir) is: allowed to say in the blessings and prayers …… “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” after-all  were a convert’s precursors slaves in Egypt?

He writes: since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us.

For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Law.

It seems to me that to count all of those who left Egypt, you need to count the “others” as well as the “others” within the “others”.  You need to count those of us who might look nothing like those who actually walked out of Egypt 3,000 years ago, but who nonetheless, through hook or crook, through spiritual conversion, political activism or love and marriage, have joined the confederation…

It seems to me that we and our leaders should wonder less “who is a Jew” and more what it means to be Jewish.  Or as the Rabbis would have it;  Spend more time seeing ourselves as though we left Egypt and less time trying to figure out who was there.


[i] (Exodus 12:37) And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.

וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטָּף.

Figuring 600,000 men of military age, 600,000 women and another 800,000 children and elderly.

[ii] Exodus 13: 18 “So God led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Red Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt.”

וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים | אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

The Hebrew word for “armed” is “hamushim” and Rashi writes: “Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means “divided by five,” [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness [see Rashi on Exod. 10:22]. — [from Mechilta, Tanchuma, Beshallach 1]

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Chosen People, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

One response to “mergers & circumcisions

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