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Exodus 2.0

On Passover, the festival of freedom, we ask four questions. On this year, I'll add a fifth: Are we ever truly free?

By Michael Oren

Beloved son of Osiris, blessed son of Ra—may Ra live on forever!—ruler of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms and lord of the River Nile, the builder of cities, forts, and temples, I, Rameses, succumb to no one. I, alone, am free.

This is a fact. I rise when I want to, eat what I command, sleep, play, fornicate when I desire and with whom. My word is law, my edicts, holy. Viziers and generals, magicians and priests—all bow to my whims. A bowl of peacock tongues, a bath of leopard blood? One snap and it appears, reverential. Make war, forge peace, I can do either as my interests prescribe, or my moods. Declare it in the marketplace, inscribe it on walls: a pharaoh’s will is limitless.

Which is why I was shocked when my royal courier, Adjo, came cowering up to my throne, his face to the floor, and shivering informed me, “Sire, there is a man who demands to see you.”

Demands? A man? I could have had the cretin strung up or sealed in my tomb, just for uttering those words. Yet he went further. “Sire, he demands to see you now.”

To say I was furious would not have done justice to my wrath. I nearly smashed my crook and flail, the scarab flew from my forehead. But before I could order the courier dispatched, before I managed to remind my court just who gave the orders in Egypt, there he stood. A man.

And not much of one, by the looks of him. Got up like some Midianite shepherd, cloaked and sandaled with a bush of a beard and a staff of unvarnished olivewood. A strange campfire smell. A peasant! Insufferable enough but another person stood behind him, an elderly slave who whispered in his ear, telling him what to say and how to say it.

"Let my people go!” the Midian commanded in surprisingly refined Egyptian but with a grating Goshen accent. Or more like stammered, ““Let my p-p-p-people go.”

People? What people? I had no idea what the man was talking about until my eunuch enlightened me. Ah, that people. The Hebrews or Children of Israel or whatever—seems they’re confused themselves. The whiners who act as if they’re the only ones ever to know slavery, who’re never getting enough brick-making straw and never keeping up with their quotas. And now, according to this stutterer, they wanted not one but a three-day vacation to—of all things—worship their desert god.

How ridiculous. First this goatherd saunters in unsummoned and tells me, the child of the stars, what to do and then his only ask is for a weekend break and for who? A god I’ve never heard of but who makes no room for other gods, claiming all the heavens for himself. A god supposedly all-powerful but who won’t even show his face. And yet, the very ludicrousness of the request, and the audacity of the man who made it, gave me pause. Maybe this is the way I can show my power, I thought, my freedom to do what I please. “Go, take your three days,” I considered replying. “Tell you what, take four.”

But what I end up answering was “No.” Why I did was a mystery to me, the product, perhaps, of a sudden tightening in my chest. Indigestion, I concluded, and decided to flog my cook.

“No,” I snapped. “And not only will your people not get a break, they won’t get their straw delivered. They’ll have to go find it themselves.”

That ought to show them, I thought, and motioned for the two of them, the Midianite and his slave, to be banished. But the very next day, they were there again, only this time the shepherd said nothing. Instead, he took his staff and tossed at my feet and, just like that, turned it into a snake.

I didn’t react. Pharoah’s don’t, not even with cobras, but merely clapped for my team of magicians. They looked at the snake, shrugged, and struck their staffs on the stone. They, too, became serpents—smaller, maybe, than the Midianite’s and less ravenous, but squirming nevertheless.

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” I told the peasant and would have had him executed if not for another bout of gas. By the time my bromide arrived, though, he had once again disappeared.

Good riddance. It was bad enough that he tested my will, worse that he did so in public. For a pharaoh must not only believe he is free, his subjects must also see it. His decisions often righteous but other times cruel but at all moments arbitrary, his appetites both minimal and immense. His obelisks and pyramids must pierce the heavens, staking his infinite reign. The last thing a pharaoh needed was some sputtering bumkin stumbling into his court and telling him—for all the world to witness—just who I had to let go.

Imagine my embarrassment the following morning when I went to the Nile for my bath. There he was, old robe and beard and rod in hand, watching me like one of my eunuchs. Right then and there I decided to make him one, but before I could, he smacked his staff on the water’s surface which instantly thickened to blood. So did the pool in my shaving basin, even the contents of my flask.

I might have screamed, I might have cursed, but I kept my composure and again called upon my magicians. One never knows when they may be needed, and I never go anywhere without them—fortunately, for they deftly tapped a remaining puddle and transformed it into gore. “So, there,” I said, and stormed up the bank to my palace, leaving my servants to scrounge in the dirt, burrowing for something to drink.

