DATELINE: Thebes, 14th- or 13th-century BCE — The crisis between Pharaoh and Moses continued today, as reports emerged that the deal the two had struck to provide more straw for the Israelites to make bricks in return for the Israelites dropping their demand to be released from the bonds of slavery had broken down.
Moses was said to be disappointed that his latest effort to form a united front with Pharaoh in order to combat the natural disasters wracking Egypt was unsuccessful, but told Israelite tribal leaders that he was determined to put Egypt’s welfare first, even if it meant consigning the Israelites to another few centuries of bondage.
The latest reported deal between Pharaoh and Moses comes on the heels of Moses’ sudden and unexpected turnaround a few weeks ago, which has divided the Israelite leadership and called into question Moses’ ability to deliver the exodus that he has promised. Moses’ allies were thrown by his new insistence that relieving the burden of having to scrounge for straw was the most important principle he needed to defend.
“Those locust swarms really shook him,” said a high-ranking Levite official known to be close to Moses. “It was one thing to shout slogans about letting God’s people go when we were dealing with lice outbreaks and cattle plague, but locusts impact everyone and not just kindergarteners and dairy farmers. I know we promised freedom for everyone, but Pharaoh is threatening to bar Moses from the palace for good. If we get a break on the straw quotas, that will give us enough time to deal later with the Goshen ghetto and the Nile baby drownings.”
Moses’ recent emergence out of nowhere to assume the Israelite leadership was widely seen as a reflection of his sterling resume and widespread Israelite frustration with Pharaoh’s increasingly polarizing policies. Moses has a personal history with Pharaoh and knows him well, having grown up in his house, and lots of Israelites were impressed with his history of performing minor miracles and his commitment to the anti-slavery cause, while willing to overlook his stutter and subpar public
His initial foray into Egyptian politics was promising, combining a demand for a temporary wilderness furlough with impressive achievements such as turning the Nile into blood or orchestrating mass zoo jailbreaks. Moses’ confidence seemed to grow as well when the Egyptian court magicians were unable to replicate Moses’ miracles, leading Pharaoh to begin negotiations with Moses in earnest over letting the Israelites leave Egypt permanently.
“You could really see Moses’ influence after hail,” said a leading columnist from the Pi-Rameses Papyrus. “That was the first time that Pharaoh actually stated a willingness to let the Israelites go, and Moses should have used that moment to get the Israelites ready to leave.” But Pharaoh quickly changed his mind as soon as he saw that the hail had spared the wheat and spelt, and that clearly threw Moses off course.
In the course of days, he went from demanding complete freedom for his people to negotiating with Pharaoh over the straw supply chain and daily brick quotas. And despite an earlier insistence that any Egyptian-Israelite partnership would be dependent on replacing the court magicians, whose response to the hail and locust swarms has veered between incompetent unpreparedness and bureaucratic infighting, Moses has reportedly agreed to let the magicians retain their positions in return for control of the Ministry of Hieroglyphic Standards.
Pharaoh seems noticeably more confident in his position since Moses’ reversal. In a meeting with city heralds and town criers, Pharaoh referred to Moses as “an honorable Israelite who shares my vision for a strong Egypt.” He dismissed any role he had in spreading rumors that the Nubians possessed a set of papyrus scrolls showing Moses in various states of undress with Egyptian female water drawers, and said that he is willing to be generous with the Israelites going forward. “Pithom and Rameses are already built. It’s time for us to seize on this historic opportunity to expand beyond the Upper Nile and make the Libyan Desert part of Egypt forever. If Moses and the Israelites are willing to join with me, we can fight these natural disasters with a united front and give Egypt new and stable borders for years to come.” Pharaoh also promised to consult with Moses over any new regulations that may be applied to the Israelite enclave in Goshen, and pledged to consider rescinding the new degree outlawing all magical staffs within Egypt’s borders.
Reports from Goshen indicate widespread confusion about Moses’ new positions, and feelings of betrayal combined with resignation. “What did you expect,” said one local resident who asked to remain anonymous. “Moses never really wanted to lead in the first place. Had God not scared him into it at the burning bush, he’d still be tooling around his father-in-law’s estate in Midian. What happened to the real leaders, like Joseph?”
Local Israelite folk singers were heard in the Goshen marketplace playing the latest viral song on their lutes, a thinly disguised complaint about Moses called Dayeinu whose first few verses read, “Had he gotten us Saturdays off but not a five-day work schedule, it would have been enough. Had he gotten us a five-day work schedule but no end to arbitrary whippings, it would have been enough. Had he ended arbitrary whippings but not an infanticide ban, it would have been enough.”
Talks between Pharaoh and Moses are expected to continue over the coming days, but most Israelites think that Moses will eventually cave on the straw quotas as well. Moses himself signaled that the inevitable step down is coming, telling a group of Israelite activists who were protesting outside his house that they should not focus on straw, but on the survival of their current way of life. Absent an unprecedented miracle, something completely crazy and inconceivable like the death of every first-born male in Egypt, it appears that the Israelites will not be going anywhere.
Michael Koplow is policy director at the Israel Policy Forum.