E. W. Nicholson (essay date April 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Nicholson, E. W. “The Origin of the Tradition in Exodus XXIV 9-11.” Vetus Testamentum 26, no. 2 (April 1976): 148-60.

[In the following essay, Nicholson discusses the religious and historical background of the tradition of divine manifestation.]

In two previous articles (‘The Interpretation of Exodus xxiv 9-11’, VT 24 (1974), pp. 77-97, and ‘The Antiquity of the Tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11’, VT [Vetus Testamentum] 25 (1975), pp. 69-79) I argued that this short passage is a separate unit of tradition in the Sinai pericope; that the introduction to these verses in Exodus xxiv 1-2 is not original; that the tradition neither knows of nor implies the existence of a covenant between Israel and God; that it is a theophany tradition and is strikingly different in several ways from the theophany tradition(s) in Exodus xix and elsewhere in the Pentateuch; and finally that this theophany tradition is of great antiquity and very probably originally contained no mention of the four individuals now referred to in it but mentioned only the seventy elders as ‘the leaders of Israel’ (’aṣīlē benē yiśrā’ēl). In this final article I wish to discuss the religio-historical background of this tradition.


Before turning to this, however, I wish to revise my opinion on the meaning of the phrase ‘they ate and drank’ which I discussed in the first article mentioned above. There I maintained that the phrase meant that the representatives of Israel on the mountain, having seen God, ‘rejoiced’ or ‘worshipped’ and I referred to a number of texts describing cultic scenes in which ‘eating and drinking’ has the connotation ‘rejoicing’ or ‘worshipping’ (e.g. Exod. xviii 12; Deut. xii 7; xiv 26). The objection to such a procedure to which my attention has subsequently been drawn by Mr A. R. Millard is that in such passages the ‘eating’ or ‘eating and drinking’ occur in contexts where sacrifices have been offered. Since, however, according to my understanding of Exodus xxiv 9-11, this passage cannot have originally belonged with verses 3-8, where sacrifices are recorded as having been offered, it is inadmissible to draw the analogy I have drawn between the ‘eating and drinking’ in verse 11 of this chapter and the other passages in the Old Testament which I cited.

In an earlier draft of the first article mentioned above my proposal for the interpretation of that phrase was that it meant that the representatives of Israel on the mountain in spite of having seen God ‘lived’ (i.e. survived)1. It is this interpretation of the phrase that I now wish to advance as the correct understanding of it.

The support I adduce for this understanding of the clause is twofold. Firstly, there is evidence that the expression ‘to eat and drink’ or ‘to eat bread’ or simply ‘to eat’ is sometimes used in the Old Testament to connote ‘to live a prosperous life’, ‘to enjoy life’ or, again simply, ‘to live’. For example, it is recorded that in the days of Solomon ‘the people of Judah and Israel were countless as the sands of the sea; they ate and drank, and enjoyed life’ (1 Kgs. iv 20). Another example is provided by Jeremiah's words to Jehoiakim about his father Josiah: ‘Did not your father eat and drink and deal justly and fairly?’ (Jer. xxii 15) where the context appears to indicate that Josiah ‘enjoyed life, but did not omit to fulfil the solemn duties for which he, as king, was responsible’. A very pertinent text, in my opinion, is to be found in

(This entire section contains 5504 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

xxii 15) where the context appears to indicate that Josiah ‘enjoyed life, but did not omit to fulfil the solemn duties for which he, as king, was responsible’. A very pertinent text, in my opinion, is to be found inEcclesiastes v 16 where the Hebrew text is kol-yāmāw baḥōšek yō’kēl, which must be understood ‘all his days he shall live or spend in darkness’2. It is possible that another text where ‘to eat bread’ means ‘to live’ is Amaziah's command to Amos ‘Seer, be off with you to Judah and there eat bread and prophesy there’ (Amos vii 12), though the usual understanding of ‘eat bread’ here is ‘earn your living’3. We may note, however, that the LXX translates ‘eat bread’ in this text by χαταβίου ‘live’.

My second argument is that scholars have frequently pointed to the poetical style of this short passage, and there are grounds for believing that the author has employed parallelismus membrorum. Thus verse 10a reads ‘and they saw the God of Israel’ which, after a brief description of what they saw ‘beneath his feet’, is followed in verse 11a by ‘but he did not stretch forth his hand against the leaders of Israel’, that is, God did not destroy them in spite of their awesome experience in having seen him. Verse 11b forms a direct parallel to verses 10a + 11a: ‘They saw God and ate and drank’, that is, they saw God but did not suffer the usual consequences of such an experience—they lived.


I now turn to the problem of the religio-historical background of this ancient tradition and draw attention firstly to the discussion of it by W. Beyerlin4. Beyerlin argues that the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 originated in the context of the sacral union of the twelve tribes of Israel, that is, the so-called amphictyony of the pre-monarchical period in Israel's history (pp. 33 ff.; ET pp. 27 ff.). He argues firstly that the reference to ‘the seventy elders’ in the text supports this. The institution of the elders had its beginnings in the presettlement period, but since the text refers to Israel it presupposes that the amphictyony of the twelve tribes was already in existence. The terminus a quo of the tradition is therefore the union of the twelve tribes under Joshua at Shechem (Josh. xxiv). The last time the elders are mentioned as representatives of the tribes is at the dedication of Solomon's temple; after this they disappear as an institution. Accordingly it is argued that, since it was in the amphictyonic period that the elders of Israel exercised their function as representatives of the tribal union as a whole, the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 must have originated at this time.

Such an argument is not without some force. But even Noth did not claim that Israel was from the beginning conterminous with the twelve-tribe amphictyony. He suggested that an earlier six-tribe league comprising the Leah tribes may have already borne the name Israel and that the later twelve-tribe confederation acquired this name from its six-tribe predecessor5. Accordingly, even if there was a twelve-tribe amphictyony in the pre-monarchical period it does not follow that the Israel mentioned in the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 presupposes it and it cannot be argued that the terminus a quo of this tradition is the formation of the twelve-tribe amphictyony at Shechem under Joshua. We may note in addition that it has become increasingly questionable in recent years whether Noth's thesis that pre-monarchical Israel took the form of an amphictyony can be sustained6. The whole question of the origins of Israel is once again open.

Further evidence that the tradition originated within the context of the amphictyony is adduced by Beyerlin from the description of God's presence on the mountain. He believes the imagery here employed has its basis in the Ark as the throne of the invisibly present Yahweh whose theophany took place above the Ark in Israel's cult. Since the Ark was the central cult-object at the central shrines of the amphictyony, this description of God's presence on the mountain derives from the pre-monarchical period. Against this, however, there is nothing in this imagery which can seriously be linked with the theophany which took place above the Ark as the Cherubim throne of Yahweh. Indeed, on Beyerlin's own understanding of the Cherubim as representing cultically and symbolically the clouds and thick darkness which concealed Yahweh's epiphany, it is difficult to see how the hiddenness of God in such an epiphany can be reconciled with the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 that the representatives of Israel saw God7.

Finally, Beyerlin points to the eating and drinking of a sacral meal as an ancient covenant-making ceremony which is attested for the patriarchal period but also for the period of the conquest (cf. Josh. ix) and he maintains that the eating and drinking in the presence of God in Exodus xxiv 11 is further evidence that this tradition originated in Israel's early history. In view of my own conclusions, referred to earlier, that the ‘eating and drinking’ in Exodus xxiv 11 has nothing to do with a covenant-making rite I will not comment further on Beyerlin's argument at this point8.

To the extent that Beyerlin believes this tradition to be of ancient origin I fully agree with him. I cannot accept E. Zenger's argument in his recently published work Die Sinaitheophanie: Untersuchung zum jahwistischen und elohistischen Geschichtswerk, Würzburg 1971, that Exodus xxiv 9-11 derives from the ‘Jehovistic’ redactor of J and E who worked after the fall of Northern Israel in 721 b.c. and during the period of Hezekiah (p. 164). Zenger argues that this redactor combined and supplemented J and E, certainly as far as the Sinai pericope is concerned, in direct support of Hezekiah's reformation and that he inserted Exodus xxiv 9-11 ‘zur Verherrlichung des Zion’ (p. 164).

Zenger regards of the mention of Nadab and Abihu as a secondary addition to this passage by P. But in P Nadab and Abihu are described in Numbers iii as having been wiped out without progeny because of some apostasy they had committed. It is difficult to reconcile this tradition, preserved in P, with the view that a Priestly redactor associated these two men (why not their brothers Eleazar and Ithamar?) with the awesome and highly privileged experience of those on the mountain in Exodus xxiv 9-11. Noth is surely correct in claiming that the mention of Nadab and Abihu, though probably not connected with the tradition in its earliest form, was nonetheless attached to it at a very early stage in its transmission (see my discussion in VT 25 (1975), pp. 71 ff.).

Furthermore, what purpose could the mention of the seventy elders together with Moses and Aaron have served ‘zur Verherrlichung des Zion’? Ancient Israelite tradition witnesses to the death of both Moses and Aaron before the settlement of the tribes in Canaan. How then could any Israelite living in the late eighth century b.c. have been expected to understand Exodus xxiv 9-11, in which on Zenger's view they are both original, as intended ‘zur Verherrlichung des Zion’? Similarly, the seventy elders were an institution long since obsolete by the late eighth century when this ‘Jehovistic’ redactor worked and, though the elders of Israel are represented as having been present at the dedication of Solomon's temple, it is not said that they were seventy in number. It may also be asked whether, if a ‘Jehovistic’ redactor did wish in some way to use or compose this tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 ‘zur Verherrlichung des Zion’, he would have found a better context for it in, for example, Numbers xi (largely J and E material). Here the seventy elders are mentioned as recipients of the divine prophetic charisma at the Tent of Meeting. That surely would have been a more apt place to have inserted Exodus xxiv 9-11 on Zenger's understanding of it. In addition, however, is it likely that a ‘Jehovistic’ redactor would have stated at such a late stage in Israel's history that those on the mountain saw God? There is so much about the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 to suggest that it is of very ancient origin that Zenger's argument at this point can scarcely carry conviction.


An entirely new understanding of the background to Exodus xxiv 9-11 has recently been advanced by T. C. Vriezen in an article entitled ‘The Exegesis of Exodus xxiv 9-11’ in The Witness of Tradition, OTS [Oudtestamentische Studien] 17 (1972), pp. 100-33. Vriezen, with many other commentators, regards Exodus xxiv 9-11 as a separate unit of tradition and reconstructs the original introduction to it as ‘And God said to Moses: come up to me you and the seventy elders of Israel’. He believes that the mention of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu was a secondary addition to the passage.

Vriezen also believes that this tradition describes the making of a covenant. He argues that it portrays God as heavenly King seated on his throne, which stands on a pavement of lapis lazuli, holding an audience for his people represented by the seventy elders who not only see God but also hold a sacral meal in his presence. Thus the covenant community came into existence.

Whilst acknowledging that meals as a means of making a covenant are attested in nomadic societies, Vriezen argues that the representation of God as heavenly King can scarcely presuppose a semi-nomadic origin in the wilderness: the tradition in this important respect presupposes a Canaanite background (p. 115). In this as in other ways he believes it displays a number of features which mark it off from the other traditions in the Pentateuch concerning the theophany and the making of the covenant between God and Israel. He contrasts the ‘serenity’ of Exodus xxiv 9-11 with the phenomena of the theophany described in Exodus xix; Exodus xxiv 9-11 ‘makes only the clear blue sky testify to the glory’ of God, the God of Israel (p. 109). He contrasts also the remarkable experience of the elders on the mountain in not only seeing God but also eating and drinking as his royal guests with the unapproachability of Yahweh in Exodus xix, xx 19 ff. He further suggests the possibility that in all this ‘something breaks through of an original basic disparity in the representation of El and Yahweh’ (p. 109). Furthermore, he suggests that in view of the presentation of God in Exodus xxiv 9-11 as heavenly King, this ‘majestic Elohim fits more into the picture that in the rather highly developed world of Canaan was made of the god El’ (p. 115).

Vriezen is careful to point out that the worship of El by the early Hebrew tribes in Canaan does not mean that they adopted the Canaanite El cult with all its trappings; the Hebrew concept and representation ‘lacked the extravagances of the Canaanite El’ (p. 116). It was a process of adaptation rather than wholesale adoption of the Canaanite El worship. Similarly, when at a later time there was a confluence of the patriarchal worship of El with the cult of Yahweh, once again the concept of El will have changed, whilst at the same time the concept of Yahweh now came under the influence of the worship of El. Vriezen sees a process at work whereby ‘the El religion [was] integrated more and more, without becoming lost totally’ (p. 116).

He describes El as having been regarded by the Canaanites as the father of mankind, the creator, the god of wisdom and goodness, the king of eternity and he alludes to the presence of much of this in the patriarchal religion. Then turning to Exodus xxiv 9-11 he concludes that the tradition here preserved contains all the characteristics of this concept and representation of God: ‘not only the names of God, but also the content [of the passage] bear witness to this: the fact that the seventy might see God and eat and drink in his presence must have to do with the goodness of El/Elohim. He might be approached, in spite of the skyhigh mountain where God's abode was. Though there is also, according to this tradition, an unbridgeable distance between the majestic Elohim and Israel, He nevertheless allowed the real communication with Israel by inviting a full representation of the people. The word berit may not be used, the matter is a fact’ (p. 117).

Vriezen concludes that ‘Yahweh of Sinai has to be considered representing another divine type than the ’Elohim of our text’ (p. 127) and maintains that in more than one way the concept and representation of God here can be compared with the representation of the ancient god El.

At this point Vriezen alludes to the tradition in Genesis xxxiii narrating the erection of an altar by Jacob who called it ’ēl ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl (Gen. xxxiii 20). Beyerlin and before him Steuernagel9 saw a connection between this tradition as well as Joshua viii 30, xxiv 2 on the one hand and Exodus xxiv 9-11 with its reference to ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl on the other, and Vriezen accepts a connection between all these texts and the ancient sanctuary of Shechem. He sees a connection between Genesis xxxiii 20 and Exodus xxiv 9-11 ‘in so far as both might have in view a similar or the same divine worship of ’El/’Elohim/’elōhē yiśrā’ēl’ (p. 127). At the same time he argues that an important distinction must be drawn between the names of God in both texts: he relates the first,’ēl ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl, to the patriarchal period and cites Smend's suggestion that this god is to be connected with Noth's hypothesis of a six-tribe Leah amphictyony which is believed to have once existed in the vicinity of Shechem10. Vriezen believes that the later twelve-tribe amphictyony, ‘the new Israel’, established by Joshua at Shechem replaced this earlier amphictyony and came under the protection of Yahweh ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl, thus maintaining that in this development the name Yahweh replaced El. ‘But’, he continues, ‘it cannot be expected that the name and the representation of El/Elohim immediately would have had its day. We may, on the contrary, expect that in ancient Israel, as everywhere else in the world, religious practices had a very long life. Moreover, Yahwism did not put aside the El religion, but incorporated it …’ (p. 128). Accordingly, Vriezen concludes: ‘Because the cult of ’Èlōhē Yiśrā’ēl originally had its centre in the neighbourhood of Shechem and also the idea of God as the covenantal God in Canaan [cf. Deut. xxvii; Josh. xxiv] is connected with the same place, it is nearly impossible not to think first of all of Shechem as the place from which a tradition of ’Èlōhē Yiśrā’ēl as covenantal God, as we find in Ex. xxiv 9-11 is originating’ (p. 128). He suggests that this passage may have arisen in connection with the establishing of a new Israelite community under the protection of El and believes that ‘Elohistic’11 circles in Northern Israel preserved this ancient tradition of a covenant between Elohim and Israel and that it was later given a place in the Sinai cycle by the Deuteronomic authors12. Finally, Vriezen suggests that at least three traditions of a covenant between God and Israel were known in early Israel: one in connection with Jethro and the Midianites (Exod. xviii 12); the Sinai covenant tradition (Exod. xixff.); and the Shechemite El-covenant (Exod. xxiv 9-11) (p. 130).

I agree with Vriezen on the uniqueness of the tradition under discussion as also with his view that this tradition is independent of other traditions in the Sinai narrative and that it is of ancient origin. But several considerations raise serious doubts whether his main conclusions with regard to the religio-historical background of this tradition can be sustained.

Firstly, although throughout his article he stresses the role of the seventy elders without mentioning Moses (see e.g. pp. 107, 110, 113), his proposed reconstruction of the original introduction to the passage presents Moses as the one to whom the divine command to ascend the mountain is given (p. 103). But by apparently including Moses in the scene described in Exodus xxiv 9-11 Vriezen considerably weakens his thesis, for it involves Moses as a non-Yahweh worshipper. But the whole burden of evidence is that Moses was the leader of the exodus groups and also a worshipper of Yahweh. If the scene on the mountain depicts an El-worshipping Israel then Moses must be regarded as not having originally belonged to this tradition. From my own discussion of the antiquity of the tradition (VT 25 (1975), pp. 76-78) I remain convinced that none of the individuals now mentioned in Exodus xxiv 9-11 was originally referred to in it.

A further objection to Vriezen's view concerns the nature of what is described in this tradition. I cannot agree with him that it narrates a covenant-making scene. I remain persuaded that we are dealing here with a theophany tradition. Accordingly, it cannot be maintained, in my opinion, that what is here described resembles a royal banquet held by a king for his vassals. In addition, Vriezen is surely reading too much into the description of the pavement of sapphire or lapis lazuli beneath God's feet mentioned in verse 10. It does not follow from this that the imagery has a throne in mind above this pavement. In short, there is nothing in this tradition which must of necessity be understood as portraying the royal scene which Vriezen believes it depicts.

Vriezen's contention that the ‘divine type’ reflected in this tradition must be understood in terms of El rather than Yahweh must also be rejected. What feature or features of the concept of God in Exodus xxiv 9-11 can be claimed to be typical of El but incompatible with the concept of Yahweh? It is surely inadmissible to say that the ‘goodness’ in the deity referred to in this passage has ‘to do with the goodness of El/Elohim’ (p. 117). All cultic communities believed in the beneficence of the god or gods whom they worshipped (for example the Moabites, as is evidenced from the Moabite Stone) and Yahweh cannot be regarded as in any way an exception. The original worshippers of Yahweh, that is, those who worshipped him even before the exodus, must surely have believed in his ‘goodness’. What the exodus did was not to create the concept of Yahweh as ‘good’ but to deepen it.

Vriezen points to the approachability of God in Exodus xxiv 9-11 as against the unapproachability of Yahweh in, for example, Exodus xix as evidence that the deity in question is to be understood as El. But this argument too must be rejected, for the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 leaves us in no doubt that it was this very approachability on this occasion which rendered the experience described unique. To see God was not a normal experience of those who worshipped him; on the contrary, it usually entailed certain destruction. It was the unique and privileged experience of the representatives of Israel on this occasion that they saw God without the usual consequences; it was an experience which betokened the special relationship between God and his people as a whole here represented by the seventy elders. God ‘did not stretch forth his hand against the leaders of Israel; they saw God and lived’. Accordingly, far from witnessing to the approachability of God, this tradition testifies to his otherness. As such it is entirely compatible with Israel's concept of Yahweh.

What about the names of God in this tradition,’elōhē yiśrā’ēl and hā-’elōhīm? Do they support the view that this tradition is to be understood as an El tradition rather than one concerned with a theophany of Yahweh? It is very improbable that they do. With regard to the first, it is an ancient appellative for Yahweh and in every occurrence of it in the Old Testament it refers to him. The only exception is Genesis xxxiii 20. But here it is preceded by ’ēl13. In Exodus xxiv 10, however, it is ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl without any reference to ’ēl. It is probable, therefore, that here ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl refers to Yahweh.

Hā-’elōhīm, which occurs in verse 11, is widely used, both with and without the definite article, throughout the Old Testament to refer to Yahweh and in numerous instances is employed without the article as a proper name synonymous with Yahweh. Once again the strong probability is that its usage in Exodus xxiv 11 designates Yahweh and not ’ēl.

One further objection must be levelled against Vriezen's views. It is a weakness in his exegesis that he makes no attempt to deal adequately with the question of the identity of the mountain which this tradition appears to presuppose. He simply implies that the mountain in question is ‘the skyhigh mountain where God's abode was’ (p. 117). But it can scarcely be maintained that the mountain in this tradition is El's mountain, the mountain of the assembly of the gods. It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into a discussion of the complex question of El's abode in the Ugaritic texts14. There is certainly evidence that El's abode was a mountain, though its name remains unknown15. It is also the case that both El and Baal hold ‘banquets’ upon their respective mountains. To this extent it might appear that there are resemblances between such descriptions of divine ‘banquets’ and what is portrayed as having taken place in Exodus xxiv 9-1116. But the similarities are merely superficial. In the Ugaritic texts the ‘banquets’ held by El and Baal are for other gods in order to honour one another or to celebrate the erection of a temple; by contrast there is no hint in Exodus xxiv 9-11 of a gathering of gods on the mountain—this alone accentuates the difference between the ’elōhē yiśrā’ēl in this text and the gods in the Ugaritic texts. The solitariness of God upon the mountain in Exodus xxiv 9-11 surely supports the view that this God is to be identified with Yahweh. In Exodus xxiv 9-11 it is the elders of Israel, the representatives of the people of God, who ascend the mountain. In the Ugaritic texts men never visit or ascend the mountain of El, the mount of the assembly of the gods, and in so far as El is seen by men it is always in a vision. By contrast, there is no sound reason for believing that the seeing in Exodus xxiv 9-11 is to be understood as seeing in a vision17.

Attention has been drawn to descriptions in the Ugaritic texts of the building of Baal's palace in which bricks (lbnt = Heb. libnath) and sapphire or, more probably lapis lazuli (Ug. ’iqn’im = Heb. ha-sappīr ‘sapphire’, or ‘lapis lazuli’) and hence to the description of the ‘pavement (libnath) of lapis lazuli’ under God's feet in Exodus xxiv 1018. But once again the similarity must not be pressed. There is no hint in Exodus xxiv 9-11 of a palace or temple and the description of what was beneath God's feet as ‘a pavement of sapphire/lapis lazuli, clear as the very heavens’ may be intended as nothing more than a means of describing, though in a reserved manner, the awesomeness of what the elders beheld.


The real difficulty is that Exodus xxiv 9-11 is such a short passage that any conclusions as to its background, origin and purpose must remain at best tentative. But the evidence, such as it is, points to the probability that was understood from the beginning as a tradition concerning a theophany of Yahweh. If I am correct in maintaining that it originally contained no mention of any of the four individuals referred to in it but mentioned only the seventy elders of Israel, then it seems likely that the tradition is of pre-Mosaic origin.

Such a conclusion immediately raises the question of the origin of Israel and at what stage and how it came to worship Yahweh. The name Israel itself suggests that Israel was at one time an El-worshipping community: the name means ‘El is or does such and such’. Caution is therefore called for at this point. But it need not be the case that the cult of Yahweh was first introduced to Israel by those who came from Egypt under the leadership of Moses to settle in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. The cult of Yahweh is assuredly older than the exodus event and appears to have originated in the territory south of Palestine. In view of this, one final and again only tentative suggestion may be advanced concerning the origin and purpose of the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11.

Is it possible that the tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11 arose in connection with an ancient Israelite pilgrimage to the holy place of Yahweh the God of Israel? Noth has suggested that the narrative of Elijah's journey to ‘the mountain of God’, Horeb, in 1 Kings xix together with the nucleus of the old itinerary encampments in Numbers xxxiii may contain evidence of such a pilgrimage in the pre-exilic period19. Since, however, it is unlikely that a pilgrimage to this far-off ‘mountain of God’ would have been the ad hoc idea of Israelites at a late period and at a time when the belief in Yahweh's presence amongst his people in the land of Canaan had been fully developed, it seems probable that such a pilgrimage would have originated at a very early time. We may add to this the possibility that the tradition underlying Exodus xviii 1-12 may also point to a regular pilgrimage to ‘the mountain of God’ involving Midianites and Israelites. If such a view is acceptable, is it possible that the tradition in Exodus xviii 9-11 arose as an account of the unique experience of Israel's ancestors in a primordial pilgrimage to the holy mountain, that is, a story with an aetiological motif?

Suggestions such as these must remain tentative in view of our present state of knowledge about the origins of Israel. But I hope that this and the preceding two articles in which I have discussed Exodus xxiv 9-11 may have shed some light on the meaning and origin of the remarkable tradition preserved in these verses and at the same time will simulate further investigation of them. For it is, in the end, best to conclude with the comment of G. Henton Davies on these verses when he says that they ‘are some of the most astonishing and inexplicable verses in the Old Testament’20.


  1. The first draft was read at a meeting of the Glasgow University Oriental Society in 1972. The revised draft, which was enlarged and read at the Biblical Congress in Oxford 1973, is substantially what was published as the first article referred to above.

  2. See G. R. Driver, ‘Problems and solutions’, VT 4, (1954), p. 228-9. Driver compares the Arabic expression ’akala ’umurahu (Lane) i.e. ‘he completely spent his life in such and such a way’, and also points to the Arabic ’akala rauqahu ‘he ate his life’ = ‘he became extremely aged’ (Lane).

  3. Against this see E. Würthwein, ‘Amos-Studien’, Wort und Existenz, Göttingen, 1970, p. 79 (originally published in ZAW [Zeitschrift fuer die Alttestamentische Wissenschaft] 62 (1949-50), esp. p. 21), who understands Amaziah's words to Amos thus: ‘So wollen die Worte in 7:12b nur besagen: ernähre dich dort, friste dort dein Leben (das, wenn du hier bleibst, gefährdet ist).’

  4. W. Beyerlin, Herkunft und Geschichte der ältesten Sinaitraditionen, Tübingen 1961. ET by S. Rudman, Origins and History of the Oldest Sinaitic Traditions, Oxford 1965.

  5. M. Noth, Das System der zwölf Stämme Israels, BWANT [Beitrage zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament] IV: 1, Stuttgart 1930, p. 83.

  6. For a survey of the discussion see A. D. H. Mayes, Israel in the Period of the Judges, London 1974.

  7. On the imagery employed here see below p. 159.

  8. For my discussion of it as a theophany tradition see my article in VT 24 (1974), pp. 88 ff.

  9. C. Steuernagel, ‘Jahwe, der Gott Israels. Eine stil- und religionsgeschichtliche Studie’, BZAW [Beihefte. Zeitschrift fuer die Alltestamenliche Wissenschaft] 27, 1914, (Festschrift for J. Wellhausen), pp. 329-49.

  10. R. Smend, Die Bundesformel, Theologische Studien, Heft 68, Zürich 1963, and note 39 on p. 36.

  11. By this term Vriezen refers to a ‘historico-religious trend’ and not to the well known literary source (E) in the Pentateuch.

  12. I find this view very hard to accept. To judge from Deut. iv 12 and v 22 ff. a tradition such as Exodus xxiv 9-11 would have been the last they would have wished to insert into the Sinai pericope.

  13. There can be no doubt that ’ēl in this text is a proper name. See M. H. Pope, El In The Ugaritic Texts, SVT 2, Leiden 1955, p. 15.

  14. For the most recent discussion see R. J. Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and The Old Testament, Harvard Semitic Monographs, 4, Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

  15. Ibid., pp. 35 ff.

  16. Ibid., p. 112.

  17. B. S. Childs, Exodus, London 1974, p. 507 states that the ‘shift from the verb r’h to ḥzh in Exodus xxiv 10, 11, the latter word being the technical term for prophetic clairvoyance, again appears to be an attempt to characterise this viewing as a special category of perception’. But there is no reason for regarding this change of verb as anything other than the choice of a different word for seeing than the verb r’h in verse 10; such a change is more easily explained in terms of the use of parallelismus membrorum which can be discerned in the passage as a whole.

  18. R. J. Clifford, p. 112; B. S. Childs, p. 509. See A. Herdner, Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques, Paris 1963, 4, IV, 62; 4, V, 74; 4, V, 80-1; 4, V, 97.

  19. M. Noth, ‘Der Wallfahrtsweg zum Sinai (Num. xxxiii)’, PJB [Palestinajahrbuch] 36 (1940), pp. 5-28.

  20. Exodus, London 1967, p. 193.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


(Also known as Shemot, Sefer ’Elleh Shemot, Exodos Aigyptou, Exagoge, and Book of Names) Second book of the Old Testament, circa 10th-5th century B.C.

Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch, the first group of books of the Hebrew Bible. Although Pentateuch authorship has traditionally been assigned to Moses, scholars believe that the books are actually composite works redacted from several different sources. Specifically, these sources are referred to as J, for Jahwistic, circa 10th century B.C.; E, for Elohistic, circa 8th century B.C.; D, which refers to Deuteronomy, circa late 7th century B.C.; and P, or Priestly Code, from about the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. Exodus details the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh, the birth of Moses, and offers an account of how Moses led the Israelites from captivity in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. Exodus also sets down rituals and rules by which God's people should live their lives. In addition, Exodus contains many of the most memorable episodes of the Bible, including the burning bush, the ten plagues, the parting of the Red (or Reed) Sea, and the delivery of the Ten Commandments. As a history of Israel and its relations with Egypt, it is considered indispensable by many scholars, but others note that solid historical data is sparse and that the yearly chronologies are contradictory and confusing, suggesting instead that Exodus is better read as a document of faith.

Plot and Major Characters

Moses is the central figure of Exodus. When the book begins, the Israelites are slaves under Pharaoh, who orders that all male Hebrew babies be drowned in the Nile; the infant Moses, however, is saved when his mother puts him in a basket and sets him adrift on the river. He is subsequently found by Pharaoh's daughter and grows up in the palace. The narrative resumes with Moses now a full-grown man. He returns to his people, but filled with feelings of inadequacy, he flees. God then appears to him in the from of a burning bush, commanding Moses to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites. Moses and his brother Aaron attempt to persuade the new Pharaoh to free his slaves. Following Pharaoh's refusal, Moses, once again viewing himself as a failure, returns to God to ask for help. In turn, God causes the waters of the Nile to change into blood, but Pharaoh remains steadfast. God then subjects Egypt to the ten plagues; only after the tenth plague does Pharaoh finally relent, and Moses leads the Israelites on their way to freedom. Pharaoh, however, has decided that the Israelites should not have been allowed to leave after all and pursues them with his army. Moses stretches his hand over the Red Sea and God causes the waters to recede, allowing His people to cross. When they are safely on the other side, Moses stretches his hand over the sea once more, and God causes the waters to flow once more, drowning Pharaoh's army. Moses and the Israelites journey on through the wilderness, where God makes a new covenant with the Israelites, essentially the Ten Commandments.

Major Themes

Primary among Exodus's many important themes is the premise that the Jews are God's chosen people, as well as the idea of the power of names. The book also emphasizes the meaning and purpose of history and God's role in its unfolding. God is viewed as the redeemer and a power who cannot be defied. Another key aspect of Exodus is its focus on the possibility of overcoming oppressive circumstances and obstacles.

Critical Reception

Scholars have long been fascinated with determining the various sources for Exodus and the process through which it was compiled into its final form. The consensus seems to be that little future progress beyond the present state is likely in this area of historical study. While many critics now focus on taking stock of the work done by experts in the field from past generations, others stress that historical analysis was always the wrong approach to take, and that Exodus is more a legendary than historical work. John J. Bimson critiques the main theories concerning the historicity and dating of the Exodus. James K. Hoffmeier focuses on Moses, the plagues, and elements of Egyptian origin. Jonathan Boyarin, in an overview of assorted readings of Exodus, contends that it cannot be understood solely as history, nor can it be used as a perfect model for the present. He believes that the meaning of Exodus is suspended somewhere between the era of its creation and our own time and that to fully appreciate the text, it is necessary to place it in the context of similar narratives and also to recognize its political implications. Richard Coggins also presents an overview of different approaches to reading the book. Nahum M. Sarna discusses Exodus's contents, its description of the nature of God, and its setting, calling it “the great seminal text of biblical literature.” In addition to full-length studies of the work, there are also numerous studies by many scholars who take a small section, even just one line, of text and subject it to painstaking analysis. For example, Moshe Anbar examines Exodus 23.32 and the political aspects of prophecy; E. W. Nicholson analyzes Exodus 24.9-11, its background, origin, and purpose; and C. Houtman studies Exodus 4:24-26, a difficult passage dealing with Moses's circumcision.

John J. Bimson (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bimson, John J. Introduction to Redating the Exodus and Conquest, pp. 10-28. Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, first published in 1978, Bimson examines several different theories concerning the historicity of Exodus.]


It is a fundamental assumption of this work that the biblical traditions of the bondage in Egypt and of the Exodus have a firm historical basis. In 1925 J. W. Jack wrote: “… It is far from likely that any nation would have placed in the forefront of its records an experience of hardship and slavery in a foreign country, unless this had been a real and vital part of its national life” (1925: 10). Similar statements affirming the basic historicity of the Exodus tradition have been made by many other writers since (cf. Noth 1960: 112; Yeivin 1971: 235-6; Bright 1972: 119, 120). It has been further pointed out: “… The national tradition of the enforced sojourn in Egypt, and the subsequent redemption from bondage, is so closely interwoven with all stages of the later development of Israel, that without it the whole process becomes incomprehensible” (Yeivin 1971: 235).

In view of the strength and centrality of the Exodus tradition, it seems difficult to doubt that an historical event lies at its root.

The present writer would express this historical essence of the tradition as follows: A considerable body of people, who were in some way ancestral to the later tribes of Israel, were pressed into a state of servitude in Egypt. They eventually found their situation intolerable, but escape from it only became possible when Egypt's control over them was broken by events which the Bible depicts as miraculous. Then this body of people left Egypt and moved into the area south of Canaan under the leadership of Moses. Subsequently the group entered Canaan itself and took possession of considerable areas of that land.

It seems legitimate to assume that this basic sequence of events is historical. The historicity of various other elements in the traditions will be suggested in the pages which follow, but the bare outline is all that need concern us for the present.

According to the biblical account, the descent into Egypt in the time of Jacob involved the settlement there of Jacob's twelve sons and their families, and the people who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses comprised twelve tribes descended from those families. In other words, the biblical tradition has the twelve tribes of Israel already existing before the Exodus. Martin Noth, on the other hand, offers a very different picture of Israel's origins. Noth does not begin his account of Israel's history until after the Exodus and the settlement in Canaan. This is because in his view the twelve tribes of Israel came into existence only in Canaan. Noth and several others believe that many elements found in the later twelve-tribe Israel were never in Egypt at all. I use the word “elements” rather than “tribes” here, because for Noth the word “tribe” is not a valid term for any constituent section of what was subsequently called Israel until after the settlement period. Hence Noth says it is meaningless to ask which tribes were in Egypt and which were not (1960: 119, 138).

While I believe that the historical facts must have been far more complex than the biblical account now implies, I do not think Noth's scepticism is justified by either biblical or extra-biblical evidence. The biblical traditions themselves certainly hint that the Israel which came into existence in Canaan contained elements which were not descended from its eponymous ancestor Jacob. Ex [Exodus] 12:38 refers to a “mixed multitude” leaving Egypt along with the children of Israel, and we subsequently find non-Israelite groups such as the Kenites, Kenizzites and Calebites involved in the occupation of Canaan (cf. conveniently de Vaux 1971: 487-510 on the role of these groups in the settlement). It is also plausible that various Canaanite groups were absorbed by the people who moved into Canaan after the Exodus, and that these also became constituent parts of Israel (cf. Jos 9; Jdg 1:29; etc.).

However, such hints in the biblical material do not give us reason to doubt that the major portion of the Israel which came into being in Canaan after the Exodus was descended from the group which took part in that Exodus. (Cf. Greenberg 1965: 38-40 for an interesting defence of the unity of “Israel” prior to the occupation of Canaan). Nor is it improbable that the later Israel had begun to take shape in Egypt before the Exodus occurred. We can say this without insisting that the biblical picture of twelve tribes in Egypt descended from twelve sons of Jacob is historically correct. The view of the present writer is that various groups of Semites in Egypt (whether closely related or not is irrelevant here) came to feel a sense of unity during a period of oppression by the Egyptians, so that by the time of their escape they already felt something like national identity.

Israel as a true nation cannot, of course, be said to have existed until after the settlement and the establishment of the twelve-tribe system (which we may assume did not exist in Egypt in its later form), and perhaps not even until the start of the monarchic period. (Whether or not the twelve-tribe system was amphictyonic is irrelevant to the present discussion; cf. Mayes 1974 for a recent examination of this question.) On the other hand it does not seem inappropriate to use the term Israel to describe the group which left Egypt at the time of Moses, but the reader is asked to bear in mind the explanation just given concerning my concept of the Exodus group.

This book will not concern itself with the numbers involved in the movement from Egypt to Canaan, nor with the exact route taken, nor with the events underlying the present accounts of the plagues and the “Reed Sea” incident. Of the historicity of the Sinai, wilderness and Conquest traditions, something will be said on future pages.


At the beginning of his book “From Joseph to Joshua”, H. H. Rowley (1950: 2) quotes with approval the following remark by E. R. Thiele (1944: 137): “Chronology is the backbone of history. Absolute chronology is the fixed central core around which the events of nations must be correctly grouped before they may assume their exact positions in history and before their mutual relationships may be properly understood”.

It is in the context of such a view of absolute chronology that the date of the Exodus becomes a very important issue. Its importance is increased when it is realised how much else depends on it or is at least related to it. The date we adopt for the Exodus affects our date for the entry into Egypt and hence our view of the length and nature of the sojourn and the period of bondage. This in turn affects our dating of the patriarchal period. Our dating of the Exodus also affects our view of the length and nature of the period of the Judges, which in turn may affect our view of the origins of the monarchic system in Israel.

In fact this means that the dates we adopt for the Exodus and the periods on either side of it decide the background against which we view almost a third of the Old Testament. This will influence our opinions of Israel's religious development to a significant degree.

It is also important to notice that the dating adopted for the Exodus will affect our handling of the biblical traditions, not only concerning the Exodus itself but also concerning the subsequent events of the wilderness wanderings and the Conquest. This will be amply illustrated in the discussions which follow, especially in that which deals with what I have called the “two-phase” theories.


The oldest theory since the rise of modern Egyptology is that which makes the XIXth Dynasty pharaoh Rameses II the pharaoh of the Oppression and his successor Merneptah the pharaoh of the Exodus. This theory was first put forward by C. R. Lepsius (1849).

It is worth noting that when Lepsius offered his theory, Egyptology was still very much in its infancy; indeed, Lepsius himself was one of the men responsible, along with Chabas and Brugsch, for establishing Egyptology as a moderately exact science. Champollion had only succeeded in deciphering hieroglyphics in the 1820's, and it was not until 1866 that the discovery of the Canopus Decree provided confirmation that Champollion had hit on the correct method.

At the time Lepsius put forward his theory, the dating of the Egyptian dynasties was in a state of flux. Dates suggested for the XIXth Dynasty then ranged between the 16th and 12th centuries bc. Lepsius himself mistakenly supposed Merneptah to be the Menophres mentioned by the Greek writer Theon in connection with a Sothic Cycle which began in 1322 bc, and hence when he chose to date the Exodus near the end of Merneptah's reign, he dated it to 1314 bc, a full century earlier than would be required by a similar placing on the basis of the chronology employed for Egypt today.

Lepsius' theory was followed by other important Egyptologists (e.g. F. J. Chabas 1873), and by the turn of the century it was well established (cf. Naville 1893: 1024; Poole 1893: 591-2; Sayce 1897: 158; Curtis 1898: 398; McNeile 1908: xciv, 13).

In the 1890's the XIXth Dynasty was still being dated about a century earlier than in the presently accepted chronology, the accession of Rameses II being placed at c. 1400 bc, though Brugsch preferred an even earlier dating (cf. Poole 1893: 591). By 1901, however, Müller and others had lowered the date of that pharaoh's accession to 1340 bc. Today dates of 1290-1224 bc are usually cited for Rameses II (but cf. Bierbrier 1975: 109-113).

Naville's discoveries at Tell el-Maskhouta in the 1880's, to be discussed in detail later in this work, were seen as confirmation of Lepsius' theory of the Exodus (Poole 1893: 591-2; Curtis 1898: 398). The so-called Israel Stele of Merneptah, on the other hand, discovered by Petrie in 1895, caused some confusion. Müller saw this evidence that Israel was “evidently dwelling in Palestine” in Merneptah's reign as an indicator that he was unlikely to have been the pharaoh of the Exodus (Müller 1901: col. 1242). On the other hand, J. Rendel Harris and A.T. Chapman (1898: 802-6) preferred to keep to the view that the Exodus occurred in the reign of Merneptah and to take the Stele to show that Israel in part was “already in Palestine at the time of the Exodus, so that the migration must have been partial and not national”.

Many writers have continued to place the Exodus in Merneptah's reign (Petrie 1911: 55ff; Mercer 1922-3: 96-107; Rowley 1950: 137ff; de Wit 1960: 9-10), and while most have viewed the relevant lines on the Stele as referring to an incident subsequent to the Exodus, some have viewed it as referring to the Exodus itself (Montet 1940: 149; North 1967a: 112-13).

The second oldest theory since the rise of modern Eqyptology seems to have had its origin with E. Lefébure in 1896 (cf. de Wit 1960: 4). In this view, the pharaoh of the Oppression was the XVIIIth Dynasty pharaoh Thutmosis III, and the pharaoh of the Exodus was his successor Amenhotep II. By the turn of the century Egyptian chronology had been refined to the point where it was clear that this view was more in keeping than the older one with the Bible's own note on the date of the Exodus (I Kgs 6:1), which places the event roughly in the middle of the 15th century bc. The theory was taken up by J. Orr (1909: 422ff), and was widely diffused among Roman Catholic scholars by Mallon (1921). It was favoured by Peet (1922), and was argued in detail by Jack (1925).

Jack noted in his book: “There are signs that the old idea of an Exodus in the reign of Merenptah [Merneptah] is losing its hold and that the earlier date is being generally accepted by scholars” (ibid: 257). This change was probably the result of two things, one being that the apparent conformity of the newer view with the biblical chronology gave it, for many, an attraction which the older one lacked; the other being the uncertainty which the Israel Stele had introduced into the Merneptah dating.

Jack also expressed confidence “that further archaeological and documentary discoveries will only confirm the argument” (ibid). At that time, the only relevant excavations in Palestine were those of Sellin and Watzinger at Jericho, and their results appeared to indicate the Amarna period as the latest date for the destruction of the Canaanite city, a date which was well suited to the theory Jack was propounding, though he made only a brief and parenthetical reference to these results (ibid: 168, n.1). Further support for the early date seemed to come from the Amarna letters. Jack and others made extensive use of the references to the Habiru in these letters, arguing that here was extra-biblical evidence for the arrival of the Hebrews in Canaan.

Garstang's excavations at Jericho in the 1930's appeared to confirm a date at the beginning of the 14th century bc for the Israelite destruction of the Canaanite city, and therefore a date in the middle of the previous century for the Exodus (Garstang 1931: 143-8). Garstang's findings therefore gave the early dating a new lease of life, and were used enthusiastically in support of it by Sir Charles Marston (1934 and 1937) and by Garstang himself (1940: 130-31).

