Exodus: God of the Desert

Michael A Rizzotti

Genesis, the first book of the Bible, does not limit itself to the creation narrative. Adam and Eve go on to have children, among them, Cain and Abel. In some respect they typify the consequence of the fall: the evil and the good.

The story of the two brothers is a further allusion to God’s preference for herdsman-ship over agriculture. Cain’s fruit offering is disregarded by God who looked favorably upon Abel’s flock offering. As we know, this arouses Cain’s jealousy and causes the killing of Abel.

The text goes on with the patriarchal genealogy of the first couple’s descendants.

As the generations of “men” multiply on earth, it saddens God to see that they are all wicked and evil. As a result, he decides to destroy humankind in a flood. But among the corrupt God finds favor with Noah. He tells him to build an ark in order to save his family and the animals of the earth.

Soon after the flood life begins anew. The narrative goes on with the enumeration of Noah’s descendants. Meanwhile, the epic of the Patriarchs unfolds. Among the principal heroes are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The narrative depicts successively their own unique relationship with their God.

The saga depicted in Genesis ends with the people of Israel’s move to Egypt to escape the famine that ravaged their lands. A fortunate turn of events allows them to be invited to Egypt by Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold as a slave to an Egyptian by his jealous brothers. Because of Joseph’s uncanny ability to interpret dreams, he had soon been noticed by the Egyptian court and was promoted to a prestigious position among their ranks.

But before we begin with the “epic” of Exodus, Genesis inaugurates three important Old Testament themes:

Abraham………..God’s promise and alliance

Isaac……………..the spared sacrifice

Jacob…………….the struggle with God; i.e. Israel

These themes are but a prelude to what is the centerpiece of the Bible: Exodus.

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Exodus is a unique and invaluable account that discloses the birth of a religion. Everything evolves around the significant experience of the people in the wilderness. In many ways Genesis, which precedes it, simply acts as an introduction to the important excursion of the people of Israel.

The flight out of Egypt and the revelation of Yahweh in the desert are the fundamental points which reveal Israel’s origin and identity. The fashion and context in which the journey took place is a remarkable trait that discloses its essence: Moses typifies the semi-nomadic and tribal experience of the “fathers”.

The people’s isolation in the desert and the transient quality of the journey toward the promised land did not favor the development of a stable culture usually associated with agriculture and the fertility cults of the goddess. In other words, the unique experience of Israel was a product of its isolation which also gave birth to the exclusive and jealous nature of Yahweh. Being secluded from other gods and cultures favored the unique cult of a single and exclusive God. What followed that experience favored the fierce opposition to other gods as well as to the goddess.

The identity of Israel is, in a sense, closely related to the idea of flight, movement, and seclusion. The isolation of the desert was providential to its historical development where the three entities identified as Moses, Yahweh, and Israel came together in a fateful fashion.

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Several generations of Hebrews had lived in Egypt since the time of their first arrival. These “people” now felt less and less welcomed in their adoptive land. Their lives were increasingly threatened by oppressive conditions imposed by the Pharaoh.

Among the Egyptians the Hebrews were a “people” without a leader. Moses, it turns out, was a prince without a kingdom. When he is told by God of his destiny on Mount Sinai the revelation links the leader to the people. He saw the apparition and heard God’s voice revealing to him the “oath” he made to the Fathers before him.

Israel’s identity as a people, as a religion, and as a nation is recreated with that revelation. The exodus in the desert further consolidates that identity. Apart and away from the “other” gods and “other” cultures living in Egypt, the setting is favorable for Yahweh to inaugurate a new bond. Yahweh characteristically describes himself as a jealous God, he is unconditionally opposed to “other” gods. As the story shows, the wilderness is an ideal place to forge such an alliance.

The introduction begins with the description of Moses’ birth. But the “epic” soon shifts to the hierophany. God reveals his presence by the burning bush and the sound of his voice. The encounter takes place on Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb. According to the traditional lore of the time, the site was, significantly enough, referred to as the “Mountain of God” or the “Mountain of the gods”. The sacred place was known locally as an area where mysterious phenomena often occurred. It was commonly believed that divine beings lived there. Coincidentally, the place could not have been more appropriate for Moses’ spiritual initiation.

the setting…………Egypt and the wilderness

the hero……………Moses

the quest………….the “promise”

the obstacle………the Pharaoh and other gods

the mentor………..Yahweh

the outcome………the ten commandments; Israel

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The setting underscores the geographical and historical context that led to the exodus. It is an underlying factor in the plot. The spatio-temporal circumstances for Exodus rely on the departure out of Egypt and the movement toward the quest for the promised land.

Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch. These books are also referred to as the Torah, also known as the Law or Instructions. Early Jewish and Christian traditions believed Moses to be the author of these texts, but biblical scholars discovered that Exodus is not the work of one author but rather a compilation of at least four literary sources known as the Yahwist -J, the Elohist -E, the Priestly writer -P, and the Redactor -R. As we have mentioned already, these sources were put together into one narrative by a single editor identified as the Redactor. 2 We will come back to this mysterious editor later.

According to biblical accounts Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, one of the many tribes that lived in Egypt. These people were also called the Hebrews. The name “Hebrew” has many etymological origins, and none of them certain. It may have been derived from the word Habiru, a variant of Hapiru or Apiru, which was a designation for a class of people who made their living by offering themselves as hired help. According to biblical tradition, the Israelites had been in Egypt for numerous generations and apparently had become a threat to the Pharaohs because of their ever growing population. 3

In addition to the Hebrews, there were a great number of slaves from different countries who were brought in as prisoners of war and lived all over Egypt to serve in different capacities. Many became free persons within the Egyptian society and several were found at various levels of rank in the Egyptian court.

Many of these “foreigners” immigrated to Egypt because of its prosperity. As in the case of the Hebrews, some fled the recurrent famines in their own countries. The overwhelming ethnical diversity did cause some problems. One document, The Admonitions of Ipuwer, conveys the distress felt by the Egyptians by the presence of an increasing number of aliens:

Foreigners have become people everywhere…Robbery is everywhere…the desert is [spread] throughout the land…Barbarians from outside have come to Egypt…4

The great number and diversity of these cultures were matched by their respective religious beliefs. Historically though, the Egyptians had been very tolerant of different cults and other gods.

There is little archaeological evidence that corroborates the facts described in Exodus. The Pharaoh in the account, for instance, is not identified. However, we know that the drafting of foreign labor began with the reign of queen Hatshepsut and her son Thutmose III. The forced labor was later continued by Seti I and Ramses II, circa 1300-1225 bc. It is possible that the “Hebrews” were drafted in large number into forced labor for the building of fortified cities on the north-eastern frontier of Egypt. This part of history is nevertheless filled with conjecture. Yet there is one chronicle that depicts the Hebrews suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. The text can be found on the great Rekhmire’s tomb who was Thutmose III’s vizier. It describes how the Egyptians,

…treated their Israelite slave with ruthless severity…setting them to work on clay and brick-making.5

However, the most quoted evidence of the existence of the Hebrews in Egypt is the inscription on a Merneptah stele which reads:

Israel is desolate, it has no seed left.6

As for the period in which the exodus took place, most scholars today support the dating to be around the thirteenth century BC.

Before the exodus the Hebrews, like many other semi-nomadic tribes, had come to Egypt to escape the famine that ravaged their lands. From the time of their arrival in Egypt to the time of their departure the conditions of their lives changed; presumably because of shifts in the policies of the Egyptian monarchy.

From a predominantly agricultural and mercantile society Egypt emerged into a more aggressive militaristic power. The victory over the Hyksos marked the coming to power of a great new dynasty: the Eighteenth. With its fortunes of war Egypt entered a new phase in its history. And the New Kingdom, spanning from 1550 to 1307 BC, is in all probability the setting for Exodus.7

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There is still a lot of debate about the historicity of Moses. There is no clear archaeological evidence proving his existence. Despite this, we cannot deny a “truth of faith” about his character.8 We cannot dispel either the importance that Moses had on the history of Israel and the development of religion in general.

