OT History Part 3: Exodus -- 1527-1406 BC

Table of Contents

Chapter 3.1: Israel Enslaved

Exodus 1 -- According to the text, the Hebrew nation had stayed in Goshen 430 years (Exodus 12:40). During that time, as we saw in the last lesson, the Hyksos arrived and took over Egypt. We are assuming it is they who enslaved the Hebrews. Israel had become rather favored by the native Egyptians of the Old Kingdom. The nation of Israel had become large enough to present a military threat in the new seat of Hyksos power. The preventive measure was to subject them to harsh slavery in the great building projects typical of monarchies throughout history. While this slavery included a host of agricultural tasks, as well, the focus was on the brick making that dominated their workload. The Hebrew scribe calls the cities built from these bricks by the later names Pithom and Raamses. This latter was the site of the Hyksos capital, which they called Avaris (also known as Zoan or Tanis).

Typically, enslaved nations were assigned some task on the basis of a production quota. The management for this assignment was likely drawn from the subjugated native Egyptians. These royal works managers were held directly responsible for the quota, and were punished for falling short. They were thus, in turn, encouraged to punish their charges in like manner. Archaeology has revealed that these royal works projects could be extremely harsh. For example, the royal bakers spent their days in a smoke-filled oven-house, and probably died early from lung disease. The Hyksos sought to drive a wedge between the native Egyptian population and the Hebrews, to prevent these long-time allies from combining to overthrow the Asiatic invaders.

Never totally dominating the Southern or Upper Nile, there were several wars fought between the Hyksos and old native nobility based there. Eventually, an army led by a prince defeated them and drove them out, in about 1570 BC. He took the throne as Ahmosis I, and apparently continued the enslavement policy for the Hebrews. It seems he used them to destroy the old Hyksos cities, and to in turn rebuild the temples from the Old Kingdom destroyed by the Hyksos. Since there was no change in their treatment, there is little wonder that the text doesn't mention the change of regimes.

All this sad state of affairs for Israel was a clear fulfillment of the prophecy Jehovah hinted at in His Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17). The torch and oven was to show that while things would be incredibly harsh (the oven) it would bring about a starkly clear revelation (the torch) of God's new covenant with the nation of Israel.

Moses' Early Life

Exodus 2:1-15 -- The Hebrews would have been careful to maintain a distinct national identity during their time in the East Nile Delta Region. The early necessity for the Egyptians to remain aloof from these wandering sheep herders encouraged the Hebrews to develop a distinctive culture around the devotion to Jehovah, handed down from the patriarchs. The substance would be a larger understanding of Noah's Law through Abraham's Covenant. While their rituals would have been based on ancient Semitic customs, it would have become quite ingrained by that time. It no doubt included taking note of the patriarchal aversion to mixing with primitive pagans. Israel was not entirely free of pagan elements, as we learn from later biblical texts (Amos 5:25-26; Acts 7:39-43). Yet, they were clearly distinct and identifiable to the Hyksos.

It's important to understand the Hyksos were the invader ruling class over the native Egyptians. The surviving Egyptian nobles formed the middling class of imperial administration. They were still rather friendly with Israel on the whole, due to being saved from famine by Joseph.

The harsh oppression by the Hyksos did not serve to reduce Israel's population, as would be expected. It seems only to have accelerated their growth rate. There was no help for the rulers from the native midwives, either. In exasperation, the new Pharaoh resorted to male infanticide. This created the circumstances that brought about Moses' unique upbringing. His parents couldn't bear to carry out the royal edict to toss him into the Nile as an offering to the pagan gods. After it was no longer possible to hide him, his mother half obeyed the command by setting him adrift on the Nile in a watertight wicker basket. His elder sister was set to watch his fate. Her offer of finding for the Hyksos princess a wet-nurse among the Hebrews guaranteed he would know of his Hebrew heritage and his own family. Weaning would have been between the ages of three and five, quite likely closer to the latter.

Thutmos I was on the throne at that time. Maintaining the old Nile-centered religion, his daughter Hathshepsut would have gone daily to the river as an act of worship. Though she recognized him as a Hebrew baby, she must have taken Moses as a gift from the Nile gods. The name Moses (Moshe) means "Son" in Egyptian and "He draws them out" in Hebrew. Thus, Hathshepsut unknowingly prophesied his future. She was neither the first nor the last Egyptian princess to raise a foreigner in the royal household. As an adopted son of royalty, he would have been highly educated and trained in leadership and warfare.

For a while, Moses' adoptive mother ruled Egypt. She was co-regent with her husband, then Queen-regent after he died, while her stepson was yet too young to rule. With the support of the nobility, she had herself declared Pharaoh and donned a false beard in public to keep up the appearances of a male-dominated society. Her stepson, Thutmose III, titular ruler from 1504, never gained complete control until she died in 1482 BC.

The Bible states the reason for Moses' flight from Egypt as the murder of a low-ranking Egyptian official. That appears to have been merely the official reason. There is credible evidence that Moses had been the general in command of a large expedition to the south, into Ethiopia, to conquer an invading army that had already won one battle against the Egyptians. His success may have brought popular rumblings of making Moses the next Pharaoh. At the very least, as a presumed supporter of his adoptive mother's rule, he would have been an enemy to the supporters of Thutmose in his rival claim to the throne against Hathshepsut. The killing may also have represented an act of rebellion against the younger ruler, a signal of his intent to deliver the Hebrews according to the means of intrigue and warfare he had learned at court. It would seem Moses meant to give a signal to the Hebrew people, but to have kept it a secret from Thutmose.

