Friday, January 27, 2006

Vaera (Haftarah)

“Pharaoh - the mighty reptile in his Nile”

The haftarot for both Va’era and Bo are, suitably enough, prophecies decreed against Pharaoh and the nation of Egypt; they are taken from the blocs of prophecies against the nations found, respectively, in Ezekiel and Jeremiah. (Interestingly, the corresponding “burden of Egypt” in Isaiah 19, with its rather interesting conclusion in which Israel, along with side Egypt and Assyria, forms a “threesome of blessing… in the midst of the earth” is chosen to complement these other two only by the Yemenites, who read it as the haftarah for Shemot.)

While the association to the Pharaoh of the slavery is clear, it is important to remember that these prophecies were written in a very different historical context: that of the closing decades of the First Temple, when Israel found itself caught in the middle between the two resurgent powers of the ancient Near East: Babylonia and Egypt. Pharaoh here is not the pharaoh of the affliction, Rameses II of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but Pharaoh Necho, of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty, who tried to rebuild Egypt after the fall of Assyria to Babylonia, who served as a major contender for power in the ancient world. Unlike Pharaoh of old, he did not attempt to enslave Israel, but attempted to bring them within Egypt’s sphere of influence as a kind of junior ally, offering them protection from Babylonia in return for economic tribute and other subservience to his interests. Several of the later kings of Judah debated whether to take up this offer: during an early stage of the Babylonian incursions into Eretz Yisrael, King Zedekiah even fled to Egypt, and there was a steady stream of Israelite expatriates to Egypt, which formed the core of the later Diaspora community there.

But, as observed by several of the prophets, Egypt was to prove a “weak reed” upon which to lean. In general, one of the themes often repeated by many of the prophets is the folly of relying upon foreign alliances. Time and again, they call upon the leadership and the people generally to place their trust in God, rather than upon the passing considerations of one or another realpolitik argument for a particular alliance. The dominant line of the prophets (with some exceptions) was to trust in God, whose love and covenant with Israel would eventually be vindicated. The haftarah for Va’era is taken from Ezekiel 28:25-29:21. It opens with two brief verses promising that Israel will be ingathered and dwell securely in their own land, while God “is sanctified in the eyes of the nations” and will ”do judgement against all those that afflict them around about.” The bulk of the haftarah is a prophecy directed against Pharaoh, shown as a megalomaniac figure who declares, “Mine is the Nile, and I made it.” He is portrayed as a huge, looming sea monster, whose “fish”—presumably, the ordinary Egyptian subjects—are attached to his scales. God will spear him through his jaws, pick him up and fling him into the desert—together with the “fish” attached to his scales—where he will left to dry out, “and not even be collected or gathered in” (29:5); indeed, all of Egypt will become a dry, desolate land (v. 10), particularly inhospitable to “Super-Reptile” Pharaoh.


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