Edwin Black: Passover, as Told By One Who Was There
Edwin Black, in a syndicated article by Feature Group (4-23-05):
[ Edwin Black is the bestselling author of The Transfer Agreement (Macmillan 1986), IBM and the Holocaust (Crown 2001) and, War Against the Weak (Avalon 2003) and Banking on Baghdad (Wiley 2004). His next book appears in April 2006.]
Aproximately two million Children of Israel are now encamped in the Sinai following their extraordinary exodus from Egypt yesterday. Just days ago, they were slaves to Pharaoh. Today, they are free men and women, destined for self-determination in a land of their own. Only now are the details of their fantastic experience coming to light.
The dramatic sequence of events began some weeks ago with the unexpected return of exiled prince Moses, who previously fled Pharaoh’s wrath after slaying a taskmaster. In his daring appearance at the Palace, the inarticulate Moses, speaking through his brother Aaron, declared himself to be the personal emissary of a powerful new “God,” previously unknown to the Royal Court. Moreover, Moses asserted that his God was the protector of the Children of Israel, who have been in bondage for more than four centuries in Egypt.
The entire Royal Court was aghast as Moses demanded that the Children of Israel be permitted to travel three days into the desert for an unprecedented “feast and sacrifice” to their God. Making clear that he was not asking a Court indulgence, Moses looked straight at Pharaoh, stamped his roughhewn staff and issued the ultimatum that would be his rallying call during the coming days: “Let my people go.”
Laughter echoed throughout the hall as Pharaoh sneered, “Who is your ‘God?’ I know him not. Nor will I let Israel go!”
Showing little patience, Pharaoh cited reports that Moses had been “disturbing the people from their works” in various building projects wholly dependent upon slave labor. As a punitive measure, Pharaoh proclaimed that henceforth slaves would be compelled to gather their own straw, even as their daily brick quota was maintained.
But the maneuver backfired, and indeed became the opening volley in an escalating series of punitive measures against Egypt. Without warning, Moses called upon mysterious divine powers and turned all waters in Egypt to blood. Reports from every district indicate that not only were rivers and streams turned bloody, but so were waters already contained in ordinary jugs and troughs.
Bloody waters continued for about a week, followed by an uncanny infestation of frogs. Amid complaints from every corner of the kingdom that frogs had invaded every “oven and bedchamber,” Pharaoh agreed to negotiate.
During a Palace meeting, Pharaoh reportedly told Moses, “Take away the frogs... and I will let your people go.” This was at first interpreted as a total victory for the Children of Israel. But the next day, as soon as the frogs retreated, Pharaoh reneged and canceled permission for the three-day religious exercise in the desert.
Pharaoh’s reversal prompted a third so-called “plague,” this one an infestation of lice. Pharaoh now offered to allow the religious feast Moses demanded, but only if it took place within Egypt proper. Moses countered that the feast would include sacrifice of lambs, which was anathema to Egyptian religious precepts and might incite the Egyptian populace to violence.
Impressed by the first three plagues, Pharaoh finally yielded to the desert site, but with the strict proviso that the Israelites “not go very far away.” This verbalized Pharaoh’s true fear that the three-day excursion was but a pretext for a general exodus, and that once out of Egyptian territory, the Israelites would not return. Precious slave labor for Egypt’s ambitious building programs would then be lost.
Court sources note that Moses cleverly sidestepped the issue of returning to Egypt following the feast. Instead, he simply assured that the lice infestation would be terminated. But in view of Pharaoh’s previous broken promise, Moses warned that the monarch should not this time be “deceitful.” Observers predicted it, and indeed no sooner did the lice vanish, than permission for the desert ritual was again rescinded. Moses returned to Court and in quick succession brought plagues of livestock disease, boils and then hail.
So much destruction now covered the land, that Moses was summoned for an emergency round of negotiations. This conference marked a turning point, with the hitherto mocking Pharaoh finally conceding the power of Moses’ God. Court sources reported that Pharaoh’s mood was grim as he confessed, “I have sinned... I and my people are wicked.” Without prolonged debate, even as an unending barrage of hailstones battered the Palace, Pharaoh declared, “I will let you go.”
But true to form, as soon as the hail stopped, Pharaoh reneged a third time. An angry Moses now returned to the Palace and warned, “Let my people go” or an infestation of locusts would cover the land, devouring any remnant the hail had not already destroyed. Without waiting for a reply, Moses walked out.
Frightened Royal Advisors now sought a compromise that would save face, yet still satisfy Moses. A messenger summoned Moses back to the Palace for another round of intensive negotiations. Pharaoh’s new offer conceded the desert site, but stipulated that only Israelite men could participate. The idea was that with women and children left behind, the Israelites would surely return, and the national slave force retained.
Moses totally rejected this proposition, declaring, “We must go with our old and our young, with our sons and our daughters.” Pharaoh might have agreed, but now Moses added a new demand-- that “the flocks and herds go with.” Pharaoh’s suspicion that the desert festivity was merely a pretext for a general exodus was now greater than ever. Accusing Moses of harboring evil intentions, Pharaoh held firm: male adults only. At that, negotiations were abruptly broken off, and Moses was literally escorted out of the Palace.
Left with no choice, Moses called forth the locust invasion. Agricultural sources are only now tabulating the damage, but one reliable survey reported, “There was not left any green thing in the trees… or the fields.” More detailed assessments were impossible because the locust plague was followed by an eerie round-the-clock darkness lasting three full days. This latest crisis precipitated the final negotiating session.