This would have been the typical human approach and not in itself especially sinful. However, this would have made Moses the hero, not God. Clearly, it is in all Creation's best interest for God to get the glory, not any created being. Therefore, God aborted this man-centered attempt. Moses had so very much to learn before he was ready to be God's man. Yet, when it was all done God's way, it secured Moses' place in human history as nothing else could have done.

Chapter 3.2: Moses versus Pharaoh

Exodus 2:16-4:31 -- Moses fled in 1487 BC at about the age of 40. He took up with the Midianites, the descendants of Abraham through Ketura. Looking every bit the Egyptian nobleman and warrior, he was able to protect the tribal priest's daughters from rough treatment at the hands of male shepherds. Such a man would make a welcome addition to Jethro's ("His Excellency") household, which was apparently devoid of male heirs. He spent the next 40 years as a shepherd, married to Jethro's daughter Zipporah ("Bird"). He named their son Gershom ("A Stranger Here") to remind him he didn't belong to these people. The years had changed the sophisticated Egyptian nobleman into what Abraham had been, a wandering Amorite sheep herder with a highly civilized background. He was no doubt grown accustomed to his situation. It was then he met Jehovah in the Burning Bush. We have to keep in mind any glow in ancient times was associated with fire, so Glowing Bush might be more accurate, if less poetic.

Thutmose III had died in 1450 BC, replaced by his son Ahmenhotep II. He was apparently worse than ever in his abuse of the Hebrew people. His father had conquered a vast empire, stretching as far north as Syria, and as far south as Ethiopia. His mighty army was legendary for crushing all in its path. His economic control reached even farther. Ahmenhotep inherited a Theban court filled with exotic delights, unparalleled wealth and power -- every reason in the world for monumental arrogance. Against this, Jehovah had called Moses to stand before Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew people, with only a shepherd's staff and his elder brother as spokesman.

That the shepherd's crook was an ancient symbol of power in Egypt was not lost on Moses or on Ahmenhotep, despite the Egyptian distaste for sheep herding since before the days of the Old Kingdom, beginning around 3100 BC. To carry that staff would have been an open insult to Pharaoh and a challenge to his authority. It would have re-opened the wounds of unforgotten rivalry between two political camps among the power elite of Egypt. Moses was uniquely able to bridge the gap between the pastoral life Jehovah had in mind for the Hebrew people and the inner workings of the Imperial Court. He had an equal number of years in each setting. Jehovah repeatedly promised to humble the arrogant Ahmenhotep. At the same time, He warned Moses that it would not come without an extended conflict, one that would make things worse for the Hebrews before it was over. Yet, it would all be done with Moses playing only the role of emissary. This was a far cry from the role he sought to play before fleeing Egypt.

Having been promised that his old antagonists were dead and gone, Moses gained release from Jethro's service. On the way to Egypt, a visit from Jehovah served as a stark reminder of the seriousness of his mission, and of the necessity for strict obedience. Given that the best land route from Midian to Egypt then went around past Mt. Sinai, it served as the half-way point where Moses and Aaron met. There, and again in the presence of the Hebrew elders, Moses demonstrated the miraculous signs Jehovah had given him. Seeing these miracles and hearing Moses' promises raised great hopes in the Hebrews. They had not forgotten that this was the man who all but ruled Egypt. Those hopes were promptly dashed when Pharaoh responded by making their brick production more difficult. Moses himself suffered the same emotional roller-coaster ride.

In our tightly scheduled modern life, we would find the ancient Semitic concept of time completely foreign. While we impatiently do everything in a hurry, they would have defined a different pace for different activities. In many cases, time was not a factor at all. For this reason, we get a poor sense of the passage of time from the text. Pharaoh's court was traditionally at Thebes, some 300 miles (480 km) south of Goshen. While Pharaoh may have set up court temporarily at various places throughout his empire, we have no way of knowing how often Moses and Aaron had to travel the full distance between the Nile Delta and the old capital far upriver. It is quite likely that they spent more time near the imperial court than in the delta. It appears the Ten Plagues occurred within roughly one year. Further, Moses actually spoke not at all in public. Aaron was his voice and often the one to perform the ceremonial acts for each miracle.

Given that the sort of details we take for granted today are missing from the account, we wonder why Ahmenhotep didn't simply kill the two trouble makers and be done with it. We lack sufficient data, but it seems probable there remained too much political weight attached to Moses for Pharaoh to act with such haste. Further, it seems Pharaoh wanted to demonstrate his contempt by showing how little of a threat he saw in Moses.

Chapter 3.3: The Plagues on Egypt

Exodus 5-9 -- With each confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh raised the ante. At first, the court magicians were able to duplicate Moses' miracles. This made Pharaoh bold in rejecting Jehovah's demands. When the plagues went beyond the magicians' abilities, Pharaoh would surrender a little ground. As soon as relief came, his reflexes would reassert themselves and again he would reject the demands. With each new plague, Moses would present an increased demand. Each plague was representative of a strike at the various deities worshipped in Egypt. Religion and politics were inextricably bound together in the ancient world. On another level, each curse was a grand extension of something occurring naturally there.

Turning the Nile to blood was similar to the annual red silting that lasted up to three months during the flood season, beginning in late June. The water remained drinkable during the flood season. In this case, though, it was undrinkable. It was not confined to the river, but all water in the land, even in storage containers. Finally, it lasted only seven days. This would be a slap at the two gods Khnum, Giver of the Nile, and Sothis, Lord of the Seasonal Flood.

