Another Pharaoh had a heart of
Worked God’s people to the bone. Alleluia.
He should’ve listened to Moses’ plan. Alleluia.
Ten plagues later he’s a wiser man. Alleluia.
Across the sea on a bed of sand, Alleluia.
Forty years to the Promised Land. Alleluia.
With manna and quail to eat their fill. Alleluia.
And tablets of stone to know God’s will. Alleluia.
Question: In the story of the Exodus, who was
the only one besides Joshua of the original escapees from Egypt who
made it to the Promised Land?
Answer: Caleb. He was one of a group of spies
sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land and the only one who trusted that God
would help the Israelites conquer its inhabitants. God made the Israelites
wander 40 years, and Joshua and Caleb were the only ones to actually enter the
This is the time to think critically about the
Bible and real history. The Bible writers didn’t know history as we do, but
that doesn’t mean there’s no history at all in the Bible. It’s especially
important to examine the Exodus story for the history that it might contain
because for Jews that story is the center of the Bible. It’s the story that
more than any other interprets who they are and who God is. Israel begins with the
miraculous work of God, pulling a bunch of slaves out of Egypt,
forming them into a nation, and leading them to the Promised Land—the Exodus.
Or that’s the story. But what was the Exodus
really? Did it even happen? Is there a way to find out?
Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists
have gotten involved in the quest alongside Bible scholars. Many of them have
no connection to any biblical faith. And why shouldn’t non-believers be
interested? It’s everybody’s history. But for believers in the line of Abraham
understanding this particular history is essential. Judaism and Christianity
are “historical” faiths. They’re not just ideas about God and what’s expected
of us. Philosophy can dream that up as well. Christianity and Judaism proclaim
God’s actions in this world. They do so with stories that have developed over
more than a thousand years in a very human way in a culture very different
from ours. This makes it very hard to get at the events behind the stories, but
that there are such actual historical events is an important part of these two
unique faiths—at least when you come to such central parts of the story as the
Exodus and, for Christians, the life Jesus.
The region east of the Mediterranean Sea in the late 1200s BCE,
when the Exodus was thought to occur, was ripe for something new. The 3,500
year old Bronze Age culture had been declining slowly since about 1500 and now
was falling apart. Petty kings ruled small territories and fought with each
other over land. The land was nominally part of the Egyptian empire, so the
kings wrote letters to Pharaoh, complaining about each other and sending bribes
in return for Pharaoh’s assistance. Help never came. Those bribes meant only
that the local peasants, already burdened with the weight of a bunch of elite,
immoderately wealthy leaders and bureaucrats, had to pony up even more. Soon
the letters began speaking of rebels. They called them “Hapiru,” which might be
related to the word “Hebrew.” They were probably a lot like what we call
highwaymen. Trade, which had been rather far-ranging and efficient was
deteriorating. The Hapiru were perhaps just nails in the coffin. Eventually the
whole economy collapsed. Once-powerful myths that supported an authoritarian,
agrarian culture no longer seemed credible. A cultural and social vacuum needed
to be filled.
Israel as a country did
not exist and wouldn’t for a century or two, but the people who would become
the Israelites must have been around somewhere. The Bible tells the story of an
invasion from Egypt by
escaped slaves—hundreds of thousands or even millions wandering in the desert,
fighting battles, conquering kings and laying waste to cities on the way.
Miraculous plagues, miracles of food and water in the desert, God speaking from
a mountaintop, tablets of stone, divine punishment for idolatry that the people
kept falling back to—these things are not to be found in any archaeological
findings or historical records outside the Bible. But history can say something
about conquests and migrations of millions of Israelites—these didn’t happen.
The cities supposedly destroyed by Israelite armies didn’t even exist at the
time of the Exodus.
What did happen isn’t as dramatic or obviously
miraculous as the Bible story, but it has its own meaning. People found a way
to go on. They found new stories to tell, stories of liberation from a powerful
oppressor. The Bible’s stories present Israel’s
ancestors as nomadic sheep herders. There may have been some of those, but
nomads can’t survive on their own; they need a settled population of farmers to
deal with. The refugees from the cities and regions where economies were
collapsing had been farmers. They found new territory in previously sparsely
populated highlands and began farming again. All it took was the right kind of
leadership, maybe from some of those Hapiru brigands turned respectable. No
tyrant kings for these folks—not yet. That wouldn’t go well with the new
stories they had to tell, stories of liberation from powerful oppressors.
Egypt used slaves for forced labor,
and Egypt was
declining as a world power just like the rest of the Middle East. Perhaps a group of slaves, with
a charismatic leader, found a way to seize the moment. Or maybe they just
started drifting away. When they joined up with the new communities forming in Canaan, the “Promised Land,” they would have
had quite a story to tell. If that story evolved to include a miraculous
rescue, it wouldn’t have been any less appealing to those other refugees. It
was a very mixed population that came together around a single group of stories.
A new story needs a new name for God. That name was
“Yahweh,” written in Hebrew without the consonants as YHWH. The Midianites, an
archeological discovery shows, worshiped a god named YHW. Midian is located
close to the route from Egypt to Canaan. In the Bible story Moses hightailed
it to Midian after killing an Egyptian slave driver. There he married, had an
encounter with a burning bush, and learned God’s name. From what I’ve read
scholars don’t yet agree on what to make of this similarity of names. Is it a
coincidence? Are the dates wrong? Or is it evidence for the existence of some
Moses-like figure in real history?
The meaning of the name YHWH is a total mystery: “I
am who I am” or something like that. It doesn’t tell you much. Maybe just
“Don’t ask who I am. Watch what I do.” For these people, when they were strong,
the things God did were works of liberation—liberation from old authoritarian
patterns and gods of the status quo. This Hebrew God has had that same meaning
for oppressed people of many ages and places since. It turns out that the Bible
really is about history, about real Israelite history in some vague, imprecise
ways, but not just ancient history. People everywhere and in
every time have been able to find their own hopes in this Israelite creed:
A wandering soul my father was,
Went down to Egypt just
There he became a nation great, alleluia.
Whom the Egyptians loved to hate, alleluia.
And the Egyptians
treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we
cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw
our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt
with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm with great terror, with signs and
wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land
flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)
On to A Journey and a River