Curiously, the hero has an “Egyptianized” name which has a twofold etymological origin. On one hand, the name Moses is derived from the Egyptian verb msy which means “is born” or “to give birth”. The expression could be found in names like Thut-mose, meaning “Thoth is Born”, and also in Ramses or Re-mose, which means “Re is born”. On the other hand, the Hebrew etymology for Moshe, associated in Ex. 2:10 with mashah, means “drawn out of the water”. These two etymological origins bear the dual nature of Moses’ ethnical background which is an intrinsic part of his identity.9

Acts 7:22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

The narrative begins when Moses’ life is providentially saved from the Pharaoh’s command to “cast” all the Hebrew newborn males “into the Nile”. The Hebrew women had become so fertile that their growing number was viewed as a threat. In order to save Moses from the hands of the infanticide ruler, Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, hid their child for three months. When they could not conceal him any longer, his mother put him in a watertight reed basket and set him afloat on the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter, while bathing in the river nearby, found the child and recognized him as one of the Hebrew children. Meanwhile, Moses’ sister watched her brother’s safe destination. She then approached the princess and proposed to let a Hebrew woman nurse the child. Arrangements were made for Moses’ mother to nurture the child until he was grown, and then he would be returned to the Pharaoh’s daughter.

Mose……………………..Moshe

“is born”……………….”draw out of the water”

Egyptian princess’…. Hebrew mother
adoptive son

In the course of his life fateful events would confirm Moses’ ethnical identity. A determinant episode describes the hero’s killing of an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. As a result, he identified with the plight of his people. But because of his action Moses feared the wrath of the Pharaoh who had heard of the murder, and fled to the Midian desert. His deed made him an outcast of the Egyptian society and he was unable to return until the Pharaoh’s death.

While he was in the desert he came across a group of women who brought their flock to water at a well. They were the seven daughters of a local tribal priest. As several shepherds attempted to chase them away he came to their rescue. When their father found out about the “Egyptian’s” conduct he invited him to share a meal. The dinner apparently went well since the father gave his daughter Zipporah in marriage to Moses. Jethro, the father-in-law, was a Kenite,10 a tribe reputed for having priests and scribes among its members.

Moses’ marriage into the Kenites would prove beneficial for his mission. Priests, particularly scribes, had important roles in royal courts, especially in dealing with the commercial and legal matters of growing tribes and large kingdoms. In that era, the art of writing was closely associated with the scribal and priestly office. Their functions may be compared to the role that accountants play in our society today. These scribes held the highest offices and were part of a privileged caste in the king’s court. The knowledge of their craft was closely kept in the family from generation to generation. They acted as clerks who kept records of finances and took inventories of livestock and goods. Rulers depended on them to account for their wealth. In that function they were held in high esteem. In Egypt, scribes were even divinized. Among the first to be honored was Imhotep who was a minister and an architect.11

Scribes were legal experts as well. They kept records of alliances and tribal agreements between the sovereigns and their vassals. They performed tasks similar to what lawyers do today. Consequently, the scribes were critical to any potential leader. In these circumstances, Moses’ marriage into the Kenites was useful. The priests and scribes of his adopted tribe would be invaluable during the exodus. They helped to consolidate the religious, social, legal, and economical activities of the “people” of Israel. The revelation and then the application of the ten commandments are a perfect example of how the association between the priests and Moses turned out to be essential for the collective management of Israel.

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Until his marriage the hero lived the life of an outcast. But soon, God would call him out of the burning bush to reveal his identity and tell him of his destiny. The primordial encounter establishes the foundation of a triune relationship between Yahweh, Moses, and Israel; ie, God, the leader, and the people.

Ex. 3:8 “…and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

Although there is no special term for the word “promise” in the Old Testament, the idea is conveyed by a various range of Hebrew expressions, among them are “speak”, “speech”, “say”, and “swear”. Because Yahweh is regarded as the faithful one, His word is enough to guarantee the fulfillment of the promise.

The principal term used in Hebrew for land is ‘eres. It is the fourth most used term in the Old Testament. As far as theological interpretation goes, the concepts of land and the covenant are so closely connected that it is almost impossible to describe one without talking about the other. The land is described as Yahweh’s gift, which he first promised to Noah, and then to Abraham and his descendants.

Israel was chosen by Yahweh to be his “people for his own possession”.12 The word possession is used in the same manner in which God owns the land. When Yahweh refers to his people he refers to them in terms of his property. Herein, the term is used to describe Yahweh’s “special” possession of his people in the sense of an acquired property.