The second plague was a severe imbalance in the natural Nile ecosystem. Frogs were a symbol of the primordial goddess Heket. They were normally thick after the flood season, but never bad enough to invade every house in Egypt. While the magicians could duplicate this, their magic could not reduce the plague any. Moses allowed Pharaoh to choose the time of the frogs' removal, to show that it was not a case of Moses taking advantage of something produced by any Egyptian deity.

Various suggestions have been made as to which type of insect is described by the Hebrew word kinnim. It was obviously a stinging pest. In modern times, the most common culprit is the mosquito. Coming out of the earth was to signify power over Aker, the Earth god, at a minimum. While the magicians retired from the contest in disgrace, this was not enough of a nuisance to impress Pharaoh. The next plague built on this one, by adding a mix of different insects and intensifying their presence. It was severe enough to disrupt the economy. Further, this began the separation between the Hebrews and the Egyptians. The plagues no longer affected the people of Jehovah. This struck at Ra, the national god of Egypt.

When the departure of the insects brought renewed hardness of Pharaoh's attitude, there was an even greater economic disaster. All the livestock owned by Egyptians died. No domestic animal escaped the disease. Several gods and goddesses were represented by domestic animals. While there are a few likely candidates, the specific disease is not clearly identified. Isis, goddess of Life and Healing was unable to help here. Nor could she stop the boils. The magicians themselves became noteworthy victims. These open, weeping sores were painful, but not deadly.

Exodus 9-11 -- Up to this point, practically no one died from any of the plagues. On the other hand, the hail and lightening were quite fatal. Hail is rare in Egypt. Some in Pharaoh's court were by this point defecting from their confidence in the Egyptian deities and the gods' stamp of approval on the "divine ruler." The lightening was severe enough to be described as fire running through the hail. The specific timing showed authority over the domain of Seth, god of the Storm. To some degree, this and the next plague diminished Thermutis as goddess of Fertility and Harvest. The hail and lightening took out the flax and barley crop, nearing their harvest in February.

The plague of locust caught the only surviving crops in the land. Wheat and spelt ripen in March, and were merely green sprigs during the hailstorm. Locusts plagued Syria and Palestine often, but seldom visited Egypt. When they arrived, carried on an east wind, they consumed all vestiges of green in the Egypt, except in Goshen. This proved Osiris, god of Vegetation (among other things), could not protect the Egyptians. During the spring of each year, prevailing winds in that part of the world come more often from the southeast. The west wind that drove the locusts out to sea was quite rare.

Even rarer was the khamsin wind that followed it. The majority of biblical scholars agree that the description of "darkness that could be felt" was the dreaded sand storm off the Sahara Desert. The air was hot and choking and it remained totally dark. This was a miracle of degree, for the khamsin seldom does more than turn the day dark orange and brown. This would bring into question the various gods of sky and sun: Aton, Khepri, Mut, and Nut.

Having been forbidden to return to court, Moses made the final trip to Goshen to prepare the Hebrews for the last plague. Even this long after Joseph, the Egyptian population in the Delta Region still held the Hebrews in high regard. At the very least, it can be assumed that they greatly supported the departure of the Hebrews for the sake of their own survival. They no doubt heard the reason for the series of disasters and that they had their Pharaoh to blame for them. This would help to explain their apparent willingness to be plundered of their treasures.

There is no natural explanation for a plague that kills only the first-born, much less one that is blocked by lamb's blood on the posts and lintel of a house. Egyptian custom forbade recording military defeats. It's no surprise this humbling series of disasters was never mentioned in Egyptian records. We do know that Ahmenhotep's first son died young, never succeeding his father to the throne.

While the primary reason God gave for going through all this was that He might humble Egypt in full view of the world, some of the plagues struck His People, as well. At first, Israel suffered as much from the plagues as everyone else. Eventually, they were protected. There would be little point in deliverance if everything they owned was destroyed. However, suffering some discomfort is simply the lot of our fallen human existence. Our inclusion in the world's suffering, or our deliverance from it, will be based on God's Laws and on His plans. It will seldom take into account our wishes or our comfort. Still, better by far to suffer at God's hands than to prosper by worldly standards while living in sin.

Chapter 3.4: The Exodus

Exodus 12-18 -- The institution of the Passover (more accurately translated "Sparing") ritual serves as a stark reminder of the circumstances of the Israelites' departure from Egyptian slavery. They were literally expelled from the land and had no time to prepare the normal evening meal the night before. They were not permitted the luxury of letting their bread dough rise (to become "leavened"), which required at least a couple of hours sitting undisturbed in a warm moist place. Thus, the presence of a leavening agent became a symbol for ritual impurity, by virtue of its association with being unprepared to move at a moment's notice by Jehovah's command. Do not confuse this with a judgment against having a bit of luxury, as if asceticism is inherently virtuous. Nice, yeasty bread is not a sin in itself, nor is the crisp, unleavened matzo particularly righteous. This was one small sacrifice, a proper response for one who has been rescued from slavery. The larger picture is teaching us to loosen our grip things, to regard worldly comforts as inconsequential. It was here also that Jehovah lays claim to every male that opens the womb of every family, including the livestock. While He later takes the entire tribe of Levi into His service in exchange for the human males, there remained a requirement to acknowledge this symbolic debt by specific ritual offerings. These two rituals are the first instituted into the Hebrew religious culture.

