Bo by David Hartley Mark

Note: for the purpose of this week’s Drash/Commentary, the Reader must accept the possibility that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was the traditionally-accepted one, Ramesses II. I am positing that his son, Merneptah (who in actuality did not succeed his long-lived father until the son was in his sixties) grew up in the palace as a half-brother to Moses, and was by his embattled father, Ramesses, side during the Period of the Plagues—though there is no evidence of this in the Torah, and certainly none in Egyptian records.

Night in the Royal Egyptian Gardens of Luxor. The coolness of the palm trees and hanging plants does a great deal to refresh this man-made oasis amid the surrounding palace walls, following the heat of the day, where many cunningly-designed clay fountains, embellished with gleaming precious and semi-precious stones to reflect the moonlight, as well as mosaic tiles displaying various ritual and mythological symbols from Egyptian folklore and religion, create an exotic and mysterious atmosphere.
Crown Prince Merneptah is seated on a bench by one of the smaller fountains, watching and the multi-colored streams drip from plate to plate, from sphinx to griffin. Suddenly, he looks up, and his hand instinctively moves to the sharp bronze dagger at his belt: Moses suddenly, stealthily emerges from the space between the hanging bushes and the shorter palm trees on the periphery of the Garden. It is surely death on sight for him to be in the precincts of the Royal Egyptian Palace, since his last meeting with the Pharaoh did not end well. Moses enters cautiously, looking about, and prudently stops, about twenty feet from the man with whom he grew up, years ago, in this very Palace. He smites his right hand against his chest in military salute, as he did when he and Merneptah served together in the Royal Egyptian Military Cadet Corps, years before:

Moses: Hail, Most Royal Prince Merneptah of Egypt!

Merneptah: Well. It’s you. Can’t say I’m surprised. Are you ready to surrender?

Moses: Same old Brother of mine. Seven plagues have thus far occurred—your Mother Nile polluted, dead frogs attracting no end of disease-carrying vermin, swarms of flies and locusts eating the pitiful remains of the hailstorms my God, El-Shaddai, sent to batter you and your much-vaunted Royal Household Guard into submission, and do I hear, “Take your slave rabble and go!” or–?

Merneptah: –or stay. Stay and die with us. You know, Moses, you never were a good loser.

Moses: You mean, winner. My God says, “Winner take all.” Before the game is done, I—that is, We, my God, my People, and I—will have your Country, your whole bloody Empire, Merneptah, beneath our liberated feet. And we will depart with a Mighty Hand and an Upraised Arm.

Merneptah: Depart? Which way? And how? You’ll have no food, no provisions, not even a safe route to escape on. You Slave Rabble are notoriously poor at logistical planning. That’s why my Army has a Quartermasters’ Corps. There’s no living off the land in the Desert Wilderness, my Hebrew Half-Brother—unless you can eat sand and gobble sunlight—those are the only two things you’ll have in plenty.
What will you eat for bread? And where will you find water, if you’re constantly on the move, running away from my razor-scythed chariots, and my battle-hungry cavalry? Hmm? Have you thought that one through now, well, have you? (Pauses, but, when Moses is silent, he continues:) Moses?

Moses (slowly, choosing his words carefully): Our God has told us—me—that He makes us four promises: “And I will take you out—and I will save you from Pharaoh—and I will redeem you from Slavery—and I will take you to be My People.”

Merneptah (folding his arms, leaning back, patiently trying to explain Reality to this country dolt): M-hm. Only where, in that unspeakably dull Hebraic cavern-skull of yours, Moses, there amid the sheep and goats and donkeys and what-all You People find so much pleasure and seeming wealth in herding, did your Desert Deity stop to mention, “And I will feed you”?

(Sighs, mock-patiently)

Don’t you think, Brother Mine, that this—this—what? Invisible God of yours—might be playing a Monstrous Trick on you, to take you out, confuse you, and kill you all in the Fearsome Desert, to take you out of Egypt—this veritable Eden (I believe you call it) of Onions, Leeks, and Garlic!—how much you will hurt your People, and how much they will bellyache and moan, if you dare to remove them from our secure, comfortable Egypt, the only home they’ve known for hundreds of years?

(Merneptah rises, goes to Moses, shakes him by the shoulders)

Think, Moses, think! Oh, why am I wasting my breath on you, you unspeakable dullard?

(Merneptah pushes Moses away in disgust: Moses falls to his knees. Merneptah walks to the far corner of the Royal Gardens. The sky darkens.)

Moses (losing faith, doubting himself, beginning to stutter): But w-we are s-slaves h-here; we m-must leave; G-God has promised us f-f-freed….

(A crack of lightning splits the sky. A roll of thunder follows. Merneptah sighs, looks up.)