However, excavations by W. F. Albright at various other sites, and Kenyon's subsequent excavations at Jericho, which showed Garstang to have been in error on many points, have effectively removed much of the support for the early date. In addition, there has been a growing awareness that the theoretical link between the Amarna Habiru and the biblical Hebrews cannot bear the weight which was once placed on it. As a result, the early date for the Exodus has now been abandoned by the majority of scholars. A few conservative writers, interested in supporting the accuracy of the Bible's own chronological references, have, however, maintained the position (Rea 1960: 58-69; 1961: 5-13; Hoehner 1969: 306-16; Wood 1970: 67-86; Waltke 1972: 33-47).

The theory which seems to be most widely favoured at the time of writing was first formulated by W. F. Albright. Albright appears to have always held that there were two Exoduses, and that the Joseph tribes returned from Egypt to Canaan much earlier than the group led by Moses (Albright 1918: 138ff; 1921: 66; 1935b: 15). In Albright's view, the Joseph tribes, which he identified with the Habiru of the Amarna letters, arrived in Palestine at about 1400 bc. But his archaeological discoveries later caused this initial Hebrew penetration to lose its significance in his overall view. In 1934, while excavatinq Bethel (Beitin), Albright found a massive destruction layer which he felt “compelled” to identify with an Israelite capture of the city, and which he dated to the 13th century bc. He wrote: “In reaching this obvious and inescapable conclusion, the writer abandons a position he has held for eleven years, and adopts the low date for the Israelite conquest of central Palestine” (1934: 10). Subsequently his date for the Exodus of the Leah tribes under the leadership of Moses, c. 1290 bc (cf. 1935b: 16), came to the fore in Albright's theory, with the main wave of the Conquest, supposedly attested by finds not only at Bethel but also at Lachish (cf. 1939: 22-3), dated to the second half of the 13th century bc. (Though Albright never officially repudiated his original two Exodus theory, the hypothetical earlier Exodus of the Joseph tribes dropped out of his later writings, so that in them Albright always means the 13th century event which occurred under the leadership of Moses when he refers to the Exodus.) In 1939 Albright wrote: “… The burden of proof is now entirely on those scholars who still wish to place the main phase of the Israelite conquest of Palestine before the thirteenth century b.c.” (1939: 23).

Albright's dating of the Exodus places the event early in the reign of Rameses II, and the Oppression is held to have begun during the reign of his predecessor, Seti I. This placing of the Exodus was offered earlier, though on completely different grounds and in the framework of a different Egyptian chronology, by E. Mahler (1901: 33-67), and was objected to by Naville (1893: 1023) on the grounds that it “raises a considerable historical difficulty, for it is hardly possible to admit that the Hebrews should have left Egypt at the beginning of the reign of Rameses II, when the king was at the pinnacle of his might and power”. This objection has been revived in connection with Albright's theory by Rowton (1953: 49).

Notwithstanding this difficulty, Albright's placing of the Exodus has been followed broadly, with some variations in the precise date adopted, by a great many scholars (Burrows 1941: 79; Wright 1945: 39; 1962a: 60; 1962b: 190-91; Finegan 1946: 105-8; Aharoni 1957: 139-40; 1967: 178; Freedman 1961: 207; Kitchen and Mitchell 1962: 214-15; Kitchen 1966: 57-75; Anderson 1966: 28; Harrison 1970: 325; de Vaux 1971: 368; Bright 1972: 121-2).

Some scholars maintain reservations concerning the precise placing of the Exodus, but still date it confidently to the 13th century bc. Thus Bruce (1963: 12) and Hyatt (1971: 42-4) both hold that the Exodus could have occurred under either Rameses II or Merneptah; Eissfeldt (1965a: 17-18) and Herrmann (1975: 62) both place the Exodus in the latter part of the 13th century without naming the pharaoh concerned, and Noth, while affirming that the Oppression included building tasks carried out under Rameses II, dates the Exodus simply to the 13th century without attempting a more precise placement (1960: 120). The recent theory which rejects Albright's evidence for the Conquest and shifts that event to the beginning of the 12th century, still leaves Moses and the Exodus in the latter part of the 13th (cf. Campbell 1975: 153).

Thus we may say that the 13th century bc is presently the most widely preferred time for the Exodus. The following remark by D. N. Freedman (1961: 207), though written some years ago, is still an accurate expression of the prevailing view: “The thirteenth century is now all but unanimously agreed upon as the date of the Exodus; both earlier and later centuries have been discarded, and it alone remains both plausible and inevitable”.

It will be shown subsequently, however, that the reasons generally given for preferring a date in the 13th century BC are in fact invalid.


Alongside the theories outlined above, a number of theories have been formulated which involve a two-phase Exodus and/or a two-phase Conquest.

We have already noted that Albright's view involved two Exoduses and two movements into Canaan, though his theory concerning the earlier movement was never clearly worked out. In 1918 he wrote: “The circumstances and date of the first Exodus are obscure; I do not know of any passages in the Heptateuch which may have any bearing on the problem” (1918: 138), and, as we have seen, this hypothetical movement lost significance in the light of Albright's later archaeological discoveries.

Most of the two-phase theories have been formulated in an effort to incorporate both the Habiru disturbances of the Amarna period and various supposed links with 13th century events into a scheme in which the history of the biblical Hebrews can be traced in extra-biblical events. Albright's scheme was no exception, since he saw the Joseph tribes as the Amarna Habiru.

The theory of C. F. Burney is a further example of this tendency. In this rather complex scheme the SAGAZ-Habiru are seen as moving into Syria and Canaan from the north-east at the end of the 15th century bc. These are viewed as including the Hebrews of the Old Testament. At a date of c. 1435 bc the Joseph tribes are supposed to have broken off from the rest and moved into Egypt, to be joined at a later date by Simeonite and Levite elements. These tribes suffer oppression in Egypt during the reign of Rameses II, for whom Burney gives dates of 1292-1225 bc. He places the Exodus of these groups either during the reign of Merneptah or immediately after. At Kadesh Barnea the main body of Levi, along with Simeon, is supposed to have merged with proto-Judahite clans which had not been in Egypt, and to have moved northwards with them into the Negeb and the hill country beyond. Meanwhile the Joseph tribes and some Levites are supposed to have split off and travelled (carrying the ark and led by Joshua) round Edom to enter Canaan from east of the Jordan (Burney 1919a).

In the theory of T. J. Meek, the Habiru are identified with the Joseph tribes led by Joshua. These tribes are assumed to have never been in Egypt. Their attack on the central highlands is dated to the first half of the 14th century bc. The Exodus from Egypt led by Moses is supposed to have occurred at the end of the 13th century. In other words, Meek makes Joshua antedate Moses by a century and a half (Meek 1936).

Rowley argued that a northward movement from Kadesh of Hebrew groups which had not been in Egypt occurred about 1400 bc and that these groups were the Habiru of the Amarna letters. The SAGAZ of the letters, he theorized, were kindred groups pressing into Palestine from the north. Rowley placed Joseph and the descent into Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten, the Oppression during the reign of Rameses II, and the Exodus at the beginning of Merneptah's reign. By extracting the tradition of the forty years in the wilderness from the history of the Exodus group, Rowley placed the entry into Palestine only two years after the Exodus, thus allowing the Israel Stele to refer to a clash with this group later in the pharaoh's reign (Rowley 1950).

All these views have one feature in common, and that is an attempt to identify some section of the biblical Hebrews with the Habiru of the Amarna letters. It is the view of the present writer that the Habiru were nothing to do with the movement of any Hebrew group; nor should the CApiru of Egyptian records be linked with the biblical Hebrews. If this is correct, and it is a view expressed by several writers at the present time, then one of the main reasons for the existence of these two-phase theories disappears.

In addition to this, other more specific criticisms can be laid against the individual theories. In connection with Burney's view, Rowley (1950: 9) has pointed out that no evidence can be adduced for the assumed migration of Simeon and Levi to Egypt at a later date than the entry of the Joseph tribes; he also remarks that the idea that after the Exodus Simeon and Levi should have left the Joseph tribes to rejoin Judah, from which group they had been separated for the duration of the sojourn in Egypt, “seems improbable”.

Rowley has argued (ibid: 141-4) at greater length against the view of Meek. It will suffice to mention one telling point here. The biblical tradition makes Joshua Moses' successor; the association of the ark with both these figures is so strong in the traditions, that there is no plausibility in placing Joshua over a century before Moses as Meek does. Of Joshua Rowley says: “His association with the Ark is not something extraneous to the tradition, but intimately belonging to it. … Yet it is equally impossible to dissociate the Ark from Moses, or to suppose that the story of its making is either free invention or a transfer to Moses of something that Joshua did” (ibid: 142). Moreover, Rowton has pointed out, in reply to Meek's theory that the Joseph tribes were never in Egypt, that this is contradicted by “the fact that alone among all the eponym ancestors of the Israelite tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh are explicitly stated to have been born in Egypt” (1953: 50).

One of the major problems for Rowley's theory is that it makes necessary the omission of the generation spent in the wilderness. As Rowton observes, “This datum is one of the essential features of the O.T. account of the Exodus, and it is very difficult to see why it should have been included at all unless it be substantially true” (ibid). Rowley does in fact suggest that the tradition originated with a Hebrew group which spent thirty-eight years at Kadesh before the entry into Egypt (cf. conveniently Rowley 1950: 164). But it seems unlikely that the tradition would ever have achieved its present form and position if it originated in this way. In its present form it relates to an act of gross disobedience and failure on the part of the Israelites, and it is difficult to conceive of such an uncomplimentary tradition arising except from a sequence of events roughly the same as is described (cf. Freedman 1961: 226, n.14).

Rowton has offered a two-phase theory which does not involve any hypothetical links between the Habiru and the Hebrews and therefore belongs in a different category from those considered above.

In Rowton's view the first Exodus involved the Josephites, who left Egypt and entered Canaan early in the 13th century. This movement took place with the full consent of the Egyptians. The second involved the Levites, who left Egypt c. 1170 bc and entered Palestine about a generation later, c. 1125 bc. They had been taken into Egypt during the previous century as the captives of Merneptah, following the incident referred to on the Israel Stele. Moses and Joshua belong to this second Exodus.

Concerning Rowton's earlier Exodus, two comments need to be made. One is that Rowton supported the entry of the Josephites into Canaan early in the 13th century partly with archaeological evidence from Jericho which is now obsolete. The second concerns his view that this movement occurred with Egyptian consent. Rowton believes that the Exodus story as it now stands contains a blend of two traditions relating to different Exoduses; one in which there was bitter hostility between Egyptians and Israelites, and “the rival tradition according to which the Israelites left Egypt loaded with presents” (Rowton 1953: 52; for similar but not identical views on two Exoduses, cf. Hooke 1947: 83; de Vaux 1971: 496). This latter tradition is supposedly to be found in Ex 12: 35-6, and it is this which is supposed to refer to an Exodus occurring with Egyptian consent. But these verses do not demand this conclusion; nor do they warrant de Vaux's distinction between an expulsion-Exodus and a flight-Exodus. The tradition as it now stands makes perfect sense viewed as a unity; there is hostility between the Egyptians and the enslaved Israelites, and though the Egyptians are at first anxious to retain their labour force, in a moment of crisis and panic the Israelites are commanded to leave. The writer of Ex 12:35-6 delights in the irony of this situation, and underlines it with this little story in which the Egyptians are so keen to see the Israelites leave that they gladly give them whatever they ask. Whether this particular incident is historical or not is not an important issue here; what matters is that it is quite possible to conceive of a situation in which a sudden change of attitude on the part of the Egyptian authorities resulted from some crisis which was interpreted as a consequence of their determination to detain the Israelites. Unless the tradition portrays an historically implausible sequence, it is hazardous to use this kind of distinction as a basis for a hypothetical reconstruction of the events. Furthermore, the taking of valuables by the Israelites is certainly not related in such a way as to imply friendliness with the Egyptians. Against de Vaux, we may add that the Exodus was still a flight from Egypt rather than an expulsion, because the panic felt by the Egyptians was only temporary (cf. Ex 14:5), and had to be taken advantage of immediately.

Another criticism of Rowton's argument is that it gives far too much weight to the absence of references to Egyptian campaigns in Palestine in the books of Joshua and Judges (Rowton 1953: 49-50), an issue which will be taken up in Chapter 2 of the present work (2.2). In particular, Rowton gives unwarranted importance to Egypt's clash with Israel referred to on Merneptah's Stele (cf. Rowley 1950: 137-8). Furthermore, his dating of the entry into Canaan of the second Exodus group relies partly on archaeological evidence which is no longer valid.

Rowton's theory also relies on various data from the biblical narratives which suggest to him that the account of the Exodus is a compound of two similar but distinct episodes; the same applies to the accounts of the journey from Egypt to Canaan and of the Conquest. These data will be discussed under the next heading.


Is there any justification within the text itself for assuming a blend of traditions which originally belonged to separate groups? In the opinion of the present writer, there is nothing in the narratives to support the theory of a double Exodus, a point which was conceded even by Albright (1918: 138). But what of the events narrated subsequently? It is widely held that the Sinai tradition and the Exodus tradition belonged originally to two distinct groups. It has also long been recognized that two separate routes of entry into Canaan seem to be referred to in the book of Numbers, and that Joshua and Judges 1 preserve different accounts of the Conquest. Here the problems are seemingly real.

Von Rad (1938 ET 1966) and Noth (1960: 110-138) have both offered the view that the main traditions in the Pentateuch originated with distinct groups and only became a unity as those groups became merged into a single people. Von Rad's work cited above deals particularly with the Sinai tradition and its omission from what he believes is Israel's earliest “historical Credo”, to be found in the cultic prayer of Deut 26:5-9.

Von Rad's handling of these traditions has already been criticised by various writers, and their criticisms have recently been brought together by Hyatt (1970) in an effective reply to the views of both von Rad and Noth. E. W. Nicholson (1973) has recently provided yet another critical examination of the views of these two writers, in a work which substantiates the conclusions reached by Hyatt.

An important point to note is that the “historical Credo” in Deut 26:5-9 does not appear to be very early, as von Rad's view requires, but either exilic or immediately pre-exilic; this has been argued by L. Rost (1965: 11-25) from the language of the passage. A. Weiser (1961: 83-90) has plausibly suggested that the Sinai revelation is omitted from such summaries as Deut 26:5-9 simply because those summaries deal with God's acts of salvation, and the Sinai event does not belong to that category.

Noth has isolated five separate “themes” in the Pentateuch, and has argued that the Sinai tradition was the latest of these to be developed, considering Moses to be an insertion into that tradition and not an original part of it (cf. 1960: 133-8). But Moses' role in the Sinai tradition is hardly to be explained away in this fashion. As Hyatt says: “… Moses plays such an outstanding role in the traditions of Sinai, as well as in those of the Exodus and later events, and he is so well integrated into all of them, that we should not under any circumstance consider him as only a secondary insertion into those narratives. His presence is required as a historical figure, not simply as a literary figure to bind the various traditions together” (1970: 167).

Aharoni and Yeivin have both tackled the problem of the two entry-route traditions and have approached it in a similar way. In Num 21ff we have traditions concerning the by-passing of the territory of Edom and Moab by Israel, while in Num 33 we have an itinerary which contradicts these traditions, giving a list of stations which lead straight through Edom and Moab. Aharoni and Yeivin both suppose that the Num 33 list refers to a movement through Transjordan which occurred before there were settled kingdoms there, while the traditions of Num 21ff belong to a later group which reached the area after settled kingdoms had been established. But while Yeivin (1971: 76-7) identifies the first group as the Leah tribes and the later group as the Rachel tribes, Aharoni (1957: 142) adopts opposite identifications.

The belief of Aharoni and Yeivin that the two traditions are to be explained in this way rests on the assumption that settled kingdoms established themselves in Transjordan at the beginning of the 13th century bc. As will be seen subsequently, this assumption, though widespread, is very probably erroneous.

There have been attempts to harmonize the two itineraries (Wright 1945: 39; Haran 1971: 113-43), but not in a way which has proved convincing (cf. Rowton 1953: 51, n.24; Yeivin 1971: 270).

It has been noted by Bartlett (1972: 27; 1973: 232) that the tradition concerning Edom (Num 21:14-21) is vague in comparison with the other narratives concerned with obstructions to Israel's progress; the king is not named, and the references to Edom's brotherhood with Israel and to Kadesh lying on the border of Edom possibly reflect a fairly late period. In view of this, we may perhaps suggest that the clash with Edom was not a part of the original tradition concerning the passage through Transjordan. (More will be said on this topic on a later page.) It is also noteworthy that no refusal of passage by Balak of Moab is recorded, only an effort on his part to remove the Israelites by curses when they had already established their camp in “the plains of Moab” opposite Jericho (Num 22:1ff). It is therefore possible that in Num 33 we have a simplified version of the real route taken (omitting reference to the clash with the Amorites), dating from before the diversion around Edom was introduced into the full narrative. It is perhaps along these lines that we should seek an explanation for the two entry-routes rather than in theories which necessitate the positing of two separate migrations.

The problem of the overlapping but far from identical Conquest accounts in Joshua and Judges I has already been tackled a number of times in such a way as to explain their relationship without assuming two waves of Conquest in different periods.

For example, Jack (1925: 70-75; 147-151) has argued for a two-pronged invasion of Canaan in which Judahite and Simeonite groups, and possibly others, moved directly northwards into the Negeb and the hill-country while another group, consisting chiefly of the Joseph tribes led by Joshua, proceeded via Transjordan to enter the land from the east at Jericho. Jack's reconstruction of the movements of the former groups makes good sense of the biblical material, and de Vaux's more recent reconstruction (1971: 487-510) parallels it very closely. The views of Jack and de Vaux differ from the biblical picture in presenting the northward movement through the Negeb as ultimately successful rather than abortive. It should be noted, however, that the Old Testament preserves traditions of both unsuccessful (Num 14:45; 21:1) and successful (Num 21:3; Jdg 1:17) attacks in the region around Zephath/Hormah, and these may relate to attempts made before and after the generation spent in the wilderness respectively. In other words, there is no reason why there should not eventually have been effective penetration from the south as well as from the east, and it is easy to see why a successful penetration from the south would have been almost completely neglected in the main accounts: it had nothing to do with Moses or Joshua, with whom the main lines of tradition are chiefly concerned.

An important point to note is that Num 23:3 relates a successful attack on Hormah (and implies a defeat of the king of Arad) from the south. Here, in Jack's words, is a victory “at the very gates of the Promised Land”; Arad is sixty miles from Kadesh Barnea and only eighteen miles from Hebron; “… A way must have been opened up for an advance further north still” (Jack 1925: 148; cf. also de Vaux 1971: 490-91). Jack and de Vaux both argue that the movement into the Negeb related in Jdg 1:16-17 took place from the south; the “city of palms” mentioned here as the place from which the movement began appears not to be Jericho as in certain other texts, but the Tamar (= “Palm Tree”) of I Kgs 9:18 and Ezek 47:19, lying south-east of the Dead Sea (Jack 1925: 149; de Vaux 1971: 112). In other words, both Num 21:3 and Jdg 1:16-17 may refer to the same successful attack on Hormah, which opened up a route into the central hill-country from the south.

Concerning the contrast between the accounts in Jos 1-11 and Jdg 1, it is probably safe to assume that the latter preserves a truer picture of the settlement in the south and central regions by attributing the capture of various cities to separate groups rather than to all Israel under Joshua. But that is not to say that the account of the penetration from the east by Joshua and his followers is unimportant or unhistorical. Lack of suitable archaeological evidence from Jericho and Ai has led many to suppose a lack of historical basis for the stories of Joshua's exploits. The present work will offer an alternative viewpoint. The list of cities destroyed by Joshua in Jos 10:28-39 has been described as redactional, with the implication that its historical value is small (cf. de Vaux 1965: 27). It is true that some of the cities in this list are mentioned also in Jdg 1, where their capture has no connection with Joshua. Quite possibly these should not be included in the list of cities taken by Joshua (though the possibility still remains that in some cases a city needed to be defeated twice, once by Joshua's troops and again later by another group), but that does not mean that other cities mentioned only in Jos 10 were not taken by Joshua, and even less that they were not taken by Israel at all during the time of the Conquest.

Some scholars, in particular Alt (1925 ET 1966) and Noth (1960: 69), have been completely sceptical concerning the Conquest traditions, preferring to view the settlement in Canaan as a peaceful process and explaining the traditions concerning destroyed cities as chiefly aetiological (Noth 1960: 82, n.2). The present writer's response to this approach to the Conquest is in essence that of Albright (cf. especially 1939: 11-23): “—the ultimate historicity of a given datum is never conclusively established nor disproved by the literary framework in which it is embedded: there must always be external evidence” (ibid: 12). However, the external (i.e. archaeological) evidence to which appeal will be made in this work is completely different from that to which Albright referred.

More recently G. E. Mendenhall (1962: 66-87) has offered another view of the Conquest which differs markedly from the picture presented by the biblical traditions. Mendenhall affirms: “… There was no statistically important invasion of Palestine at the beginning of the twelve tribe system of Israel. There was no radical displacement of population. … In summary, there was no real conquest of Palestine at all; what happened instead may be termed … a peasants' revolt against the network of interlocking Canaanite city states” (ibid: 73). Mendenhall does not deny that a group of people escaped from Egypt and reached Canaan, but he sees the role of this “small religious community of Israel” (ibid: 81) as merely having a polarizing effect on existing populations which were suffering the tensions of the city-state system. Men withdrew from the existing political regimes and effectively became part of the community of Israel; others, primarily the kings and their supporters, fought to maintain control: “Since the kings were defeated and forced out, this became the source of the tradition that all the Canaanites and Amorites were either driven out or slain en masse …” (ibid).

The validity of Mendenhall's reconstruction stands or falls with this statement: “The fact is, and the present writer would regard it as a fact though not every detail can be ‘proven’, that both the Amarna materials and the biblical events represent politically the same process: namely the withdrawal, not physically and geographically, but politically and subjectively, of large population groups from any obligation to the existing political regimes …” (ibid: 73). I do not deny that this process of withdrawal from political affiliations probably describes extremly well what was happening in Palestine during the Amarna period (cf. Campbell 1960). But since Mendenhall does not date the Israelite settlement to this period, there seems no warrant for assuming that the same process underlies the biblical traditions of the Conquest. He does not offer a single piece of evidence for his assertion that the same process was occurring in each case, and without this evidence Mendenhall's theory remains extremely weak. No reasons have yet been brought forward for preferring Mendenhall's hypothetical reconstruction of events to the picture presented by the biblical narratives. Mendenhall seems to have committed the opposite error to that of many writers earlier this century; while they misinterpreted the Amarna letters by assuming they described the same events as the biblical Conquest narratives, Mendenhall has offered an interpretation of the Conquest narratives which rests on an unfounded assumption that they describe a situation similar to that now known to be depicted in the letters. (For further criticisms of Mendenhall's approach, see de Vaux 1965: 21-2, 25; Weippert 1971: 55-126.)

In summary, there seem to be no good reasons for separating the major biblical traditions (Exodus—Sinai—Wilderness—Conquest) and assigning them to originally distinct groups; nor has any solid reason yet emerged for abandoning the basic biblical representation of events from the Exodus to the Conquest in favour of some radically different picture.


The approach which will be taken here will have become clear already from the preceding discussions. It is here proposed that the main traditions of the Hexateuch—the Exodus, the journey to Sinai, the generation spent in the wilderness, and the Conquest—originated with historical events which all befell the same body of people. That body of people may well have been quite heterogeneous, and may have split into two or more groups during the initial stages of the Conquest, so that the whole group was not involved in the conquest of every area; also, it is possible that just prior to, during, and immediately after the Conquest, this body of people was joined by others who had not been involved in the Exodus event. The important point is that there is no good reason to reject the implication of the overall tradition in its present form; namely, that the same group which came out of Egypt moved first to Sinai, subsequently spent about a generation in the wilderness to the south of Canaan, and then moved into Canaan itself (cf. Nicholson 1973: 84).

The view which one takes of the traditions clearly affects the way in which one tackles the search for extra-biblical data relevant to these events. A view which dissociates the main elements of the tradition from each other and assigns them to originally distinct groups of people is free to assume an order of events quite different from that presented in the Old Testament. It is proposed here that such a view should not be adopted unless it remains the only possibility. In other words, I suggest that the order of events in the overall tradition as it now stands should be given another chance to speak for itself.

A feeling has been expressed that theories concerning the time of the Exodus and Conquest have been explored to their limits, leaving the discussion exhausted (cf. Pritchard 1965: 323). Pritchard has remarked in addition that the problematical discoveries at Jericho, Gibeon and Ai “suggest that we have reached an impasse on the question of supporting the traditional view of the conquest with archaeological undergirding” (ibid: 319). The present work reopens these issues and offers new placements for both the Exodus and Conquest events. The Conquest is viewed afresh as a deliberate assault on the Canaanite cities, which met, in its initial stages, with a considerable degree of success. Moreover, as was explained above, Israel is seen as already existing, at least in its formative stages, at the time of the Exodus.

There will be no major discussion of the numbers involved in the Exodus and subsequent events, but the present writer considers the view of J. W. Wenham (1967: 27-32), arrived at from a consideration of biblical data, to be quite plausible: this suggests a total of about 72,000 for the whole migration (compared with about two and a half million on the oldest reckoning, and about 20,000 on Petrie's), and a fighting force of about 18,000 men. That a large fighting force was available by the beginning of the Conquest is in fact a major requirement in the argument that there was a fairly concerted and successful attempt to destroy the main Canaanite cities.

Part One of the work begins with an examination of the arguments on which the firmly entrenched 13th century date is based, in an effort to expose their weaknesses. The final chapter of Part One offers an earlier date as an alternative. Part Two considers afresh the question of archaeology and the Conquest, offering new evidence within the framework of a modified chronology for Palestine's archaeological strata.

Works Cited

The aim of this bibliography is simply to provide details of all the works referred to in parentheses. No attempt has been made to separate articles, monographs and Festschriften; all works are listed together according to authors' surnames arranged in alphabetical order.

A note on abbreviations:

Most of the abbreviations used are standard, and can be found in Eissfeldt 1965b, Index III (with some minor variations). Those not to be found there are as follows:

AJBA: The Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology.

AOTS: Archaeology and Old Testament Study, ed. D. Winton Thomas, Oxford, 1967.

BANE: The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. G. E. Wright, London, 1961.

CAH: The Cambridge Ancient History.

EAEHL: Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, ed. M. Avi-Yonah; vol. I, 1975, vol. II, 1976 (London).

HDB: A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. J. Hastings, 5 vols., 1898-1904.

IDB: The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G. A. Buttrick, 4 vols., New York-Nashville, 1962.

NBD: The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas London, 1962.

POTT: Peoples of Old Testament Times, ed. D. J. Wiseman, Oxford, 1973.

Aharoni Y.

1957 “Problems of the Israelite Conquest in the Light of Archaeological Discoveries”, Antiquity and Survival, 2, pp. 131-50.

1967 The Land of the Bible, London.

Albright W. F.

1918 “Historical and Mythical Elements in the Joseph Story”, JBL [Journal of Biblical Literature], 37, pp. 111-43.

1921 “A Revision of Early Hebrew Chronology”, JPOS [Journal. Palestine Oriental Society], 1, pp. 49-79.

1934 “The Kyle Memorial Excavation at Bethel”, BASOR, 56, pp. 2-15.

1935b “Archaeology and the Date of the Hebrew Conquest of Palestine”, BASOR [Bulletin. American Schools of Oriental Research], 58, pp. 10-18.

1939 “The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology”, BASOR, 74, pp. 11-23.

Anderson G. W.

1966 The History and Religion of Israel, Oxford.

Bartlett J. R.

1972 “The Rise and Fall of the Kingdom of Edom”, PEQ, [Palestine Exploration Quarterly] 104, pp. 26-37.

1973 “The Moabites and Edomites” in POTT, Oxford, pp. 229-58.

Bierbrier M. L.

1975 The Late New Kingdom in Egypt, Warminster.

Bright J.

1972 A History of Israel, 2nd edn., London.

Bruce F. F.

1963 Israel and the Nations, Exeter.

Burney C. F.

1919a Israel's Settlement in Canaan: The Biblical Tradition and its Historical Background.

Burrows M.

1941 What Mean These Stones?

Campbell E. F. Jr.

1960 “The Amarna Letters and the Amarna Period”, BA [Biblical Archaeologist], 23, pp. 2-22.

1975 “Moses and the Foundations of Israel”, Interpretation, 29, pp. 141-54.

Chabas F. J.

1873 Recherches pour servir à l'histoire de la XIX dynastie et spécialement à celle des temps de l'Exode.

Curtis E. L.

1898 “The Chronology of the Old Testament”, in HDB [Harvard Divinity Bulletin], vol. I, pp. 397-403.

Eissfeldt O.

1965a “Palestine in the Time of the Nineteenth Dynasty, (a) The Exodus and Wanderings”, revd. CAH [Cambridge Ancient History] (vol. II, ch. 26a), fasc. 31.

Finegan J.

1946 Light From the Ancient Past, London.

Freedman D. N.

1961 “The Chronology of Israel and the Ancient Near East: (A) Old Testament Chronology”, in Wright (ed.), BANE, pp. 203-14.

Garstang J.

1931 The Foundations of Bible History: Joshua-Judges, London.

1940 (with J. B. E. Garstang) The Story of Jericho.

Greenberg M.

1965 “Response to Roland de Vaux's ‘Method in the Study of Early Hebrew History’” in J. P. Hyatt (ed.), The Bible in Modern Scholarship, Nashville, pp. 37-43.

Haran M.

1971 “The Exodus Routes in the Pentateuchal Sources”, Tarbiz, 40, pp. 113-143.

Harris J. R and Chapman A. T.

1898 “Exodus and Journey to Canaan”, in HDB, vol. I, pp. 802-06.

Harrison R. K.

1970 Introduction to the Old Testament, London.

Herrmann S.

1975 A History of Israel in Old Testament Times, Eng. trans., London.

Hoehner H. W.

1969 “The Duration of the Egyptian Bondage”, Bibliotheca Sacra, 126, pp. 306-16.

Hooke S. H.

1947 In The Beginning, Oxford.

Hyatt J. P.

1970 “Were There an Ancient Historical Credo in Israel and an Independent Sinai Tradition?”, in H. T. Frank and W. L. Reed (eds.), Translating and Understanding the Old Testament, Essays in honour of H. G. May, Nashville, pp. 152-70.

1971 Commentary on Exodus, London.

Jack J. W.

1925 The Date of the Exodus in the Light of External Evidence.

Kitchen K. A.

1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament, London.

Kitchen K. A. and Mitchell T. C.

1962 “Chronology of the Old Testament”, in NBD, pp. 212-23.

Lepsius C. R.

1849 Letters from Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Peninsula of Sinai … With extracts from the chronology of the Egyptians, with reference to the Exodus of the Israelites, trans. L. and J. B. Horner, published in Bohn's Antiquarian Library.

Mahler E.

1901 “The Exodus”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 33-67.

Mallon A.

1921 Les Hébreux en Égypte.

Marston C.

1934 The Bible is True.

1937 The Bible Comes Alive.

Mayes A. D. H.

1974 Israel in the Period of the Judges, London.

Meek T. J.

1936 Hebrew Origins.

Mendenhall G. E.

1962 “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine”, BA, 25, pp. 66-87.

Mercer S. A. B.

1922/3 “Merneptah's Stele and the Exodus”, Anglican Theological Review, 5. pp. 96-107.

Muller W. M.

1901 “Egypt”, in T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (eds.), Encyclopaedia Biblica, vol. II, cols. 1241ff.

McNeile A.H.

1908 The Book of Exodus.

Naville E.

1893 “Exodus”, in W. Smith (ed.), Dictionary of the Bible, vol. I, pt. II, pp. 1023ff.

Nicholson E. W.

1973 Exodus and Sinai in History and Theology, Oxford.

Noth M.

1960 The History of Israel, 2nd edn., London.

Orr J.

1909 The Problem of the Old Testament.

Peet T. E.

1922 Egypt and the Old Testament.

Petrie W. M. F.

1911 Egypt and Israel.

Poole R. S.

1893 “Chronology”, in W. Smith (ed.), Dictionary of the Bible, vol. I, pt. I, pp. 590ff.

Pritchard J. B.

1965 “Culture and History”, in Hyatt (ed), The Bible in Modern Scholarship, Nashville, pp. 313-24.

von Rad G.

1938 “The Form-Critical Problem of the Hexateuch”, Eng. trans. 1966, in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, London, pp. 1-78.

Rea J.

1960 “The Time of the Oppression and the Exodus”, Bulletin of the Evangelical Theology Society, 3, pp. 58-69.

Rost L.

1965 Das kleine Credo und andere Studien zum Alten Testament, Heidelberg.

Rowley H. H.

1950 From Joseph to Joshua, London.

Rowton M.B.

1953 “The Problem of the Exodus”, PEO, 85, pp. 46-60.

Sayce A. H.

1897 The Early History of the Hebrews.

Thiele E. R.

1944 “The Chronology of the Kings of Judah and Israel”, JNES, 3, pp. 137-86.

de Vaux R.

1965 “Method in the Study of Early Hebrew History”, in J. P. Hyatt (ed.), The Bible in Modern Scholarship, Nashville, pp. 15-29.

1971 Histoire Ancienne d'Israël, Paris.

Waltke B. K.

1972 “Palestinian Artifactual Evidence Supporting the Early Date for the Exodus”, Bibliotheca Sacra, 129, pp. 33-47.

Weippert M.

1971 The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Palestine, trans. J. D. Martin from the German edn. of 1967, London.

Weiser A.

1961 Introduction to the Old Testament tran D. M. Barton from the 4th German edn., 1957. London.

Wenham J. W.

1967 “Large Numbers in the Old Testament”, Tyndale Bulletin, 18, pp. 19-53.

de Wit C.

1960 The Date and Route of the Exodus,

Wood L. T.

1970 “The Date of the Exodus”, in J. Barton Payne (ed.), New Perspectives on the Old Testament, Waco, Texas, pp. 67-86.

Wright G. E.

1945 Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible, chs. 2-7, 10 and 18, (other chs. by F. V. Filson), Philadelphia.

1962a Biblical Archaeology 2nd edn., London.

1962b “Exodus, Book of”, in IDB, vol. II, pp. 188-97.

Yeivin S.

1971 The Israelite Conquest of Canaan, Istanbul.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Bible (American Standard Version) 1901

The Bible (New Revised Standard Version) 1952

New Century Bible: Commentary on Exodus (translated by J. Philip Hyatt) 1971

The Old Testament Library: Exodus (translated by Brevard Childs) 1974

Now These Are the Names: A New English Rendition of the Book of Exodus (translated by Everett Fox) 1986

The Anchor Bible: Exodus 1-18 (translated by William H. C. Propp) 1999

The New Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version Bible with the Apocrypha. 3rd edition. 2001

C. Houtman (essay date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Houtman, C. “Exodus 4:24-26 and Its Interpretation.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 11 (1983): 81-105.

[In the following essay, Houtman analyzes Exodus 4:24-26 and surveys assorted interpretations of it.]

24 On the way, while he spent the night somewhere, YHWH attacked him and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah picked up a flint and cut off her son's foreskin. She brought it down on his “feet” and said: “Surely you are a bloody bridegroom to me.” 26 Thereafter he abandoned him. At that occasion she said “bloody bridegroom” with respect to the circumcision.


Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the Old Testament passages which occasion the exegete much brain-racking. It has been characterized by a recent commentator (Hyatt) as “the most obscure passage in the book of Exodus”. The problems of the passage are due especially to its archaic character and to the conciseness of the narrative. In view of the obscurity of the passage it is not surprising that it has often been the object of intensive study. Differing interpretations have been presented. Before surveying the history of interpretation of Ex. 4:24-26 (cf. sub 3), I shall first make a number of remarks on some of the terms which are used in the passage. At the same time I shall draw attention to questions which are raised by the passage (cf. sub 2). Finally, I shall indicate which interpretation is to be preferred in my opinion (cf. sub 4), and shall make some observations on the function of the passage in its present context in the Book of Exodus (cf. sub 5).


2.1. bammālôn (v. 24) (for the use of the article cf. Ges-K § 126q,r; Joüon § 137n); mālôn, a derivative of the root lyn/lwn, indicates a place for spending the night. It can be used for the place where several people spend the night along with their beasts (Gen 42:27; 43:21), but also for the encampment of a whole army (Josh 4:3, 8; Is 10:29; see also II Kings 19:23; Jer 9:1). In the past mālôn has been translated by “inn” (e.g. KJV). In more recent translations the more general rendering “lodging place” has often been used (e.g. RSV). Some authors maintain that in at least some passages (e.g. Gen 42:27; 43:21) a caravansary is meant. With respect to the term mālôn itself there is no need to suppose that some building or an enclosed space is meant. A place which by its natural location was fitted to spend the night may very well be intended. It goes without saying that one ought to think of a place where water was available, where the night could be spent, and where a fire could be made. According to my view, it is presupposed in Ex. 4:24-26 that Moses and Zipporah spent the night in the open air on the hard ground. This assumption is sustained by v. 25: immediately Zipporah has a stone at her disposal. It has to be borne in mind, as appears from Gen 19:2; 28:11; Judg 19:2, that during a journey in ancient Israel the night was frequently spent in the open air.1 In the LXX mālôn has been rendered by to kataluma, a term which occurs elsewhere in the LXX, but with the exception of Ex. 4:24, has nowhere been used to translate mālôn. Kataluma is used in the NT in the well-known text of Luke 2:7 and in Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11. The term has the more general significance “lodging”, and is used both for a better-quality inn as well as for a room.2 In any event, Moses and his wife did not spend the night in the open air, according to the LXX, but evidently stayed at a respectable inn. Diversorium, the term used by the Vulgate, means “lodging”, “inn”, etc. The same sense has to be given to bbyt mbt' in TgO, to bbyt mbtwt' in TgPsJ, and to bbyt 'btwth in TgNf. The occurrence of badderek together with bammālôn is considered “a little contradictory” by some exegetes. De Groot, for instance, assumes that two ancient variants are present in the text. For mālôn, see also the discussion of mûlōt at v. 26 (cf. 2.11.).

2.2. wayyipgešēhû (v. 24); “to meet” is doubtless the meaning which must be given to pgš -qal in Ex. 4:27. The same sense is often ascribed also to pgš—qal in Ex. 4:24 (e.g. KJV, RSV, NEB). Here and in Hos 13:8 however, the verb is clearly used in a negative sense. Te Stroete expressed this sense by translating the verb with “afkomen op” (-to go for-, -to come at-). I prefer the translation “to attack”, “to take hold of” (cf. KöW and Böhl). The meeting of the two brothers in Ex. 4:27 results in touching each other—in embracing. In Ex. 4:24 the contact is an expression of the desire to kill. 2.3 YHWH (v. 24); the LXX does not have the expected translation kurios, but has 'aggelos kuriou, (some MSS have only 'aggelos), “the Angel of the Lord”. The same translation is found in TgO, TgPsJ, and TgNf (for the contrary see Sym. and Theod.: kurios; Aq.: theos). The translation of the LXX and of the Targums is no doubt due to the notion that it is impossible that YHWH himself aimed to kill his beloved. The notion that Moses was threatened by a messenger/angel is found further in rabbinic literature (cf. bNed 31b; Ex. Rab. V, 8)3 and in early Christian literature (cf. the Syrian Fathers for instance; see 3.4). According to Jub 48:1ff. it was Mastema4 (Satan) who had the intention of killing Moses. Modern interpreters characterize the role which YHWH plays in the story as a demonic one and notice that the story is very ancient: originally the story is about the appearance of a demon, an evil desert-spirit.5 Fohrer, for example, thinks that the story had its origin in semi-nomadic groups and that the situation portrayed should be sought “in der auch für den einsamen, wandernden Halbnomaden gefährlichen Wüste, in der an einer nicht näher bestimmten Stätte der dort weilende Dämon den nichtsahnend schlafenden Mann überfällt und zu töten sucht. Er will Blut sehen …”(47). The question about the origin of the story will be left out of consideration here. In the present context it is sufficient to observe that for the author/redactor of Exodus it was obviously not an insurmountable problem to let YHWH play a role which later generations considered to be demonic: Moses, who had willingly departed for Egypt in order to carry out a summons from YHWH is threatened with death by the same YHWH (cf. Num 20:20 as well as 22:22). It has to be borne in mind that elsewhere in the OT as well, God and evil are often related very directly.6 Furthermore, it is likely that the author of Exodus has regarded the event primarily within the perspective of its result: the night-time encounter results in Moses' renewed commitment to his task. (cf. sub 4.2.; 5.).

2.4. hămîtô (v. 24); who is the object? Moses (v. 21) or “her son” (v. 25) (cf. 3.3.; 3.11.)? The first possibility is obvious (in the Peshitta the name of Moses has been inserted twice in v. 24: after waye (cf. II Sam 13:30; I Kings 18:7) and as an object of “to kill”). Moses, of whom YHWH had said that men were no longer trying to put him to death (Ex. 4:19), is now threatened with death by YHWH himself. It has been presumed that an acute and mortal peril had befallen Moses due to the sudden oncoming of a disease7 or to some other divine intervention (compare II Kings 19:35). It is more likely, however, to suppose that the story narrates an attack of the deity who has assumed a human guise (compare Gen 32:24ff.). The following situation may be intended: Moses is suddenly attacked while he is sleeping and the more helpless on account of his lying-down posture. Any indication of the reason for YHWH's attack is lacking.

2.5. ṣōr (v. 25); obviously a hard, sharp stone (compare Ez 3:9), which was lying on the ground; possibly one of the flints with which the fire for the night had been kindled. According to Josh 5:2, 3 flint knives were made for circumcision. The custom of using a flint for circumcision may be regarded as an archaic relic which had maintained its place in the cult after the introduction of metals; “Denn die Religion und Kultus sind konservativ und geben das Alte nicht auf, selbst wenn es sich sichtlich überlebt hat” (Ehrlich; compare also 3.9.). Surprisingly, the circumcision is performed by Zipporah. Elsewhere in the OT this task is never carried out by a woman (cf. 3.3.). Did Zipporah play the role of circumciser on account of Moses' incapacitation on account of the divine attack? (cf. 3.8.). Or had Moses also not been circumcised with the result that it had to be performed by Zipporah? (cf. 3.5.; 3.10.; 4.1.).

2.6. benāh (v. 25); in view of Ex. 4:20 we can ask the question: Which son is meant? A variety of interpretations will be mentioned below (see especially 3.2.; 3.3.; 3.4.; 3.6.; 3.7.). With regard to the use of bēn in Ex. 4:23 one may be inclined to suppose that the first-born is meant also in 4:25 (cf. Cassuto; he assumes a narrow relationship between vv. 24ff. and the preceding verses). Others suppose that the mention of the first-born in both passages has caused the redactor to combine them (cf. 3.10.). According to me it is not possible to determine which son the author had in mind.

2.7. wattagga‘ (v. 25); ng‘ -hiph is used in Ex. 12:22 to signify “to smear” (with blood). In their “Verdeutschung”, M. Buber and F. Rosenzweig have also given this sense to ng‘ -hiph in Ex. 4:25: “die strich sie an seine Beine”.8ng' -hiph in Ex. 4:25 has often been translated with “to touch” (with the foreskin) (e.g. RSV and NEB). The same sense is given elsewhere to ng‘ -qal (e.g. Ex. 19:12f.; 29:37; 30:29). In my opinion there is no reason to identify ng‘: -hiph with ng‘ -qal (for the contrary cf. Schmidt). More justice has been done to the ng‘ -hiph in Ex. 4:25 by the KJV, for instance: “and cast it at his feet” (compare the use of ng‘ -hiph in Is 25:15; 26:5; Ez 13:14; Lam. 2:2). I prefer to understand ng‘ -hiph + le hoc loco as “to cast on/against”, “to bring down on”.