Seven days passed, an entire week in which the stench of dead fish penetrated every room, every pore and orifice. The only relief I had was playing with my son, the firstborn of dozens, Omari. Five years old and already a warrior, a wooden sword in hand, slashing and laughing and dispatching imaginary Hyksos and Hittites. Omari with his mother’s lapis eyes, his father’s rockhewn chin, and curls like the claws of the Sphinx. A future pharaoh, he is already being trained to follow his wishes, whether for food, entertainment, or revenge, and to insist that others fulfill them. Seeing him, even I feel weak-kneed. Hugging him, even I, Rameses the Omnipotent, am enslaved.

I returned to the court and, as predictably as sundial, he tormented me. With his Lord of Israel this and his Lord of Israel that and his infernal, “Let my people g-g-go.” By now I was already of a mind to tell him, “g-g-go, hold your damned desert fest,” but dyspepsia once more prevented me. And this time the result was frogs.

Frogs in my bedchamber, in my kitchen, even in my bread—half a frog—when I bit into it. My magicians were mustered, and they replicated the trick, producing yet more frogs. Some help. Throughout my realm, the ribbits were deafening.

“Okay, you win,” I relented, shooing away a toad. “A three-day holiday for you and your people. Just get rid of these accursed frogs.”

And just like that, they died. In heaps and mounds they—for want of a better word—croaked, and the smell of decaying frog-flesh out-stank that of the floating fish.

“Such is the power of the Lord our God,” the Midianite exalted, as if his god somehow lorded over me. The mere suggestion of that, combined with the heartburn, made me retract my offer. “No vacation, no sacrifices, no desert,” I barked and immediately started scratching.

Lice. Swarming in my armpits, teeming in my cylindrical beard, my entire entourage leaping and pawing themselves like monkeys. My magicians tried to produce some cooties as well but for once they were powerless—thankfully—and took the Midianite’s side. “This is God’s finger,” they said.

I showed them a god’s finger alright and was instantly beset with flies.  Throngs of them, fogs of them, a buzzing black miasma. “Go!” I cried to the Midianite, “hold your goddamned feast,” only to change my mind the minute the flies had vanished. “I take it all back,” I grumbled, my breast constricting with pain. 

So the pattern repeated itself: the shepherd asked, I agreed, and then relented, only to pay the price. Wild beasts and sicknesses that ate and felled our cattle. Boils that ravaged our bodies and hail that flattened our fields. Locusts that covered all that the eye could see and a darkness that made sight itself impossible. Before long, my magicians were scratching and yowling, my servants imploring me to give in. It took a few floggings and one or more heads to drum home the point that nobody—no faceless god, no yokel, certainly—told Pharoah what he must do. No matter how often or how grievously afflicted, Egypt would continue to obey.

And yet I was getting fed up. The Midianite was making a mockery of me, his sidekick slave, a joke. The people were beginning to whisper: perhaps this Hebrew is the rightful king and the current throne-holder an imposter. For if even Pharoah has no free will, if he is persuaded by plagues on the one hand and, on the other, by reflux, why is he better than other humans?  Who’s to deny that he, too, is a slave and that liberty itself is a falsehood?

Then and there, I resolved to do some digging. I sent my best spies and stool pigeons out into the Goshen slums, there to ask around and pry. What they discovered was eye-opening. Seems this peasant, this rube, was a fist-born a slave himself and slated for destruction by my forebear in an effort at population control. His mother, though, being a mother, put him in a bulrush ark and cast him into the Nile where, downriver, he was discovered by one of the many princesses and on the spot adopted. So that’s where he learned that fancy Egyptian, I realized, right here under my roof! Who knows, along with the other wards, I might have even run into him.

But one day, while strolling outside the palace grounds, he chanced on one of my taskmasters doing his job and whipping a goldbrick Hebrew. Rather than the support the effort, as a guest of my palace should, instead of just walking away, the young man killed the taskmaster and buried his corpse in the sand. Yet that would shift quickly, though, and word circulates fast in Goshen, so the criminal slipped out of Egypt and found refuge in Midian, with a prince named Ruel or Jethro, depending on who you ask, who gave him one of his daughters. He was perfectly happy tending his goats until the day he followed a stray and stumbled into a cave. There, trembling before a flaming but noncombustible shrub, he claimed to have met his god.

So that’s what he was: a traitor, a murderer, an ingrate. The hallucinator of a god with neither name nor face but a claim on my throne and a desire to clip my prerogatives. The charlatan’s name, I learned, was Moses.

I would show him, I vowed. Show everybody. The next time he raised his hoary head, I’d have it swiftly removed. His limbs and bowels, too, ripped out and displayed for all of Egypt to see who makes the rules and who doesn’t. I couldn’t wait but stormed toward court determined. Only once did I pause, halted by a strangely softened heart, and popped in to visit Omari.

