by Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – A poignant passage in Isaiah’s prophecy describes how G-d shares Israel’s suffering and exile: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them.” Thus according to the traditional Jewish “Masoretic” reading.
The ancient Greek translation reflects a meaning closer to the written, consonantal text, with a significantly different message: “Out of all their affliction, not an emissary, nor a messenger, but he himself saved them.”
Several Bible scholars prefer that reading, which seems to underlie texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament. Moreover, they point out how it might have inspired a dramatic declaration in the Passover Haggadah: “‘The Lord brought us forth out of Egypt’ —not by means of an angel, not by means of a seraph and not by means of an agent—rather, it was the holy one in his glory and by himself.”
As proof for this assertion, the Haggadah adduces the verse where G-d informs the people that he will “pass through the land of Egypt this night and will smite all the firstborn… and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment.” The verbs there are all first-person-singular, and culminate in the assurance, “I am the Lord.” Rashi (following expositions in the Midrash) explained the implications of this redundant-seeming addendum: “I shall do it by myself, without any intermediary.” The formulation expresses the uniquely direct relationship between G-d and his people.
The rigorous analysis of medieval Jewish exegetes raised several difficulties concerning the Haggadah’s use of the scriptural proof texts, as compared to rabbinic teachings. After all, there are numerous texts that refer to G-d’s employing agents and intermediaries in the liberation of the Israelites from the travails of Egypt. Rabbi Simeon Duran mentioned the passage in the book of Numbers where the Israelites tell the Edomite king how the Almighty “sent an angel and hath brought us forth out of Egypt.” (The Hebrew word for “angel” means agent or messenger.) Duran and other commentators suggested that the reference there was to Moses. Rabbi Isaiah di Trani explained that Moses acted only as G-d’s spokesman before Pharaoh, but he was not authorized to take an active part in the exodus.
Nahmanides and other interpreters were careful to restrict the “no-intermediaries” claim to the smiting of the firstborns. They pointed out that the rest of the exodus story is related in third-person, but at the tenth plague it switches to a first-person declaration – whereas other biblical plagues, like the one inflicted on Israel after King David’s illicit census and the mysterious deaths of Sennacherib’s soldiers in the days of Hezekiah, were credited to an “angel of the Lord.”
Nahmanides understood that G-d is unique in being able to carry out his will without any opposition. Nonetheless, the ancient Aramaic “Targum Jonathan” spoke of nine hundred million angels of destruction who assisted God in smiting Egypt.
Rabbi Benjamin Anav of Rome explained that the plague of the firstborns was singled out as the decisive blow that finally broke Pharaoh’s resistance and achieved liberation. As regards the previous plagues, however, there is no denying Moses’ and Aaron’s active involvement in their execution.
And yet, even if we narrow our scope to that final plague, there remains a glaring contradiction to the Haggadah’s denial of the involvement of agents and intermediaries. The people are admonished to mark their lintels and doorposts with blood because “the Lord will pass over the door and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.” The text seems to be saying that the firstborns were slain by a being designated the “destroyer,” usually identified with the angel of death. Interpreters like Rabbis David Abudraham and Benjamin Anav resolved this difficulty by arguing that the Hebrew expression should here be rendered not as a “destroyer,” but as an abstract noun meaning “destruction,” perhaps referring to the Almighty himself and not to a separate being. Abravanel suggested that the Hebrews were being assured protection against enraged Egyptian destroyers who might otherwise storm their houses.
Commentators who leaned toward mysticism, such as Nahmanides and his school, turned their attention to the diverse units of the angelic hosts and supernatural weaponry that were not marshalled against the firstborns. The military analogies correspond to the tactics of mortal kings seeking vengeful retaliation, such as the sending of reconnaissance agents or flame-throwing seraphim. Abravanel cited some of these explanations and confessed that they were beyond his comprehension.
As a rationalist, Abravanel was bothered by questions like how a deity who is completely non-material could be depicted as navigating among the houses in Egypt to attack the firstborns. This generated an extensive discussion of different ways in which the Almighty can work with assorted classes of passive or voluntary intermediaries and powers. He concluded that it is logically inconceivable that a purely spiritual G-d can impose his will on the physical world without utilizing some type of instrument or intermediary.
Rabbi Solomon Luzatto insisted that the passage must be read metaphorically. In order to express the uniquely divine ability to distinguish between Hebrews and Egyptians and between firstborns and others, the Torah introduced the imagery of G-d guiding the “destroyer” from house to house and instructing who should be put to death and who should be left alone.
Some authorities remained unconvinced by these proposed solutions, Rabbi Zedekiah Ha-Rofé reported that his teacher (probably referring to Rashi) refrained from reciting the problematic passage in the Haggadah. Indeed, there were in circulation versions of the Haggadah that omitted it, noting that it was also missing in early midrashic texts.
In other contexts, such as the creation story, the rabbis remarked approvingly that the Almighty consulted with his celestial retinue, if only to serve as an example for human decision-making.
Maybe at this year’s seder we should consult the other participants for help in resolving all these puzzling questions about the exodus.
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.