The concept of the promised land is described in terms of alliance between Yahweh and Israel. The emphasis is laid on the closeness of the relationship between God and his people. God is the owner of the land in the same fashion that he owns his people. And Israel’s possession of the land depends on her faithfulness to God. Yahweh as the land-lord allows the possession of the land by his people only if they remain faithful to his word.

Lev. 25:23 “The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.”

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In the thematic sequence we have identified the Pharaoh as the obstacle that is also closely connected to the gods of Egypt.

Once out of Egypt the Hebrews were free to be Yahweh’s chosen people. The narrative goes on to recount the tribulations of their journey in the desert. A particularly crucial episode is described through Moses’ outburst of anger when he saw the idolatry of the people as he came down from the presence of God on Mount Sinai. At the sight of the idol, Moses threw and broke the tables of the ten commandments upon the “molten calf”. This incident typifies his determination to keep Yahweh’s cult free from any foreign influence. This is especially true in the case of the worship of the golden calf. The underlying antagonism is fundamental to the whole biblical narrative. This theme may be the key to understanding why “monotheism” has supplanted all other forms of worship in Judaism, especially in connection with the fertility cults of the Goddess.

Ex. 32:8 “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

According to the excerpt above, the golden bull-calf is linked to Egypt. But according to E who wrote this account, the “molten calf” relates to a specific episode of heresy that flourished in the cities of Dan and Beth-El in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam to whom E was opposed.

Soon after King Solomon died, the northern kingdom of Israel, under the reign of Jeroboam, seceded from the southern territory of Judah. The division occurred primarily as a result of the unpopular policies of missim: a burdensome tax paid in the form of forced labor. Instead of appointing the hereditary priest whose lineage traced back to Moses to the temples in Dan and Beth-El, Jeroboam nominated his own officials for ceremonies related to the golden calf. The “molten calf” was intended to represent the symbolic pedestal as a throne to the invisible Yahweh.

But for the great number of Canaanites living in Israel at the time, the golden bull-calf was the visible manifestation of the animal associated with the fertility cult and the goddess Asherah.

It is from this heresy that the whole antagonism to the “molten image” stems. Especially in connection with the Canaanite worship of El and Asherah that we have outlined in the former chapter. The golden calf is also associated by tradition to Baal and her companion Baalat, which could be translated into “lord” or “owner”, and “owneress”. These cults were popular among the Canaanites who lived in Israel during the time of King Jeroboam. E, who wrote this passage, in all probability lived during the time when these events took place.13 The account reveals his outrage at Jeroboam for not having appointed a legal priestly heir to the temple to which priestly order E most likely belonged himself.

This is one interpretation of the event. The narrative, however, links the worship of the “molten calf” to Egypt.

If we go along with the story and believe that the golden calf really originated in Egypt, then we might try to find parallels of the golden calf in Egyptian religion.

Several scholars believe that Ramses II and his son Menerptah were the probable oppressors of the Hebrew people.14 When Ramses II made peace with the Hittites following the disastrous battle of Kadesh, a great number of deities such as Anat, Astarte, and Asherah became popular in Egypt. Archaeological findings show that the Canaanite gods, particularly the goddesses, had an extraordinary “fluidity” in taking the shapes, forms, and names of other deities.15 This is especially the case in warfare and conquest where acculturation becomes widespread among the different cultures and the divinities assume the identity of other gods. This is the case in regards to the Canaanite goddesses Asherah, or Astarte, and her Near Eastern counterpart Anath.

There were numerous bull cults in ancient Egypt, most of them minor divinities. Among them were, the black Apis Bull, the white Min Bull, a symbol of virility, and Mont-Re. But none of these cults was more important than the one portrayed by the cow-goddess. This divinity was found in a very early stage of Egyptian religion and became prevalent throughout Egypt. The most famous cow-goddess was Hathor. One of the more popular goddesses in Egypt, Hathor was a sky-goddess and a symbol of fertility. As the sky-goddess, she was the Eye of the Sun god Re. In that quality, she personified the sky. She was known as the Beautiful One and the Golden One; the joyous goddess of love, music, and happiness. Gold was her sacred metal and Hathor was described as the “Gold of the Gods”. She was also called “the Lady of the Sycamore”. As we have seen in the former chapter the tree is also the symbol of Asherah. Hathor was especially popular among women. She incarnated the principles of beauty, love, and fertility. As such, she typified the Mother Goddess. Hathor was especially concerned with birth and babies. As a “cow” she suckled the baby kings and protected them through childhood. Her protection even extended to kings in their old age. Throughout Egyptian history, the Golden One remained a very popular goddess.16

