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The Burning Bush
Written December 2009

One paradox have I discovered:  A statue can speak, though no statue be present.

Another rule have I learned:  A professional man should never take a leave of absence to work for a competitor.

My name is Jambres.  I do have a fulltime job.  I’m a magician in the court of Merneptah, the Pharaoh of Egypt.

As a sorcerer, I create illusions.  I do this to impress onlookers with the power of our gods.

To give you one small example, I have installed a hidden speaking tube inside the statue of the jackal-headed Anubis, lord of the underworld.  When one of his cult priests makes a pronouncement from behind the curtain, the distorted voice seems to come from the mouth of the god.

Amram’s Sons

It was during the reign of Rameses, the previous Pharaoh, that I became acquainted with two young boys in our court.  They were brothers.  Their father was a Hebrew man named Amram, of the tribe of Levi.  But they were very different.

One of them, Moses, had been adopted as a baby by one of Pharaoh’s daughters, who brought him up as a prince in the palace.  Moses grew into the role:  tall, proud, with a commanding presence.  He rarely spoke — except to order people around.  He had a short temper that sometimes led him to violent outbursts.  When he didn’t get his way, he would start looking for something to smash.

His brother Aaron was three years older.  He was short, stocky, but clever.  He was much more voluble than his brother.  In fact, he loved to hear himself talk.  He “talked a blue streak,” as they say.  I sometimes imagine his words as if they were actually colored blue, to differentiate them from other words.

Because Aaron couldn’t impress people with his physical appearance, he was always looking for other ways to win their admiration.  He was perfectly willing to dazzle an audience with trickery and illusion.  Appointing himself to be the sorcerer's apprentice, he followed me around like an eager puppy.

Quicker than the Eye

I still remember the day that I showed Aaron the snake trick.  I asked him to look closely at my left thumb.

“If I lean in close to you,” he observed, “I can see that there's a thread tied around your thumb.  It's not very conspicuous, but it's definitely there.  It's knotted around your thumb, and from there, the thread runs up inside your left sleeve.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It continues all the way through my robe and comes out at my right sleeve.  Here’s the other end of it.”  I showed him a loop in my right hand.

“Would I be correct in assuming that, in the performance of your trick, you make use of this thread in some way?”

“Yes, I do.”

“But is the audience aware of the presence of the thread?”

“No, I perform the illusion in a dimly lit audience hall, and the thread is thin and dark.  No one ever notices it.  Nor do they ever notice that I’ve got something else up my right sleeve.”

Curious, Aaron tugged at my robe and leaned forward to get a closer look.  He quickly recoiled.  “There’s a live snake in there!  I saw it move!”

“Don’t worry.  He’s harmless.  He cuddles up against the warmth of my body and goes to sleep.  Now, then, for this illusion I require one more prop.  I need a stick.  Almost anything will do.  When I perform before Pharaoh, I ask him to loan me his staff of office, which is a rod with a hook on the end.”

“And he allows you to borrow that symbol of state?”

“He trusts me.  He gives me the staff, which looks something like this ‘magic wand.’  I make some mysterious gestures and I say some mysterious words, just to distract everyone.  Meanwhile I discretely fasten this loop of thread around the end of the staff, which I hold in my right hand like this.”

“Then comes the magic?”

“Then comes the magic.  I dramatically throw the staff toward the floor with my right hand, which I’ll do in a moment.  At the same time, I dramatically point to the heavens with my left hand, thusly.”  I gestured upward with my left hand, and the staff vanished into my right sleeve.

“Wait a minute.  What happened to the staff?”

“Well, the two movements I make cause two other things to happen.  When I make the throwing motion with my right hand, the snake slides out of my right sleeve and falls to the floor, thusly.”  I flung the snake, and Aaron jumped back.  “And when I extend my left hand, the thread pulls tight and yanks the staff into my right sleeve, where the snake used to be.  I have exchanged one object for the other.  The audience thinks that I have transformed Pharaoh’s staff into a snake, which now lies wriggling on the floor.”

“And no one sees what has really happened?”

“The light is dim, and everything happens in an instant.  My acting skills complete the illusion.  I pretend that I have worked an amazing miracle, and everyone believes me.”

“Does Pharaoh ever get his staff of office back?”

“Eventually.  After the royal snake-handlers have cleared the palace floor, I slip the staff of office out of my sleeve.  I wouldn’t dare take it home with me.”

“If I were the illusionist, I might keep the staff for myself,” Aaron allowed.  His moral standards were, let us say, questionable.  “A shrewd manipulator might find many uses for devious tricks like this.”

