Is Moses missing from the haggadah?

Does his supposed absence suggest that the haggadah rejects a human role in the redemption from Egypt?

What is the “Two Powers in Heaven” heresy, and what role does it play in the haggadah and its treatment of Moses?

To answer these questions and one other – was there ever an attempt to deify Moses? – we begin by searching for the allegedly missing main actor in the Exodus drama.

It is widely accepted that the haggadah attributes responsibility for the redemption from Egypt to God alone and leaves no room for a human role. Two proofs are offered:

“¢ The words of the haggadah itself: “The Lord brought us out of Egypt not by an angel, not by a seraph, not by a messenger, but by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself…”

“¢ The nearly ubiquitous belief that the traditional haggadah makes absolutely no mention of Moses.

Although the haggadah certainly downplays his role in the Exodus, the traditional text has not entirely eliminated Moses: It refers to him twice, once by name and once obliquely.

The two references to Moses are quite striking. They frame the Exodus, marking the beginning and the end of the redemption. The first comes at the close of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush – when God sets the plan in motion for redeeming the Israelites. The second comes just after the Israelites have safely crossed the Red Sea – the grand finale of the Exodus.

The rod of Moses

The first reference to Moses is indirect. “‘And by signs’: This is the rod, as it is said, ‘…And take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs'” (Exodus 4:17). The “you” here refers to Moses, because it is to him that God is speaking. This text appears in all traditional haggadot.

An overt appearance of Moses’ name occurs in the section that quotes a third-century midrash known as the M’chilta d’Rabbi Yishmael. To prove a debate point, Rabbi Yose the Galilean cites Exodus 14:31 as his proof text: “And when Israel saw the wondrous power [literally, ‘great hand’] which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” As is often the case in rabbinic literature, however, only the beginning of the biblical verse is cited; the reader’s familiarity with the full text is assumed. The full text began appearing in illuminated European haggadot from the early 14th century. Traditional renderings of the haggadah have included this single explicit mention ever since.

Claims of Moses’ complete absence from the haggadah are thus erroneous. (Where do they come from? I believe the notion derives from a comment by the Vilna Gaon and probably reflects his antipathy toward the chasidic concept of the tzaddik, the holy man, who serves as intecessor with God. In his time, chasidism was considered a major heresy.)

Now let us turn to the midrash “Not by an angel…,” the other source of the contention that the haggadah views redemption as a function of exclusively divine agency.

The haggadah begins its midrash by citing Deuteronomy 26:8: “The Lord took us out of Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.” Multiple voices then analyze the verse.

[A] “The Lord took us out of Egypt not by an angel, not by a seraph, not by a messenger, but by the Holy One, blessed be He, in His glory, Himself.”

[B] “As it is written: ‘I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night; I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments; I am the Lord’ (Exodus 12:12).”

[C] “I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, Myself and not an angel;

“I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, myself and not a seraph;

“On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments, Myself and not the messenger;

“I am the Lord, I and none other.”

A heresy challenged

While this midrash remains silent on the question of a human role in the redemption, it denies a role in the last plague to supernatural beings aside from God. In fact, the most ancient layer of the haggadah’s midrash is a polemic against the ancient and not often discussed “Two Powers in Heaven” heresy.

The midrash evolved over a long period of time, with all but the last word of paragraph A constituting the oldest layer of the midrash and the elaboration on Exodus 12:12 (C) apparently representing the youngest layer.

Probing beneath the surface reveals a competing scriptural narrative in which God’s agency seems far from exclusive. In Exodus, we learn that God “heeded their outcry” and says, “I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land….” (3:7-8)

Numbers 20:16 states that “He sent a messenger who freed us [literally, ‘took us out’] from Egypt.”

With regard to the last plague, we read: “For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the destroyer (ha-mashchit) enter and smite your home” (Exodus 12:23). (The problem is only compounded elsewhere in the Tanach, such as in Judges 2:1, where an “angel of the Lord” seems to be saying, “I brought you up from Egypt and I took you into the land….” Elsewhere, God acts through the “angel of the Lord” to smite Jerusalem. In another case, God acts through the same figure to rescue the besieged city.)

During and after the Second Temple period, biblical passages such as these spawned Jewish theologies and literature that told the story of the Exodus in ways that vastly differed from that eventually adopted by the haggadah. Thus, for example, the late second century BCE Book of Jubilees (49:2) ascribes the last plague to the prince of Mastema (literally, the prince of “enmity”), a quasi-independent supernatural being and object of human worship to whom God had given special powers over humanity. The Angel of the Presence and his colleagues intervene at key points to rescue the Israelites from the evil Mastema and the Egyptians.

In the view of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, a 3rd-century sage, “When the Holy One came to take Israel out of Egypt, He did not send a messenger or an angel, but He Himself came, as it is written, ‘And I will pass through the land of Egypt…’ (Exodus 12.12), He and his entire staff (of angels).”

Rabbinic polemic

These are some of the ambient theological notions to which it seems the haggadah takes umbrage. More specifically, the oldest layer of our midrash – “not by an angel, not by a seraph, not by a messenger” – belongs to a genre of rabbinic polemic against the heresy known as the “Two Powers in Heaven” (sh’tei reishuyot ba-shamayim).