2.7. leraglâw (v. 25); obviously raglayim is a euphemism for the genitals.9 Whose “feet” are meant? The feet of “her son”,Moses' feet, or perhaps YHWH's feet? For this question see below 3.3. and 3.11. (the son); 3.3.; 3.6.; 3.7.; 3.8.; 3.10. and 4.1. (Moses); 3.5.; 3.6.; 3.9. and 3.11. (YHWH); 3.2.; 3.4. and 3.5. (the angel).

2.8. ḥătan-dāmîm10 (v. 25); the genetive should be understood as an epexegetical genitive; it is a description of the adjective “bloody”. Who is meant? The son, Moses, or perhaps YHWH? At any event it must be said that the term “bloody bridegroom” is curious, for Moses is a married man, who already has a son. His son is obviously to be regarded as a young lad and for him the designation also seems inadequate. See further below 3.3; 3.7 and 3.11. (the son); 3.2.; 3.6.; 3.7.; 3.8.; 3.10. and 4.3 (Moses); 3.9. and 3.11. (YHWH); 3.4. (the angel).

2.9. wayyirep (v. 26); the presumed subject is YHWH. Usually exegetes suppose that the suffix of mimmennû refers to Moses. Grammatically it is also possible that it refers to ‘her son’ (v. 25). De Hummelauer has suggested the reading wattirep, with Zipporah as subject. Following the night-time incident Zipporah has left Moses. Moses has gone to Egypt and she has returned to her father Jethro with the children (compare Ex. 18:2b). It is possible that this conception is tacitly present in the mimmennah of the Samaritan Pentateuch: he (Moses) deserts her (compare also 3.4.).

2.10. 'āz (v. 26); the exegesis of 'āz is disputed. In the Vulgate 'āz has been translated with postquam: Et dimisit eum postquam dixerat: Sponsus sanguinum ob circumcisionem;—YHWH abandoned Moses after Zipporah said …—According to the Vulgate v. 26b is retrospective of v. 25b. Sometimes it is assumed that 'āz is used in the sense of “thereafter”: Zipporah begins speaking (again) after YHWH has abandoned Moses (see the differing interpretations of Keil, Dillmann, and Cassuto, for instance). This assumption is in my opinion less than likely. 'āz introduces an explanation on the part of the author. It is his intention to give some elucidation with respect to the designation “bloody bridegroom” used by Zipporah (v. 25). See further below sub 4.3.

2.11. lammûlōt (v. 26); mûlōt is hapax legomenon, the plural of a presumed noun mûlâ—circumcision—a derivative of the root mûl. v. 26b is difficult to understand and, on account of this, suggestions have been given for emendation of the text: lammûlîm—with respect to the circumcised—(thus Gressmann, 57); lammālôt, “für die Beschneidungsmutter” (Richter, 128; compare 3.6.). According to Cassuto emendation of the text is unnecessary: mûlôt, notwithstanding its feminine plural ending, is a masculine noun (cf. Ges-K § 87p; Joüon § 90d) and refers to male persons: “the circumcised”. The interpretation “circumcised” is tied to the notion that v. 26b means to give information about ḥătan-dāmîm, viz. that the designation in question was/had been in use as a term for circumcised persons (see further below 3.7. and 4.3.). If lammûlot is understood in the sense of “with respect to the circumcision” (thus Baentsch; for the use of le cf. Ges-K § 119u; KöSynt § 271 c,d), such an interpretation is also possible. Often the plural is translated as a singular. mûlôt is evidently to be regarded as one of the Hebrew plurals which should be translated as a singular in modern languages (cf. Ges-K § 124a-f; Joüon § 136a-k). Sometimes one comes across the translation “circumcisions”, e.g. Dillmann, Gispen, Schmidt. According to Gispen the circumcision of both Gershom and Eliezer is meant. At present, the prefix le is often interpreted in the sense of “with respect to”. In the past “because” was the accepted interpretation (e.g. KJV and RSV; cf. Ges-B s.v. le 8e; BDB s.v. le 4g). Strack presupposes a narrow relationship between dāmîm and lammûlōt and gives the following translation: “Bräutigam durch Beschneidungsblut” (cf. Sym.: numfios ‘aimatōn tēs peritomēs). Dillmann defends the translation: “Blutbräutigam zu den Beschneidungen” (cf. Aq. and Theod.: lammûlōt has been translated with 'eis peritomas). The problematical character of the passage makes it difficult to take a considered position, and I am forced to adhere to the usual interpretation. Some exegetes have drawn attention to the formal similarity between mālôn (v. 24) and mûlōt, and have suggested the possibility of a pun. Thus H. Gunkel (in Gressmann, 58 n.4) and De Groot, 12. Gunkel holds the point of view “dass mālôn zugleich in etymologischer Spielerei als ‘Ort der Beschneidung’ gedacht sei”. Morgenstern even maintains that mālôn hoc loco is to be regarded as a derivative of mwl. bammālôn has been translated with “at the circumcision” by him (68f.). Such an interpretation is too hazardous. (cf. Dumbrell, 285f.).


3.1. Since days of old, Ex. 4:24-26 has been a problem passage for the reader of Holy Scripture. It has been noted already that, as appears from the translation of the LXX and the targums, the notion that YHWH himself might have had the intention of killing his elect was, at some period at least, unimaginable. The Hebrew version was consequently weakened by replacing YHWH with the Angel of YHWH (cf. 2.3.). In their description of the life of Moses, Artapanus, Pseudo-Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Philo Alexandrinus do not make any allusion to the night-time incident. Evidently they did not know what to do with the passage, which in their eyes was obscure and scandalous. The author of the Book of Jubilees does, on the contrary, mention the incident; but in his version of the event, the history of the Hebrew text has become practically unrecognizable: Mastema wished to kill Moses in order to deliver the Egyptians out of his hand. God delivered Moses out of his hand, however (Jub 48:1ff.). In this version of the event not a word is said about Zipporah, the circumcision, etc. Moses' meeting with the angel and the circumcision of his son are related by Gregory of Nyssa in his Vita Mosis I, 22, for instance, but he gives a deeper sense to the event (II, 37ff.): Greek philosophy is valuable if it is “circumcised”, divested of the “carnal”, the harmful and the impure.

3.2. In ancient times historians could take the liberty of passing silently over obscure and scandalous texts or of giving an adaptated version of them. Ancient translators of the Bible did not have the same liberty. They had the duty of delivering an understandable and acceptable rendering of the Hebrew text. They have acquitted themselves of this duty also with respect to Ex. 4:24-26. In several ancient versions one can perceive how they have tried to make clear the obscure passage. To give an impression of their efforts, I will take as my starting-point TgPsJ.11

In comparison to the Hebrew text, v. 24 is more extensive in TgPsJ. TgPsJ makes clear why the Angel of YHWH wished to kill Moses: Moses' son Gershom had not been circumcised because Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, had not permitted him to circumcise his son. Eliezer, on the other hand, had been circumcised by virtue of an agreement between Moses and his father-in-law. In this manner the targum-writer also makes clear who is meant by benāh in v. 25. Gershom is also mentioned explicitly in v. 25. Moreover, an elucidation of leraglâw in v. 25 is given: the severed part of Gershom's foreskin is laid at the feet of the angel by Zipporah. While doing this she speaks the following words:

My husband wished to circumcise, but his father-in-law prevented him. May the blood of this circumcision now atone for my husband.

TgPsJ's version of v. 26 is also far from being a literal translation of the Hebrew text. It states that after the Destroying Angel had desisted from killing Moses, Zipporah gave thanks and said:

How beloved is the blood of this circumcision, which has saved my husband from the hand of the Destroying Angel.

In both v. 25 and v. 26 the problematical ḥătan-dāmîm has been rendered by means of paraphrase and interpretation. The designation has been referred to Moses: by virtue of the atoning blood he is delivered. The comparatively sober versions of FTg and TgNf (no explicit mention is made of Gershom and the agreement between Moses and his father-in-law) and the sober version of TgO (no mention is even made of the fact that Moses' son had not been circumcised on account of Jethro's objection to the circumcision) agree with TgPsJ on the following points: Moses has been threatened with death; Zipporah addressed the Angel of YHWH (v. 25); for him, the blood of circumcision brings atonement; thanks to the blood of the circumcision Moses has been saved. Some minor differences between the targums have been left out of consideration.

3.3. An elucidation of TgPsJ's remark about the agreement between Moses and his father-in-law is found in the rabbinic tradition. It indicates that Jethro gave his daughter to Moses on the condition that he would dedicate his eldest son to idolatry and the succeeding sons to God. This condition had been accepted by Moses, and Eliezer had thereupon been circumcised—but not Gershom (cf. Mech. Ex. 18:3; Lauterbach II, 168f.). In short, Moses had committed a grave sin.12 Also present in the rabbinic literature however, is a tendency to exonerate Moses from blame. Moses' failure to circumcise his son is pictured as the result of a conflict of duties: Moses' son (that is, his second son Eliezer—he is the one meant in v. 25) had been born eight days before the day on which Moses had to depart for Egypt on account of YHWH's command; Moses (rightly) gave priority to the command and was obliged to circumcise his son immediately after reaching the first lodging place. By delaying because of fatigue, he sinned (cf. Mech, Ex. 18:3; Lauterbach II. 169f.; Ex Rab. v,8). Hence, Moses cannot be reproached for breaking the law or for lack of respect for the prescription to circumcise.

Still other interpretations are found in the rabbinic literature with respect to the difficulties in Ex. 4:24-26: not Moses but the child was in mortal peril; the child was the “bloody bridegroom”; Zipporah touched the feet of the child; Zipporah approached the feet of her husband; Zipporah took the initiative for the circumcision but did not perform it (as a woman she was not entitled to do that) (cf. JNed. III 38b; Mech. Ex. 18:3; Lauterbach II, 170).13

3.4. In the early exegetical traditions another reason for the appearance of the Angel of the Lord is also mentioned. According to some Syrian Fathers, both Moses and Zipporah considered themselves to be guilty. The Nestorian Fathers Ishō Bar Nūn (9th century)14 and Ishōdad of Merw (9th century)15 assumed that Moses took his wife and children with him to Egypt (Ex. 4:20), because he doubted God's promise. He wished to have his wife and children with him in case he could not take the Israelites out of Egypt and would have to live there. For that reason the Angel of the Lord met him angrily and acted as though he would kill him. (According to Ishōdad the angel had a drawn sword in his hand; compare Num 22:23.) Zipporah thought that the angel would indeed kill Moses however, because his son was not circumcised as were Moses and his eldest son. For Zipporah had withheld the younger one from being circumcised so that one son would be circumcised like Moses, but the other would remain uncircumcised according to the law of her own forebears.16 According to Ishōdad, Sippora fell at the feet of the angel (compare LXX; cf. 3.5.), seized him, and said to him—the expression designated as “bloody bridegroom” is referred to the angel in this understanding—that she and her son wished to adhere to the worship of the Lord. Ishōdad also interprets the circumcision as a sacrifice of atonement brought by Zipporah in order to save the life of her husband. According to both Ishō bar nūn and Ishōdad, Moses realized the reason for the appearance of the angel and thereupon sent his wife and his sons back to his father-in-law (compare Ex. 18:2b).

3.5. Not only the targums, but also the LXX gives an interpretive translation of the Hebrew text. After having related that Zipporah had circumcised her son, the LXX continues:

and she fell at the (his) feet and said: “Here is the blood of the circumcision of my son.”17

The LXX refers leraglâw to the Angel of YHWH, yielding the following picture: After the circumcision Zipporah falls at the feet of the Angel as a supplicant (cf. Esther 8:3) (see also TgNf and compare TgO) and asks him to consider the blood of the circumcision. Vermes assumes that the same conception which is explicitly stated in the targums is facitly present in the translation of the LXX: The blood of circumcision brings atonement and saves the life of Moses. This presupposition is a plausible one. After stating, “and he departed from him”, v. 26 (which is wholly lacking in LXXB) LXX repeats the words spoken by Zipporah according to v. 25: dioti 'eipen 'estē to aἱma tēs peritomēs tou paidiou mou, “because she said: ‘Here is the blood of the circumcision of my son’”. Other ancient translations (Aq., Sym., Theod., Peshitta and Vulg.) faithfully follow the Hebrew text (cf. Hehn). It has to be admitted however, as does Vermes, that it is unlikely that the translators of the LXX used a Hebrew text different than the MT. Some authors have advocated this view and have tried to compose a “better” text with the help of the LXX. Hehn, 4ff., for instance, has maintained that the unintelligible ḥătan dāmîm has entered the text as a result of a mistake. In his opinion the original text of Zipporah's words ran as follows: qām dam mûlat yaldî, “es erhebt sich (es tritt auf) das Beschneidungsblut meines Kindes”.

Hehn gives the following picture of the situation: YHWH is angry because the son has not been circumcised; Zipporah performs the circumcision because Moses himself was unable to do it on account of YHWH's threatening him; Zipporah falls at the feet of YHWH18 and draws his attention to the bloody foreskin as a sign of her having remedied the omission. Thus she implicitly asks YHWH to save the life of her husband. In reaction to her words (compare LXX) YHWH desisted from threatening Moses.19

3.6. The view of the ancients, viz. that Moses' failure to circumcise his son led YHWH to seek Moses with the intention of killing him, has found advocates throughout the ages up until the present.20 The view has been elaborated in different ways. Keil, for instance, thinks that YHWH threatened Moses with death so as to bring him to an acknowledgment of guilt. He assumes that the failure concerned the second son, Eliezer. In his opinion Moses had been kept from circumcising his son by his wife Zipporah (cf. 3.4.). She had offered resistance “gegen diese blutige Operation”.21 From the fact that Zipporah reacts immediately to YHWH's action, he concludes that Zipporah had raised objections to the circumcision for she thus admits to knowing of the cause of YHWH's anger. She casts the foreskin at Moses' feet and calls him “bloody bridegroom”: by means of the attack by Death, Moses has come close to being snatched away from her; with the blood of her son she saved his life; she received him back as from the dead and married him again. The whole event is a sort of test for Moses: “Will aber Mose den göttlichen Auftrag erfolgreich ausrichten, so muss er sich auch als getreuer Knecht Jahve's erweisen, zunächst in seinem eigenen Hause”.22 The designation “bloody bridegroom” is hereby interpreted in a rather ingenious way. Furthermore, the question can be put: Why have Moses's feet been touched with the foreskin? Why has the foreskin been cast at his feet? According to Murphy the gesture is a reaction to Moses' wish that the child should be circumcised. Strack even considers the gesture as an expression of depreciation for the Israelite rite (she might have taken a stone and not a knife for the same reason). According to Gispen, Zipporah expressed in a symbolic way that her marriage with Moses had demanded sacrifice from her. She had been forced to perform the circumcision which was so repugnant to her.

Richter also pictures Zipporah as a woman who had prevented her husband from circumcising his child. He is of the opinion however, that the child in question was Moses' first son and that Zipporah cast the foreskin at the feet of YHWH while addressing him as “bloody bridegroom”. By word and deed she showed that in the future she would adhere to the faith of her husband (cf. 3.4.): “Durch das Blut meines Sohnes wird jetzt ein Band zwischen Dir und mir geknüpft, das von Natur nicht bei mir vorhanden war wie bei den Töchtern Abrahams” (126f.). Richter regards Zipporah's words as being “die stereotype Formel, womit ausländische Ehefrauen ihren Beitritt in die israelitische Religionsgemeinschaft vollzogen, ohne dass sie selbstverständlich in späteren Zeiten selbst die Beschneidung zu vollziehen gehabt hätten” (127). To him, Zipporah was considered to be the woman who had first used the expression which in later times became common (v. 26) (cf. 2.11.).

3.7. As has been demonstrated, there is a tendency among the interpreters of Ex. 4:24-26 to ascribe Moses' failure to circumcise his son to negative influence on him—either on the part of his father-in-law or on the part of his wife. Not all interpreters, however, see the cause of YHWH's anger in Moses' failure to circumcise his son. Cassuto, for instance,23 who maintains that the first-born son is intended, makes the following remark with reference to Josh 5:2ff. (badderek, also used in Ex 4:24, is mentioned three times in this passage; cf. vv. 4, 5, 7): wayfarers were exempted from circumcision because of the danger involved. Hence, there is no case of breaking the law. It is presupposed that the son, as child of a traveller (compare Ex 2:22) or as a new-born baby, was still uncircumcised. In spite of the fact that as wayfarers they were exempted from circumcising their son, Zipporah realized that “it was proper that a person who was journeying on a special mission given him by the Lord should go beyond the strict letter of the law and act with greater stringency”, and she thereupon circumcised her son. She touched Moses' feet: “… so shall the shedding of a few drops of the blood of Moses' first-born son, which consecrates the infant to the service of the Lord, serve as an additional and decisive consecration of his father to the Lord's mission”. According to Cassuto, the appelation “bloody bridegroom” in v. 25 is directed to Moses. It is understood by him in the manner of Keil (cf. 3.6.). The designation “bloody bridegroom” in v. 26, on the other hand, refers to the child for him. For the verse intends to inform us about the origin of the designation used for newly circumcised children: it has been introduced by Zipporah. Cassuto interprets the whole event as a final warning to Moses and as a supplement of the directives given to Moses prior to his departure from Midian (Ex. 4:21-23). Moses has to know “that from now on he must be wholly dedicated to the fulfilment of his mission, with all his soul and capacities, to the point, if need be, of giving his life for the cause”.

3.8. The assumption of the interpretations described so far is that Ex. 4:24-26 is a narrative about an historical event, one event in a long series to which belongs among other events the covenant between YHWH and Abraham with its demand that male descendants be circumcised (Gen 17). After the introduction of historical critical methods in the field of Old Testament study, many interpreters abandoned this assumption. As a result of this development, scholars no longer thought it necessary, for instance, to assume the priority of Gen 17 to Ex. 4:24-26, or to explain Ex. 4:24-26 in relation to that context. New possibilities for interpretation were thus opened up.

Thanks to investigations into the history of religions, Old Testament scholars have become acquainted with the custom practised by Arabian tribes, among others, of circumcising boys sometime during their maturation to manhood, with the intention of initiating them as full members of their tribe and of dedicating them to marriage. The fact that the term ḥātān -bridegroom-, -son in law- which occurs in Ex. 4:25, as well as the cognate term ḥōtēn -father in law- can be derived from the Arabic ḥatana -circumcise- (ḥātān = circumcised; ḥōtēn = circumciser) led, in combination with other Old Testament data (Gen 34:24ff.; Josh 5:2ff.), to the conclusion that the custom of circumcising men/boys was practised originally in ancient Israel as well. It was presupposed that the father-in-law-to-be (ḥōtēn) performed the circumcision on his son-in-law-to-be (ḥātān).

Such ideas had implications for the interpretation of Ex. 4:24-26 as a matter of course. Wellhausen (Prol., 338; Reste, 175), for instance, maintained that Ex. 4:24-26 and Gen 17 contain different traditions concerning the origin of circumcision in Israel. YHWH was angry because Moses was not a “bloody bridegroom”: Moses hadn't had a circumcision performed on him before his marriage; Zipporah circumcised her son; she touched Moses' genitals with her son's foreskin and—making Moses a bloody bridegroom in a symbolic way—she thus averted YHWH's anger. In Wellhausen's opinion Ex. 4:24-26 offers an historical explanation for the custom of circumcising little boys as being “ein gemildertes Äquivalent für die ursprüngliche Beschneidung der jungen Männer vor der Hochzeit” (Prol., 339). The understanding of the circumcision of the son “als Ersatz und als deckender Schutz” with respect to Moses is also held by Baentsch. He accentuates that it is not the aim of the story to relate the origin of circumcision, but to explain how it has come about that the custom of circumcising young adults had made way for the circumcision of little boys.24

If Moses' not having been circumcised is the reason for YHWH's attack, the question arises: Why didn't Zipporah circumcise Moses himself (e.g. Richter, 125)? In answer to such a question Holzinger remarks that the operation can be performed more quickly and easily on a child, and that a woman was allowed to circumcise children, but not adults. Others have suggested that Moses himself was too ill to be circumcised.25

3.9. Gressmann, 56ff., goes a step further than Wellhausen. In his opinion, no vicarious circumcision has taken place. In the original text the word benāh was missing. When circumcision of children became common, it was inserted into the text and took the place of the original 'îšāh -her husband-. Gressmann26 accepts Meyer's proposal, viz. that leraglâw in v. 25 refers to YHWH: Zipporah casts the foreskin on YHWH's genitals and calls him a “bloody bridegroom”; she thus makes YHWH the one who has carried her away as his bride and who, as a result, became stained by blood. (The Israelites, as is apparent from the story, originally viewed circumcision as “ein Zaubermittel” which could avert the anger of YHWH.)27 Gressmann concludes that the story can thus be characterized as “Sage”: This situation was acted out on the wedding night. It presupposes belief in the ius primae noctis—the privilege of the gods to have the first sexual intercourse with the bride (compare Tob. 8:3 as well as 3:17).28 By the magic act of circumcision and by uttering the incantation, Zipporah makes herself the wife of the deity, who had entered upon the scene as “ein wilder Nachtdämon”. According to Gressmann the following conclusion is justified: “So ist—nach antikem Empfinden nicht nur scheinbar, sondern—wirklich die Gottheit, die dem Weibe die Jungfräulichkeit genommen hat, und befriedigt lässt sie von Mose ab” (58).29 He maintains that the theme of the “Sage” had its origin with the Midianites and that it wasn't applied to Moses and Zipporah until afterwards.30 The original saga was an etiological tale. It had to explain the origin and the meaning of the custom of circumcising young men before their wedding: circumcision was necessary in order to hold off the demons on the wedding night. The story provides the reader with knowledge of archaic customs used in connection with circumcision: flint knives were used (even after the introduction of metals), young women performed the circumcision,31 and in all likelihood the holy stone—the dwelling place of the deity—was touched with the bloody foreskin.32

Gressmann's interpretation has found favour with some, e.g. Beer and Auerbach, 43ff. The latter considers Ex. 2:23a; 4:19-20a, 24-26 to be a coherent episode whose original place was immediately before the story of YHWH's revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, allowing him to give the following picture: YHWH commands Moses to return to Egypt; this order is carried out by Moses; on his journey to Egypt he unwittingly enters the holy area of the deity (cf. Ex. 3:1ff.; Auerbach locates the setting of the event at Qadesh)33 and almost payed for it with his life: “Der Grund des Angriffs auf Mosche ist demnach die geschlechtliche Eifersucht des Dämons, der in seinem heiligen Bezirk das Recht der Prima Nox in Anspruch nimmt” (55). Auerbach points out the following contrast in the original story: “Im Dunkel der Nacht greift ein dämonischer Jahwe der Urzeit Mosche an; am folgenden Tage, im Licht der Sonne, offenbart sich ihm der Gott des Dornbuschs als Befreier seines Volkes, als Herr aller Menschen, als gerechter und mitleidiger Richter des Schicksals”(56).

3.10. Several interpreters are unwilling to accept completely the modern interpretations of this passage in the form in which they are presented. They elaborate and further develop some element. De Groot maintains for instance, that Zipporah circumcised Moses symbolically by touching Moses' genitals with her son's foreskin.34 He understands ḥātān in the presumed original sense of “circumcised”: Accordingly, Zipporah addresses Moses: “You are for me a person circumcised with blood” (as distinct from her son who had been circumcised with a stone)(13). De Groot posits that Moses must have been circumcised in order to be able to celebrate Passover (cf. Ex. 12:44,48 and Josh 5:2ff.). In this connection he points out the use of blood in the Passover story (Ex. 12:7,13,23). Hence, according to him Ex. 4:24-26 belongs to the introduction of the Passover, in which the ceremony of the blood as a means of salvation was to play such an important part and for the celebration of which circumcision was a pre-requisite.35

The fact that Moses had not been circumcised and that the purifying efficacy of circumcision was transmitted to Moses by Zipporah is accentuated also by Junker. He holds to the usual interpretation of ḥātān as “bridegroom” however, and believes that the term “bloody bridegroom” was used with respect to circumcision because it was considered to be a sort of first-born sacrifice for the sanctification or purification of sexual intercourse. Zipporah can use the designation “bloody bridegroom” because Moses had now become what he should have become before his marriage.

3.11. Besides the interpreters who accentuate the fact that Moses had not been circumcised, there are interpreters who wish to give Moses no role, or almost no role, in the story. They point out that Moses' name is missing in the story and thus want to consider the passage to be the story of Zipporah, her son, and YHWH. Kosmala, for instance, holds that Zipporah's son is threatened with death because he had not been circumcised.36 Zipporah remedied the omission by touching his feet or his legs with the foreskin as a sign of the circumcision having been performed (the sign had to be clearly visible to YHWH, or better yet, to the deity of the Midianite desert areas; compare Ex. 12:33,23) and addressed him as ḥătan dāmîm—a blood-circumcised one—(with regard to the Arabic cf. 3.8.).37 Kosmala thinks that Ex. 4:24-26 is an insert which received its present place after Ex. 4:23 because of the first-born being mentioned in 4:23 as well as in 4:24-26. Furthermore, life and death are at issue in both passages.

Beltz maintains that the thematic occurrence of the first-born son being threatened with death led the redactor to insert Ex. 4:21b-23 into the originally coherent text of 4:20a, 24-26. According to him the original story related how the mother saved her son who was in mortal peril by circumcising him and by touching the genitals of the deity's cult-image with her son's foreskin. She addresses the deity with the term “bloody bridegroom”: “so schliesst sie mit dem Gott die Ehe und bringt zugleich ihr Kind, ihren Sohn, in die Ehe ein. Durch diesen alten Ritus bringt sie das Kind in ein Kindschaftsverhältnis zu Gott; er wird der Vater des Kindes” (210). To his mind the passage makes plain the way in which circumcision was performed in ancient times as well as the significance which was attached to it. Circumcision was an adoption-rite. The circumcised person became a member of the familia Dei.

Morgenstern defends another interpretation. He rejects the notion that circumcision had originally been performed on young men. It was performed on young children to remove taboo, to free the child of the spirit threatening him with death from the time of his birth, and to initiate him into the clan. In connection with his cherished view that some parts of the OT presuppose the institution of matriarchy, Morgenstern assumes that the deity became angry when he saw that Zipporah had departed with Moses. For by leaving her clan, Zipporah had taken her son—a new born baby, or born during the journey—outside of his domain. The deity regarded the child as his property and hence tried to kill him. This was prevented by performing circumcision. Zipporah smeared some blood on the body of the child with the foreskin as a sign of some blood having been given to the deity. By speaking the formula, “Surely one related by blood (of circumcision) are thou to me” (Ex. 4:25)(69), she makes plain that the child is a full member of her clan. She thus appeased the deity.38


4.1. As has been demonstrated, the passage of Ex. 4:24-26 has been the point of departure for sundry interpretations. In my opinion there is no point to discussing the arguments for and against these different views in much more detail than has been done already in sub 2. and 3. The forming of interpretations or the choice for some view is commonly determined in large measure by a variety of assumptions, and with each interpretation something should be inferred from reading between the lines. I limit myself, consequently, to giving mainly a description of the interpretation which I prefer. Assuming that the author of Exodus meant to compose a meaningful and coherent text and that the context has to play an important role in interpreting the passage, it seems to me that it is unlikely that the redactor has inserted Ex. 4:24-26 after v. 23 in a mechanical fashion on account of a common theme (over against Kosmala and Beltz; cf. 3.11.).39 To me it is therefore most likely that Moses is the presumed object of v. 24. Moreover, the explicit benāh of v. 25 would be surprising if “her son” was the object of v. 24. I share the opinion of many interpreters who think that Moses was attacked by YHWH on account of his being uncircumcised. I hold the view, along with among others De Groot (cf. 3.10.), that by touching Moses' genitals with her son's foreskin Zipporah meant to perform circumcision on Moses symbolically—with blood. Counter arguments of the following kind do not count much in my eyes: circumcision was practiced in Egypt, hence Moses, having grown up at the Egyptian court, must surely have been circumcised; or, symbolical circumcision can't be regarded as real circumcision (e.g. Richter, 124f.; Kosmala, 16.)

4.2. In view of the context it is self-evident to think of Moses' circumcision as an inauguration, as a dedication to his appointed task (compare Beer, Te Stroete, Clements, and also Cassuto; cf. 3.6.). As a result of the circumcision Moses is wholly at the disposal of YHWH.40 In this context it is worth noting that not until after his circumcision did Abraham sire Isaac (Gen 17:23ff.; compare v. 21). It is also possible to think that a protective efficacy is ascribed to circumcision. Being circumcised now,41 Moses will not again run the risk of finding himself in circumstances like those of v. 24. Moses has thereby been prepared all the better for his task.

4.3. Special attention should be given to the term ḥătan dāmîn, which is applied to Moses according to me, as well as to v. 26b. As is apparent from our survey of explanations, it is not unusual among modern interpreters to regard Ex. 4:24-26 as an etiology or as a story with etiological features explaining the origin of circumcision and/or the customs current with respect to circumcision, and aiming to legitimate them (cf. 3.6.; 3.7.; 3.8.; 3.9.). Attention has been drawn especially to the etiological character of v. 26b (even by conservative exegetes such as Richter and Cassuto, cf. 3.6. and 3.7.), the import of which is seen as follows: Zipporah is the one who first used the designation ḥătan dāmîm and who has introduced its use (see further Baentsch, for instance). In connection with this interpretation, we note furthermore a conjecture of Ehrlich which has found favour with several exegetes. He proposes that we read 'ame -they say-, -it is said-42 instead of 'amerâ, and that we understand the sentence beginning with 'āz (compare Gen 4:26) as an explanatory, redactional remark which has the following purport: at that time, viz. in Moses's time, the designation ḥătan dāmîm (which Ehrlich takes to mean “Beschneidungskandidat”) was given to anyone who was circumcised (see further Gressmann, 57, 61; Beer; Noth). There is nothing which gives rise to emendation of the MT.43 The possibility suggest itself then, of regarding 'āz and the words following upon it as an explanation of the author/redactor (compare e.g. Te Stroete, Childs, and Schmidt). It is not impossible that he came across the term ḥcatan dāmîm in the material which was at his disposal and that it was unintelligible and problematical to him (cf. Childs). The Hebrew usage of his time allowed him to understand the term only in the sense of “bloody bridegroom” (though it is likely that the original sense was “a person circumcised with blood”;44 cf. 3.8.; 3.10.; 3.11.).45 For this reason he points out that his readers must keep in mind that there is a connection between the term ḥătan dāmîm and the circumcision. He wished to prevent his readers from forming an incorrect conception of the word ḥātān.


There is no doubt to my mind that the Book of Exodus was composed by utilizing materials from a variety of sources. In its present shape however, it is fairly unified. By making use of a variety of materials creatively a new construction has been raised.46 In this section particular attention shall be paid to the effect on the reader which results from the combination of one of the elements—Ex. 4:24-26—with the other raw materials.

The reader is rather abruptly taken from the scene in Midian (Ex. 4:18-23): He is now made witness to an event which took place during Moses' journey from Midian to Egypt. Just as in Genesis no detailed report is given of, for instance, Jacob's journey to Harran, but mention is made only of the most essential event, viz. the meeting with YHWH (Gen 28:10-22), in Exodus likewise, no extensive description is given of Moses' return journey; but two events which were to be of essential importance for the turn of events, are outlined: the night-time meeting with YHWH (Ex. 4:24-26) and the meeting with Aaron (Ex. 4:27-28).

Upon reading the first event the reader is alarmed. After all that has already happened he is prepared for the worst.47 A name which he has heard from the mouth of Pharaoh's daughter sounded like a promise in his ear: Moses! He set out!, and thereby the hope had been raised that he was the man who was destined to rescue Israel and whom God would use to bring the people to the land which He had sworn to give to the patriarchs (e.g. Ex. 6:8) (according to Ex. 1:7ff. Israel had already become an exceedingly great people). The reader has been a witness of Moses' visit to his oppressed kinsmen. He has seen how Moses proved himself to be their champion (Ex. 2:11-12) and the champion of every ill-treated man generally (Ex. 2:131., 16f.). He hereby proved himself the right man to act as the deliverer of the oppressed. The reader has also witnessed however, that Moses did not receive a positive response from his kinsmen and that he had to flee in order to save his life (Ex. 2:14f.). Thus the anxious question has been raised: What will become of the deliverance of the people of Israel and of the realization of the promise to the patriarchs? The reader has been given new hope by affording him a peek behind the scenes: God is anxious for the fate of Israel and remembers His promises to the patriarchs (Ex. 2:23-25). The turning point seems to have come. In a hopeful mood and kept in suspense the reader has gone on: Will the developments really take a favourable turn? After all this, he has been witness to the meeting at Horeb between the man capable in every respect of acting as deliverer of the people (Ex. 2:11ff.), and the God of the promises to the patriarchs (Ex. 3:1ff.). If the former were willing to enter into the latter's service, there would be hope for the future. Filled with suspense the reader has looked forward to the outcome of this meeting. For he who has read the Book of Exodus thus far, has taken note of Moses' compassion for the fate of his kinsmen (Ex. 2:11ff.), anticipates an enthusiastic reaction on the part of Moses when given the task of bringing Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan (Ex. 3:7-10). What happens however? Moses does not enter into YHWH's service enthusiastically, but, on the contrary, pretends that he is not the appropriate person to deliver the people and tries to make clear that it is practically certain that the appointed task is foredoomed to failure. Four times Moses enters into dialogue with God, using a variety of arguments to excuse himself (Ex. 3:10-4:17). God listens carefully to Moses' objections and gives answers which are fully satisfactory. To no avail however. Finally Moses makes it plain—the reader was afraid of this already: he is not at YHWH's disposal (Ex. 4:13).

The suspense in the narrative has been raised by means of this long dialogue: At long last things have come to the point that God wishes to use Moses and now the selected person does not listen immediately, but endlessly voices objections until at last he indicates in plain terms that he is not available to execute YHWH's summons. The reader, who during the dialogue has wavered between hope—YHWH was very well able to counter Moses—and fear—Moses continually had new pretexts not to obey—is inclined to abandon all hope: the deliverance will come to nothing! At that moment, when the reader has the impression that the situation is again without any prospects (cf. Ex. 2:15), the great turning point comes: YHWH demands the last say (Ex. 3:14-17). True, Moses has not yet gone to Egypt. But he has already spoken to Jethro his father-in-law of his intention of returning to Egypt (Ex. 4:18). At that point YHWH again speaks to Moses and encourages him (Ex. 4:19). Immediately therafter we are told that Moses prepared himself to set out (Ex. 4:20). He lost no time. At the departure YHWH gives a final briefing (Ex.4:21-23). Now Moses has been prepared in every way. The deliverance of the people would surely be realized now!

After all the suspense on his part, the reader is relieved: Moses has given up his resistance and has accepted his appointed task willingly. He realizes that deliverance of the people will happen only with great difficulty, but there is no reason for despair because the reader knows that YHWH will rule all developments with sovereign power (Ex. 4:21-23). In a hopeful and optimistic mood he goes on reading. But all at once his hopes are completely ruined. He is presented with how YHWH threatens the now compliant Moses with death (Ex. 4:24). The deliverance of the people and the realization of the promises are again at stake. They seemed forthcoming, but all the anxious hopes are now frustrated. The drama in Ex 4:24-26 raises the tension in the narrative to an extreme: How is it possible that YHWH himself can ruin the work which was brought about with so much difficulty?

It is thanks to a woman's energetic action48 that the story of deliverance is not broken off in this crisis: Zipporah performs circumcision on her son and, symbolically, also on her husband. He is “circumcised” with blood (Ex. 4:25). The danger is past (Ex. 4:26). The reader can relax again. Moreover, it is plain to him now that YHWH's attack had a purpose, or in any event, a clearly positive result: Moses has been circumcised and, consequently, is dedicated to his duty in a very special way! Now Moses can really start to work. He is prepared all the better for the task which awaits him.

To summarize, Ex. 4:24-26 in its present context contributes to the description of the way in which Moses has been prepared for his appointed task. As has been demonstrated, the author of Exodus perpetually keeps the reader in a state of suspense as far as the outcome of the unfolding events goes. And after Ex. 4 he continues to do so. In this fashion he holds the reader's attention. He becomes party to the events, and is all the more impressed by the ultimately favourable result. Ex. 4:24-26 contributes in an essential manner to the suspense of the narrative.


  1. See further BHHW II, 693f.; DB(Hastings) II, 473f.; IDB II, 703f.; TWAT IV, 562ff.

  2. Cf. P. Benoit, “Non erat eis locus in diversorio”, in A. Descamps—A. De Halleux, Mélanges Bibliques en Hommage au R. P. Béda Rigaux, Duculot-Gembloux 1970, 173-186; R. Zuurmond, “Geen plaats in de herberg. Tekstgeschiedenis en exegese van Lucas 2:7b”, Amsterdamse Cahiers 2(1981), 94-130.

  3. See further Böcher, 156ff.

  4. See for him e.g. E. Langton, Essentials of demonology. A study of Jewish and Christian doctrine etc., London 1949, 124f.

  5. Cf. e.g. Jirku, 31f. More recently Shearman and Briggs have maintained that the stories about the conflict between Jacob and the “angel” (Gen 32:23-33; Hos 12:4-5) and between Moses and YHWH were originally stories about conflicts involving demons from the netherworld. They assume that the story of Ex. 4:24-26 originally had nothing to do with Moses. Possibly it related the confrontation of two demons: the bird (Zipporah) as a kind of winged night demoness like Lilith or the winged women in Zech 5:9 and ‘Aluqah the vampire demon who fed on flesh and blood. His feet were touched with the foreskin of the bird's son and she said to him: “Surely you are a relation of blood to me”(241). The bird-demon and Moses' wife were confused because of the identical form of their name, and so the story has been applied to Moses.

  6. Cf. e.g. P. Volz, Das Dämonische in Jahwe, Tübingen 1924; J. L. Crenshaw, Prophetic conflict, Berlin-New York 1971, 77ff. Buber, 70f., remarks: “Es gehört zum Urwesen dieses Gottes, dass er den, den er erwählte, auch restlos anfordert” (70), and assumes that YHWH attacks Moses “offenbar weil dessen Hingabe, nachdem er seinen Widerstand überwunden hat, ihm noch nicht volkommen genug erscheint”(71).

  7. E.g. Benor. He holds the point of view that Zipporah, as a Midianite woman, spoke a Northarabian dialect and so considers himself justified to interpret the passage in the light of the Arabic. His approach results in an interpretation which is at variance with all current interpretations.

  8. Elsewhere the reading wattigga‘(qal) has been suggested by Buber (Moses, 68); ng‘ -qal he translates with “berühren”.

  9. Cf. e.g. H. W. Wolff, Anthropologie des Alten Testaments, München 1973, 102.

  10. Cf. e.g. THAT I, 448ff.; TWAT II, 248ff.; III, 288ff.; H. Christ, Blutvergiessen im Alten Testament, Basel 1977, 58, 63, 130f., 133: H. Füglister, “Sühne durch Blut—Zur Bedeutung von Leviticus 17, 11”, in Studien zum Pentateuch (Fs W. Kornfeld), Wien etc. 1977, 143-164.

  11. For a description of the history of interpretation of Ex. 4:24-26 within early Judaism see especially Vermes.

  12. Recently it has even beeen maintained that Ex. 4:24-26 is one of five narratives which are part of an anti-Moses tradition; see T. C. Butler, “An anti-Moses tradition”, JSOT [Journal for the Study of the Old Testament] 12(1979), 9-15 (no reference is made, by the way, to the failure to circumcise).

  13. Cf. Ginzberg II, 328; V, 423f.; H. L. Strack-P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch IV/1, München 1928, 29; Vermes, 186ff.

  14. See E. G. Clarke, The selected questions of Ishō bar Nūn on the Pentateuch, Leiden 1962.

  15. See C. Van Den Eynde, Commentaire d'Išo‘dad de Merw sur l'Ancien Testament II Exode-Deutéronome, Louvain 1958 (text = CSCOS Vol. 176; translation = CSCOS Vol. 179).

  16. Ephrem (4th century) already has the view that Zipporah wished to adhere to the religion of her forebears and therefore had offered resistance to the circumcision of one of her children. Acquaintance with this tradition is apparent also from the works of Aphrahat (4th century). Ephrem, moreover, stated that Moses and Zipporah had quarrelled that night at the inn. Zipporah had been displeased because Moses had refrained from sexual intercourse since God's revelation to him at Mount Horeb. Moses had been displeased on account of Zipporah's resistance to the circumcision. See further Guillaumont.

  17. The translation of 'estē is disputed. For the translation given here see Junker, 121; Kosmala, 28. Vermes, 180, prefers the translation “staunched”.

  18. Hehn accepts the reading wattigga‘(qal), “and she touched”. LXX, Aq., Sym., Theod. and Peshitta already have understood Zipporah's action as a touching, an embracing of the feet.

  19. Heinisch presents a similar interpretation. He emends the text as follows: nittan dam mûlat yaldî. For observations on the text of the LXX see Dumbrell. Junker has critized Hehn's emendation of MT.

  20. According to Dillmann and Childs this point of view was held also by the redactor of Exodus.

  21. Heinisch maintains that Zipporah had resisted the circumcision of a new-born child, because only young men were circumcised in her clan. See below.

  22. For a similar interpretation see, for instance, Murphy, Lange, Strack, Gispen. According to Michaeli the passage has the following intention in its present context; “au moment où Moïse est envoyé en Egypte pour parler au nom de YHWH, le Dieu des Pères, …, il convenait que l'alliance faite avec Abraham soit observée pleinement”.

  23. For another opinion see Middlekoop: Moses is threatened with death on account of the blood-guilt which rested on him as consequence of his killing of the Egyptian overseer (Ex. 2:12).

  24. Cf. Böhl; Fohrer, 45ff.; and Michaeli.

  25. E.g. De Groot, 15; Junker, 127; Henton Davies.

  26. See further e.g. Jirku, 59f.

  27. Cf. Smith; see n. 33.

  28. Cf. Böcher, 128ff.

  29. According to D. Irvin in J. H. Hayes-J. M. Miller, Israelite and Judean History, London 1977, 193f., the same plot-motif of deceiving a blood-thirsty divinity is also used in the Egyptian tale “Deliverance of Mankind from destruction” (ANET, 10f.).

  30. Schmidt, 225f., discusses this point of view.

  31. Cf. 2.5. In this connection I draw attention to an article of F. Speiser entitled “Die Frau als Erfinderin von Kultgeräten in Melanesien”, which has been published in Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie 3(1944), 46-54. The author pays attention to an interesting fact which has been described by him as follows: “Bei den Melanesiern ist die Frau im allgemeinen von den religiösen Zeremonien ausgeschlossen. Sie darf an ihnen höchstens als Zuschauerin teilnehmen … Die Natur der Kultgeräte ist für sie das strengste Geheimnis. Desto erstaunlicher ist es, dass sie in den Mythen vielfach als die Entdeckerin von Kultgegenständen auftritt, die ihr heute durchaus unbekannt sein sollen” (46). In that context he mentions a narrative from Australia in which is stated that men learned of circumcision by means of a stone knife from a woman (49).