There are some striking similarities between the golden calf from Exodus and the Golden One, the goddess of fertility. In addition, the reference in the text to the “play” and the “sound of singing” among the worshippers when Moses came down from Mount Sinai points to an additional likeness between the two deities. Hathor was the bringer of happiness, and the goddess of music and love.

The “molten calf”, however, was dealt a hard blow by Moses. Yahweh is indeed a jealous God. He allows no other God but himself. Following Moses’ destruction of the idol, the worshippers who did not repent were all killed by the faithful Levite priests. Loyal to their functions, they made sure the worship of the forbidden image would be completely eradicated.

Ex 20: 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…for I the lord your God am a jealous God…”

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The narrative is particularly explicit about Moses’ inquiry of God’s identity. The name that is revealed to Moses, Yahweh -YHWH in the un-vocalized Hebrew- is so sacred in Jewish tradition that it is not pronounced; instead, God, Adonai, El Shaddai, or the lord is regularly substituted for it.

Ex. 3:14  “I am who I am”

“Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh”

As Martin Buber points out, God’s name is not meant to be esoteric.17 It is not made to avoid any question about God’s identity or to withhold any information about his being. Instead, the twofold ehyeh -I am- implies God’s presence and closeness with whom he has chosen. In fact, Yahweh is so close to Moses that he is his “mouth”:

Ex. 4:12 “Now therefore go, and I will be with yourmouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

Furthermore, as we have already seen in the first verses of Genesis, God is once again an individuum vaguum, the imageless voice speaking out of nowhere. Yahweh’s revelation to Moses is also meant to be the “sign” or a visible expression of God’s presence. When Yahweh asks Moses to say to the people of Israel: “i am has sent me to you”, God literally implies his overwhelming presence in Moses. His mouth is Yahweh’s mouth. Moses is the “sign” sent by Yahweh.

Ex. 3:12 He said, “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you:”

Therefore, the essence of the name of God becomes in effect secondary, since the name merely underlines God’s presence; the God of the Fathers is present with Moses as he was present with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yahweh is present with Moses as the historical manifestation of God’s promise he made to the Patriarchs. God’s revelation to Moses is made in order to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.

The “I AM WHO I AM” becomes clearer in conjunction with Moses’ realization of his identity as the spokesman. He is the historical manifestation of Yahweh’s promise made to Israel. The same promise he made to Abraham is related to Moses; yet according to Yahweh, it is the first time his name has been revealed.

Yahweh is Moses’ mentor. Moses is chosen by Yahweh to embody the verbal promise. However, Moses needs additional help in his mission. Aaron, his brother, becomes the heroes’ spokesman in his dealings with the Pharaoh. In the text God commands Moses to “Say to Aaron”.18 The reason being that Moses, who has some kind of speech impediment and may have been a stammerer, is inflicted with such a dread to speak to the Pharaoh that he refuses to obey God’s command. He argues stubbornly with God and arouses his anger. Yahweh finally agrees to let Moses’ brother be his spokesman. Aaron, in effect, becomes Moses’ “mouth” in the same fashion that Moses is Yahweh’s “mouth”.

Further help is needed for the favorable outcome and the final release of the people from Egypt. The plagues are an additional and necessary force to convince the Pharaoh of God’s will. Yahweh uses the plagues as a powerful sign to break the ruler’s obstinacy. One at a time, the plagues are announced by Moses through Aaron. The account of the plagues are for the most part ornamental. They symbolize Yahweh’s control over nature, since Moses does not have the Pharaoh’s military might.19

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The outcome of Exodus is profiled by the quest of the promised land. As we will see, what is at issue here is as much the quest underlined by the “promise” as the actual possession of the land itself.20

But as we get closer to the denouement, Moses is faced with a dilemma. He is concerned about the future of the people’s faithfulness to Yahweh. The Israelites, in the course of their exodus, lived a nomadic way of life and the relationship between Yahweh and his people thrived in the desert. The idea of a fixed settlement in Canaan puts an end to those ideal conditions. In the wilderness God took care of his people, guiding them like a shepherd that brings his cattle to grazing lands. There is a certain amount of nostalgia and preoccupation at the end of the journey as to the future of this unique relationship. In the promised land the people would no longer live in the isolation of the desert with one God, as one people, but among foreign cultures and alien gods.

