Main Body

Chapter 4: History and the Bible

In Genesis 12 Yahweh1 appears to Abram and orders him to leave his own country and people to go to a new country that he is to be shown. There Abram will be blessed by Yahweh and given a great name. With this order in mind Abram, without hesitation, organizes all of his affairs and leaves Harran with Sarai, his sister-wife, and with Lot, his nephew, and all of their dependants. Yahweh’s appearance to Abram there in the desert is the initial indication of a promise or covenant between Yahweh and Abram.


That very day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, and he said,

`To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to

the Great River, the river Euphrates…(Gen. 15.18)


When Abram is ninety-nine years old Yahweh appears to him again to say:


`I make this covenant, and I make it with you: you shall be the

father of a host of nations. Your name will no longer be Abram,

your name shall be Abraham, for I make you a father of a host of

nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; I will make nations

out of you, and kings shall spring from you. I will fulfil my covenant

between myself and you and your descendants after you,

generation after generation, an everlasting covenant, to be your

God, yours and your descendants after you. As an everlasting

possession I will give you and your desccendants after you the land

in which you are now aliens…(Gen. 17.4-8)


Abraham’s special son, Isaac, given to Sarah so late in life, carries on the seed and the covenant is passed on from father to son, although the selection, or choice, of son to receive the blessing and the responsibility of the covenant is not always according to the conventions of the time (that is, sometimes the first born son does not receive the boon). Isaac and Rebecca have the twins Jacob and Esau and the question arises: which of the two will be chosen to carry on as covenant bearer? Jacob is a dreamer, a visionary of sorts, who also is marked for heroism by images of stones and dreams of angels. He will be chosen. Yahweh says to him:


`Jacob is your name,

but your name shall no longer be Jacob:

Israel shall be your name.’ (Gen. 35.10)


and then Yahweh renews the covenant promise:


`The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to

your descendants after you I give this land.’ (Gen. 35.11-12)


By the end of the book of Genesis the scene has shifted to Egypt and the Hebrews are enslaved in an alien land. It seems that Yahweh has forgotten about them and about the covenant until Yahweh chooses Moses as the new Abraham and announces his intention:


`I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God

Almighty. But I did not let myself be known to them by my name

Jehovah. Moreover, I made a covenant with them to give them

Canaan, the land where they settled for a time as foreigners. (Ex.



The history of the Old Testament is the history of the covenant promise for land. Always at the narrative centre of the stories we find an unbroken cord that is the covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people. Revelation of divine intention, frustration on the part of the chosen people as the intention seems thwarted by time and chance, violation of the covenant agreement by the chosen ones – these are the narrative beads strung on the strong cord of the covenant. The story holds our attention on one level to the extent that we wonder how the covenant promise for land will be fulfilled, for, after all, Canaan is already occupied by a thriving civilization. How will this collection of Hebrews, beaten down by hundreds of years of slavery, ever be able to escape from slavery in Egypt, come together as a people, wage battles of occupation, and take and hold a country of their own? The stories of the Pentateuch answer this question in dramatic fashion.


Covenant provides the plot line for these stories and covenant provides the clue to the structure of the basic elements of the story. Evidence of other covenants, treaties, and agreements between a powerful king, a suzerain, and his people, has been found which provide us with narratives of the type the biblical writer repeats. Hittite documents show various kinds of agreeements and reveal a pattern to the treaties. The primary purpose of the suzerainty treaty was to establish a firm relationship of mutual support between the two parties (especially military support), in which the interests of the Hittite sovereign were of primary and ultimate concern. It established a relationship between the two, but in its form it is unilateral. The stipulations of the treaty are binding only upon the vassal, and only the vassal took an oath of obedience. Though the treaties frequently contain promises of help and support to the vassal, there is no legal formality by which the Hittite king binds himself to any specific obligation. Rather, it would seem that the Hittite king by his very position as sovereign is concerned to protect his subjects from claims or attacks of other foreign states. Consequently for him to bind himself to specific obligations with regard to his vassal would be an infringement upon his sole right of self-determination and sovereignty. A most important corollary of this fact is the emphasis upon the vassal’s obligation to trust in the benevolence of the sovereign.2


Several main elements can be distinguished in the texts of most of these Hittite treaties:

A preamble, which identifies the author of the covenant, giving his

titles, attributes, and genealogy. For instance: “Thus speaks X, the great king,

king of Hittite land, son of Y, the valiant, the great king.” Here emphasis is laid

on the majesty and power of the king who is conferring a special relationship

on the vassal. A historical prologue which describes in detail the previous relations

between the two parties. It outlines the benevolent deeds which the king has

already performed for the vassal, not vaguely, but very specifically and

factually. The implication is that the vassal is already obligated to the great

king because of the favor and protection experienced in the past. Thus there is

a real mutuality of contract; but the vassal is pledging future obedience and

loyalty in return for past benefits which he received without having any claim

to them. Strict obligation is on his side; on the great kings’, there is no

obligation other than the presumption and implied promise that he will

continue his benevolence. Notable is the personal form of this prologue.

