The Responsibility of Life and Death

This sheet on Genesis 7 was written by Deena Cowans for 929 and can also be found here

This chapter opens with a most unusual verse: “Then God said to Moses, ‘Behold, I have placed you as [a] God (Elohim) to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother as your prophet.’” Even for God, this is a bold claim. How can a person be “as a god” to another person, or even be a god to another person? Can we learn from this verse what it means to be God?

Elsewhere in the Torah, what most distinguishes God from humanity is God’s control over life and death. The God of the Torah has some human attributes, but cannot be born and can never die. God’s power in the Torah comes from God’s ability to control fertility, birth, and death for the people of the Torah. Yet in this brief interaction, God is sharing God’s most distinguishing characteristic with Moses, and granting Moses the power to control Pharaoh’s, and the Egyptians’, life through his speech. Moses is burdened with an awesome and tremendous responsibility—should he fail to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites (and he will surely fail, for God will continually harden Pharaoh’s heart), Moses will personally be responsible for the death of thousands of Egyptians. Hardly a balm to Moses’s nerves, God’s statement that Moses will be “as God to Pharaoh” teaches us what a tremendous breach of the human-Divine partnership it is to take another human life.

Ordinarily, only God is allowed to decide when a person will be born and when they will die—a common sentiment to anyone familiar with the High Holiday liturgy. Perhaps by granting Moses a limited access to this power, God is reminding us of this most Godly attribute. Even God’s prophets can only communicate God’s will. Ultimately, only Godself can make the decision to bring a person into the world or take them out of it, and it is our role as humans to respect God’s decisions and relish the time we are given.

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה רְאֵ֛ה נְתַתִּ֥יךָ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֖יךָ יִהְיֶ֥ה נְבִיאֶֽךָ׃
(1) The LORD replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.

Deena Cowans is a rabbinical student at JTS, and the Director of Education at Camp Ramah in the Rockies

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