  32. Noth, Rylaarsdam and Schmid present interpretations on the lines of Gressmann.

  33. Other exegetes also assume that in the original story the meeting with the deity in the guise of a demon was the result of entering into a holy area; cf. Böhl (he has in mind the holy area around Mount Horeb); Hyatt (in his opinion the original story may have concerned a border-demon or -deity from the boundary between Midianite territory and Egypt). See also the observations of Schmidt.

  34. See also Knight, for instance. Clamer suggests that Moses had already been circumcised as a child and that the symbolical circumcision should be understood as a circumcision of the heart (compare Jer 9:26).

  35. Ex. 4:24-26 has been connected with Ex. 12 (see especially v. 22f.) in another way by Smith. In his view the author of the passages thought of the actions of Ex. 4 and 12 as being strictly parallel: “As in the one case the Sons of Israel were threatened with death and were delivered by the blood of the passover lamb streaked on the door, so in the other case, Moses, when threatened with death, was delivered by the blood of his child rubbed on his feet”(15). Smith rejects the view that raglayim has to be understood in an euphemistic sense and that it must be supposed that Moses was circumcised in a symbolical way. Smith's idea that the blood of circumcision and also the amputated skin itself is a powerful charm is based on supposedly ethnological parallels from Australia (cf. also Gaster, 234). He assumes that the blood of circumcision has its magic power because it is the blood of a consecrated person, and that the rite of circumcision is thought of as an act of dedication. In Smith's view a ḥătan dāmîm is “one who has brought into covenant relations with the clan, and, therefore with the clan-god”(21). So he maintains that in v. 25 either ḥătan dāmîm 'attâ lô, or ḥătan dāmîm hû' le is an appropriate reading, for it would have been perfectly appropriate for Zipporah to say to Moses: “Thou art in covenant with this hostile Yahweh, and therefore canst not die at his hand”, and it would have been equally appropriate for her to say to Yahweh: “This is a man in covenant relations with thee, and therefore safe from thy wrath”(21).

  36. See also, with different interpretations, Blau and Rivera.

  37. See also Fensham. He is inclined to accept Kosmala's point of view with respect to the object of v. 24 and to the meaning of ḥătan dāmîm. He remarks: “Het gaat hier duidelijk om een oud verhaal, waarvan de auteur van Exodus niet precies aangeeft, hoe het in de context past. Mogelijk wilde hij aangeven, dat Mozes inzake de besnijdenis van zijn oudste zoon in gebreke gebleven was en dat hij deze … moest verrichten, voordat hij met de zijnen Egypte binnenging”.

  38. See for a concise characterization of some other opinions Fohrer, 46f.

  39. I admit however, that it is curious to find “killing” (v. 24) and “son” (v. 25) mentioned again following immediately upon the announcement of the killing of the first-born son (v. 23) (Coppens even maintains that Pharaoh's first-born is the object in v. 24). It is also peculiar that the verb pgš is used in v. 27 as well as in v. 24. The passage of Ex. 4:24-26, which describes a self-contained episode and which is usually considered to be a text with a different literary origin than the preceding and succeeding verses, appears nevertheless to be related to those verses in some way—without, however, offering the exegete the possibility of assuming a narrow relationship in terms of content.

  40. De Groot's interpretation (cf. 3.10.) of Moses' circumcision as a preparation for the celebration of the Passover is not to be preferred in my opinion. On the whole, the circumcision in Josh 5:2ff. may be considered as preparation for occupation of the land. It has to be noted, however, that Ex. 11:5ff.—which correlates to 4:23—precedes the description of the Passover (Ex. 12), which uses not only the term dāmîm, but the verb ng‘ as well (Ex. 4:25; 12:22). Rabbinic tradition has associated the blood of circumcision with the blood of Passover; see R. Le Déaut, La Nuite Pascale, Rome 1963, 209ff.

  41. It is impossible to discuss the origin and the meaning of circumcision here. With regard to Ex. 4:24-26 it is useful however, to note that the notion of inauguration, sanctification, and purification are connected with circumcision, as is apparent from several passages in the OT (Gen. 17; Ex. 12; Josh. 5). In this connection, the passages in which circumcision is mentioned in a metaphorical sense (Ex. 6:12, 30; Lev. 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 6:10; 9:25; compare also Lev. 19:23f.) are also illustrative. It is possible to compare Ex. 4:24-26 with Is. 6:7 and Jer. 1:9 to a certain extent: The circumcision is a primitive means of making Moses qualified to be an ambassador of YHWH.

  42. Junker prefers the reading 'āmar, ‘one says’.

  43. With repect to my choice for the MT, I will leave out of consideration the question of whether 'āz 'ame could mean, “at that time they used to say”. I understand 'āz in the sense of “then”, “at that occasion”. See further also Morgenstern, 67f.; Childs.

  44. It is also possible to assume that the author did not understand the term because he was unacquainted with the ancient custom of circumcising men before the time of their marriage. Cf. 3.7.

  45. Blau relates the term to Akkadian hatānu, “to protect”: “a person who is protected by blood”.

  46. For my view on the composition of the Pentateuch see my Inleiding in de Pentateuch, Kampen 1980, especially §§ 112, 113.

  47. For details see my forthcoming commentary on the Book of Exodus in the series Commentaar op het Oude Testament.

  48. With regard to the role of Zipporah it is worth noting that during the course of events in Ex. 1-4 women play a decisive role: Pharaoh was unable to realize his evil purpose of killing the Hebrew boys (Ex. 1:15ff.) thanks to the courageous act of the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah; Pharaoh's order to throw every new-born Hebrew boy into the river was ignored, thanks to the brave act of Moses' mother and sister—thereby saving the life of Israel's future saviour; as a result of their cleverness, the boy is found by another woman, Pharaoh's daughter, and even she doesn't execute the order of her own father; thanks to her, Moses has the opportunity of growing up to be a man capable of the leadership of his people (Ex. 2:1-10); Moses enters the land of Midian as a refugee; again women determine his fate: as a result of his meeting the daughters of the priest of Midian by a well, Moses lives with the priest and marries his daughter; his stay in Midian had important consequences for his own future as well as for that of Israel (Ex. 3-4).

Besides well-known abbreviations, the following abbreviations are used in this article: Aq. = Aquila; Sym. = Symmachus; Theod. = Theodotion; FTg = Fragmentary Targum—see M. L. Klein, The Fragment-Targums of the Pentateuch, Rome 1980; TgNf = Targum Neofiti:—see A. Díez Macho, Neophyti 1 etc. II, Madrid-Barcelona 1970; TgO = Targum Onqelos—see A. Sperber, The Bible in Aramaic etc. I, Leiden 1959; TgPsJ = Targum Pseudo-Jonathan—see M. Ginsburger, Pseudo-Jonathan etc., Berlin 1903; Ges-K = W. Gesenius-E. Kautzsch, Hebräische Grammatik, Leipzig 190928; Joüon = P. Joüon, Grammaire de l'Hébreu Biblique, Rome 19472; KöSynt = E. König, Historisch-Comparative Syntax der hebräischen Sprache, Leipzig 1897; KöW = E. König, Hebräisches und Aramäisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, Leipzig 19222 + 3. A list of works cited by their authors' names will be found at the end of the article.

Works Cited

E. Auerbach, Moses, Amsterdam 1953

B. Baentsch, Exodus-Leviticus, Göttingen 1903 (HK)

G. Beer, Exodus, Tübingen 1939 (HAT)

W. Beltz, “Religionsgeschichtliche Marginalie zu Ex. 4:24-25”, ZAW 87(1975), 209-210

S. Ben-Shabbat,“Notes on J. Blau's essay ‘Hatan Damim’”, Tarbiz 26(1956), 213

J. L. Benor, “‘Blood-bridegroom’ and Jacob-Israel”, Beth Mikra 58(1974), 435-440

J. Blau, “The Hatan Damim (Ex. IV, 24-26)”, Tarbiz 26(1956), 1-3 (Hebr.)

F. M. Th. Böhl, Exodus, Groningen-Den Haag 1928(TeU)

O. Böcher, Dämonenfurcht und Dämonenabwehr, Stuttgart etc. 1970

M. Buber, Moses, Heidelberg 19522

U. Cassuto, A commentary on the book of Exodus, Jerusalem 1967

B. S. Childs, Exodus. A Commentary, London 1974

A. Clamer, L'Exode, Paris 1956

R. E. Clements, Exodus, Cambridge 1972(CBC)

J. Coppens, “La prétendue agression nocturne de Jahvé contre Moïse, Séphorah et leur fils (Exod., IV, 24-26), EThL [Ephermides Theologicae Lovanienses] 18(1941), 68-73

A. Dillmann, Exodus und Leviticus, Leipzig 1880 (KeH)

W. Dumbrell, “Exodus 4:24-26: A textual re-examination”, HThR [Harvard Theological Review] 65(1972), 285-290

A. B. Ehrlich, Randglossen zur Hebräischen Bibel I, Leipzig 1908

F. C. Fensham, Exodus, Nijkerk 1970 (POT)

G. Fohrer, Überlieferung und Geschichte des Exodus, Berlin 1964

T. H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, New York and Evanston 1969

L. Ginzberg, The legends of the Jews I-VI, Philadelphia 1909-1928

W. H. Gispen, Het boek Exodus, Kampen 19643(KV)

H. Gressmann, Mose und seine Zeit, Göttingen 1903

J. De Groot, “The story of the bloody husband (Exodus IV 24-26)”, OTS[Oudtestamentische Studien] 2(1943), 10-17

A. Guillaumont, “Un midrash d'Exode 4, 24-26 chez Aphraate et de Ephrem de Nisibe”, in R. H. Fischer(ed), A tribute to Arthur Vööbus, Chicago 1977, 89-95

J. Hehn, “Der ‘Blutsbräutigam’ Ex 4:24-26”, ZAW [Zeitschrift fuer die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft] 50(1932), 1-8

P. Heinisch, Das Buch Exodus, Bonn 1934 (HSchAT)

G. Henton Davies, Exodus, London 1967

H. Holzinger, Exodus, Tübingen etc. 1900 (KHC)

F. De Hummelauer, Commentarius in Exodum et Leviticum, Parisiis 1897

J. P. Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, London 1971 (NCB)

A. Jirku, Die Dämonen und ihre Abwehr im Alten Testament, Leipzig 1912

H. Junker, “Der Blutbräutigam. Eine textkritische und exegetische Studie zu Ex. 4:24-26”, in Alttestamentliche Studien (Fs F. Nötscher), Bonn 1950, 120-128

C. F. Keil, Genesis und Exodus, Leipzig 1878 (BCAT)

G. A. F. Knight, Theology as narration. A commentary on the Book of Exodus, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1976

H. Kosmala, “The ‘bloody husband’”, VT [Vetus Testamentum] 12(1962), 14-28=Studies, Essays and Reviews I, Leiden 1978, 52-66

J. P. Lange, Exodus, Leviticus, Numeri, Bielefeld und Leipzig 1874

J. Z. Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael II, Philadelphia 1933

E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme, Halle a.S. 1906

F. Michaeli, Le Livre de l'Exode, Neuchâtel-Paris 1974 (CAT)

P. Middlekoop, “The significance of the story of the ‘bloody husband’ (Ex. 4, 24-26)”, South East Asia Journal of Theology 8(1966/67), 34-38

J. Morgenstern, “The ‘bloody husband’(?)(Exod. 4:24-26) once again”, HUCA [Hebrew Union College Annual] 34(1963), 35-70

J. G. Murphy, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Book of Exodus, Edinburgh 1866

M. Noth, Das zweite Buch Mose Exodus, Göttingen 1958 (ATD)

G. Richter, “Zwei alttestamentliche Studien”, ZAW 39(1921), 123-137

L. F. Rivera, “El ‘esposo sangriento’ (The ‘bloody husband’: Ex. 4,26)”, RevBibl [Revue Biblique] 25(1963), 129-136

J. C. Rylaarsdam, The Book of Exodus, Nashville 1952 (IB)

H. Schmid, “Mose, der Blutbräutigam”, Jud [Judaica] 22(1966), 113-118

W. H. Schmidt, Exodus, Lief. 3, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1983 (BK)

G. Schneemann, “Deutung und Bedeutung der Beschneidung nach Ex. 4, 24-26”, ThLZ [Theologische Literaturzeitung] 105(1980), 794

S. L. Shearman-J. Briggs, “Divine-human conflicts in the Old Testament”, JNES [Journal of Near Eastern Studies] 28(1969), 231-242

H. P. Smith, “Ethnological parallels to Exodus iv. 24-26”, JBL [Journal of Biblical Literature] 25(1906), 14-24

H. L. Strack, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus und Numeri, München 1894 (SZ)

G. Te Stroete, Exodus, Roermond en Maaseik 1966 (BOT)

G. Vermes, “Circumcision and Exodus IV 24-26. Prelude to the theology of baptism”, in Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, Leiden 19732, 178-192

J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, Berlin 19056

J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, Berlin 19613

Nahum M. Sarna (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sarna, Nahum M. Introduction to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, pp. xi-xv. Philadelphia, Penn.: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991.

[In the following essay, Sarna provides background for Exodus.]


The commonly known Hebrew title for the second book of the Torah is Shemot, shortened from the opening words ve'elleh shemot. This follows an ancient and widespread Near Eastern practice of naming a literary work by its initial word or words. In Genesis Rabba1 we find the full title: Sefer 'Elleh Shemot, “The Book of ‘These are the Names.’” The Hebrew name was transliterated in Greek as oualesmoth2 and was used in Latin Bibles in the form of Hebraica veelle semoth.

Another ancient Hebrew name was sefer yetsi'at mitsrayim, “The Book of the Departure from Egypt,” expressing its central theme. The Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, in pre-Christian times, rendered this title in Greek as Exodos Aigyptou, abbreviated simply as Exodos, which is how it appears in the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Torah into Greek. This was adopted for use in the Old Latin version of the Bible (pre-fourth century c.e.) in the form of Exodus and so passed into the Vulgate and through it into numerous European languages. Another Greek rendering of the Hebrew title was Exagoge, “The Leading Out/The Departure [from Egypt].” The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 b.c.e. to 50 c.e.) used this name and offered his belief that Moses himself had designated the Hebrew title behind it.3Exagoge must have been quite well known in Egypt, for the Hellenistic Jewish tragedian Ezekiel (latest date, mid first century b.c.e.) composed a drama by that name.

The Hebrew title sefer yetsi'at mitsrayim was still current in Palestine in the tenth century c.e., for it is cited in the Dikdukei Ha-Te‘amim (§70) by the Masoretic scholar Aaron ben Moses ben Asher.4

Still a third Hebrew name for the book is mentioned in the Talmud:5Homesh Sheni, “The Second Fifth [of the Torah].”


Present-day editions divide the Book of Exodus into forty chapters. This practice is not rooted in Jewish tradition but was borrowed from Christian Bibles. In the late Middle Ages, the Church forced Jews to engage in disputations, which usually focused upon the interpretation of scriptural passages. This necessitated a common, standardized system of reference, and so the Christian chapter and verse numberings were introduced into the Hebrew manuscript Bibles by Rabbi Solomon ben Ishmael (ca. 1330).6

This innovation displaced an earlier Jewish system based upon the weekly Torah readings. In Palestine and Egypt, the entire Pentateuch was originally completed in triennial, or three-year, cycles. The Book of Exodus was variously divided into twenty-nine or thirty-three such sedarim, as the weekly Sabbath readings were called. Eventually, the Babylonian practice of completing the entire Torah in the course of a single year became universal. In this system, the Book of Exodus is divided into eleven sections, each known as a parashah (pl., parashot or parshiyyot) or sidra(h) (pl., sedarot).


Using the criterion of geographic location, one may divide Exodus into three parts. Chapters 1:1 to 15:21, which describe the oppression of Israel as well as the struggle for liberation and its final attainment, obviously have as their setting the land of Egypt. The events recorded in chapters 15:22 to 18:27 take place on the way from the Sea of Reeds to Sinai, although the location of chapter 18 is debatable. For the rest of the book, chapters 19 to 40, the scene of the action is Sinai.

Such a simple locational classification, however, obscures the richness and variety of the subject matter, which a glance at the Table of Contents given above will immediately reveal. The Book of Exodus is the great seminal text of biblical literature. Its central theme, God's redemption of His people from Egyptian bondage, is mentioned no less than one hundred and twenty times in the Hebrew Bible in a variety of contexts.7 This event informed and shaped the future development of the culture and religion of Israel. Remarkably, it even profoundly influenced ethical and social consciousness, so that it is frequently invoked in the Torah as the motivation for protecting and promoting the interests and rights of the stranger and the disadvantaged of society.8

This pervasive and sustained impact of the Exodus drama is not limited to the period of the Bible itself. It continued throughout history down to the present time and in recent years has been a source of inspiration for the “theologies of liberation” movements.9 If it has so profoundly affected peoples of widely different cultures, this is hardly because the biblical narrative is a straightforward account of an historical event; it is not. Rather, this influence is due to the special orientation and perspective of Exodus. It is a document of faith, not a dispassionate, secular report of the freeing of an oppressed people. The Book of Exodus possesses a character all its own and must be understood on its own terms.10

A close examination of the constituent elements of the Book of Exodus determines at once that we do not have a comprehensive, sequential narrative, only an episodic account. Moreover, the time frame in which the varied episodes are placed is extremely limited. The afore-cited passage from the Dikdukei Ha-Te‘amim adduces a tradition that one hundred and forty years elapsed between the death of Joseph (1:4)—the first event recorded in the book—and the construction of the Tabernacle almost exactly one year after the Exodus, the last dated occurrence (40:2). Yet, the narrative is most sparing of detail relating to the period of the oppression. Neither the duration of the sufferings of the Israelites nor anything about their inner life and community existence is mentioned. Only incidentally do we learn that the period of Egyptian enslavement lasted at least eighty years. We are told that Moses, who was born after the king's genocidal decree, was eighty years old when he first presented himself before the pharaoh as the leader of the people. Further investigation reveals that the book really covers the events of just two years: the year-long diplomatic activity as well as the coercive measures taken against the Egyptians and a few incidents from the year in the wilderness following the Exodus. This limitation, together with the paucity of historical data, suggests a high degree of deliberate selectivity. Both the selectivity and the disposition of the featured material stamp the Book of Exodus as falling into the category of historiosophy rather than historiography: Not the preservation and recording of the past for its own sake but the culling of certain historic events for didactic purposes is the intent.11

The entire narrative is God centered. Its focal points are God's mighty deeds on behalf of His people in times of oppression, in the act of liberation, and in the course of the wilderness wanderings. God is the sole actor, the only initiator of events. The various episodes, therefore, project Israelite concepts of God and of His relationship to the world; that is, they embody the fundamental tenets and crucial elements of the religion of Israel and of its world view.

The different aspects of the divine personality, as revealed in Exodus, express a conception of God that is poles apart from any pagan notions. There is but a single Deity, who demands exclusive service and fidelity. Being the Creator of all that exists, He is wholly independent of His creations, and totally beyond the constraints of the world of nature, which is irresistibly under His governance. This is illustrated by the phenomena of the burning bush, the ten plagues, and the dividing of the Sea of Reeds. As a consequence, any attempt to depict or represent God in material or pictorial form is inevitably a falsification and is strictly prohibited. The biblical polemic against idolatry appears here for the first time in the context of the Exodus.

Although the nature of God must be beyond the scope of the human imagination, the texts affirm, as one of their principal teachings, that He is nevertheless deeply involved in human affairs. History, therefore, is not a procession of causeless, undirected, meaningless happenings but is the deliberate, purposeful, unfolding plan of the divine intelligence. God chooses to enter into an eternally valid covenantal relationship with His people, Israel; this legal reality entails immutable and inescapable obligations on their part. The Decalogue and the legislative sections of Exodus thereby constitute divine law. They are not, as is the case with the Near Eastern law collections, the fruit of human wisdom or royal sagacity.

From this flows another credo, first explicated in Exodus, which thereafter animates all of biblical literature: that the welfare of society is conditional upon obedience to God's law. God is deemed to be absolutely moral, and He correspondingly demands moral standards of behavior from human beings. He delivers the faithful from injustice and oppression and ensures the ultimate and inevitable downfall of the wicked.

The religious calendar of Israel became transformed by the Exodus experience. Formerly tied to an expression of the rhythms of the seasons, the sacred times were reinterpreted in terms of that great historical event. They became commemorations of God's benefactions upon Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness and were emancipated from phenomena of nature.

Finally, two of the most important institutions of biblical Israel find their origins in this book. The account of the organization of the cult around a central place of worship with a hereditary priesthood occupies nearly one third of the entire book; thirteen of its forty chapters are concerned with this topic. And the prophetic office, of seminal importance for the national history and faith and later also for some of the world's other major religions, is initiated through the person of Moses. He is the archetypal prophet whose mission epitomizes the distinguishing features of later classical apostolic prophecy.


A clear distinction must be made between the special literary mold in which the narrative is cast—with its particular selectivity, emphases, and teachings—and the historical background of the Exodus. This last issue is complicated by the absence from the biblical accounts of certain data essential to establishing chronological parameters. The names of the reigning Egyptian kings are not given; we do not know how long after Joseph's death the reversal in the fortunes of the Israelites occurred; and we have no extra-biblical documentation that directly refers to Israel in Egypt, to the Exodus, or to the conquest of Canaan.

In addition to these matters, there is the problem that certain biblical texts have not yet yielded their secrets. For instance, Genesis 15:13 foretells that Abraham's offspring “shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” This time span is there coordinated with just four generations. Exodus 12:40-41 states that the Israelites resided in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. We are not told when this period is thought to have commenced; hence one cannot work backward to the patriarchal era in order to fix the date of Israel's departure from Egypt, not to mention the fact that the dates of the patriarchs are still a matter of scholarly dispute.

The one apparently unambiguous chronological note is in 1 Kings 6:1, according to which four hundred and eighty years intervened between the building of Solomon's Temple and the Exodus. The king's project can be reliably dated to around 960 b.c.e. This would place the great event at about the middle of the fifteenth century b.c.e. Unfortunately, this dating cannot be reconciled with many other details of the biblical narrative. Thus Moses, who lived in the Nile Delta, is easily and frequently in touch with the ruling pharaoh, who must also have had his residence in the area. But in the fifteenth century b.c.e. the Egyptian capital and royal palace were located at Thebes, a distance of more than four hundred miles (ca. 650 km.) to the south of the Delta.

Moreover, commencing about 1550 b.c.e. and for the next few hundred years, energetic and powerful Egyptian monarchs maintained a tight grip on Canaan. This situation would hardly have been conducive to Israel's departure from Egypt and its conquest of Canaan in this period, especially as Egypt never figures in the biblical account of Joshua's campaigns.

On the other hand, a thirteenth century b.c.e. dating would seem to be far more satisfactory. It was then that the royal capital was situated in the Nile Delta; it was in this period that archaeological evidence shows the towns of Pithom and Ramses to have been built, and the Bible ascribes their erection to Israelite slaves. It was then that frenetic construction activity took place in the Nile Delta, which would have required the conscription of large numbers of laborers. The end of the thirteenth century was a period of Egypt's decline and loss of its Canaanite province. The invasion of the Sea Peoples and the Libyans occurred; there was a power vacuum in the East; and generally it was a period of turmoil and upheaval.

Although a mid-thirteenth-century b.c.e. dating for the Exodus presently appears to accommodate more facts than a dating two centuries earlier, it is not without its own difficulties. True, it is reinforced by the Stele of Merneptah, the inscribed monument set up in western Thebes by the pharaoh of that name (ca. 1224 to 1211 b.c.e.) to celebrate his victory over the invaders of Egypt. This stele mentions “Israel” as a people in Canaan but apparently not yet settled down within fixed borders. Nevertheless, the Exodus and conquest in the thirteenth century cannot be reconciled with the above-cited biblical chronology if it is to be taken literally. Moreover, the archaeological data collected from numerous sites in the area do not always fit in with the biblical reports of the towns in Transjordan that the Israelites encountered on their way to Canaan nor of the places that Joshua conquered and destroyed in the course of his campaigns inside Canaan, if a thirteenth century b.c.e. time frame be insisted on. Only future research will be able to solve the problem. In the meantime, it must always be remembered that the biblical narrative is a theological exposition—a document of faith, not a historiographical record.


  1. J. Theodor and Ch. Albeck, eds. (Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1965): 708, §64.

  2. Used by Origen (3rd cent. c.e.), and by Eusebius (4th cent. c.e.) in his Ecclesiastical History, VI:25.

  3. De Migratione Abrahami III. 14, Loeb, ed., p. 138.

  4. S. Baer and H. L. Strack, eds. (Leipzig, 1879; [reprint] Jerusalem: Makor, 1970), 57.

  5. Sotah 36b.

  6. C. D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible ([Reprint] New York: Ktav, 1966), 25.

  7. Y. Hoffman, The Doctrine of the Exodus in the Bible [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1983), 11.

  8. Exod. 22:20-22; 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 5:12-15; 10:17-19; 15:12-15; 23:8; 24:17-18, 20-22.

  9. Cf. W. Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985). On this subject, see J. Levenson, “Liberation Theology and the Exodus,” Midstream, 35:7 (1989): 30-36.

  10. See N. M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 1-9.

  11. See I. Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988); G. London, “A Comparison of Two Contemporaneous Lifestyles of the Late Second Millennium B.C.,” BASOR [Bulletin. American Schools of Oriental Research] 273 (1989): 37-55.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Althann, Robert. “Unrecognized Poetic Fragments in Exodus.Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 11 (1983): 9-27.

Suggests various consonantal divisions and vocalizations for ten different problematical passages.

Berge, Kåre. “Introduction: Literarkritik and the Call of Moses.” In Reading Sources in a Text. Coherence and Literary Criticism in the Call of Moses: Models—Methods—Micro-Analysis, pp. 1-10. St. Ollilien: EOS Verlag Erzabtei St. Ottilien, 1997.

Explains the lack of consensus for the literary-critical interpretation of chapter 3.

Cassuto, U. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, translated by Israel Abrahams, 509 p. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1967.

Posits that the chief source for Exodus was an ancient heroic poem.

Deutsch, Yosef. Let My Nation Go: The Story of the Exodus of the Jewish Nation from Egyptian Bondage. Nanuet, N.Y.: Feldheim Publishers, 1998, 404 p.

Provides an overview of the central issues in and the significance of the centuries of Jewish exile in Egypt.

Dozeman, Thomas B. “The Mountain of God Tradition in Exodus 19-24.” In God on the Mountain: A Study of Redaction, Theology and Canon in Exodus 19-24, pp. 19-36. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1989.

Studies the role of Mount Zion in influencing the structure of Exodus 19-24.

Exum, J. Cheryl. “‘You Shall Let Every Daughter Live’: A Study of Exodus 1:8-2:10.” Semeia 28 (1983): 63-82.

Explores the portrayal of women, particularly their opposition to the King of Egypt.

Henderson, Edward H. “Archaic Experience and Philosophical Anthropology: The Enuma Elish and the Exodus.” In Philosophy and Archaic Experience: Essays in Honor of Edward G. Ballard, edited by John Sallis, pp. 101-21. Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press, 1982.

Discusses how Exodus articulates the struggles for being and worth.

Hyatt, J. Phillip. Commentary on Exodus. Greenwood, S.C.: The Attic Press, 1971, 351 p.

Detailed commentary on Exodus. The introduction provides analysis of literary style, role of oral tradition, and history.

Kok, Johnson Lim Teng. “Exegesis of Exodus 17:1-7 & Numbers 20:1-13.” In The Sin of Moses and the Staff of God: A Narrative Approach, pp. 57-89. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1997.

Analyzes Exodus 17:1-7.

Neudecker, Reinhard. “Preliminary Considerations.” In The Voice of God on Mount Sinai: Rabbinic Commentaries on Exodus 20:1 in the Light of Sufi and Zen-Buddhist Texts, pp. 1-16. Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2002.

Offers advice preliminary to undertaking study of Exodus.

Nicholson, E. W. “The Interpretation of Exodus XXIV 9-11.” Vetus Testamentum v. 24, January 1974, pp. 77-97.

Analyzes Exodus XXIV 9-11 and contends that it does not imply the existence of a covenant between Yahweh and Israel.

Niditch, Susan. “The Ritual Narrative in Exodus 12.” Folklore and the Hebrew Bible, pp. 49–65. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993.

Provides a folklorist approach to reading Exodus 12.

Sarna, Nahum M. Introduction to Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, pp. 1-14. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

Provides an overview of Exodus, with particular emphasis on its historical background.

Siebert-Hommes, Jopie. Introduction to Let the Daughters Live: The Literary Architecture of Exodus 1-2 as a Key for Interpretation, pp. 1-16. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

Discusses various approaches taken in analyzing Exodus in past studies.

Smith, Mark S. with Elizabeth M. Bloch-Smith. The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1997, 355 p.

Explores the priestly arrangement of Exodus and what “law” means in the context of the work.

Sprinkle, Joe M. “The Narrative Framework of Exodus 20.22-23.33.” In ‘The Book of the Covenant’: A Literary Approach, pp. 17-34. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994.

Examines how Exodus 20.22-23.33 relates to the larger narrative.

Tate, George S. “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon.” In Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, edited by Neal E. Lambert, pp. 245-62. Salt Lake City, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981.

Discusses events in the Book of Mormon that parallel events in Exodus.

Wijngaards, J. “… A Twofold Approach to the Exodus.Vetus Testamentum 15, no. 1 (January 1965): 91-102.

Discusses two formulas used in Exodus studies—one that emphasizes liberation, and another that emphasizes landgiving.

Jonathan Boyarin (essay date summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Boyarin, Jonathan. “Reading Exodus into History.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 23, no. 3 (summer 1992): 523-54.

[In the following essay, Boyarin explores the relationship between textual tradition and Jewish identity as it relates to Exodus.]


In an earlier paper on the shifting significance of Palestine as the ground of Jewish historical identity, I broached several critical questions, one of which was phrased as follows: “What are the grander links among the ancient Jewish state, the Western cultural complex of ‘Zion’ through the Bible, traditional Jewish culture in the modern period, Zionism, and what I will call here a postmodern ideal of Diaspora?”1 Here I will be considering the link between only two of those elements: the use of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative in writings from various points of Christian European, and particularly English, history; and the ways that same narrative has been drawn on for the legitimation of Zionism. Perhaps most of all, I hope to show that real insight into the narrative construction of history cannot do without close attention to the precise language of ancient source texts, to the translation of such texts as a practice which helps define collective identity, and to the multiplicity of readings they have afforded in widely differing historical circumstances.

The politics of Exodus constitute an exemplary case of the link between history and interpretive reading. The case is first of all “exemplary” in the loose sense that there are so many cases, over such a wide area and long period, in which that narrative has been used to make events cohere into meaningful constellations. It is also more precisely exemplary because the narrative cannot be understood solely as pertaining to the time in which it purports to be set, nor yet solely in the series of new presents in which it is taken up as a model.2 Rather it “is suspended between its own age and a later one.”3 Far from exhausting itself, it reacquires its force (and it will be central to my argument that its force is multivalent) in its repeated invocations. I intend, therefore, to trace out a trajectory of readings linking source texts, the ways they have been used and interpreted in the meantime, and the ways they are or can be used and interpreted now. This differs from the established notion of a “hermeneutic circle” linking only a given reader and a given text as sources and interpreters of each other, because it acknowledges the shaping force of a history of readings on the latest in their sequence.4 At no present moment are the potential readings of a text fully determined by its previous readings; but the range of plausible readings, of new directions of meaning, is constrained by the work the text has been used for in the past. This is what I mean by a trajectory.

The ancient tale of Israelites, Egyptians, and Canaanites resonates with a long series of historical narratives of conquest and of liberation. As I will attempt to show in the next section, the multiplicity of readings the text affords surpasses any attempt to contain that tale within the modern world-system model of imperial, adventurist conquest versus autochthonous liberation. By the end of the essay, in fact, I hope to convince the reader that Exodus is not as anomalous against that model as we might think at first. Instead I will suggest that European culture contains a discontinuous “tradition” of narratives of oppression, flight, and subsequent conquest. Some of these include all three terms—liberation, migration, and the establishment of a new (and “pure”) homeland. Others focus on migration and conquest.5 In these latter cases, lacking the prior history of covenant and oppression, it would be worthwhile to contrast whatever moral justification might appear for that divine one-sidedness with the sequence of divine promise-servitude-covenant in the Bible.6

In order fully to see the hermeneutic trajectory of Old Testament reading, we would, of course, need a much more sophisticated comparative ethnography of Biblical literacy and interpretation. Good work on the typological uses of the Bible in early British America has been done.7 Two very recent studies—one concerning the Rabbinic midrash literature, the other dealing with the Anglo-Saxons—will ground two of the sections of this paper. However, as far as I know, we still lack, for example, a comparative study of the workings of the Exodus model in British America and South Africa, or of the Biblical sources employed in the rationalizations of Catholic and Protestant imperialisms.8

Such a lack lends itself to wild claims on one hand and apologetics on the other. Perhaps because the uses of the Old Testament narrative are so prevalent in European cultural history, and so often enlisted in the justification of colonizing missions, Exodus and the Biblical narrative in general have sometimes been used to identify the Jewish origins of Western “dominationism.” Thus in his book Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, Frederick W. Turner locates the origins of intolerance in Israelite monotheism:

[I]t was the Israelites who established monotheism in the spiritual geography of humankind. And with it came the terrible concomitants of intolerance and commandments to destroy the sacred items of others (Exodus 23:23-24; 34:13-16) and to “utterly destroy” polytheistic peoples wherever encountered … the conception of genocide is foreign to polytheistic cultures. But the distinctions raised in the covenant between religion and idolatry are like some visitation of the khamsin to wilderness peoples as yet unsuspected, dark clouds over Africa, the Americas, the Far East, until finally even the remotest islands and jungle enclaves are struck by fire and sword and by the subtler weapon of conversion-by-ridicule

(Deuteronomy 2:34; 7:2; 20:16-18, Joshua 6:17-21).9

Now this statement is astonishing, if hardly unprecedented. In its sweepingly simplistic equation of polytheism and pluralism on one hand, monotheism and chauvinism on the other, it suggests that the Jews (like some irresistible Oriental force of nature, an evil wind) are ultimately responsible for all the evils of colonialism. Even more (though Turner does not write this, and perhaps if it had crossed his mind he would have been more cautious), it implies that the Jews, as inventors of genocide, are ultimately responsible for getting themselves killed by the Nazis! The monotheist-polytheist dichotomy is matched, in Turner's account, by a dichotomy between primitive, mythological, cyclical conceptions, and closeness to nature on one hand, and Israelite, historical linearism, and hostility to nature on the other.10 A recent Jewish celebrant of the Exodus narrative discussed in the next section unwittingly walks into Turner's trap, insisting on the “linear” as opposed to “cyclical” character of Exodus, and on Exodus as a universal Western model.

A key term in the quote from Turner is the claim that the Israelites are commanded to annihilate polytheistic peoples “wherever encountered.” In fact, ruthless as the divine warrants are, they are aimed precisely at those peoples that might impede the Israelites' progress toward the land, or whose continued presence there (not “wherever”) might lead them astray and is in any case not legitimized by divine covenant. Turner's need to find an ancient original of the “warrant for genocide” leads him to overlook this critical difference between a strictly local, highly particular account of intolerance and the modern Western European “universalist” propensity to dominate weaker peoples everywhere encountered, in the name of Christ or progress. If I may be allowed a brief totalization of my own, the Jewish Biblical text in sum constitutes a redemption narrative of partially global pretensions, but with precise ethnic and territorially based referents. “Mature” Christianity—that is, Christianity once it has become an imperial religion and is clearly no longer a Jewish sect—constitutes rather a deterritorialized, universalized, allegorized narrative of spiritual redemption. This difference is not an ontological one between the respective “essences” of Judaism and Christianity, but a historical one grounded in the ideological paradoxes of ancient nationhood and ancient imperialism. Thus our focus turns for a moment toward the earliest Jewish-Christian period, and toward a less deterministic articulation than Turner's of the changes in relations among land, ethnicity, and tolerance from the Old Testament to the modern period. I will content myself here with citing W. D. Davies's telling point that “One of the startling aspects of early Christianity is that, at a very early date, Gentiles, for whom the question of the land could not possess the interest that it had for Jewish Christians, soon became the majority.”11 Because Gentile converts to Christianity did not share the deep attachment to the Land of Israel that Jewish Christians had been born with, Christianity largely dropped those elements of Judaism which were inconsistent with its increasingly catholic character. Davies suggests, in effect, that aspects of the early social history of Christianity caught it ideologically off its guard. For the first few centuries, when Christianity was spreading among an ethnically varied multitude throughout the late Roman Empire, the links between covenantal destiny and promised lands were hardly relevant.

I will discuss some examples of how, starting a few centuries later and at various points thereafter, the model of a covenantal relation between a given people and a given land was integrated into Christian self-understandings. When this happened, it did not represent the workings of an autonomous logic contained in a text (as Turner would have it), but the employment and reshaping of an authoritative textual model.

Without denying that ancient Judaism is a major source of Christian European self-understandings, we would do well not to make a beeline to the Pentateuch for the premodern origins of Western European colonial discourse. Thus Robert A. Williams grounds his synoptic account of European conquistador legalism in the universalist discourse of the medieval church. First of all, Williams claims that law, and not, as one might suppose, Old Testament legends of conquest, was “the West's most vital and effective instrument of empire.”12 For Williams, the crucial innovation in Christian legal thought which paved the way for the rationalization of Renaissance-era conquests occurred during the Crusades, in a mid-thirteenth-century commentary written by Pope Innocent IV. True, the fact that the Crusades, as a model for European colonization, focused on the land once promised and now Holy, reminds us that the culture of colonialism has Biblical grounds as well. Yet Innocent IV's argument rested on non-Biblical sources, consisting of an adroit synthesis of the doctrine of natural law and the doctrine of papal responsibility for the “spiritual well-being of all the souls of Christ's human flock, including infidels and heathens” (AI 14). From these Innocent IV derived the principle that infidel and heathen peoples behaving in gross violation of natural law were subject to Christian intervention in their affairs.

Natural law and papal infallibility are not “Jewish” doctrines. Whatever ideas about humanity in general may be sprinkled throughout ancient, Rabbinic, and modern Jewish thought, they are not cast in terms of natural law; and whatever notions about a special place for the Jews in the divine plan for humanity there may be, no one has imagined the Jews in a universal pastoral role.13 The basic ways of dealing with the natives in both the Biblical conquest narrative and, mutatis mutandis, Zionist ideology14—either avoiding contact with the natives, or getting rid of them—are a far cry from such early European colonial techniques as the Spanish encomienda (the wholesale consignment of groups of Indian slaves to loyal Spaniards) or the requerimiento, a “charter of conquest” which “informed the Indians in the simplest terms that they could either accept Christian missionaries and Spanish imperial hegemony or be annihilated” (AI 91).

Given the different views of the broader sources of colonialism in general indicated by this cursory look at Turner and Williams, it is hardly surprising that there is a confusion about the “discourses of conquest” concerning Palestine and Israel. The links among knowledge, culture, and power pertinent to this region, compared to places such as the Indian subcontinent or Latin America, seem relatively underdeveloped in contemporary cultural studies. Thus in his introduction to a recent collection on Nation and Narration (1990), Homi Bhabha appropriately apologizes for the failure to include considerations of Palestinian national culture.15 Yet he seems unaware of the ways in which modern Hebrew and Yiddish fiction were critical to the formulation of Jewish nationalism, including Zionism;16 and as vital as the image of the Jewish Other was to the culture of nineteenth-century European nationalism, there is only one passing reference to anti-Semitism in the entire collection.17

I attribute this underdevelopment (of which Bhabha's collection is only a recent and convenient example) at least in part to a failure to articulate the critique of anti-Semitism with the critique of imperialism. Even the most careful and thoughtful criticism tends to slide in one of two directions. Either overwhelming horror at centuries of anti-Semitism and the culminating genocide leads to the celebration of Israel as a redemptive movement of national liberation; or anger at the denial of independence to Palestinians results in a slighting of the crucial struggle for Jewish freedom in modern Europe. To put it another way, since (with the rare and recent exception of a study like Williams's) the critique of dominant Christianity lags behind the critique of empire, those most concerned with Jewish well-being are hard put to integrate the Palestinians into their account, and the reverse holds as well.18 Furthermore, versions professing equal concern for both seem unable to go beyond the simplistic mold of a tragic, mirrored conflict between two national rights. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Greek tragedy, nor is it fated. An inquiry equally concerned at understanding European anti-Semitism and European imperialism would lead, I submit, to a perception that the construction of Israelis and Palestinians as being on two opposite “sides” is not at all inevitable. A more nuanced understanding of the workings of Exodus in history might contribute toward that perception. On the other hand, to continue debating whether the Biblical text feeds directly into either secular liberation or religious chauvinism is to reinforce many of the assumptions underlying the reification of the Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, collectives. And thus on to the more immediate occasion of this paper.


Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution is both a cultural intervention into the modern history of Palestine, and a valuable attempt to trace the career of a central narrative in Jewish and Christian history.19 Walzer's primary concern is not with bondage, nor with conquest, but with the struggle to form a responsible political community in the context of newly achieved freedom. Accordingly, he explicitly announces his intention to read Exodus not as a divine act of liberation, but as a secular and basically rational political effort which will echo through Western history. Among the historical examples available as reinvocations of Exodus, Walzer focuses on Latin American liberation theology and the English Puritans. Perhaps the main virtue of his account is the simple fact of broaching the topic of the collective, political uses of Exodus, thus transcending the purely individualist, spiritual, and typological analysis of the use of Exodus in early modern Europe.20 Evidently Walzer's account, which sees a radical thrust in the Biblical text itself, represents some revision in his own thinking, for earlier he had described Puritanism as “the earliest form of political radicalism.”21

Edward Said responded to Walzer's book with his own “Canaanite reading.”22 These texts embody, in a particularly dramatic and bitter way, the political stakes in the conflict of interpretations. Both have more to teach us than their tone suggests. Throughout this paper I will be using the issues raised by the Walzer/Said debate to identify critical questions about the use of the Exodus narrative in the past. At the same time, I will use these historical examples to point out the shared limitations of Walzer's and Said's ideologically secularist hermeneutics.23

The title of Said's review makes an extremely telling point against the way Walzer “edits” Exodus, as I will discuss shortly; the review also contains what strike me as at least three particularly blind spots of its own, with which I want to deal first.