The great king addresses the vassal directly:

“I have sought after you; although you were sick and ailing I

put you in the place of your father and made your brothers and sisters and the

whole Amurru country subject to you.”

The stipulations which spell out in detail the obligations accepted by the vassal. These usually include:

Prohibition of service to any other great king.

Promise to be on friendly terms with the king’s other vassals; if disputes arise they are to be submitted to the overlord’s arbitration.

Promise to send contingents to support the great king when he goes to war.

Promise to trust the great king completely, and not to tolerate rebellious or critical language.

Promise to bring yearly tribute in person, and on that occasion to renew fealty.

A directive that the treaty be deposited in the temple of the vassal city, and periodically read in the hearing of the people.

The invocation of the gods both of the Hittites and of the vassal as witnesses to the treaty.

Finally, the pronunciation of curses upon the vassal if he breaks the covenant, and the promise of blessings for its observance. These are the only sanctions expressly mentioned; that is, the Hittite king does not threaten military proceedings and destruction. The treaty is a sacred document, and it is the gods who will see to its enforcement and vindication.3


Perhaps the most historic of books in the modern sense of “historic” are the two Samuels and 1 and 2 Kings. The Septuagint4 called the books “1 and 2 Kingdoms” and “3 and 4 Kingdoms” respectively; names that emphasize the continuity of story in the now four books called “1 and 2 Samuel” and “1 and 2 Kings”.   Changing the titles from the kings to the prophet in 1 and 2 Samuel is understandable, as the canon would have been shaped under the immediate influence of rabbis and not kings. Israel’s shift from prophet-judges of Samuel’s type to kings is indeed the subject of the books of Samuel, and that shift is an important political and historical development in Israel’s early days. The story also includes the personal life of Saul and David and the divine intervention of Yahweh in the events of history. In some ways Samuel resembles Genesis in its preoccupation with founding families who are placed at the centre of historical change in the unfolding story of Israel.

Historical causation and divine justice are woven into this story of three central characters: Samuel, Saul, and David. The books focus on three major struggles or conflicts: Saul and Samuel, Saul and David, and David against the combined forces of the two. The history of David’s rise to kingship is personal as well as historical and the kind of “evidence” we are given to consider is a mixture of prophecy, internal musings, messages from Yahweh, and claims about the world, which can be verified in extra-biblical ways. Recent literary study of the books has corrected a misconception inherited from historians to see the story as straightforward reporting by an eyewitness to the events.5 Instead we see the work now as a combination of chronicle, legend, projection, and above all story in the fullest sense of that word.

In Second Samuel we read:

After this David inquired of the Lord, `Shall I go up into one of the

cities of Judah?’ The Lord answered, `Go.’ David asked, `To which

city?’, and the answer came, `To Hebron.’ So David went to

Hebron with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail widow

of Nabal of Carmel…The men of Judah came, and there they

anointed David king over the house of Judah. (2 Samuel 2.1-4)


Meanwhile Saul’s commander in chief, Abner son of Ner, had

taken Saul’s son Ishbosheth, brought him across the Jordan to

Mahanaim, and made him king over Gilead, the Asherites, Jezreel,

Ephraim, and Benjamin, and all Israel. (2 Samuel 2.8-11)


Abner…marched out from Mahanaim to Gibeon, and

Joab…marched out with David’s troops from Hebron. They met at

the pool of Gibeon and took up their positions one on one side of

the pool and the other on the other side. Abner said to Joab, `Let

the young men come forward and join in single combat before us.’

…There ensued a fierce battle that day, and Abner and the men of

Israel were defeated by David’s troops. (2 Samuel 2.17-20)


The war between the houses of Saul and David was long drawn out,

David growing steadily stronger while the house of Saul became

weaker and weaker. (2 Samuel 3.1)

At first reading, this passage, like most of the so-called “historical books” from Genesis to Kings, appears historical. We are given a lot of “facts”. Some suggestion of the causal relationships between events is also given. Saul and David are struggling for the throne; David will win because he is the chosen one of Yahweh. The overriding impressions in the Old Testament are that (1) Yahweh is directly involved in history; (2) what has happened had to happen to allow Yahweh’s plan to unfold properly; and (3) the literary structure of the books follows the form of a treaty or covenant document between Yahweh and Israel. Time after time we are given scenes depicting Yahweh’s participation in the human drama, although these do tend to be- come more subtle in the later books. For example, the direct contact of the early parts of Genesis are replaced by the device of having “an angel of the Lord” speak to characters and then by having the message imparted by means of a dream. One of the basic reasons why the Old Testament can not be considered history, in any modern sense of the word, is clear in the above: for how could a writer be privy to the dreams of his characters? Or, in the passage from Samuel, how could the writer know what Abner said to Joab by the side of the pool? Too often we are presented with material from the omniscient point of view, are told of intent, dreams, thoughts, conversations with others in private, and find ourselves, through the narrative skill of the writer, inside the character’s head. Good literature; bad history.