Deut. 7:1 “When the lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir’gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourself, and when the lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe’rim, and burn their graven images with fire.”

“For you are a people holy to the lord your God; the lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”

It is paradoxical, in these circumstances, that Moses will never set foot in Canaan, the land he yearned for so long. Only the people of Israel led by Joshua will.

Canaan was populated by natives who worshipped different gods. Unlike in the isolation of the desert, Yahweh would be surrounded by other gods. Among the people living there were the Canaanites who, as we have already outlined, were worshippers of Asherah, the goddess of fertility.

History reveals that the people would eventually intermarry with their Canaanite neighbors and be influenced by the settled and agricultural ways of life associated with fertility cults, despite the evils associated with agriculture and the slavery suffered in Egypt which are vilified in Exodus.21

Once settled in the promised land, Yahweh’s exclusivity was forever threatened. The danger was always present that the people of Israel would forgo and forget their bond with Yahweh. A worrisome and perhaps challenging prospect for God and his prophets. More so, for the scribes and priests who wrote these texts.

The antagonism of Yahweh to any other form of worship is fundamental to Israel. Yet it is an underlying principle of all religious reality. The greater the opposition to other gods, the closer the relationship with God. The stronger the antagonism between Yahweh and the other cults, the stronger Israel’s religious identity. The stronger the identity, the greater the belief, etc.

sacred      vs      profane

Yahweh      vs      Asherah

one God      vs      other gods/goddesses

The journey out of Egypt is the beginning of Israel as a people and as a religion. And the revelation of Yahweh on mount Sinai inaugurates the worship of an exclusive God. Although there was no word in biblical times for “religion”, the beliefs associated with the entity of God, his Kings, priests, prophets, and his people were perceived as one single reality.

This was made possible by the covenant that Yahweh made with the Patriarchs and, finally, with Moses. What begun in Exodus is promulgated by faith and verified by history, notably in the “story”. For Israel, the self-fulfilling words of God are tied to the faith in the unfolding events of history which are related to Exodus. The covenant sealed the destiny of Israel to the promise. The “ultimate concern” lies in the hope that the exclusive alliance will not fade with time. Attached to the covenant is the unbreakable character of the relationship that is stressed upon Israel in the form of the ten commandments and the law.22

With the law, Exodus inaugurates the legal, the social, and the “religious” aspect of Israel as an inseparable reality. Under one God Israel becomes one entity, one identity.

Another paradox is that Yahweh must rely on his people’s obedience as much as they on his guidance. Without his people Yahweh could not survive, and for that matter he would not exist. Therefore, Israel is the chosen people of Yahweh as much as Yahweh is their chosen God. In other words, the people of Israel have chosen a God that has chosen them as the chosen people, and vice versa. This exclusive alliance sets the people apart from other people as much as Yahweh is set apart from other gods.

But in the outcome, the law and the “word” become the ultimate legacy and the monopoly of the priestly hierarchy. The divine ordinances regulate and keep the community together. With the liturgy, the cults, and the rituals, the priesthood becomes the ruling order of religion. In effect, “man” is under the priest’s regulatory supervision for his access to God. The hierarchy of the sacred becomes the medium through which “man” can have access to the holy.

Ex. 19:5 “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Exodus illustrates literally how the “story”, or the creative power of the word as outlined in Genesis, is the creative agent of Israel’s identity and history. In fact, the historicity of Exodus is not as important as the “truth of faith” that generates the actual belief of its own sacredness.23

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As we have explained, Exodus stems from four different literary sources: E, J, P, and R which were edited by the Redactor. The first three sources were written much later than the actual exodus, most likely between 922 and 608 BC. And the Redactor, in all probability, compiled the texts during the fourth century BC, more than eight centuries after the actual events described in  Exodus took place. It would be revealing at this stage, to find out more about this elusive character who is responsible for the compilation of the most important book ever written in Christendom.