First, on reviewing the Biblical text, it seems to me that Said is correct to note that, unlike Africans brought to America as slaves, Jacob's family is described as having gone to Egypt voluntarily. Yet the narrative seems equally clear in its description of them as having become a coerced labor force there. Thus it seems strange for Said to argue that “when Egypt fell on hard times, so too did the Jews, and because they were foreign they were the targets of local rage and frustration” (MW 91). This assertion by Said goes against Pharoah's reported statement that his fear is precisely that the Children of Israel will leave, that he will lose his work force. Most readers, I submit, whether secular or religious, Jewish or not, would agree that the narrative describes them as being more exploited than scapegoated. Yet Said's explanation sounds more like Simmels than like Marx; he makes the Old Testament out to be a proto-Zionist text, explaining oppression through the brute fact of cultural minority difference. It seems that, by his irresistible choice of a title, Said himself has fallen too readily into the typological association of Israelites and Zionists, and offered readings as willful and tendentious as those he accuses Walzer of providing. Why is Said driven to assert flatly that the Israelite story is “hardly comparable with that of American Blacks” (MW 91) when African-American history is replete with examples of how richly the slaves drew on precisely that comparison (“Where whites sang ‘Lord, I believe a rest remains / To all thy people known,’ blacks used the same tune to sing of Moses leading his people out of Egypt”)?24 Had he acknowledged this, Said might be less puzzled at the sympathy for Zionism of someone like Martin Luther King, whom Said identifies as an anti-imperialist (MW 98). Equally important, his denial of this connection makes it harder to understand the reciprocal reinforcements between liberal American Jewish sympathy for Zionism and for black civil rights. These are both expressions of an implicit “Exodus” liberalism, drawing both on the Biblical command not to oppress the “stranger” and on the empathic memories of having been liberated en masse from “bondage” in Russia to “freedom” in America, which has until recently been a very comfortable ideology for American Jews, both politically and morally.25

Second, because Said's polemical approach entails his rhetorical acceptance of the direct link between Exodus and Zionism posited by Walzer, he is compelled to assert the continuity in Judaism of the Biblical warrants for slaughter. Against Walzer's claim that the violent exclusiveness of the commands regarding prior inhabitants was never really carried out and was in any case vitiated through later Jewish commentary “arguing over its future applications” (ER 143), Said retorts that these commentaries are irrelevant since “after the destruction of the Temple. … Jews were in no position at all collectively to implement the commandment” (MW 93). This is a misreading of Walzer, since the commentaries Walzer refers to speculate about a time when Jews will again be both collectively able and collectively responsible for carrying out all the Biblical commandments—the time of the Messiah, though Walzer does not spell this out. For Walzer, this is evidence that Jewish doctrine has grown “progressively” less exclusive and more universalist. Said, on the other hand, sees a continuum of religious prejudice. Neither Said nor Walzer acknowledges the possibility of a complex and ambivalent interaction between the loss of political power and a greater Rabbinic emphasis on the demands of human empathy, with sources both in Greek philosophy and in the Biblical commands forbidding mistreatment of strangers. Neither, for his own reasons, acknowledges the profound difference between the Zionist ethos and that which was understood for centuries as Jewish—a difference readily acknowledged both by the early Zionists and their Jewish opponents, along with the theme of Jewish fulfillment through return to Zion.26

This leads to my third criticism of Said: his contention that early Zionism “was primarily religious and imperialist,” that “the concepts of Chosen People, Covenant, Redemption, Promised Land and God were central to it” (MW 98). No one can deny, of course, that traditional “religious” associations with Israelite history and the Land of Israel were crucial to whatever level of popular Jewish support Zionism had. They coexisted alongside much more mundane arguments, however, and one would be hard pressed to find them as “central” themes in the writings of Leo Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, or Max Nordau. These men were not religious and imperialist, but rather secularist and imperialist. As I understand their ideas, the concepts of “Chosen People” and “Promised Land” were subservient to the desire for any land (to be sure, one available from a friendly imperial power) on which Jews could raise themselves to the level of a worthy European people.27 Nor were the concepts Said lists necessary for giving “identity to a people scattered in exile” (MW 98), who already had a powerful, shared identity. Such concepts may to some extent have been “useful in getting crucial European support” (MW 98) but this was mainly because they were grounds for preexisting support among European “non-Jewish Zionists.”28

None of this vitiates Said's most telling charge: that Walzer's account barely mentions the Canaanites, and that, consistent with Walzer's emphasis on the continued relevance of the Exodus model, ignoring the Canaanites serves to reinforce the invisibility of the Palestinians. Where Said is concerned with the geographic, spatial movements of colonialism, Walzer is concerned to link Exodus to modern examples of the establishment of a just society against tyranny. Contrasting Exodus politics to Messianic apocalyptism, Walzer repeatedly emphasizes the partial and this-worldly redemption that Exodus aims for, and the somewhat ambivalent hostility toward enemies in Exodus movements as against the demonization of enemies in Messianism. Consistent with his claim that Labor Zionism represents Exodus politics against a Messianic right-wing fundamentalism, Walzer notes that the attention of the narrative “is focused on internal rather than external wars, on the purges of the recalcitrant Israelites rather than on the destruction of the Canaanite nations” (ER 142). If Said denies Israelite slavery in Egypt, Walzer reads with the grain of the text: his interpretation complicitly declines to confront the Exodus model with the destruction of the nascent Palestinian nation.29

In this exchange, both Said and Walzer seem to need to cast the question of Palestine in typological terms, as a reenactment or fulfillment of an archetypical narrative. Otherwise why would they need to read the Old Testament narrative in ways that so closely match their respective visions of Israel, Palestine, and “Western” politics?

For Walzer, the invocations of Exodus are carried out primarily in time. There is an analogy between his approval of the Exodus model of historical-political understanding, in which “events occur only once, and … take on their significance from a system of backward- and forward-looking interconnections, not from the hierarchical correspondences of myth” (ER 13), and his stress on all subsequent “Exodus histories” as being basically rational, this-worldly, gradualist, progressive. On the other hand, Walzer not only shows us latter-day politicians invoking the Exodus narrative as a model, but feels perfectly free himself to discuss Exodus “anachronistically” (ER 59), as if it were in fact a founding legend which still charters his politics. There is a major problem here: Walzer does not confront the critical question whether the Exodus narrative autonomously “works” in history or whether it is merely available for effective rhetoric in a wide variety of situations.30 If it is merely available, how important is it in shaping action? If in fact it “works,” how can we accept Walzer's strategy of giving us only his preferred “secular” reading, since that would give us a very distorted picture of its effects in history? Outside the limited range of Walzer's polemic against right-wing “Messianic” Zionists (who in any case are not likely to be swayed by his secular reading of Exodus!), why should we think that anyone's emancipatory interests are best served by that reading?

Said calls implicitly for a history of the Exodus narrative which would raise these issues in a more substantial way. But in their polemic, neither approaches the necessary synthesis of historical grounding of the text with sensitivity to its narrative power.31 In particular, close attention to the text—concern for responsible reading of its words—seems to fly out the window. This is evident on the grossest level, as I just suggested, in Walzer's choice to present us with an anachronistic “secular” reading divorced from a “sacred” reading which he disowns. On a more detailed level, it reappears in a bizarre dispute over the “original” meaning of the word “redemption.”32 Walzer claims the word originally means “redemption from slavery”; if he has in mind the Hebrew word ge'ula, he is correct. Said in turn questions the possible meaning “of a secular politics heavily dependent on the notion of redemption (whose first meaning is delivery from sin).”33 But surely the meaning of the Hebrew Bible is not to be determined by checking the dictionary for its definition of an English word!

There is an odd logic linking the shared, avowed secularism of Walzer and Said to their claims for the power of Exodus as Genesis—that is, as a myth of origin. The ancient or “religious” Jewish Other is effectively treated by both as inert, raw, original material, available for molding. Said's intention is to combat what he calls Walzer's overly assimilating, overly comfortable approach in the name of those who suffer today. Yet Walzer's insistence on the secularist reading of the ancient text is ultimately more complemented than deconstructed by Said's attitude, which is now ironic, now horrified, but always distanced.

Walzer is “inclined to prefer an argument that depends on the vividness of the present rather than the past” (ER 87).34 This refreshing assertion, however, is based on a dichotomy that robs Exodus of the power it has contained among such people as Jews, English Puritans, and African-Americans, none of whom saw reading as a choice between the secular and the sacred, or experience as a choice between living in the past and living in the present. For Walzer convincingly to sustain both his own gradualism and his overtly selective interpretation of Exodus as origin, one would expect either an account of how Exodus has been subsequently purged of its “sacred” or chauvinist side, or a modification of gradualism to include the possibility of periodic recourse to “mythical” archetypes. The former would be difficult if not, as I suspect, impossible; chauvinist and liberationist readings of the text continue to appear and, as I discuss below, they are often inseparable. Walzer can have no recourse to the latter since, like Turner, he has already declared Exodus as “the crucial alternative to all mythic notions of eternal recurrence” (ER 12). The reader who sees Exodus as the origin of domination and the reader who sees it as the origin of liberation are in agreement on its “linear” rather than “cyclical” character. The ways in which poets and politicians have interacted with the Old Testament narrative of the Israelites throw light on notions of primitive myth versus civilized progress that should henceforth bar such simplistic dichotomies, and make us wary of commentators who flash their credentials either as secularists or as participants in the tradition.35


Walzer gives us no indication of the intervening tradition which enabled the “Exodus politics” of the Protestant saints. Perhaps he regards these invocations as isolated flashes of inspiration; more likely he is relying on the general notion of a Protestant rediscovery of the Old Testament, which had been buried by centuries of Catholic ritualism and restricted literacy. But the rhetoric of affinity with the Israelites has roots in Eusebius's early Christian historiography, and long predates the Reformation.36 That affinity was explored in the most sustained way be the English.37 Reviewing pre-Reformation English uses of Exodus should thus serve as a useful way to check Walzer's claim that Exodus has been primarily used for “secularist” and progressive narratives of collective identity and destiny.

A new book by Nicholas Howe shows, in fact, how the Old Testament narrative served as a versatile template for the articulated self-understandings of the origins of people in Britain. Howe's general thesis is that “the Anglo-Saxons … envisioned their migration from continent to island as a reenactment of the biblical exodus.”38 Howe thus anchors the identification of the English with the Chosen People, and of the Emerald Isle with the Promised Land, much further back than the sole emphasis on the Protestant intimacy with the Old Testament would suggest.

Howe's book is significant not only for what it tells us about the workings of the Exodus story in early English literature and in the process of shaping an English folc out of the various Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded the island, but also for what it tells us about how to investigate interactions among history, ideology, and narrative.

One important lesson is contained in Howe's discussions of intertextual history. He does not confine himself to the general point that the Anglo-Saxons read and used the Old Testament, but looks for further connections within the early history of writing in Britain. Thus he sees models within models, types within types: when Wulfstan wrote in 1014 “to inspire [the English] to resistance against Viking attacks” (MM 8), he cited Gildas, a Celtic poet who had written before the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Through this reference back to a representative of the British who had been conquered during the adventus Saxonum, Wulfstan was able to warn the English that sinful and irresponsible behavior could cost them their promised land. Similarly, in discussing Bede's use of Virgil's myth of Roman origin (of course, Exodus was not the only model used), Howe makes the point that it is not necessary to demonstrate that Bede read the Aeneid, since “a cultural myth of this type becomes canonical when it achieves general currency in the literary as well as the popular imagination” (MM 62). In this particular case Howe was able to trace an indirect literary source; but the point is that, while careful detective work is indispensable, narrative models may work most powerfully where their presence is most diffuse.

Second, Howe is able to show that the crucial link enabling repeated modelings of Anglo-Saxon history on the Old Testament narrative is the parallel suggested by the crossing of water. Thus, for the author of the Old English epic called Exodus, “the crossing is the exodus” (MM 102; see also 46, 179); episodes such as the Canaanite wars are barely mentioned.39 But the point is not only Howe's careful attention to the splicing of the model narrative. Howe also recognizes the importance of what Paul Carter (1988) calls “spatial history”—the geographical contingencies with which historians contend when they reshape narrative models as memorials to new adventures.40 The Exodus story continued to be so productive in England not only because of its parallels with a series of events in English history, and not only because of institutional reinforcements of textual authority, but largely because, drawing partly on Exodus, the Anglo-Saxon migration myth “translated chronology into a spatial pattern” (MM 34), and thus helped to fix memory.

Third, Howe understands that our conventional divisions of ancient textual material should not blind us to earlier readers' inclusion of material other than that we ourselves focus on. The early insular writers he discusses—the British Gildas, the Anglo-Saxons Alcuin and Wulfstan—did not only read Exodus, and they used the Old Testament not only as a model for triumphal self-justification, but also for cautionary exhortation. In the cases of Alcuin and Wulfstan, he points to their references to the Jews' being taken into Babylonian captivity, the model of “a disobedient people being punished by God by wars and defeat at the hands of foreign invaders” (MM 22). Those who used Old Testament templates to warn of impending invasion and expulsion, therefore, were not presenting “Canaanite” readings, but rather referring to a more potently relevant crisis period in Israelite history when the “convenantal” inhabitants were endangered.

Finally, with reference to the Old English Exodus which he analyzes most closely, Howe utilizes a uniquely appropriate method. Relying on the importance of compounds in Old English, he looks carefully at a series of compounds contained in that text and possibly nowhere else, regarding them as a site of fusion between the Old Testament model and the Anglo-Saxon material. A particularly revealing example in Howe's analysis are the compounds including the element flod, here used not just as a synonym for a body of water but imbued with religious meaning. God is the flodweard (guardian of the flood). The Israelites journey on the flodwege (floodway). The Egyptians, on the other hand, are flodblac (floodpale) and flodegsa (in terror of the flood) (MM 85). Thus the same element is used in compounds which point toward the heightened moral powers of the model (the doom of the Egyptians) and to the adaptation of the model to the new material (these Israelites do not walk through on dry land; they are sailors). The technique of compounding, particularly rich in Old English, serves as the means by which multiple semantic valences are bound in the same text, or as Howe puts it, “[f]ar from being a translation or paraphrase, the Old English Exodus represents the rarer achievement by which a foreign story is absorbed into the native imagination and idiom” (MM 73).


What happened after Wulfstan? I do not find in the secondary literature any strong claims for the Exodus model in the period between William's triumph and Henry's revolt against Rome. The Norman period seems to represent a break in the chain of historiographic readings of the Old Testament. Robert Hanning notes several changes in the approach to history during the twelfth-century “Renaissance” in Anglo-Norman culture: human causation was given more weight; the concept of fortune was brought in; cyclical notions of history appeared; and the analogy between individual and national careers was loosened.41 While on the one hand, the Normans were treated as yet another “new Israel,” their significance was also cast in a classical mold: they were “imperial repressors of English liberty.”42 These new themes of secular narrative, human greatness, the cyclical rise and fall of individuals and nations, and the Greco-Roman theme of the struggle for liberty, reached their culmination in the influential writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.43 The evidence of this shift in the rhetorical grounds of historiography should warn us against any tendency to suppose that national identity ultimately depends on a single narrative model. Nor, of course, did the Normans need to see themselves as Israelites in order to conquer Britain.44

The Exodus typology was not permanently suppressed, however, and Walzer is right to insist on its role in the debates of English Protestantism. Its prominence in Protestant rhetoric was signaled as early as the reign of Henry VIII. In 1534, William Turner wrote that Henry's Declaration of Supremacy “intended suche a thynge as all myghty god dyd when he delyuered the chylder of Israel from the bondage of Pharao / and drove the chanaanites of theyr lande that the true Israelites myght haue that land and succede them.”45 Whether or not such rhetoric played any significant role at all in Henry's rebellion, that rebellion was extremely consequential for the initiation of English settlement in the New World, and hence for the further career of the Exodus narrative. The confiscation of church lands made the state rich, brought power to an ambitious class of “new men,” enabled Henry to build a powerful navy, and encouraged the displacement of former peasants to the cities, thus meeting “the vital material conditions for English expansion and colonization” (AI 126). Finally, Protestant anti-Catholic ideology provided a rationale for challenging the Spanish monopoly in the New World.

In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer cites a fair sampling of Puritan associations between their own revolution and the Exodus narrative. But it is not clear how sharply those associations can be distinguished from the broader link between Protestant millenialism and Christian encouragement of the ingathering and conversion of the Jews. Among at least certain segments of English society, this link was indeed articulated with the imperial project. The millenium would entail “the conversion of the Jews and the spreading of Christianity to all nations … [along with] the destruction of the Turkish Empire, which controlled Palestine and under whose rule most Jews lived.”46 Eventually some radicals came to give highest priority to “the reign of the saints on earth which was to proceed the Second Coming,” or even to equate the English with the Jews.47 The ingathering of the Jews was reworked into “the gathering of the Gentiles,” thus serving as another justification for conquest in America.48

Yet the importance of the Anglo-Saxons' memory of an actual sea crossing in enabling their identification with the Old Testament Israelites suggests that explicit evocations of the Exodus narrative would be even more prevalent among English Protestants who had themselves crossed the ocean to America. There was first the ethnic-moral analogy, in which Israelites were to Egyptians and to Canaanites as Puritans were to Papists and to Indians. There was also the geographical analogy, in which Egypt was to England as America was to Canaan. In the Puritan project of justifying conquest, these associations complemented the claims that the lands held by Indians were in fact vacant, and that they had to be settled and civilized in order to fulfill the Biblical command that man “occupy the earth, increase, and multiply.”49

The generation of the American Revolution was inspired by a range of myths of origin. In addition to the classical model of democracy,50 they, like the generations before them, looked back to the Exodus story. Like English radicals of their time, they also employed the idealized image of the free Anglo-Saxon yeomanry before the Norman Conquest, living justly together by natural law and recognizing each other's property rights (AI 252 ff.).51 Of course, they also drew on images of Native American tribal organization, which, sometimes at least, was explicitly analogized to the Saxon model.52

The conjunction of the Israelite and Anglo-Saxon inspirations is dramatically displayed in Thomas Jefferson's idea for the seal of the United States: one side was to bear a representation of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, while the other was to show the Saxon chiefs Hengist and Horsa, from whom, Jefferson claimed, “we have the honor of being descended.”53 The two associations complemented each other: lest the Saxon image cause second thoughts about rebelling against the motherland, the seal would remind its viewers that they had, after all, left Egypt; lest they become fearful thinking of themselves in the wilderness, they were reminded that they were, after all, bred of a pure and warlike Teutonic race.

This scattered discussion of the links between colonialism and mythmaking in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England and America should be enough to suggest that the Exodus narrative was used; that it was not necessarily distinct from a Christian kind of messianism; and that it was linked both to the colonial project and to visions of a radically egalitarian reorganization of society in England.54 With the substitution of “nineteenth and twentieth-” for “seventeenth and eighteenth-” “Europe and Palestine” for “England and America,” and “Jewish” for “Christian,” that sentence could also describe the modern Zionist movement, to which I now turn.


Is it possible to determine to what extent the Exodus narrative plays a direct role in Zionist ideology, both informing the articulated Zionist vision and helping that vision gain resonance among Jews at the turn of this century? Two linked premises shared by both Walzer and Said are that effective analogies can be drawn between the Biblical narrative and the history of Zionist settlement, and that this analogy was actively drawn on in shaping Zionist ideology. It seems to me the connection is neither as uniquely determinant nor as immediate as the Walzer-Said debate would suggest.

The Exodus, as commemorated in daily Jewish prayer and in the Passover ritual, is taken to be a founding event in several senses. First, it is “the birth of a nation.” In one sense, while the liturgy praises God for delivering to the Jews the lands of several nations, the high point at which we truly become a people is the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. On the other hand, the conquest and the assignment of lands to individual families reinforce the connection between the people and the land in a way that the covenant Abraham makes with God as an individual does not.55 The full narrative, including at one end bondage and at the other the responsibilities toward “strangers” assumed by the people newly established in their conquered land, authorizes the separate existence of the nation on two mutually reinforcing bases: first, the memory of bondage, redemption and promise; and second, the empathetic, superior morality demanded on the basis of this history. This sense of a special providence and a special responsibility are at the core of Jewish existence in vastly changing fortunes.

All this—the social compact at Sinai; the detailed, ancient title to Palestine; the combination of national distinction with a model of empathy—would seem to suggest Exodus as the blueprint for Zionism that both Walzer and Said would make of it. Yet to the extent that this narrative does work as a template for the Zionist project, there are good indications that its application in Zionism does not come directly from “traditional” Jewish culture, but from other, more diffuse sources.

On the basis of Walzer's account, this question would be difficult to judge. Walzer fails to cite a single actual evocation of Exodus by one of the pre-state founding fathers of Labor Zionism, contenting himself with the general observation that gradualist, liberal, realist Labor Zionists practiced Exodus politics.56 Said, as I have noted, makes the contentious but complementary claim that “religious” notions of divine promise and right to the land were central to early Zionist discourse, but he does not cite examples either. On the other hand a representative selection of Theodor Herzl's occasional writings reveals a concentration on the position of Jews in fin-de-siècle Europe, not a vision of the past glories on which a shining future can be modeled.57 On one occasion when Herzl did cite the Exodus from Egypt, it was only by way of contrasting it to the movement he envisioned: “We cannot journey out of Mizraim [Egypt] to-day, in the primitive fashion of ancient times.”58

This is not to deny that the Exodus narrative, precisely as enshrined in daily prayer and in the Passover ritual, was a significant resource for recruiting Jews from “traditional” backgrounds to the Zionist vision. It was doubtless used rhetorically for this purpose, as it was used rhetorically by pre-Zionist Reform Jews and later by anti-Zionist Jews, who claimed that their native lands (Germany, America, England) were “the promised land,” and who denied that they were waiting for a Messiah to come take them anywhere else.59

Against this I submit the hypothesis that the intimate association of Exodus with the Jewish settlement in Palestine and establishment of Israel is largely a product of the 1940s and after. I remember, for example, that as a child I first learned of the Nazi genocide while watching a documentary entitled “Let My People Go”; significantly, that film was broadcast on the night of Passover. The memories and images of the concentration camps lent themselves readily to an association with enslavement in Egypt, while the British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine cast the British as latter-day Pharoahs, refusing to let the Jews out of “Egypt”-Europe. The association was popularized immensely through Leon Uris's novel Exodus, named after one of the ships taking Jewish refugees to Palestine, and through the film made from that novel. It is significant that (perhaps like Moses the Egyptianized liberator) the hero of the Exodus film, the “new Jew,” the product of liberation from Zionism, is blond and blue-eyed Paul Newman. Furthermore, as suggested above, for liberal American Jews the “Exodus connection” helped to cement the connection between their sympathy for the new Israeli nation and their sympathy for the civil rights struggle of American blacks.

This is not to say that ancient associations played no significant part in the formation of Zionism, nor that the Exodus narrative is simply an extraneous, ex post facto import. The Exodus narrative, for all that Walzer emphasizes its “linear” character, is itself mixed with the memory of other exiles and returns. Thus the Passover Haggadah, the retelling of the Exodus, culminates in the hopeful shout of “next year in Jerusalem.” This is clearly a reference to the return from exile in Babylonia, since Jerusalem does not figure in the Biblical narrative until generations after Joshua's conquest.60 Though this is by all means an expression of Messianic hope, the tradition hardly finds it incongruous as the climax to the retelling of the Exodus narrative.

This latter theme—the loss of a commonwealth and the hopes for its return—seems more salient in Rabbinic Judaism. In prayer Jews remember and express their gratitude for delivery from Egypt, but they beseech God for the restoration of David's kingdom and of the Temple in Jerusalem. The possibility needs to be considered that the model of Babylonian exile and return was more salient than Egyptian exile and Exodus in the interplay between Zionist goals and the popular (mostly Eastern European) Jewish imagination. As Yaakov Shavit suggests, for a brief period—from the advent of the Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) in 1882, through roughly the 1920s, when the Balfour Declaration was explicitly analogized to that made by the Persian King Cyrus—the role of Cyrus in permitting the Return to Zion was prominent in Jewish “historical memory,” that is, in a collective “memory” stimulated by both historiography and a set of circumstances analogous to those at a point in the distant past. Shavit makes several points relevant to the respective prominence of the Return model and the Exodus model, noting that in the pre-state period, building on “the recognition that the Return to Zion was an indisputable historical event (unlike the Exodus from Egypt) and an outstanding messianic event. … [The East European Hovevei Zion] explained [Cyrus's] Declaration and the subsequent Return to Zion as an outstanding example of redemption by natural means, as opposed to the redemption from Egypt by miraculous means. … Cyrus simply served as a good case—in fact the only one in historical experience—which symbolized what should be expected from diplomacy and legitimized the latter as a historical political method.”61

During the 1930s, when Zionists became disappointed with the policies of the British “Cyrus” and the project of creating an independent state became increasingly favored, the figure of the original Cyrus “revert[ed] to the status of a passive memory.”62 If indeed the model of the Return from Babylon was more prominent than the Exodus from Egypt in early Zionism, this would have considerable bearing on the debate over Zionist conceptions of history and self. At least three consequences can be identified:

First, the ancient images of the Land of Israel (or more particularly Jerusalem) as desolate (Lam. 1:1) would promote a justification of colonial settlement in Palestine on the basis that the land there was desolate now as well. This would be consistent with tropes of fertilizing the wilderness employed in other colonial contexts; for example, for Methodist missionaries Africa was “a ‘wilderness’ to be turned into a ‘fruitful field.’”63

A corollary of the desolation of the land is that it is implicitly understood as not being genuinely populated. Much as the Puritans had justified their taking of Indian land by the claim that it was vacuum domicilium, perhaps in the imagination of the early European Zionists, the Palestinians were not so much “Canaanites” as simply not there.64 This blanking out of the Arab presence may have been accomplished more through the shaping of an acceptable range of Zionist discourse which set the terms of polemic and therefore enabled a range of exclusions, most notably that of the Palestinians, than through explicit arguments against their legitimate presence.65 Such considerations may well be moot to displaced Palestinians, nor are they intended as a claim that the early Zionists were naive. Yet they are extremely pertinent to understanding how certain categories of persons are signified, and others are not, in differing nationalist and colonialist conflicts.66

Note also that this vision of the land as desolate, barren, abused, is directly contradictory to the picture of Canaan brought back by the Israelite spies. In the scene memorialized by the symbol of the Israeli national tourist board, they return bearing immense clusters of cultivated grapes (Num. 13:23). The land is already rich and cultivated, already flowing with all good things. In order to make this rhetoric work in support of the modern Zionist project, the sequence had to be reversed: in 1944 Senator Bennett Clark of Missouri described the Jewish immigrants as having “converted a barren land into a literal Biblical land of ‘milk and honey.’”67 While the quote shows how easily the two narrative models could be mixed, the emphasis is certainly on the right to possess barren land through working it, rather than on a divinely-mandated conquest.

Second, the Zionist settling effort really was a “return,” at least in imagination. This is attested to by the fact that names were already there in the lexicon: some of these names were still in use, some echoed through Arabic variants, some were contained in Jewish texts and could be plausibly reattached to new particular locales. The whole phenomenon represented a close overlay of the legendary and the referential: it is impossible simply to say that people came in and assigned Biblical names as if they were Israelites, and it is also impossible simply to say that they started using Biblical names again.68 Unlike Australia, for example, where European explorers and settlers had to transform space that to them was initially “raw” into space that was marked by and within their culture, Palestine was already an “occupied territory of the Jewish imagination.”69

Third, the Exodus narrative and the Babylonian exile and return narrative differ significantly in terms of the relationships between Israelites and empire obtaining at the end of the respective stories. The Exodus, of course, represents a complete divorce from the oppressor, whereas later there is a complex and in many ways benevolent continuing relationship with the Babylonians. An emphasis on the latter, then, would foster the simultaneous idea of Zionism as a colonizing mission and as a redemptive mission. The entire popular Zionist effort of mass fundraising, gradually rebuilding the land and sending settlers with the broad support of the majority of nonsettler Jews, also fits this model better.70

While Walzer tries, inter alia, to associate liberal Zionism with a democratic “Western” tradition via the Exodus narrative, the Babylonian analogy thus seems closer to the ambivalent attitude Israelis bear toward the West. On the one hand, Israel is a frontier, an outpost along a “narrow coastal strip,” the “only democracy in the Middle East.” On the other hand, this very association with “Western” values allows liberal Zionists to be retrospectively (and fairly effectively) tarred as “Hellenizers” by the right-wing territorial maximalists whom Walzer opposes. These demagogues are thereby able to elaborate a sort of antiliberal, “anticolonial” Zionist counterdiscourse, which is increasingly attractive to many Israelis as the hollowness of Labor Zionism sets in.71

Is it possible to construct a relation between Israeli Jewish identity and the Jewish textual tradition which transcends the weakness of Labor Zionism and the irresponsible chauvinism of Gush Emunim? Reading secularism or chauvinism back through the tradition will hardly serve as a basis for accomplishing that task. Rather we should learn both to see more richly the range of both associations and exclusions which make up Israeli identity, and to think beyond the “Western” polarizations of secularism and fundamentalism. By way of conclusion, I will suggest a few tentative steps toward grounding the second of these two tasks.


What are we to make of my breathless overview of the history of Exodus-reading? If I have indeed identified weaknesses in Walzer's and Said's political hermeneutics, what alternatives are or could be available?

I hope it is clear that the Exodus narrative is susceptible to both colonizing and liberationist readings, that the two variations are not often identified as such and that they are frequently mingled in the minds of readers. All of these uses represent one aspect of the heritage of modern politics, in a complex sense. Exodus was inherited by the shapers of modern imperialism and liberationism, used by many in their own projects, and thereby passed on as their heritage to us. There is a useful distinction to be made, therefore, between our ability to account for the role of Exodus (or any other preexisting narrative complex) in the ideological construction of modern politics, and our own interaction with that text as we have received it.

The continuing power of this imperial heritage—its potential for continued or innovative ideological effectiveness—is an open question, especially in view of the claims made recently for the “death of master narratives” such as the Biblical stories of oppression, liberation and conquest, or of exile and restoration.72 Since we are simultaneously critics and producers of ideology, the question is both descriptive and prescriptive. Will the grand narratives continue to sway large numbers of people? Should we be engaging them as authoritative? The problem may in fact be with the trope of narratives shared by large numbers of people, encompassing much history and an inexhaustible store of potential readings, as “master” narratives, since the qualifier itself implies imperial domination.

There is a different approach to the political history of reading: the recuperation of earlier “anti-imperialist,” or at least anamnestic, reading strategies. Thus, for example, Daniel Boyarin's recent book on Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash examines the Rabbinic readings of the Exodus narrative in the centuries following the final Roman destruction of the Jewish commonwealth. In such a situation, textual tradition and language in general are made to bear perhaps an even greater weight than when a collective enjoys temporal power. Boyarin's reading of the rabbis on Exodus is free of dichotomies between “secular” and “sacred,” or between Exodus-as-conquest and Exodus-as-liberation. By treating language as part of the material world and part of history, he escapes the Hobson's choice of deciding whether narrative is autonomously effective or merely available to political rhetoric, much as critical theory seems finally to have moved beyond the compulsion to declare certain aspects of our world as merely reflective of others which, as certain Marxists used to say, are “determinant in the last instance.”

Furthermore, Boyarin understands the rabbis themselves as having treated language as that part of the world given by God to humanity in order to make sense of the world. For that reason, as a “religious” obligation the rabbis were bound to stretch language to its utmost, to make it reveal as many of its potential meanings as possible. The midrash does not aim to discover the “true” meaning of the text; on the contrary, “the cumulative effect of the midrash as compiled is to focus on the ambiguity and the possibilities of making meaning out of it.”73

A striking example of this approach pertains to the references in the Bible to the Israelites “murmuring” in the desert. According to Walzer, who pays relatively close attention to these references, “The conflict … is between the materialism of the people and the idealism of their leaders, or it is between the demands of the present moment and the promise of the future. These are common political formulations, and one can find them developed in a great variety of ways in the rabbinic literature, usually, but not always, in ways unsympathetic to the people and the present moment” (ER 51).

Boyarin closely traces the rabbis' evaluation of one such murmuring and of subsequent verses, as recorded in a midrashic compilation called the Mekilta. The first verse in point is Exodus 16:2, “And the whole congregation of Israel murmured.” This certainly seems like a pejorative description of cranky ingrates. It is subjected to contrasting interpretations by two rabbis, whom the Mekilta represents as consistently evaluating the text in opposite ways. Rabbi Yehoshua, who tends throughout to a more positive account of the generation in the wilderness, does his best to remove its sting. Rabbi Elazar, who consistently denigrates the Israelites, “enthusiastically activates the pejorative connotations of the word ‘murmured,’ and even enhances them dramatically” (I 71). Slightly later, another verse reads, “And the Lord said to Moses: I hereby rain bread from Heaven for you.” Rabbi Yehoshua gives this verse what we would probably agree is its commonsense reading, as a sign of divine goodwill. Rabbi Elazar, however, stretches the interpretation to contend that “‘He says “hereby” only to mean by the merit of your ancestors’” (quoted I 72).

What is going on here? Have Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar, for reasons extrinsic to the text, already made up their minds about the generation in the wilderness, and proceeded to force each verse into their preconceived molds? On the contrary, Boyarin suggests that it is fallacious to assume that the Mekilta represents an accurate “transcript” of exactly what two historical figures said. Rather, he suggests, the Mekilta itself has molded them into representatives of two possible, antithetical readings contained in the biblical text itself, one depicting the Israelites as faithless and servile, the other as faithful and bold: “the midrash seems to present the view of an ancient reader who perceives ambiguity encoded in the text itself with various dialectical possibilities for reducing that ambiguity, each contributing to but not exhausting its meaning(s). … Moreover, the Mekilta does not speak discursively and abstractly in metalanguage about the ambiguity of the Torah. It represents the tension and inner dialogue of the biblical narrative by tension and inner dialogue of its own” (I 79).

This approach to the politics of reading, which Boyarin implicitly claims to share with the rabbis, bears several lessons. It takes seriously the idea of language in and as history, and examines closely particular cases of readers interacting with “foundational narratives” as they shape techniques for narrativizing memory against oblivion. It has ample room for contentious voices within a shared tradition, rather than either claiming that one trend must be dominant or opting to speak of only one trend as more congenial to our own views. It renews the potential of creative (and even subversive) interaction with the tradition beyond the poles of affirmation and denunciation. Most important, because it integrates powerful currents of both textual authority and interpretive heterogeneity, it suggests a positive answer to Said's question whether one can “both ‘belong’ and concern yourself with Canaanites who do not belong” (MW 106). The more one is equipped to read, the greater the number of plausible interpretations one is able to entertain, the less one is compelled to view “belonging” as a monodimensional loyalty, and the better able one is to work through such seeming contradictions in creative practice.

A legitimate objection can still be raised. Even though this intense and detailed interaction with the stuff of textual traditions helps avoid reification of the “ethnic community” which maintains them, it still entails a common set of competences and a shared reference to an authoritative tradition. Furthermore, no matter how difficult philologic and interpretive work on midrashic or Anglo-Saxon texts may be, and no matter how indispensable such work may be for discussions of text as ideology, it does not present the same challenges as the attempt to articulate ancient models with current political situations. Is a form of “midrashic dialogism” possible beyond the boundaries of a tightly-knit hermeneutic/political tradition? Could it possibly be an intercultural model? Though I might be tempted to cast Said as “Reb Edward” and Walzer as “Reb Michael,” to do so now would both neutralize the complex power-relations implicated in their debate, and fictionalize the suffering of Palestinians for whom Said wishes to speak. The image of relatively comradely interpretive dialogues preserved in the midrash may be one ideal, but it cannot serve as a standard for judging debates in the present.74

I believe that, beyond and encompassing both Walzer's “belonging to the tradition” and Said's “embattled intellectual” stance, we are necessarily engaged in a search for models of interpretation which are translatable across cultural boundaries. What this search demands I would not call enlightenment, not least because viewing our ancestors as having been in darkness constitutes much of the problem. We do need to struggle for social conditions which will permit us to realize, much more than we have until now, the innate ability of human beings to operate within a great variety of cultural idioms, and which will “authorize” a much larger and more diverse human group effectively to create culture and intervene in politics. The goal of expanding our peoples' capacity for reading, writing, speaking, and understanding is inherently political, inseparable from the humane goals which give the term “humanities” whatever value it has. Stated at this level of generality, of course, there is a danger of falling back into a liberal universalism which erases not only cultural differences, but the world system of collective discriminations and deprivations which is still very much in force. In the search for models of intercultural and contentious dialogue, the only possible procedure is one which maintains simultaneously the equal importance of each human life and the almost inexhaustible reiterative power of our particular narrative associations through time.


  1. Jonathan Boyarin, “Palestine and Jewish History,” Working Papers of the Center for Studies of Social Change, No. 92 (1989); rpt. in my Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (Minneapolis, 1992), p. 124.

  2. One reason why I will not even pretend to deal here with what “really happened” during the Biblical period, except to quote a recent assertion in the New York Times of “a growing consensus among Egyptologists, Biblical scholars and archaeologists that most of the early Israelites were Canaanites” (John Noble Wilford, “Battle Scene on Egyptian Temple May Be Earliest View of Israelities,” New York Times, 4 Sept. 1990, C1 ff.). According to Sari Nusseibeh, on the other hand, “present-day Palestinian Arabs regard Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites, etc. [along with more recent waves of migrants], as their ancestors” (Sari Nusseibeh, “Letter to the Editor,” New Outlook, 33, no. 4 [Apr. 1990], p. 5). One conclusion that might be drawn, to paraphrase Michael Walzer, is that whoever you are, you're probably a Canaanite.

    Regarding the relation between the history of Exodus and the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Nusseibeh justly writes that “while one can certainly respect the Jewish people for its astute self-consciousness and continuity, such respect cannot in fairness be used as grounds for disinheriting the wave after wave of political manifestations of the non-Jewish Arab communities of Palestine, whether through denying them their rightful historical role, of their rightful contemporary claims.”

  3. David Lloyd, “Kant's Examples,” Representations, 28 (1989), 36.

  4. This notion of a trajectory, rather than a hermeneutic circle or a line of progress, is analogously related to a critique of the reified notion of “cyclical” versus “linear” conceptions of history to which I refer below.

  5. The folklorist Yael Zerubavel, whose work analyzes the careers of Israeli national myths (Masada, Bar Kochba, Tel Hai), emphasizes the importance of understanding how the older legend is “spliced” for understanding the politics of its subsequent applications (Yael Zerubavel, “The Politics of Interpretation: Tel Hai in Israeli Collective Memory,” Association for Jewish Studies Review, 16, nos. 1 and 2 [Spring and Fall 1991], 133-60). This will be a critical point in my discussion below of the contemporary Exodus debate. Zerubavel gains much of her insight from spending time in Israeli history classrooms. It is worth emphasizing that scholars interested in the relation between literature and collective ideology need to pay close attention to the mechanisms by which narratives and their determined readings circulate and gain social authority.

  6. Not that God's promise and a history of suffering justified Joshua's expulsion of the prior inhabitants of Canaan to the satisfaction of quite all the voices canonized in the Old Testament; William D. Davies has listed the traces of Biblical “bad conscience” concerning the former-day Palestine question (William D. Davies, The Territorial Dimension of Judaism [Berkeley, 1982], pp. 15-16). Robert Cohn (“Israel and Sacred Space,” Continuum, 1 [1990], 4-14) has detailed various qualifications of God's promise of the Land to the people of Israel: in Genesis, the reminder that “The Canaanites were then in the land” (Genesis 12:6); in Leviticus 18 and 22, explanations that the Canaanites were expelled because of sexual perversions, and warnings that Israel will suffer a similar fate if it does not obey God's law; in Deuteronomy, the reminder that not only for Israel has God driven out prior inhabitants to make room for newcomers (Deut. 2:10-12, 20-23). Cohn sees “a steady transformation in the narrative of the Torah from God's unqualified promise of a homeland to God's conditional offer of a holy land” (p. 14). He ties this to the situation in Babylonian Exile of the Torah's final redactors, “painfully aware that, like the Canaanites before them, they too had been dispossessed,” and anticipating “their own return to a homeland where one could never be quite at home” (p. 14).

  7. See references cited in Henning Graf Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 141, n. 437.

  8. Robert Thornton assures me that the Exodus narrative has been very richly employed in South African history, both by colonialists and Africans. Currently it is used by African independence churches; Chief Buthelezi employs the Book of Joshua to frame his claim to recreate Chaka Zulu's state. The theme of crossing rivers is also important in South African historical geography. Thornton concludes that the Bible is in fact the South African master narrative: “The question is who gets to be the Israelites” (personal communication, Shelby Collum Davis Center, October 1990).

  9. Frederick W. Turner, Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness (New Brunswick, N.J., 1983), p. 45.

  10. See Turner, p. 43. This distinction has a substantial prehistory, which it would be helpful to have documented. The classic discussion of “cyclical” conceptions of time is, of course, Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York, 1959). A rather more dialectical account, emphasizing the role of astronomy in the shaping of early civilizations' conceptions of time, is contained in Giorgio de Santillana and Herta von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill (1969; rpt. Boston, 1977). Specifically regarding the ancient Israelites, for a corrective account emphasizing homologies between the human body and the “natural” world in the Jewish Bible, see Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism (Bloomington, Ind., 1990).

  11. William D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley, 1974), p. 371.

  12. Robert A. Williams, Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (New York, 1990), p. 6; hereafter cited in text as AI.

  13. Intriguingly, Williams derives “[t]he basic idea of the Church as a universal body” in part from the Pauline notion of the mystical body of Christ, “‘whether we are Jews or Greeks, whether we are slaves or freemen’” (AI p. 15). In other words, the sources of this universalist, organicist, hierarchical metaphor are to be found, as Davies noted in the above-cited passage, in the doctrinal pressures caused by the quick spread of “Christianity” among non-Jews.

  14. I must stress that I am talking about Zionist ideology here, and I should specify that I am thinking primarily of Labor Zionism. “Zionist” capitalist-colonial planters gladly hired inexpensive Palestinian laborers, and the integration of the Occupied Territories into the Israeli economy has added a major source of disadvantaged “underclass” labor to the preexisting pools of Israeli Arabs and Oriental Jews. Nevertheless, the hiring of Palestinians in the early settlements was combatted by Labor Zionists on both pragmatic and ideological grounds (See Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1882-1914 [New York, 1989]), and the presence of the new Palestinian underclass since 1967 significantly contributed to the undermining of Labor Zionist hegemony in the Israeli state.

  15. See Homi K. Bhabha, “Introduction: Narrating the Nation,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (New York, 1990), p. 7.

  16. See Uri Eisenzweig, Territoires occupés de l'imaginaire juif (Paris, 1981).

  17. Martin Thom, “Tribes within Nations: The Ancient Germans and the History of Modern France,” in Nation and Narration, p. 40. Edward Said is perhaps the exception that proves the rule here. A great deal of his critical energy stems from his position as a Palestinian exile and attempts to illuminate the wider sources of that situation. Yet with a few exceptions (for example, Ella Shohat, “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” Social Text, 19/20 [1988], 1-35), those who draw on his model analysis of Orientalism do not discuss the case of Palestine/Israel.

  18. Gershon Shafir, citing his colleague Baruch Kimmerling, puts it this way: “whereas Israelis tend to focus on the non-colonialist reasons and motivations for their immigration to Palestine, Arabs directed their attention to its results. … At the outset, Zionism was a variety of Eastern European nationalism, that is, an ethnic movement in search of a state. But at the other end of the journey it may be seen more fruitfully as a late instance of European overseas expansion, which had been taking place from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries” (Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, pp. xiv, 8). I'm not sure I would fully endorse this formula; it still smacks of apologetics, especially since Shafir himself cites explicitly colonialist proposals for Jewish development in Palestine (pp. 10-11). But it does represent an attempt at a just nuance that is rare in writing on Palestine/Israel.

  19. Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York, 1985); hereafter cited in text as ER.

  20. See Joseph A. Galdon, Typology and Seventeenth-Century Literature (The Hague, 1975).

  21. Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), p. vii.

  22. Edward Said, “Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading,” Grand Street, 5, no. 2 (Winter 1986), 86-106, hereafter cited in text as MW; rpt. in Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestine Question, ed. Edward Said and Christopher Hitchins (New York, 1988), pp. 161-78.

