Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Three-Day Plan

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Three-Day Plan

Article excerpt

When God first recruits Moses to lead the Exodus from Egypt, He tells him: 'Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them ... I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites ... to a land flowing with milk and honey' (Ex. 3:16-17). Strangely, however, God continues by instructing Moses to relay a very different message to Pharaoh: 'Then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now, therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God' (Ex. 3:18).

While God wants the Israelites to know that their redemption is nigh, Pharaoh is meant to be duped into thinking that they will merely travel three days into the wilderness, make their sacrifices and, apparently, return to Egypt. We later read that Moses actually does, on two separate occasions (Ex. 5:3 and Ex. 8:23), make the same minimal demand that Pharaoh allow the Israelites to travel three days' journey into the wilderness in order to observe a religious festival (I shall call this the Three-Day Plan). He never drops a hint that, instead of returning, the people will go on to conquer Canaan and take up life there as a free nation. Pharaoh must surely have thought that Moses was merely asking him to be the first in a long line of gentile employers who have had to put up with Jewish holidays!

Why Moses left Pharaoh with that false impression is not the real concern of this paper, but I would venture to say that God instructed him to do so in order to highlight Pharaoh's obstinacy. (1) Not only did the Egyptian king refuse to free the Israelites; he would not even let them take a week off! Be that as it may, the present article will address a different question: Is all this talk of three days a complete fabrication, or does it really foreshadow some future event? In other words, was the Three-Day Plan ever executed? (2)

The first question to ask in our investigation concerns the place the Israelites actually reached after three days' journey into the wilderness. The Torah appears to supply a straightforward answer. Following the biblical account of the crossing of the Red Sea, we read:

Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was called Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?' So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test (Ex. 15:22-25).

This story bears no resemblance to the worship and celebration which Moses said was to take place three days' journey out of Egypt. At best, the only link between the two accounts is an ironic contrast: Moses spoke of feasting and worshiping God, while in fact, three days out of Egypt, the Israelites were thirsty and grumbling.

In their classic commentaries, Ibn Ezra (3) and Nahmanides (4) point to a more successful realization of the Three-Day Plan. They identify its goal with the theophany at Sinai. There is certainly some logic in their proposal. When first encountering God at the burning bush, Moses is told, When you take the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain (Ex. 3:12), this mountain being Horeb (Ex. 3:1), which is identified with Mount Sinai (Ex. 33:6). Thus, when Moses tells Pharaoh about the Israelites having to worship God in the wilderness, he is referring to a genuine event that is central to God's plans for the nation. Furthermore, the Israelites do, in fact, offer sacrifices at Sinai: Early in the morning, he [Moses] set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. …

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