History attempts, at least, to be objective. That means, among other things, that modern historians feel much better if they can verify events in the past from multiple sources. They like to find extra-biblical sources to corroborate biblically suggested events, characters, and causal relationships. The historian is interested in human recorded past and deals principally with written records. When the inquiry is based primarily on oral and/or artifactual evidence, we refer to the researcher as an anthropologist, archaeologist, or something other than a historian. Modern historians, for the most part, tend to dismiss elements of the supernatural as explanatory devices for the in- terpretation of the events recorded in the documents of the past. Biblical sources receive essentially the same treatment, although some historians are more cautious than others in their sifting out of the supernatural and miraculous elements. Regarding the account of the Hebrew escape at the Red Sea, for example, even those historians who are inclined to accept the account as essentially accurate in its present form will, in their own recounting of the incident, tend to emphasize the natural rather than the supernatural aspects of the story. That is, they usually speak in terms of low tide and high winds and either suggest that Yahweh worked “indirectly” through these natural phenomena or leave the question of his involvement open altogether. The following quotation from John Bright’s A History of Israel, is typical:6

Concerning these events, to be sure, we can add nothing to what

the Bible tells us. It appears that Hebrews, attempting to escape,

were pinned between the sea and the Egyptian army and were

saved when a wind drove the waters back, allowing them to pass

(Ex. 14.21,27); the pursuing Egyptians, caught by the returning

flood, were drowned. If Israel saw in this the hand of God, the

historian certainly has no evidence to contradict it!

But such a comment merely begs the question of causality, since nothing will count as evidence for or against such an interpretation. Did the wind blow at the Red Sea while the Hebrews were making good their escape? Who knows? Did God cause the wind to blow? Who knows? Within the mythical architecture of Exodus the answer is simple. Yahweh parts the waters and then collapses them on the Egyptians. `Did this really happen?’ is the question of the literalist, depending on a misunderstanding of the nature of the text: remember, these are not factual claims about the world, but performatives within a story true to the world. The defeat at the Red Sea is the defeat of the Pharaoh-god by the Hebrew god, Yahweh. At the level of story this defeat is “evidence” of the power of the Hebrew god. For centuries after, the Jew can point to this story as “evidence” for chosen tribe status and as a reminder of the covenant between Israel and Yahweh. The stories in the Old Testament are forming and shaping a people just as the writers of the stories are forming and shaping the people through the stories. Egyptian records do not indicate anything about Moses and the escape at the Red Sea, but if we found them and if such a person as Moses existed to take the Hebrews out of Egypt, then we could expect the Egyptian story to be a much different story with a different line about causality offered to explain the events. We have difficulty sorting out the real causes of events in our own time, and we still tell stories to reassure ourselves that there is indeed some understandable cause for events that affect us. And some of us today continue to offer god as the cause for things we do not understand or cannot see except in some purposeful way.7

Many recent discoveries in archaeology have sparked historical interest in the Old Testament. Since about 1890 archaeologists have been constantly active in “the holy land” and have provided us with a wealth of non-written sources for information on such things as weapons, dress, foodstuffs, ceramic wares, architectural styles and other silent artifacts that help us to put together the past. They have also discovered a number of written documents from the ancient Near East which have proved to be especially relevant for the study of Israel’s history during Old Testament times. These include:


  1.   The Amarna tablets
  2.   Royal Egyptian Inscriptions
  3.   The Mesha Inscription
  4.   Royal Assyrian Inscriptions
  5.   The Babylonian Chronicles
  6.   Hebrew and Armaic Ostraca


The Armana Tablets were discovered in 1887 in the El-Amarna district of Egypt, about ninety miles south of Cairo. Written in Akkadian, most of them are letters belonging to the correspondence between the Egyptian court during the reigns of Amenophis IV, and the vassal rulers of city-states in Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine. They reflect the political and sociological cir- cumstances in Palestine during the first half of the fourteenth century BCE (before Common Era). References to the “apiru” in the Amarna Tablets have generated much discussion among Old Testament scholars, since this Akkadian term may be related etymologically to the designation “Hebrew” used in the Old Testament.

