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.