Torah Portion Shemot
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Isaiah 27:6 - 28:13, 29:22-23, Jeremiah 1:1 - 2:3
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Shemot, we will investigate the legal language of the Hebrew verb yada ("to know") and how this word becomes extremely significant in this Torah portion.
- Huffmon, "The Treaty Background of Hebrew Yāda'"
- Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts
- Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice
This is the thirteenth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing one of Isaiah's prophesies concerning the restoration and regathering of Israel.
The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot by Michael Fishbane
- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton
- Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David DeSilva
In Shemot, we will look at the connection of this portion to creation and new creation, Israel's mandate, the importance of names and naming in the Bible, and the legal institution of crying out for justice.
- The Bible
- Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East by Hans Boecker
For Crying Out Loud
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
All of the children of Israel have now moved down to Egypt to live in the lush land of Goshen. There they raise children and their children raise children and begin to fulfill the mandate given to mankind at the creation of the world to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the land. Yet almost immediately chaos strikes, beginning with a simple statement, "and a new king took power who did not 'know' Joseph" (Exod 1:8). Such a seemingly simple statement, yet how is it that a king could arise after such a relatively short period of time and have no knowledge of Joseph (and by implication, no knowledge of how the Israelites came to live in Egypt), given that the Egyptians kept very good records of their leadership? Many theories have arisen in order to explain this, yet few attempt to understand this statement culturally. In order to properly understand this statement, we must investigate the proper context of the Hebrew word yada, translated as "know" in this passage. The three rules of translation are (1) context, (2) context, and (3) context! We understand this in our everyday language when we respond to an inquiry of the meaning of a word by asking for the questioner to use that word in a sentence. Take for example the English word "right", how would you define that word? The most common usages of the word are "a true or correct fact" and "a specific side or direction relative to a person’s position" (i.e. the right arm). How would you know which is the correct definition for "right"? Based upon how it is used in a sentence. The word "right" can also be used in legal context, such as in the 2nd Amendment "right to bear arms." This amendment has been the object of much debate recently and the only way to properly understand what is meant by "the right to bear arms" is to understand the legal definition of a "right" as well as understanding the cultural setting in which the statement was made. Culturally, this amendment was created shortly after the revolutionary war in which a group of citizens was facing oppression from a government who had not allowed them to represent themselves and were forced to succeed from British control through an armed rebellion. Thus, they were ensuring that future generations would have the weaponry to stage such a rebellion again if the need ever arose due to governmental oppression. In order to understand the usage of yada in Exodus 1:8, as well as other verses in this Torah portion, we must analyze the legal definition of the term and its cultural usage.
In 1 Chronicles 28:9, David is turning over the kingdom of Israel to his son Solomon along with the plans to build the Temple, and David says to Solomon, "And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father, and serve Him with your whole heart and soul..." This seems strange that Solomon would have no knowledge of YHWH and David would be just now telling him about the one true God. Clearly, having awareness of the God of David is not the context of how David is using yada ("know") in this verse. The fact that this statement is placed in parallel with the demand to serve God with your whole heart helps us understand that David is not using yada to speak of awareness of God, but of acknowledging God as Solomon's authority. This type of legal usage of yada is also found in its cognates in Akkadian as well. In the treaty between the Hittite king Suppiluliumas and Huqqanas from eastern Asia Minor, Suppiluliumas says to his vassal, "And you, Huqqanas, know only the Sun regarding lordship; also my son (of) whom I, the Sun, say, 'This one everyone should know,' ... you, Huqqanas, know him! Moreover, (those) who are my sons, his brothers, (or) my brothers ... know as brother and associate. Moreover, another lord .. . do not ... know! The Sun [alone] know! Moreover, any other do not know." In another Hittite treaty between Muwattallis and Alaksandus, the Hittite suzerain assures his vassal that in the case of rebellion against the vassal, "As he [the rebel] is an enemy to you, even so is he an enemy to the Sun; [and] I, [the Su]n, will know only you, Alaksandus." This usage can also be seen in the Code of Hammurabi in the prologue section III, "who fulfils the oracles of Hallab; the one who makes the heart of Ishtar glad; the illustrious prince, whose prayers Adad recognizes (Literally "knows")."
It is clear from the usage in these examples, as well as many other examples, that when used in legal context, the Hebrew word yada means "to recognize and acknowledge as legitimate." Understanding this legal usage of yada sheds light on many other verses in our Scripture. Jeremiah 31:34’s statement that under the new/renewed covenant, they will “no longer teach each man his neighbor…saying ‘know YHWH’ for they will all know Me” isn’t speaking about everyone one on earth knowing who YHWH is, but everyone acknowledging YHWH as their legitimate authority; it is predicting the Kingdom of God on earth! Jeremiah 22:16 states that pleading the cause of the afflicted and needy is what it means to “know” YHWH. We could continue on pointing many examples throughout Scripture where understanding the legal context of yada yields better understanding of a verse, but these examples should suffice. Based upon this evidence, the context of the new king not "knowing" Joseph becomes clear; a new king arose who did not recognize Joseph's authority as legitimate and thus did not recognize the Israelites legal claim to ownership of the land in Goshen. This new king uses this lack of legal status recognition to afflict the Israelites with hard labor, what becomes termed as slavery. Genesis already informed us of Joseph's enslavement of the Egyptians which consisted of moving them into the cities and charging them a tax rate of 20% on their labor, and we should recognize Israel's enslavement on similar terms. Forced labor was a common form of taxation in the ancient Near East, especially when ambitious government projects proved too expensive for hired labor, and vulnerable groups would often be targeted for this type of taxation.