If we were to gather all the data available concerning the identity of this obscure and uncelebrated editor, we would probably end up with a portrait that would look a lot like Ezra.

In 587 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and its inhabitants were sent into exile. The city of Jerusalem was devastated and the temple destroyed. Providentially, Babylon was later conquered by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC. He apparently had no religious beliefs of his own and he did not particularly care to impose any creed upon others. He allowed the Jews to return to their land and worship their God. With his assistance, a second temple was built in 515 BC. Not surprisingly, the king was hailed as the right hand of Yahweh and a good shepherd.

Ezra 1:1 The lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.

With the new temple being built, hope was on the rise. Under the new Persian rule, a Jewish exile called Nehemiah was appointed as the civil governor of Jerusalem. He needed additional help in religious matters, so he asked for another official from the Persian courts. This man was Ezra. He was a priest of Aaronid descent who was described as the “Secretary of State for the Jewish Affairs”, and the “scribe of the law of the God in heaven”. The reference of “God in heaven” was a title commonly given to Yahweh by the Persian regime.

Ezra came with a specific goal: to put religious order among the ruins of Jerusalem and Israel.

He did not come empty handed. He brought with him the copy of an intriguing law-book, which in all likelihood was a copy of the Pentateuch as we know it today. Not surprisingly, Ezra stands out at the end of the Pentateuchal law of the Old Testament in the same fashion as Moses stands at the beginning of it. He was presumably a man of great authority. As such he applied the law scrupulously and with great discipline.

Ezra 7:6 He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the lord the God of Israel had given.

Upon his arrival in Judah, he was struck by the religious heresy of the Jewish people. He soon forbid the common practice of intermarriage between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. He even persuaded already married Jews to divorce their Gentile consorts.

Neh. 9:2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Religious laxity had spread among the Jews during the Babylonian rule. Apathy for their God was adamant. During the exile, numerous communities who were scattered all over the Babylonian empire had turned their back to the scrupulous observances demanded by Yahweh. While the temple of Jerusalem lay in ruins, Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere lost their urge to worship Yahweh as the law demanded. Loin des yeux loin du coeur -far from sight the heart grows distant.

Worse yet the name of Yahweh was freely associated with the goddess Anath, whose identity is closely related to Asherah and Astarte, names that are repeatedly interchanged in the Bible.

The reference to “the queen of heaven” mentioned in the quote below shows how popular the worship of the goddess Asherah had become. When the people were exhorted by the prophet to return exclusively to Yahweh, a group of women retorted:

Jer. 44:16 “As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”

Ezra was understandably outraged to see Yahweh rivaled by the profane reality of the Goddess. More so to hear such profanity. He took upon himself to forcefully inaugurate a temple-state “hierocracy”.24 He put the temple of Jerusalem back at the center of Jewish religion just as it was before. Patriarchal order was soon restored. The priestly monopoly of the law was reinstated.

Herein lies the background of the Bible.

For ages it was believed that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. Even today some still believe it. It only goes to show what a great job the redactor did when he arranged the different sources together.

What is so amazing is how successfully he put into a single narrative often contradictory accounts. A close scrutiny of the text, however, reveals some important discrepancies between the different sources. In J’s account, for instance, God personally descends on Mount Sinai, while in P’s God does not. In both J’s and E’s Moses sees God, not in P’s. J and E repeatedly describe Yahweh as merciful whereas P never uses the word “mercy”, but describes the lord as the God of justice and anger.

To make matters worse, the different sources challenged each other’s priestly authority. E backs the Levitical priestly family of Shiloh, and J is a patron of the descendants of Zadok. Whereas, P and R are supporters of the Aaronide lineage who are openly critical of Moses.

Why then, did the Redactor put these contradictory accounts together? Probably because each individual text was considered sacred and popular among the segment of the population from which it emerged.

In addition to his editorial savvy, R was also an astute theologian. By arranging different versions into one single account, he leaves the final authority regarding matters of theological interpretation to the priestly office. No single truth can be asserted. Every aspect can be challenged by a contradictory version. Therefore, any interpretation of the text can always be questioned, leaving the monopoly of authority in matters of faith in the hands of the priesthood.

