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The Bible & History: Exodus (Part 1)

The book of Exodus (Greek word for departure) begins a story that will continue into the next three books of the Bible. It is an epic tale that tells the story of how Israel became a nation and how it received its divine laws. Here we learn of Moses, the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God’s revelation of the Law, the 40 wandering years in the wilderness, and eventually the emergence of Israel into Canaan (as told in the book of Joshua). Put together, all of these successive events are crucial to Jewish faith and its understanding of the national history of Israel. The stories seem even more firmly grounded in history than the story of the patriarchs does. But how much of it is really history?

The Infancy Narrative

Exodus begins by noting that the descendants of Joseph, living in Egypt, had become large and numerous, such that “the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1:7Open Link in New Window). This prompted the Pharaoh at the time to oppress them with hard labor and make their “lives bitter.” They continued to multiply, so the Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn Hebrew baby boys but spare all baby girls. The midwives refused to kill any children, so the Pharaoh finally orders all of Egypt to help drown all male Hebrew babies by throwing them into the Nile River:

“Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live’” (Ex. 1:22Open Link in New Window).

The Finding of MosesThe Pharaoh’s insistence on killing all male Hebrew babies doesn’t seem to fit with what he was trying to accomplish. If the intent of killing children was to limit the Hebrew population, it might make more sense if the Egyptians killed all Hebrew children in general, regardless of their gender. Yet at the same time, the killing of all male babies or children is not an uncommon mythical pattern. The story of King Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus as an infant in the gospel of Matthew follows it. The same pattern can be found in the Hindu birth story of Krishna, one of Hinduism’s trinity of major deities. In that story, King Kansa tries to kill Krishna by ordering the slaughter of all males born on the same day as Krishna, but his foster father flees with him across the Jumna river, where they eventually escape. The tenth plague of the Exodus, in which all male first born children in Egypt are killed, of course, also follows a variation of this pattern.

Meanwhile, a Levite woman gives birth to a son and literally sees “that he was good,” which alludes to the creation story in Genesis 1Open Link in New Window. The mother attempts to hide him for three months, but when she sees that she can no longer hide him, she places him in a watertight basket and sets him adrift in the Nile. Here she literally places the child “among the reeds on the bank of the river,” possibly another allusion, this time to the forthcoming passage of the Israelites through the Reed Sea. There he is discovered by an Egyptian princess, given the name Moses, and eventually raised in the royal court. In fact, this entire sequence seems to be metaphoric for the experiences of the Hebrews in general. Just as Moses is born and receives maternal care, goes through an experience that threatens his life, and then is rescued from the brink of defeat, the Hebrews were brought into existence through the patriarchal tales found in Genesis, become slaves in Egypt which threatens their existence, and then are rescued from the brink of defeat by Moses himself. In this way, Moses’ birth narrative also foreshadows what will eventually happen.

Sargon I of AkkadThe story, however, has significant parallels with the legendary infancy story of the Akkadian ruler Sargon I, who lived some 1000 years before Moses. The legend says that Sargon was born in secrecy to a “lowly” woman and that he did not know his father. This suggests that his birth was illegitimate. His mother places the baby in a pitch sealed basket, made of reeds, and floats him down the Euphrates River. There he is picked up by a poor gardener, or “irrigator”, named Akki who raises him as his own son. Sargon went on to found the first Mesopotamian Empire, ruling from about 2335-2279 BCE. This story was found on Babylonian tablets that date to the same time period as the monarchies of Israel and Judah. The fact that both Moses’ mother and Sargon’s mother use pitch to seal the baskets is of particular interest, since pitch was readily found in Mesopotamia but not in the Nile Valley.

This detail may suggest that the author of the infancy narrative of Moses was writing in Mesopotamia or was intimately familiar with the narrative of Sargon I (or perhaps both). The oldest surviving copies of the Sargon legend come from the Neo-Assyrian age during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. It’s possible that the legend was recorded for Assyrian king Sargon II, who took his name from his Akkadian counterpart. Sargon II ruled from 721-705 BCE, so Exodus 2Open Link in New Window and the Sargon legend could possibly come from the same century. Yet, it seems far more likely that the legend itself is much earlier, dating sometime from the Akkadian Empire (c.2240 BCE).

