Friday, 9 August 2013

Did the Exodus really happen? - Exodus: 1-15

The Pentateuch is suspected to have been written by four author's over a broad period of time according the JEDP theory: The Yahwish source (J), who used the name Yahweh when speaking of God, and the Elohist source (E) who used Elohim as God's name, wrote approximately between 1000-800BC; The Deuteronomist source (D) focused on centrallised worship and politics in around 600BC; and the Priestly source (P) who refers to God as Elohim and El-Shaddai around 500BC [1]. Traditionally Moses is believed to have been the author but historically this does not seem accurate.

The reason I bring this up here is because the Exodus raises issues when considered in a historically factual sense and so it is important to see where the story originates. As far as archaeology can tell there is no clear evidence for a literal mass exodus of Jews from Egypt after years of slavery, yet many theories can loosely try to refer to it. The oppression of the Jews in Egypt and their deliverance from God to the promised land is a fundamental part of the Jewish tradition. For me it does not take away great significance to the meaning of the story if it did not truly happen, but this would not go down well with those belonging to the Abrahmic faiths. But if the Exodus did happen surely something a big as this would be recorded somewhere? True, the Egyptians are known to have covered up their failures and presented them as victories (Ramses and the Battle of Qadesh), and so it is possible that they would not have advertised such a humiliation; but the record of mass Jewish slavery surely would have required legal documentation somewhere? 

A date for the Exodus has thus been impossible to conclude. It must have been at the earliest 1650BC as in 14:6 the king of Egypt 'had his chariot made ready and took his army with him' in pursuit of the Hebrews after they had fled - chariots were introduced to Egypt during the occupation of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period of Egyptian history, and were not used before then.  If this was the case then the author (of whom is likely one of the above mentioned between 1000-500BC) would be writing hundreds of years after. To complicate the date issue it is possible his retrospective narrating may be coloured by his own experiences and may not be historically accurate, assuming that the Egyptians had chariots at the time of this story... Nevertheless if we go with this idea, we are still left with a huge time span of possible dates and pharaohs - if this did indeed truly happen. The expulsion of the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who could be seen as the ancestors of the Israelites, may be interpreted as the origin of this story. 

The Hyksos were not slaves to the Egyptians, and even ruled the North for a time. In some instances they were hired as workers for their foreign skills, but this cannot compare the slavery that goes with the Jewish story; they certainly didn't build any pyramids. But they were forced out of Egypt and Egypt was reunified after. If this is the origin of the story then I believe that the writers of Exodus had heard of this history and identified with the Hyksos people, re-writing the story for their own purposes.

It has also been suggested that this story is based even later and even more further from its narrative telling. As eventually written in Isiah, in the 6th Century BC the Israelites were under the dominion of the Babylonians and when Babylon fell, the Israelites were freed. The exodus could be a re-telling of this story of freedom; however, why would the Jews need two such stories?

As I am not a Biblical historian I shall leave the debate here, concluding that I do not believe the exodus happened literally as the Bible dictates and I believe it is a re-telling of old myths or historical happenings, modified to create a sense of identity for the Israelite people.

Names of God - Exodus 3-6:1-8

I now move on two the second book in the Pentateuch: Exodus. Instead of narrating the whole story to you - of which I am sure many people already know - I will instead try to highlight key areas of interest. 

I wish to quickly start with a small comparison of Moses' flight from Pharaoh to the Egyptian story of Sinuhe, in which a high official to the now deceased Pharaoh, flees to the land of the Asiatics for safety (supposedly worried about being blamed for the mysterious death?); Sinuhe is welcomed by the people and lives a successful life there, before returning to Egypt. Many of the Biblical stories bare similarities to other myths, mostly Mesopotamian ones, and so it is possible that this was inspired from the Egyptian tale.

Now in this post I am focusing on the names of God given in this particular section. This starts with the dialogue between Moses and God in the Burning Bush. Moses asks God what his name is so that the Israelites will know that he has truly been sent by their God and so God responds:

3:14: '"I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you."' God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob - has sent me to you,' This is my name for ever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation."'

The first line of course is curious. The Hebrew for 'Lord' sounds like the Hebrew for 'I Am' and so may be the origin of this. It seems to be an affirmation of his existence, so maybe he is one who exists? At this stage in the Bible God still appears to be a tribal God of the Israelite people, and less so a universal God of all peoples, as shown here.

This name seems to change later on where God explains that he has revealed himself under different names to Moses' ancestors:

6:2-3: '"I am the Lord [Yahweh]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the Lord [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them."'

(Parenthesis added)

Here we see that God has shown himself to his followers in different names - different names for the same God. Interestingly, in the Genesis creation myth he is referred to as Elohim, the plural form of El; El was the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon and his name is carried on in the epithet El Shaddai, as revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God has revealed himself to these pre-monotheistic people with the name of the chief polytheistic god of the Canaanite religion! Before this point many people and places contained the word 'El' within them - IsraEL and BethEL for example; now names and places contain 'Yah' instead, progressing away from the association with the pagan god, to a new name of God, Yahweh, for the new tribe of people that Moses is about to form. 

Previously God was seen as a powerful chief god with henotheistic reverence, elevated above other gods; now he is given a new name in an attempt to individualise himself and only have association with the Israelite people. After this he'll keep his new name but broaden and become a universal god and not just a tribal one.

God = El (singular), Elohim (plural), Eloah (feminine)
God Almighty = El Shaddai
The Lord = Yahweh/Jehovah