Showdown On The Nile
And the Lord said unto Moses, I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt…that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt…And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.
Negotiating the Negev
Instantly, I was on my way through space-time, back to Midian to pick up Moses’ trail. I know what you’re thinking. Midian was a big place, how was I supposed to track him down? There were no Yellow Pages in those days, no search engines, just a wild land of sheepherders, sand-bandits and marauding palm trees. Well, thank goodness for 26th century technology. When I’d bade Moses farewell back in Canaan, I rubbed a little LocusOil on his hand. The stuff permeates the skin and leaves an internal residue that transmits the location of the bearer on hyperflux wave lengths. This was a big issue for married couples when it was developed in the 2400s. If your spouse applied it to you, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide when it came to infidelity. There was a lot more action in the laundry rooms of office buildings, but then your mate would inquire what you were doing in a laundry room for 30 minutes on a Friday afternoon. The accuracy is that good.
So my finding Moses was no challenge. But I had to appear 40 years older. Actually, there’s not that much difference between 250 and 290 years old, given our advanced 26th century cell-renewal technologies. We all look around 35 if we choose, and mostly we do. But for Moses I had to look like his version of 75. So I’d stopped off briefly in San Francisco to purchase a long, salt-and-pepper beard from a theatrical costume shop. Donning my Assyrian garb once again, I set my coordinates within a one kilometer radius of Moses, so not to barge in on him, and WOOOSH! found myself on the outskirts of an oasis-like space enclosed in palm trees. Moving closer, I came upon a group of large rocks accumulated into a circular shape, and saw within it a deep hole plunging into darkness below. Here was Jethro’s legendary well, I assumed. I could have used my LocusOil Tracker to take me directly to Moses, but instead I reclined in the shade, savoring the quiet atmosphere and waited for something to develop. Toward sundown, two young women approached down another path, carrying clay jars
“A peaceful stranger greets you this day, good women,” I said. They nodded to me politely, as one began lowering her jar on a rope into the well. “I seek a man I hope is known to you, and an old friend of mine I hope he is acquainted with.”
“There are many who come to this well, sir,” spoke the older one. “Whom do you seek?”
“The first is named Jethro, the father of many daughters, and the other man was known as Moses.”
The women gave no sign, but seemed more alert. “We can see you have travelled far, good sir,” the younger one said, “for your attire is that of Assyria, is it not?” I nodded seriously. “Indeed, I am at the end of a longer journey than you can imagine. Much depends on finding my old friend Moses.” The woman seemed to glance quickly at her older friend, as if for approval of her next words.
“May we ask who it is that seeks these men? Perhaps we can ask others about them. Pray tell us your name, sir.”
“My name is Awshalim, and indeed, I come from Assyria. But it has been 40 long years since I last saw Moses.”
“Awshalim!” the younger exclaimed, earning a sharp look from the older one. “Pray forgive us,” the elder of the two interrupted, “but do you have any writing, sir, that can identify you to be who you claim?”
“Who are you, soldiers of the Great King to question me thus?” I bristled. “I had heard Midianites were open and generous to strangers!”
The two women blanched but remained firm. “Of course you must feel offended,” the older said, “but though we do open our hearts to needy strangers, we have certain customs and rules. Sadly, not every man is innocent, and one who tells all things without care is foolish.”
“Justly spoken,” I said, with a frown. These women must be close to Jethro. I admired their caution. I reached into my leather pouch and extracted the letter I had shown Suhad 40 years before by the Nile.
“This may answer your questions,” I said. The woman took the letter and a smile slowly broke over her face. “This is a blessed day, then, Awshalim, limmu. We are honored! I am Deborah, daughter of Jethro, and this is Miriam my sister. Moses has spoken of you many times, and he still abides with us, married to our sister Zipporah. Let us go to them now.” The two women refused to let me help them with their water jugs, and I followed them back up their path. It grew darker, and by the time we reached the tents of Jethro, the sounds of night had begun to encompass us. The women quietly entered the main tent, and after some excited chatter within, the curtain was drawn aside and Moses himself emerged, bearded, white of hair, but still robust and if anything haler than when he had bid me farewell in Canaan.
“Awshalim! Is it really you? This is another sign, then!”
“Yes, it is me, prince,” I said. But what do you mean, another sign?” Moses grew serious. “Three days ago, the God of Israel spoke to me from a burning bush and instructed me to return to Egypt to free my people!”
Impossible, I thought. How had I nailed it like this, arriving back within three days of the legendary event? But I’ve always been lucky that way, like the time I got to within 3 seconds of the Big Bang and was able to observe hydrogen ions and neutrons beginning to combine into atomic nuclei in the process of nuclear fusion. Of course I could only stay for about 1-12 of a second, but just being there was a thrill. Neutrons combining with protons to form deuterium, then deuterium fusing into helium-4. Great stuff. I guess after 150 years in this game, I have a sixth sense about timing, even if I get buried head-deep in desert sands now and then.
“Great news, Moses,” I said. “When are you leaving for Egypt?”
“Tomorrow morning. Can you join me? Yaweh promised to make a way where there is no way, I think that was how he put it. Maybe that’s why He’s called Yaweh.”
“Such a journey with you seems to be my destiny. Something told me to seek you out after all these years, and now I know why.”
“So I will not cross the great desert alone. You and I will make this journey after all – and after all these years. But this time under better conditions. My wife’s father Jethro will load our camels with water and provisions. We will lie at night under that firmament the foundations of which God Himself laid.”
“Sounds like a plan, Moses.”
I was taken into the tent of Jethro then, introduced to his family and clan, and treated as an honored guest. As for my attitude towards religion at that point, this might be a good time to explain: even though I’m a 26th century guy and an eye-witness to the Big Bang, I’m no atheist. No one ever proved the existence of a Deity to me, but they never proved its non-existence either. And there’s just something about how the positive sooner or later seems to defeat the negative. Take the Grolnathians, for example. The nations of the earth were on the edge of totally destroying the planet in a hellfire of Q-Bombs and advanced chemical weapons when along came these alien spacecraft into earth-orbit, neutralizing our firepower and instituting an era of permanent peace. The Hindus said Lord Vishnu returns every 26,000 years or so to cleanse the world, and the Grolnathians sort of filled that bill. So who knows? Not me, not you. But what better place to check out divine power than with Moses in Egypt?
Moses and I left Midian early the next morning. In all, it took three weeks to cross the Negev. What can I say. It was hot. We didn’t carry trail-mix. There were no Coke machines. The scorpions wouldn’t give you the time of day. My camel’s name was not Sheila. The harsh terrain, the endless expanse, the parched earth – this is what remains in my memory. This was not San Francisco in the Summer of Love. It wasn’t some joyous celebration like in 2251 when Leslie I, the first openly gay Pope, married his life-partner, Fabio, in the Holy See. No, this was a grueling struggle against nature, and in a desolate place like this, I saw firsthand how the idea of a vengeful, implacable god could take root.
Was I worried about the Egyptians? Of course. The first encounter would be fraught with danger. Ramses assumed Moses was long dead. When he re-appeared, unbowed and demanding the liberation of the slaves, would the Great King really tolerate his delusions of grandeur in the almost playful way the Bible recounts? After all, it was not just the taskmaster he killed. With my help, he was now responsible for the bloody deaths of four of the pharaoh’s soldiers on the shores of the Nile.
Finally, on the evening of the 19th day, as we sat at our fires, we heard the sounds of desert chariots and the heavy panting of steeds. It was a patrol of six soldiers. They encircled us and two dismounted and stepped into the light of our fire, spears at the ready.
