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"Chapter 10: The Book of Exodus"


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The genre of this book is most likely epic, though some today would completely deny that there was an Exodus at all. Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, in the March-April issue of 1991, reports on the 1990 joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. On p. 66 he says the mood of the whole session was almost entirely negative. He said there was a "widespread negative fad" as to what could be said about Israel before the time of the monarchy. He added they would like to deny the existence of Israel before the monarchy. In fact, he said, almost bitterly, they would like to say that Israel did not exist before the time of the kings, and would do that if it were not for the Stele of Pharaoh Merneptah who made a punitive raid into Canaan around 1220, and said Israel was laid waste. It speaks of Israel as a people, not as a nation. This reminds us of the comment of Pope Leo XIII, in his Providentissimus Deus of 1893. In it (EB 123) the Pope complained that those who are willing to see all sorts of errors in Scripture - the report mentioned says the negative people "can dispose of [the Bible] easily", yet they accept ancient secular documents as if there could be no hint of error in them. Actually, we know the boastfulness of ancient kings. No Pharaoh ever lost a battle, if we believe the inscriptions.

In contrast, Nahum M. Sarna, of Brandeis University, in his chapter "Israel in Egypt" in the symposium Ancient Israel, published by the Biblical Archaeology Society in 1988, says (p. 37) "The Egyptian sojourn cannot be fictional." For no matter what we say the genre is, no people would invent a story that they were originally just slaves, and report how unfaithful they were to God over and over again. On the other hand, as we said, no Egyptian King ever admitted a defeat in an inscription - he was a god. So the defeat of the Pharaoh by God in the Exodus would have to be passed over in silence in Egyptian records.

We could, however, say that the purpose of the writing was didactic, to teach God's power and justice as against the failures of His people. Then not every event in the book need be fully historical.

Those who would deny an exodus at all are apt to say there was merely a peasant revolt in Canaan.

But for the above reasons we do hold there was an Exodus. We add that Exodus itself (12:38) tells us that a crowd of mixed ancestry went out of Egypt with the Israelites.

When did the Exodus take place? There are chiefly two kinds of opinions:

1) the most favored view begins with Exodus 1:11 which says that the Israelites built for the Pharaoh two cities, Pithom and Raamses. Raamses may be the same as Avaris-Tanis (But this identification is controverted: Cf. John J. Bimson, Redating the Exodus and Conquest, Sheffield, 1978, pp. 35-48). Avaris was deserted after 1500, and was reestablished by Seti I who reigned until around 1300 - there is much disagreement about precise Egyptian chronology. Rameses II began to reign right after Seti. It is known that Rameses carried on extensive building projects, which fits with the use of Hebrews for slave labor. He also moved the capital to the delta region. This fits with the fact that the sister of Moses could easily run to her mother's house when the daughter of Pharaoh found the infant Moses in the river (Ex 2:5- 8). Also the many visits of Moses to the Pharaoh suggest a short distance. Still further when the angel of God slew all the firstborn of Egypt, Pharaoh could call for Moses in the middle of the night, and give orders to leave at once.

Also, toward the end of the reign of Rameses, Egyptian power declined notably, which would make it easier for the Israelites to engage in their attempts to conquer Canaan, than when Thutmose III (1490-36 BC) was on the throne. He conducted extensive campaigns in Canaan.

2) The other theory begins with the fact that 1 Kings 6:1 says that Solomon began to build the temple in the 480th year after the Exodus, in the fourth year of his reign. Since he probably began to reign about 961, the Exodus would come around 1437 BC.

One problem with this view is the fact that 480 looks very much like a round or symbolic number: 12 generations of 40 years each.

If we compare the proposed dates with the time the Israelites spent in Egypt, we come up with confusion. The Hebrew text of Exodus 12:40 says they spent 430 years there. But the Septuagint says that "the dwelling of the sons of Israel which they spent in Egypt and in Canaan [was] 430 years". This fits with Galatians 3:17 which gives 430 years for the period between the promise to Abraham, and the giving of the law on Sinai. That would mean only about 215 years in Egypt.