A “final offer’ was placed on the table: the Children of Israel-- men as well as families-- could journey three days into the desert for their religious ceremony. But under no circumstances could the goats and cattle go along. As before, Moses refused all compromise. He explained the desert ceremony was unprecedented, and there was no way to predict exactly how many animals God would command them to sacrifice. Therefore, the entire flock would have to be taken. Pharaoh refused, and Moses snapped back, “Not a hoof shall remain.” At this, Pharaoh broke into almost uncontrollable rage. Barely restrained, the king vowed never to negotiate with Moses again-- and warned that if the two ever met again, Moses would be executed.
The details of what happened next are still emerging. In Goshen, Israelites were observed painting their own doorways with lamb’s blood-- itself a bad omen in Egyptian dogma. By nightfall, all Israelites were off the streets and in their homes. At midnight precisely, an unexplained affliction began sweeping the Egyptians, while passing over the Children of Israel. Health authorities claim that there was neither rhyme nor reason to the plague. But unconfirmed reports assert that it was always the eldest in each family generation to be stricken.
This latest plague was the final blow. After just a few hours, it was clear that no family had been spared. Even Pharaoh lost a child. Palace messengers were dispatched in the middle of the night, searching streets filled with wails and cries of horror. They finally located Moses and brought him to a predawn meeting with a humbled and beaten Pharaoh. All demands were accepted. In a trembling voice, the once all-powerful monarch beseeched the slave leader with the simple words: “be gone.”
There was no time to lose. Before Pharaoh could again change his mind, Moses organized the Israelites into a makeshift but massive caravan. So speedy was their withdrawal, that, as one Israelite described it, “the people took their dough before it was leavened.”
Crowd estimates of the departing throng were as high as two million persons-- some 600,00 Israelite men, their wives and daughters, and what was termed “a mixed multitude” of recent converts. This latter group was drawn from various desert tribes and nomads who had thrown in their lot with the Children of Israel in order to enjoy the protection of their seemingly omnipotent God.
But the ordeal of the Israelites was not over. Intelligence reports reaching Pharaoh quickly confirmed his worst suspicions. The Israelites were fleeing into the desert without any effort to commence their festival. They would soon all be totally out of Egyptian jurisdiction.
Pharaoh openly conceded to one advisor, “What is this that we have done, that we have sent Israel away from serving us?” An angry Pharaoh then declared the Red Sea a “Line of Death” that he would not permit the exodus to cross. An army of 600 chariots was immediately organized. With Pharaoh in the lead chariot, the force raced after the Israelites.
It is still unclear why Moses chose the south route towards the Red Sea. Unpredictable tides made fording risky at best. Indeed, as the Sea came within view, the Israelites realized they could not cross. Panic gripped the entire caravan as columns of dust rising from Pharaoh’s charioteers could be seen in the distance. One well-placed Israelite who requested anonymity recalled that Moses himself was confronted by one follower crying, “Were there no burying places in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert?” Another reminded Moses that such a confrontation was predicted back in Goshen, taunting, “It will be better to serve Egypt.”
Faced with a total breakdown of morale, backed against the Sea, and with 600 deadly chariots rushing toward them, Moses beseeched his people, “Fear ye not... God will fight for you.” Asking God for a miracle, Moses simply waited. Sources close to Moses reveal that he was rebuked by his God, who answered, “Wherefore criest unto me? Speak unto the Children of Israel that they journey onwards.”
God’s intention was not immediately clear, insiders say, because the Sea was not fordable. The debate has only begun over what next occurred. Was it the culminating miracle of Moses’ all-powerful God, as the Israelites insist? Or was it a combination of bizarre natural phenomena that saved the day? But this is what happened: A sudden, fierce sandstorm gripped the wadi separating the Egyptian charioteers and the fleeing Israelites. This effectively halted the Egyptian advance.
Meanwhile, the same east wind that whipped up the sandstorm over the Egyptians, also swept back the waters of the Red Sea, thus revealing high ground for a ford. Moses dramatically lifted his arms, pointing the way throughout the night as the two million Israelites bustled across. The fleeing slaves had barely reached the opposite shore when an advance unit of Egyptians found their way through the sandstorm. They led the others, and suddenly the entire Egyptian force was racing at top speed toward the Line of Death.
Cries of terror filled the Israelite camp as they awaited their doom. But then the same blistering sandstorm shifted to the seawaters. The lead chariots were confounded, lost their way, and quickly became mired in mud as they veered off the ford. Ironically, one group of charioteers trying to find their way out of the storm spotted Moses on the shore. In a brilliant tactical move, Moses again dramatically raised his arms, and pointed. Mistakenly thinking this to be the way out, the Egyptians organized their comrades to flee in that direction. But a close aide of Moses reveals that when Moses stretched out his arms this second time, he could see flash flood waters from the morning rains racing through the wadis. Within moments, the floodwaters overtook the ford, covering all that stood in its path.
Thousands of Egyptian charioteers and fighting men along with their horses were drowned. Royal search teams were unable to recover a single survivor, and as of now, Pharaoh himself is still listed as missing.
The Children of Israel were overwhelmed by the miraculous turn of events. They broke into songs thanking their all-powerful God, vowing that they would “glorify Him forever.” Moving through the camp on the east shore of the Red Sea, one could see jubilation on every face. And one could understand and believe the words of one of Moses’ closest advisors who predicted with confidence, “We are now free men. Our troubles are over!”
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