The mere sight of him stifled my breath. Covered in boil-scars and insect bites, still masked against the stench of fish and frogs. And yet he remained unvanquished, brandishing his wooden sword before a terracotta army and smiting make-believe Nubians.  Who could ask for a better son, I thought, a son who would grow to be freer than even his father was. Who wouldn’t hesitate to eradicate some impertinent Midianite and devastate his people as well. A truly almighty pharaoh. Unable to resist, I embraced him hard and fell prisoner to a love more powerful than any godhead. I kissed his curls and those faience eyes and felt my very will drain out of me.

It revived, though, plenty by the time I returned to court. Sure enough, there was this Moses crank with the slave who it turns out was actually his older brother, Aaron. I expected to hear another request for the desert ceremony but, outrageously, Moses had upped his demands. No longer did he seek a break from brickmaking but a total and permanent escape. He wanted what no king much less a mortal ever contemplated: freedom not for himself or even his brother but for his entire hog-tied people.

My heart become an ingot in my chest. “Get out of here!” I roared at him. “Next time you see my face, it’ll be the last thing you ever see!”

But Moses merely smiled. “Very well, Pharoah. I guess I won’t be seeing your face.”

I let him leave. I shouldn’t have, not alive, but next I thought, thank Ra he’s gone, and ordered up a plate of lion steaks. During the day, I heard the usual petitions from nobles who complained about taxes and beggars who pleaded for food. I imprisoned some and rewarded others, each according to my urge. Meanwhile, rumors filtered in of strange goings on in Goshen. Of slaves baking bread without leaven, hoarding their neighbors’ jewelry, and painting their doorposts with blood. Of course, I dismissed it all as scuttlebutt. Yet, somehow still, I kept wondering: what could that Moses be up to?

  Then, suddenly, screaming. Howling such as I’d never heard before, not even in my dungeon. An earsplitting wail rising high over my kingdom, making the monuments shake. Osiris help me, I thought, another plague. What could it be this time? Rodents? Scorpions? Mummies sprung to life? I thought I could handle any of them by now, so hardened had I become from adversity. That is until a brace of eunuchs entered my court and, in their arms, pale and lifeless, Omari.

“My son!” I cried. “My first-born!” falling on his body. But in the next breath I ordered that Moses be brought to me, he and his child-killing brother.

“Go, get out of here! The two of you and your infernal people. Go be slaves to your one and only god,” I bellowed, “and maybe he’ll bless me, too.”

That was it. No more smiles on Moses’ wizened face, no more smirks from Aaron. They merely turned and left me to rip the nemes from my head and menat from my chest and mourn the death of my heir.

A day passed, a day of silence, the pain too intolerable for words. All of Egypt writhed with it; our tears nearly rivaled the Nile. Moses, meanwhile, led his slaves into the desert. A massive dust devil led them in daylight, reportedly, and by night, a towering funnel of fire. They plodded on to perhaps their god knew where, most likely to die of thirst. Unless I reached them first.

For that is what I decided, once I’d regained my strength. My heart, molten since Omari’s death, now petrified. “Who do they think they are, pharaohs?” I thundered. “Did they really believe they were free?”

Just like that, I had my army assembled. My finest infantry and chariots. My generals assured me that they would conduct the massacre, that there was no need for me to leave the palace. But I’d hear none of it. I’ll spill their blood just as they’d siphoned mine, I swore to them. On Moses I’d level ten plagues of my own, more horrendous than any he’d visited, and add an eleventh, driving him to drown in the sea.

For this is where I find them now, huddled on the shore. Hundreds of thousands of them with nowhere to go but under. Seeing this, I whip my chariot forward and wave for my forces to follow. No mercy, no quarter, I’ll show them. The very name Hebrews will be struck from the hieroglyphs. The Children of Israel will be orphaned.

Closer and closer we charge and already I can see the terror on the fugitives’ faces. Already I can see them setting on Moses, excoriating him for depriving them of the life they led in Egypt, laborious but secure, and leading them to the desert to die. They beg him to turn back, but it’s too late for that. I know it and so does he, as he raises his arms in surrender.

And all at once the waters separate. My horses buckle, my army halts. Like the frogs, like the lice, it’s just another trick of that god of theirs, I know, but still, none of my chariots advance. But then, between the waves, a path opens. A shallow swath into which one of the runaways wades and signals the others to follow. They do, reluctantly, at first, then enter.

But so, too, will I. We will, myself and my soldiers, even into the depths of the sea. For I am the beloved of Osiris and Ra, ruler of the two kingdoms, of the river and all of its fields. I who decide who prospers and languishes, who lives by my commandments or, by resisting them, dies. It is I, Rameses, who brandishes his freedom as other men their swords and whose fingers snap whiplike, making his pleasures reality. Who raises his hand to the watery walls as they begin to collapse and orders them all to stop.

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