“Identify yourselves, strangers. You are in the domain of The Great King Whose Name We Still Cannot Speak.” Moses turned to me and smiled. Then he rose to his full height and spoke in a loud voice.
“Fortunate servants of the Great King! Though you are surely too young to remember me, nevertheless, this day you are witnesses to the return of Moses the King’s brother, from his long sojourn abroad. I am now a prince of the Midians and have come to treat with Ramses. Yes, ‘Ramses’ I call him, for we played together as boys and now we shall do so again as men.” He opened his arms grandly to the soldiers. “But I have always been a man of the people. Come, join us by this fire. When we have rested, you will take my companion and I to Goshen and the camps of the Israelites. Meanwhile, send two of your men to announce me to the King.”
The leader of the squad stood speechless for a moment, then spoke in a low menacing voice. “What a foolish act that would be, old man. If you are not the man we have hunted these long years, my own life would not be worth that sad old wooden staff lying by your fire.” Moses looked down at the staff thoughtfully, then reached down and picked it up. “Sad? Yet my staff can be quite useful at times. Just as you will be to me.” Then he tossed it gently to the soldier, but it seemed to move through the air in extreme slow motion, so that we could all watch its transformation into a desert viper. The soldier had reflexively put his hand out to catch it, now he leapt back, and the snake fell to the sand, its head erect and ready to strike at his bare legs. He inched backward out of range and stood there aghast. Moses smiled and stepped over to the serpent, reached down and took it up. It became his old staff again. “You see, my friend, there is value in old and tattered things. And danger too. But your suspicion is right. I am not the Moses they speak of. I am a new Moses, one Ramses will have to deal with carefully. Now, would you like to see more, or will you do as I courteously asked you?”
The soldier turned and ordered two others to return to the city. “Tell the commander that a man claiming to be Moses…a magician perhaps, I cannot say…wishes to be received by the Great King.” He turned back to us. “That is the best I can do. Please, no more tricks.” Moses met his gaze and the two men glared at each other for a long moment. Finally the man seemed to quail. “And tell him I am escorting him to Goshen to be with his people. For now.” He looked toward me. “And who is this other man?”
I started to speak but Moses cut me off. “Just my servant. He is of no consequence.” That stung, until the fact I could not be Awshalim registered in my brain. By now the Egyptians would have discovered that an Awshalim had never been sent by Assyria, that I had been an imposter. Yet Moses had not known of my charade. Or did he? Another mystery. But now the mood seemed to grow more relaxed, and the soldiers gathered around our fire. We offered them dried fruit and water there under the stars. “And how fares the Great King?” Moses inquired.
“He is still that, magician. He conquers the nations, the world bows before his majesty and all fear him. He is one with the gods.”
“And the Israelites?”
“A lazy and shiftless people, like children. They should count themselves lucky we care for them as we do, teaching them the value of hard work.”
“At the end of a whip?”
“Or a sword, magician.” Surely the man knew the crimes Moses was accused of and was testing his temper. Conversation was pointless. Moses gave no answer, only poked at the fire and said, at length, “Let us leave, whenever your men are ready.”
And so we made our way toward the fabled land of Goshen, where the Bible recounts 400 years earlier in the time of Joseph, Jewish shepherd people settled, driven there by a famine in Canaan. Two hours after dawn the next day, we reached a point where desert sand gave way to greenery and we came to the easternmost tributary of the Nile Delta. A road followed the river, and the soldiers took it and turned north. Moses, against all odds, began to inquire among travelers along the road after his brother Aaron and mother, Jochebed. The ragged men he approached were terrified by the soldiers and only shook their heads in silence. But at last, one bold soul lifted his head and exclaimed to Moses’ astonishment, “Why Aaron, son of Jochebed? He is our high priest in Pithom! All men know his name.”
“My brother has done well – and still lives!” Moses cried. Take me to his tents, I pray you.” The Egyptian nodded grimly and spurred his chariot forward. Around midday we passed through the ancient city known as On, where the large Jewish population had built Ramses a treasure city with great storehouses. Here a few shepherds could be seen, their flocks looking weak and exhausted. But mainly came troops of emaciated men and women under guard, carrying bundles of wood or stacks of brick toward construction sites. We pressed on and late in the afternoon came to a hilly rise and from its crest looked down upon Pithom, another treasure city filled with storehouses and government buildings. It was impossible to assess its population as we descended into the valley, but the dwellings spread nearly to the horizon. Untold thousands lived there. And though we entered the city unknown, many stared as we passed. Granted, two strange travelers atop camels, escorted by soldiers was probably not a routine sight, but Moses had begun to radiate a strange magnetism, and many eyes turned toward him. Especially in the eyes of old men, it was as if they saw the fulfillment of a legend that Moses, who had befriended and defended them, the Egyptian prince with Jewish blood who had been condemned and had mysteriously disappeared, would someday return. A silent entourage slowly gathered behind us. The captain of the soldiers led us toward the first real building we had seen, a solid if not an impressive one of reddish clay. He turned his chariot back toward us, looked at Moses and informed him this was the home of the priest Aaron. “Aaron will be responsible for your whereabouts,” he shouted. “Believe me, magician, if we cannot find you, he and many others will pay a great price. Wait for word from the Great King and pray to your god that your luck continues.”
At that moment, several Jewish men appeared from within the building. “This fellow claims to be Moses – take care not to lose him, Aaron,” the captain shouted to the man who stood in front.
Aaron gazed up at Moses. “I shall do as you instruct, soldier. He shall make his abode here with me.” And with that, the soldiers wheeled their chariots and rode off, scattering the crowd that had gathered. Aaron strode over as Moses dismounted his camel. “Take these animals and see after them,” he instructed his aides. He placed his arms on Moses’ shoulders and stared searchingly at the white-bearded face. Then a broad smile broke across his own weathered face and tears came to his eyes. “Moses, my brother!” he exclaimed. “You have come from a place beyond hope. Welcome home!”
Moses seemed curiously impassive. “Thank you, dear brother, but this ‘home’ is but a camp. The time now approaches when we shall all return to our real home.”
Aaron shrugged. “If God wills it, it will come to pass.”
“So, Aaron, you have done well. You are a priest?”
“I am the high priest of all our people, Moses.”
“Praise be to God!
At this point, as Moses connected with his ethnic roots, the tone of the conversation, even the sound of Moses’ voice seemed to change. “And how fares our father?” he inquired.
“Alas, father has left this world,” Aaron said, “after doing very well in papyrus futures.”
“He read the Egyptians’ future in papyrus leaves.”
“Ah, as our forbear Joseph foretold the future to Pharaoh.”
“No, Father’s clients were small fry. Overseers, construction foremen. He put in 12 hours a day. Eight years ago, he told a taskmaster his wife would soon file for divorce. The guy hit him on the head with a rock and he died.”
“Terrible. We must take our revenge.”
“Enough with revenge. Just look at what’s happened to you. My advice is, don’t make trouble.
“Normally, I wouldn’t argue,” said Moses. “But the Lord has called me to a great task. You and I must go to Ramses and demand that he let our people go. The Lord will be with us.”
Aaron looked up at the sky and groaned. “Moses, come in and rest. You have been on a long journey. Our mother awaits you. She wonders why you never called.”
“What, I should yell at her from across the Negev? I should throw a boulder? Who am I, Samson?”
“Calm down, my brother. Come inside, eat something. As our mother told us when we were children, “Eat or you’ll die.”