*

It is one of the greatest paradox of Exodus that Moses did not set foot on the promised land. Yet this paradox may confirm an underlying principle of religious experience: that the quest is the essence of belief, not the object itself. In other words, it is the expectation and hope rather than the fulfillment of the promise that is the essence of faith. The promised land is the metaphor for the quest.

Another important principle lies in the obstacle to the quest. An underlying opposition to the profane reality of other god(s) and goddess(es) must be enforced in order to maintain the exclusivity of the holy. Concurrently, when God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, he reveals a fundamental tenet of the religious reality:

Gen. 32:28 Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Israel literally means “He who strives with God” or “God strives”. Hence the very essence of the word Israel lies in the antagonism to the profane reality of the other god(s) and goddess(es) in order to fortify its sacred identity.

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1 Mountains are privileged places where the sacred appears. See Martin Buber for the Mountain of God in, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 109.
2 Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, New York, Summit Books, 1987.
3 Martin Buber, Moses, Ibid., 20.
4 Ian Wilson, Exodus, The True Story Behind the Biblical Account, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1985, 56.
5 Ian Wilson, Ibid., 81. Another clue may be the cities of “Pithom” and “Raam’ses”, mentioned in Ex. 1:11, which are known to have been constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Ramses II.
6 F.F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, London, The Paternoster Press, 1963, 13.
7 Ian Wilson, Ibid.
8 Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions, Leiden, Brille, 1967, 21.
9 According to S. Freud, Moses was an Egyptian, see Moses and Monotheism, New York, A.A. Knopf, 1939.
10 He is also called Reu’el in Ex.2:18 and Hobab in Jg.4:11. See also Max Weber for more on the scribes and priests in, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1967, 336-343.
11 Régis Debray, Le Scribe: Genèse du Politique, Paris, Grasset, 1980, 33-36.
12 Deut. 7:6.
13 Ex. 32:1 to 33:1.
14 It is believed that during his long reign -1301 to 1234 bc- Ramses II ordered the construction of numerous temples with colossal statues of gods and of himself. The four deities behind his temple at Abu Simbel show that he was placing himself at the same level as the three dynastic gods of Egypt: Ptah, Re, and Amon. It is during the successive reign of his son Menerptah -1234-27 bc- that we have the famous inscription about Israel: “Israel is desolate; it has no seed left.”
15 William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, 71 f.
16 See, Barbara Watterson, The Gods of Ancient Egypt, New York, Facts On File Publication, 1984.
17 M. Buber, Ibid., 192-195.
18 Ex. 7:19; 8:5; 16.
19 The last plague, the one that finally convinces the Pharaoh to release the Israelites, may have an underlying significance that is of some interest. There is a parallel between the Pharaoh’s killing of the Hebrew male infants in the beginning of the narrative, from which Moses escapes, and the death of all the Egyptian first-born including the ailing Pharaohs’ child (Ex.11:1-12;). The meaning of the last plague can be related to the “blood revenge” of the ancient customs of the Semitic tribes: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24, Deut. 19:21, Mt. 5:38), described in the law of retribution of the Covenant Code. See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, Macmillan Co., Inc, 1967, 61-62.
20 In Hebrew the word for covenant is berith. It has the same significance as bond or agreement. Many social relationships of the time were agreements also known as covenants between Kings.
21 See Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, New York, Basic Books, 1985, 101. Also Deut.11:10.
22 The wilderness period was the constitutional age, the time of Israel’s beginning, the time when God’s commandments were made into law. In Exodus -Ex.34:28, Deut.4:13,10:4- the term “ten words” has been replaced by the more common appellation of the “ten commandments”. The expression “ten words” refers to a group of prescriptions of cultic nature. It is used in the OT to describe a group of divine commandments written down by Yahweh and given to Moses.
23 The most revered and holy place for the Israelites during their exodus was the tabernacle, inside which the ark contained the copy of the sacred tablets containing the ten commandments. Again the legacy of the written “word” remains the most sacred religious reality for posterity, handed down from generation to generation.
24 F.F. Bruce, Ibid., 109

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