Merneptah: Oh, drat. More hail? (Leans back, calls out to the Heavens, in mockery:) Really, El-Shaddai, or Whatever Your Name is, Hebrew Invisible God. This is too much. My Papa, The Lord High Pharaoh-god, won’t be happy about this, I can tell You.

(Again, he reaches for his dagger, half-draws it, looks through slitted eyes at Moses, up at the darkening sky, thinks again, slides the knife back into its sheath. He sighs)

Well. Let’s negotiate then, shall we, Brother—I mean, Half-Brother—Moses? I will speak for my papa-god, you, yours. Suppose we reduce—yes, that’s it: cut back on working hours for you people. Perhaps I can convince you to stay here, after all. Life in Egypt hasn’t been all bad, you know. You remember. You were a prince here, Moses. Once upon a time—weren’t you?

(Moses nods, as if in a trance. Merneptah smiles. He takes a piece of papyrus and a stylus off a low desk, and begins to calculate)

Step One: increase the slaves’—I mean, workers’—food supply. We are about halfway through that big storehouse at Karnak—if your mud-and-straw-brick-roasters can just step up their number of bricks by—(does a quick calculation) about half again, we might be able to finish the entire treasure-city by early fall, just around the time that the barley-harvest is coming in—which means beer for both master and s—um, worker, doing a great deal to ease the pain of construction. (Merneptah thinks, tapping his teeth with the wooden stylus) Tell you what: I can’t promise anything, but on my say-so to Papa, you might possibly be crowned King of the Hebrews, around the same time that Papa is planning on making me Military Governor of Goshen District, where your Hebrews live.
What do you say?

Moses: I, I….

(Another clap of thunder; the sky is now completely dark, and great drops of rain begin to fall)

Merneptah: Here: come see what a sweet deal I’m offering you.

(Shows Moses the papyrus calculations, putting a friendly arm around his shoulders)

I’ve just about figured the rough numbers. If you and I, perhaps your brother Aaron—I’ve always respected Aaron; he’s a calm fellow, not one of those young hotheads, like your Joshua—and perhaps one of my ace planners—that young scribe Nety, say; he’s got a good head on his shoulders—could come up with a decent five-year-plan that was a win-win, something I could bring before the Royal Privy Council, just to hush up all of this plaguey business, get our slaves—I mean, Workforce back, contented and quiet, why, then, once I’m secure as Governor of Goshen and Environs, I could possibly see my way to making you the first Egyptian Hebrew Ethnarch we’ve had since what’s-his-name—Joseph, that Tsafnat-Paanayach fellow you hold in such repute.
Again, Moses: the choice is yours.

(Shadows are darkening across the Garden. Softly but persistently, cries are heard from a distance, across Egypt—the cries of children, and women, as if bereft. Moses hears, and smiles grimly. Merneptah may hear, but he chooses to ignore them)

Moses? Moses? Just come a little closer, read, and sign! By Osiris’s beard, I command you, sign!

(Moses holds back, clutching his shepherd’s crook a little tighter; he cannot speak; his stutter has overpowered him, but he moves back, toward the shadows)

What are you afraid of, Fool? It’s just an informal Memo—nothing binding about it—come here and sign, Moses…where are you going?
Moses! I—I—command you, as your Brother—No! As your Most Royal Prince, Sub-Pharaoh, and Liege Lord, I order you to submit to my Proposal—No, No!—to my Royal Decision!—Say yes, you, you—Traitor! You Hebrew scum, you—

(Suddenly, loud voices; Soldiers and Servants bearing torches enter and illuminate the scene: Messengers have entered, first among them, Nety, the Scribe, in full military rig)

Nety (saluting, arm-on-chest, which Merneptah returns): My Lord Prince Merneptah! The God-King Pharaoh Ramesses commands that you join us and our Royal Bodyguard, sent to guard you from Evil Spirits which are afoot in this Dark Infernal Night—for a Strange and Mysterious Plague, sent doubtless by that Hebrew God, El-Shaddai, is abroad in our Land—the Worst, and Most Evil Plague of All. The first-born, My Prince—the First-Born, as well as all our Egyptian boys, dead when the shadow of this horrific Hebraic God passed over them—

Merneptah (gripping Nety by the arm): What, my boy, too? My son, Seti?

Nety (bursting into tears): Yes, Milord Prince: the young Princeling Seti is dead, lies dead, dead….

Merneptah (turning to Moses, drawing and throwing his dagger, which thunks into a palm tree): Damn you to the Infernal Pit, Moses! Damn you for the Death of my son, my innocent Seti! Where are you?

(He begins to sob, and falls to his knees)

(Moses is gone, vanished. Soon, from the Dark, come the Triumphant Voices of the Liberated Israelites, beginning their Preparations for the Exodus, baking Matzote, packing their bags to leave Egypt after 400 years. Their singing and rejoicing cannot drown out the tears and crying of their erstwhile neighbors, once their jailers, now their victims, the Egyptians….)

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.

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