The next important usage of yada as a legal term is found in Exodus 2:25. Our English versions will often translate this verse as “God saw the sons/children of Israel, and God took notice of/acknowledged/had respect unto them.” The underlying Hebrew word is our word yada, meaning to legally acknowledge as legitimate. This fits the context of this passage because the verses preceding this one inform us that the king of Egypt had died and apparently the new king had not enacted righteousness and justice in alleviating the oppression of the previous Pharaoh because the sons of Israel are still in heavy bondage and they cry out. YHWH acknowledges the legitimacy of Israel’s outcry and He responds in Exodus 3:7-8 by stating, “I have assuredly seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt and I have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sufferings. And I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians.” In ancient Near Eastern culture, the institution of the hue and cry was a means by which, in a situation of need, a wrong could be righted. If a person found his or herself in a situation of acute need, he or she could raise an outcry which would legally oblige anyone within hearing to come to his or her immediate assistance. While the Torah does not specifically mention this institution, it is clearly understood as a legal requirement for Israel, perhaps so well understood there was no need to waste valuable paper space commanding it. Instead, the Torah lists the consequences that will occur if Israel causes oppression rather than relieving oppression when they hear an outcry in Exodus 22:21-24 where YHWH threatens to kill the oppressor of a stranger, widow, or orphan (those without legal status to protect them against such oppression), thus making the oppressor’s wife a widow and his children orphans. The Psalms also warn us that YHWH “does not forget the cry of the afflicted.” When the Scriptures speak of a person or people crying out, we must recognize that culturally such an outcry is not simply anguish of pain or grief, but is a legal appeal for someone to relieve the crier’s distress and there is an expectation of response. In this Torah portion, we see that it was not Israel’s obedience nor even their oppression that prompts YHWH to redeem them from Egypt, it is their crying out which brings about action on YHWH’s part. This institution is continued in the book of Judges as well were there is an ongoing pattern of Israel going astray, God sending other nations to oppress them, Israel crying out, and God raising up a judge to deliver them. It is clear that we serve a God of justice Who demands that we too act with justice towards others, especially those who are oppressed and when we fail to do so, He will act to rescue them.
When a Pharaoh arose who did not “know” Joseph, it was clearly a failure to acknowledge him as a legitimate authority in the land and served to delegitimize Israel’s claim to freedom in the land of Goshen. A later Pharaoh also says to Moses, “who is YWH that I should obey His voice and let Israel go? I do not know YHWH,” indicating not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of acknowledgement as a legitimate authority over Pharaoh. However, YHWH did “know” Joseph as evidence by the fact that He did “know” the sons of Israel and did “know” their sufferings; YHWH acknowledged the legitimacy of Israel as a people deserving of dignity and honor and He acknowledged the legitimacy of their legal complaint against the Egyptians. Since no one else acted on Israel’s behalf, YHWH stood up as Judge of the legal complaint and found that the Egyptians were indeed the oppressors. What follows in the next few Torah portions details YHWH’s actions against those He deemed to be oppressive. Let us pray that our actions never become oppressive towards others and that they cry out to YHWH in their affliction, because it is not good to be judged an oppressor. Instead we should heed the Master Yeshua’s words, “Come, you who are blessed of my Father…for I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.”
 Compare Exodus 1:7 to Genesis 1:28.
 Huffmon, "The Treaty Background of Hebrew Yāda'," 31-32. Underlining mine.
 ibid, 32.
 Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 166.
 Also see examples in Gen 18:19, Exod 5:2, 1 Sam 2:12, 2 Sam 7:20, Jer 1:5, Amos 3:2, Hos 2:22, Hos 5:4, Hos 8:2, and Hos 13:4-5 that I had picked out but chose not to include in the main article.
 Walton, IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, Exod 1:11. Compare with 1 Kgs 5:13 & 9:14.
 NASB/NRSV, NJKV, and KJV respectively.
 Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice, 49-50.
 Ps 9:12, cf. Pss 34:17, 107:6, 13, 19, 28.
 For more verses dealing with crying out as a legal institution, please see Gen 18:21, Exod 22:22-26, Num 11:2, Deut 22:27, Judges 10:12, 2 Chron 13:14, 2 Kgs 4:1, 2 Kgs 8:3, Ps 34:17, 77:1, 88:1, Job 19:7, and Isa 5:7.
 Exod 5:2.
 Matt 25:34-36, NASB.
Hans Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East, Augsburg Publishing House (Minneapolis: 1980).
Herbert B. Huffmon, "The Treaty Background of Hebrew Yāda'," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 181 (Feb., 1966), pp. 31-37.
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