Avivah Zornberg —
The Transformation of Pharaoh, Moses, and God

With a master of midrash as our guide, we walk through the Exodus story at the heart of Passover. It's not the simple narrative you've watched at the movies or learned in Sunday school. Neither Moses or Pharaoh, nor the oppressed Israelites or even God, are as they seem. As Avivah Zornberg reveals, Exodus is a cargo of hidden stories — telling the messy, strange, redemptive truth of us as we are, and life as it is.

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is a scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, and author of several books including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

Pertinent Posts

How does one leave home in peace? Shari Motro reflects on how we all can find our way back, using the abundant lessons of the relationship between Pharaoh and Moses in the Exodus story. On the other side of it all, forgiveness and gratitude resides.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

A Survivors' Haggadah

In 1946, the U.S. Army printed a haggadah for the first Passover after liberation from Nazi control. A stirring series of woodcut images by Miklós Adler interweaves the Exodus story with the liberation of Jews in Germany after World War II.

Selected Writings

Untitled by Yehuda Amichai

"And what is my life span? I'm like a man gone out of Egypt:
the Red Sea parts, I cross on dry land."

Prospective Immigrants Please Note by Adrienne Rich

"Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through"

Letter to Participants in the Passover Seders for Tibet by XIV Dalai Lama

"the Tibetan people have learned about the secrets of Jewish spiritual survival in exile..."

Where Do We Go from Here by Martin Luther King Jr.

"We still have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land of freedom."

Miriam's Song by Eleanor Wilner

"Miriam, her head hot in her hands, wept
as the city swelled
with the wail of Egypt's women"

About the Image

An ultra-Orthodox Jew prays on Mount Gerizim overlooking Joseph's Tomb, one of Judaism's holiest sites, in the West Bank city of Nablus. The men received a special permit from the Israeli army to celebrate in the restricted area ahead of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot which begins at sunset and marks the day Moses gave the Torah to the Jews after their exodus from Egypt.

Photo by Menahem Kahana

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Yes neither Moses or Pharaoh, nor the oppressed Israelites or even the biblical god are as they are presented in religion: as, respectively, historical people who really existed who really experienced the described events and as a supernatural entity that really existed and really exists. They are all mythological.

The only reason why we still pay so much attention to this myth is because millions of people have deliberately been left (and continue deliberately to be brainwashed anew as children) in the mistaken belief that the story is not a myth but a true account of reality as it transpired and existed.

Here we hear Tippett and Zornberg dancing around this fact in a cloud of obfuscation pretending that it doesn't really even matter whether it's true or not and in full denial of the fact that to the vast majority of believers (that's why they're called believers after all) exodus really happened and the bilbiical god really exists. If that were not the case Zornberg's profession would not exist and Tippett would not be treating this story with the unctuous reverence with which she treats it and wouldn't treat, say, Harry Potter, The Iliad, The Odyssey, or the brothers Grimm.

Definition of allegory (n)

[ állə gàwree ]

symbolic work: a work in which the characters and events are to be understood as representing other things and symbolically expressing a deeper, often spiritual, moral, or political meaning
symbolic expression of meaning in story: the symbolic expression of a deeper meaning through a story or scene acted out by human, animal, or mythical characters
genre: allegories considered as a literary or artistic genre

The messages we receive, whether they originate from a religious text, or from the Humanist Manifesto, have meaning only if bitterness, anger, or disappointment are set aside. A paraphrase from another text: "when I ceased arguing I began to see and to feel.