The text refers to the nation moving "in martial array" to describe an orderly column of people, by tribes and clans, much as an army lined up in rank and file by combat units. Here we run up against one of the longest standing debates in Bible History. If the men alone numbered 600,000 they could easily have overwhelmed Pharaoh's army, which was never larger than 20,000, by the best estimates. That many men would have meant at least two million people, counting women and children. It's not a question whether Jehovah could have increased the population from seventy people to two million in 430 years, or if He could have led them and cared for them in that nearly barren wasteland for 40 years. It's a question of whether the text is properly read that way. The term translated here as "1000" ('eleph) was also translated as "family/clan" or as "company" (a military unit) in other places. Indeed, "family" would be more to the point in an Eastern mind. This would give us a body count of some fifty or sixty thousand, still a massive number for a hike in the desert. [See the footnote on Hebrew numbering.]

We know they brought along herds of domestic animals and wagons of some sort. They also carried the remains of Joseph, who confidently predicted that they should be able to bury his bones in the Promised Land at some point. There was also a large contingent of folks who were not Hebrew. The first leg of their journey was from their rallying point at Avaris (which the scribe calls by its later name, Raamses), to Succoth, a distance of some 50 miles (80km). From that point it is hard to identify any of the landmarks in the text. It is quite possible that "Red Sea" is a bad translation of Yam Suph, which we think might have been "Reed Sea". There are two bodies of water known to exist in ancient times that are likely candidates for that name. Both are in the path of today's Suez Canal. In the south are the Bitter Lakes; in the north is a lake called Timsah, at times perhaps a tidewater marsh connected to the Mediterranean. Both would have been deep swampy bogs, unsuitable for travel except by means of a small, shallow-drafting boat. Either way, the progress of this massive column was observed by the Egyptian border guards. Their route gave the impression that they had no sense of direction, first southeast, then north, most likely to Lake Timsah. Giving this impression was precisely Jehovah's announced intention, for He had determined to have one more final act of destruction to humble Pharaoh. On his part, Pharaoh could not resist one last opportunity to salvage his wounded pride.

Israel was cornered on a spot where the shore curved out into the water. Riding down on them was the pick of Pharaoh's army. At this point we begin to see the character of the Hebrew people. Various prophets would later refer to Israel as the most obstinate and contentious people on earth. In spite of all that they had seen and heard, they accused Moses of bringing them out there to die. All this time they had been following a massive vertical cloud that glowed at night. Now this cloud moved to shield them. Pharaoh was undaunted by this apparition. His troops encamped a short distance away from his former slaves, typical of an army the night before a battle. That night, while Pharaoh's vision is obscured by this glowing cloud, a dry solid path began appearing in the swamp beneath where Moses had ritually extended his shepherd's staff in accordance with Jehovah's instructions. By morning, the bog had become a hard-packed highway for Israel's escape. At dawn they had set out between two walls of water and were well on their way across the lake when the cloud moved from its overwatch position. Pharaoh promptly ordered his chariots to pursue them. Upon entering the now well-trampled path, the water returned to the lake bed and quickly made it a swamp again. The chariots bogged down, trapping the entire army until the water rose to sufficient depth to drown them. The Hebrews looked back to see the bodies of dead soldiers drifting to the far shore.

What followed served the Israelis as a crash course in nomadic living. Their querulous nature was never far from the surface. While their precise route cannot be determined, their constant whining serves as a monument to Moses' patience. Even today, the route, as well as the identity of Mount Sinai, is hotly debated. While for centuries it has been taken for granted that Jebel Musa, some 50 miles (80km) inland from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, was the "Mountain of God," recent work has indicated a reasonable alternative just east of the Sinai, across the Gulf of Aqaba. This would have the Nation of Israel crossing the Gulf of Aqaba, instead of the Gulf of Suez. There are significant problems for us with either proposed route. Yet, more important to the narrative is how Jehovah never let His people down, though they clearly deserved to be left to die in the desert. They were provided a grain-like substance they called manna (from Hebrew man-hu: "what is it?"), and quail, which migrated in flocks but a few feet (1-2 meters) off the ground. Water came from various sources, including a rock. Even in the harsh slavery of Egypt, the one thing they never seemed to lack for was abundant food and water. Here they had a completely different diet and less of it, though they were quite likely never very bad off nutritionally at any point.

Yet, the journey was not without some mortal risk. One of the tribes of Esau that never become a part of the Edomite Kingdom was the nomadic Amalekites. In the vicinity of Rephidim these began attacking the Israelites from the rear, where much of the herd animals would have been. In the process, they were gratuitously slaughtering the stragglers of Israel -- the old, the weak and ill. Moses ordered out the best fighters under Joshua's command to stand and defend against these brutal raiders. In what is universally recognized as the ancient near eastern prayer posture, Moses held his hands aloft over the battle scene. With help from a pair of assistants, Moses was able to maintain this posture until the raiders had been mowed down. Jehovah declared that the character of these raiders' people merited genocide.

Taking the advice of his father-in-law, Moses delegated leadership to various levels within the nation. The numbers should not be taken literally. They were used to estimate the authority of the position. They were representations of natural divisions in a tribal culture: tribe, clan, and family. This political structure was the rule among most Semitic cultures of that day, but would easily have atrophied under centuries Egyptian slavery. The leaders were chosen not on the basis of birth order, but on demonstrated ability and reputation; this was very much a departure from Semitic culture. It would be a bone of contention later. These leaders were vested with powers typical of Semitic sheikhs, combining executive and judicial functions. The legislative function was handled by Jehovah Himself, building a whole new cultural identity.

