Scene: c. 1338 BCE. A Desert campfire, shortly after the Splitting of the Reed Sea. Three men sit around, sharing a flask of honey-mead liquor: one, a Stranger; Elazar, a Hebrew, and son of Moses; Hotep, an Egyptian. Elazar the Hebrew speaks.
Could I beg another drink of your mead, Stranger? Ah! That warms both body and soul. I thank you for your hospitality on this cold wilderness night; your fire is excellent for keeping back both jackals and wolves in both animal and human form—not that we cannot protect ourselves. Who are we? My name is Elazar, and I am a Hebrew; my boon companion here is Hotep, an Egyptian; my God Shaddai, and his god, Ra, brought us together to protect each other, here in this vast wilderness, through which we wander.
How do we get by? Oh, scrounging, we call it: hunting a lost rabbit here, trapping a stray quail there…. Sometimes, if we come upon a desert caravan—Ishmaelites, Girgashites, or the like—we cover our faces with our hoods and “attach” ourselves to them, usually after the sun has set, pretending to be camelskinners, and manage to steal away in the night, with a well-laden camel or donkey or two—ha!
No, you needn’t fear that we will steal from you: we are bulging with loot from our last camelskinning venture, and will not touch your goods. Besides, I can see the gleam of a bronze dagger on your belt, a rounded, sharpened copper scimitar in a sheath on your back, and a well-worn, rounded shield hanging from your camel’s saddle—I know my limits, and Friend Hotep behind me—yes, he sits behind me; we look out for one another—cannot match all that weaponry. All I carry is a two-finger-long knife and a sling; all he has is the ability to wrestle a man, which he learned back in Egypt, his native land, where he trained as a Shalish, the archer-spearman in a chariot, in the Royal Egyptian Cavalry, “Wings of Horus, Hawk-god Division.”
I always feel safe with Hotep around. We are each other’s best friends, and business partners, too. Share and share alike, you know. He is Egyptian, and I am Hebrew, as I told you, though with a Midianite mother.
My background? Why, who wants to know? No fear, Stranger: I will tell you. You were kind enough to give us some honey mead liquor, and such a warming drink in this cold desert night air loosens the tongue, as they say. It is hard to remember, but I recall my mother—she was dark-eyed, dark-skinned, and beautiful; her name was Zipporah. My grandfather was a fat, laughing old duffer named Jethro. He was a priest of his people, in the tribal-village of Midian. There was my brother Gershom and me—he is a wanderer now, as well: I have not seen him in years.
My father? Who? I cannot say: all I know is his name, Moses. They say he was a shepherd, and is now a miracle-worker in Egypt. What, Friend Hotep? Moses was a destroyer of Egypt? Well, you know, my dear friend, that my people have been slaves to your people for many centuries….
No: you are correct, dear Hotep: my Israelites were not slaves to your people, but to your king, your Pharaoh. That is not the same, not the same. Your people and mine were friends at one time, long ago, under the Great Vizier, Joseph of Israel. Yes. But then, this evil, enslaving, obsessively-building Pharaoh, Ramesses II, came along. After all, two peoples can and should be friends; it is only the rulers who mess things up. That is what my mother, Zipporah, taught me, when I was little….
“The stars and planets come in different sizes and colors, but they all give us light from afar,” she said. I never forgot that.
What’s that question of yours, Stranger? Where are we next going, Hotep and me? Well, we’ve been talking about it, and we’re going to split up. We each have a particular mission, and we are no longer to be living our lives of thievery. We have heard that there is a group of Egyptians who wish to try and overthrow the Pharaoh. Hotep wants to join them—with his military fighting skills, he may be of help to them.
“Why should my people be ruled by a king who enslaves others? That is not right,” he said to me.
And I thought, Can one man, one Hotep, overthrow such a king? Perhaps not: but several Hoteps, several Egyptians, trained and willing and courageous, can, perhaps.
And what of poor Elazar, I with no family, and a distant father, Moses, my father in name only? I have heard of miracles, of Nile waters turned to blood, frogs jumping through people’s houses, locusts and lice and hail destroying the mighty Egyptian Empire—and my own father, Moses, whom I cannot recall, have not seen for years, behind it all!
I am leaving my friend Hotep to his own new, life’s work, and will return to assist my father, my own Moses, to free my people. Perhaps my knowledge of this vast, mysterious wilderness, can be of some help.
And more: I have heard tell of an invisible God. I should like to meet this God, whom my ancestors worshiped. Yes. That would be a good thing, for me and my children-to-come. Well. It is night, but that is no bar to travel.
Shalom, Stranger! Shalom, Hotep! Shalom!
Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.