Religion has resulted in millions of deaths and continues to drive hatred and genocide. That is the nature of theology in human hands, That does not preclude finding our own values in the text. I like to read the Psalms. We know not all were written by King David; there are probably historical inaccuracies. Those facts do not prevent me finding tremendous meaning in them. They describe the tragedies we suffer and the days we awake filled with amazing joy. One more quote: "Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul; and sings the song without words, and never stops at all. I've heard it in the strangest land and on the chillest sea; yet never in extremity, it asked a thing of me." Emily Dickinson

In talking about why God began hardening Pharaoh's heart... I think back on the book Love Wins by Rob Bell where he asks the question, 'Does God get what God wants?' In other words, Did God want to harden Pharaoh's heart? Bell suggests that God is so loving that 'if we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom.' Perhaps it was Pharaoh's own desire for a more hardened heart that moved God to act. "God gives us what we want, and if that's hell, we can have it." -Bell

I relish these moments of insight and enlightenment on your website and hearing your interviews. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Leaving aside my ragged history with Christianity, I was only exposed to a kind of textual analysis that was limited in its ability to expose deeper meanings. The assumption seemed to be that the originators of religious works were simple, were only repeating oral traditions that were corrupted versions of real events, or themselves literal transcriptions of a time when things worked differently than they do now. It was not until I became a Buddhist based on the precepts that were an intentional guide to understanding and living in the now, and began to study the texts, that I began to grasp the depth and insight that was available if only we let go of the presumptions made by later scholars and many modern readers as well-- so divorced from the original meaning that they could only apply a modern literalness to the text. Now I relish learning from the insights of people like Avivah Zornberg, who bring brilliance to understanding what the original texts are about I was thrilled to hear Avivah translating from the original Hebrew and explaining what the relationship and use of a word or phrase meant in the context of the times and of how the minds and psyches would have perceived the significance of the stories, and her care in making sure we understood that there are other interpretations. This is one of the most captivating episodes I have heard on "On Being". So much so that though I usually listen in bed (it plays at 7 am Sunday on my station), I turned off the radio, took care of morning needs, and then sat down and listened to the unedited version, completely absorbed. What beauty Avivah shared with us. Thank you. Now I shall read her books. I am comfortable with Buddhism as a container for my spiritual life, but understand more and more how, when we look deeply into the traditions of other faiths, we enrich our own. Thank you.

Moses is the humblest of men.
It's a story that prefigures Christ also.
I think the books are named after the first words of the book, no?
Hebrews in Egypt - did they assimilate? They grew in numbers, and became a threat to the Egyptians.

Wonderful, daughter of God.
Of course Moses belongs to two nations, so he has access later to Pharoah. God's providence. And he had the courage to go to Pharoah.
Moses' killing justified - understandable.
These were historical people, not icons. Complex.

Burning bush. I Am. Source of all Being. Source of all Power.
It's understandable, imagine going to the king and saying 'release my people'?
Later Moses defends the people in the face of God's anger.
(Moses agrees when God agrees to send Aaron with him.)

Moses, it seems, had a speech difficulty, and needed someone to speak with him, Aaron.
True, it's a problem with the people also.
Psychological - people are comfortable in sin. We don't like change.
Moses is himself, of course, a sinner, so he has internal resistance as anyone does. A struggle for him, as for anyone. More wonderful that he had to struggle. (Reminds me of Isaiah when the brand touched his lips to prepare him to speak.)
It has more to do with purity and relationship than physical sexuality.

We resist the saving power of God also, even today.
Wonderful, the change in the people we see all through the desert journey and after - and how God gets angry when they want to go back to Egypt.
But the first problem is the slavery of Pharoah.
God hardened Pharoah's heart: Catholics see this as the effect of God's presence: if one loves good, God's presence makes his or her heart soft, like wax. If one hates God, then God's presence makes one's heart hard. So Pharoah is responsible.

To say Pharoah can't act in free will - yes, because he has made himself an enemy of God already.
But there is choice there, yes, made himself someone who can't hear - many people in our culture like that today, sadly, penitence is almost impossible. ('Who can save this people?' Asks Jesus.)

'Daughter of God' - like Cyrus, called 'Son of God', for helping the Israelites so greatly.

'I will be who I will be' - wonderful. But God does give man a handle on Him, because He enters in covenants with man. But true - perfect.

A complex story, but not messy. When God does something, it's always complete, and always beautiful.
It's happening so you will tell the story - it's a foreshadowing of a later event, for a Christian.
And the telling of the story itself will be a continuing renewal of the people, a renewal of the covenant with God.

