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    1
    OLD TESTAMENT ESSAYS
    The Exodus as the Foundation
    Event of the History of Israel
    (18 January 1983)

    by Christopher C. Warren, M.A.(Oxon)

    Although the Old Testament (Tanakh) behins with the creation and covers a long patriarchal period of history, it has been argued by many that for Israel its beginnings lay with the exodus of a band of Hebrew slaves from the tyrranical rule of a pharaoh and its accretion into a nation in the Sinai wilderness. There is much to support this view-point.

    When we talk of Israel we can refer to a number of different things:

    • 1. Israel, who was orginally called Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes;
    • 2. Israel, the descendants of Jacob; or
    • 3. Israel, the covenant community.

    Whilst it is true that the vast majority of the camp of the Israelites were descandants of Jacob, it is also likely that the band of fleeing slaves from Goshen included other Habiru (or 'Apiru as they were known by Mesopotamians and Egyptians). These Habiru were the ancient equivalent of our modern Bedouin or gypsies. They were wanderers and ethnically were made up of several races, mostly Semitic. They were held in contempt by the Egyptians who called them 'sanddwellers'. Furthermore, when Israel entered Canaan, many of the indigenous peoples were absorbed into the Covenant Community, albeit as slaves, who were Hittite by race.

    Thus the term 'Israel' in the national sense had no real meaning until the time of Moses and the great epic of the exodus. Prior to this time there was no such thing as an 'Israelite national identity'. For all intents and purposes, the descendants of Jacob in Egypt had adopted the Egyptian way of life in dress, habits, and even worship. And even when the Hyksos were expelled and these people were put under the yoke, they did not abandon the culture which had nurtured them for some 400 years. They were later ot murmur in the desert their preference for their pagan gods and the Covenant of Yahweh had to be forged through hardship and suffering. It is no small matter to suddenly uproot a community of 72,000 people [1] and make them abandon a whole way of life. Had Israel entered Canaan without a 40 year exile in Sinai it is doubtful that Israel would ever have formed as a nation. The Habiru would have been absorbed easily into the Canaanite environment and would have readily adopted its pagan rites and living style.

    So Israel was moulded in the hot desert of the Sinai. It takes time for old memories to die and moreover the people had to be infused with a national conscience. If we look in the modern world at the birth of new nations it becomes evident that some kind of dramatic struggle marks the identity of that new nation. The raison d'Ítre of France lies in its revolution against oppressive monarchy, Communist China traves its beginning to an epic event - the Great March, and America traces its origins to a struggle against Great Britain. Israel attained its idnependent mind and national consciousness through a prophet of Yahweh, Moses, who, endowed with supernatural powers, defeated and humiliated what was for the Egyptians their 'living' and therefore 'immortal god', the Pharaoh. Israel's identity was forged through the intervention of the true 'living God', Yahweh, and personalised in each member of the community first by an epic march (the crossing of Yam Suf or the Sea of Reeds) and then by a Covenant expressed in the ritual langfuage of the day. Ecah of the events - the plagues of Egypt (and especially the death of the Egyptans' firstborn), the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds [2], the drowning of the 'immortal' pharaoh and his army, the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night - all of these left a lasting memory in the conscience of Israel. These were dramatic scenes, not easily forgotten, far more vivid than the vague history of the Patriarchs. For this reason genesis is often regarded as a Prologue to the rest of the Pentateuch - it was distant and not-too-meaningful history written by Moses either by means of ancient recordsor annals, from oral tradition, by divine revelation, or all of these [3].

    For most Americans, the revolutionary war is the historical memory - for Britain, the Second World War represents the time at which the nation was in its greatest peril and is second only in importance to the Battle of Hastings [4]. Israel was born as a nation and conscience in the exodus - it was founded in the epic events that make up the exodus story. And it remains the foundation of Judaism.

    Endnotes

    [1] This figure is based on a scholarly analysis of the numerology of the Pentateuch - otherwise we must presume two to three million Habiru left Egypt, an impossible amount to sustain in the wilderness, notwithstanding divine intervention, in the author's opinion.
    [2] Traditionally but inaccurately known as the 'Red Sea'.
    [3] The thesis that Genesis was not written by Moses is difficult to prove and is not the belief of this writer even if there is reasonable doubt that Moses wrote all the Pentateuch. For example, Moses could not have written about his own death (Dt.34) or Dt.1:1 since Moses had never crossed the Jordan River; he could not have written Gen.12:6 & 13:7 or Gen.36:31. Also, he could not have written Gen.14:14 & Dt.34 because Dan did not conquer its territory (Laish) until long after Moses' death (Josh.19:47; Judg.18:29). Num.21:14-15 quotes as an ancient authority "the book of the wars of Yahweh (the Lord)" which could not have been earlier than the days of Moses. Other problem passages are Ex.6:26-27; 11:3; 16:35-36; Lev.18:24-28; Num.12:3 and Deut.2:12 but all of this is beyond the scope of this short essay.
    [4] In 1066, when England had last been invaded and conquered.

    Return to Old Testament Studies Index


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