I've just finished reading "Meribah," a short, remarkable and eminently-readable novel based on one of the most consequential events (or non-events) in all of human history: the Exodus. The escape of the ancient Jews from slavery in Egypt, and their subsequent 40 years of wandering in the desert, makes for one of the most spectacular stories ever told. A measure of its continuing popularity is that the 1956 movie version, "The Ten Commandments," has been played on nationwide television around Passover and Easter for the past 39 years. This April, as usual, the film overwhelmingly won its five-hour time slot.
In fact, the Exodus may be nothing more than one awesomely tall tale. Archeologists -- Israelis as well as Egyptians and others -- have searched but failed for decades to find a shred of evidence that the Jews were, in fact, slaves in Egypt when the Exodus is supposed to have taken place, around 1200 B.C.E., or that several million of them ever made the storied trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. However, the tall tale possibility is no part of this latest retelling of the Exodus story, written by Arthur Mokin, a documentary filmmaker with a keen interest in key questions raised by biblical Judaism and a lovely way with words. Like any novelist, Mokin has invented some characters and taken some liberties with the Exodus tale. But he vows he stayed exceptionally faithful to the scriptural version "with the Bible at my side."
"Meribah" is a love story set in the wider Exodus narrative. A young Egyptian falls in love with the Hebrew slave woman Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, and follows her and the Jewish people as they flee Egypt for their 40-year journey through the wilderness to the borders of the Promised Land, as told in the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The love story centers around the persistent efforts of the Egyptian and the Jewess to overcome the daunting obstacles to their union. Their romance is anything but a bodice-ripper. It's not exactly a page-turner either, but it does serve effectively to move the narrative along.
What's important is that "Meribah" is much more than a love story. It's a fascinating meditation on great questions of morality and religion, some first confronted by Judaism, and others by different faiths. Examples of such questions abound in the Exodus. Such as how can a just, merciful and loving God commit the mass murder of thousands of his chosen people, as well as others, often for such temporary crimes as cowardice and lustfulness, as well as for more serious felonies like rank disloyalty and habitual rebelliousness?
The God of the Hebrew Bible can be a frightening presence. He twice threatens to annihilate the Jewish people for their idol worship and debauchery, first at Sinai for worshipping the golden calf, and four decades later on the doorstep of the Promised Land. Moses manages to talk God out of both disastrous threats. But that doesn't stop Moses himself from ordering the slaying of 3,000 idol worshippers, as their screaming, terror-stricken friends and relatives look on, in the first instance. Or God from calling down a plague on the Jews that brings agonizing death to 24,000 of his people, in the second case. The Egyptian, who views these horrifying actions as a more objective outsider, can only ask: "What kind of man acting for what kind of god can wreak such vengeance?"
And how can God's omnipotence be reconciled with man's free will? This comes up in a thought-provoking discussion that begins with the young Egyptian asking Miriam: "Have you no thought for the drowned young men" of Pharaoh's army? "They were bent on evil," she replies. "They were following their king," he points out. "A soldier has little choice." Miriam then argues that Pharaoh himself had no choice about changing his mind and pursuing the Jews, despite his promise to set them free, because "[t]he Lord God hardened his heart." So much for the great Pharaoh's free will.
When the angry Egyptian argues back that "[t]here is no reason, no justice, no mercy" in a God who makes men defiant "and then visits his wrath on them because of their defiance," the best she can answer is: "There is only His reason, His justice, His mercy." God's ways, in other words, are beyond human understanding.
Later, the Egyptian presses Aaron on free will. God "has given Israel free will," the high priest explains. "That is the corollary of being chosen." To which the Egyptian replies: "I infer that the same freedom of choice does not extend to other people -- Egyptians -- for example." Aaron answers: "God has made no covenant with Egypt," adding, "Perhaps you are to be congratulated." But aside from asserting whatever Jewish superiority comes from a special relationship with the Almighty, and the unique and terrible responsibility that comes with it, the author of "Meribah" finds no answers to such cosmic questions in the Exodus story. Nor does he attempt to answer them himself. I was delighted that he brought them up, and gave them a good, rounded discussion.
The Hebrew word Meribah means quarreling. Meribah was the name of a Biblical spring, one of the many places where the fleeing Jews hotly disputed with Moses -- and through him, with God. The Chosen People's quarrel with the Almighty is a constant theme of this novel, as it is of the Exodus, the Bible and all of Jewish history. As Moses reminds them, the Jews had been "rebelling against the Lord since the day I became acquainted with you." That historic struggle between God and man, so beautifully depicted in Mokin's retelling of the Exodus, is what I like best about the book, which is available from Amazon. The author has Moses sum up the novel's meaning by explaining: "Israel's destiny is written in his name: 'Who striveth with God,'" referring to the Hebrew meaning of the word Israel. "That is our fate and that is our light and our legacy to the nations."
And after more than 3,000 years, so it remains. "Meribah" is a wonderful reminder of how a vital part of it began.