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Rowing With Michael

Verse 9: Moses

Another Pharaoh had a heart of stone, Alleluia.
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 Promised Land.
 
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, alleluia.
Went down to Egypt just because, alleluia.
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

 

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