There was much in this plan that drew resistance from the people. It's not hard to see that tribal politics were always at play when there was a dispute. They conveniently forgot, almost every day, who it was that brought them out of slavery. Most debates were started by someone in traditional roles of power threatened with loss of prestige. Throughout Hebrew history, this continually crops up. Those holding power will find all manner of excuses for keeping it, when clearly God had said it would be otherwise.

Chapter 3.5: Before Mt. Sinai

Exodus 19-40; Leviticus; Numbers 1-10 -- After three months of getting acquainted with the basics of survival away from the Nile Valley, the nation of Israel was ready for the one event that would forever establish the character of the people we know today as Jews. This was the Giving of the Law. It was not law in the modern sense, but more in the form of a treaty, a common type of treaty in that time now known as a suzerain-vassal treaty. It closely parallels that of the Hittites, who had conquered the Fertile Crescent during Abraham's lifetime, but who gradually lost power from that time on; they were better warriors than administrators. Still, The Ten Commandments (Decalogue) was legal policy, much like any ancient treaty of that day. Its relationship to the details of the Law of Moses, laid out in the rest of the Pentateuch, is much like that of a modern constitution as it relates to the laws of the land. The Decalogue presents the essence of all that follows. The laws must in some way reflect, and conform to, the Decalogue. That it was carved in stone symbolized its immutable nature, from which we derive the metaphor in modern English. The Decalogue was one of the first things every Israelite memorized, starting as young children.

It is difficult to determine whether parts of the text tell of overlapping events, told from different perspectives, or a series of separate events. Israel arrived at Mount Sinai in July, probably. While the tribes were settling into their distinct encampments, Moses was called up onto the mountain and instructed to prepare the people to be presented before their new Ruler. This was a common ritual from earliest recorded history, continuing until the Middle Ages. The smoke and rumblings invoked instant terror in the people. While in this state of fear, they quickly agreed to any impending proposal that might come. The whole national leadership ascended the mountain at least once. They were presented with an awe-inspiring vision of One too great for human eyes to look upon and live. Yet, they were spared, while Moses was singled out to come closer for an audience. There was at least one such meeting on the mountain.

While camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Israelites encountered sights and sounds that should have symbolized for them the gravity of the events. Moses was permitted to see and hear things that few humans lived to describe. The "forty days" he spent on the mountain was a common Semitic expression to signify the passing of several weeks. The text indicates Moses engaged in some sort of note-taking. It required quite some time for Moses to absorb all that Jehovah had for His people. Constructing a new national identity was not something that could be rushed. It is believed by many scholars that Moses was informed as to which of the various national legends were to be included in what later became the Book of Genesis. We know that Moses was in some way given a tour of Jehovah's heavenly courts, from which the Tabernacle was modeled in concept. It was an opulent affair laid out in the pattern common to the most powerful and wealthy desert sheikhs. This temple of tents became the national symbol of Israel for the next 300 years or more.

The rituals of worship were also revealed at this time. An examination of the Law will reveal that the whole code of conduct was cast in terms of ritual purity, quite unlike the laws of every other nation in that part of the world. While most nations in those times blended ritual code somewhat with customs of daily secular conduct, we know of none that overlapped so much as Israel. For the Nation of Israel, all human behavior was a concern of Jehovah. To be holy and to be lawful meant the same thing. This was because here, Jehovah was both God and Ruler. Israel's God was not a construct of myth and legend, interpreted by a secretive priesthood. Everything was out in the open, despite accusations to the contrary. He was a very real Sovereign offering a covenant-treaty to those who would be His vassals.

Of course, the mass of people gathered at the foot of the Mountain of God included plenty who had none of Israel's blood in their veins and no loyalty to his God. Their presence was tolerated on the basis of their willingness to adapt to the demands of Jehovah. While Moses was engaged in these revelations, his prolonged absence from the camp, along with the national commanders and elders, seemed to this mixed mob an opportune time to assert their own preferences for the future. By the time Moses and the seventy elders returned, this rabble had completely subverted the nation. They were celebrating a late summer feast in honor of a new manifestation of the god whom, it was declared, led them out of Egypt. It was fashioned from sheets of gold hammered onto a frame of wood. The golden calf was not this god, but rather portrayed as the mount ridden by an invisible god, a common Semitic concept. This feast would have included riotous behavior wholly unacceptable under the older Semitic customs, much less the newly revealed Law. We are told that it was no great task to divert the Israelites from their sober duty.

The scene was so disturbing that Moses smashed the stone tablets, a ritual act showing that the people had broken the Covenant before even hearing it. They had rebelled against their Sovereign before He had offered peaceful terms. Their must certainly be a penalty. The Levites rallied at the call of Moses and were directed to execute the most flagrant offenders. Since pagan feasts typically included public sexual orgies, it would be easy to imagine that anyone running around improperly dressed was a prime candidate for putting to the sword. By the time the slaughter was finished, the fallen were enough to man three combat companies. It was only by Moses' intercession with Jehovah that the whole nation was not wiped out by some divine punishment. Still, God refused to personally accompany the nation any longer. He sent an angelic being to represent Him. The Tent of Meeting was ceremonially moved outside the camp to remind the people that Jehovah was no longer personally present. This should not be confused with the Tabernacle, around which their tent city was ranged, also at quite a distance. The Tent of Meeting was a much simpler affair, existing solely to afflict the Israeli conscience. They had exiled their God.

