Did Moses Lie to Pharaoh

This sheet on Exodus 8 was written by Jonathan Sacks for 929 and can also be found here

Why did Moses tell Pharaoh, if not a lie, then less than the full truth? Here is the conversation between him and Pharaoh after the fourth plague, arov, “swarms of insects” (some say “wild animals”):

Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.” But Moses said, “That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the wilderness  to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, as He commands us.” (Ex. 8:21-23)

At no stage does Moses say explicitly that he is proposing that the people should be allowed to leave permanently, never to return. He talks of a three day journey. There is an argument between him and Pharaoh as to who is to go. Only the adult males? Only the people, not the cattle? Moses consistently asks for permission to worship God, at some place that is not Egypt. But he does not speak about freedom or the promised land. Why not? Why does he create, and not correct, a false impression? Why can he not say openly what he means?

The terms of the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh are part of a wider pattern that we have already observed in the Torah. When Jacob leaves Laban (Gen. 31:20), Jacob again has to tell at best a half-truth when Esau suggests that they travel together (33:13-14), when Jacob’s sons are trying to rescue their sister Dina who has been raped and abducted by Shechem the Hivite, they “replied deceitfully” (34:13), and earlier still we find that three times Abraham and Isaac, forced to leave home because of famine, have to pretend that they are their wives’ brothers not their husbands (Gen. 12, 20, 26).

These six episodes cannot be entirely accidental or coincidental to the biblical narrative as a whole. The implication seems to be this: Outside the promised land Jews in the biblical age are in danger if they tell the truth. They are at constant risk of being killed or at best enslaved.

Why? Because they are powerless in an age of power. They are a small family, at best a small nation, in an age of empires. They have to use their wits to survive. By and large they do not tell lies but they can create a false impression. This is not how things should be. But it is how they were before Jews had their own land, their one and only defensible space. It is how people in impossible situations are forced to be if they are to exist at all.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z"k (1948-2020) was the former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, and the International 929 president.

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