This week, the Torah cycle forwards to the Book of Exodus or Shemot (Names). It falls on Christmas this year, so Christians’ equation of the birth of Moses with that of Jesus may be particularly strong. But the timing is coincidental. The lunar-based Jewish calendar floats within the secular year. Thus Jewish holidays always seem early or late but never on time.

Yet parallels abound. Exodus’ depiction of Egypt and its rulers over three millennia ago raises questions about the United States and the 112th Congress that meets on January 3.

The biblical story presents a great change in the fortunes of Jacob’s children and grandchildren settled in Egypt under the protection of an unnamed Pharaoh and his viceroy, Joseph—Jacob’s favorite son. When Joseph and his brothers die, the favor enjoyed by the Hebrews dissipates in proportion to their rapidly growing numbers.

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). This Pharaoh fears the Hebrews and oppresses them with forced labor. Then he instructs their midwives to kill all the newborn boys while sparing the girls. (I discuss the midwives’ identities in God’s Others.) The midwives, fearing God, refuse. Pharaoh then tells the Egyptian people, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). Can he really mean every Egyptian baby boy, too? A midrash (story) relates that astrologers tell Pharaoh that a Hebrew savior will be born but don’t reveal his identity. Pharaoh orders every newborn boy murdered. This seems to have inspired Matthew 2 in which Herod seeks out a newborn messiah—Jesus—who threatens his rule.

As to Congress, will it “know not Joseph” and duplicate Pharaoh’s self-destructive economics? Conservatives hold a majority in the new House and a minority in the Senate sufficient to stall legislation proposed by the White House. They tend to see President Obama as Pharaoh. I suggest that he more resembles Joseph, who fed and sustained Egypt during seven years of famine by taxing the people. (Conservatives should love Joseph’s flat twenty percent rate compared with today’s thirty-five percent retained for America’s wealthiest.) Joseph’s government had a role to play and played it well. While the President’s economic policies may not be perfect, hard choices have prevented a deep recession from becoming a depression. While the deficit poses ongoing challenges, economic growth gains traction. If Christmas retail sales mean anything, 2011 will be a better year.

We must also ask, will Congress explore a practical—as opposed to open-ended—immigration policy? Or will it demonize all immigrants—including the educated, hard working people our economy requires—figuratively “killing all the newborn boys” and choking off America’s labor force? And should partisan mean-spiritedness oppress the stranger, will we ultimately face our own ten plagues and such a calamity as the drowning of a later Pharaoh and his army in the Reed Sea?

The Pharaoh who knew not Joseph represented the worst traits of government. May this new Congress embrace the best.


  1. Ron Laupheimer on December 31, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    I do not share your opinion about President Obama. I believe you are misreading the 2010 Christmas sales. In my opinion, there is only one issue that matters—creating jobs right here in the United States for U.S. residents! And that has not happened and will not ever happen under President Obama’s leadership based on his first two years in office. His failure to truly deal with the economic crisis in this country while letting the large corporations, financial companies and banks completely recover from their own past misdealing and go on to achieve record 2010 profits (at the expense of the American middle and lower classes) is absolutely ridiculous and immoral! [The senior executives from the banks and financial entities reportedly received 2010 year-end bonus totaling $143 BILLION! That figure is apparently enough to wipe out the entire debt of all 50 states! To say this country’s economic policies are crazy and favor only the rich and powerful is a huge understatement!)

    President Obama has been a real disappointment to me and many others who voted for him in 2008. (Witness the 2010 election results where many who voted in 2008 [especially the young] simply stayed away from the polls in 2010, helping to cause the largest political upheaval since the 1930s.) I would have much preferred that he had offered a larger stimulus program, a true health care reform that included universal health care and supported numerous other policies that he ran on in 2008 and lost on those issues than what he actually did. (The only big issue I have some reluctance taking that position on is the economic stimulus program, but a real discussion of that issue is not possible here.)

    We might discuss this further, although the topic so upsets me that a rational discussion is very tough indeed.

    • David on December 31, 2010 at 10:42 pm

      Ron: I do not agree with all of President Obama’s decisions, either. Jobs will come back but slowly. Detroit, for example, has stabilized but will never be what it was. The erosion of the middle class is highly troubling, and Wall Street bonuses are obscene. But letting the financial industry collapse was not an option. Had the President been able to better handle the Senate, he might have done more that he planned. I’d look to the mindless short-sightedness of Republicans. Obama is not perfect, but he never had carte blanche given Blue Dog Democrats in the House and current Senate rules.

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