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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


The book of Exodus begins some four hundred years after the ending of Genesis.  Living in the northeastern Egyptian Land of Goshen which Joseph’s Pharaoh had given to them, the descendants of Israel/Jacob “multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them” (1:7).  The Egyptians, fearing that they would join with some enemy against them, made them slaves in hopes of keeping them in line.  But the Israelites continued to multiply despite the oppression.  In hopes of lessening their numbers, Pharaoh ordered that all newborn male (but not female) Israelite children be thrown into the Nile.  

So begins the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.  Moses survived because his mother placed him in a bullrush basket in the river (in putting him in the river his mother followed Pharaoh’s decree!).  The baby was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who knew he was “one of the Hebrew’s children” and “took pity on him” (2:6) despite her father’s order.  So Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household.  Parallels to the story of Moses’ miraculous survival occur in many legends of heroes, most closely in that of Sargon, the circa 2600 BCE founder of the Akkadian Empire, whose mother also placed him in bitumen sealed rush basket in the river.  The motif is also repeated with variations in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of baby Jesus’ escape from Herod’s decree.

Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household, but one day killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew.  Fearing for his life, Moses fled to Midian which was inhabited by distant relatives of the Israelites.  In an incident at a well resembling the meetings with Rebecca and Rachel in Genesis, Moses encountered the daughters of “the priest of Midian,” one of whom he married.  

Moses tended the flocks of his father-in-law until his fateful encounter with the “burning bush.” A voice spoke from out of the flames, identifying itself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob,” telling Moses that he had been appointed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses was overwhelmed and made excuses, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (3:11).  He also demanded to know the name of the being who was sending him.  The reply, “I AM WHO I AM,” is “an etymology of Yahve” (Oxford Annotated Bible footnote 3:14).  According to Exodus 6:2-3, this was the first time the name of the God of Abraham had been revealed.

I wonder about the encounter of Moses with Yahve.  Did he have no previous knowledge of the Patriarchs’ God?  After all he had been raised in Pharaoh’s household, no doubt surrounded by the Egyptian pantheon of many gods and their elaborate rituals.  And who/what was his father-in-law (who is given two, maybe three different names in Exodus and Numbers) a priest of?  Some scholars think that Yahve may have originally been a Midian deity.

Up this point the story has been pretty straightforward, without the differing and mystifying accounts that appear here and there in Genesis’ stories of the Patriarchs.  But things become more confusing as the story continues.  Story elements are sometimes out of chronological sequence, conflicting details appear as well as vague accounts of mysterious events.  In Exodus 4:24-26 there is a brief, probably incomplete brief mention of an incident that occurred as Moses returned to Egypt.  “On a lodging place on the way Yahve met him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah (Moses’ wife) took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet (in the Bible often a euphemism for penis) with it, and said, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’  So he let him alone.  Then it was that she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision.” Some scholars think these mystifying verses may be a remnant of a tradition about the origin of circumcision different from the Genesis account involving Abraham and/or a ritual to ward off attack by a demonic force.  But just what was going on remains a mystery.  

With the assistance of his brother, Arron, Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh release the Israelites.  Which he had no intention of doing.  There was much back and forth, with miracles worked by Moses and Arron and finally the ten plagues.  Pharaoh several times almost relented, but then Yahve “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he refused to let the Israelites leave.  As is often the case in the OT, Yahve seems to be a source of opposition to the good he urges.  But if all that happens is directed by divine will, then it logically follows that even bad things must come from God.

The plagues and repeated hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by Yahve occupy several chapters.  The last plague, the death of all the first-born of Egypt, is linked to the institution of Passover.  The Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the lintel and doorposts of their houses.  Seeing the sign of the blood Yahve would then “pass over the door, and will not allow the Destroyer to enter your houses to slay you” (12:23), thus “Passover.”  Inserted into the narrative is a lengthy, repetitious description of how Passover, which also includes the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is to be observed.  Some scholars believe that Passover brought together a pastoral celebration of the first lambs of the season and an agricultural festival of the spring wheat.  But, as with many explanations of biblical passages,  that idea seems to be based more on conjecture than known facts.  I do wonder about the significance of warding off a threat to first-born children with the sacrifice of a lamb.  Could this, like the near sacrifice of Issac, be related to an ancient change which replaced human sacrifice with the offering of an animal?