There are other problems about 430 years in Egypt: Moses and Aaron, according to 1 Chron 5:27-29 were fourth generation descendants of Jacob's son Levi. That would mean three generations with an average of 143 years each. That would clash further with 1 Chron 7:20-27 which says Joshua, the younger associate of Moses, was a 12th generation descendant of Levi's brother Joseph. Then we would have 11 generations from Joseph to Joshua averaging 39 years each. However, to the problems of this paragraph we reply that ancient genealogies were not always like ours, merely family trees. R. Wilson, in Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (Yale, 1977, p. 166) shows that genealogies often were artificial in the ancient world, to bring out relations other than family lines.

As to these figure we can also notice that Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 559) speaks of Semitic approximation. He is right, the Semites cared little for our precision in dating. We can see that in the way in which St. Paul reports his own activities in Galatians 2:1, where he says he went to Jerusalem again after 14 years - with no indication of whether he counted that from his conversion, from his return from

Arabia, or something else. And the Hebrew of Jonah 3:4 has Jonah threatening destruction to Nineveh in 40 days. But the Septuagint of the same text said three days. Apparently the symbolic or broad usage made both seem equivalent to the translators of the Septuagint.

It is usual to suggest that Joseph won readier acceptance in Egypt during the time of the foreign rule by the Hyksos, which began around 1720 BC, since they probably included some Semites. But this overlooks the fact that Joseph's acceptance was basically due to divine help in giving him the interpretation of the king's dreams. The Israelites, according to Exodus 1:8, began to have trouble when a new king came on the throne, who did not know Joseph. But any change of dynasty - and there were many - could give the same effect.

Some recent efforts favor the earlier date for the Exodus. John J. Bimson, Redating the Exodus and Conquest (cited above) puts the Exodus at about 1470. This solves many problems of archeology about the cities conquered by Joshua, leaving a problem chiefly about Ai and Heshbon. Bimson replies (pp. 215-25) that the later village of Ai may not be the one destroyed by Joshua - for there was often site shift in ancient cities - and adds (p. 69) that Heshbon need not have been a fortified site at the time of Joshua.

In Biblical Archaeology review for Sept-Oct. 1987, Bimson, joined by David Livingston, repeats his proposal, giving a date for Exodus as 1460. This would entail changing the date of the end of Middle Bronze Age II to just before 1400 - it is usually placed around 1550. However, Hershel Shanks, editor of BAR, in the March- April 1989 issue, (p. 54), in his report on the same convention mentioned above, says that Bietak, one of the worlds' leading archaeologists on Egypt, estimates Middle Bronze Age II ended about 1500 -1450 B.C. These articles in BAR have generated much debate, as we would expect.

A major development was reported in BAR, March-April, 1990 by Bryant Wood, "Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?" He claims the well known work of K. Kenyon was seriously flawed, finds the evidence really supports a fall of Jericho around 1400. In spite of the great reputation of K. Kenyon, this is quite plausible. An interview in BAR, March-April, 1988, "Yigal Shiloh. Last Thoughts" reports on more serious defects in the previous work of Kenyon who had missed important remains in the City of David area of Jerusalem. For this work, Shiloh received the prestigious Jerusalem Prize in Archeology in 1987.

The Israelites are supposed to have lived 38 years at Kadesh- Barnea, the largest oasis in N. Sinai, with many acres today of fruit and nut trees. But no remains have been found there other than three ancient fortresses, the earliest probably from the time of Solomon. Cf. "Did I excavate Kadesh- Barnea" by Rudolph Cohen, in BAR, May-June, 1981, pp. 21-33. He is uncertain if he found the site, found no remains there. However, it is probable that the Israelites were really in Midian at that time - many remains found there. Midian is where Moses fled from Egypt, where he married, where he saw the burning bush.

We mentioned possible site shift. Jericho was abandoned from Hellenistic times, and moved to near the springs of Ain-Sultan, onto the site of modern Jericho (Er-Riha). But in Hellenistic and Roman times, palaces and villas were constructed at still a third site nearby (Tulul Aby el-Alaiq). So there were three Jerichos.

Kenneth Kitchen (The Bible in Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today, Intervarsity Press, Downer's Grove, IL, 1977, pp. 10-15) offers still more considerations. Commonly a site is not completely excavated, for it is very costly. By 1977 only 1, 1/2 acres of Ashdod had been excavated - it covers 70 acres of lower city and another 10 acres of acropolis. Only 1/10 of the site of Et-Tell, which some think was Ai, had been excavated by the same time.

So we must not be in a hurry to charge errors, with so many possibilities. And of course, the epic genre we suggested leaves room for quite a bit of looseness.