The royal Egyptian Inscriptions comprise the official Egyptian reports of Asiatic campaigns and lists of conquered cities. These documents are of some importance to early Israeli history though the age of Egyptian empire and conquests had already passed by the time of the settlement of the Hebrew tribes in Palestine. The hymn of victory of Merneptah (c. 1236-1223 B.C.E.), discovered in Thebes in 1896, is an especially interesting exception in that it provides the earliest known non-biblical reference to Israel:8

The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!”

Not one raises his head among the Nine bows.

Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;

Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;

Carried off is Ashkelon; seized is Geyer;

Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;

Israel is laid to waste, his seed is not;

Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!

All lands together, they are pacified…


The Mesha Inscription is a stele erected by Mesha, King of Moab, during the mid ninth century B.C.E., and discovered in Jordan in 1868. It memorializes the King’s reign and celebrates his recovery of Moabite independence from Israel (cf. 2 Kings 3.4ff). Many other inscriptions from the period of the Divided Kingdom have been discovered and each makes a contribution to our understanding of the history of Syria-Palestine during Israel’s monarchial period.

Records have been discovered from Assyrian Kings and from Babylonian and Persian Kings which also assist us in understanding the time of the ancient Near East and provide us with valuable information, useful to historians and biblical commentators alike, to assess certain “historical” sections of the biblical stories. Finally, the ostraca (potsherds which bear messages) provide lists, letters, etc. which give additional information about Hebrew life. Some claim a special relationship between the Bible and archaeology9, pointing out that “the Bible describes public life and the `word of the spirit;’ archaeology fills in a knowledge of everyday life and culture, [and] both are necessary if we are to comprehend ancient Israel in its full variety and vitality.” To the extent that the Bible is a text presenting radical theology it can not be judged as a book of history or a record of everyday life. One obvious limitation that flows from the theological intentions of the writers/editors is that they tell us next to nothing about the daily life of the average Hebrew. Archaeology has dramatically changed our understanding of the everyday life of those people who are in the background in the biblical stories.

Professor Dever says of the relationship between the Bible and archaeology, “the legitimate archaeologist (in contrast to the “raider of the lost ark”) will…not attempt to date the creation, or set out to locate the Garden of Eden and excavate the bones of Adam and Eve, or establish flood levels and dig up the timbers of Noah’s ark.” Those who do from time to time announce that they are setting out to find the ark, or to search for Joseph’s bones, are making the basic mistake of misunderstanding the nature of the text. Once again, these stories are not literal social or economic history, but are fundamentally theolog- ical stories which present a particular official line. In the first five books of the Old Testament this official line has to do with the “saving acts” of Yahweh on behalf of his chosen people Israel. These stories are not just de- scriptions, but are always description plus theological explanation. In a recent movie about a veteran of Vietnam (“In Country”) a U.S. general “blesses” his men who are on their way to the war. He says: “You are chosen to fight godless communism…you men have been chosen to be the leaders in a fight that will never be forgotten…you are chosen…America is never going to forget you…you are the best…good luck and go with God.” It makes no sense to ask if what the general says is true or false; these are not statements of fact. They are part of the official line of the time. And as we have seen in relation to the war in Vietnam the official line has changed. But the story line has not changed; the horrors of that war, the people who fought in it, and the human costs, these are as real as the stories in the Old Testament.

There are many non-biblical sources of written and “silent” artifacts which can aid the student of the Bible in recreating the time of the biblical patriarchs and of the monarchs of the Great Kingdom. To return to the passage at the beginning of this chapter, we can say that even though the narrative is embellished with legend and with omniscient point of view it does nevertheless provide some firm historical facts: there really was a David who fought a civil war against the house of Saul, achieved undisputed sovereignty over the twelve tribes, conquered Jerusalem, founded a dynasty, created a small empire, and was succeeded by his son Solomon. These facts are facts not because the Bible says so, but because they are facts. These stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his material along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of his characters. He feels entirely free, as did Shakespeare, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention, or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have knowledge of exactly what was said. If history at all, this is a special genre of history.

One other characteristic of the text that makes it difficult to consider as history is that of selection. The main story is of Israel and of the House of David. This concern means that at times when the events do not fit those patterns they receive short shrift. For example, here is the story of Manasseh:

Manasseh was twelve years old when he came to the throne, and he

reigned in Jerusalem for fifty-five years…he did what was wrong in

the eyes of the Lord, in following the abominable practices of the

nations which the Lord had dispossessed in favour of the

Israelites….the Lord spoke…:`Because Manasseh …has done these

abominable things, outdoing the Amorites before him in

wickedness, and because he has led Judah into sin with his idols,

this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: I will bring disaster

on Jerusalem and Judah…” (2 Kings 21.1 ff)

From twelve years old to sixty seven years old Manasseh reigned as King, and yet we get his entire life’s history in just a few hundred words. His son, Amon, is dismissed by the writer in even fewer words so that we can get to the events of real importance for the writer in Josiah’s reign:   the discovery of the Deuteronomy (“I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.”).

