To turn a nation, linked largely by common lineage and descent, into a people with distinctive mores and a defined way of life, the Israelites must share not merely a set of ancestors but also a people-making history. Specifically, they must be collectively transformed by a special set of shared political and cultural experiences. They must first experience enslavement and loss of all worldly power. They must then be emancipated and liberated against all odds, yet in a manner that obliges the slaves to declare their willingness to be freed. And their former masters – the world’s greatest civilization – must be brought to bear witness to the superiority of the God of Israel and the insufficiency of relying solely on human wisdom and power.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.663
The last chapter of Genesis begins with the burial of Jacob at Machpelah and ends with the mummification of Joseph in Egypt. The contrast between burial and embalming/mummification reveals a crucial difference between Israel and Egypt: the difference between the acceptance and the denial or defiance of death. Embalming the body is an attempt at human control after death. The putative beneficiary of the treatment is the deceased: embalming resists time and change, prevents decay, beautifies the body, and prepares for reanimation and continued life – not to say immortality. Burial accepts that we are “dust to dust.” It manifests a different attitude toward the body and its fragile beauty, toward time and finitude and memory, and toward the source of life and the (im)possibility of apotheosis. Burial, the Israelite way, lies between the extremes of revering the body and worshipping the dead, on the one hand, and condemning the body and ignoring the mortal remains, on the other. The way of Israel is the way of memory, keeping alive not the bodies of the dead but their ever-living legacy in relation to the ever-living God, who in the beginning created heaven and earth and made man alone in His own image, and who later summoned Father Abraham and his descendants to “walk before me and be wholehearted.”
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.658
Earlier we learned that the Egyptians abominate eating with the Hebrews (43:32), perhaps because they eat lamb. And much later, Moses will refuse Pharaoh’s permission to “sacrifice to your God in the land,” because “we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians [most likely, sheep] to the Lord our God; lo, if we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (Exodus 8:21-22). The Egyptians abominate what the Hebrews eat, how they gain their livelihood from animals, and what they choose to sacrifice to their God. From extrabiblical sources, we learn that the Egyptians are well known for their worship of certain animals. Accordingly, they may regard the Israelite assumption of human superiority over the animal world as an abomination, a deep violation of Egyptian belief in the unity (or at least the interchangeability) of man, nature, and the divine. The Egyptians, on this interpretation, abominate those who make too much of the difference of man.
Abominable or loathsome are those sexual practices said to be characteristic of the land of Egypt behind and the land of Canaan before: incest (Leviticus 18:6-18), male homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). Abominable too are child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:9-10) and, most especially, idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:25-26), as well as the related practices of divination, soothsaying, augury, and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). In short, abominable in Israel are those activities that deny or efface the fundamental distinctions of creation: child sacrifice, which make a child into an animal; bestiality, which makes an animal into a human being; homosexual sodomy, which makes a man into a woman; and idolatry, which makes an animal or a man or some other creature or object into a god. For the Israelite way, with its view that man – and man alone – carries the divine image, failure to see the superiority of man vis-à-vis the animals is necessarily connected with failure properly to apprehend that which is truly divine. Setting itself in direct opposition to Egyptian (and Canaanite) ways, Israel eventually will separate itself by loathing the chaos-inducing denial of the importance of separation itself.
Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.625
[The Children of Israel are] defined in part by remembrance of things past and in part by anticipation of things to come. They remember especially God’s promise to and covenant with Abraham. They anticipate especially the fulfillment of God’s promise and the obligation to perpetuate the memory of the covenant into future generations. Speaking more generally, we may say that the Children of Israel, by looking forward to perpetuate the merit and ways of the ancestors, choose to live with full awareness of time and with full acceptance of change and unavoidable decay. The children of the new way are enjoined to embrace the temporality of human existence because their attachment to the timelessness of God and the permanence of His promised care, which He works out in human affairs in the course of human time.
Not so in Egypt… Egypt, at least in its public and official teachings, is the place that seeks to abolish change and to make time stand still. To be sure, Egyptians have accurate measures of time and a precise calendar, but they use them to manage or to stay ahead of natural change – in the first instance, to predict and manage the flooding of the Nile. What the Egyptians seek is changelessness, agelessness, permanent presence, or eternal return and renewal. Whether one looks to the hieroglyph in which the mobile world is represented is static ideograms; or to the worship of the eternally circling but never-changing heavenly bodies or of the cyclically rising and ebbing river, with is life-giving overflows; or to the practices of denying aging through bodily adornment and defying death through mummification and preparation for reincarnation – everywhere one looks, one sees in Egypt the rejection of change and the denial of death. Ancient Egypt is poles apart from Ancient Israel.
Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom p.556