Before the Exodus, God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, and revealed His name, Yahweh. The meaning of the name is debated, it is most likely a verbal form of haya (originally perhaps hwy), meaning "to be". Some would take it as a hiphil form of the verb, meaning "cause to be." So the meaning would be either I am, or I am He who causes things to be.

There is a problem from the fact that in Gen 4:26 we read that "people began to call upon the name of Yahweh." But in Exodus 6:3 God told Moses that he did not reveal His name Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A possible solution: M. Dahood, in a long afterword to Archives of Ebla, pp. 276-77, suggests the name was known to northern tradition early on, but only later came to be known to the Egyptian tradition. It is also possible we have an updated form anachronistically inserted at Gen 4:26. It is also possible the name was first known and later forgotten by the time of Abraham.

The word Jehovah is merely a mistake. After the Exile, the Jews developed so great a respect for the sacred name, that the ordinary person never would pronounce it. Instead he would say Adonai, Lord. When the Masoretes centuries later invented the vowel points, they used the points for Adonai with the consonants for Yahweh, so no one by forgetting would pronounce the sacred name. If someone foolishly reads the word as written, it does come out as Jehovah.

About the plagues before the Exodus - some of these things are known to have happened by natural causes before. However, the fact that they happened at specific times in response to the commands of Moses is supernatural.

At what point did the Israelites cross the sea? The Hebrew is yam suph which may mean Reed Sea. However, when these words occur elsewhere they refer to the Red Sea or at least to the Gulf of Aqaba (cf. 1 Kings 9:26). The matter is complicated by the probable presence of variant traditions, which we saw in chapter 4.

Were the Israelites a people before the Exodus and covenant? Their own traditions make Abraham the father of all of them. However, it is clear that these two great experiences did contribute much to a sense of being a special people. (By then other elements had joined themselves to them, as we saw above: Ex 12. 38.

The route they took in the whole period in the desert is likewise uncertain: Exodus does give names, but the location of many of these is uncertain.

At Mt. Sinai they were taught great reverence: Exodus 19:9-15 forbade the people to even touch the mountain - if they did, they must be put to death. (Interesting contrast on the lack of reverence on the part of some today towards the Blessed Sacrament!).

Then God manifested His presence by thunder, lightning, and trumpet blasts and smoke. The people in fear (Ex 20:19) begged that God might speak only through Moses, and not directly to them.

Then the great covenant was made. Through Moses, God spoke (Ex 19. 5): "If you really obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, more so than all people."

Many commentators try to say this covenant was unilateral, not bilateral. They mean God imposed obligations on His people, but did not take any on Himself. They forget that God said, in effect, in 19:5, "If you do this, I will do that." God cannot give His word and then not keep it. So even though technically He does not owe anything to creatures, yet He does owe it to Himself to keep His word. The prophets in the OT often compared God's relation to His people to that of marriage. Thus in Hosea 2:18-25: "And it shall come to pass on that day, says the Lord, you shall call me 'my husband' and never more 'my Baal'... I will betroth you to me forever. '" Again, He said through Jeremiah 2:2 "Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem; I remember the covenant-devotedness [hesed - more on this word presently] of your youth, the love of your espousal." (cf. also Jer 3:1; Ez 16:8; Is 50:1; 62:5). The language of Deuteronomy 26:17-18 is so bold that most versions do not dare to render it literally. The Hebrew uses the causative hiphil form of the verb twice here: "You have caused the Lord today to say He will be a God to you... and the Lord has caused you today to say you will be to Him a people, a special possession... and to keep all His commandments." Such language seems to put God and His people both on the same plane! In spite of their reverential great fear, they also did understand He was their Father. In Is 63:16: "You are our Father. [Even if] Abraham would not know us, and Israel not acknowledge us: you, O God, are our Father, our redeemer is your name from everlasting." Here for redeemer the Hebrew has goel, which means the next of kin who in time of need has both the right and the duty to rescue his family members who are in difficulty. So God by the covenant becomes as it were a member of the family. Cf. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (tr. J. McHugh, McGraw Hill, NY, 1961, pp. 21 & 22). The word hesed, which we saw in Jer 2:2, which means the covenant relationship does express precisely that concept. The blood ceremony in which Moses sprinkled the book and people with the blood of the sacrifice indicates the belief they were becoming as it were kinsmen of God: Ex 24:3-8. (Cf. the blood transfusion we now have in the Holy Eucharist).