It is as Professor Alter says10 “what the bible offers us is an uneven continuum and a constant interweaving of factual historical detail (especially, but by no means exclusively, for the later periods) with purely legendary “history”; occasional enigmatic stories; archetypal fictions of the founding fathers of the Nation; folktales of heroes and wonder-working men of God; verisimilar inventions of wholly fictional personages attached to the progress of natural history; and fictionalized versions of known historical personages.” The history in the Bible should not be confused with history and the Bible.




Without the Bible we would know nothing of Moses. He is not mentioned anywhere else. From the time he first appears in Exodus until we are told of his death in the last chapter of Deuteronomy we are dealing with a fictional character stitched to some real historical events. The exodus from Egypt was probably a real event. The entry into the “Promised Land” was likely a real event although most scholars today would suggest that the Hebrew take- over of Canaan was a slow process and not the dramatic and nearly instant event recorded in the Bible. The religious experience that Moses underwent alone with his flock of sheep in the wilderness of Midian is certainly a genuine experience of turmoil, resolution, and commitment to a task. How can we know this? From inference and conjecture arising from putting together in- formation from archaeologists, historians, linguists, anthropologists, we are able to have a fairly clear picture of the events telescoped into the Biblical Moses story. We know a great deal about conditions in Egypt at the time when the events recorded in Exodus took place; we know a great deal about the conditions in Mesopotamia and Palestine at that time and about the relations – cultural, social, political, economic – between Semitic peoples and Egyptians.

The account of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, with which Exodus begins, is presented as a part of a continuing story which goes back to the Patriarchs in Genesis. The story really opens with God’s call to Abram to leave Haran (northwest Mesopotamia) and migrate to the country later known as Palestine.


The Lord said to Abram, `Leave your own country, your kinsmen,

and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you. I

will make you into a great nation, I will bless you and make your

name so great that it shall be used in blessings:


Those that bless you I will bless,

those that curse you, I will execrate.

All the families on earth

will pray to be blessed as you are blessed.

Abram’s (later Abraham) son Isaac was provided a wife (Rebecca) by his father. The Lord appeared to Isaac also and renewed the promise he had made to Abraham. Jacob, the chosen son of Isaac and Rebecca, carries on the tradition and the special agreement; he is sent back to his grandfather’s original home of Haran to find a wife, and on the journey there he has his own special encounter with God. In fact he gets two wives, his cousin Leah and her younger sister Rachel, since his uncle would not let him have the younger without first taking the older. But he loved Rachel, who finally bore him Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his special status and arranged to have him sold as a slave into Egypt.11 Once there Joseph rose quickly to power as a result of his remarkable powers of interpreting dreams and his abilities in administration. Joseph like his father Jacob is a dreamer, one in tune with the intellectual side of life, one who is aware of life as process through time. Soon he was the second in command to the Pharaoh. During a famine in Canaan Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy corn and they meet the now mighty and powerful Joseph, whom they do not recognize but who recog- nizes them. Eventually Joseph forgave his brothers for what they had done to him and persuades Pharaoh to invite them and his father to come live in that part of Egypt called Goshen. There they prospered. Jacob died and eventually Joseph died, saying to his brethren:


`I am dying; but God will not fail to come to your aid and take you

from here to the land which he promised on oath to Abraham,

Isaac, and Jacob. He made the sons of Israel take an oath, saying,

`When god thus comes to your aid, you must take my bones with

you from here.’ So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. He

was embalmed and laid out in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50.24-26)

Exodus opens with an account of Jacob’s descendants, the children of Israel, prospering and multiplying in Egypt. On this stage Moses, representing that which is universally human in our stories, is implanted in a historical setting. It is the tiny ark on the Nile that, through Pharaoh’s daughter’s pity, penetrates the headquarters of the oppressors.

Who were these Hebrew people? The word `Hebrew’ does not appear to be the name of a race or a nation, but of a class of people who worked the caravan routes of the middle east – the word probably means something like `donkey-men’ or `caravan-men’. They travelled and traded with their families and flocks and herds, never in one place for long. The Biblical picture of the Patriarchs wandering in Palestine between the hill country and the desert, maintaining contact with their ancestral Mesopotamia and moving south to Egypt when food became scarce is supported by, among other extra-Biblical evidence, the 450 clay tablets unearthed at the ancient city of Alakh, some dating from the 18th century B.C.E., illustrating the social, economic, and political life of the times. The so-called Execration Texts dating from about the end of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (18th century B.C.E.) record the enemies of the country as well as listing the lands and territories adjacent to Egypt.