  23. Two caveats are called for here: first, nowhere do I mean to suggest that the meanings of Exodus, whether ancient or contemporary, are only those discussed in this paper. Second, Gayatri Spivak points out that in the Walzer-Said debate, and despite Said's protests, Exodus remains the hegemonic narrative of oppression and liberation, the narrative that must first be responded to. She suggests, in effect, that remaining within this framework and debating it back and forth, as Walzer, Said, and I do, perpetuates and reinforces the colonial crowding out of nonmonotheistic or even non-narrative discourses about politics and the cosmos (personal communication, Shelby Collum Davis Center, October 1990).

  24. Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York, 1977), p. 23.

  25. “Immigration to the United States was compared to the Exodus from Egypt because it was a mass exodus, unlike the tiny settlements [in Palestine] of the Hovevei Zion” (Yaacov Shavit, “Cyrus King of Persia and the Return to Zion: A Case of Neglected Memory,” History and Memory, 2 [1990], 68).

  26. See “Statement by the Lubbavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shulem ben Schneersohn, on Zionism,” in Zionism Reconsidered: The Rejection of Jewish Normalcy, ed. Michael Selzer (New York, 1970), pp. 11-18.

  27. In 1896, Herzl asked, “Shall we choose [the] Argentine [Republic] or Palestine? We will take what is given us and what is selected by Jewish public opinion” (Theodor Herzl, “A Solution of the Jewish Question,” in The Jew in the Modern World, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz [New York, 1980], p. 425). The first Zionist Congress, of course, settled decisively on Palestine in 1897. But insofar as Said is talking about the “origins” of Zionism, I believe the point stands that the ideology does not arrive full-blown out of Jewish tradition. Below I will have more to say about how traditional associations with the geography of Palestine affected the “spatial history” of Jewish colonization.

  28. See Regina S. Sharif, Non-Jewish Zionism: Its Roots in Western History (London, 1983).

  29. The debate between Walzer and Said has received critical attention from Mark Krupnick in “Edward Said: Discourse and Palestinian Rage,” Tikkun, 4, no. 6 (1989), 21-25. My responses to Krupnik, some of which are elaborated here, can be found in my letter to the same journal (“Letter to the editor,” Tikkun, 5, no. 3 [1990], 6 ff.). Elissa Sampson's essay on the debate focuses more directly than this paper on critical issues of contemporary Zionist tendencies and their understanding of Palestinians (Elissa Sampson, “Exodus and Empire,” unpublished seminar paper, New School for Social Research [1990]).

  30. In an essay on the general switch from the biblicism of the “saints” to the Romanism of the Royalists in the second half of the seventeenth century, Steven Zwicker offers some very acute insights on this dialectic: “Royalist vindication reclaimed materials that Puritans had once used to celebrate their triumphs; but Royalists also looked harshly and derisively at Puritan scripturalism. … The combination of Puritan demise and Royalist vindication complicated the potential for Scripture as a social and political language, but eventually such complication also undermined its authority, its capacity to sustain praise and the burden of a national life imagined in its terms” (Steven N. Zwicker, “England, Israel, and the Triumph of Roman Virtue,” in Millenarianism and Messianism in English Literature and Thought, ed. Richard H. Popkin [Leiden, 1988], p. 41).

  31. For an essay which does, in my opinion, approach that synthesis, although focusing on the question of state power versus moral community in the Israelite kingdoms, see Harry Berger, “The Lie of the Land: The Text Beyond Canaan,” Representations, 25 (1989), 119-38.

  32. See Michael Walzer, “Letter to the Editor,” Grand Street, 5, no. 4 (Summer 1986), 248; also Edward Said, “Reply to Michael Walzer,” Grand Street, 5, no. 4 (Summer 1986), 253.

  33. Said, “Reply to Michael Walzer,” 253.

  34. David Harlan cites Walzer's book approvingly as an example of historiography free from the illusions of contextualism. Harlan describes Exodus and Revolution as “a history of meaning rather than a history of the production and transmission of meaning” (David Harlan, “Intellectual History and the Return of Literature,” American Historical Review, 94 [1989], 606). Since Harlan is hardly arguing for a return to a rarified history of ideas, and strongly questions the possibility of determining past meanings, it is hard to see what this can mean but an arbitrary selection out of the repertoire of putative past meanings for the purpose of present rhetoric.

  35. The entire body of reader-response criticism, one starting point of which would be Hans Robert Jauss's Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis, 1982) is obviously relevant here.

  36. See Robert W. Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain: From Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York, 1966), p. 23 ff.

  37. See Charles Stinson, “‘Northernmost Israel’: England, the Old Testament and the Hebraic ‘Veritas’ as Seen by Bede and Roger Bacon,” in Hebrew and the Bible in America: The First Two Centuries, ed. Shalom Goldman (forthcoming, Univ. Press of New England). For the medieval period as well, a comparative account of Exodus readings is wanted. Beryl Smalley pointed out decades ago, for instance, that “the Frisians, comparing themselves to the chosen people, inverted the order of events in their history, so as to get a closer correspondence with the Old Testament. This group of Frisian chronicles supplies an extreme example of the tendency to pour one's material into a traditional mold. In the Middle Ages tradition began with the story of Creation as it is told in the book of Genesis” (Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages [1940; rpt. Notre Dame, 1964], pp. xi-xii).

    It should be said that I am focusing on England here not only because the Exodus seems to have played an extraordinary role in its self-imagining over the course of centuries, but also because of the particular importance of the English heritage both for the history of Zionism and the history of the United States, and because England's was the preeminent modern world empire.

  38. Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (New Haven, 1989), p. 2; hereafter cited in text as MM.

  39. Shades of Exodus and Revolution! On the other hand, unlike Walzer's fearful Israelites, “the Israelites of the Old English poem seem unmarked by enslavement in Egypt” (MM, p. 79).

  40. See Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay (Chicago, 1989).

  41. Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain, p. 126.

  42. Hanning, p. 128.

  43. See Hanning, p. 128; see also R. William Leckie, Jr., The Passage of Dominion: Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Periodization of Insular History in the Twelfth Century (Toronto, 1981).

  44. See Eleanor Searle, Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power, 850-1066 (Berkeley, 1988).

  45. William Turner, The Huntyng and Fyndying Out of the Romish Foxe (Basle, 1534), p. 35; quoted in Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, p. 111.

  46. Christopher Hill, “Till the Conversion of the Jews,” in his The Collected Essays, Vol. II (Brighton, 1986), p. 271.

  47. Hill, p. 277. Nabil Mattar [“Protestantism, Palestine, and Partisan Scholarship,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 18, no. 4 (1989), 52-70] provides important documentation of anti-Restorationist strands in British Protestant theology, but his rhetoric is confusing. His contention—directed especially against Barbara Tuchman's The Bible and the Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (New York, 1956)—is that previous scholarship has ignored this anti-Restorationist tradition because of Zionist bias. The claim is somewhat undercut by his own citation of Sharif [Non-Jewish Zionism], a clearly anti-Zionist reading which focuses on British Restorationism as a motivation of Zionism quite separate from concern for the Jews' well-being. Mattar's sweeping claim that all British support for the “return” of the Jews to Palestine is linked to the vision of Jewish conversion to Christianity seems unwarranted; at least this claim is disputed by one scholar (Mayr Vereté, summarized in Richard H. Popkin, “Introduction,” in Millenarianism and Messianism in English Literature and Thought, pp. 1-11). Mattar further betrays his own partisanship by assuming that all non-Jewish Zionism is motivated by anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism.

  48. Hill, p. 278. Considerably later, the epochs marked by Moses, the advent of Christianity, and the reign of Alfred, were invoked in a work by Thomas Evans called Christian Policy the Salvation of the Empire (London, 1816). This work called for the restoration of what its author conceived to be the republican, communist, agrarian societies of those three periods (see Christopher Hill, “The Norman Yoke,” in his Puritanism and Revolution [1958; rpt. New York, 1986], pp. 110-11).

  49. Chester E. Eisinger, “The Puritans' Justification for Taking the Land,” Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXIV (1948), 131. When Perry Miller, earlier in this century, began to take a fresh critical look at the ideology of the American Puritans, he too seemed really to perceive the land they came to as a “wilderness.” The preface to one of his books evokes yet another case of empire imagining its genealogy:

    To bring into conjunction a minute event in the history of historiography with a great one: it was given to Edward Gibbon to sit disconsolate amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome, and to have thrust upon him the “laborious work” of The Decline and Fall while listening to barefooted friars chanting responses in the former temple of Jupiter. It was given to me, equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa, to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States, while supervising, in that barbaric tropic, the unloading of drums of case oil flowing out of the inexhaustible wilderness of America. (Perry Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness

    [Cambridge, Mass., 1956], p. viii.)

    The passage shows clearly how the continued invocation of foundational tropes—a sense of being “in the tradition”—enables Miller's powerfully influential historiography. Myra Jehlen, in the course of an insightful discussion of Miller's work, points out that Miller continued to see America as having been a “vacant wilderness,” which of course it was not. (See Myra Jehlen, American Incarnation: The Individual, the Nation and the Continent [Cambridge, Mass., 1986], p. 28.) The continued occlusion of the Native American presence, in this sense analogous to the continued occlusion of the Palestinians, shows how difficult it is to make a clean separation between history and historiography. On American intervention in Vietnam as a latter-day “errand in the wilderness,” see William V. Spanos, “Heidegger, Nazism and the Repressive Hypothesis: The American Appropriation of the Question,” Boundary 2, 17, no. 2 (1990), 241-43.

  50. See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York, 1965).

  51. Williams analyzes Jefferson's “radical mythology” partly in terms of his and other colonial businessmen's argument against the Crown for the right to speculate freely in land purchased from the Indians (AI pp. 266 ff.).

  52. Hill, “The Norman Yoke,” p. 62.

  53. Quoted in MM p. 1.

  54. Walzer asserts that “Among the English Puritans, for example, it is possible to make out two groups of ministers, the one committed to what I want to call Exodus politics, expounding the Sinai covenant, the other committed to (or at least experimenting with) apocalyptic and millennialist politics, expounding the Abrahamic covenant” (ER, pp. 78-79). Walzer obviously knows infinitely more about the subject than I do, but without documentation, I cannot take him on faith. To sustain the distinction we would need to be shown texts by thinkers explicitly devoted to secularism which cite the Exodus model, along with avowedly “religious” thinkers citing messianic visions without human agency. If these correlations obtain at all, I imagine it would be where political considerations dictate them. Obviously the one Walzer has in mind is the Zionist movement today, but unfortunately for his thesis, right-wing, “religious” Zionists know exactly what God expects them to do to hasten the Messiah's coming.

  55. Davies, The Territorial Dimension of Judaism, pp. 62, 71.

  56. Walzer does note that “A few socialists, like David Ben-Gurion, still entertained messianic hopes” (ER, p. 138). Ben-Gurion remains such a towering figure in Zionist history that this acknowledgment might at least have given Walzer pause.

  57. See Theodor Herzl, Zionist Writings: Essays and Addresses, vol. I (New York, 1973).

  58. Herzl, “A Solution of the Jewish Question,” p. 424.

  59. As the Reform Rabbinical Conference, meeting in Frankfurt in 1845, resolved, “The messianic idea should receive prominent mention in our prayers, but all petitions for our return to the land of our fathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state should be eliminated from the liturgy” (conference resolution, quoted in The Jew in the Modern World, p. 165; see also Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism [New York, 1988], p. 122).

  60. In modern, non-Jewish usages of the Biblical narrative, the two exiles are if anything less distinct. For example, there is the Rastafarian Bob Marley's chant which proclaims, “Exodus … we're leaving Babylon.” The Exodus model of liberation and mass movement is certainly more dramatic a model than the gradual and partial return from Babylon. Yet the Rastafarians focus on Babylon as a model of captivity, partly because of its reputation for corruption and partly because it is more explicitly depicted as a place of Exile, such as in Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”).

  61. Yaacov Shavit, “Cyrus King of Persia and the Return to Zion,” 68-72.

  62. Shavit, p. 62.

  63. Jean Comaroff, Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People (Chicago, 1985), p. 138.

  64. Herzl described Zionism as “a modest demand which does not jeopardize or injure anyone's rights” (Zionist Writings, p. 145). Not the rights of any Europeans, at least; there's the rub. Compare Edward Said's analysis of Algerian Arabs as an inert, mute, ahistorical presence in the novels of Camus (Edward Said, “Narrative, Geography and Interpretation,” New Left Review, 180 [1990], 81-99).

    Clearly the place of Palestinian Arabs in the imagination of Zionists shifts according to both spatial and temporal coordinates. Its possible formulations differed, for a first approximation, according to whether the land was being imagined from Europe, being settled by colonists (in which case, as noted above, Zionist workers and Zionist planters often saw Palestinians quite differently), or constituted as the possession of a sovereign “Jewish state.”

    Against my argument that the Babylonian model fits with the notion of an “empty land,” Shavit claims as one of the situational analogies between the ancient Return and modern Zionism the “struggle with the ‘people of the land’ (the Arabs) who opposed the national revival” (Shavit, “Cyrus King of Persia and the Return to Zion,” p. 56). Unfortunately Shavit does not cite any such rhetorical analogies made by modern Zionists. The “people of the land” at the time of the return from Babylon were “the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites [who, when they] heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem went forward, then they were very wroth; and they conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to cause confusion therein [but to no avail]” (Neh. 4:1).

  65. See Myron Aronoff, “The Origins of Israeli Political Culture,” in Israeli Democracy Under Stress: Cultural and Institutional Perspectives, ed. Ehud Sprinzak and Larry Diamond (forthcoming).

  66. It is no revelation to note that the topic of racism in Zionist and Israeli ideology is a tortured one. Anything like an adequate account of this issue would have to start by making certain discriminations within the history of Zionism—such as that between “Western” and “Eastern” Zionism, which differ significantly in terms of notions of identity and progress. It would also, I think, gain strength and coherence from the perception of Zionism as an attempt to negate Jewish religion while preserving the Jewish people (see Ehud Luz, Parallels Meet: Religion and Nationalism in the Early Zionist Movement (Philadelphia, 1988), p. xviii ff.

  67. Senator Bennett C. Clark, speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 28 Mar. 1944; quoted in Sharif, Non-Jewish Zionism, p. 110.

  68. See Meron Benvenisti, Conflicts and Contradictions (New York 1986).

  69. Eisenzweig, Territoires occupés de l'imaginaire juif.

  70. Baruch Kimmerling has an insightful discussion of the symbolic significance of the 700,000 Jewish National Fund collection boxes circulating in 1937: “Thus a linkage was formed between land redemption, which was a central component in the Jewish-Arab conflict, and participation in the Zionist community, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. This linkage was not highly visible, and it is difficult to estimate its significance, but it was part of a three-part process: a) taking the conflictual sting out of as many aspects of the Jewish-Arab conflict as possible and defining them in ‘positive’ terms unconnected with Jewish-Arab relations; b) raising those aspects to the symbolic level; c) making use of the mechanisms of socialization and social control to implant these symbols” (Baruch Kimmerling, Zionism and Territory [Berkeley, 1983], p. 76). On the other hand, when Kimmerling discusses the various ways in which the settlers related to the local Arab population (pp. 184 ff.), a failure really to acknowledge them does not figure on the list.

  71. Shavit, citing the veteran right-wing Zionist Israel Eldad, notes that “In Israel today the image of Cyrus and the erection of the Temple under the aegis of a foreign king are placed in opposition to the purity of the Temple and the conquest of the land in ancient times or in the period of the Hasmoneans” (Shavit, “Cyrus King of Persia and the Return to Zion,” p. 83, n. 46).

  72. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984), esp. pp. 37-38.

  73. Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Indianpolis, 1990), p. 58; hereafter cited in text as I.

  74. Nor should we assume that all the rabbis' debates were as calmly recollective of their own past as the record might sometimes lead us to believe. We should bear in mind that they worked under conditions of Roman rule or Babylonian exile which were considerably analogous to the situation of the Palestinians today. There were doubtless bitter schisms and crises of communication in their ranks, motivated by political pressures and also by the range of ego anxieties that “Western” men, then as now, beyond their differences, are prey to.

Moshe Anbar (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Anbar, Moshe. “‘Thou Shalt Make No Covenant with Them’ (Exodus 23.32).” In Politics and Theopolitics in the Bible and Postbiblical Literature, edited by Henning Graf Reventlow, Yair Hoffman, and Benjamin Uffenheimer, pp. 41-48. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Anbar uses Exodus 23.32 to illustrate how prophecy figured into politics.]

The Mari texts cover a highly eventful period of numerous political upheavals in which a role was played by monarchs of powerful kingdoms and rulers of small city-states. Political events of worldwide impact, as well as the everyday life of the ruling classes and the common people, are reflected in the texts.

The Mari archive contains some fifty ‘prophetic texts’. Since 1947, the time when Georges Dossin presented Adolphe Lods with the first Mari prophetic text, Mari prophecy and its relation to biblical prophecy has become an essential part of the discussion of the origins of Near Eastern prophecy in general and of biblical prophecy in particular.

Here I shall discuss one theme that appears in these texts, namely the desire of prophets to influence the foreign politics of the state. To illustrate this, I choose one episode from the history of Mari, prophecies opposing the alliance with Ešnunna. Sammetar, a high official at Mari, wrote the following to his lord Zimri-Lim in the year 1770 bce:

2Say 1to my lord: 3Thus (says) Sammetar 4your servant: 5Lupāhum, the āpilum of Dagān 6came to me from Tuttul. These are the 7instructions (tēmum) that my lord 8gave him in Saggarātum: ‘9“Entrust me” to Dagān of Terqa’. These instructions 10he brought, and thus they answered him: ‘11Wherever you go, success (“good heart”) 12will meet you. A battering ram 13and a siege tower are given to you. They will march 14at your side. They will help you.’ 15This message (tēmum) 16they gave him in Tuttul. 17And as soon as he returned from Tuttul, I sent him to Dīr, and he brought to Dirītum 18my bar (of a city-gate). 19Previously he brought a širānum-vessel and said (to the goddess): ‘20the širānum-vessel is not in good repair, as a result, the water 21leaks. Strengthen the širānum-vessel’. 22Now, he brought my bar (of a city-gate) 23and this is the message (the goddess) sent him with: ‘24God forbid that you will trust the peace (salīmum) 25of the man of Ešnunna, and because of that 26be negligent. 27Your guards 28should be stronger than previously’. 29And (Lupāhum) said to me: 30‘God forbid that the king 32should make peace (napištam lapātum “touch the throat”) 31with the man of Ešnunna without asking the god’. As previously, 33when the Bini-Yamina descended 34and settled in Saggarātum and I told the king: 35‘Do not slaughter a foal (ḥâram qatālum) of the Bini-Yamina. 36Because of the noise made by the members of their tribes, 37I will expel them and the river will finish them for you. 38Now, without asking the god, 39he must not make peace’. 40This is the message (tēmum) that Lupāhum told me. 41After him, the next day, 42a qammatum of Dagān of Terqa 43came to me and thus she said to me: ‘44Beneath the straw the water flows! 45They write [you] continuously regarding peace (salīmum) proposal. They send you continuously 46their gods while they are planning 48in their heart 47a second lie! 49The king 50must not make peace (“touch his throat”) without asking the god’. 52She asked for 51one simple laḥrum-garment and a nose-ring and I gave it to her and 53in the temple of Bēlet-Ekallim 54she handed over her prophecy (wûrtum) to the high priestess Inibšina. The message [that (…)] 55she told me 56I sent to my lord. My lord should take counsel, and act according 57to his great kingship.1

The letter sent by Sammetar dates to the month of Heshwan of the sixth year of Zimri-Lim (1770 bce). We know the exact date thanks to a small tablet stating that on the seventh of this month Lupāhum received one sickle of silver ‘when he went to Tuttul’ (M. 11436).2 In the previous year an Ešnunnean expeditionary force marched to the south of Jebel Sinjar and the triangle of the Habur, Idamaraṣ, reaching Šubat-Enlil (Tell Leilan) in the month of Heshwan.3 After a short period they were driven, with the help of Zimri-Lim, from this area and returned to their country, whence Ešnunna sent another expeditionary force, this time to the south of Mari, conquering its border fortresses. But this force was also driven back to its country. Following these events, in the months of Ab (1770 bce) peace negotiations began between Ešnunna and Mari. This period of negotiations is reflected in our letters.

Line 5. Lupāhum was an āpilum of the god Dagān. āpilum4 is derived from the root apālum, ‘to answer a question, to respond’; he is an ‘answerer’. We know of an āpilum, āpiltum of the gods or goddesses Dagān, Adad, Ninhur-saga, Nin-egal, Hišamītum, Marduk, Dirītum and Šamaš. An āpilum can undertake missions in state affairs, he can bring forward the demands of a deity in questions of patrimony, and he can prophesy against foreign nations. The āpilum explains the signs of the extispicy, and prophesies while drunk. His prophecies could be verified through the sending of the hair and hem. A bārûm-diviner verifies the credibility of the āpilum by divination performed in the presence of the hair and hem of the āpilum.

Lines 7-15. Zimri-Lim sent Lupāhum to Tuttul asking him to consult Dagān, the god of the Middle Euphrates, regarding a war Zimri-Lim is going to face. The answer is favourable for Zimri-Lim.

Lines 17-23. On arriving from Tuttul Lupāhum is sent to Dīr in the southern part of the district of Mari. Every time he goes to the goddess of Dīr, Dīritum, he brings with him a symbolic object. In the past he brought a leaking vessel, symbolizing the unstable situation of the country; now he brings the bar of a city, probably Mari, symbolizing the need to strengthen the defence of the city and kingdom.

Line 22. ‘… he brought my bar (of a city-gate)’: this repeats the image of line 18.5

Lines 24, 31-32, 39, 45, 50. By good chance, we possess the text of the treaty between Ibāl-pī-El II, the son of Dādūša, the king of Ešnunna, and Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari. This document is called ‘the big tablet’ or ‘the tablet of the life of the god’ (tuppum rabûm, tuppi nīš ilim).6 In this treaty Zimri-Lim qualifies Ibāl-pī-El as his father, abī (A.361.11.15′, 111.1′, 3′, 8′, 10, 12′7). A treaty between two parties is concluded in two stages: in the first stage ‘small tablets’ or ‘tablets of the touching of the throat’ (tuppum ṣehrum, ṭuppi lipit napištim) are exchanged and each king is ‘touching his throat’, napištam lapātum, as we read in a letter sent by a servant of Zimri-Lim who was sent by him to Ešnunna: ‘now our lord sent to his father (the king of Ešnunna), his gods, his big standards (with divine symbols) and us, his servants, to make the touching of the throat and to tie forever the fringe of father and son (sissikti abim u mārim)’ (A.3354+.17-208). When two parties who intend to conclude a treaty stay in their own countries without meeting each other, each party sends its gods to the other party to take an oath in their presence.

In the second stage ‘big tablets’ are exchanged and each party swears by the life of the god (nīš ilim), as we learn from another letter sent to Zimri-Lim: ‘The Prince [that is, the king of Ešnunna] has just sworn by the life of the gods. My lord should be happy. After this letter, I will lead to my lord the gods of my lord, the gods and the messengers of the Prince … and we will organize the oaths by the life of the gods’ (A.2028.4-129).

Lines 23-28. Presumably he is conveying to the goddess Dīritum, whose city is located in the south of Mari, the message he got in Tuttul from Dagān urging her not to trust the peace proposals of the man of Ešnunna and not to neglect the defence of the southern borders of the kingdom of Mari, from where an eventual attack by Ešnunna could come.

Lines 29-32, 33-40. The question is to what sort of oracle the āpilum is referring. One has the impression that he is referring to extispicy. If this is the case, we have a very important indication, namely, that divination is held in higher regard than prophecy.

Lines 32-37. Lupāhum is referring to a previous prophecy concerning the Amurrite tribe Bini-Yamina. He is referring probably to the negotiations following the suppression of their rebellion in the third year of Zimri-Lim (1773-1772).10 The peace treaty he is mentioning is accompanied by a symbolic act of slaughtering a foal (hâram qatālum). This practice is mentioned a few times in the Mari texts; for example, we read in a letter about a treaty concluded between the Bini-Yamina and the kings of Zalmaqum (the region in the north of Harrān): ‘Asdi-takim (the king of Harrān) and the kings of Zalmaqum and the sugāgū (the sheiks) and the elders of the Bini-Yamina have slaughtered a foal in the temple of Sîn of Harrān’.11 In our letter the āpilum promises, in the name of the god, to get rid of the Bini-Yamina. The reason for their extermination is not without interest, because the same reason for a punishment is given in Atramhasis (for example II.i.412): ‘The god got disturbed with their uproar’.

Lines 41-50. A qammatum-prophetess13 also warns Zimri-Lim against an alliance with Ešnunna; he should not conclude a treaty without first asking the god.

Lines 51-52. The qammatum-prophetess is paid for delivering the message in the same way that a messenger is paid.

Lines 53-54. The prophetess had also communicated her prophecy to the priestess Inibšina. Now, it so happens that we possess the letter of Inibšina containing this message:

Say to my Star: Thus (says) Inibšina: … Now, a qammatum of Dagān of Terqa came to me 10and thus she said to me: ‘The peace (salīmātum) (proposals) of the man of Ešnunna are treacherous, because beneath the straw the water flows! And into the net 15that he is weaving I will gather him. I will destroy his town and I will indeed destroy his property, dating from old age’. 20This she told me. Now, guard yourself, without a divination (têrtum) 25do not enter the city. 25Thus I heard saying: by himself … Do not … by yourself.14

In the Mari archive we find another prophecy against the peace with Ešnunna:

Say to my Lord: Thus (says) Kānisān your servant: 5My father Kibri-Dagān [wrote me] to Mari [say]ing: [I heard] the things [that] were done [in the temple of Dagān], thus they/he s[aid to me]: 10‘Bene[ath the straw] the water flows! He went, the god of my lord, he delivered his enemies into his hands’. Now 15a muhhum is calling repeatedly in the same way as before. This Kibri-Dagān wrote me …15

Line 5. Kibri-Dagān is the governor of Terqa.

Line 15. muhhūtum, muhhûm16 is from the root mahûm, ‘to become frenzied, to go into trance’.17 The word is equated in a commentary of šumma ālu with šegû: to be wild, to rave.18 Indeed, in a passage from Hosea we read (Hos. 9.7): ‘The prophet is mad, the inspired fellow is raving’.

Let us sum up the information we have gathered from the three letters concerning the prophecies against a peace with Ešnunna. The prophecies are delivered by three kinds of prophets of Dagān of Terqa: a qammatum, an āpilum and a muhhum, who promise that Zimri-Lim will defeat his enemy. The prophecies were delivered in Terqa and Tuttul. The question I would ask here is why the clergy of Dagān object to the peace treaty with Ešnunna. As we are dealing with pagans nobody will pretend that ‘The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and our children for ever’ [Deut. 29.28]. There must be a logical explanation for their objection. It would be out of the question to suppose that they had better information than the king of Mari, or that they had spies in the court of Ešnunna, who revealed to them the real intentions of the king of Ešnunna. In the documents published so far I have found no explanation for their attitude. The only explanation I can suggest is based on the fact that the prophets insist that Zimri-Lim will act only after he has consulted the god. It seems to me that the clergy of Dagān, the god of the Middle Euphrates, wants to insure its influence on Zimri-Lim by obliging him to act only after having consulted the god through them and thus securing the prominent position of their temple in the Kingdom of Mari.

Future events show that the prophets were right and that Zimri-Lim was wrong. After few years of peace between Ešnunna and Mari, in 1765-1764 bce Ešnunna accompanied Elam in once again invading the area in the south of Jebel Sinjar.19

Let us turn now to the Bible. Here we find many examples of prophets trying to intervene in the foreign affairs of the state. I will look at one in particular which has some similarity with the Mari case. In 1 Kings 20 we read that Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram who besieged Samaria, offers Ahab, the king of Israel, a treaty, whereby Ahab will become his vassal (vv. 3, 18). Ahab rejects this offer, a war breaks out and Aram is defeated by Israel. The next year Ben-Hadad goes up to Aphek to fight Israel and again he is defeated by the king of Israel, who captures the city of Aphek. The king of Aram pleads for peace and the king of Israel replies ‘he is my brother’ (v. 32), that is to say a partner in a treaty between equals. The representatives of Ahab reply using the same term, ‘Thy brother Ben-Hadad’ (v. 33). Ahab concludes the conversation with the words ‘I will send thee away with this covenant’. And we read: ‘So he made a covenant with him, and sent him away’ (v. 34). But the prophets opposed this covenant, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord. Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people’ (v. 42). Future events showed that once again, as in the Mari case, the prophet proved to be right.

In the Mari case there is not the slightest doubt that the actual order of events was as I have described. In the example from the Bible, on the other hand, it is very likely that we are dealing with a fictitious prophecy, composed perhaps years after the events in order to transmit a theological message: ‘the prophets of the God of Israel are true prophets. They proved that they can predict the future, so, Children of Israel, listen to them and be guided by their instructions’.

Concerning the attitude of the classical prophets to Israel's international treaties, I would like to quote from A. Rofé's Introduction to the Prophetic Literature:

Seeing that the Lord had appointed Assyria as the instrument by which He was to castigate Israel, the Assyrian threat should obviously not be countered by a military pact against her, above all not by an alliance with Egypt (Isa. 28:14-22; 30:1-5, 6-7, 8-14, 15-18: 31:1-3). Isaiah was consistent in his opposition to all political treaties. As early as the year 733 bce, in the days of Ahaz, when the king was about to turn to Assyria for help (Isa. 7-8), the prophet contested this move. The majority of prophets through the generations share this standpoint: Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, down to Trito-Isaiah who proclaims the sending of envoys and tributes to foreign kings as a sin of the past (Isa. 57:9). This attitude, no doubt, reflects a certain lack of realism on the prophets' part: they demand the state to be administered not by politics but by faith. And even if the end of Israel and Judah seems to have justified the prophetic demand for ‘splendid isolation’, nevertheless it was the coalition headed by Achab which in 853 halted the Assyrian onslaught, thus giving Israel and Judah a respite of some hundred years.20

In this paper I have examined aspects of the role of prophecy in two cultures, second-millennium bce Mari and first-millennium bce Israel, in the belief that such a comparison can lead us towards a better understanding of the phenomenon of prophecy in both these particular contexts and in general.


  1. J.-M. Durand, Archives épistolaires de Mari I/1 (ARMT, 26.1; Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1988), pp. 426-29.

  2. In Durand, Archives épistolaires de Mari I/1, p. 396.

  3. M. Anbar, Les tribus amurrites de Mari (OBO, 108; Freiburg/Göttingen: Universitätsverlag/Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), pp. 61-62.

  4. Cf. Durand, Archives épistolaires de Mari I/1, pp. 396-98.

  5. Cf. M. Anbar, ‘La “Reprise”’, VT [Vetus Testamentum] 38 (1988), pp. 385-98; idem, ‘La Reprise’, NABU 103 (1989); add. XXVI 199.30-32, 38-39, 384.19′, 24′; 480.11, 16; A.1025.4, 10 (MARI, VI, p. 337); A.4002.19, 22 (MARI, VI, p. 79 n. 205); A.4026.15-16 (MARI, VI, pp. 49-50); Deut. 1.1, 5; 1 Sam. 6.15; Josh. 24.27; 2 Sam. 24.17 (//1 Chron. 21.17; 2 Chron. 6.12-13; 1 Kgs. 18.31-32a).

  6. Cf. ‘La petite tablette’ and ‘la grande tablette’, NABU 98 (1991).

  7. D. Charpin, in Marchands, diplomates et empereurs: Etudes sur la civilisation mésopotamienne offertes à Paul Garelli (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1991), pp. 141-45.

  8. Charpin, in Marchands, diplomates et empereurs, p. 163 and n. 60.

  9. Charpin, in Marchands, diplomates et empereurs, p. 163 and n. 62.

  10. Anbar, Les tribus amurrites de Mari, p. 59.

  11. XXVI. 24.10-12.

  12. W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-hasīs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 72-73.

  13. Durand, Archives épistolaires de Mari I/1, p. 396.

  14. XXVI. 197.

  15. XXVI. 202.

  16. Durand, Archives épistolaires de Mari I/1, pp. 386-88.

  17. CAD, pp. 115b-116a.

  18. AHw, p. 1208b.

  19. Anbar, Les tribus amurrites de Mari, pp. 67-68.

  20. A. Rofé, Introduction to the Prophetic Literature (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Academon, 1992), p. 70 (this is an ‘Authorized Version’, done by the author himself, whom I would like to thank for this translation).

James K. Hoffmeier (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hoffmeier, James K. “Moses and the Exodus.” In Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, pp. 135-63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hoffmeier discusses the quest for the historical Moses and offers literary considerations of the plague narratives.]

Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's servants and in the sight of the people

Exod. [Exodus] 11:3


No figure casts a greater shadow in the pages of the Old Testament than Moses. While the Exodus narratives clearly attribute the “signs and wonders on the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:3) to God, Moses is portrayed as the human agent through whom they were effected, resulting in the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh's clutches. Because of his role in Israel's exodus from Egypt and his receipt of divine laws at Sinai, Moses has had a unique status throughout Jewish and Christian canonical and noncanonical literature.1 Because Moses appears in the Pentateuch as “larger than life” and able to execute what seems to modern readers to be fantastic miracles, from turning the Nile to blood to dividing the waters of the “Red” Sea, questions about the man and the events have been raised by the post-Enlightenment rationalist scholarship that still dominates the academy.2 One of the results of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarly preoccupation with the quest for Pentateuchal sources and the history of the traditions,3 is a renewed skepticism about the historicity of the stories and the person of Moses himself. Martin Noth, for instance, after studying the Moses narratives in the Pentateuch, concluded that the lone historical tradition is the death and burial of Moses in Deuteronomy 34.4 John Van Seters goes a step further, dogmatically asserting, “The quest for the historical Moses is a futile exercise. He now belongs only to legend.”5 The historicity of the Moses narratives is further questioned by those who treat the narratives as “folktales.”6 In the 1990s a deconstructed Moses appears who, in the view of Robert Coote, “might have had an Egyptian name simply because he was an Egyptian, ambitious, adventuresome prince or tribal renegade of the Nile. … Moses played a double role of loyal ally and rebel to pharaoh.”7

Introducing Moses and the events of Exodus 2 through 14 in this negative manner should by no means be interpreted as reflecting the unanimous view of biblical scholars and archaeologists over the past decades. In fact, many have taken a positive view of the historicity of the Exodus narratives and the person of Moses,8 a position with which I have been sympathetic.9


When Pharaoh's strategy of pressing the Israelites into hard labor failed to reduce the burgeoning Israelites, he ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all male babies (Exod. 1:15-16). But they refused to go along with the king's barbarous decree on moral grounds (Exod. 1:17). This failure resulted in yet another directive to his own people to cast Hebrew baby boys into the Nile (Exod. 1:22). It is in this context that the birth of Moses is set (Exod. 2:1-2). After three months of hiding her baby boy, Moses' mother made a basket of rushes, placed it with the baby in the Nile by the water's edge to see what fate would befall the babe. In an ironic twist, a princess discovers the endangered child and decides to adopt him as her own, at which time the name Moses is given (2:5-10).

This intriguing story has attracted much comparative interest because of similarities with the so-called “Legend of Sargon.” Although set in the life of King Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316 b.c.), the surviving fragments of the tale are Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian in date (seventh to sixth centuries b.c.).10 In this text, Sargon claims that his mother was an entu (priestess), but his father was unknown. Perhaps because she was to remain sexually chaste in her role as entu, she sought to cover up this birth by placing the baby in a reed basket, waterproofed with bitumen and set adrift in the Euphrates. Subsequently, the basket was found by Akki, the gardener of the goddess Ishtar who reared the baby. In adulthood, Sargon became the great king of Sumer and Akkad.

In a very thorough study, Donald Redford collected all the known tales using the “exposed child” motif from the ancient Near East.11 In all thirty-two examples were produced, which he divided into three categories based upon the reason for the exposure: 1) the child is exposed owing to shameful circumstances; 2) a king or some powerful figure is trying to kill the child who poses a threat to his rule or dynasty; and 3) a massacre is introduced that threatens the life of the child along with others.12 According to Redford's scheme, the Sargon legend fits into the first class, whereas the Moses birth story fits into the third.13 Placing the two tales in very different circumstances illustrates that while there are some intriguing similarities between the two, there are fundamental differences. Hence, he concludes “they are not true parallels.”14 Brian Lewis likewise sees significant differences between the two stories and yet believes that the exposed-child motif influenced the writer(s) of the Moses birth story who introduced innovations to it.15 Earlier on, Martin Noth also believed that influence of the Mesopotamian exposed-child motif on the Moses story could “hardly be doubted.”16 Similarly, John Van Seters has recently come to the same conclusion.17 Lewis agrees with Hugo Gressman in believing that this episode was a legend that was added in the latest stages of the evolution of the Moses tradition.18 In attempting to further develop the literary form of the Moses birth narrative, Childs concluded that it was “a historicized wisdom tale” like the Joseph story.19 Redford's thoughtful critique of von Rad's old idea that the Joseph story was a wisdom tale is equally valid for Child's proposal that the Moses birth pericope is a wisdom piece.20

While many distinguished scholars have been convinced of some sort of literary dependence of the Moses story on the Sargon legend, there are a significant number who have questioned this connection. Morton Cogan has shown that the Hebrew word hašliyk is the technical term for “expose,” as in the case of Jeremiah's abandonment (Jer. 38:3-8) or Joseph's being thrown into a pit (Gen. 37:22).21 He argues that the Akkadian counterpart is nadû, which is used in the case of Sargon. Cogan, however, notices that the term hašliyk is not found in Exodus 2:1 through 10, which significantly undermines the theory that the Moses story is associated with the exposed-child motif. The important differences between the two stories led John Durham to state that “as intriguing as these parallels certainly are, however, too strict a dependence upon them as Vorlagen must be avoided. There can be no question, certainly, of any exposure of the infant Moses. For one thing, there is not even a suggestion here of the divine rescuer so essential in the exposure-of-the-infant-hero motif. For another, the exposure of Moses by a Hebrew woman, and by his own mother at that, would turn a positive story, in this context, into a negative nonsense.”22 Tremper Longman III, in a recent study of the genre “fictional Akkadian autobiography” comes to a similar conclusion about the proposed relationship between the two birth stories after reviewing details of both: “Thus while there is a definite similarity between Exodus 2 and the Sargon Birth Legend, the differences in detail between them caution against a too easy identification of the two and against the idea that the Moses story is borrowed directly from Akkadian literature.”23 A further problem for those wishing to find a correlation between the Sargon legend and the Moses birth story is, as noted above, that the earliest surviving copies of the Sargon text date from Neo-Assyrian or later times. This factor, along with others, suggests that the legend may have been recorded by (or for) the late eighth century b.c. Assyrian king, Sargon II, who took the name of his great Akkadian forebear and identified himself with that monarch.24 This possibility diminishes the case for the Sargon legend influencing Exodus because, if we allow that J or E (usually dated to the tenth and eighth centuries respectively) is the source behind Exodus 2:1 through 10,25 and follow the traditional dating for these sources, both would predate the reign of Sargon II (721-705 b.c.).26

Alternatively, some scholars have looked to Egypt to find a literary prototype for the Moses birth story. The myth of Horus, which some cite, contains an episode in which Horus is born in the marshland of the Delta where he was hidden from his avenging uncle Seth by his mother Isis.27 Moshe Greenberg finds this parallel so compelling that he states, “In view of this, the derivation of Moses' birth-story from Mesopotamia seems uncalled for.”28 Despite Greenberg's enthusiasm for associating the Horus myth with the Moses tale, this identification has by and large been rejected. J. Gwyn Griffiths, for instance, opines that “points of broad similarity in the two stories do not count for much.”29 Redford also rejects an Egyptian background to the biblical story because the closest Egyptian parallels derive from the Greco-Roman period, claiming that “the narrative of Exodus 2 still finds its closest parallel in the Sargon legend” and “that the literary tradition [is] at home in the plain of the Tigris-Euphrates.”30

I concur with those who reject associating the Horus myth with the Moses birth story, largely on the dissimilarity of detail and the fact that the surviving Egyptian sources, as Redford noted, were of Greco-Roman date, too late to be seriously considered as influences on the Hebrew author. In the end, the reason for the multitude of stories from across the Near East and Mediterranean of casting a child into the waters is that it may reflect the ancient practice of committing an unwanted child, or one needing protection, into the hands of providence. A modern parallel would be leaving a baby on the steps of an orphanage or at the door of a church.31


While scholars have been concerned with assessing the merits of a Hebrew borrowing of a literary motif from Mesopotamia or Egypt, they have missed the small details in the text that are undeniably Egyptian. Over eighty years ago Gressmann observed the presence of general features reflecting Egyptian local color in Exodus 2.32 In fact, a careful reading of the Hebrew text of the birth narrative reveals that a number of words used are of Egyptian origin. Verse 3 contains a significant cluster: “And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river's brink.” The italicized words are of certain or possible Egyptian etymology, a detailed discussion of which follows.

