This is part four of a series of blog posts on Moses.
“And I will give this people favour in the eye of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty,” Exodus 3:21
“Eye” is a word often associated with Envy. To “place one’s eye” on someone or something is to invoke the “evil eye,” which is why around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East, one can find the image of an eye on amulets, beads, houses, cars, babies… in order to provide protection from the evil eye.
Back in the garden of Eden, Eve placed her eye on the tree. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at…” (Gen 3:6, Robert Alter’s translation). With an envious glance towards something that was not hers, her downfall was sealed.
Later, amongst other famous examples, Saul would “place his eye” on David;
And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?”
And Saul eyed David from that day on.
The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David evaded him twice. Saul was afraid of David because the LORD was with him but had departed from Saul.
So Saul removed him from his presence. (I Sam 18:7-13)
This passage provides an excellent example of how envy works in Middle Eastern understanding, and can help us understand what is happening in Exodus 3:21.
Often, it is the superior who envies the inferior. Amitav Ghosh, in his essay on envy in an Egyptian village, writes,
“The villagers say that it is always the rich man who envies the poor. A village proverb says, “The owner of a camel envies the owner of a goat,” and another, “The strong envy the weak.””
Why would this be? Because, in a hierarchical society where everybody knows their place, envy functions as a form of social regulation. There is a conservative bias towards the status quo. In a world where wealth and status are considered limited goods, then life is a zero-sum game. If 6 of the 10 slices of pizza belong to me, and someone lower down the pecking order only has 1 slice, then any attempt by them to improve their lot/ increase their portion threatens my status. God forbid they should end up with 2 slices, leaving me only 5!
Again, Ghosh states, “Objects which are central to the relation of envy are those which represent the possibilities of increase and betterment for individual households and thereby challenge this fixed order of relations.”
So, with Saul and David, the crowds are praising David more than Saul. Saul feels his position threatened, and so he puts the evil eye on David. Somehow, this action is linked to demonic activity, and Saul becomes increasingly paranoid and murderous. Eventually, Saul sends David away – at a distance Saul’s position could not be so threatened.
This dynamic helps us understand what is happening in the Exodus story. God tells Moses, “I will grant this people favour in the eye of the Egyptians.”
This favour, throughout the plagues, confronts the hierarchical status quo, wherein the Hebrews are the enslaved minority and the Egyptians the landholding higher classes.
The flies swarm into the areas inhabited by the Egyptians, ruining their land, but in Goshen there are no flies (8:21-23). The Egyptian livestock die, but no livestock belonging to Israel is touched (9:3-4). The hail destroys all the produce of the Egyptian fields, during the barley harvest, but does not fall in the land of Goshen (9:25-26). A three-day darkness descends on the entire land of Egypt, but not on Goshen (10:23). Finally, the firstborn of all Egypt, man and beast, fall dead, but not a single Hebrew firstborn (11:4-7).
The fact that these plagues destroy Egypt’s means of production (fields, crops, animals, children) whilst leaving the Hebrews untouched would tend to the latter’s betterment. Hebrews will have food while Egyptians don’t. Hebrew wealth increases and Egyptian wealth decreases. This will threaten the status quo, causing “they way things have always been” to tremble, and envy will kick in.
Just as Saul sent David away, so too will the Egyptians send the Hebrews away. Rather than allow them to take more of the pie here, let them leave! And, to make sure that they leave, the Egyptians pay them in silver and gold jewellery and clothing. Jewellery and clothing are not means of production or betterment like land and livestock. They are not dynamic wealth with the potential of increase, not “real” wealth like the Nile-blessed land or good cattle stock or numerous sons.
And so, the expulsive force at work in the miracle of the Exodus is actually the force of envy. Jesus, later, will experience the same force in his Exodus, his execution. Both Matthew and Mark state that it was because of envy that the chief priests handed him over to be crucified. In The Exodus, in David’s “exodus” from the court of Saul, and in Jesus’ “exodus” into death, the powerful resort to destructive envy in order to assert the status quo, and the exiled one ends up developing his own Kingdom that is yet more glorious than the one from which he was expelled.