The patriarchal period, the age of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their semi-nomadic wanderings, is thus roughly assigned to about 1950-1800 B.C.E. in the Middle Bronze Age.12 The Middle Kingdom of Egypt collapsed about 1786 B.C.E. in chaos and civil war. When the smoke clears the Hyksos are in control of the country. They rule until about 1550 B.C.E. when in a war of liberation the Egyptians pushed them out and replaced their rule with the Eighteenth Dynasty. Now the Hyksos and the Hebrews were racially connected. Many scholars now agree that there is some connection between Hyksos rule of Egypt and the settling of the Hebrews there. It seems reasonable to assume that the Hyksos, who themselves had travelled the caravan routes to Egypt for centuries before they took power there, favoured other `Apiru’13 groups and encouraged them to settle in Egypt. When the Pharaoh Amosis (1552-1527 B.C.E.) expelled the Hyksos from Egypt, the Hebrews in Egypt were left without protectors. Contemporary documents show that the Hyksos who escaped slaughter were enslaved. It is reasonable to assume that the Hebrews, now unprotected by the Establishment, were also enslaved at this time. This would place Joseph’s rise to power under Hyksos rule and make Amosis the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.

The Bible account is not always consistent and the chronology difficult to pin down. We must remember that the Bible is not history in the modern sense, but presents the traditions of a people, their national and religious origins, and a fair amount of so-called sacral history (of or pertaining to sacral rites and observances). The account is more an imagined sense of the past which exhibits ideas to be valued, characteristics to be emulated, traits to be developed. The Exodus probably took place in the reign of Rameses II between 1280-1250 B.C.E. We are told the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt which means they came into Egypt in around 1700 B.C.E. which is when the Hyksos established themselves. Recently discovered archaeological evidence shows that the Palestine city of Hazov – destroyed by fire by the invading Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 11.10-13)   – was destroyed in the latter part of the 13th century B.C.E. We can be reasonably certain that by the end of the 13th century B.C.E. the Israelites – now really the people of Israel – were settled in parts at least of Palestine, and the Egyptian experience was behind them, though never to be forgotten.14 In some ways it does not matter what the dates are: the story has taken on a timelessness that makes it the myth to inflame any suppressed peoples anywhere.

What of this Moses? What kind of man is he? First of all the story gives us Moses the Hebrew who also in some sense is an Egyptian – and in this paradox lay his special powers.15 We are told of his genealogy in simple terms: “A descendant of Levi married a Levite woman who conceived and bore a son.” Levi was one of the sons of Jacob. Martin Buber in his book Moses has this to say:

“…in order that the one appointed to liberate his nation should

grow up to be the liberator…he had to be introduced into the

stronghold of the aliens, into that royal court by which Israel has

been enslaved; and he must grow up there. This is a kind of

liberation which cannot be brought by anyone who grew up as a

slave, not yet by anyone who is not connected with the slaves; but

only by one of the latter who has been brought up in the midst of

the aliens and has received an education equipping him with all

their wisdoms and powers, and thereafter `goes forth to his

brethren and observes their burdens.’. (page 27)

The marvellous story of Moses’ deliverance from the Nile has caught the imagination of many a child. It is told quickly: “Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her ladies-in-waiting walked along the bank. She noticed the basket among the reeds and sent her slave-girl for it. She took it from her and when she opened it, she saw the child. It was crying, and she was filled with pity for it. `Why,’ she said, `it is a little   Hebrew boy.'” The human cry of the child strikes a responsive chord in the woman and she saves the child from the river. How she explains this child from the river we are not told. And when he is grown, educated and raised in the Pharaoh’s household, he still has Hebrew blood coursing through his veins. All of this is compressed and then we are told of the pivotal episode in his life when he slew the Egyptian. In this act, in the words of Christopher Fry, “he killed his Egyptian self in the self of that Egyptian.”16

Moses, excited by a presumably newly realized sense of identity with his fellow Hebrews, takes the side of an abused Hebrew slave and kills the slave-driver who is abusing him. The next day he learns that there is no necessary gratitude on the part of the oppressed. The Pharaoh discovers the murder; Moses must flee to save his life. This gets him to Midian, home of his mother’s people, where he helps the daughters of a priest of Midian who are being harassed by other male shepherds at a well. Moses, the future saviour of the Hebrews, takes sides with the women in the dispute, foreshadowing the part he will play in the larger drama in Egypt. The land of Midian to which Moses fled was probably in the south-eastern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Midian represents for Moses a simple way of life and a stern desert code in contrast to the cosmopolitan polytheism of Egypt. The life there was much more like that of his Hebrew ancestors before they settled in Egypt. Moses needs time to recover his past and discover his roots. The story has to get Moses to Midian, for it is there, alone in the wilderness, that his encounter with God takes place.