“Mother told you. I lived in a palace. I had to eat mulukhiyya, a green soup made from finely chopped coriander leaves. I couldn’t keep it down. The kebab wasn’t bad though.”
“Whatever. Who’s your friend?”
“Awshalim. Lovely man. My constant companion. He saved my life 40 years ago. He says he’s a big shot from Assyria, but frankly, I have my doubts.”
“Why do you doubt him?” Aaron asked.
“Forty years go by, then he shows up in just the right place at just the right time, still looking like a million deben. Not a line in his face. Anyone can see that’s a fake beard.” He turned to me. “Awshalim! Give your camel a break and come meet my brother!”
Stunned, I dismounted. And so we entered the house of Aaron, chief priest of the Jews. Moses’ mother Jochebed, an old woman with fierce eyes, wailing with joy, embraced Moses passionately, then sat him down on cushions and asked after his health.
“I am fine, mother. The Lord has been kind to me.”
“Look at you, Moses! Eighty years old now! So when are you going to find a nice Hebrew girl and settle down?”
“A wife was given to me by the Lord, mother, forty years ago in Midian. Her name is Zipporah and she has borne me many children.”
Jochebed grew pale. “You married a Midian?”
“Yes, but she studies our laws and follows our God.”
“We don’t have that many laws, Moses. What does she do, just sit around?”
“She keeps my house and sees after my possessions in Midian as a good wife should. As for the laws, I’m thinking of writing some more later this year. A lot more.”
“He’s writing laws and never even went to law school! That’s my Moses. You were always such a creative boy. And funny! I used to watch him from behind the reeds when he was seven. He used to pile up bricks into an unstable tower and call it a Wobblisk. Then Ramses would knock it over and they’d fight, but Moses always wound up dunking his head in the river.”
She frowned suddenly. “But why don’t you bring your wife to meet your mother?”
“We should go see her in Midian. We Hebrews are such stick-in-the-muds.”
“You’re thinking Ramses will give us a few weeks off?”
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“And how do we get across the Red Sea?”
“I’ll think of something.”
Jochebed turned to Aaron and rolled her eyes. “He’s tired and doesn’t know what he’s saying. Come, Moses, I’ll give you a nice bowl of ibis soup.”
And so we all enjoyed a delicious meal, prepared by Aaron’s wife Elisheva and her daughters. Moses made no further mention of his doubts about me, indeed, I was largely ignored. I slept deeply that night, at the end of a long journey – and the beginning of an even greater adventure.
The Plague’s The Thing To Prick The Conscience Of The King
In the morning I rose to see the inhabitants of Pithom trudging off to their work in the brick pits or other brutally hard worksites. Aaron told us many were bound for Pi-Ramses, twenty miles distant. “How can they reach so distant a place,” I asked him.
“They get up early and jog. We’re an active people. But of course they go through a lot of sandals. In my youth, I thought of getting into the business, but you need a big warehouse and who wants to sit all day fitting shoes? ‘This one doesn’t feel right, it’s too tight, do you have a larger size?’ Listen, I wouldn’t be here at 83. By now my heart would have attacked me. So I’m a priest and glad of it, though I do have a small share in my cousin Caleb’s sandal emporium.”
The first day passed quietly, then another. On the third day, in mid-morning, we heard the clatter of horses approaching and rushed outside to see Ramses’ bronze-clad soldiers glittering in the sunlight.
“Bring forth the man who calls himself Moses,” their leader, a burly, brown-skinned warrior shouted. Emerging from Aaron’s house, we saw people had gathered to watch. “Get back to your work, slackers,” the Egyptian barked. “We know well how to deal with lazy Jews!” They dispersed in seconds. The soldier turned to us. “Moses, or magician, or whoever you are! Come with us now. Bring your priest brother and the companion who travels with you. The Great King Whose Name I Still Cannot Speak will see you at his pleasure.” So accompanied by more soldiers, we began the journey to Pi-Rameses – on foot. The sun beat down on us and little water was offered, but Moses and I had been hardened by our journey from Midian and before we set out Aaron had equipped us with extra sandals. Our trek lasted all that day and half of another before I glimpsed the towers of Pi-Ramses shimmering in the distance. At sundown, we reached the gates of the city and were led to a military encampment and a tent where we could rest until the next day.
In the morning, they brought us to the palace. We retraced the same path I had taken with Suhad forty Egyptian years before, until we entered the great hall of the King, and I saw Ramses before me once more. He looked much older, of course, but still fit and not someone to trifle with. He had more military victories under his belt. He ruled most of the world. But suddenly Ramses rose from his throne and stepped down to stand face-to-face with Moses. The courtiers gasped in surprise, but the Ramses let out a hearty laugh.
“Moses it is! After all these years! How I searched for you, you pathetic traitor. And now you walk into my presence of your own volition! I admire your courage – and remember your foolishness.” Moses met his gaze, then gave the king a quick once-over.
“You’ve put on some weight, Ramses.”
“Silence! How dare you!” the king shouted. He drew up his chest. “And you? What’s with the ridiculous beard? And you smell of sheep. What are you now, a prince of the farmyard?” He burst into laughter again and the gathered courtiers followed suit. “Perhaps he uses the ewes,” someone in back called out, engendering another wave of laughter. Moses said nothing.
“Silence!” the king cried once more. “You are said to desire to treat with me, Moses. Treat with the King Whose Name Still Cannot Be Spoken? Hah! Where are your armies, Sheep Prince? Or what treasures have you brought to fill my coffers? It is clear you have gone completely mad in the desert. But you shall suffer no more, for you have not much longer to live. And your brother tires me as well. You will both look well with your bodies stretched upon the forepaws of the Sphinx and crows dining on your entrails.” A shiver of horror shot through me, but Moses seemed unimpressed. I had fallen to my knees as befitted the servant role I was playing. Luckily, Ramses appeared not to have recognized me.
“Great King,” Moses now proclaimed in a loud voice. “The Lord of Hosts hereby instructs you to release my people. If He is without power, surely I will die at your hands. But the Lord our God rules both Heaven and Earth, and soon you will see proof. Aaron! Hand me my staff!”
Well, you know the story. Moses’s staff turned into a snake again, then Ramses’ magicians threw down theirs, but Moses’ viper swallowed up the other two. You should have seen that viper – talk about an overweight snake! Aaron could barely pick it up, but right away it transformed back into a staff anyone could handle. Now it was Ramses turn to be unimpressed.
“This God of yours beat my magicians, but so did a traveling trickster that blew in from the southern desert last month. My priests couldn’t guess which of his three little pyramids didn’t have a scorpion under it. When they picked a pyramid, they had to stick their finger under it. It cost two of them their lives. And this one will cost you yours, old fool.” He signaled to his guards to have us taken away.
“Stay your hand and your judgment, Great King,” Moses intoned. “Please understand, I only wish to protect you from the wrath of the Lord. Come, brother, let us walk together to your portico along the Nile. There I will show you the true power of our God.”
Ramses hard stared at Moses, then shrugged. “You amuse me, Moses. I haven’t been so entertained since last year, when we sank the Hittite flagship and watched them all drown trying to swim for shore. It was a laugh riot. So yes! Let us go down to the Nile and see what further comedy this sad old man will produce for us!”
So we all followed the Great King through the palace to where it opened onto a great plaza along which the waters of the great river flowed. I knew I was approaching the core of the central myth of Judeo-Christian religion, the moment when the incalculable power of Yaweh would be made manifest to the world. Even with all my experience in time-travel, I was nearly trembling in awe. The Prophet Moses was about to turn the Nile to blood with his staff.