“But of course you would never be that dishonest, young man,” I admonished.

“No, not me,” he said.  “Of course not.”

Later

When Aaron grew up, he no longer spent much time around the palace.  He returned to his Hebrew community in the Egyptian province of Goshen.

Meanwhile, his brother Moses got into trouble.  He lost his temper, was charged with murder, and actually had to flee Egypt.  I heard that he had found a menial job as a shepherd in the desert country of Midian, where he married his boss’s daughter.

For the next several years, I didn’t encounter either of the brothers.  However, after Rameses died and Merneptah ascended to the throne, one day Aaron came to see me.  He was not happy.

“In Goshen there is great unrest,” he proclaimed.  “We Hebrews have suffered much at the hands of Pharaoh, and conditions are only getting worse.”

“What conditions?” I asked.  I had heard rumors of Hebrew dissatisfaction, but few specifics.

“We are no better than slaves.  Our Egyptian overlords demand more and more labor from us, forcing us to make mortar and bricks and to do all sorts of tasks in the fields.  We have been faithful workers.  We have been hard workers.  We built the store city of Pithom, you know.  We have constructed another, named in honor of the late Rameses.  And yet our taskmasters still order us to manufacture more bricks from mud and straw.”

I wasn’t in the mood to listen to any Hebrew whining.  “Your people,” I said, “are foreigners here in our land of Egypt, are you not?”

“We have lived here for generations upon generations!”

“You are still aliens.  This is still our country, and we Egyptians get to make the decisions.  If you don’t love Egypt, perhaps you should leave it.  If you don’t want to live under our rules, perhaps you should go someplace else.”

I expected Aaron to be insulted by this, but to my surprise, he agreed with me.  “That is exactly what I have been saying!  I’ve been telling everybody that we have been visitors in a strange land for too long.  We should move to another country.  There we could establish a nation and be our own masters!”

“Good for you.”

“But,” he admitted, “no one listens to me.  I’m just the little Levite with the big mouth.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Nevertheless,” he went on, “I am persuaded that we ought to move back to our ancestral homeland, the land of Canaan.

“Our Hebrew elders recall an old story.  Our god told our patriarch Jacob, ‘I am God Almighty.  Be fruitful and increase.  A nation, a host of nations will come from you; kings also will descend from you.  The land I gave to your grandfather Abraham and to your father Isaac I now give to you; and to your descendants in turn I shall give this land.  Jacob is now your name, but it is going to be Jacob no longer; your name is to be Israel, which means a prince with God.

“However, it didn’t turn out that way.  I blame Israel’s son, Joseph.  He moved down here to Egypt and attained a high position in the government.  Then, during a drought, he persuaded the rest of his family to join him.

“All the children of Israel abandoned the inheritance that was promised them.  They left the land that God had given to Israel and his descendants forever, and they settled here in Egypt.  Today, we Israelites no longer possess the promised land.”

I asked, “Who does own Canaan now?”

“Foreigners have been ruling it.  First, Canaan was part of the Hittite empire. Then, after Rameses defeated the Hittites, the land came under Egyptian control.

“But now Merneptah is the Pharaoh, and he faces a new enemy.  The Peoples of the Sea are migrating southeast from Greece.  Some call them Philistines or Palestinians.  They have invaded the shores of Canaan, and they've colonized a part of Canaan known as Gaza.  They could not be stopped from taking over that coastal area, despite the best efforts of your vaunted Egyptian army.  In fact, you had to bring your army home to defend the Nile Delta itself from these raiders.

“Now, except for Gaza, Canaan lies unprotected by any power.  No one is in charge.  There are local tribes living there, but they are weak.  The time is ripe for our migration!  We don’t want to tangle with the Philistines, of course, but we could enter Canaan from the far side, from the east.  We could cross over the Jordan River to reclaim our ancestral homeland and establish our own independent nation.  We could forget about Egypt and her culture, and we could worship our own god in our own way!”

Be Realistic

“You can’t simply walk away from here,” I protested.  “You have homes here.  You have possessions.”

“Jambres, you know there are many of your fellow Egyptians who would be glad to see us leave.  You resent our presence.  You’re afraid that we’re so numerous, we constitute a threat to Egypt’s national identity and security.  More than once have I heard your people shout, ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from, you dirty foreigners!’”

“But you Hebrews are important for your labor.  You perform the jobs that native Egyptians won’t do.  I don’t think Pharaoh wants you to leave.”

“Who cares what Pharaoh wants?”

“Bite your tongue!”