Moses was minding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, priest of

Midian. He led the flock along the side of the wilderness and came

to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord

appeared to him in the flame of a burning bush. Moses noticed

that, although the bush was on fire, it was not being burnt up; so he

said to himself, `I must go across to see this wonderful

sight.'(Exodus .1-5)

After God has Moses’ attention (here again in the image of the burning bush one can sense the human author at work: in the right sunlight this phenomenon happens often, it is the cause that is added here) he tells him of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob binding Moses to this past, this promise. He then tells him of the future and the part that Moses is to play in it. A reluctant hero, Moses responds with “But who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” The answer does not speak of Moses’ special worth or of his special skills, but is about being chosen: “I am with you,” says God. If “I am with you” is present then you are a hero in the full sense of the word. What is `god’? `God’ is the name for the heroic virtues, the commitment to the future, the change to be brought about as the hero brings a boon to his people, or in this story brings his people to a boon. In answer to Moses’ question about his name, God says, “I AM; that is who I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.” “I am” is being itself; “I am” is the necessary frame within which any story can exist, it is the very ground of being for a narrative of any kind. “I am” is the simplest declarative statement possible, and every one of the infinite sentences that proceed depends upon the truth of “I am”.

Moses is to lead the Hebrews out of slavery not because they are his brethren but because they are unjustly oppressed. He becomes a national leader because of a universal principle.

Fry represents the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh as a clash between two ideals: Pharaoh stands for civilization, Moses for humanity and the rights of the individual. What is more important, the pyramids or the men who build them? Fry’s Moses says:


A man has more to be than a Pharaoh.

He must dare to outgrow the security

Of partial blindness…(Fry, page 14)


…What have we approached or conceived when we have conquered

and built a world? Even though civilization became perfect? What

then? We have only put a crown on the skeleton. It is the individual

man in his individual freedom who can mature with his warm spirit

the unripe world. (Fry, page 15.)

The conflict between Moses/Aaron and Pharaoh (Moses, the reluctant hero, has been given his brother Aaron to speak for him since Moses is a “halting speaker”) is at times a childish competition in conjuring tricks, but its function in the story is clear: this Pharaoh has power and is thought to be a god. Many commentators make a point of showing that the conflict between God and Pharaoh is a one-sided conflict, unfair because God has all the power. But Pharaoh was thought to be a god also, and so we have here the conflict between two equal combatants. The story tells of the ascendancy of one tribal god over another, tells of victory and special care by the Israelite god for his people. After this the bull god of the Egyptian valley is no longer to be worshiped, for I AM has triumphed.

I AM has triumphed by direct intervention into human affairs. The account of the ten plagues is rich with conviction of “divine” power working for the Hebrews and against Pharaoh. The object of the plagues is expressed with forceful directness:

Then the Lord said to Moses, `Go into Pharaoh’s presence. I have

made him and his courtiers obdurate, so that I may show these my

signs among them, and so that you can tell your children and grand-

children the story: how I made sport of the Egyptians, and what

signs I showed among them. Thus you will know that I am the

Lord. (Exodus 10.1-3)

The plagues are not magic, nor are they presented as merely natural events. Based on natural events they represent a heightening and ordering and a deliberate turning on and off of events that could occur, but are given a meaning within the story by showing us god at work behind the scenes, manipulating the events to the end of freedom for the Israelites and honour for himself in the future story. They represent POWER – YAHWEH at work on nature herself. These events give the exodus a sense of something very special – divine intervention in the aid of a particular cause. Divine intervention is always easier to write about after the fact, when one knows how things come out. God’s will or intention, like narrative intention, is revealed in the story. God’s intention is clear: tell my story to future generations of Israelites. And, of course, it is in the story that this story is molded and formed.

The final plague is the most devastating- the killing of all Egyptian first born:

`At midnight I will go out among the Egyptians. Every first-born

creature in the land of Egypt shall die: the first born of Pharaoh

who sits on his throne, the first-born of the slave-girl at the

hand-mill, and all the first-born of the cattle. All Egypt will send up

a great cry of anguish, a cry the like of which has never been heard

before, nor ever will be again. But among all Israel not a dog’s

tongue shall be so much as scratched, no man or beast be hurt.’

God has given Moses and Aaron detailed instructions for the passover sacrifice using for the first time the phrase “all the congregations of Israel” and associating the ritual of the passover sacrifice with means of preventing the slaughter of the Israelite firstborn. This is an echo of the original passover ritual, a festival of nomadic shepherds at which a sheep or goat was sacrificed and the blood sprinkled to ward off evil powers, which especially threatened the firstborn. The narrative recipe: take an ancient ritual, wrap it in a new story, and bring the new ritual into history as part of an ongoing story. Another part of the ritual, that of unleavened bread, is brought into the story at this point. A pastoral festival and an agricultural festival are historicized in narrative and establish (constitute) the Passover Feast as a ritual of remembrance of the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. Moses rediscovers himself, his god, his relationship with the Israelites, and he will recast and revitalize the law for the Israelites.