But events did not occur as reported in Scripture. Yes, Moses bade Aaron place his rod into the Nile. Yes, the gathered courtiers gasped as a crimson color spread out from it, quickly growing wider and wider until it became a tide racing across the great river. But something urged me to step forward and dip my hand into the stream. As I bent down and cupped a little of the Nile into my hand, it neither looked like blood, nor was there any smell of a human fluid. In fact, it was almost transparent. I lifted it to my lips and tasted it, and sweet it was. I tried to recall when I had tasted such a thing, and finally it came to me. I had time-traveled to the fifth decade of the 20th century, where the first Afro-American baseball player, Jackie Robinson, had needed moral support to keep him from charging into a shouting, racist crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio and, in the vernacular of the day, “kicking some cracker ass.” On assignment, I had stayed in a room in a local house and while taking dinner with the family, had enjoyed this same drink. Kool-Aid! Moses had turned the Nile into Cherry-flavored Kool-Aid! I began to see ice cubes popping to the surface of the river. What kind of deity would do this? Had I entered some nonsensical psychic realm where my subconscious, my imagination, was interfering with “reality?” Or had the Biblical scribes changed a sugary drink to blood centuries after the fact? Who could say? In the moment, I could only cup some of the liquid in my hand and bring it to Moses to taste.
“This is not blood, Prince. It is a kind of sugar drink.”
He sampled it from my hands and groaned. “Lord,” he cried to the heavens, “this is no time for trickery! My people suffer. You sent me to free them.” But from heaven there came no answer. By now, Ramses priests had discovered the truth and they and Ramses had filled their goblets and were drinking the beverage merrily. The Pharaoh was ecstatic. “We thank you, Moses, your magic is truly the best in Egypt! But I will not let your people go.”
Moses grimaced and shouted at his mockers, “Nevertheless, I will trust in the Lord! God will now bring locusts onto thy land, and they shall cover the face of the earth, so that one cannot see the earth.” But when Aaron waved the staff in the air, no ravenous insects appeared. Instead, the color of the sky seemed to change. All at the court stared upward. The colors became mottled and more various, a blanket of bright hues, a rainbow of tiny colored spots descending from above. Lower and lower they fell, until, just before they hit the ground all about us, we could see: they were flowers! A kaleidoscope of blossoms everywhere. The air filled with their sweet fragrance.
Moses looked at Aaron, appalled. “Why does the Lord mock me?” he mumbled in confusion. I bent down and picked up a light-pink blossom and examined it.
“I think I understand the problem. Do you know what this is, Moses?”
“It is a flower of some kind, of course.”
“What kind exactly?” I handed it to Moses. He looked at it and grew pale. “Lord of my fathers,” he cried out. “Crocuses? I said locust, not crocus! A plague of crocuses? That’s ridiculous!” In fact, it was an amazing synchronicity. The Egyptian word for crocus is
while the word for locust is Their sounds are as close as as can be, so it’s quite possible the Lord misunderstood. In any case, Ramses and his priests had begun cavorting though the rainfall of bright blossoms as the Nile itself became a florescent river of light. All Egypt, I thought, must be a riot of color. Ramses threw out his chest and adopted his regal-announcement voice:
“Hear ye all my people! Henceforth, today shall be called the Festival of the Crocuses. Let all people rest and revel in the gracious bounty of Amun-Ra!” He turned to Moses. “What other wonders can you perform for us this day, magician brother? For indeed, I am loath to kill you now. A court jester worthy of Ramses II you are indeed.”
Moses stared at the flower-strewn ground. Finally, he spoke. “I am speechless, Ramses. Perhaps tomorrow…”
“Of course, magician,” Ramses chuckled gaily. “Now take my jester and his party to one of my pleasure rooms. Let them eat and drink and plan their next feat. Perhaps tomorrow his god will cause gold to fall from the sky!” The Egyptians laughed and their cheers rang out until Ramses held up his hand. “Verily, it is Amun-Ra himself who this day has made his powers known, not any false god of Moses’ imagination! The gods of Egypt are supreme upon the Earth. Surely, in their heavenly abode, they roll in mirth at the impudence of this old snake charmer from the desert. So let us see tomorrow if Moses can save his life for another day by entertaining us once more. But no, I will not let his people go! Now bring on my dancing girls!”
We were taken to a quiet corner of the palace, a luxurious place with cool baths and gold-braided cushions on which we could recline. Drinks and food were brought to us by servant girls. But the mood was one of despair.
“What did I tell you, Moses?” Aaron said, picking at a piece of fruit. “Don’t make trouble, I said. The Egyptians are a great people. They rule the world. We Jews are meant only to humbly serve our God. Perhaps only in death will we find freedom.”
Moses paced the room in turmoil. “Go to Egypt, go to Egypt,” the voice told me. ‘Tell Pharaoh to let Israel go.’ Where did I go wrong? Maybe we used the wrong end of the staff? Maybe you’re supposed to put the staff in the water first and then threaten Ramses…”
“Moses,” I asked, “What are you planning for tomorrow?”
“I don’t know, Awshalim. I was thinking maybe a plague of frogs, then some lice and fleas if that doesn’t work.”
“Forget it. Even if you can pull it off this time, it won’t work. Ramses is conscienceless. He’s like a four year-old. He’ll agree to let Israel go to get you off his back, then back out on the deal. He’ll do it over and over.”
“How do you know this, limmu? ”
I took a sip of fig juice. “I just know. I can’t explain it.”
“Then what shall I do, give up?”
We had to roll the dice. Put all our chips on 23 red. Take the Cubbies to win the Series in four games. “There’s only one thing that might work. Tell him if he doesn’t release the Israelites, Yaweh is going to kill every firstborn male of Egypt.”
Moses let out a low whistle. “I like it,” he muttered. Aaron threw up his hands in despair. “Awshalim, you’re a bigger nut than my brother. Just saying that will cause Ramses to kill our whole family – your mother too, Moses! Have you no sanity left?”
“Why should we go on living as slaves, Aaron? If Yaweh to whom we pray cannot help us, let us all perish. I cannot abandon this path I am on.” He strode over to Aaron and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let us die as men, if we must, brother. Remember Abraham and how God tested him! Is this not the same? Now our next step is revealed from the lips of Awshalim. There is no turning backwards.” Moses’ spirit was magnetic, it filled the room. Aaron bowed his head in submission. We raised our fig juice cups and swore to take the final step on the morrow.
And so it came to pass that the next day, around noon, we were again ushered into the presence of the Pharaoh of Egypt. The great hall in which his throne stood was crowded with the elite, priests, overseers, military officers, the highest echelons of society, all buzzing over yesterday’s events and what might transpire today. Ramses himself sat looking morose, as if he envied Moses the spotlight. A priest had apparently been warming up the crowd – as we entered he was finishing up with, “…So Moses says, look pal, it’s Yaweh or the highway! And then a big clump of Happy Weed falls onto the guy’s head. Get it? Yaweh or the high way…!”” A few boos rang out, but they turned to cheers when people saw the man of the hour approaching.
“Oh Great King Whose Name Is Sometimes Spoken!” Moses cried out as he approached. “Today is indeed your day of reckoning, for the Lord our God indeed will smite you and all Egypt a great blow if you do not submit to his will.”
Ramses brightened. “I love it when you threaten me, Moses. Tell us – what do you have planned for today?”