From the start, we are allowed to see that God chose a monumental task for Himself in shaping His own peculiar people from this most intractable of raw materials. Later, their own prophets would declare them "a stiff-necked people," quick to stray from the clear path of righteousness.

The Law and Worship

The Tabernacle had yet to be constructed at this point. This was most likely the primary reason they stayed at Mt. Sinai for about a year. There was also the need for public teaching sessions to promulgate the Covenant Law. The plunder from Egypt was more than adequate to provide the materials for the Tabernacle. With a new set of stone tablets from the hand of Jehovah, Moses set about renewing the Covenant. As time went by, Jehovah provided more and more details on His expectations for Israel. This sort of give and take was customary. The Laws presume mostly a settled agrarian lifestyle in the land of Canaan, something these people had yet to experience. Much of the Law's content was already a part of the customs of various Semitic peoples at that time. There were plenty of directives that were a reaction to what we now know were pagan rituals practiced by the Canaanites. Israel must learn to see her Lord as as unique from other gods. Since it is doubtful that the Israelites at this time could fully grasp the concept that there was in reality only One True God, it was necessary that they at least see Him as distinct from the others, as their own national God. While the Tabernacle rituals included much that was familiar to them, there was plenty of new things to establish uniqueness.

There was a good deal of case law in the Covenant record. As time went by, incidents called for clarifications. In some cases, the wise mind could discern an obvious implication of legislation. Often, though, Moses was obliged to confer with Jehovah on a particular incident. This would have been perfectly normal if Jehovah had been a human monarch. It takes a number of months, perhaps years, to have collected enough rulings on specific cases for the servants to grasp the mind of their sovereign.

As already noted, the whole of the Law was a sacred duty, for all conduct carried ritual importance. Thus, this Law was administered by the Levitical Priesthood. The priests were one clan from the larger tribe of Levites. The term "Levite" refers to anyone of the tribe who wasn't a priest. It eventually became the whole tribe's duty to teach the Law. For so long as there was a Tabernacle or a Temple in Israel, education was the responsibility of the priests and Levites. The welfare of the nation fell upon their shoulders. The promised blessings of obedience were theirs to share with the people, as well as the curses of divine wrath for rebellion. On a more mundane level, though, we in modern times can recognize the generally good sanitation practices found in the Law. On a purely secular level, obeying the Law of Moses would be as good a guarantee of prosperity and health as could be expected in ancient times. Much of it remains surprisingly applicable for that purpose in modern times, even with modern science.

While all the promises and curses seemed to apply to conduct alone, there is clearly an underlying purpose here of requiring much more than mere conduct. The benefits of the Law apply to all those capable of rendering proper observance. Yet there are passages in the Law that attempt to capture the very hearts and minds of the people. The stone tablets divided the Ten Commandments into two groups; one set applies to relations with the Sovereign, the rest to relations with people. Summarizing the second table is the ultimate concern for social stability. One could conceivably be a bad person and still keep the Law, but it is highly unlikely, because the first table demands a genuine concern for a clear conscience with God. Jehovah declared He was able to discern when His Law was given grudging acceptance. His true intent was to attract their personal affection and devotion. We have a hard time understanding the fundamentally personal nature of Hebrew legal philosophy; we have a mental reflex for objectifying things these days. But even in the context of the Scripture, we see a fundamental resistance among Israelis for owning their personal duty. In the history of Israel, we will see very clearly that those who actually cared about Jehovah's feelings were always in the minority. Often, a very tiny minority it was.

Chapter 3.6: Rebellion on the Way

Numbers 10:11-36 -- Having already noted the difficulty in dealing with head-counts in the text, it can be stated here that the primary purpose of any census in Israel was to determine the number of men available for war. They were divided into two groups. The professional soldiers (denoted by the word often translated "thousand") were fully armed, usually with the rarer metal weapons and trained for war. It was safe to assume these were typically noblemen, though the degree of social stratification is hard to ascertain. We have examples of peasants rising to distinction because of demonstrated talent in warfare. Someone of that sort would be noticed and recruited by the wealthy and powerful, thus conferring some status, if none existed before.

It's easy to imagine a conscripted peasant demonstrating a hitherto unrecognized talent for war. Draftees, the citizen-soldiers, were always counted in hundreds, presumably because they maneuvered in such groups. These latter were often armed with such weapons as any man might construct from available materials: slings and stones, spears, clubs, axes, etc. This was the common system of census accounting in most Semitic cultures in ancient times. The numbers would be stated as so many professional soldiers, and then so many hundreds of draftees. A reasonable reconstruction at this place in the text would be 600 professional soldiers and about 25,000 conscripts. [See this footnote for details on Hebrew counting.]

A few final events took place at the foot of Mount Sinai before the nation marched out toward Palestine. The Tabernacle was dedicated in a lavish ceremony (ch. 7), the clan of Aaron vested with the authority of the priesthood. The other Levite clans were assigned their tasks and there was a short period of training for all. Three weeks after the troop census, after the first official celebration of the Passover, the whole nation set out in specified order. This part of their voyage was through more desolate territory than their approach to Mount Sinai. After some initial generalized griping, fire broke out on the edges of the tent city. This was merely the first in a series of such events that attended the whole journey.