  1. “Basket” is Hebrew tēbat and derives from the Egyptian word tb3t. This etymology has been recognized both by Hebraists33 and Egyptologists.34 Egyptian db3t means “box,” “coffin,” and “sarcophagus,” and is attested as early as the Middle Kingdom and continues into Coptic (B) as taibi35 and survives into Egyptian Arabic as tabût, where it has the same range of meanings.36 While some commentators on Exodus have acknowledged that the Egyptian root is behind the Hebrew word,37 amazingly, most recent works have omitted this detail in favor of discussing theological and salvific significance of this term because it is also used for Noah's ark.38 The two “arks” were employed to save Noah, his family, Moses, and by extension, the Hebrew people.39 The fact that tēbat occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament strongly suggests that a thematic relationship between the stories and choice of terms existed. Be that as it may, the Egyptian etymology of this key word cannot be overlooked.
  2. Gome' is the Hebrew word translated “bulrushes” (KJV, RSV) or “papyrus” (JB) in English versions. Back in 1911, Driver wrote that gōme' was a word of “uncertain” derivation.40 Nahum Sarna has recently written that the Hebrew word “may well be of Egyptian derivation,”41 but most commentators of Exodus have either ignored or been unaware of the word's Egyptian etymology. I think the certainty is stronger than Sarna's cautionary acceptance of this association. The Egyptian word km3, meaning “papyrus,” is the word rendered gōme' in Exodus 2:3. This etymology is recognized by Hebrew lexicographers Koehler and Baumgartner,42 and discussed in other linguistically oriented studies.43 In the 1920s when the Wörterbuch der Ägyptischen Sprache was being compiled, Erman and Grapow could trace occurrences of km3 only to the Twenty-first Dynasty.44 However, examples from the Ramesside period have subsequently been documented. In Papyrus Lansing it is written as kmy, where as in Papyrus Anastasi 4 it appears as gmy, illustrating the k and g interchange reflected in the Hebrew writing of gōme'.45 Clearly gōme' is semantically and linguistically related to the Egyptian km3.
  3. The word zāpet, “pitch,” appears only in Exodus 2:3 and Isaiah 34:9 in the Hebrew Bible, and cognates are restricted to Syriac and Arabic.46 There is an Egyptian word, dft, a type of oil, recorded only once in a Ramesside-period text.47 However, Egyptian d should appear in Hebrew as a (tsadeh), not a z (zayin), which renders this equation unlikely. Another possible root is śft, which has been translated as “resin” and “oil” and is attested in more than one Ramesside text,48 as well as in Old and Middle Kingdom inscriptions.49 This etymology is somewhat problematic because normally the Egyptian ś does not appear in Semitic as zayin. On the other hand, if the words derive from a common Afro-Asiatic root, then the difficulty of associating Hebrew zpt and Egyptian śpt is removed.50
  4. Sûp is the word rendered “reeds,” which is unquestionably the Egyptian word twfy. The Egyptian etymology of this word is well established and fully treated below in connection with the discussion of the Red Sea/Reed Sea problem (see chap. 9, §III). There may be a symbolic connection between the reedy waters in which the baby Moses' basket was placed and Israel's salvation at the Sea of Reeds. In both cases, pharaoh's plans to destroy the Hebrews were thwarted and an unexpected escape resulted in the reedy waters of the Nile for Moses (Exod. 2) and for the Israelites of the Sea of Reeds (Exod. 14).
  5. The “river” in this Egyptian setting is obviously the Nile. But the normal Hebrew word for river, nāhār, is not used here. Rather, the word haye'ôr appears, which is a transliteration of the Egyptian itrw, the word for the Nile.51 The absence of the t in the Hebrew writing presents no problem because the Hebrew spelling, in fact, reflects the Egyptian vocalization beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty.52 The omission of the t is also witnessed in the Akkadian writing of itrw as ia'uru, and this is also the vocalization that survives into Coptic as (ior).53 Not surprisingly, the Egyptian word for the Nile is used in this story.
  6. The word śāpāh the river's “brink” or bank is related to the Egyptian word spt. In Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Akkadian,54 as well as Egyptian, śāpāh/spt means both lips and riverbank.55 It appears that śāpāh is a Semitic cognate, rather than a later loanword per se, since it is found in Egyptian as early as the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts (e.g., PT 469a). In other words, it was a part of the inherited Semitic stratum of the Egyptian language.56 This may explain why the Hebrew ś is written instead of the expected s. While there are a number of other Hebrew words for edge or bank of a river (e.g., yād, peh/pānîm, gādāh, and qāṣeh), it is nevertheless one of the words commonly used in Egypt for the Nile's edge, spt, that is written in Exodus 2:3 (and 7:15) as well as in the Joseph story in Genesis 41:3 and 17.57 In view of the fact that four other words could have been used in Exodus 2:3, the choice of term used in Egypt cannot be coincidental.

Exodus 2:3 contains the central elements of the Moses birth narrative that are so commonly compared with the Sargon legend. Yet we see that this verse contains no less than six words used in Egypt during the New Kingdom. “River,” “basket,” and “reeds” occur again in 2:5, as does “Pharaoh” (which is repeated in 7, 9, and 10), which is of unquestioned Egyptian origin (see chap. 4, §III). How is the presence of Egyptian terms in the narrative to be explained, especially if the motif was borrowed from Mesopotamia? This significant concentration of Egyptian terms militates against the Mesopotamian connection. Hence, I am inclined to agree with Sarna's contentions that “the supposed affinities between this folkloristic composition [i.e., the Sargon legend] and our Exodus narrative are fanciful.”58 It seems that the Egyptian setting of the story is itself responsible for the Egyptian features in the pericope. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a scribe during the late Judaean monarchy or the exilic period (or later) would have been familiar with these Egyptian terms. Even if that possibility is allowed, in a period when Assyria and Babylon overshadowed Hebrew thought, the inclusion of these Egyptian features would serve no purpose. Consequently, the birth narrative of Exodus 2 must at least date back to the time of Solomon, when close political and cultural ties with Egypt existed,59 or even earlier.


Providentially for baby Moses and his family, an unnamed daughter of Pharaoh passed by the shore, noticed the basket, found the Hebrew baby in it, and arranged for his mother to nurse him (Exod. 2:5-9). Verse 10 reads: “And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’” Two problems emerge from the naming of Moses: First, the root of the name mōšeh; and second, who names the child, the mother or the princess?

There is widespread agreement that at the root of the name of the great Hebrew leader is the Egyptian word msi,60 which was a very common element in theophoric names throughout the New Kingdom (e.g., Amenmose, Thutmose, Ahmose, Ptahmose, Ramose, Ramesses).61 Even Van Seters acknowledges that “few would dispute … it derives from the Egyptian verb msy (“to give birth”) a very common element in Egyptian names.”62 He cautions against allowing historicity to be assumed from this factor alone, maintaining it only shows “the name's appropriateness to the background of Israel's sojourn in Egypt” and “a name by itself, however appropriate to the time and events described, does not make a historical personality.”63 Of course, his observation is correct. However, given the authenticity of the name and because it does fit a New Kingdom setting, one wonders how Van Seters can be so certain that the story is legend, especially a much later one, given the authenticity of this important detail?

While the acceptance of the word msi as the root for Moses' name is overwhelming among scholars of the Pentateuch, problems remain. Above (cf. chap. 5, §IV), it was argued that Egyptian toponyms with s were typically represented in Hebrew by the s (samek) and not š (shin) as Redford expected should be the case. If the names Moses and Raamses both contained the Egyptian root msi, one would expect the two words to be represented by the same sibilant, when in fact they are not. This complication was recognized and addressed many years ago in Griffiths's seminal study of the name of Moses.64 He believed it was inadequate to explain the difference as a case of “the looseness” in the treatment of sibilants going between the two languages. Rather, he argued: “A distinction should be made, at any rate, between names which are transliterated from Egyptian into Hebrew or vice versa for a temporary purpose and those which find a permanent place in the second language and hence get a chance to develop and change according to the nature of this language.”65 Building upon Griffiths's suggestion, perhaps the distinction could be further clarified. Generally, personal names are more temporal in nature when borrowed into another language than toponyms, which tend to be more permanent. Griffiths has gathered examples of Egyptian personal names with Egyptian s that are transliterated into Semitic languages by the expected š, including a Middle Babylonian writing of ri3mašeš for Rc-ms-sw, Ramesses.66 In the fourteenth century b.c. Amarna Letters,67 names of Egyptian officials with the msi plus divine name formula are found on numerous occasions, and the Egyptian s is regularly represented by the Semitic š (e.g., Amanmašša = Amenmesse [EA, 113:36, 43], Haramassi = Hormesse [EA, 20:33, 36; 49:25]; Tahmašši = Ptahmasse [EA, 265:9]).

While this sibilant correspondence occurs most frequently when transliterating Egyptian personal names into Semitic, there are exceptions. Some cases of Egyptian names with s appearing as s in Semitic texts were documented by Griffiths: Isis = ‘s; Osiris = ‘wsri.68 Wolfgang Helck has also shown that the “rule” that the Egyptian s should always appear in Semitic as š is not consistent.69 A factor not considered by Griffiths for why there is an inconsistency in how Egyptian sibilants are written in Semitic languages is the existence of dialectical differences within the Near East. The well-known story in Judges 12:4 through 6 illustrates the problem of vocalizing sibilants even between Israelite tribes. The defeated Ephraimites are reported to have fled from Gilead (Transjordan) for the fords in the Jordan River to return to their territory when they were stopped by Jephthah's troops. After denying they were Ephraimites (the enemy), the Israelites from Gilead demanded of each man, “‘say Shibboleth,’ and he said ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him” (12:6). The former word is written with a shin while the latter with a samek. Clearly, dialectical difference between Israelites (and their Semitic-speaking neighbors) means that rigid rules about sibilants (and other letters) passing between different languages or even between Semitic languages are difficult to maintain. These considerations show that we cannot always expect sibilants going between Egyptian and Semitic languages conform to rigid rules set by modern linguists. Consequently, Hebrew mōšeh may well correspond to Egyptian msi.

An alternative approach is taken by Kitchen, who suggests that the woman who names the baby in Exodus 2:10 might be the mother, Jochebed, and not the princess.70 Indeed Hebrew wattiqrā' (“she named”) is somewhat ambiguous, and Cassuto,71 like Kitchen, believed the speaker is the mother. Thus, Kitchen reasons, if the mother is naming the child, the name might be derived from the Hebrew root māšā and would have played nicely on the Egyptian word msi. This suggestion is certainly an intriguing possibility, but the reason given for the name—“because I drew him out of the water”—seems to refer to the actions of the princess (2:5-6) since the mother was not present then, only the sister. This consideration might favor the daughter of pharaoh as the one who named Moses.

Regardless of whether Griffiths or Kitchen is correct, both agree that the Egyptian word msi is some how involved in the naming. The Hebrew mōšeh is actually the active voice, not the expected passive māšûy (“one who is drawn out”),72 a form in which mōšeh might constitute wordplay on môšîac, “savior, deliverer.”73 Furthermore, the active form also corresponds to the Egyptian word mōse, meaning “son” or “child,” another pun on the same name.74 Before becoming Israel's deliverer, Moses was a foster son of the princess.


For some, the whole notion of Moses being reared in the Egyptian court seems like a legendary feature. But a closer look at the royal court in the New Kingdom suggests otherwise. Thutmose III (1457-1425 b.c.) initiated the practice of bringing the princes of subject kings of western Asia to Egypt to be trained in Egyptian ways so as to prepare them to replace their fathers upon their death. This policy is laid out in the following text which deals with the tribute from Retenu (Syria-Palestine): “Now the children of the chieftains and their brothers are brought in order to be hostages of Egypt. Now if anyone of these chieftains die, then his majesty will have his son go to assume his throne.”75 References to the presence of the sons of Syro-Canaanite kings in Pharaoh's court and possible allusions to the inauguration of the practice by Thutmose III are found in some of the Amarna letters. Aziru of Amurru, in order to show his loyalty to Egypt says, “I herewith give [my] sons as 2 att[endants] and they are to do what the k[ing, my lord] orders” (EA, 156:9-14).76 Meanwhile, Arasha of Kumidu claimed: “Truly I send my own son to the king, my lord” (EA, 199.15-21).77 Jerusalem's king, Abdu-Heba, maintains that his legitimacy as king was due to his appointment by Pharaoh, stating “neither my father nor my mother put me in this place, but the strong arm of the king brought me into my father's house (EA, 286.10-15).”78 From this statement it might be inferred that Abdu-Heba had been a prince schooled in Egypt before his appointment to the kingship of Jerusalem.

Perhaps in the absence of a son, or one old enough to be sent to Egypt, a king's brother might be sent to Egypt instead, as Biryawaza of Damascus reports: “[I] herewith [s]end [m]y brother [t]o you” (EA 194.28-32).79 In addition, the Amarna Letters, and other New Kingdom documents, abound with references to daughters of kings from the Levant, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia going to Egypt to marry the pharaohs to seal a diplomatic marriage.80

Thus, foreign princes and princesses were no strangers to the Egyptian court of New Kingdom. Among the titles of Akhenaten's vizier, the Semitic-named Aper-el, recorded in his recently discovered tomb at Saqqara is hrd n k3p, “child of the nursery.” The k3p seems to have been connected to the palaces of Egypt and appears to have had an educational component to them, the mnc or mnct being the tutor.81 Little is known about this institution in the Middle Kingdom, but it flourished in the New Kingdom and was open to foreigners, Nubians and Semites alike.82 In a study of the children of the nursery during the Eighteenth Dynasty, Betsy Bryan observes that among them “were also children of foreign rulers who were sent or taken as hostages to Egypt to be ‘civilized’ and then returned to rule as vassals.”83 She also points out that some of the children of the nursery went on to be court officials, with a few attaining high positions in the government. Aper-el was an alumnus of the k3p, a foreigner, too, who reached the highest administrative post in the land after he or his father came to Egypt as part of the Egyptian program for maintaining its Asian empire.

According to Bryan, nurseries were located “throughout the country” wherever there were royal residences, and thus the hrdw “were raised in the confines of palaces within Egypt,” and they “obviously had advantages not available to many.”84 The picture of Moses in Exodus 2 being taken to the court by a princess where he was reared and educated is quite consistent with the emerging information about the k3p in the New Kingdom, the only period for which there is evidence of foreigners being included in this royal institution.85


In adulthood, Moses is portrayed as leaving the comfort of the court to see the plight of his people (Exod. 2:11). As a Hebrew attached to the court, Moses may have been acting in some official capacity.86 Upon seeing an Egyptian official beating a Hebrew, Moses retaliated, killing the Egyptian, which led him to flee from Pharaoh's anger (Exod. 2:12-15). Moses' flight took him to the land of Midian, generally thought to be in northern Arabia, on the east side of the Gulf of Aqaba.87 One reason for not stopping in Sinai to hide out is that throughout the New Kingdom the Serabit el-Khadim area was regularly frequented by Egyptian mining expeditions.88

Biblical scholars have long accepted the early origins and authenticity of the Midian episode in Moses' life.89 Not surprisingly, Van Seters has challenged this long-held stance, arguing that J borrowed the motif of the political fugitive from 1 Kings 11:14-22 and applied it to the Moses story.90 While the comparison of the Moses story to the Hadad the Edomite episode is novel,91 the parallels seem banal. In point of fact, Van Seters needs the dependency of the Moses story on that of Hadad in order to defend his idiosyncratic thesis that the Deuteronomic History (which includes 1 and 2 Kings) predates J.92

Another literary parallel to the Midian pericope is the Egyptian “Tale of Sinuhe,” which was written some time in the Twelfth Dynasty, but continued in circulation down into the Nineteenth Dynasty, the Ramesside age.93 The main points of the story are:

  1. Sinuhe flees Egypt fearing Pharaoh's wrath over events surrounding the assassination of his predecessor, King Amenemhet I.
  2. He lives a life as a tent-dwelling Bedouin in Syria-Canaan where he is taken in by a friendly chieftain and married to his eldest daughter.
  3. At Pharaoh's directive, Sinuhe returns to Egypt to stand before his sovereign.

These same features are found in the story of Moses in Exodus.

  1. Moses flees Egypt fearing Pharaoh's death sentence for killing the Egyptian official (Exod. 2:11-15).
  2. He lives among the seminomadic herdsmen of Midian, marrying a daughter of the priest of Midian (Exod. 2:16-22).
  3. At God's instruction, he returns to Egypt to stand before Pharaoh (3:10, 4:18-5:1).

These striking similarities between the main elements in the stories of Sinuhe and Moses have, surprisingly, not attracted the attention of biblical scholars.94 A notable exception is a study by J. Robin King that identifies ten narrative steps in the “Tale of Sinuhe” that serve as the model for other later literary works.95 While the ten steps do not perfectly fit the Moses story because of the inclusion of the birth narrative in 2:1 through 10, King recognizes the presence of the general outline of the Sinuhe narrative structure in Exodus 2 through 5.96 King's citations of where this structure is found in sources from the second and first millenniums b.c. span across the Near East because this “structure is one version of an ancient Near Eastern oicotype specifically designed to narrate stories of divine politics and reconciliation.”97

Whether or not this literary structuring is in the view of the author(s) of Exodus 2 to 5 is difficult to say. The number of stories of political figures fleeing one land for another from the ancient Near East, including the Moses story, may reflect upon the political realities of that region and the hospitality that could be shown by a host tribe, nation, or king.98 As noted above (chap. 5, §II), since all the other examples of the narrative-step structure cited by King were applied to the stories of well-known historical figures (e.g., Hattusilis, Idrimi, Esarhaddon, and Nabonidus), it would be illogical to dismiss Joseph as a historical figure because of the use of this literary pattern. The same argument holds true for Moses in Exodus.

The chronological datum offered in the Bible for the length of Moses' stay in Midian is ambiguous. A brief obituary of the pharaoh from whom Moses fled states, “In the course of those many days the king of Egypt died” (Exod. 2:23). When the expression “many days” is used in Deuteronomy 1:46 it refers to the period of Israel's stay at Kadesh Barnea, which was considerable. In any event, Moses remained long enough to marry and have two children prior to his return to Egypt (Exod. 2:22; 18:3-4), which may only have been a few years.


Moses stood before Pharaoh in order to secure the temporary release of the Israelites in order to have a religious retreat in the wilderness. Since we have seen that Egyptian laborers were given time off from work for religious observances, Moses' appeal seems a reasonable one. Whatever hopes for a speedy release of the Hebrews seemed dashed by Pharaoh's rejection,99 and a contest of wills and clash of religious ideology follows; namely, the plagues, “signs in Egypt” (Ps. 78:43).


Since the days of Wellhausen, the plagues narrative has been considered a composite of J, E, and P sources by many biblical scholars.100 One of the main criteria for distinguishing J from E has been the use of Yahweh and Elohim. However, in the passages assigned to E by Hyatt (9:22-23a, 35; 10:12-13a, 20-23, 27),101 and Childs (7:15b, 17b, 20b, 23; 9:22-23a, 24a, 25a, 35a; 10:12-13a, 15, 20, 21-23, 27; 11:1-3),102 the divine name is written and not Elohim. In fact, Elohim never stands alone in the plagues cycle.103 Because of this problem, Noth argued that J and E were nearly indistinguishable, concluding that a JE source, supplemented by P, was used in these narratives.104 Georg Fohrer disagreed with Noth, preferring the three-source hypothesis, believing that a redactor removed the classical differences between J and E.105 For Ronald Clements, that redactor is the Deuteronomist.106 Because Van Seters rejects the existence of an independent E source, he considers J and P to be present, with P supplementing the primary J material.107 This conclusion, of course, would imply that P is the redactor. These hypothetical analyses demonstrate the disarray in the source-critical camp that has existed for some years now. No wonder Thomas Thompson has recently labeled source-critical orthodoxy as “no longer sufficient” to explain the narratives in Genesis and Exodus.108 Instead, he considers 5:1 to 13:16 to be a single “complex-chain narrative.”109

Complicating the questions surrounding the nature of the plagues narrative is the relationship between Exodus 7:14 to 12:44 and references to the plagues in Psalms 78 and 105.110 The Psalms do not recite all ten of the plagues enumerated in Exodus, nor are they written in the same sequence.111 Too much has been made of these differences. For instance, Psalm 78 has the rebellion in the wilderness (40-41) preceding the plagues (44-51). Surely the Psalmist was not so misguided in recalling Israel's traditions to think that the wilderness experience occurred prior to the exodus event. Commenting on the variations between the Psalms and Exodus, Leslie Allen suggests that they “reflect only a free handling of the source material,”112 or what I have called “liturgical license” on the part of the Psalmists.113 The purpose behind the sequence reported in Psalm 78, it appears, was not accidental or the result of an erroneous source; rather, it was deliberate, to demonstrate that in the wilderness the Israelites had so quickly forgotten the events of the plagues that should have sustained them during the trials in Sinai. Because of the liturgical and didactic nature of the plague stories in the Psalter, they should not be used to reconstruct the sequence in Exodus, nor can they be used to isolate sources behind the Pentateuch.

In their present form, the nine plagues of Exodus constitute a literary unity comprised of three parallel cycles, with the tenth plague functioning as the climax.114 Samuel Lowenstamm believes that the significance of the tenth plague lies in the nature of the number ten being “a typological number—if not a climactic one, at least expressing completeness.”115 In order to illustrate the literary structure of Cassuto and Sarna, the latter's chart is reproduced as Table 6.1.116

When the plagues narrative is viewed in this broad literary manner, a tightly woven, elegant tapestry appears. If this is simply the hand of the redactor who brought together divergent traditions, it must be asked “if it is possible any longer to isolate the threads that have been so thoroughly reworked.”117 Consequently, a number of scholars argue that the text in its present form must be treated as a unit, whatever its prehistory.118


Because of their penchant for identifying sources behind the final form of the narrative, biblical scholars have failed to consider the nature of the sequence of the plagues. Nearly ninety years ago Flinders Petrie observed, “The order of the plagues was the natural order of such troubles on a lesser scale in the Egyptian season, as was pointed out long ago.”119 Petrie thought that the bloodlike waters of the Nile were the result of stagnating conditions that occurred just prior to the beginning of the inundation, when water levels were at their lowest.

Greta Hort took the opposite tack. She hypothesized the “plague” resulted from a high Nile because the four conditions describing the water in Exodus 7:20 to 24 could only be met during the inundation.120 The Nile rises in July and August, crests in September,121 and usually is reddish in appearance owing to the presence of Roterde, particles of soil, suspended in the water. In Exodus, the Nile is described by the blood-red color (7:20); the death of its fish (7:21a); its foul smell; and its undrinkable state (7:21c). Hort maintains that only one scenario could result in these four conditions: the presence of millions of flagellates (Euglena sanguinea and Haematoccus pluvialis) in the floodwaters.122 Probably originating in Lake Tana, Ethiopia, the flagellates flowed to Egypt via the Blue Nile and would account for the reddish color and the putrid smell. During the darkness of night, flagellates require higher amounts of oxygen, whereas during the day they give off an abundance of oxygen. This fluctuation, Hort explains, would cause the death of fish, which need constant amounts of oxygen. She further argues that the following five plagues came as a consequence of the first.123 Frogs, the second plague, are known to invade the land toward the end of the Nile's inundation in September and October. It is reported in this case (Exod. 7:25) that a week separated the first and second plague, suggesting a connection between the two, Hort avers. The sudden death of the frogs (Exod. 8:13), she believes, was because of contamination caused by bacillus anthracts from the decomposing fish.124

The identity of the insect (kinnîm) involved in the third plague has been disputed by scholars. “Gnats” is a common translation (RSV, NAS, NIV),125 while “lice” is also suggested (KJV).126 A number of commentators have understood “gnats” to mean a type of mosquito,127 an interpretation accepted by the Jerusalem Bible and Hort.128 The flood season in Egypt always brought with it mosquitoes that could quickly reproduce in the pools and puddles left by the retreating Nile. The “flies” (cārōb) of the fourth plague may have been dog flies, known for their vicious biting, based on the LXX reading kunómuia. Hort considers the quick outbreak of this plague to be consistent with this type of mosquito and believes it was the cause of the sixth plague.129 The fifth plague (deber) affected field animals (Exod. 9:3) and is thought to be a “murrain” (KJV, RV), a “deadly” (JB), “severe” (RSV), or “terrible” (NIV) plague.130 Hort maintained that this plague resulted from anthrax spread inland by the frogs associated with the second plague. “Boils” is a common understanding of šehîn (KJV, RSV, NAS, NEB, JB), which makes sense in the light of the meanings of Ugaritic šhn (“burn”) and Akkadian šahānu (“grow hot”), which would be consistent with an infection.131 This plague specifically hit animals and humans alike (Exod. 9:9), and, based on a statement in Deuteronomy 28:35, it appears that this plague primarily affected the lower extremities of people. To Hort this is a clue that it was a fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, which carried anthrax, rather than wasps, another common carrier of anthrax that typically attacks the head area.132 Moreover, she contends that the flies that were the pest of the fourth plague were responsible for the boils of the sixth plague.133 The infection would have been passed on by the flies biting humans and other animals after coming in contact with rotting, dead animals (the result of the fifth plague).134

Table 6.1

The Plague Exodus Source Forewarning Time of Warning Instruction Formula Agent
First 1. Blood 7:14-24 yes “in the morning” Station yourself Aaron
Series 2. Frogs 7:25-8:11 yes none Go to Pharaoh Aaron
3. Lice 8:12-15 none none none Aaron
Second 4. Insects 8:16-28 yes “in the morning” Station yourself God
Series 5. Pestilence 9:1-7 yes none Go to Pharaoh God
6. Boils 9:8-12 none none none Moses
Third 7. Hail 9:13-35 yes “in the morning” Station yourself Moses
Series 8. Locust 10:1-20 yes none Go to Pharaoh Moses
9. Darkness 10:21-23 none none none Moses
Climax 10. Death of 11:4-7 yes none none God
Egyptian 12:29-30

According to Hort's scheme, the first six plagues form a natural sequence of interdependent events resulting from a high Nile infected by flagellates, whereas plagues seven through ten were not connected to the first six. Hail, thunder, and lightning, the seventh plague (Exod. 9:23) not only caused damage to crops (Exod. 9:25, 31-32), but was a source of terror to the Egyptians since hail is uncommon in Egypt. Violent rainstorms do strike Egypt from time to time, with several devastating examples occurring in recent years. The note in 9:31 that “the flax and barley were ruined” by the hail is interesting in that these two crops are known to have grown together as paintings from the mid Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Paheri at el-Kab depict the harvesting of barley and the pulling of flax occurring in adjacent fields.135 While this scene illustrates that these two crops did in fact grow side by side at the same time, their harvest was not necessarily concurrent since flax can be pulled at different stages in development depending on its use.136 From the period a.d. 1000 to 1800, wheat and flax are known to have overlapped, and the statement that the wheat was not destroyed because it would have appeared after the plague of the hail (Exod. 9:32) is also consistent with the agricultural growth and harvest pattern over the past one thousand years; wheat, although planted before the other two, was harvested a month and a half to two months after the barley.137 Barley and flax are among the first crops planted and harvested after the inundation.138 This information lends further support to Hort's thesis that the first six plagues are connected to the inundation, and those that followed occurred over several following months. This attention in Exodus 10:31 and 32 to the period when crops matured shows that the writer of these narratives had an excellent knowledge of the Egyptian agricultural calendar. The presence of this type of information could hardly be the guesswork of an author removed by a great amount of space and time from the events.

The eighth plague offers no particular problem from a phenomenological perspective since locust plagues were known throughout the ancient Near East and Africa as a particularly feared bane, even in modern times. A press report several years ago began with the following ominous description: “Billions of locusts are moving across North Africa in the worst plague since 1954, blotting out the sun and settling on the land like a black, ravenous carpet to strip it clean of vegetation.”139 The locusts, the report continued, could cover 150 square miles at a time, with a quarter million per acre, devouring one hundred thousand tons of vegetation each time the horde landed. This particular horde began in the Red Seas region of Sudan and moved through Chad, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Exodus 10:13 has the locust swarms being blown in by an east wind, which might be from the southeast since the Hebrews did not use more specific directions than the four cardinal points,140 and locusts hordes that hit north Africa generally do originate in the Sudan area.141

The final plague in the third series, three days of darkness (Exod. 10:21-23), has long been associated with the desert sandstorms, khamsins common to Egypt in March.142 The minute particles of sand transported by the khamsins, coupled with the extreme heat, make these desert storms most uncomfortable. I can attest to the discomfort of this phenomenon: in 1967 I traveled by train from Minya to Cairo (about 275 kilometers or 170 miles) and throughout this trip, the Nile Valley was blanketed by a brownish cloud that literally could be felt, a point noted in Exodus 10:21. In the mid-afternoon hours, cars drove with lights on. Again in March of 1995, a khamsin covered Egypt from South of Luxor to north of Cairo throughout the day, grounding planes. Finally at 11:00 p.m. our plane could depart Luxor for Cairo. Khamsins can last up to two or three days.

While there has been widespread support for interpreting the ninth plague as a sandstorm, there have certainly been those who reject this association. Noth, for instance, thinks the connection is “not very probable.”143 Likewise, Hyatt considers the khamsin explanation to be unlikely, since the degree of darkness described in Exodus is not consistent with that caused by a khamsin.144 Hort, however, observes that in the aftermath of the damage to crops caused by the earlier plagues, even more dust would have been swept up by the storms, making the clouds of dust thicker and darker.145 Those who reject the khamsin hypothesis have probably not endured a searing dust storm so well known to Egyptians.

Hort's scenario for explaining the phenomena of the plagues, I believe, is compelling indeed. However, D. J. McCarthy rejected her approach on the grounds of differences in the sequence of plagues in the Exodus and Psalms traditions, stating that there was no attempt to mirror reality in the “sequence of these episodes.”146 He believes that the protracted process of oral and literary composition gave rise to these inconsistencies and militates against a naturalist interpretation. In view of the literary considerations reviewed above and the fact that Hort's thesis works logically and moves with Egyptian seasonal changes, is it just coincidence that the redactor organized the divergent, even supposedly contradictory, traditions into a form that makes perfect sense in an Egyptian setting?

Following Hort's thesis, the first nine plagues are natural occurrences known to Egypt, albeit magnified and occurring in close proximity, but the tenth plague, because of its selective nature, cannot be linked to any particular disease. Sarna offers a salient assessment of the plagues on Egypt: “From a theological perspective, they are instances of God's harnessing the forces of nature for the realization of His own historical purpose. The tenth and final visitation upon the pharaoh and his people is the one plague for which no rational explanation can be given. It belongs entirely to the category of the supernatural.”147

In response to the crisis in Egypt over the plagues, the magicians (ḥarṭummîm)148 declared, “This is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19 [Heb. 15]). This statement indicates that the Egyptians recognized these events, despite their natural appearance, to be of divine origin. The expression “the hand or finger of a deity” has particularly been linked to plagues.149 For both the Egyptians and the Israelites, the world in which they lived was not divided into dichotomous categories such as church and state or natural and miraculous. Rather, these concepts were dynamically interrelated; all the forces of nature were divinely controlled.150 Consequently, the plagues need to be considered from the perspective of the Egyptian worldview.


The Bible itself makes the claims that “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exod. 12:12) and “upon their gods also the LORD executed judgments” (Num. 33:4). Based on these statements, some have tried to make a correlation between each plague and a particular Egyptian deity or religious institution.151 For instance, Charles Aling says the first plague, “is quite obviously an attack against the Nile god, Hapi.”152 In point of fact, Hapi is only associated with the inundation, and is not a Nile god.153 In the past, it was common to refer to the obese fecundity figures as “Nile gods”; it is now clear, however, that these strange figures are personifications of fertility.154 If Hort is correct in believing that the first plague coincided with the beginning of the inundation, it might be possible to draw a connection with Hapi. Alternatively, the annual flooding of the Nile was also associated with the resurrection of Osiris.155 Thus, the bloodlike waters might signal his death rather than his resuscitation, death for Egypt's agriculture rather than verdant fields,156 a frightful prospect for the Egyptians.

The suggestions that other plagues that afflicted animals such as frogs (associated with the goddess Hekat) and cattle (cows with Hathor; bulls with Apis) were an affront to the animals associated with those deities is problematic because the Egyptians did not look at a frog and consider it a manifestation of Hekat, nor treat a cow with special respect because of the link with Hathor. During the period when the cult of Apis was maintained in Memphis (from ca. 1400 b.c. through the late period), only one special bull was associated with Apis, received special treatment, and was mummified and buried at Saqqara. The Egyptians were not like the Hindus, who consider animals sacred and hence are vegetarians. Bovines were eaten throughout Egyptian history, and the sacrifice of bulls was, indeed, an important component of the funerary ritual.157 Consequently, the notion that particular animals and their corresponding deities are under attack with the various plagues must be dispelled.

The seventh plague is described as a violent lightening, thunder, and hail storm (Exod. 9:22-24). Thunderstorms were especially feared in Egypt and thought to be wonders or miracles. In an Eleventh Dynasty quarry inscription from the Wadi Hammamat in the eastern desert of Upper Egypt, a rain storm is described as a divine manifestation: “Rain was made, the forms of this god (Min) were seen, his power was given to the people, the highland was turned into a lake.”158

The belief that rain and storms were the result of divine activity is reflected in a stela erected at Karnak during the reign of Ahmose (ca. 1538 b.c.). A devastating storm struck Egypt, according to this text, a storm thought to be associated with the cataclysmic eruption of the Aegean island of Thera (Santorini) by Karen Foster and Robert Ritner.159 Ritner's new translation of the Ahmose text reveals the religious understanding of and the fearful response to this extraordinarily powerful storm in Egypt.160

  1. The gods [caused] the sky to come in a tempest of r[ain], with darkness in the western region and the sky being
  2. unleased without [cessation, louder than] the cries of the masses, more powerful than […], [while the rain raged(?)] on the mountains louder than the noise of the
  3. cataract which is at Elephantine. Every house every quarter that they reached […]
  4. floating on the water like skiffs of papyrus opposite the royal residence for a period of […] days.
  5. while a torch could not be lit in the Two Lands. Then His Majesty said: “How much greater this is than the wrath of the great god, than the plans of the gods!” Then His Majesty descended
  6. to his boat, with his council following him, which the crowds on the East and West had hidden faces, having no clothing on them
  7. after the manifestation of the god's wrath.

The text continues by reporting that the King went to a temple in Thebes to appear before the golden statue of Amon-Re and appease him with offerings. Subsequently, the restoration of damaged temples and burial complexes throughout Egypt was ordered. Line 13 reflects the fear that awestruck Egyptians felt in the wake of the storm.

In the Exodus story, Pharaoh's response to the thunderstorm is to confess that he and his people were in the wrong, and he implored Moses to intercede with God in order to end the destructive storm (Exod. 9:27-29). It is noteworthy that in the Ahmose text the god's wrath is mentioned twice (lines 12 and 14), and divine intervention is sought.

There is some justification for the view that the ninth plague, the darkening of the sun, is aimed at the Sun-god, Re or Atum. Cassuto noted that in Exodus 10:10, one of the verses introducing the ninth plague, the Hebrew word câ, “evil,” plays on Egyptian rc, the sun.161 More recently, Gary Rendsburg has extended Cassuto's suggestion to other uses of câ in the Pentateuch that also play on the Egyptian term rc.162 Because of the supreme role of the Sun-god in ancient Egypt, Cassuto's idea, that the obscuring of the sun by Yahweh is making a statement of his supremacy over the premier deity of Egypt, has some merit. However, in Egyptian royal ideology, the king who was the “Son of Re,” is also responsible for Egypt's well-being. It is my contention that the plagues story needs to be examined in the light of Pharaoh's role as the god of the Egyptian state.163

The Hebrew Scriptures view the plagues as a contest, a divine struggle. The cosmic confrontation is played out with Pharaoh as the representative of Egypt's gods and Moses and Aaron as Yahweh's agents. Exodus 3:19 and 20 and 6:1 declare:

I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and smite Egypt with all the wonders which I will do in it; after that he will let you go.

But the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, yea, with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.

The language of this struggle in the Exodus narratives has a decisive military flavor and the terms “strong hand” (yād ḥazāqāh) and “outstretched arm” (zerôac neṭûyâ) used in the Pentateuch164 correspond to the Egyptian terms hpš, “strong arm” and pr-c, “the arm goes forth or is extended” (fig. 15).165 Evidence that the Hebrew use of zerôac derived from the Egyptian concept of the conquering arm of pharaoh is the use of zu-ru-uh in the Amarna Letters of Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem (EA, 286.12; 287.27 & 288.14).166 Moran renders zu-ru-uh as “the strong arm (of the king)”—that is, Pharaoh.167 In support of this correlation between the Hebrew and Egyptian concepts, Manfred Görg, independently of me, reached the same conclusion in an article published in the same year as my study.168

The centrality of Pharaoh in the plagues cycle is further realized when we consider the Egyptian monarch's responsibility to maintain cosmic order, Maat (m3ct), that was established by the creator-god.169 If there was a failure in the land, isft, a state of chaos, was said to prevail. An Egyptian sage named Ipuwer lamented the deteriorated situation when isft reigned:

Now, Hapy inundates but none plow for him, everyone says,
“we don't know what has become of the land.”
Indeed, women are barren, none conceive, Khnum does
not shape because of the condition of the land. …
Now the river is (turned to) blood. When people drink of
it they [shrink] from people and crave water. …
Foreign bowmen (Asiatics) have come to Egypt. …
Look, the land is deprived of kingship by a few people
who ignore tradition …
[////] is the crown of Re, who pacifies the Two Lands.(170)

A note of despair also sounds in the “Prophecy of Neferti,” which dates to early in the Twelfth Dynasty (1970-1950 b.c.). Unlike the purely morbid tone of Ipuwer, Neferti's prophecy moves from gloom to glory. This turnabout is the result of the accession of Amenemhet as king. Neferti states:171

The river of Egypt is dry, one can cross the water on foot;
one seeks water for ships to sail on it,
its course having become a riverbank

(ll. 26-27)

All happiness has gone away, the land is cast down in trouble
because of those feeders, Asiatics (sttyw) who are throughout the land.
Enemies have arisen in the east, Asiatics have come down to Egypt.

(ll. 31-33)

Re withdraws himself from mankind. Though he rises at the right time,
one does not know when noon occurs

(ll. 51-52)

Then a king will come from the South, who is called Ameny …
He will take the white crown and will wear the red crown

(ll. 58-59)

Then Order (m3(c)t) will come to its [right] place, and Chaos [isft] will be driven out.

(ll. 68-69)

Irregularities in nature abound when cosmic order is gone awry, according to these texts. First the Nile is either extremely low, owing to poor inundations, or in some way is contaminated, and so crops fail. Second, the sun is in some way obscured. Three, kingship that unites and controls the land is missing, and four, foreigners are present in Egypt, contributing to the disruption of order. Neferti announces that when the king politically unites the land and rules according to mythic principle, then chaos is dispelled and order is enthroned.

Because of this association between cosmic order and kingship, Egyptian rulers could take credit for the productivity and well-being of the land. Again, from the Twelfth Dynasty, in stanza 11 of the “Instruction of Amenemhet I” he declares:

I am the one who made grain, beloved of Nepri (grain deity)
Hapi honored me on every field.
No one hungered in my years,
No one thirsted in them.(172)

In the “loyalist” instruction of a Twelfth Dynasty official named Sehetep-ib-re, the following grand portrait of the king is offered:

He is Re who is seen by his rays,
who illuminates the Two Lands more than the Sun-disc (i.e., Aten),
who makes it healthy more than a high inundation,(173)
having filled the Two Lands with strength and life.(174)

Associating the king with the Sun-god continues in the New Kingdom. Concerning Ahmose it could be said:

He is looked upon like Re when he rises,
like the shining of Aten,
like rising of Khepri at the sight of his rays on high,
like Atum in the eastern sky.(175)

Merneptah's accession to the throne upon the death of Ramesses II is celebrated in Papyrus Sallier 1:176

Be joyful the entire land!
Good times have come.
The lord (l.p.h. = life, prosperity, and health) has ascended in all lands,
and orderliness (mty) has gone down to its throne.
The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, lord of millions of years,
great in kingship just like Horus, Ba-en-Re Mery-Amun (l.p.h.),
who overwhelms Egypt with festivals,
the Son of Re who is more excellent than any king,
Merneptah hetep-hir-maat (l.p.h.).
Every truthful one (m3(c)t) come and see.
Truth (m3(c)t) has subdued falsehood (grg).
Evil ones have been thrown [on] their faces.
All the greedy are ignored.
The flood arises and does not subside,
the inundation (ḥ(c)py) crests.
The days are extended, the night have hours,(177)
and the moon comes precisely (i.e. at the right time).
The gods are satisfied and content.

The sentiment expressed in Neferti is likewise found in this Nineteenth Dynasty hymn. The legitimate king who rules by m3ct can expect the Nile to flood properly and bring fertility to the land, and additionally the sun and moon operate according to the created order.

The texts reviewed here, spanning from the Middle through New Kingdoms, illustrate that the king was closely associated with the sun and moon, the inundation and the fertility of the land. Furthermore, the connection between Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt is firmly established. What the plagues of Exodus show is the inability of the obstinate king to maintain m3ct. Rather, it is Yahweh and his agents, Moses and Aaron, who overcome in the cosmic struggle, demonstrating who really controls the forces of nature.


That the plagues were a direct challenge to Pharaoh's ability to maintain order is further supported when the significance of Moses' rod is considered from an Egyptian perspective. It is when Moses is keeping Jethro's sheep (Exod. 3:1) that we are first introduced to the rod or staff (maṭṭeh). God asks Moses, “‘what is in your hand?’ He said, ‘A rod.’” (Exod. 4:2). It is then transformed into a serpent when cast upon the ground. This staff would later be used in the contest between Moses and Pharaoh's magicians (Exod. 7:8-12). Apparently, Moses was carrying a common shepherd's crook.

Throughout Pharaonic history, one of the regular symbols of kingship was a small shepherd's crook. These are ubiquitous in royal statuary and iconography. William Hayes argued that the “adoption of the shepherd's crook as a divine and royal scepter and as a general symbol of authority goes back far into Egypt's pre-history.”178 He finds this emblem in the iconography of the god Andjety, who is associated with shepherds from the eastern Delta. This same crook is attested in Old Kingdom herding scenes, but from the Middle Kingdom onward, two types of crooks are regularly found in scenes where men tend cattle and various types of fowl.179 In the Middle Kingdom, the long crook is still found in the hand of monarchs, but starting late in the Old Kingdom, this particular crook becomes reduced in size to that of a scepter carried by royalty and divinities. In the Eighteenth Dynasty some high-ranking officials, like the Viceroys of Kush (Nubia) are shown holding this staff, clearly symbolizing authority or perhaps their roles as representatives of the king.180

This staff or scepter originates in a pastoral context, as the earliest pictorial evidence suggests.181 Further support for the pastoral origins is that the word cwt, known as early as the Old Kingdom and the word for small cattle, goats, and herds, is written with hieroglyphs for shepherds staff. …182 The shape of the hieroglyph and tomb illustrations of the crook has been confirmed by actual discoveries of this staff from the Middle Kingdom.183

In the “Wisdom for Merikare,” ca. 2200, humanity is described in the following manner: “Well nourished is mankind, god's flock” (cwt).184 If humans were considered god's “flock” then the association of the king as shepherd and humans as the flock can easily be made. John Wilson draws upon this idea as a chapter title, “The King as the Good Shepherd,” in his classic book, The Culture of Egypt.185 He introduced this chapter by discussing how the role of the king had significantly changed from the Old to Middle Kingdoms.

Several points of Egyptological significance emerge. First, the crook/scepter hieroglyph is used in the writing of ḥk3, meaning “rule” and “ruler,” as well as in the word “scepter.”186 Might the staff of Moses in the plague narratives present itself as a challenge to the very rulership of Pharaoh? Second, the Egyptian magicians initially think of Moses as just another magician, until they are unable to duplicate or stop the third plague, gnats. Exodus 8:18 reads: “The magicians tried by their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’” B. Couroyer proposed an Egyptian understanding lies at the root of this statement.187 For him, the finger is God's power manifested through the rod. If Couroyer is correct, then there is additional support for my suggestion that the rod of Moses represented a challenge to Pharaoh's rulership and his ability to maintain order.

A final intriguing point presents itself for consideration. The Egyptian word ḥk3 meant “ruler” and “scepter,” while the ḥk3 is the word for magic.188 The difference between the two is that k is used in the latter and k in the former. A wordplay may well have been involved between the Egyptian words, which would render the differences between ks inconsequential. Perhaps the Egyptian magicians saw the actions of this staff as merely magic at first, but when they could no longer duplicate Moses and Aaron's wonders, they saw it as a divine act. Clearly, Yahweh had shown himself to be the “ruler” of Egypt, and not Pharaoh. It was this same Pharaoh in Exod. 5:2 that said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” The plagues finally convinced this intransigent monarch to let Israel depart (Exod. 12:31-33). But in the final showdown at the sea, God discloses to Moses the rationale for this final act of judgment: “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh” (Exod. 14:17-18). Indeed, the gods of Egypt and their power are shown to be impotent in the plagues narrative. In the final analysis, however, the “signs and wonders” represent God's triumph over Pharaoh, as is emphasized by the twice repeated claim “I will get glory over Pharaoh.”

After being struck with the tenth plague, Passover, in which the eldest sons of Egypt were killed (Exod. 12), the Israelites were permitted to leave their hardship behind and head for the Promised Land. But leaving Egypt across the Delta's marshes and the lakes along the isthmus of Suez and a recently discovered ancient canal along Egypt's border with Sinai posed incredible obstacles for Israel's flight to the land of Canaan.