“Great King, the Lord of Hosts has spoken to me in the night. You must release my people or all the firstborn males of Egypt will die, whether man or child!” A shocked gasp shot through the assembly. Moses was nothing if not charismatic.
“And when is your deadline, jester? Do I have time to consider your offer?”
“No more time is permitted, oh Pharaoh. I shall count to five and, lest you submit to the Lord, the sentence will be executed.” And Moses began: “One…two…”
“What do you say, my people?” Ramses cried.
“Rabbits will fall from the sky!” shouted out a high priest.
“The Great Pyramid will turn to gold!” cried another.
“The Great King will take to the air and fly like a bird!”
“Three…” said Moses. Aaron had fallen to his knees and was bobbing his head in prayer. I heard a knocking sound and looked down. It was my knees again.
“The desert will turn into a verdant garden!” cried one man. “My mother-in-law will move to Thebes!” yelled someone in back.
“Four…” A hush fell over the throng. Ramses put his fingers to his chin and raised his eyebrows. Aaron looked up at the ceiling in supplication.
Suddenly, groans of pain sprang out through the hall. Everywhere, there were loud thumps of bodies striking the ground. Cries of terror rang out, the names of the fallen were shouted out in alarm.
“Seth! What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“Father, father! Open your eyes, speak to me!”
“Osiris, my son! Breathe! Please breathe!”
“My brother is dying! Someone help us!”
And so on, a chaos of screams, wails, pleas for help. Many fled the hall in terror. Moses stood there impassive, glowing in victory, his eyes and those of Ramses locked in psychic combat. But Ramses face trembled ever so slightly. He had gone a bridge too far with this specter from his past and now he was in uncharted territory. Now warriors came running into the hall, shouting that dead men were falling in the streets of the city, for what reason no one knew. At this, Ramses finally hung his head in defeat and perhaps in fear for his own male offspring.
“Call for me when you are ready to treat, Ramses,” Moses announced in a loud voice, over the cacophony of terror-stricken citizens. “Fail to summon me and fear for your own life next,” he added for good measure. He gestured to us, then turned fearlessly away toward our private quarters. We followed, pushing our way through the crowd and stepping over lifeless bodies. But how much more real, I wondered, was this scene of horror than the crocuses and the Kool-Aid? In my many travels through time I had never felt such a sense of walking through a dreamscape as here in the palace of Ramses II.
Back in our quarters, Aaron began to moan. “What have you done, Moses? My God! Ramses revenge will be merciless.”
“Your words are not those of a warrior,” Moses snapped impatiently. Our task now is to organize a great exodus of our people.” He turned to me. “Awshalim, I am indeed blessed that you joined me in Midian. Your instincts are sure. Nothing can stop us now.”
“Except perhaps the Red Sea,” I mumbled.
“I said I hope no one arrests me,” I improvised.
“Be serious, Awshalim. We are untouchable henceforth. Ramses fears for his life. I saw it in his eyes. He will soon sue for peace.”
“I hope so but, my God, Moses, the slaughter of all these innocents, all the little children and infants and…” Outside our shuttered windows, the mournful wails of Egyptians echoed down the streets. Women cried out for their husbands, their sons, their fathers, their men. The city was in chaos. But Moses simply looked like the general and warrior he was. “Steel your heart, Awshalim. Ramses and his armies have slain thousands in many lands.”
“You don’t think this will come back to haunt us, do you?” A certain mid-20th century human extinction had crossed my mind. Perhaps I was implicated in that now as well.
“This was the judgment of Yaweh, limmu, fear not nor be dismayed.”
And as if in answer, footsteps approached, the curtains to our chamber parted and Ramses strode in, a dark cloud of fury barely under control. He spoke in a low, rasping voice. “Take your heathen trash, Moses, and leave Egypt. I will admit to your face the power of your God, but speak of this to others and, even if I must pay with my life, I will have revenge on you, you worthless traitor. Our mother raised you out of her merciful heart and this is how you repay us? You and your Jews are indeed the scum of the earth and wherever you wander you will be detested and reviled by men. This is my curse on you and may it endure down the ages.” Ramses spat on the ground before us and turned on his heel and was gone.
Aaron fell to his knees and clutched at his brother Moses’ robe. “Oh, my brother, can I believe the words I have just heard? Did he say we are free to go? Have you really done this thing? Henceforth, Moses, I will be your servant in all the lands in which we dwell. Indeed the Lord is with you, praise unto His name each day unto the ending of the world!”
Moses smiled grimly down at his brother. “Get up, Aaron, do not kneel before me.” He gazed at the still-moving curtains. “But the audacity of Ramses! He wants me to be grateful for my gentle upbringing while he kills and enslaves my people and treats them like dirt.” He stood listening to the cacophony of mourning outside. “Let us be on our way back to Goshen, my companions. We must leave now, under cover of dark, before revenge takes root in their hearts. Time is our enemy. We have much to do!”
Instinctively, we knew he was right, and we seized our few belongings and went looking for the nearest egress. We sought the darkest corners and narrowest hallways, hoping not to be seen. A few recognized us, but their reaction was one of terror and they flew from our presence. Finally, a way out appeared. In the streets now, we were unknown. All was bedlam. Moses sought horses and found two unguarded, as if they had been meant for us. I rode behind Aaron, Moses led the way, and sooner than we could have hoped, the city was behind us and we were bound for Pithom.
Lilac was hovering over me, her breasts grazing my chest, her lips inches from mine. Why we can’t make love and not war? she whispered. Let’s make love, not war. I snapped awake and looked around me. Dawn was breaking, it was already heating up, and I heard Moses’ voice outside.
“Have any runners returned from On?”
“All is bedlam there, but the priests are urging our people to meet us at Succoth as you instructed. A few gather their possessions, but most hang back, and many are slain by the Egyptians.”
“Has not Ramses sent instructions that we are to be freed?”
“No, nothing yet. We have only the words of you and Aaron, and the sight of hundreds of dead men in the streets of Pithom. What horror will befall us next?”
I arose and hurried outside just as Aaron himself rode up on a steed we had stolen the night before. “The men I gathered are spreading the word though the city. But it is useless. We need emissaries from Ramses to announce our liberation. We were foolish to leave so quickly last night.”
“I fear you are right, Aaron. I am to blame. But there was such chaos. Who knows what Ramses does now or what he is thinking? Should we return to the gates of his city and seek to treat further with him?”
But Aaron had turned away and was gazing up at the hills bordering the city. “I don’t think that will be necessary, brother. Behold a fearsome sight. The chariots of the King approach.” I followed Aaron’s gaze and indeed, amid great clouds of dust a multitude of cavalry was hastening down toward the city. Transfixed, we could only watch and wait for their arrival. Now, like a breaking thunderstorm, the rumble of their horses could be heard. Too soon they were upon us, lashing out at anyone in their way, a mounted unit of a hundred men encircling the square adjoining Aaron’s home, and now from their midst emerged a priceless, gold-encrusted chariot bearing Great King Ramses II, Pharaoh of Egypt. The bitter grief in his eyes made him even more fearsome than he had been.
“Moses, Moses. Here you are before me again. You have wounded me but not killed me. It is best your God slays me now, and instantly, for I am come to lay you low and your brother and your mother and all your kin. Death take me now! For I swear I will never let your people go. They are mine. My army comes behind me. Can your God kill them all?”
Moses stood resolute as a great tree before Pharaoh. “Raise your hand against us, King, move it but to your sword, and not only you but all Egypt will be utterly destroyed. Here we stand at the ending of the world. Choose well, Ramses.”