11:1-15, 31-35 -- Jehovah had been providing manna, appearing overnight with the dew. There is no known natural explanation for it. The pagan rabble still accompanying the march acted as a goad and the natural contrariness of the Israeli character manifested itself repeatedly. After a year of manna, they whined about the monotony of it, so Jehovah provided quail. These had appeared on the march to Mount Sinai and a year later on the march away from it. This breed of quail typically flew in large flocks just a few feet off the ground. Migrating from Europe during April, they would often settle on the ground for a day or two to rest. In flight or at rest, they were easily captured by hand. Jehovah directed the flight path of the quail across the route of Israel both times. Along with quail they were given a plague to discipline them for whining. Quite likely, on the second event, the quail carried some sort of disease that affected humans.

11:16-30 -- At the same time, in a move apparently aimed at bringing some form of civil order to the nation, a fresh cohort of the Seventy Elders were appointed and given a portion of Moses' spirit. The original Seventy Elders being displaced, judicial elders had risen through tribal politics. These new officers were above the normal tribal leadership based on birthright. They were clearly not volunteers for the job, as demonstrated by the two who refused to show up for their commissioning at the Tent of Meeting. When the spirit from Jehovah fell on the appointees, the two abstainers were overpowered by an urge to prophesy, even while still in their tents.

12 -- This newly empowered leadership may have helped for a while, but then Moses' older sister Miriam raised a controversy over his qualifications as national leader. By custom and by Law, Aaron, as the elder brother, would have been the civil leader as well as spiritual leader and High Priest. The issue of Moses' marriage to an Ethiopian woman was just a ruse. At the Tent of Meeting, Miriam was struck with leprosy. With the law excluding lepers from close contact with the general population, she would have been unable to stir up any more trouble for the rest of her life. Upon Moses' appeal on her behalf, the sentence of exclusion was shortened to seven days, and the leprosy was healed.

On the one hand, we are left wondering why God would have anything to do with these people. On the other hand, it's clear their frequent accusation that God intended to kill them in the wilderness was false. What lay ahead of them was far better than they ever deserved, though tough enough at times. It is also solid proof of God's patience and steadfastness in the face of incredible provocation.

False Start

13 -- Moses sent spies, apparently the senior ranking soldier from each tribe, to assess the military strength of the enemy they were to conquer in Palestine. As they had been doing all the way from Mount Sinai, the nation had set up camp for a time. This Wilderness of Paran was not exactly a sandy desert like the Sahara of North Africa. It was a dry, rocky area of hills and valleys, with seasonal vegetation. Since this was the early summer, there would have been some vestiges of this greenery left from the spring rains that ended in April. The spies were directed to travel from there north across the Negev, a much drier area, into the southern hill country of Palestine. From there they spent a month or so wandering possibly as far north as Damascus. They brought back a cluster of grapes, plentiful and in season in the Hebron highlands. The bunch was large enough to require it be suspended from a pole carried between two men. They also brought back descriptions of fortified cities occupied by the "Sons of Anak," (Anakim) a term used to describe giants. The majority of the surveyors professed no confidence that the nation could overcome such obstacles to conquest.

14 -- That the nation gave more credence to the negative report was the last straw. Jehovah determined that his earlier threat of killing the nation was to be imposed half-way: The current generation of whiners would have to die before the nation could enter Palestine. Ex-slaves in a new land seldom make good warriors. The new generation would grow up in the semi-desert wilderness, struggling for a living, but free. They would develop a wholly different set of attitudes and expectations from life. That it only took a few decades pointedly testifies to the softness of the slave generation. Those that conquered the Canaanites were indeed a different people.

16 -- The same rebelliousness that was demonstrated by the belated and ill-fated assault at Hormah, on the hills of southern Palestine, was amply expressed in other ways. At one point there was a dual rebellion. Korah, of the Kohathites -- responsible for the Tabernacle furnishings -- objected to what he felt was an arbitrary choice by Moses that only Aaron's family could serve as actual priests to make offerings. The Reubenites objected to the apparent disregard Moses had for the tribal birthright system. He had appointed the Seventy Elders with special powers above those of the tribes. These princes of Reuben wanted to reassert the traditional government of Semitic tribes of that time. As descendants of the first-born son of Israel, this put the Reubenites at the head of the line, never mind that their ancestor lost that privilege for them.

A particular sore point was no doubt the failed assault on Canaan. In their eyes, Moses had prevented the Ark of Covenant being moved, so the people went to war without their sacred talisman and their tribal god had consequently not aided them in battle. In both cases, the rebels clearly demonstrated a complete failure to grasp the radical difference between their God, Jehovah, and all the other so-called gods of which they had heard. As far as they were concerned, their problem was Moses, who held a monopoly for his family as the primary servants of Jehovah. This was the same view generally held by most of the Israelites, as they blamed Moses for the deaths of the rebels the following day. Whether they ever understood that Moses had little control over the miraculous events they witnessed seems unlikely.

It requires we take a moment here to paint a clear portrait of the attitude and mindset of the rebellious leadership. It's rather hard to picture just how deeply sunk these people were into superstition, at the same time holding a deep cynicism. They had adopted the concept that supernatural powers were generally available to anyone who took the time to grasp them, or managed to discover the secrets. The gods were often seen as indifferent to the human condition, offering their powers to the highest bidder, as it were. They did not at all doubt the reality of the powers Moses seemed to wield; they doubted that the God who gave them really cared much who was His representative. They assumed He was as venal as any ruler and would use first one, and then another servant, as His whims and vanity might incline. Moses' declaration that he was chosen was just so much propaganda to them. Thus, if they could pry from him the secret knowledge, any man could take his place. They sought to compel Moses to reveal the arcane rituals that persuaded Jehovah to empower men. Not everyone thought like this, at least not all the time, but the attitude was present in the nation as a whole, much as any culture might have it's own collection of old wives' tales.