It's a horrible moment, the killing of the first born.
The Egyptians pursued them.
Very interesting, though Pharoah was God's enemy, he wanted to be in contact with God. Perhaps. Perhaps his heart was hardened so much, knowing now that his people was connected to God, he had to kill this people. Would do anything to hurt God and the people who belong to Him, even if it destroys them. (Happened again.)

It reminds me, if I may, of the Christian's song: we praise God's goodness, in songs of complete conquest and success, even now while we are still on the journey. Or I am reminded, if I may, of Mary's Song, where she speaks in the past tense, that God has brought down the proud, and lifted up the lowly, even though this was to be carried out in the future.
De Mille- it's hard to put this complexity on film.

The Israelites are sinners also.
The Israelites are the descendants of Shem, the Egyptians those of Ham.
So God will use the descendant of Shem to work out the opportunity for salvation of humanity.
Wonderful, the need of the sinner to be ready to be transformed, to accept the change of transformation.

Of course for the Christian this means the scrubbing away of all sin and luxury, to prepare for the definite Passover, for a Christian, of Christ, the definitive Passover.
And how unwilling we are to change and live in his salvation.
Wonderful about the need to be able to make decisions, flight from freedom.

"You open me always, like fingers ..." EE Cummngs, maybe he got the idea from the Passover.

I began the day on September 11th, 2011, watching the first tower collapse. In shock I continued on to my seminary where I was in the second year. After a session of quiet group prayer and meditation I went to class, which was to examine the testimony of peace in the Bible. Our professor did not give us an easy class; we studied the difficult passages, the ones where human beings suffer and die, despite God's grace. That day we read Miriam's Song, the song of exultation she sang as the Pharaoh's army was overwhelmed by the Red Sea and drowned. No text I've read has hurt as much as that text hurt on that particular morning. After the reading there was only quiet; our professor said later that he should have known better than to hold the class and apologized. Someone, and this is where I start wrestling with theology, wondered aloud what the people in the World Trade Center towers had done to draw God's wrath. My face became bright red, my blood pressure probably surged, and I had to grip the desk to keep from rising. I challenged the speaker to list the sins and if he could not do so, he needed to shut up. Then, we ended the class. I draw so much from the Bible, in spite of the torture, war, murder, and genocide it contains.

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, assailed the new church because people in Chloe's household told him there was infighting. People were changing and rewriting the message upon which Paul established the church. I believe we must always be achingly aware of those words because perversion of the Good News has never ceased. St. Augustine may have taught that the sin of sex between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was the original sin, but I believe it began when Cain slew his brother Abel. I don't believe in the taint of original sin; it's one of those add-ons we humans added to Christian belief. But we clearly are tainted with violence and seemingly have no solution for it, despite believing in the love and peace of Jesus. Every religion does this, it's an unavoidable act when the process of belief also creates "other," those that do not believe as we do. If we believe God's presence continues to affect our lives I believe we need to make two statements to Him when we don't know why; "What were you thinking?" "How could you?"

For me the story of Pharaoh and Moses describes the human struggle to comprehend what is happening in our lives. Does it have a source? Is it something outside of me, or is it me? Why am I assailed by those events which I don't want, didn't ask for, and don't deserve? Belief is a conundrum that haunts me; I hope it is a struggle for others also, so that perhaps we may find peace in this despite ourselves.

Can Avivah Zornberg talk about every single story in Bible? Because I don't know if I could make it through her rather scholarly books, but I truly loved hearing her talk. I loved the thoughtful engagement with the story...seems like this is how it's supposed to be, and what's missing from the way many religious leaders try to teach from text without ever engaging with it as story. Really appreciated her insight in both this program and the first one she did a while back. Thanks so much for exposing us to this tradition.

Another interesting thing to note that I think gets missed here is Moses was raised to be a prince of Egypt- a fact that put him in a position to be a brother to Pharaoh. Which would mean that all the common people and "his own" people might not see him as a proper advocate- he'd be an outsider to both sides.
As a bother to Pharaoh he is acting as Jacob and Esau, or even Cain and Abel- siblings vying for what's right and the love of their father (god). Something to look into I suppose...

