Torah Ecology: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)

This week’s portion begins with a genealogy of sorts, the sons of Israel (Jacob) in Egypt — 11 who came to Egypt with Jacob from the land of Canaan and Joseph who was already there. The real purpose of this brief introduction, though, is to state the number of their tiny community at 70 persons. Then Joseph, all his brothers, and that whole generation died. Without further elaboration of that event, the text goes on to emphasize how prolific the Israelites were:

”But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Ex. 1:7).

This great population explosion among the Israelites, who began with 70 individuals, seems to be the theme in the first chapter of Exodus. From Pharaoh’s perspective, they swarm across the landscape, unstoppable and threatening:

”And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…’” (Ex. 1:9-10)

“But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.” (Ex. 1:12)

“The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.’ And G-d dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly.” (Ex. 19-20)

The language of this population explosion connects to the Flood story of Genesis: “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein.” (Gen. 9:7) Chapter 2 of Exodus makes the connection more explicit when Moses’ mother builds a תֵּבָה (tevah – ark) for her baby to save him from Pharaoh’s death decree. This word used for the wicker basket she prepares occurs in only one other place in Hebrew scripture, and that is in the Flood story, the ark that saves Noah, his family and the animals from the flood waters that destroy every other living thing. As in the Flood story, the ark in the second chapter of Exodus signals not only a saving remnant but a new creation after water and darkness engulf the surrounding world.

If Ex. 1:1-2:7 signals one set of mythic themes through its connection to creation, destruction and recreation of Gen. 1-3 and 7-9, Ex. 2:11 begins to tell the story of a second set of themes that work in connection with the powerful imagery of the first set: justice and freedom.

When the adult Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he strikes him down, killing him (Ex. 2:11-12). Similarly he chastises his fellow Israelites in the following verse: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Ex. 2:13) Despite the fact that he killed a man, Moses goes unpunished, escaping to the desert. We sense that the only reason there might have been any accountability is because the man Moses killed was Egyptian, and it is this that angered Pharaoh enough to seek to kill Moses. A fellow Hebrew abusing another Hebrew in the way the Hebrews are regularly abused by the Egyptians also escapes justice since Moses, the only person who might call him to account, is himself compromised. Still, both incidents point to the unjust conditions associated with Israelite bondage.

Outside of Egypt, Moses compassion for the vulnerable shows as he helps the daughters of Jethro water their flocks. (Ex. 2:16-19). Within Egypt, only G-d can respond: the Israelites groan under their bondage and cry out… “and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them.” (Ex. 2:23-25). The repetitive references to G-d’s concern for the vulnerable, like the repetitive references to population growth among the Israelites, serve to underscore the theme. G-d hears, remembers, looks upon, and takes notice…then acts to set the people free.

In this way, the great themes of Exodus are set out for us: creation and fertility, rollback of creation in the face of injustice and bondage, new creation. These themes with variations repeat throughout Hebrew scripture with references to the archetypes and imagery of Genesis. In the beginning of Exodus, the Israelites already fulfill the commandment to multiply and fill the earth, are already on the path to a new creation. The Egyptian society around them is on its path toward being swallowed up into a pre-creation void because of its injustice.

One more theme enters the narrative in Exodus, the covenant relationship which is the foundation of the emerging new creation, the Israelite nation, bound together with a covenant agreement they will make at Mt. Sinai. Nahum Sarna explains (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 25) the literary structure that presents this theme as a chiasm linking circumcision and Passover. This theme is also present in the Book of Joshua:

  • A1 – First-born (Ex 4:22-23)
  • B1 – Circumcision (4:24-26)
  • B2 – Circumcision (12:43-49)
  • A2 – First-born (13:1, 11-15)

Sarna says, “…there is…a functional correspondence between the blood of circumcision and the visible sign of the blood on the paschal sacrifice. In both instances, evil is averted on account of it (Ex. 4:26; 12:7, 13, 22-23).”

Sarna also points to rabbinic exegesis of Ezekiel 16:6: “When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ Yea, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’” The rabbis understood this to mean “‘survive through your blood’; that is, the survival and redemption of Israel was assured because of two mitzvot—that of circumcision and that of paschal sacrifice.”

Having set the themes for the great drama to follow, we move on to the preliminaries for the 10 plagues, which unfold in the next two portions, Vaera and Bo.


The animals in this portion show up in an inverse relationship to the fecundity of the Israelites in Egypt.  The animals are virtually absent from the portion. In fact, they are absent in Egypt:

Ex. 2:16 – “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.”

Ex. 2:19 – “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

Ex. 3:1 – “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of G-d.”

There is only one other reference to animals, an oblique one — actually a reference to sacrifice, presumably an animal sacrifice:

Ex. 3:18 – “The Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our G-d.”

What is noteworthy in the animals’ story in this portion is that not only do they have no independent existence beyond human needs,  they are not even part of the Hebrews’ environment in Egypt. There are no domesticated animals — nor any (free) beasts of the field. All animal references are associated with Moses’ time in Midian and illustrate his characteristics and life there. Even the ruse of the sacrifice refers to the wilderness.

As my focus shifted in these past weeks to the sub-story of the animals in the Torah, I have been fascinated with the way their representation parallels the “main” story. The Hebrews, stripped of their great wealth, their flocks and herds, toil unnoticed (until they cry out and G-d notices them) as slaves to Pharaoh. Similarly, the hidden animals presumably toil on behalf of the crown. Isolated from each other in their slavery, Hebrews and animals can have no relationship. Only in freedom, in Midian, do animals reappear in the story generating the possibility of human/animal relationship.

This absence of the animals in the Egypt narrative suggests a couple of things to me: that only in freedom can there be relationship, and only in freedom can one be held accountable for the conduct of a relationship. The Hebrews, in bondage, can deal only with their own survival. They cannot relate to Transcendence (the sacrifice must be in the wilderness) or to the rest of creation including their environment or other animals. Moses, who killed a man in Egypt and chastises another, cares for seven vulnerable young women in Midian, serves as shepherd to his father-in-law’s flock and stops to gaze in wonder at a bush aflame beneath Horeb, the mountain of G-d.

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