There was a clear collusion in this revolt between the Reubenite princes, who sought to wrest political control from Moses, and Korah, who sought to displace the priests loyal to Moses with another group gathered from all the tribes. Korah planned to raise up a priesthood loyal to the Reubenites. As it was, the conspirators were geographically close to each other in the tent city of Israel, given the ordered layout they had. The Kohathites formed a row between the Tabernacle and the three tribes on the southern quarter, the quarter led by the Tribe of Reuben. The fissure that opened up beneath their family tents was a symbol of the shaky ground on which their rebellion was built. Jehovah was careful to take only those who dared question His choices. The plague that followed from the next day's grumbling was less precise in the choice of its victims. What could hardly be missed was the clear reinforcement of the Aaronic priesthood. First, he offered incense on behalf of those in the path of the plague, an act that had just the day before caused the immolation of 250 men aspiring to priesthood. Not only did he not suffer the same fate, but the plague was stopped. Secondly, his carved almond staff, a symbol of tribal authority, was the only one that blossomed with foliage and fruit. Whether in their minds it was the choice of Jehovah or of Moses, no one was in a position to object any longer.

Chapter 3.7: 40 Years' Wandering

Numbers 20:1-13 -- Other instances of rebellion over the next forty years are not recounted in detail, but mentioned in other texts. The period is popularly referred to as the Forty Years' Wandering, but it doesn't seem from the text they physically wandered at all, but migrated within the Paran Wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:46). Miriam, Moses' sister was buried near Kadesh-barnea, on the northern edge of Paran. Rather, it was a moral wandering. The rebellious nature of this people finally infected Moses himself. His natural anger at their constant carping and whining got the best of him, provoking him to disobey Jehovah's instructions. It's not uncommon in that part of the world for limestone formations to conceal water, but without our modern technology, it was only by revelation from Jehovah that Moses could identify where to seek it. The water found was abundant, but His failure cost him entry into the Promised Land.

21:1-3 -- A little out of sequence in the text is the raid by the chieftain of a community called Arad. This was a small clan of Canaanites holding territory on the northern edge of the Negev desert. The reprisal was apparently quick and easy to execute, with no spoils were taken for private use. Moses renamed the place Hormah, often translated as "Destruction," but also meaning something set aside for total destruction as an offering to Jehovah (the concept was of a costly act of self-denial, rather than the item's usefulness to Him). This was a means of healing the raw memories of defeat at another Hormah nearly forty years before. Though never positively identified by archaeologists, Arad would have been on the southern approach to Palestine, the first to face an invasion from Israel. Of course, the one opportune moment for entering that land from the south was long gone. Now they would have to come in from the east, across the Jordan River.

20:14-21 -- The usual route for such an approach was the King's Highway. This was a wide and well-used path dating back before the time of Abraham. The road ran through several independent kingdoms and each maintained their own portion of the route as a source of toll and services revenue. Israel would first have to cross the Kingdom of Edom, which at that time occupied the hills east of the Rift Valley and southeast of the Dead Sea. Edom refused passage, even with generous offers of payment for services. No doubt, Edom's rulers knew that conquest was the eventual purpose of Israel and no amount of reassurance could convince them that their cousins had not added Edom to the list of lands they aspired to occupy. Edom's troops marshaled a visible presence on the southern border. The defense of this southern border, a long uphill climb, was much easier than fending off an enemy already inside the kingdom. Jehovah made it clear that He would not permit Israel to defeat these close relatives, so they must take the long way around, to the south and east, over open terrain with few roads.

20:22-29; 21:4-9 -- On this circuitous route was Mount Hor, a landmark named after the ancient Hurrians displaced by the Edomites. It was here Aaron passed his high priesthood over to his son, Eleazer, and then died. No one can be sure of the exact identity of this landmark today, but we have some idea of the route. The only reasonable place to mount the heights east of the Rift Valley outside of Edom was down near the Gulf of Aqabah. Ezion-geber there on the shore at the apex of the Gulf was a mining and shipping center and much of the trade would have run west to Egypt, past the Sea of Reeds. Thus, the route was referred to as the Way of the Sea of Reeds. No sooner had the time of mourning for Aaron passed but the nation began to grumble about the difficulty of the route. Such talk would certainly lead to a revolt, but they passed through an area infested with bronze-colored poisonous snakes. The metallic bronze version Moses made was mounted on the national standard and would have stood near the Tabernacle.

21:10-20 -- There is celebration over a well dug at the bottom of a wadi. In some places these seasonal water courses held a high water table in a sandy bottom year-round. No more than the thrust of a staff might bring it to the surface. This was the last event recorded before the actual conquest begins. In passing, we have a sample of an older document, perhaps the direct handiwork of Moses or one of his assistants. This Book of the Wars of Jehovah has never been seen in modern times, nor mentioned in any other text we have today. It would appear to be a book of verse, most likely the original source for our Scripture text. The inserted Hebrew verse is much older than the narrative. To a nomadic nation of Semites, writing would be relatively unimportant as a means of record keeping. Recitations of epic poetry would be more accurately transmitted over a longer time span than if the book had simply been prose written on the fragile materials available at that time. Once the nation settled in the Promised Land, it would be much easier to have developed the culture and habits of keeping written records. Most of these would have been kept as a part of the royal treasury or in the Temple that was eventually built. Since it was a stated concern of Jehovah to preserve these records, we can be sure that nothing essential was lost in the process.


Ed Hurst
30 January 2004, revised 03 February 2016

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