Interestingly, such a bilateral relationship is known even in paganism. Cyrus Gordon, in The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (Norton, NY, 1965 p. 96) reports how King Hattusili III of the Hittites in His Apology said he and the goddess Ishtar entered into a covenant such that she would protect and advance him in return for his devotion to her, and exaltation of her. Greek heroic literature also has many cases of covenant relationship between a particular man and particular deity, e.g., Anchises and Aphrodite, or Odysseus and Athena. Similar things were common among nomadic tribes: cf. Jensen, op. cit., p. 72.

George Mendenhall, in Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954,) pp. 26-46 and 49- 76 and in Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, 1955) saw that there is a well defined pattern in the Hittite treaties of the 13th century: 1)Preamble: the Hittite king is presented, with his titles, 2) Historical prologue: gives foundations for obligations of the vassal, 3)Stipulations: list of obligations of the vassal. The vassal is often told to avoid "murmuring" and must love [=obey] the Sun (Hittite King), 4)Deposit and public reading, perhaps 3 times a year, 5)List of witnesses - numerous gods, 6)Curses and blessings.

But there is no place in the Old Testament in which all of these provisions are found in that order. Rather, the material is spread out a bit. Dennis J. McCarthy, in Treaty and Covenant, (Biblical Institute, Rome, 2nd ed. 1978, esp. pp. 241-76), pointed out correctly that similar situations in different cultures can call forth similar responses.

The covenant does have a legal form, but it was a work of love. For to love is to will good to another for the other's sake. God spelled out what things were needed, in the nature of things, to make the people to open and capable of receiving what He so generously wanted to give. Otherwise, they would run into the evils present in the nature of things for wrongdoing.

Exodus also contains the Ten Commandments and a large body of other laws. Joseph Jensen (op. cit., p. 86) says that the tradition that represents Moses as the great lawgiver in Israel "is undoubtedly an accurate one." But then as society developed, new laws were needed for new situations. However they all kept the same relation to the covenant. This was not deception, it was a way of saying that these things came under the basic authority of Moses. Much later, the oral law, very large, was also attributed to Moses. When we recall the kind of language we saw in chapter 4 from apocalyptic passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel, we will not be surprised at such a way of speaking as that which we see for Moses and laws.

What of the fact that many laws closely resemble older codes, such as that of Hammurabi (c 1725 BC)? The remark of Dennis McCarthy on covenant, cited above, that similar situations call forth similar responses applies here - that is, these laws were framed to cover the same kind of circumstances as those envisioned by Hammurabi's Code. Some laws were given in flat form, and are called apodictic; others were in case law form:... if someone does thus... then.... It is the case laws that most resemble the Code of Hammurabi.

Some authors do not read carefully enough Ex 20:24-25 and Dt 12 and as a result say there is a conflict. Exodus, they say, permits many places of sacrifice, while Dt speaks of only one. But if we read carefully we find that in Dt. 12, especially at verses 10-11, that God tells them that after they have crossed the Jordan and after God has given them rest from their enemies -which would come only in the time of Solomon, then they shall have an altar only in the place which God will choose.

Exodus 12:37 seems to give the number of Israelites who departed in the Exodus as 600, 000 men on foot, not counting women and children. That would probably result in a figure of two to three million total. But the entire population of Egypt at the time was about 3 million. One explanation is that the number comes from gemetria, that is, adding up the numerical value of the letters of bene ysrael, which would be 603, 000. But this does not seem to be consistent with other passages. Another suggestions is to take the word elef to mean families. Still another suggestion is to say the number is magnified, multiplied by ten, for the honor of God. Then we would have 60, 000, a manageable figure. Since the genre seems to be epic, this proposal is quite plausible. Interestingly, the Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us (7. 185) that the Persian army in the second invasion of Greece had 2, 641, 610 fighting men, and that when we add the number of those providing supplies, the grand total was 5, 283, 220 men.

Some are surprised at the talion law - eye for eye etc. - in Ex. 21:23 ff. The answer is that it was actually a means of holding down much more severe measures apt to be taken.

Finally, St. Paul in 1 Cor 10 sees several prefigurings - prophecies by action instead of by words - in Exodus, chiefly, of Baptism and Eucharist. And of course the paschal meal prefigures the Last Supper.

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