The Name ‘Moses’

The name “Moses” is actually the Greek form of the Hebrew name Mosheh. Since the Greek alphabet does not have a letter for the “sh” sound, it is merely substituted with an “s”. Greek names almost always end in an “s”, so we are left with “Moses”. Mosheh is similar to the Hebrew mashah, which means “to draw out.” Thus, the Bible states that “She named him Moses, saying, ‘I drew him out of the water’” (Ex. 2:8Open Link in New Window). In the context of Exodus, this could be perceived as having a double meaning – just as Moses is drawn out of the water, Moses draws the Hebrew people out of Egypt later in the story. Of course, it isn’t very likely that an Egyptian princess would look to Hebrew for a name, so the Bible’s explanation is not that convincing. Nevertheless, “Moses” actually means “son” or “born” in Egyptian. Thus, Thutmose would mean “son of Thoth” or “born of Thoth” (or possibly Thoth is born), and Ptahmose would likewise mean “son of Ptah” or the equivalents, both Thoth and Ptah being Egyptian gods. This naming convention was common during the New Kingdom and later, however, “Moses” being stripped of the divine reference, was not.

Moses Flees Egypt

Exodus contains no narratives of Moses’ childhood. Instead, it picks up after he has grown up and is walking outside when he notices an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He stealthily looks around and when he doesn’t see anyone, he kills the Egyptian and hides the body in the sand. This potentially embarrassing episode of immoral outrage provides the reason why Moses suddenly flees Egypt—the Pharaoh finds out and seeks to kill him. Moses flees to the land of Midian where he meets the seven daughters of the Midianite priest, Reuel (“friend of God”), at a well. This event is, curiously, another instance of a recurring typological motif in the first few books of the Bible that involves a meeting at a well. When Abraham sends his servant to fetch a wife for Isaac, he meets Rebekah at a well near Haran. Jacob meets Rachel at a well later in the same region. Even more symbolically, Tamar meets Judah by the entrance to Enaim, which means “twin wells”, and eventually gives birth to twins. Moses meets his wife Zipporah (“swallow” or “bird”) at the well in Midian. Wells are symbols of life and fertility, and seem to be used here as a literary convention that might indicate that the author wants to stress that divine powers are at work.

Moses makes his way over to Mount Horeb (also referred to as Mount Sinai) where he sees a bush burning but not being consumed. The “burning bush” episode is God’s first theophany (or divine manifestation) at Horeb and anticipates His much grander theophany to Moses later (and all of Israel) in Exodus 19:18Open Link in New Window. In the Hebrew Bible, fire is often a form of the divine appearance. God literally calls out to Moses from the bush and asks him to return to Egypt and deliver the Israelites from slavery:

“The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Moses, after some protest, meets his brother Aaron and they make their way back to Egypt.

Mount SinaiAs mentioned, Yahweh’s much grander theophany occurs at the top of Mount Sinai/Horeb, where He appears to Moses (and indirectly, all of Israel) for a second time. Is this a very important historical detail, or is there any other significance to Yahweh appearing on top of a mountain? Indeed, there is. The ancient belief, particularly amongst cultures found in the Near East, was that heaven is a place that is physically located above the sky (or firmament).

This belief is clearly seen in the Bible’s Tower of Babel episode. Humanity is united in language and purpose, and have come together to build a tower that will reach up to heaven. This of course suggests that the authors thought that heaven was a physical location up in the sky that could be, in principle, reachable by a tower on Earth. Unsurprisingly, the ancient temples of Sumeria and Babylonia were built on high places to be closer to the gods. These temples are called ziggurats, the most famous of which are of the stepped variety, although other varieties were built. Ancient Greek temples were located in the Acropolis, or the city on high, while their pantheon of gods resided at the top of Mount Olympus. From the biblical writer’s perspective, the notion seems to be that Yahweh descends from heaven onto the Mountain, which is intermediate between heaven and Earth. The episode at Mount Sinai/Horeb is consistent with this ancient Near Eastern way of thinking. It’s important to note, as well, that the actual location of Mount Sinai/Horeb (if it exists anywhere) is completely unknown.

Go to Part 2

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This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm


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