A defeated Pharaoh finally lets the people go (with, one imagines, a sigh of relief) and they become the charge and responsibility of Moses. He is to provide; they will consume. Moses is not a new master, he is their leader: in matters religious and spiritual it is Moses who imposes the way of life. An unbroken chain from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Moses: this bond between Yahweh and Israel is welded in images of contact between the worlds of history and of the “divine” story to be unfolded in history. And what we know of Moses we know through the story.

After breaking free from the bondage of Egypt the “children” of Israel now face the problems of sustaining life in the desert. They need food and water. They will cry for a return to the known from this new position of hunger and freedom and the unknown. They will exhibit all of the weaknesses and fears of a people on a new trek toward identity. The miraculous feeding stories fold together all the traditions of miraculous feeding in the wilderness available to the narrator: manna from above, quail from above, and a constant thirst. The symbolic meaning is clear: the God of Israel is providing for the sustenance of the people of Israel by direct intervention in natural events. Manna may be the secretion of insects and be an edible substance made up of glucose, fructose, and pectin; but its function in the story is to proclaim that Yahweh is manifest in its presence.

A group of tribes, a collection of individuals, is formed into a people at Mount Sinai where the covenant between Yahweh and the patriarchs is extended to include all of the people who have struggled through the desert of despair to a place which will become the sight for the giving of the constitution that binds the people together as a congregation. Imaged in lightning and thunder, shown to be special by purification rituals, offered to the people on chunks of stone, these commandments are intended as absolute: everything in the imagery surrounding the giving of the law is intended to emphasize the importance of the law. “And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” The Decalogue is presented in a narrative package that is distinguished by its images of power, mystery, and the absolute. The WORDS are put in writing in tablets of stone and the writing is attributed to God or at least to Moses acting on God’s behalf and eventually these tablets are placed inside the Ark of the Covenant to be stored in the holiest part of the tabernacle. These words become the symbol of the meeting and contact between God and his chosen people.

So goes the official line. And the power of the story of the giving of the law can work to wipe out of our memory the larger story: on both sides of the narrative devoted to the giving of the law we find stories of destruction and death. This Yahweh who now gives the law is also capable of violating many of his own laws. The wrathful god who previously has killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians orders, “You shall not commit murder”. The official line states the laws are absolute; the story line reveals that in fact the laws can be broken. What is officially intended as a list of duties prescribed by God as absolute, definitive of morality, and constitutive of the proper relationship between human and god, turns out to be relative, dependent upon an understanding of morality, and vague in its expression of proper action. Yes, it is wrong to murder. But what does that tell us? When is killing to be classified as murder? When you kill Egyptians? Obviously not. When you kill Canaanites? Obviously not. Although the official line announces a “truth”, the story line reveals a need for interpretation.


Is this god of Exodus worthy of worship?



  1. “Yahweh” is the English version of the ancient Hebrew name “YHWH” for God.
  2. See George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, Pittsburgh: The Biblical Colloquium, 1955, p.30, for a discussion of these early documents.
  3. See, e.g., the discussion in R.A.F. MacKenzie, Faith and History in the Old Testament,Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963, pps. 39,40.
  4. The Septuagint is the main Greek translation (abbreciated as LXX) and was begun in the third century BCE.
  5. Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel 1878; reprint Gloucester, Mass. 1973), page 262 speaks of events “faithfully reported;” Ernst Sellin and George Fohrer, Introcuction to the Old Testeament, translated David Green (Nashville, 1968) page 163 talk of a writer who was “undoubtedly an eyewitness to the event and a member of the royal court.”
  6. John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd edition, page 122.
  7. Some Christian fundamentalists have claimed that AIDS is God’s punishment for evil behaviour. They are silent on the reasons for their God afflicting those who contracted the virus through blood transfusions of hospital accidents.
  8. Qouted here from The Old Testament and the Historian, J. Maxwell Miller, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1973, page 7.
  9. See “Archaelogy and The Bible,” William G. Dever, Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June, 1990, page 52 ff.
  10. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books, New York, 1981, page 33.
  11. See Chapter 5 for a closer examination of these heroes.
  12. There is a great deal of dispute about dating these events. See the debate between Piotr Bienkowski and Bryant G. Woods in the September/October 1990 issue of BAR (Volume XVI no.5).
  13. “Apiru” or “Habiru” seems to identify a class of people of the Near East who have been a part of the discussion about Hebrew origins.
  14. Martin Noth, The History of Israel.
  15. Sigmund Freud wrote of an Egyptian Moses in his book, Moses and Monotheism.
  16. Christopher Fry, The Firstborn, a play in three acts, Oxford University Press, London, 1952, page 34.


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