In briefest terms, the heresy involved a theology affirming the existence of two independent divine actors, a heresy alluded to in rabbinic texts from the first seven centuries of the Common Era, the period when the oldest layer of this midrash developed. Although the targets of rabbinic polemics are rarely explicit, most scholars agree that they included certain circles of Jews, Samaritans, Gnostics and especially Jewish-Christians and, subsequently, gentile Christians.

The debate revolved around whether One or Two Powers were involved in biblical accounts of creation and revelation and, to a lesser extent, in the redemption from Egypt. Because it was feared that speculation about the nature and characteristics of angelic mediators could lead to the belief in Two Powers, the rabbis forcefully argued against any such mediation in the pivotal moments of God’s relationship with Israel.

It was fine to talk about angels, but not, for example, to assign them responsibility for the Exodus. Most texts addressing this heresy appear in midrashic exegesis of scripture, but some pertain to “unorthodox” liturgical formulations that were seen as implying that God was only responsible for the good in the world, while some other being caused suffering.

The M’chilta provides an important example of an explicit refutation of the Two Powers Heresy in connection with the Exodus:

“I am the Lord your God (Exodus 20:2).Why is it said? For this reason. At the sea He appeared to them as a mighty hero doing battle, as it is said, The Lord is a man of war (Exodus 15:3). At Sinai He appeared to them as an old man full of mercy….Scripture, therefore, would not let the nations of the world have an excuse for saying that there are Two Powers, but declares: I am the Lord your God. I am He (ani hu) who was in Egypt and I am He who was at the sea. I am He who was at Sinai. I am He who was in the past and I will be in the future. I am He who is in this world and I am He who will be in the world to come. As it is said, See, then, that I, I am He; there is no god beside Me….”

Moses a god?

This midrash takes up the question of whether the two different descriptions of God – at the Red Sea as the youthful warrior and at Sinai as the old man full of mercy – constitute evidence of Two Powers. It rejects the idea, implying that these differences simply reflect two aspects of a single divinity.

(The Babylonian Talmud includes another important illustration of Two Powers thinking in connection with the role of angels. See BT Sanhedrin 38b.)

Now we return to Moses.

Given his prominence in the biblical exodus, the haggadah’s minimization of Moses is best understood against the backdrop of this heresy and to the existence – beyond and within Judaism – of tendencies to deify Moses. The Bible supplies fertile soil for tendencies to deify Moses. Exodus itself (4:16 and 7:1) intriguingly refers to Moses as playing the role of God (Elohim) to Aaron and to Pharaoh.

At a time when nascent Christianity was constructing a religion that revolved around Jesus as a divine redeeming intermediary, the haggadah emphasized redemption through an unmediated relationship between God and humanity.

The status of Moses also was one of the issues of debate in the long-simmering conflict with the Samaritans, a sect that not only revered Moses as God’s only true prophet, but elevated him to an almost God-like position: Moses served as humanity’s intercessor before God and in the future would return to bring the final redemption.

Earlier Jewish sources reflect a similar tendency. “The Wisdom of Sirach” (45:2), written by a Jew in the second century BCE, says that God “made [Moses] equal in glory to the holy ones,” meaning the angels. Philo writes of a partnership between God and Moses that seems to blur the distinction between humanity and divinity.

Later midrashic sources also preserve ancient Jewish notions about Moses’ divinity. “Tanna Debe Eliyyahu,” in a comment on II Samuel 7:23, actually refers to Moses and Aaron as “divine beings.”

To sum up, the haggadah downplays Moses not because it subscribes to a theology in which human beings play no part in the Exodus, but as a precaution against tendencies to deify Moses. A variety of midrashim reflect the same concern when they stress Moses’ personal limitations. Summarizing these midrashic traditions, Judah Goldin concludes that “all [the sages] took great precautions in their interpretations, lest the figure of Moses be magnified beyond human proportions.”

Indeed Midrash Lekah Tov asks why the grave of Moses remains unknown and answers flatly, “so that Israel would not go there and put up a Temple and make sacrifices and offer incense.”

Partnering with God

To those who would deify Moses, the haggadah offers a sharp rebuke. Their quasi-divine hero almost disappears from the story. For those searching for the role in the redemption played by human beings, however, the haggadah offers subtle, but affirmative support.

Whatever miraculous properties the staff of Moses may have possessed, it did not walk into Pharaoh’s palace on its own. God chose a human being to bring it there. God and humanity share responsibility for redeeming the world. Moses’ staff in the haggadah reminds us of the unique role in redemptive process that we each hold in our hands. The question is whether we can overcome the reluctance, as Moses eventually did, to fully embrace the work.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The destiny of man is to be a partner of God….Every man is called upon to be a redeemer, and redemption takes place every moment, every day….The world is in need of redemption, but the redemption must not be expected to happen as an act of sheer grace. Man’s task is to make the world worthy of redemption. His faith and his works are preparations for ultimate redemption.”

The redemption from Egypt was no different. And if we use the haggadah to teach our children that redemption – then and now – depends on God and humanity, dayeinu!