They stood there, eyes locked together again, and then, just as Ramses’ fingers inched toward his weapon, I saw a shadow move across my eyes, and suddenly in our midst stood an old woman clad in black. Her hair was completely white, but she did not stoop. She stood erect between Pharaoh and Moses. Both men were taken aback, but before either could speak, she raised her voice to them.
“How tired I am of you, Ramses and Moses. Cannot you find any peace between you?” That voice. I knew it. It had changed, but it was familiar.
“Stand away, old woman,” Moses cried. “He will kill you like an fly on a table.”
The woman smiled. “Not if I can raise up his son again, and those of his people.” Moses, rather than scoffing at her audacity, fell strangely silent.
Then, aloud, I exclaimed, “Suhad!” The woman looked at me. There was both mischief and affection in her old eyes. But Ramses seemed to fall back in fear. “You cannot be the woman called Suhad. She was slain in the days of…in the days…” he turned toward the man who had once been his princely brother, “the days of Moses.”
“Impossible, possible, what do you care, Great King, if you can have the lives of your people back? You have seen the power of Moses’ God. I can intercede for you now. But you must let the Israelites go. You must proclaim their freedom throughout the land.” Ramses’ horse shuffled and whinnied complainingly. Pharaoh seemed petulant, like a sullen boy defying his mother. “But how can I build the monuments to my greatness without Jews?”
“You could put all those first-born males to work,” Suhad offered. “There are hundreds of thousands of them. A lot of them just sat around playing with their harems. A little hard work wouldn’t kill them. You could call it a national works program. Call it the First-Born Brigade. Hold brick-making contests. Toughen them up. It will make Egypt that much stronger.”
“That sounds good to me,” I commented.
“Awshalim, stay out of this!” Moses snapped. We don’t even know who this creature is.”
“You remember Suhad, Moses. Believe me, there’s more to this lady than meets the eye.”
“A national works program,” Ramses muttered. “Do I have to pay them?”
“No, no. It’s like an army, but they don’t kill people. They just work for their country, maybe for two years, then they’re through and the second-born can chip in. You’ll want to offer them better hours though, and reasonable break times. Work out the details with your priests.”
“I don’t know…” Ramses sighed and fingered his spear.
“Think of your own first-born, Ramses. He will live again!”
“You mean Amun-her-khepeshef? He was 57 and never did anything except smoke papyrus shoots and run around with my dancing girls. I’ve got 43 other sons. Amun-her-khepeshef I can do without.”
“But Ramses, you’ve lost thousands of sons – you are the father of this land! Try to be positive.”
“Do you think I could really get the first-borns to do the work of the Jews?”
“Hey – they’d be happy just to be breathing. They’re dead now!”
“Enough of this mindless babble,” Moses burst out. “The Lord Of Hosts is God and there is no other! We need not the intercession of some ghostly apparition from the past. Disperse your soldiers, Ramses and proclaim our freedom throughout your lands or the Lord will smite you and your hosts!”
“Silence, Moses,” Suhad shouted. “Have you forgotten the Kool-Aid and the crocuses? Your relationship to Yahweh is not that stable, I think.” She fixed her gaze on him and I feared we’d wind up with Moses the Mummy if he didn’t show some flexibility. “Do you really want to roll the dice again? I’m offering you both a compromise.”
“What is dice?”
“Never mind! Decide!”
“OK, I’ll do it!” Ramses exclaimed, with a calculating look in his eye. He turned in his chariot and addressed his troops. “Go ye into all the lands of Goshen and proclaim that Great King Ramses has released the people of Israel from their bondage. They are free to go where they will!”
As he finished speaking, we felt the ground shudder, and moments later shouting began in the nearby streets and byways.
“My son has awakened!”
“Wife! What happened to me?”
“My mother, I dreamed I had died!”
“Oh, my father lives, he lives again!”
Ramses was delighted. He beamed at his men, a king who had brought life back to his people. His legacy was secure. But Moses looked sullen. “Do not betray your word, Ramses,” he shouted, as Pharaoh turned his chariot back towards his palace. He spun around again.
“And you, Suhad, or whoever you are…”
But of course she was nowhere to be seen. Suhad’s master stroke stunned us all. Who was she? She had killed with her eyes, read my mind, and now forty years on her powers had grown exponentially. Was she a kind of parallel, feminine Moses whose existence had been suppressed by the male priests who created the Talmud over the next 1,000 years? But Moses, into whose cosmology she did not fit, simply ignored this momentous anomaly – he did not speak of it again.
Red Sea Blues
And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they despoiled the Egyptians. And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot who were men, besides children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them, and flocks and herds, even very much cattle.
The days passed quickly now, and Ramses held true to his word. The many tribes and divisions of the Hebrew people began to organize for the journey. Pi-Ramses, right under the nose of the Pharaoh, was the main gathering place of the tribes of Israel. In my pre-travel research, I’d wondered how the Lord could soften the hearts of the Egyptians after He’d killed their first-born. Now that they had been reawakened, it all made more sense. I didn’t see that much despoiling, but some of the Hebrew women looked pretty well turned-out for slaves, sporting gold necklaces and fancy rings. I tried to imagine the conversation.
Rachel: “Mrs. Kafele, I always admired that bracelet when you used to watch me mopping your floors. Could I possibly borrow it for a few years?”
Mrs. Kafele: “Take it, for Amon-Ra’s sake! Wear it in good health!”
So now I returned to Pi-Ramses to witness a monumental influx of humanity. The bare fields outside the city were covered with people, but more came day by day. On carts and donkeys they carried their belongings. They drove goats and sheep before them. Surely, the world had never seen anything like it. “How many will gather here altogether?” I asked Aaron.
“Quite a few,” he said.
“And quite a few would be…”
“We think 600,000 men.”
“Oh. Men, you say?”
“Isn’t that three times larger than Pharaoh’s army?”
“Yes, but the Egyptians have many weapons and chariots.”
“I guess you’re right. So then, counting women and children, we would be…”
“About three million people.”
“Isn’t that the same as the population of Egypt?” I blurted.
“Maybe so, I don’t know.”
I tried to imagine sixty Yankee Stadiums’ full of Jews lugging overflowing carts, plus goats and sheep. Even if they marched 100 abreast, three yards between rows, the Exodus would extend for about 50 miles across the desert. But people straggle. Especially in a desert. Deserts are straggle-intensive. So, when the first Hebrews reached the Red Sea, the rear guard could be 100 miles behind. From a military point of view, a long flank. Egyptian chariot sorties could wreak a lot of havoc.
At three miles per hour, it should take 120 hours, or about 5 days (walking continuously, day and night, as the Bible reports) to traverse the 250 miles or so to the sea. Three million men, women, children, hiking non-stop for 5 days and nights across first a blistering, then a freezing desert. But then, a whirling cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night was going to spur everybody on. I visualized the scene at the Gulf of Aqaba, where many felt the crossing had taken place. There is an enormous, uncannily-suitable oval-shaped beach at Nuweiba, still visible 4,000 years later. The sea there is about 10 miles across.
Nuweiba protrudes like a great sandy blister from the western shore. We do not know its name in ancient days, but later generations called it Nuwayba’ al Muzayyinah. The name translates, amazingly, as “Waters of Moses Opening.” Its area in the 21st century was a full 8 square miles, or 27 million square feet. That would give our three million emigrants about a square yard each to stand in, with their worldly possessions shoe-horned in. In other words, a titanic Yankee Stadium, but without seats. Three million Jews standing calmly as Ramses’ legions approached down the wadi. But even with Ramses held back by a big pillar of fire, it would take a while for three million people to walk ten miles across the bottom of the sea. Three miles an hour…two hundred abreast this time…the line stretches out again…10 miles is still a 24-hour process. And would the floor of the sea, which had just been covered with a kilometer of seawater, be a bit muddy? Should we have brought papyrus boots? Did such things exist?