I believe the concept of midrash lends relatability to the characters of many of the stories of the Torah. Many people today enjoy hearing midrashic stories as it makes the lessons palatable to general audiences, but critics of this type of storytelling argue that combining the Torah and midrash is harmful to the original text. Perhaps it's best then, to evaluate midrash on its own and that's precisely what Zornberg does, both in the talk and in her novel based on the Exodus story.

If you've noticed from reading the traditional texts surrounding the Exodus account, there seems to be some discomfort. There is something within the exchange between God, the burning bush, and Moses; a "jarring" of voices, if you will. Zornberg argues that this type of unexpected element enhances interest in the story. Moses ends up going to both the Israelites and to the Pharaoh with the message from God, and both parties reject the command. Over and over again, we see Moses struggle with the task God has set upon him. What does this reluctance to accept the divine message say about God's power? It prompts us to ask questions and delve deeper than what is written.

With midrash, we are able to make the Torah a living text, and that's an important step in keeping these stories relevant to today; just as it was back then. Midrash is also a handy method of including the feminine in the Torah, whereas the plain text seems to purposely lack or ignore women. According to Zornberg, we can give voice and insight into the whole of the story, rather than just skim the surface.

This was fantastic! I think this interview should go down as one of the best and most educational. I grew up in the Christian tradition, learning the story of Moses, but always came away from it feeling some confusion about the Israelites complaining along the journey in the desert and desire to return to Egypt. The adults always claimed it was just a rough journey and must be used as an example of our need to trust in God. That's fine, but still, I felt there had to be more to it. It makes so much more sense to me that the people didn't even realize they had a problem in the first place, as apathy had taken over the culture. Avivah describes the situation as one that came along gradually until finally the Israelites were fully enslaved and miserable, but stuck so thoroughly they needed a psychological kick in the pants to wake up to what they had become. I can't help thinking about many humans today, plodding along in misery, perhaps able to change the situation, but unable to see the problem in the first place. I wonder who the next savior will be...

I have read Exodus many times in my life, but I have never apprehended it the way she made me do it. That was very profound, inspiring!
Before God started to shape me, I was very stubborn. I remember that I used to do retreats to pray for me, just me because I wanted to have a good husband, a good job, and I thought only about me. God told me that he could not give me a husband at that time because I was not yet ready.
He showed me that I was very well dressed walking with pride in the middle of a road. Oh yeah, I was proud, very proud, so proud of myself. Then, I heard a voice telling that "You see why I cannot give you a husband now, look at your dress, it is beautiful but it is full of dirty oil stains.” It is only at that time that I saw the dirt on my dress: Then the voice went on “From now on, forget yourself, and pray for others."
I can tell you that it was an experience worth it. It was the start of my spiritual transformation. Since that day, my life completely changed because like Moses I turned aside from the straight and narrow path. Since that day, I know how to ask God questions, and what kinds of questions to ask for my spiritual journey.

In this broadcast of On Being, Krista Tippett Talks with Avivah Zornberg who is a modern day master of Midrash, which is basically the interpretation of Jewish texts. She lives in Israel but grew up in Scotland. She begins saying that the Hebrew name for the book we call "Exodus" is Shemot, which means "Names." She goes on to say how the Israelites in the story are become "nameless", They basically lose thier identity.

Pharoh sees that the Israelites are rather large in number. He decides that, the once highly thought of people, are to be forced into slavery. He commands his mid-wives to throw the babies into the river. One of them, Pharoh's own daughter, saves one of the babies and sends it down river in a basket. This baby is Moses. Pharoh's daughter intentionally does this in spite of her father/king because she does not agree with what he is doing.

Avivah goes on to talk about Moses. She says that moses is not a simple character and is not your fairytale hero either. He belonged to two nations. He was nursed by his mother and raised by his grandfather, the Pharoh, as a prince (as he was the son of the Pharoh's daughter). But eventually, Avivah says that things begin to open up for Moses, he grows up and matures and sees his brothers suffering (referring to the Israelites as his brothers) since he now saw them as his brothers. One day Moses sees an Egyptian man beating/mistreating an Israelite. Moses goes on to kill the Egyptian man. Moses becomes scared and flees from Egypt. Krista points out how the heroes of the Bible are fully human. They are full of passion and are flawed. Then Avivah says how every event that Moses is involved in requires complex interpretation. He goes on to get married and eventually ends up wandering in the wilderness and comes across the burning bush. The bush is burning in the fire, but it is not consumed.