“We don’t worship Pharaoh.  We have our own god.  He was the god of Abraham long ago, and of Abraham’s son Isaac, and of Isaac’s son Jacob.”

“And where is this god’s statue now?”

“Statue?!  He has no idol made with human hands.  He has no temple built of stone.  He lives within the hearts of his people.”

“In other words, you can’t afford a proper statue.”

“What?”

“Sculpture is expensive.  You Hebrews can’t afford to cast an image of a lion or a ram, so you just do without.”

“Give us some of the gold you Egyptians hoard for yourselves,” Aaron retorted, “and we could make ourselves a golden bull!”

I scoffed at that idea.  “You couldn’t make a golden calf!”

“We don’t need it,” he sniffed.  “We’ve gotten along very well without any physical representation of our god.”

“You're claiming that your poverty is a virtue.  But you have nothing tangible to point to.  You can’t say, ‘Behold our god!’  You can’t be inspired by seeing the proof of his presence.  No wonder you godless Hebrews feel lost here in our land, surrounded by our imposing Egyptian temples.”

“Well, you do have a point there.  Sometimes I think we do need a visible sign.  A symbol that could go before us, leading us back to the land that our god promised us.”

“Something like the images we Egyptians carry at the head of our processions?”

“No.  Our portable symbol would have to be something big and tall and impressive.  There are a million of us Hebrews, after all, and everybody needs to be able to see it at once.  I was thinking of a pillar of fire!”

“A what?”

“A pillar of fire, lighting up the night.  Or if it was daytime, it could be a pillar of smoke, standing out against the blue sky.”

“So you propose to worship a bonfire.”

“No, no.  As a matter of fact, this brings me to the reason I came to see you today.”  Finally he was getting to the point.

Pyrotechnics

“In your magician’s bag of tricks,” said Aaron, “I know that you have a method of making a very impressive flame.  Not the feeble flickering of a lamp, but a ball of fire, a couple of cubits wide.  I’d like to use your magic flame to inspire my people.”

I assumed he was referring to cauldrons of rock oil, which we have set afire for certain special occasions.  Rock oil, or “petroleum,” is unlike ordinary lamp oil.  In some parts of the desert, it oozes up out of the ground.  When placed in a cauldron and ignited, it burns with a hot smoky orange flame.

“I can make fire,” I admitted.  “But I’m not sure I can make a pillar of it.”

“Of course you can!” Aaron insisted.  “Just use a bigger cauldron.  Fill it with more oil.  We can mount it on wheels so that it can be pulled in front of the people.”

“Well . . . .”

“I tell you what.  Let’s start small.  Let’s first make a small fire in the middle of the desert.  Let’s make a fire just big enough to impress one man.”

“One man?  Do you have a particular man in mind?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.  Do you remember my brother Moses?”   

“Moses the murderer?  Isn’t he in exile somewhere?”

“He was in exile,” Aaron replied evenly.  “He was under indictment for allegedly killing an Egyptian, and he fled to the land of Midian.  But now Merneptah has come to the throne, and the charges have lapsed.  If Moses wanted to, he could return to Egypt without fear of arrest, and he could represent our people at court before the new Pharaoh.”

“But why would he want to come back?” I asked.  “I hear that he’s settled down and started a family.”

“I think I could convince him,” said Aaron.  “Moses is a proud man.  He grew up in luxury in Pharaoh’s palace.  He was born to be a prince.  But now he works for his father-in-law, herding sheep.  That must be terribly humiliating.  I think he would jump at the chance to come back and once again become a leader of men.”

“He does have the look of a leader,” I admitted.  “He’s tall and handsome, and his scowl is intimidating.”

“And he knows his way around the palace,” Aaron added.  “He could confront Pharaoh with our complaints, and Pharaoh would know we mean business.”

“Do you think he could actually negotiate with Pharaoh?  As I recall, Moses was never a good speaker.  He’s slow and hesitant.  He’ll never win a debate.”

“Never mind that,” Aaron said.  “I’ll be right beside him.  I can out-talk anyone.”

“No argument there, Aaron,” I laughed.  “In fact, your most difficult task might be talking Moses into the idea.  Won't he be reluctant to give up his easy pastoral life and get involved in politics?”

“Well, the way I see it,” Aaron explained, “we can recruit Moses with the help of some divine intervention.”

“Excuse me?”

“I can arrange for God speak to him.  I can arrange for God to order him back to Egypt.”

“You can?”

“With the help of your magic fire, of course.”

In the Land of Midian

So it was, a few weeks later, that I found myself on a narrow footpath in the desert.  I was there to play the role of special-effects technician.  Aaron was there to play the role of God.

