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“Come to Pharaoh”: Exodus as a Divine Act of Self-Erasure

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

With respect to the Divine commandment of “Lech Lecha” in the Book of Genesis I have argued here that Abraham imposed abandonment of his home, his culture and his father’s embrace is really an act of foundation of a new national model – a nation, the Abrahamic one, that is based on the void of solitude, on the uncertainty of movement. The many of the Hebrew nation grow out of the nothingness of a man who leaves everything, in the name of a Divine promise.

Curiously, the parsha of “Bo,” “come” is also based on movement, an ordered kind of movement (Ex. 10:1-2):

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.

Upon ordering Moses to “go” to Pharaoh, God actually tells him to “come” to Pharaoh – why? The motion Moses has to perform is one that will take him from where he is to where the new ruler of Egypt is – and the narrating voice is that of God, who should not, we may speculate, be located in Pharaoh’s palace, but elsewhere. Yet he speaks as if he is there – come to Pharaoh, come here for I have hardened his heart. And this, continues the Divine speaker, I have done in order to display these signs, these wonders of Divine power, to mock the Egyptians and so that you may know that I am the Lord.

The ten plagues are therefore a process of exemplification, a gradual revelation of who and what is God – this process proceeds parallel to the erasure of the Egyptian king and of his people’s power over the Israelites. As opposed to the absolute power of Pharaoh, to his palaces and pyramids, to the glory of architectural presence and military power, God intends to place a Divine Lord who is not visible, who manifests his presence in absence, through wondrous signs.

In order to initiate the transition from a Divinity of absolute presence to a Divinity of absolute absence, the people of Israel need to experience the Exodus, both a gradual and most sudden movement from the comfort of slavery to the discomfort of freedom. And this requires an act of elision, a process of erasure – the sign of Divinity, Pharaoh, represents and contains royal splendor. The sign is the signified and the signifier together. This sign needs to be undermined, erased, crossed out, leaving signs – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea waters, etc. – that point to an inconceivable Divine initiator. The new signs are indications of absence, frames of actualization fashioned around a void of meaninglessness.

So for God to be Lord, Pharaoh must be elided – the monarchic perfection of his persona must be done away with. In this sense, maybe, we can understand the commandment to Moses to “come to Pharaoh” – voluntarily placed here side by side the lech lecha of Abraham – as God’s hinting to the fact that he is eliding himself and constructing a new idea of royal power, one which is founded on absence. Come to Pharaoh, for I am literally using him as a puppet for my historical and theological agenda. Pharaoh is, so to speak, part of the divine narrative.

(Ex. 10:28-9) Pharaoh said to him, “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” And Moses replied, “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!”

Indeed, Moses will not see Pharaoh’s face again, nor will he be able to see God’s face.

(Ex. 33: 18-20) He [Moses] said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.”

Exodus is a foundational moment in the history of the Israelites – but it is so in an utterly iconoclastic way. The glory of an absolute monarch such as Pharaoh is refined into a glory that cannot be contemplated, cognized or represented. Come, Moses, come to me here and watch me erase this kingly figure – come and learn what you will have to teach your children and your children’s children, come and see me refine the vulgarity of presence into the supernal nobility of a Divine revealed in the story of the Exodus.

*Yaakov Mascetti (PhD) teaches at Bar Ilan University.