Yahve at midnight “smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt” (12:29).  Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptians were now more than ready to be rid of the Israelites, whom Moses told to ask the Egyptians for jewelry, silver and gold, and clothing.  Which Exodus states the Egyptians, likely in fear after their first-born were slain by Israel’s God, willingly gave them, for “Yahve had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians.  Thus they despoiled the Egyptians” (12:36).

In the morning the Israelites left Egypt with the bones (likely mummy) of Joseph, which he had requested be taken back to his homeland, along with their flocks and the riches the Egyptians had bestowed on them.  Yahve led them with a pillar of cloud by day and one of fire at night.  Then he once again “hardened the heart” of Pharaoh who decided he wanted his slaves back and pursued them with his army.  The Israelites were trapped on the edge of the Sea of Reeds (not the “Red Sea” which is based on a mistranslation from Hebrew to Greek in the Septuagint), a marshy region on the border between Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.  The Israelites panicked, accusing Moses of having brought them out “to die in the wilderness.”  But Yahve, for whom saving Israel seems to have been primarily a means for proving his superiority to the Egyptians and their gods (14:17-18), told Moses to direct the Israelites onward as the sea parted before them at Moses’ command.  Then the waters closed behind them, drowning their pursuers.  

There have been many attempts to establish the exodus from Egypt as historical fact.  Most scholars agree that the probable date is somewhere around the thirteenth century BCE.  A number of details in the Exodus account correlate with known Egyptian history and culture at that time.  There have also been attempts to explain the plagues and parting of the waters in terms of natural events, some of which are noted in the Oxford Annotated Bible.  There is, however, nothing resembling the events of Exodus in the extensive records of ancient Egypt.  In addition no archaeological evidence of the movement of a large group of people through the Sinai region or invading Canaan has been found.  But, as is often said in reference to archaeological “proof,” lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.  There may well have been a movement from Egypt to Canaan of people who would eventually be incorporated into the nation of Israel.  But there is not much in the way of conclusive evidence to establish that as historical fact.  While new discoveries may demonstrate otherwise, so far at least, belief that the Exodus as described in the Bible was a historical event rests more on faith than hard evidence.

Exodus states that about six hundred thousand male Hebrews left Egypt along with uncounted women, children, and a”mixed multitude” of non-Hebrews (121:37).  According to an Oxford Bible footnote, with women and children there would have been a total of about two and a half million people, far more than could be supported in either Goshen or the Sinai wilderness.  Of course there is always recourse to divine miracle, such as the manna or great flock of quail Yahve sent to his people to save them from starvation in the wilderness, to explain things.  But the six hundred thousand, like many numbers in the Bible, appears to be an exaggeration that shouldn’t be taken literally.

Safe on the far side of the sea from which they could see the drowned bodies of Pharaoh’s army, the thankful Israelites sang a song/psalm, the first verse of which is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, praising Yahve for the victory.  But their thankfulness didn’t last long.  Repeatedly they complained, accusing Moses of having brought them “out to the wilderness to die.”  Repeatedly Moses asked Yahve for help, and was given a miracle which temporally made his difficult followers content until the next hardship came along.  

There was a battle with the Amalekites (17:8-13), a desert tribe which would trouble Israel well into the future.  So long as Moses, watching from a distance, held his arms up the Israelites dominated the enemy.  But when he tired and lowered his arms, the enemy would advance.  So Arron and another Israelite, Hur, held up his arms until the enemy was routed.  This was the first of what would be many battles as the Israelites fought their way into the Promised Land.

Moses’ father-in-law visited the Israelite camp where he offered a sacrifice to Yahve, and proposed an administrative system which relieved Moses from the burden of judging every dispute that arose (18).

About three months after the departure from Egypt, “Israel encamped before the mountain” of Sinai (19:2), which seems to have been identical with the mountain of Horeb where Moses first encountered Yahve.  From the mountain Yahve called to Moses, proposing a covenant in which the people of Israel would agree to “obey my voice and keep my commandments.”  In turn they would be made “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6).  There follows a confusing weaving together of accounts from several sources which makes it very difficult to arrive at a definitive version of events at Sinai.  

