Friday, December 6, 2013

The Bible, Pt. 15: Exodus, Chapter 1 - 2

This continues my commentary on the Bible as a not-particularly-knowledgeable layman. Since I finished the book of Genesis in Part 14, I'm starting Exodus in this post. Note that all quotes are from the King James Bible, 1769 revision.

Before I start, perhaps I should remind my readers that there's no real evidence any of this actually happened. Of course, I could have said the same thing about Genesis, but you already knew that, didn't you?

You have to be pretty far gone to believe that the Garden of Eden or Noah's Flood actually happened, but most Christians I know seem to just assume that the Exodus story is established historical fact. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There's no good evidence that the Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt, or that they wandered for forty years in the desert - and Israeli archeologists, among others, have certainly been looking. And although Moses is traditionally given credit for writing the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament - we really have no idea if he was any more real than Harry Potter.

We've already seen evidence that separate stories by different authors were combined in Genesis (right from the beginning, in fact, with two different Creation stories whose authors even called their god by different names). And note that Deuteronomy includes the tale of Moses' own death and secret burial, which would be kind of hard for him to write about, I'd think.

So I'd say it's pretty clear that tradition must be wrong about the first part of that, at least to some extent. Whether a Moses even existed, historically, I'll leave that to historians to debate.

Exodus, Chapter 1:
6 And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.

7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

8 Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

9 And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens...

Remember that Joseph was second only to the Pharaoh, so the Jews were given "the best of the land" in Egypt. And they flourished there. But as time passed, the older generation died off. Eventually, there was a new Pharaoh who hadn't even known Joseph.

And the Jews weren't Egyptians. They might have been born and raised in Egypt, but they were still a distinct, separate minority. Well, not a minority, I guess - not according to this story, at least. The Pharaoh says that they've become "more and mightier than we." More than the Egyptians themselves? Nice job, that, given that there were only 70 of them to begin with! They must have bred like rabbits!

And now - because they've become so abundant and so strong - he's going to "deal wisely with them." How? Well, by treating them really, really badly, of course. Heh, heh. How crazy is that?
12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. ...

14 And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.

15 And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:

16 And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.

Oddly enough, treating the Jews badly didn't work (what was it even supposed to accomplish?), so the Pharaoh comes up with a new plan. He tells the Hebrew midwives - of which there are only two, for a people who've become even more numerous than the Egyptians, supposedly - to let the Hebrew daughters live, but to kill any sons which are born.

Yeah, what could go wrong with that? (Note that polygamy was pretty much the norm in Genesis, so it's hard to see how this would lower the Jewish population much. The king would have been better off doing just the reverse, killing only the daughters, don't you think? But that wouldn't work as a story element, because no one back then cared about daughters, only about sons.)
17 But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.

18 And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?

19 And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.

20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.

21 And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.

Those two midwives were smart (or, at least, they "feared God"), so they didn't do as the Pharaoh commanded them, but they made up a good excuse: All those Hebrew women are so "lively" that they keep giving birth before the midwives can even get there!

And God is so happy with them that he "made them houses." (Huh?)
22 And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.

I assume this means every Hebrew son. No king would survive long if he really demanded this of "all his people." But still, you have to wonder how anyone would think that this was how to "deal wisely with them," and in particular, how this would keep them from joining Egypt's enemies in any war.

Of course, the whole point of this is to set up the story of Moses' birth. There's a reason why it has to be this way.

Chapter 2:
1 And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.

2 And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.

3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink.

Note that this wasn't such an unusual story in ancient times. It's not an uncommon plot line. The legend of Sargon, for example, is very similar. The story of Karna is quite similar, too, and even Oedipus was abandoned (though not on a river) and raised by the people who found him.

If the story of Moses was just a story, this is exactly the kind of thing we'd expect. And the first chapter of Exodus would simply be required in order to set it up (there has to be some reason a mother will leave her infant for others to find). Given that the first chapter doesn't seem at all plausible otherwise,... well, you can decide which seems more likely.