  1. For a recent review of the ancient and modern literature on Moses, see “Moses” in ABD, vol. 4, 909-921.

  2. It must be noted that the minimalizing historical tendencies and the rejection of Moses' role in the writing of the Pentateuch predates the Enlightenment. From the early centuries of the Christian Era, gnostic writers started down this road, followed later by scholars such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) who laid the groundwork for such thinking. Cf. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969) 3-11, for the Enlightenment period up to Wellhausen see 11-18.

  3. For a helpful review of much of this literature, see John Van Seters, The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers (Philadelphia: Wesminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

  4. History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972) 156-175.

  5. “Moses,” Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 10, ed. M. Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987) 116.

  6. Thomas Thompson and Dorothy Irvin, “The Joseph and Moses Narratives,” in Israelite and Judaean History, ed. John Hayes and Maxwell Miller (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977) 181-203. See my discussion and critique of this study above in chap. 4, §II.

  7. Early Israel: A New Horizon (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 90-91.

  8. E.g., Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (trans. I. Abrahams Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967; orig. Hebrew ed., 1951); Pierre Montet, Egypt and the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968) 16-34; Dewey Beegle, Moses, the Servant of Yahweh (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972); Siegfried Herrmann, Israel in Egypt (London: SCM, 1973) chap. 4; E. F. Campbell, “Moses and the Foundations of Israel,” Interpretation 29 (1975) 141-154; W. F. Albright, “Moses in Historical and Theological Perspective,” in Magnalia Dei: The Mighty Acts of God, ed. F. M. Cross et al. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976) 120-131; K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World (Exeter: Paternoster, 1977); John Bright, History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981) chap. 3; Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken, 1986) chap. 2.

  9. “Moses,” ISBE, vol. 3 (1986) 415-425.

  10. E. A. Speiser in ANET, 119; Brian Lewis, The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and the Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth, ASOR Diss. Series, vol. 4 (Cambridge, Mass.: ASOR Publications, 1980) 1-10.

  11. “The Literary Motif of the Exposed Child (cf. Ex. ii 1-10),” Numen 14 (1967) 209-228.

  12. Ibid., 211.

  13. Ibid., 214, 218.

  14. Ibid., 219.

  15. Ibid., 263-266.

  16. Exodus: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962) 27.

  17. Life of Moses, 27-29.

  18. Mose und Seine Zeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1913) 7-10.

  19. “The Birth of Moses,” JBL 84 (1965) 118-122. Initially, Childs believed that this story derived from E. Later on in his The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974) 7-8 he shifted towards J as the source.

  20. A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph, VTS, vol. 20 (Leiden: Brill, 1970) 94-105.

  21. “A Technical Term for Exposure,” JNES 27 (1968) 133-135.

  22. Exodus (Waco: Word, 1987) 15.

  23. Fictional Akkadian Autobiography: A Generic and Comparative Study (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1991) 71.

  24. Lewis, Sargon Legend, 99-107; see also Sidney Smith, “Esarhaddon and Sennacherib,” CAH, vol. 3, 46, who points out that Sargon II often patterned his activities after those of Sargon the Great.

  25. Source critics are divided on this point. Cf. Childs, Book of Exodus, 7-8, who favors E, while J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1971) 48, Noth, Exodus, 25, and others prefer J.

  26. Unless Van Seters's radical downdating of J to the sixth century is correct; cf. Life of Moses, 1-3 and his earlier works Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992) and Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). His reasoning for dating the J materials (if there even is a “J” source) and the evidence he presents is just not compelling, hence I am very skeptical of Van Seters's metachronistic tendencies. Concerning the dating of the the Sargon legend, it is certainly possible that renewed interest in Sargon the Great by his Neo-Asyrian namesake might have motivated the compostion of the text in its present form from a much earlier antecedent.

  27. R. T. Rundle-Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1959) 186-188.

  28. Understanding Exodus (New York: Behrman House, 1969), 96.

  29. The Conflict of Horus and Seth (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1960), 96.

  30. Redford, Numen 14 (1967) 224, 227.

  31. So suggests R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: IV Press, 1973) 57.

  32. Gressman, Mose, 7.

  33. KB, 1017.

  34. Wb, vol. 5, 561.

  35. Ibid.; Jaroslav Černý, Coptic Etymological Dictionary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 180.

  36. Hans Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary, 3d ed. (Ithaca: Spoken Languages Service, 1976) 88.

  37. S. R. Driver, The Book of Exodus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911) 8; Cole, Exodus, 57; “Ark of Noah” and “Basket,” IDB, vol. 1, 222, 364; “Basket,” ISBE, vol. 1, 437-438.

  38. Chayim Cohen is among a select number who questions the Egyptian etymology of tēbat (“Hebrew tbh: Proposed Etymologies,” JANES 4 no. 3 [1972] 37-51). He rejects the association with db3t because this word is never used for a boat in Egypt. While his reasoning has some merit with the occurrence of the word in the Genesis flood story, it carries little weight in Exodus 2. Moses' mother is simply making a device that will float and preserve the life of the infant. A rectangular, waterproofed basket of reeds would do the job, and this could be ib3t in Egyptian.

  39. E.g., Cassuto, Exodus, 18-19; Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991) 36-41; Hyatt, Exodus, 63; Durham, Exodus, 16; Childs, Exodus, 18-20; R. E. Clements, Exodus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 14-15; and Noth, Exodus, 25-26. Surprisingly, even Sarna (Exploring Exodus, 28) who normally is careful to identify the Egyptian etymologies in Exodus, appears to have missed this one.

  40. Exodus, 8.

  41. Exploring Exodus, 29.

  42. KB, 187.

  43. Thomas Lambdin, “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament,” JAOS 73 (1953) 149; “Papyrus,” ISBE, vol. 3, 651.

  44. Wb, vol. 5, 37.

  45. LEM, 110.6, 43.16. Interestingly, these are different copies of the same text, showing that they are one and the same word (cf. Ricardo Caminos, Late Egyptian Miscellanies [London: Oxford University Press, 1954] 167). These two writings are very important for showing that gōme' derived from Egyptian km3, because slightly before Caminos's discussion of these texts, Lambdin had regarded the Hebrew g representing Egyptian k to be problematic (JAOS 73 [1953)] 149). The fact that that gmy could be written as a variant writing of kmy demonstrates that during the New Kingdom the vocalizations of these two sounds were very close, perhaps indistinguishable. Hence the writing of Egyptian k as Hebrew g is neither unexpected nor problematic.

  46. KB, 263.

  47. DLE, vol. 4, 159; Caminos, Late Egyptian Miscellanies, 209.

  48. DLE, vol. 3, 41.

  49. CDME, 225; Wb, vol. 4, 118. In the Old Kingdom, it was written as sft, but by the Middle Kingdom the t was vocalized as t.

  50. I greatly appreciate the discussion I had with James Hoch concerning the linguistic problems surrounding these words.

  51. KB, 358; Wb, vol. 1, 146; “Nile,” ABD, vol. 4, 1108; “Nile,” ISBE, vol. 3, 536.

  52. Kitchen, “Nile,” NBD, 834; so noted in KB, 358.

  53. ISBE, vol. 3, 536; Wb, vol. 1, 146.

  54. KB, 928.

  55. Wb, vol. 4, 99-100.

  56. Egyptian is recognized as having both Semitic and African elements in it, hence the terms Hamito-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. Cf. Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1969) 2-4; Jaroslav Černý, “Language and Writing,” in The Legacy of Egypt, 2d ed, ed. J. R. Harris (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) 197-198; W. V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987) 6-8.

  57. These are all the cases where the banks of the Nile are mentioned in the Old Testament, except possibly Isaiah 19:7, where the Nile is described as drying up, along with pî yeôr, which the RSV translates “brink of the Nile.” In my opinion, this expression is better rendered as “the mouth of the Nile.” When the annual inundation fails, the northern branches of the Delta recede.

  58. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 30.

  59. On Solomon's ties with Egypt, see Hoffmeier, “Egypt as an Arm of Flesh: A Prophetic Response,” in Israel's Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, ed. Avraham Gileadi (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1988) 79-85; Alberto Green, “Solomon and Siamun: A Synchronism between Early Dynastic Israel and the Twenty-First Dynasty Egypt,” JBL 97 (1978) 353-367; Donald Redford, “Studies in Relations during the First Millennium b.c. (II), The Twenty-Second Dynasty,” JAOS 93 (1973) 3-17.

  60. Noth, Exodus, 26; Clements, Exodus, 15; Childs, Exodus, 7; Herrmann, Israel in Egypt, 43-44; Hyatt, Exodus, 65.

  61. Hermann Ranke, Die Ägyptischen Personennamen, vol. 1 (Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin, 1935) 164-165, shows that the overwhelming majority of ms-type names are of New Kingdom date.

  62. “Moses,” Encyclopedia of Religion 10, 115.

  63. Ibid.

  64. “The Egyptian Derivation of the Name Moses,” JNES 12 (1953) 225-231. I am grateful to Professor Griffiths, who was kind enough further to discuss the linguistic problem as I was preparing my article “Moses” for ISBE, vol. 3.

  65. Griffiths, JNES 12 (1953) 229.

  66. Ibid., 230.

  67. William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) 380, 382, 384.

  68. Griffiths, JNES 12 (1953) 229.

  69. Tkw und dies Rameses-Stadt,” VT 15 (1965) 42-47.

  70. “Moses,” NBD, 794.

  71. Cassuto, Exodus, 20-21.

  72. Ibid.

  73. E.g., Judges 3:9, 15; KB, 413.

  74. Hoffmeier, “Moses,” ISBE, vol. 3, 417; Ronald Williams, “Egypt and Israel” in the Legacy of Egypt, 2d ed., ed. J. R. Harris (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) 262.

  75. Urk. IV, 690.2-5.

  76. Moran, Amarna Letters, 242. A further allusion to Aziru's son being sent to Egypt is found in EA, 162.42-54 (Ibid., 249).

  77. Ibid., 276.

  78. Ibid., 326.

  79. Ibid., 272.

  80. For a detailed investigation of this practice, see James Hoffmeier, “The Wives' Tales of Genesis 12, 20 & 26 and the Covenants at Beer-Sheba,” TB 43 no. 1 (1992) 87-99, and A. R. Schulman, “Diplomatic Marriage in the Egyptian New Kingdom,” JNES 38 (1979) 177-193.

  81. Erika Feucht, “The Hrdw n k3p Reconsidered,” in Pharaonic Egypt: The Bible and Christianity, ed. Sarah Israelit-Groll (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1985) 41-44.

  82. Ibid., 38-44.

  83. The Reign of Thutmose IV (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) 261. Evidence for the continuity of the institution of the k3p, Nili Fox has recently proposed, is behind the yelādîm in the Jerusalem court from the time of Rehoboam “Royal Officials and Court Families: A New look at the yělādîm in 1 Kings 12,” BA 59 no. 4 [1996] 225-232). Fox recognizes the problem presented for a connection between the chronological gap between the last citations of the title hrd n k3p, from the late eighteenth Dynasty, and the appearance of the yelādîm at the end of the tenth century in Israel. It is certainly possible that the “Nursery” continued in Egypt into the Ramesside era, but records are simply lacking at the present, or as Fox suggests, the institution was utilized in the Canaanite city-states, Jerusalem being one, from which it carried over to the Davidic court.

  84. Ibid.

  85. The New Testament records that “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). This tradition concerning Moses follows Philo (De vita Mosis 1, 5) and is continued in Josephus's Antiquties (2:9.7).

  86. I suggested this idea some years ago, in “Moses,” ISBE, vol. 3, 417.

  87. HAB, 57; OBA, 59; ABL, 10.

  88. Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, “Fifteen Years in Sinai,” BAR 10 (1984) 26-54; “Canaanites and Egyptians at Serabit el-Khadim,” in Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period, ed. Anson Rainey (Jerusalem: Tel Aviv University Press, 1987) 57-67; A. H. Gardiner and T. E. Peet, The Inscriptions of Sinai (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

  89. Roland de Vaux, The Early History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978) 330-338; Benjamin Mazar, “The Sanctuary of Arad and the Family of Hobab the Kenite,” JNES 24 (1965) 297-303; W. F. Albright, “Jethro, Hobab and Reuel,” CBQ 25 (1963) 1-11.

  90. Life of Moses, 29-33.

  91. Some years before Van Seters proposed this connection, Sarna (Exploring Exodus, 35) had noticed that the route of Moses' escape is reversed by Hadad in 1 Kings 11.

  92. Van Seters, Life of Moses. See n.26, above.

  93. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973) 222-223, for a translation, see 223-233; ANET, 18-22; W. K. Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972) 57-74.

  94. Some with Egyptological training have at least made passing references to Sinue, e.g., Herrmann, Israel in Egypt, 45-46; Kitchen, “Moses,” NBD, 796; Hoffmeier, “Moses,” ISBE, vol. 3, 417. Avraham Gileadi (The Apocolyptic Book of Isaiah [Provo: Hebraeus Press, 1982] 173) has recognized a tripartite narrative plot in Sinuhe and several other Egyptian pieces of literature. He uses the labels “trouble at home, exile abroad, and happy home coming.” He saw the pattern in the Jacob story in Genesis, but was primarily concerned with applying this tripartite structure to the book of Isaiah. He did not mention Moses' flight to Midian as an example.

  95. “The Joseph Story and Divine Politics,” JBL 106 (1987) 577-594. This important article was discussed in some detail in chap. 4, §II.

  96. Ibid., 589-590.

  97. Ibid., 594.

  98. Suggested by me in “Moses,” ISBE, vol. 3, 417.

  99. For a discussion of Exod. 5:2, see chap. 5, §II.

  100. S. R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913) 24-29; IDB, vol. 3, 823; Childs, Exodus, 130-142; Clements, Exodus, 40-41; Hyatt, Exodus, 96-144.

  101. Exodus, 48.

  102. Exodus, 131.

  103. Hoffmeier, “Egypt, Plagues in,” ABD, vol. 2, 374.

  104. Exodus, 9-18.

  105. Überlieferung und Geschichte des Exodus, BZAW no. 91 (Berlin: BZAW, 1961) 60-62.

  106. Exodus, 4-5.

  107. Life of Moses, 77-112.

  108. The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel, vol. 1: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987) 155.

  109. For a discussion of Thompson's thesis, see chap. 5. §I. For my critique of his dating of the Genesis and Exodus narratives, see chap. 4, n. 60.

  110. For discussions of the relationship between these three, see A. Lauha, Die Geschichtsmotive in den alttestamentlichen Psalmen, Tom. 56 (Helsinki: AASF Sarja B, 1945) 39-50; B. Margulis, “The Plague Tradition in Ps. 105,” Biblica 49 (1969) 491-496; S. E. Lowenstamm, “The Number of Plagues in Ps. 105,” Biblica 52 (1971) 34-38 and The Evolution of the Exodus Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) 69-102.

  111. The table in IDB, vol. 3, 823 helpfully lays out the plague sequences in the three different Hebrew accounts.

  112. Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word, 1983).

  113. ABD 2, 374.

  114. Cassuto, Exodus, 92-93; Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 73-78.

  115. Exodus Tradition, 188.

  116. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 76.

  117. Hoffmeier ABD 2, 374.

  118. Childs, Exodus, 149-151; Rolf Rendtorff, The Old Testament: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 149-151; Noth, Exodus, 18.

  119. Egypt and Israel (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1911) 35-36.

  120. “The Plagues of Egypt,” ZAW 69 (1957) 84-103 and ZAW 70 (1958) 48-59.

  121. This pattern is based on records from the last century prior to the building of the first Aswan Dam and ancient records from the New Kingdom, cf. J. J. Janssen, “The Day the Inundation Began,” JNES 46 (1987) 129-136.

  122. ZAW 69 (1957) 94.

  123. Ibid., 94-96.

  124. Ibid., 98.

  125. See also Cassuto, Exodus, 49.

  126. Clements, Exodus, 49.

  127. Driver, Exodus, 65; Childs, Exodus, 156.

  128. ZAW 69 (1957) 98-99.

  129. Ibid., 99-103.

  130. KB, 202 renders it “bubo-pest, plague.”

  131. KB, 960. As a child growing up in Egypt, I had firsthand experience with painful boils, called “Nile Boils” by some Egyptians, but these may not have been the inflictions described in Exodus 9.

  132. ZAW 69 (1957) 101.

  133. Ibid., 99, 101-103.

  134. I maintain that the statement “all the cattle of the Egyptians died” (Exod. 9:6) is hyperbolic (Cf. Cassuto, Exodus, 111).

  135. J. J. Taylor and F. L. Griffith, The Tomb of Paheri at El Kab (London: EEF, 1894) pl. 3, 2d register from top.

  136. T. G. H. James, Pharaoh's People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) 123.

  137. Karl W. Butzer, Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) 49.

  138. Ibid.

  139. Chicago Tribune, 25 March 1988, §1, p. 8.

  140. Driver, Exodus, 81.

  141. Cassuto, Exodus, 127. Hyatt (Exodus, 124) accepts the easterly direction on the grounds that Arabia and Sinai provide favorable conditions for locusts to breed.

  142. E.g., Petrie, Egypt and Israel, 36; Driver, Exodus, 82-83; Jack Finegan, Let My People Go: A Journey Through Exodus (New York: Harper and Row, 1963) 55; Cole, Exodus, 101-102; Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” NBD, 944.

  143. Exodus, 83.

  144. Hyatt, Exodus, 126.

  145. ZAW 70 (1958) 52-53.

  146. “Moses' Dealings with Pharaoh: Ex. 7,8-10,” CBQ 27 (1965) 336-337.

  147. Exodus, 93.

  148. For a discussion of this Egyptian term, see chap. 4, §II.

  149. Robert Stieglitz, “Ancient Records and the Exodus Plagues,” BAR 13, no. 6 (1987) 46-49 and B. Couroyer, “Le ‘Doigt de Dieu’ (Exode VIII, 15),” RB 63 (1956) 481-495.

  150. For Egypt, see Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), chaps. 1, 2; Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), chaps. 1, 2. In Israelite thought, see Lev. 26:14-20; Deut. 28:1-24; Ps. 24:1-2; Job 38-41.

  151. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1971); Charles Aling, Egypt and Bible History (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981) 103-109; and to a certain extent Sarna (Exodus, 78-80), although he recognizes that there is a God-versus-Pharaoh dimension to the plagues story.

  152. Egypt and Bible History, 106.

  153. See my “Plagues of Egypt,” ABD vol. 2, 376.

  154. Cf. John Baines, Fecundity Figures (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1985) and my review of this book in JEA 75 (1989) 255-256 endorsing his conclusions.

  155. According to one tradition preserved in the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is drowned in the Nile (PT §§24d; 615c-d; 766d). For a discussion of this tradition, see Griffiths, Conflict of Horus and Seth, 4-7. On the association between Osiris and the inundations, see Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 190-191.

  156. Sarna, Exodus, 79; ABD II 376.

  157. Butchering scenes are common in tombs from the Old Kingdom onward, and “beef” or “leg of beef” is a regular feature of the offering formulas throughout Egyptian history.

  158. Translation and discussion in James K. Hoffmeier, Sacred in the Vocabulary of Ancient Egypt, OBO 59 (Freiburg: Universitätsverlag, 1985) 224.

  159. “Texts, Storms, and the Thera Eruption,” JNES 55 no. 1 (1996) 1-14.

  160. Ibid., 11.

  161. Cassuto, Exodus, 129.

  162. “The Egyptian Sun-God Ra in the Pentateuch,” Henoch 10 (1988) 3-15.

  163. I developed this idea in ABD, vol. 2, 376-377 and “Plagues of Egypt” in The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, forthcoming). For the most recent volume on Egyptian kingship, see David O'Connor and David Silverman, Ancient Egyptian Kingship (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

  164. E.g., Exod: 3:19; 6:6; 13:3, 14, 16; 15:6, 12, 16; 32:11; Deut. 3:24; 6:21; 9:26, 29; 26:8.

  165. “The Arm of God Versus the Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives,” Biblica 67 (1986) 378-387.

  166. Ibid., 384-385.

  167. The Amarna Letters, 326, 328, 331. Moran accepts Görg's observations (327, n. 2; see next note), but he apparently missed my Biblica article.

  168. “‘Der Starke Arm Pharaos’—Beobachtungen Zum Belegspektrum Einer Metaphor in Palastin und Ägypten,” in Hommages à François Daumas (Montpellier: Université Paul Valéry, 1986) 323-330.

  169. Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 12-13; Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, 51-56.

  170. Text from A. H. Gardiner, Adomonitions of an Egyptian Sage (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1909). For a more recent translation, see Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1, 151-156.

  171. The translation is based on Wolfgang Helck's critical edition, Die Prophezeiung des Nfr.tj, Kleine Ägyptische Texte (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1970) 16-28. See above, chap. 3, §I.

  172. Translation based on the critical edition of Wolfgang Helck, Der Text der Lehre Amenemhets I. für seinen Sohn, Kleine Ägyptische Texte (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1969) 72-73.

  173. For translating cpy c3 as “high inundation,” see Janssen, JNES 46 (1987) 131.

  174. Les., 68.

  175. Urk. IV, 19.6-8.

  176. Text in LEM, 86.11-87.2. For other translations, see Caminos, Late Egyptian Miscellanies, 324; Adolf Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971; orig. 1927) 278-279.

  177. Literally, “under hours” (hr wnwt), which Caminos (Late Egyptian Miscellanies, 324) understood to mean “the right hours.”

  178. The Scepter of Egypt, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953) 286.

  179. Henry Fischer, “Notes on Sticks and Staves,” MMJ 13 (1978) 7-8.

  180. Ibid.

  181. Ibid.

  182. WB, vol. 1, 170; CDME, 39. Gustav Jéquier, Les Frises d'objects des Sarcophages du Moyen Empire, MIFAO 47 (Cairo: IFAO, 1921) 168-173.

  183. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt, vol. 1, 285. Ornamented shepherds' staves were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, cf. Howard Carter and A.C. Mace, The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen, vol. 1 (New York: G. H. Doran, 1923), cf. Pl. 69, 70 (possibly), 71B.

  184. For the text see Wolfgang Helck, Die Lehre für Könige Merikare, Kleine Ägyptische Texte (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977) 83.

  185. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), chap. 6.

  186. Wb, vol. 3, 170.

  187. RB 63 (1956).

  188. Wb, vol. 3, 170-171, 175-176.


AASOR: Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research

ÄAT: Ägypten und Altes Testament (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz)

ABD: Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5 vols., ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992)

ABL: Harry Frank and Roger Boraas, Atlas of the Bible Lands, rev. ed. (Maplewood, NJ: Hammond, 1990)

AEO: Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1947)

AJA: American Journal of Archaeology

AJSL: American Journal of Semitic Languages

ÄL: Ägypten und Levant/Egypt and the Levant (Vienna)

ANET: James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969)

AOAT: Alter Orient und Altes Testament

AOS American Oriental Society

ARAB: D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylon, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926-1927)

ARCE: American Research Center in Egypt

ASAE: Annales du service des antiquites de l'Egypte (Cairo)

ASOR: American Schools of Oriental Research

BA: Biblical Archaeologist

BAR: Biblical Archaeology Review

BASOR: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research

BES: Bulletin of the Egyptian Seminar

BIFAO: Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale (Cairo)

BN: Biblische Notizen (Bamberg)

BZAW: Beiheften zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft (Berlin)

CAD: The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, ed. I. J. Gelb, et. al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956-)

CAH: Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 1975)

CBQ: Catholic Biblical Quarterly

Cd'É: Chronique d'Égypte

CDME: R. O. Faulkner, Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962)

CRIPEL: Cahiers de recherches de l'institut de Papyrologie et d'Egyptologie de Lille

DE: Discussions in Egyptology (Oxford)

DLE: Leonard H. Lesko, A Dictionary of Late Egyptian, 5 vols. (Berkeley: BC Scribe, 1982-1990)

DtrH: Deuteronomistic History or Historian

EA: El-Amarna = Amarna Letters

EAEHL: Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Lands, ed. M. Avi Yonah (Englewoods, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1975)

EEF: Egypt Exploration Fund

EES: Egypt Exploration Society

ERB: Adriaan de Buck, Egyptian Readingbook, 3d ed. (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1970)

FT: Faith and Thought (Transactions of the Victoria Institute, England)

GM: Göttinger Miszellen

HAB: The Harper Atlas of the Bible, ed. J. B. Pritchard (New York, Harper and Row, 1987)

HTR: Harvard Theological Review

IDB: Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. and suppl., ed. G. A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962, 1976)

IEJ: Israel Exploration Journal

IFAO: Institut français d'archéologie orientale

ISBE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., ed. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979-1988)

JANES: Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society

JAOS: Journal of the American Oriental Society

JARCE: Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt

JEA: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology

JETS: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

JB: Jerusalem Bible

JBL: Journal of Biblical Literature

JCS: Journal of Cuneiform Studies

JEOL: Jaarbericht ex Oriente Lux

JNES: Journal of Near Eastern Studies

JSOT: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

JSS: Journal of Semitic Studies

JSSEA: Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities

JTC: Journal for Theology and the Church

JTS: Journal of Theological Studies

KB: Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden: Brill, 1985).

KJV: King James Version

KRI: Kenneth Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions, Historical and Biographical, 7 vols. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968-)

LEM: Alan H. Gardiner, Late Egyptian Miscellanies (Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca; Brussels: Édition de la Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élizabeth, 1937)

Les.: Kurt Sethe, Aegyptische Lesestüche zum Gebrauch in akademischen Unterricht (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1928)

LXX: Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible)

MBA: Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1977)

MIFAO: Memoires de l'institut français d'archéologie Orientale

MMJ: Metropolitan Museum Journal

MT: Masoretic Text

NAS: New American Standard Bible

NBA: New Bible Atlas, ed. J. J. Bimson, J. P. Kane, J. H. Patterson, D. J. Wiseman, and D. R. W. Wood (Downers Grove/Leister: IV Press, 1985)

NBD: New Bible Dictionary, rev. ed., ed. J. D. Douglas (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1982)

NEAEHL: New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 4 vols., ed. Ephriam Stern (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993)

NEB: New English Bible

NIV: New International Version

NIVAB: Carl Rasmussen, NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989)

OBA: Herbert G. May, Oxford Bible Atlas (London/New York: Oxford University Press, 1974)

OBO: Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis (Freiberg)

OMRO: Oudheidkundige Mededelingen uit he Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden

PM B. Porter and R. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings, 7 vols. (Oxford: Griffith Institute 1927-51, 1960-72)

PEQ: Palestine Exploration Quarterly

PSBA: Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology

RB: Revue Biblique

Rd'É: Revue d'Égyptologie

RITA: K. A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Notes and Comments, 7 vols. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993-)

RSV: Revised Standard Version

RV: Revised Version

SAK: Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur

SBL: Society of Biblical Literature

SJOT: Scandanavian Journal of Old Testament

TB: Tyndale Bulletin (Cambridge)

TDOT: Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 6 vols., ed. G. J. Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974-)

TLZ: Theologische Zeitschrift

Urk. I: Kurt Sethe, Urkunden des Alten Reich (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1933)

Urk. IV: Kurt Sethe, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie, 4 vols. (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1961)

VA: Varia Aegyptiaca (San Antonio)

VT: Vetus Testamentum

VTS: Vetus Testamentum Supplements

Wb: Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, Wörterbuch der Ägyptischen Sprache, 5 vols. (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1926-1931).

ZÄS: Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde

ZAW: Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

ZDPV: Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins

Richard Coggins (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Coggins, Richard. Introduction to The Book of Exodus, pp. xi-xix. Peterborough, England: Epworth Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Coggins discusses various approaches to reading and analyzing Exodus.]

The Book of Exodus is a strange mixture. Its first half offers us an exciting story of the escape from Egypt of a group of slaves, under the human leadership of Moses but with God pictured as playing an active role. They reach a holy mountain, Sinai, and are given commandments to shape and guide their life. But at that point the story seems to lose momentum. Instead of making further progress on their journey to the land which has been promised to them as their goal, they become involved in the detailed preparation of religious impedimenta. This is described in what to many modern readers will seem intolerable detail, and the book ends with a religious task—the construction of the tabernacle—completed, but no further progress made on their journey.

How are we to read such a book? Very many different approaches have been proposed. For the early Christian community the story of the Exodus was seen as prefiguring the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In the New Testament this is most specifically claimed at Luke 9. 31, though REB, like most modern translations, uses the word ‘departure’ rather than translate the Greek exodon literally. At about the same time as the New Testament was written the Jewish writer Philo interpreted the book in an allegorical fashion, giving a spiritual meaning especially to the detailed ritual requirements in its second half. Such a spiritual reading has survived in the Christian tradition, particularly in Holy Week and Easter, when many lectionaries set readings from Exodus alongside Gospel passages, and Easter hymns compare Jesus being raised from the dead with the deliverance of the people from Egypt.

Come ye faithful, raise the strain / Of triumphant gladness
Christ has brought his Israel / Into joy from sadness
Freed from Pharoah's bitter yoke / Jacob's sons and daughters
Led them with unmoistened foot / Through the Red Sea waters.

This is rousing stuff, though sensitive Christian worshippers are liable to ask whether the picture of God described in some parts of the Exodus story is one which they can find acceptable. The deliberate hardening of Pharaoh's heart, the mass slaughter of apparently innocent Egyptians—these are serious matters which are too often ignored when the material is used in Christian worship, or indeed by Christians engaged in biblical study. In many respects later Jewish writers have shown greater sensitivity to these problems.

It may in part be for this reason that in recent years many other readings of the Exodus, both event and book, have been proposed. For some it is the great ‘liberation’ text, proclaiming God's power over the mighty of this world and his ability and willingness to rescue his followers from such forces. Feminist scholars have drawn attention to the significant role played by women in the story of deliverance, particularly in the early chapters. Thus in chs 1-2 vital roles are played by the midwives, Moses' mother and sister, and by Pharaoh's daughter. In 15. 20-21 Miriam leads the shout of triumph, though here the gloating over the defeated enemy brings out a less attractive theme. This raises the basic issue, whether modern readers, of any religious persuasion or none, can simply accept what is laid down in this ancient text as ‘God's law’. This will certainly occupy us when we look at the Ten Commandments in ch. 20.

Alongside these concerns, which are mainly the product of our own age, more traditional interests continue: who wrote the book? Was the Exodus a historical event, and if so, when and where did it take place? Who was Moses, and how can we assess his achievement? These are some of the issues which the commentator on Exodus has to try to take into account, though it can be said at the outset that questions of this kind will play only a marginal part in this commentary. Two brief reasons may be mentioned: first, a degree of scepticism as to whether historical and geographical questions of this kind can be answered with the evidence available to us; and secondly, a conviction that the purposes of the Book of Exodus are not primarily of this kind.

In any case there is another matter which is at the literary level even more basic. When we read Exodus, are we reading a book which is complete in itself, or should we see it as part of a larger whole?


The first five books of the Bible have traditionally been known as the ‘Books of Moses’. The claim that he was their author is not found in the biblical text itself (and indeed Deuteronomy ends by relating the death of Moses) but that has often been understood to be implied. In any case a close connection between the different constituents is clearly envisaged. The name ‘Pentateuch’, commonly applied to the books Genesis-Deuteronomy, means ‘Five Books’ or ‘Scrolls’, and in all religious traditions which honour these texts they are commonly regarded as a unified collection. Among English Bibles it is interesting to note that AV/RV and RSV all had reference in their titles to the five books of Moses, whereas NEB/REB (and now also NRSV) call our book Exodus, without any indication that it is part of a larger whole. We shall briefly consider the question of authorship further on in this Introduction, but it may first of all be useful to notice the larger context in which the Book of Exodus is placed.

When we look at the text itself it is not wholly clear whether we are meant to see Exodus as a new start, or as making sense only if we are already familiar with Genesis. The opening verses of Exodus, 1. 1-8, certainly seem to assume the latter. A character called ‘Jacob’ is introduced without explanation. Who was he? He is clearly not an Egyptian, so why should he and his sons have gone to Egypt? Why was one of them, Joseph, already in Egypt, and why should Pharaoh have known him? It seems as if we need to know the answers to, or at least be able to make sense of, questions like this if we are going to understand Exodus. There are also occasional later indications that this is a continuing story, not a new one: 2. 24, and a few later passages, make reference to a ‘covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ which is clearly at least an important preliminary to the story. Similarly in 6. 2-8 God reveals his name to Moses and indicates that this is a fuller revelation than the one already given to the ancestors.

Despite a few exceptions like this, however, impressions mostly change after the first eight verses. Much of Exodus reads like a new beginning. In chapter 3, for example, there is another story of God's self-revelation. In terms of new beginning this is ambiguous. Part of the story seems to be told as if it is a new God, previously unknown, who is now revealing himself; part of it, on the other hand, is very insistent on reassuring Moses that this God is indeed the God of their ancestors. Indeed, in the New Testament, Jesus is pictured as using this continuity as a clinching point in his argument with the Sadducees. ‘Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story of the burning bush, how God spoke to him and said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead but of the living’ (Mark 12. 26-27). Not many people nowadays will find this type of argument convincing, but it clearly presents Jesus as regarding Exodus as part of a larger whole. But if that is so, it is very unexpected that Moses should be worried that his followers would not know the name of the God whom their ancestors had worshipped (and whom, incidentally, they had frequently addressed by name in the Genesis stories) (Ex. [Exodus] 3. 13).

Chapter 3 offers us another curiosity. God promises to take his worshippers away from Egypt to a ‘land flowing with milk and honey … the land of the Canaanites (and other peoples)’ (3. 17). But there is no suggestion that this is where they or their ancestors have already been! According to the Book of Genesis, this is the land which had already been promised to Abraham. We remember in particular the very solemn promise in Gen. 13. 15: ‘all the land you see I shall give to you and to your descendants for ever’. Yet of that there is no mention in Exodus. It is pictured as a distant land, beyond the wilderness; there is no sense of ‘going back home again’. So there is no easy answer to this question: Is it a continuation or a new start? It has features of both.

Comparable issues arise as we look at the end of the book. In one sense the story is complete with the building of the tabernacle in accordance with God's instructions. In one way that is an appropriate conclusion. As will be suggested in the commentary at that point, the links between Gen. 1-2 and Ex. 39-40 seem to imply that the building of the tabernacle was consciously expressed in terms reminiscent of the creation story in Gen. 1.1-2.3. The tabernacle was a newly created world in little. Yet in another sense it seems to be a curious place at which to end; once the tabernacle is built, what use is to be made of it? We may well feel that some such continuation as that provided by Leviticus is an essential follow-up to the Book of Exodus. And in a larger sense, of course, the Israelites are still in the middle of their journey to the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Only with Numbers and Deuteronomy, the last books of the Pentateuch, is there any indication of impending arrival, and one has to go beyond the Pentateuch itself for that arrival to be complete, with Joshua's conquest of the land. All we can say is that we may in some senses regard Exodus as complete in itself, but that in other ways it will only make sense as part of a much larger story.


One answer to the kind of problem just rehearsed has been to engage in an analysis of the Pentateuch which divides it into different sources. The classic proposal along these lines, associated with the great German scholar Julius Wellhausen, and developed in its main outlines more than a century ago, has been to discern four such sources running through the Pentateuch. Two of them are primarily narratives; they have come to be known as ‘J’ and ‘E’, in accordance with the way in which they refer to God in Genesis. Sometimes God is referred to by the proper name Yahweh (German: Jahveh); sometimes the more general name for the divine, Elohim, is used. Source critics have felt that this usage was sufficiently consistent to provide a basis for division of the material.

The other two sources in this analysis are known as D and P. D stands for Deuteronomist, and is of course largely confined to the Book of Deuteronomy, though source critics have been sharply divided on the question whether it is possible to find significant traces of Deuteronomistic editing in Exodus. However that may be, all who have accepted source-critical methods would agree on the prominence of P in Exodus. P stands for Priestly, and it is regarded as specially concerned with genealogies and with the proper organization of the community's worship. On these grounds there has been very widespread agreement that the genealogies in 6. 14-27 and the detailed liturgical requirements in chs 25-31 and 35-40 are P material. Whether some of the plague stories in chs 8-11 are P has been more disputed, and there is also disagreement whether it is proper to regard P as a separate source or as the redactor and editor of the other sources.

This kind of source-critical analysis was long regarded as fundamental to the study of Exodus. In recent years, however, it has come under increasing criticism from a variety of directions. Conservative scholars have always rejected it, as running contrary to their belief concerning divine inspiration and, as a somewhat illogical rider to that belief, Mosaic authorship. Many others who are far from conservative have now joined in the attack.

Among those who accept source-critical principles there are those who doubt the existence of E as a separate source; the main criterion for identifying it—a distinctive way of referring to God—is in any case no longer applicable after Exodus 3, and there is no agreement that particular parts of Exodus can be attributed to E. (It is instructive to look at the widely differing attributions suggested by those treatments of the book which do accept four sources; undoubtedly the four-source theory works much better in Genesis than in the remainder of the Pentateuch.)

A further difficulty for source criticism arises from the fact already noted, that much of Exodus reads like a new beginning. This is unexpected if we are to think of it as composed of sources. It has led to a modified source-critical approach, which maintains that the sources underlying the final form of the book are largely independent of one another: blocks of material dealing with particular stages of the people's story rather than a continuous interweaving of distinct threads extending through the whole Pentateuch. But this is now so far from source criticism as traditionally practised that it has in effect become a different approach. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to regard the Pentateuch as a deliberately constructed piece of work, put together centuries after the events it described and making use of a variety of earlier material, the details of which are largely untraceable.

Such a view has something in common with the traditional understanding of authorship—that Exodus was deliberately brought together by an individual or a small group. But whereas the older traditions maintained that the reference to ‘books of Moses’ implied that Moses was the author, the understanding just outlined envisages the book being brought together at a much later date, perhaps during the time of the exile or the Second Temple period, that is in around the sixth or fifth century bce, rather than in the thirteenth century or even earlier, as traditionally held. We shall in the commentary touch on the way in which Moses is presented, and ask whether anything may be known of him as an historical individual. All that need be said here is that a great deal of the book makes best sense in the context of an established agricultural community looking back from a distance upon its own religious traditions. Mosaic authorship can only seriously be envisaged if a substantial package of other presuppositions concerning the unique character of scripture is also accepted. That is too large an issue to engage in here.

It is striking that most recent studies of Exodus have paid little attention to authorship. Again, partly because of the feeling of many scholars that the questions raised by source criticism are too often unanswerable (and perhaps not of great interest when they are answered!), interests in that area have also largely moved elsewhere. What we have is the Book of Exodus in its final form; that is the departure point for many recent approaches to Exodus. Two in particular may briefly be mentioned here.


Whatever else may be said about Exodus, it is revered as scripture by the Jewish and Christian communities. If this were not so, it is virtually impossible that we should have access to it, and the traditions it contains; it is only because of the reverence felt for the contents of Exodus as offering a divine message to religious communities through successive generations that it has been handed down. One recent approach to the book, therefore, has been labelled ‘canonical criticism’ (though this is a description rejected by some at least of those who approach it in this way). In such a view the most important thing to be said about Exodus is that it is scripture, and that it should therefore be explored first and foremost in that context. Whatever its origin, it was within the context of a religious community that the Book of Exodus was handed down. As we have seen already Jesus could refer to ‘the book of Moses’, knowing that the Sadducees with whom he was debating would recognize it as an authority within the religious tradition to which they belonged. Similarly, the interest in canonical criticism has largely arisen among those who are themselves Christians, and so the ‘canon’ of which they speak is the whole Christian Bible. It is important in this reading, therefore, to hold together not only the various references and allusions to Exodus found elsewhere in the Old Testament (and here clearly that description rather than ‘Hebrew Bible’ is appropriate,) but also the New Testament use of its themes.

It has also for the most part been within a church context that a second new approach has developed. The basic theme of Exodus is seen to be God's deliverance of his people from an oppressive tyranny. They are liberated to serve him in a new land. This theme of liberation has been much developed, particularly in Latin America, but also in other countries of the Two-Thirds World, as a way of understanding the true nature of God. When he is described as a saving God, that should not be limited to an idea of saving his followers from religious burdens and offering forgiveness of sins; it means, much more basically, that God is to be seen as a liberator from cruel and oppressive political regimes. These are valuable insights, though it is important also to recognize that they are themselves very selective. For a start, God's own behaviour is often presented in terms which some would describe as cruel and oppressive. The fate handed out to Pharaoh and many Egyptians, and that held in prospect for the inhabitants of the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ is not a pleasant one. Even among the community delivered from Egypt, it is assumed that slavery will continue (21. 2), and of course the subservient position of women is taken for granted in the greater part of the book. As was noted above, women play a very important part in some of the narrative episodes, but in the religious and community laws of the second half of the book they are either ignored altogether or left in a very secondary position.

It will be seen from the above sketch that the Book of Exodus means many different things to different readers. It seems appropriate to end this introduction by setting out some of the assumptions that will underlie this commentary. First, we shall not attempt detailed source analysis, for the reasons set out above. Too often the answers provided by source analysis are to questions which no one would have dreamt of asking. Our primary concern will be with the book as a whole, as it has come down to us.

Our task here is made a little easier by the fact that there are no major differences in the various ancient forms of the book which have survived. In addition to the Hebrew (Masoretic) text, we have a different Hebrew text handed down by the Samaritan community and claimed by them to date back almost to the time of Moses. This ‘Samaritan Pentateuch’ is in fact of mediaeval origin, and differs only in details, a few of which are noted in the commentary, from the main Hebrew tradition. The Greek text, the Septuagint, at times offers slightly differing readings from those of the Hebrew, but these are rarely serious enough to raise major problems. Text critical problems do arise from time to time, but for the most part we shall need to refer to them only in passing. Reference must be made to larger commentaries for fuller analysis of the text.

Secondly, the historical and geographical questions which have dominated much study of Exodus will not be treated in detail here. As far as the Egyptian setting is concerned there is only one verse (1. 11) which seems to offer specific information, and as we shall see in our commentary on that verse the help that it appears to offer is largely illusory. No Egyptian ruler is named in the book; no cross-references to other events in the Ancient Near East are provided; no archaeological or literary evidence has emerged to enable us to place the Exodus in a larger setting. To be blunt, it seems virtually impossible that there ever was a community which can be described as ‘Israel’ who were first living in and were then delivered from Egypt. The story must be allowed to wield its own power rather than be linked to a particular historical or geographical setting.

This approach has important consequences for contemporary readers. Doubts concerning historical and geographical matters may raise anxieties for some readers, and they are liable to be reinforced when they discover within this commentary a questioning attitude towards some of the laws and other requirements of the book. This commentary is written in the conviction that it is extremely valuable to read Exodus and other scriptural texts, but also in the conviction that these texts cannot simply be read off and applied to those who live in the third millennium ce. The Book of Exodus was written as an expression, no doubt an imperfect one, of a community's beliefs about God and their own status, perhaps some 2,500 years ago. In many ways modern society and modern humanity has made progress since then; in other respects regress seems more obvious. Here is one community's story; let us see where it leads us.


AV: Authorized Version

DOTT: Documents from Old Testament Times, edited by D.W. Thomas (Thomas Nelson 1958, and later reprints)

ET: English Translation

JSOT SS: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series

LXX: The Septuagint Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible

MT: Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible

NEB: New English Bible

NRSV: New Revised Standard Version

REB: Revised English Bible

RSV: Revised Standard Version

RV: Revised Version


Critical Evaluation