Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Bo 5776

Rabbi Pete Tobias
15th January 2016

‘God a Murderer' say Charlie Hebdo? Deeply Offensive...

When I was learning about the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians in my United Synagogue cheder, one of those that featured in this week’s portion was the one that aroused disbelief in my twelve year-old mind. Strangely it wasn’t the killing of the firstborn, and it certainly wasn’t the plague of the locusts, which struck me as being rather mundane. It was actually the plague of darkness.

It wasn’t the darkness per se; rather the fact that although it covered the whole of Egypt, there was light in the places where the Israelites lived. For reasons that I can no longer recall, that offended my twelve year old logic far more than rivers turning to blood, fiery hail falling from the sky or the Angel of Death checking the doorposts of every house before deciding whether or not to visit death upon any firstborn who dwelt there.

The rabbi who was teaching back in the late 1960s informed me that if I didn’t believe that everything in the Torah was true, then I wasn’t really Jewish. I took him at his word and left the synagogue in which I celebrated becoming bar-mitzvah as soon as the ceremony was over.

By a curious coincidence, the Exodus and my relationship with it has been a regular feature of my journey to and through the rabbinate. Perhaps having the Hebrew name Pesach may have something to do with that… Whatever the reason, my fascination with the story of how my ancestors left Egypt has always remained with me. It is, I believe, the formative moment in the history of the Jewish people: without it, we would still be slaves in Egypt or at least would not have developed a religion so insistent on our obligation not to mistreat anyone whom we regard as ‘other’.

The treatment of those who are seen as being ‘other’ is a central feature of our current religious climate. We live in an age that seems to be witnessing a proliferation of so-called religious groups who insist that their particular concept of God (I use the capital letter warily) requires that they seek to get rid of those whose concept is different.

A few days ago the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015 was observed. The satirical magazine produced a special edition with a cover, which the Jewish Chronicle describes as ‘…portraying God carrying a assault rifle and spattered with blood, accompanied by the words: "One year after: the assassin is still out there".

The JC then goes on to quote Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as saying that such cartoons are ‘…insulting to millions of people…’ even though he acknowledges that the cartoonists have a ‘…right to deeply offend every person in the world who believes in God by characterising Him as a murderer.’

I wonder whether the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth sense any irony in his observation. Because the opening section of this week’s Torah portion, which details the final three plagues, paints a very troubling picture of the ‘Old Testament God’. After each of the first seven plagues, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelite people go. But before the eighth plague, God suddenly announces a change in the rules: Congregations of the Co

‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them·that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2)

I suspect that, had my twelve year-old been sufficiently aware of the fact that the God who was performing these signs and wonders had effectively taken away Pharaoh’s free will, and was doing so to prove His power, he might have been rather more perplexed about that than the conundrum of darkness and light. Our religious tradition also has accounts of a God who is a murderer.

My own understanding of the Exodus story and its place in the development of Judaism centres around a recognition that it was an account developed over many centuries by storytellers who greatly exaggerated and adapted whatever were the events in Egypt that led to my ancestors’ escape from slavery. They did so in an era that regarded gods as military icons, leading them into battle against enemies; those whom they regarded as ‘other’. We descendants of those who left Egypt have moved on from such a simplistic, brutal understanding of how God works (or at least most of us have). But I believe we need to be aware of some of the uncomfortable truths that lurk at the heart of our religious heritage before making grandiose statements about God’s attributes…