This story, though, has some variations all its own:
4 And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.

5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river's side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.

6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children.

7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?

8 And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child's mother.

9 And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.

Contrary to some popular versions of the story, this clever mother doesn't actually send Moses floating down the river. Instead, she just creates a little "ark" to make it look like that's what happened. She places it where the Pharaoh's daughter will find it, and she stations her own daughter - Moses' sister - nearby.

The Pharaoh's daughter knows that it's one of the Hebrew babies - probably because he's been circumcised, don't you think? - but she feels sorry for him. And right then, Moses' sister speaks up, volunteering to get a Hebrew wet nurse - Moses' own mother, who even gets paid for nursing her own son.

Clever plan, huh? Admittedly, it depends entirely on the Pharaoh's daughter being a compassionate person. All of these women behave well here, but note that none of them are named. Well, they're just women, aren't they? And it's not as though women are important, right?

For the record, Moses' mother was supposed to be Jochebed, and his sister Miriam. And - even more tentatively - Bithiah was supposed to be the name of the Egyptian princess who adopted Moses. I know. If this is all just fiction, it hardly matters. But I guess I just feel better for mentioning their names.
10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.

11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.

12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

After he no longer required nursing, presumably, Moses' mother takes him to the Egyptian princess, who raises him as her own son. But not entirely, I guess, because he still thinks of himself as a Hebrew, not as an Egyptian, after he's grown. At any rate, when he sees an Egyptian "smiting" a Hebrew, he secretly kills the guy and hides the body.
13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?

14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.

15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.

Unfortunately, someone did witness the murder - a fellow Hebrew, apparently - and despite all they've suffered, he still rats out Moses to the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh plans to kill him - clearly, he doesn't think of Moses as his grandchild, whatever his daughter thinks - so Moses runs away to Midian.
16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock.

17 And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.

18 And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day?

19 And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock.

20 And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.

21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.

22 And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Moses is a stranger in a strange land. Indeed, that's been the story of his life, hasn't it? Reuel and his daughters think that he's Egyptian, so he certainly must look Egyptian. And note that they're not Hebrew. Reuel himself is a priest of Midian, in fact (not that we know where Midian was, or anything else about it).

Yet Moses must have thought of himself as Hebrew, or why would he have killed that Egyptian?

You know, this is an interesting story, but IMHO, it's not written very well. This part of it is rushed. We're told nothing about how Moses was raised, or anything else about what actually led to him committing murder. And we're told nothing more about his real mother or his sister, either. Does he even know who they are?

He looks like an Egyptian, so he must dress like one and act like one. So why does he think of himself as a Hebrew, let alone get that upset over seeing a strange Hebrew being abused? I mean, I can think of many possibilities, and most of them would make an interesting story, I'd think. But Exodus just rushes through all that, ignoring it completely.

Then, as we see later, the story slows down dramatically, getting rather boring, to my mind. As a story, it skips what I'd find most interesting, then dwells interminably on what's much more dull. But we won't get to that now.
23 And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.

24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.

Finally, God notices what's been going on. Apparently, he's an absent-minded kind of god, a god who forgot entirely about his chosen people and his covenant with them. Now he notices, finally, and he decides to do something about it. But we'll get to that next time.

Note: This entire series is available here.


Chimeradave said...

The omniscient and omnipresent God says "Whoops, my bad. I wasn't paying attention." :)

WCG said...

Heh, heh. Yeah, that's kind of how it seemed to me, John.

And remember, at the end of Genesis, God goes through this elaborate plan to keep the Hebrews alive during a 7-year famine (an overly elaborate plan, I'd say, given that he could have just caused it to rain in Canaan or something).

But seven years is apparently all he can look ahead, because he seems to have given absolutely no thought to anything past that.

At the very least, why didn't the Jews return home after the famine was over? Joseph was still the #2 guy in Egypt, so he could have given them all sorts of assistance. But that wouldn't have made an entertaining story, I guess.