It was ten days after the resurrection of the first-born. I was trying to decide if I should actually do the march. The Children of Israel (Moses’ mother came up with the name) were ready to head for the next station of the march, Succoth, a small city and major military post fifty miles to the east. Finally, I decided to tag along. In places the land sloped upward, and behind us an enormous river of humanity extended as far as the eye could see. Moses set off at dawn and after plodding through the full heat of day into evening, we arrived at Succoth under a midnight moon. Eighteen hours. It would be another two days before the entire three million arrived at Succoth. The Egyptians warriors there had received their orders and restrained themselves, alternately scowling and mocking their escaping slaves. But many regarded us with awe. Perhaps they were the first-born, newly returned from the dead. Or maybe it was the arrival of 600,000 male slaves who might have a bone to pick with them. I didn’t ask. But the three million had no sooner arrived than Moses and Aaron set out again, this time into the great desert of the Sinai Peninsula.
I was beat. I didn’t know if I could make it. That was when Aaron came up with our two horses and told me to take one. He gazed at the more impressive steed. “This is for Moses. I have named it Koach, meaning power or strength, for it will have need of strength in the days ahead. But this one, limmu, is for you, our honored guest.”
“Have you given a name to mine?”
“No, Awshalim, that is your decision. Choose well.”
I decided to let the animal remain nameless. It would be better that way. I mounted it and we set out across the last frontiers of Egypt and into the Great Desert. Time seemed to stand still for me as the horse trudged forward through the sand. I felt more and more disoriented in the heat. On the first part of the journey, there were plants and birds and rocks and things, there was sand and hills and rings. The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz, and the sky above with no clouds. The heat was hot and the ground was dry, but the air was full of sound. You see, I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain. In the desert you can’t remember your name, ’cause…oh, never mind. Did we turn to the south? Did we cross at the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez and proceed to the east or continue south along the coast? Was there really a pillar of fire to lead us, or was I hallucinating? Where was Pi-hahiroth,? Where was Marah? When did we enter the Wilderness of Etham? My memory is a blur. Even into the 26th century, scholars dispute the true path of the Israelites, but I cannot provide the details they hunger for. It was for me a twilight zone of terrible heat and biting cold, without rest-stops, a grueling death march. Among the three million, did thousands of the old and weak fall by the way, leaving their scorched bones in the sands? I cannot say. After nine days, I let the horse run free ’cause the desert had turned to sea. There were plants and birds and rocks and things, there was sand and hills and rings. Wait, I already said that. Actually, I think it was on the second day that the horse threw me and headed back for Succoth. He wasn’t as dumb as I looked. So mostly I was on foot, scuffling along on my papyrus sandals. At last, we ascended into higher ground, into a terrain of parched, forbidding mountains. We looked up and though we had not been attacked by Egyptian forces, we could see flashes of mirrored sunlight from sentries high on the peaks. Ramses was surely being informed of our location. Several more days passed. Now our exhausted ranks were enclosed on every side by impassable mountains.
“Why does Moses head deeper into this wilderness,” I asked Aaron.
“It is to deceive the spies of Ramses. To make him think we are lost. But Moses knows this land. We are in good hands.”
“Why would Ramses attack despite the power of God?”
“He must remember the farce on the Nile when flowers fell from the sky. He hopes the Lord will betray Moses again.”
“Why does he not attack us here, stretched out helplessly over a hundred miles?”
“Perhaps he wants us assembled in one place so he can destroy us utterly.”
And as he said these words, a voice cried out, “The sea, we are against the sea!” There in the distance, as we emerged from a bend in the wadi, lay a line of azure blue sea and in the haze beyond it, the mountains of Arabia.
“What does this mean, Aaron? We will be trapped here.”
Aaron was unfazed. “I no longer question my brother, Awshalim. Each day he speaks to the Lord and Yaweh counsels him and directs his steps. There must be a reason for our coming to this place.” Of course, I knew more than Aaron, but I said nothing and watched the reactions around me. “Will ships come to carry us away?” the people wondered aloud. “Is there a path along the shore?” New fears were spreading among them.
So here we came out of the wadi, three million skeptical Jews crowding onto the beach. This was not Miami. There were no restaurants, no pools, no night clubs – and no water. At first, everyone was so tired they were just happy to sit down, packed together on the sand. Millennia later this traumatic moment, coded into Jewish DNA, would make Sundays at Coney Island tolerable. But the undrinkable waters of the Gulf seemed to mock them. For most, their water supplies were depleted.
Meanwhile, Ramses was no slouch. Monitoring the immense expedition through the hawk-eyes of his sentries, keeping his 2,000 chariots well out of sight, he saw his opportunity. What a fool Moses was! There was no need to slaughter the Israelites by hand. They would destroy themselves. It was only necessary to start a panic at the tail end of the procession as it neared Nuweiba. The Jews would crush each other in the hundreds of thousands, in the canyon, on the beach, and drowning themselves in the waters of the Gulf.
But his plans were foiled, as we learned from the team of 160 relay-runners that Aaron created, who regularly sprinted 10 kilometers each, up and down the Exodus line, to maintain communications. A breathless runner ran up to report that just as the hindmost Jews had glimpsed the charging chariots and begun to panic and run, a monumental, wagon-like structure mysteriously appeared behind them, filled to overflowing with the finest cushions, cushions of silk and rich linen. Then the wagon just as mysteriously caught fire with flames shooting up to a great height. Faced with this inexplicable conflagration, Ramses’ charioteers quailed and fell back. The wagon continued to burn long after it should have been consumed. Hearing of this, I realized another Biblical inaccuracy had reared its ugly head. It was not a pillar of fire that had held Ramses back. These were pillows of fire. Well, it had gone from the ancient Hebrew to Greek, then Latin, finally Old English. It was an understandable error. And the symbolism of pillows was apparent: they were the Israelites themselves, upon which the Egyptians had reclined for centuries. Now these flaming Hebrew cushions were unapproachable and full of danger. It was quite poetic. But this Pharaoh lacked a Joseph who could interpret the full import of the omen. Luckily, you have me. If you have other questions, speak up.
But ever since Yaweh had spoken to him and directed him to this place, Moses had suspected the cosmic feat the Lord wished to accomplish. Across the sea lay Midian and safety. Now indeed the Lord directed him to stand on the shore and in a loud voice call on Him to part the waters. I knew this because he suddenly walked to the shore and in a loud voice called on God to part the waters.
“Now look ye and behold the power of The Lord!”
I mean, he wouldn’t just do that on his own. No, it had to be Yaweh calling the shots again. But meanwhile, the messenger who had brought news of Ramses’ approach had opened his mouth to others in the throng, so that fear, ripe and malodorous, was beginning to spread through the multitude. “Ramses’ chariots are coming!” “The enemy is upon us!” “We shall all be slain!” Like wildfire, it spread across the beach. It was, in 20th century American football vernacular, crunch time. Yahweh needed to part the waters right now. Crocuses and Kool-Aid would be of no help. We needed dark clouds, roiling seas, towering walls of water on either side of a great path through the Gulf.
But nothing. Moses shouted again, “Look ye and behold the power of The Lord!”