Having hidden our camels behind a rocky outcrop near the base of Mount Horeb, we were now on foot, following the track made by flocks of sheep as they moved from one pasture to another.  Aaron carried, strapped to his back, an empty cauldron with a speaking tube attached.  My burden was two pots of rock oil.

“Jethro assures me,” Aaron said, “that Moses will bring the flock down this path tomorrow morning.”

“Who’s Jethro again?” I asked.

“Moses’s father-in-law.  He owns the sheep.  He’s also a priest here in Midian.”

“A priest of your god of Israel?”

“No, a priest of some other god, I’m not sure which one.  But he’s been very helpful.  Ah, this might be a good place!”

Aaron stopped and pointed to a small wadi, or dry stream bed, that crossed our path.  The wadi came from the direction of the mountain and was flanked by piles of rocks on either side.  In the middle of it, perhaps a hundred paces from our path, stood a lone boulder with an acacia bush growing next to it.  “This will be perfect,” he said.

We walked along the edge of the dry stream to hide our tracks as we carried our equipment to the far side of the boulder.  Following Aaron’s instructions, I excavated a pit behind the bush.  I lowered the cauldron into the hole, where it could not be seen from the footpath.  Then I filled the cauldron with rock oil.  Aaron and I settled into our hiding place behind the boulder to wait for morning.

Were we doing the right thing?  I wasn’t sure.

I’m a magician.  My job is to pretend that things are what they are not.  I’m in the profession of deceiving people.

But deception can be taken too far.

When a man deceives another in order to take advantage of him, that’s just wrong.

When a man deliberately lies to his own brother, that’s just wrong.

When a man pretends to be God — when he pretends that his own words are divine — that’s very wrong.

It’s true that my companion had a higher purpose in mind:  the independence of his people.  But are underhanded means justified by a noble end?

Aaron sat in silence for some time.  Then he mused aloud, “Priesting is a good profession, isn’t it?”

“Back in Egypt,” I answered, “the priests do make a comfortable living.  But out here in the middle of nowhere, I’m not sure about your friend Jethro.”

“Even out here.”

“Jethro has to have a second business on the side,” I noted.  “He has to raise sheep.”

“If I were a priest,” Aaron declared, “I would become rich.”

“How so?”

“Well, first of all, I’d point out that all good things come from God.  If the people want good things to continue, they’d better do what God wants.”

“In other words, they’d better give their priest what he needs to perform the proper rites and ceremonies.”

“Even more than that.  They’d better obey all of God’s commandments.”

“Commandments?  What does God command?”

“Whatever the priest says he commands.  As priest, I am God’s agent.  I hear the words of God and pass them on to the people.  That is how I can gain authority and power.  If the people know what’s good for them, they must obey what God has said.”

“You mean, they must obey you.”

“Precisely.  I’ve got my first speech all planned out.  I’ll tell them, ‘If only you will obey your God, if you will do what is right in His eyes, if you will listen to His commands and keep all His statutes, then God will bring you happiness and prosperity.  But if you harden your hearts and do not heed His commandments, which I have given you, then He will bring upon you all manner of horrible plagues and sufferings, to punish you for your sin.’”

“Sin?  What is sin?”

“Anything that I don’t want people to do.”

“I see.”

“As God’s priest, I lay down the rules.  Anything that I feel is an abomination to God is a sin.”

I began to draw a conclusion.  “So if there were no priests . . .”

“. . . there would be no sin,” Aaron finished.

“And if a person does commit a sin, he can get forgiveness . . .”

“. . . from the priest.  And he must not come empty-handed, of course.  He must bring a sin-offering.”

“Money?”

“No, food.  I’m thinking of a sliding scale, based on ability to pay.  If a poor person sins, he has to bring me a bird.  An ordinary sinner has to bring me a lamb.  A tribal leader has to bring me a goat.  And so on.”

“So you’ve invented this problem called sin, and you have also invented its remedy.”

“You might say that,” Aaron admitted.  “I can earn a living by providing services to the people.”

“A good living,” I remarked, “providing you have no compunctions about the words you attribute to your god.”

“A very good living.  But I'll need to insist upon obedience.  If the people should somehow start to think they can get along without me, I will have to convince them otherwise.  I’ll point out how they have offended God.  Everybody makes mistakes, and therefore everybody must have broken God’s rules somehow.  That means they’re sinners.  It’s imperative that they avoid divine retribution.  They must bring me a sin-offering.  And I will eat and be well satisfied.”

 
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