God speaks to Moses at the burning bush and commands him to lead his people out of Egypt. Moses consistantly refuses to take on the mission. He tells God that he is not worthy and also he is a little skeptical of God. He says he is slow of speach and slow of tongue. He uses the term "Heavy" or "heavy mouth." That is interesting because that same word is used to describe Pharoh's heart. The Hebrew word "Kaobd" means resistant or impervious. But Moses feels he is not worthy of God's word. He says he has "Uncircumcised lips." As if he and his people are newborn babies and they need an operation that will open up the possibility to have a healthy communication with the world.

It says many times in Exodus that "Pharoh's heart was hardend", and that he reached the "point of no return." As if he had no more free will. Pharoh actually does not realy speak out or say anything, rather he just sits and does not listen to Moses or God. He has become insesitive. Avivah says that Pharoh really does not speak until after the end of the 10 plagues when he cracks and drives them out of Egypt. It is then when Pharoh threatens Moses saying "You will never see my face again." Moses replies, "You are quite right, I will never see your face again.", to show that he held the reins and that he did not submit to Pharoh.

I believe that it would be difficult tho live the life that Moses did. He had a lot on his shoulders. God expected a lot out of him and Moses did not believe he was up to it or even worthy. I couldn't imagine being chosen by God. I would probably be skeptical and afraid as well. How can one man think that he could do all that Moses did for his people? I also like how the heroes of the Bible are just normal people. Like Avivah said, they aren't fairytale heroes.

This On being is about the story of Exodus at heart, which had many secretive stories and messages and stories. Avivah tells the story that once the story starts out, that names start fade, because of changes within culture and identity because of the many things that happen during that time through slavery and etc.Like she said I've always wondered why the new king that wanted all the Israelite boys to die. The key symbol is the daughter of Pharaoh because she saves a little boy's life and takes him as her own defying her father. Which I admire her for opposing her father, because he was doing was wrong and sadly he didn't even know or even care about the mistakes or the things he ordered out.Moses is nursed by his mother but he had a little of a struggle because he was raised as a prince and his true identity began through his life. He was living basically a double life. Nothing that Moses gets into in the Bible is never straightforward. Moses at first doesn't believe when God talks to him through a bush, he is scared and just doesn't what to it. He questions if he can do it, talking to the people and leading them in persecuting Pharaoh about the fall of the people.

The Pharaoh's heart hardens by God showing that he is not responsible anymore. His heart was basically cutoff from his people , not really even having a conscious or putting himself in there shoes. With the many plaques and tribulations that were brought upon Egypt that Pharaoh lost himself in the process. He couldn't do the thing that matters the most and doesn't hear what anyone is saying. He just doesn't do anything; my opinion he was mad and the most selfish king of the time. I mean how can you just have hatred for the Israelite s, killing innocent boys and destroying so many family lives. Moses at first when God talks to him through the Bushes he doesn't believe it at first. He didn't believe in one word he said, not very trusting at first or even really have faith himself to caring out God's word or taking God as his Savior/ King. The Mid rash really helps us understand the text of the Hebrew book more.

Dear Krista, This program was such a gift on the eve of Passover! I immediately started reading "The Particulars of Rapture," and was able to take a passage from it to share at one of the seders I attended. I hope to read Avivah Zornberg's other two published books, too. Such deep, smart, articulate thought and writing! Many, many thanks, Stephanie

About the Image: Was or is it necessary to illustrate this story with this picture giving some sort of spiritual legitimacy to the Occupation? Yes the location is relevant to the story and the Jewish narrative. At the same time at this time of history it is difficult to escape the reality of the Occupation. A religious Jew during Passover can go wherever he wants to go in the West Bank (OPT) but for Palestinians under Occupation their travel becomes even more limited during Jewish holidays...