Aaron stepped up and tried putting Moses’s staff into the shallows, but aside from a few bubbles, nothing. Then (as somewhere deep inside I’d suspected she would) Suhad showed up. But this was not the old crone. It was the young Suhad, ravishingly beautiful and vital as the first day we met. She smiled at me and reached out a hand tenderly, as if to touch my face. Moses was still staring out at the sea.
“Moses,” she cried, look not upon the waters, but upon me!”
The prophet turned and saw her. It took a moment for her identity to register, then his eyes narrowed in disbelief. And fear.
“Why do you fear me, Moses?” Suhad asked. “Do you not seek divine intervention? Do you not delve into other worlds? Did I not assist you in Pi-Ramses? Now again, your salvation stands before you. Fear me not.”
“I only deal with Yaweh,” he growled. “Not an unexplained apparition from the past.”
“Yaweh often sleeps. He is not perfect in his powers, as you would like. Come, let us see what can be done.”
“He told me he would part the seas before my feet.”
“He’s thinking twice about that. Do you know what sedimentary mud is? Believe me, it would be a train wreck.”
“What’s a train?”
“Never mind. There’s got to be a better way.” Suhad closed her eyes. “You have about a million Jews on the beach right now, with another two million on the way. Let’s get the first group moving, then deal with the rest.” Her voice grew austere and irresistible.
“Aaron! Have your tribal chiefs cordon off the flow of people from the wadi. Tell everyone we’ll be right back.”
“We’ll be right back?”
“Yes. Go now! Timing is critical!” Aaron sprinted off obediently. Moses looked morose. As she waited for her orders to be executed, Suhad closed her eyes and fell into a meditation. Perhaps 30 minutes passed. I myself felt plunged into a kind of paralysis, and so, it seemed, had everyone around me. Suddenly, the ground beneath our feet shook and shifted so that we nearly fell. As the rocking continued, faint cries arose from where the wadi opened onto the beach. “The ocean comes! We are cut off from the land.” And as the moments passed, we grasped what Suhad had done. The entire beach, all of eight square miles of Nuweiba, was floating upon the waters of the Gulf! Cries of terror and astonishment rose from the immense throng. The ocean sped past us and soon it became clear the mountains of Midian were drawing closer.
“A couple more trips and we’ll have it done,” Suhad smiled. “This way, everyone keeps their feet dry. They can even sit down! No walking needed.”
“But it’s all sand!” Moses cried. “Won’t it dissolve?”
“First you want Yaweh to move the ocean out of your way, now you’re worried about your sand-island dissolving. Where’s the logic in that? Look, don’t worry about the physics.”
“Moses, why don’t you go write some laws.”
Moses grimaced but appeared to relax. Suhad turned and her eyes fell softly upon mine. “Awshalim! How have you been? Feel this breeze! Does it remind you of our voyage on the Nile, you know, so long ago? I smiled at the memory but remained speechless in her presence. “So what are you doing this evening, after the crossing of the Red Sea? Have you brought a tent or something?”
“No. I had a horse but… no, there’s no tent.”
She moved closer to me. “Maybe Moses can arrange one,” she whispered. “Can you still…?” And there, on an eight square-mile sand-ferry plowing through the Gulf of Aqaba, something stirred sweetly within me.
“In your presence, mysterious lady, anything is possible. Just don’t disappear on me like last time.”
“Oh, I was a mess back in Pithom. No time to primp.” Moses seemed oblivious of us, scanning the approaching coast as Suhad grazed seductively against me from time to time. At first, I too worried about the sea eroding our Nuweiba ferry, but when the thought crossed my mind, Suhad dug her elbow into my ribs, and I remembered she could read my thoughts. Now and then I looked back at our vast seaborne multitude. Just one million, I thought. Two extra square yards each. The Israelites had been bumped up to business class.
We approached Midian. Happily, the mountains did not lie close to the shore, rather a sloping, sandy incline stretched about a mile toward their foothills. So there would be room for the multitudes, more than on the western shore. Nuweiba began to shudder as it reached the shallows. Instinctively, those standing fell to their knees to steady themselves. The island lurched roughly, but drove farther onto the shore, until there was no water between it and the land, like a World War II landing craft, but one the length of Manhattan. Efforts were made to urge an orderly disembarkation from the sand-ferry, and the great host, elated, cheering, moved ashore in an orderly way. It only took three hours. When the last families had departed, I looked at Suhad.
“No, Awshalim, I cannot turn this thing around. I’ll have to back it up.” Which she did. Aaron remained with the first million, while Moses and many other tribal chiefs remained aboard for the next two crossings.
But the last one was not without its terrors, for Yaweh (apparently still handling Ramses Management and Control) had extinguished his Pillows of Fire, allowing the Egyptian army to clatter through the canyons and approach Nuweiba, just as the last stragglers were boarding for the final voyage. Nuweiba was only yards from the shore when Ramses arrived, and many chariots charged into the sea trying to reach the Jews and slaughter them. None succeeded, but many drowned, which may explain the reports of corroded chariot wheels found there three millennia later.
But don’t rely on the claims of self-promoting Biblical evangelists. You need only look at the satellite map of the Gulf. The huge dent where Suhad thrice crashed Nuweiba into the eastern shore is clearly visible.
It was late that night when the third crossing ended. “It was not as dramatic as a parting of the seas,” Suhad murmured, “but it worked for me.” As we stood on the eastern shore, she closed her eyes again and Nuweiba, now looking forlorn without its Jews, obediently tore itself away and headed back across the Red Sea to dock in its rightful place.
“And Ramses army wasn’t destroyed,” I observed.
“I hate mass slaughter. Live and let live, I always say. The Egyptians aren’t so bad. Some of my best friends are Egyptians.”
“You are Egyptian, Suhad.”
“That’s right! I forgot. I’m so very tired.”
“You had a busy day, that’s for sure. Now you follow me for a change.” I led her away from the shore through the immense crowd. Everywhere, men, women and children were quietly settling in for the night. But one place bearing a big sign, “Jacob and Sons, Blankets and Tent Rentals,” was full of activity. After an hour, we got to the head of the line.
“I need a tent and a blanket,” I said.
“You came to the right place. But I don’t sell figs.”
“Tonight, I don’t need a fig.”
“You want a single or double?” he said, glancing at Suhad.
“This one is very popular, sand-colored, blends well.”
“I’ll take it. And that dark green blanket.”
“An excellent choice. Two debens please.”
“That’s pretty steep for one night.”
“No, that’s for one decade. I hear we could be wandering around in the desert for a while.”
“That’s a very reasonable price then.”
“I’m a reasonable man.”
I paid Jacob and we found a place to squeeze in between a tent and a sheep. As soon as we lay down together, my body pulsed with excitement, but Suhad turned to me with a sad face.
“Could we just go to sleep, Legion? I have a headache.”
I sighed. “Of course. You moved mountains today.”
“No it was a beach.”
“I know, I’m using mountain as a metaphor.”
“Good night, Legion. We might get another chance later.”
When I awoke in the morning, of course, she was gone.
 The idea that the Jews simply crossed the shallow wetlands at the tip of the Gulf of Suez and turned south makes improbable the drowning of Ramses’ armies. And the notion that Mt. Sinai lay at the southern tip of the peninsula is based on the psychic conjectures of the mother of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century and is without archaeological support. It is however possible to infer from Biblical references that the Israelites passed directly east across the Sinai peninsula and turned south as they approached the Gulf of Aqaba. They would have moved into mountain country then and, through its circuitous wadi (canyons) reached the sea.