The simplest story, the one that I learned as a child, has Moses going up the mountain where Yahve gave him the Ten Commandments engraved on two stone tablets.  Moses was gone forty days and nights (a standard biblical count for a long period of time), so long that the people left down in the camp suspected that he had died on the mountain and begged Arron to do something.  He made a golden calf which the Israelites worshiped.  Moses finally came down from the mountain and was horrified at what had happened in his absence.  He threw the stone tablets bearing the commandments on the ground, shattering them as a metaphor of how the Israelites had broken the just established covenant.  Aaron claimed that the calf emerged on its own from the fire with which he had melted down the gold the people gave him.  Strangely no punishment of Aaron is recorded, but the people were made to drink water containing gold from the ground up idol which made them sick.  Moses then went back up Sinai with another set of tablets and again received the Ten Commandments which the Israelites agreed for the second time to follow.

But the account in Exodus is more complicated as well as confusing.  It is not clear whether the stone tablets were inscribed with only the Ten Commandments or, like the similar Code of Hammurabi which was carved into stone, with the entire ritual and civil law which was also given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  There is mention of a book of the covenant as well as the two tablets of stone but it is unclear whether they were separate partial records of the covenant or different names for the same thing.  Differing accounts are given of who went up the mountain with Moses.  There are several chapters describing ethical and ritual commandments along with civil ordinances, many of which seem more suited to a settled agrarian community than a group of desert dwelling nomads.  The civil laws resemble the legal systems of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  Exodus 20:1-17 contains the Ten Commandments (literally “Ten Words” in Hebrew) as I learned them, which are repeated with minor variations in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  Additional versions of some of those commandments occur later on in Exodus in combination with ritual injunctions and a cultic calendar (34:11-26).

Chapters 25-31 contain very detailed directions for building and furnishing the sacred tabernacle/tent of meeting (of Moses and Arron with Yahve) along with a description of the vestments of Aaron and his sons who would serve as priests in the tabernacle, all of which was communicated to Moses during his forty days and nights on the mountain with Yahve.  Growing up in a church founded around Daniel’s twenty-three hundred day prophecy concerning the “cleansing of the sanctuary,” I learned a lot about the tabernacle described in Exodus.  I can still recall pictures and schematics of it with its division into Holy Place and Most Holy Place, outer courtyard and sacred furnishings. Interestingly the remains of a similar structure associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor have been found in modern Israel.  Exodus’ description of the tabernacle also resembles an ancient Egyptian depiction of the war tent of Ramesses II.   Similar structures are described in ancient West Semitic religious texts.

Moses came down from the mountain to find the people he had led out of bondage in Egypt worshipping the golden calf.  Yahve lost all patience with “this . . . stiff-necked people” whom he was ready to destroy.  He told Moses to “let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”  But Moses argued with him, saying that “the Egyptians will say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains.’. . . And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (32:9-12).  Again Yahve seemed to be more concerned about his reputation than he was moved by compassion.  Still there was punishment as the Levites went through the camp killing about three thousand people who were presumably (the text is less than clear) most involved with the episode of idolatry.  In addition Yahve “sent a plague upon the people, because they made the calf which Aaron made” (very unclear just who made it!) (32:35).

After describing how Yahve “used to speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” when they met in the tabernacle (33:11), the text says that Moses was told that he could not see Yahve’s face and live.  But he was placed in a safe “cleft of the rock” and allowed to see the deity’s back as Yahve passed by (33:20-23).  

Moses went back up Sinai with another set of stone tables.  Yahve again proclaimed his covenant with Israel along with another version of the commandments and ritual laws.  This time the covenant was appropriately received by the people.  Most of the rest of Exodus, in great detail which repeats much of the earlier instruction for its building, describes construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings along with the vestments of Aaron, the high priest.

Nine months after the arrival at Sinai the tabernacle was dedicated and filled with the cloud-like presence of Yahve.  “Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward, but if the cloud was not taken up , then they did not go onward until the day that it was taken up” (40:34-38).  

© 2021 James Moyers