Hebrew priests in the centuries before and including their captivity at Babylon were men devoted to what they saw as the literally true stories. That was common among peoples in ancient times. In modern times a different attitude developed. A tradition of questioning had come into being. Some people accepted stories as symbolic rather than as literally true, and this helped them with their religious tradition. And there were scholars who saw it as their job to question. Fundamentalists raged against their ideological enemies. Priests sermonized. Modern scholars questioned – preferably without contempt.
The Hebrew Bible's Book of Exodus describes an unnamed pharaoh ordering the slaughter of all male Hebrew infants, and it describes a Hebrew woman trying to save her infant son, Moses, by putting him adrift on the Nile in a tiny boat of reeds caulked with tar pitch. The infant Moses is found not by a likely person on the banks of the Nile, a fisherman or washer woman, but by none other than the pharaoh's daughter. This is a story for people who believer in the miraculous and the works of Hollywood's Cecil B. DeMille, not a story for godless skeptics. Despite the contempt felt by Egyptians for Hebrews, the recognition of the infant as a Hebrew and despite the elitism and exclusiveness of the royal family the pharaoh allowed his daughter to rear the Hebrew child as her own, and she speaks the language of the Hebrews. And Moses is supposed to have maintained his Hebrew identity despite his having been raised among Egyptian royalty since infancy.
Charlton Heston as Moses. The tablets are not falling on his head because they are made of balsa wood.
Exodus describes Moses as becoming enraged when coming upon an overseer mistreating another Hebrew. Moses kills the overseer and, although he belongs to the royal family, he finds it necessary to flee into the desert. He is taken in by a Bedouin family headed by a priest. Moses marries the priest's daughter. One day, the god of his father-in-law speaks to Moses from a burning bush that does not suffer the effects of fire, and the god describes himself to Moses as the god of Abraham. It is then, according to the Book of Exodus, that the Hebrews acquire the god called Yahweh – to be translated in the Middle Ages as Jehovah. note14
According to the Book of Exodus, Yahweh tells Moses to return to Egypt, and Moses does. There Moses converts Hebrews to the worship of "the Lord" and convinces them to flee with him from Egypt. In keeping with the common belief in collective guilt and punishment, Exodus describes Yahweh as punishing more than Egypt's pharaoh (who alone among the Egyptians had the power to hold or release the Hebrews). Yahweh punishes Egyptians far and wide, including all of their first-born. Yahweh adds misery to the Egyptians in much the same manner that a Mesopotamian tale describes the goddess Innana having punished Sumer – Innana having sent three plagues against Sumer. Yahweh casts down upon the Egyptians plagues of boils, frogs, insects, hail to destroy their crops and a disease that kills their cattle.
According to one interpretation of the Book of Exodus, Yahweh opens the Red Sea to let the Hebrews pass. Then he closes it again, drowning the pharaoh and all his soldiers. Some speculate that the crossing mentioned in Exodus was across a shallow, marshy area near what today is the northern end of the Suez Canal, where people on foot could have crossed but horses and chariots might have bogged down in mud. note15 At any rate, the Egyptians kept records of the doings of their kings and no mention of this event has been found by modern historians, and no mention has been found of Moses – perhaps, argue some, because Egyptian royalty would not have wanted to admit any defeat at the hands of the Hebrews.
According to the Book of Exodus, three months after leaving Egypt, Moses and his followers camp at the foot of Mount Sinai. Yahweh tells Moses that if he and his followers obey, they will be his "own possession among all the peoples." Yahweh tells Moses that he will appear again in three days. And three days later, with Mount Sinai rumbling and smoking as if about to erupt, with thunder and lightning from the sky above and trumpets blaring (Exodus 19:16) Yahweh descends onto Mount Sinai and beckons Moses to ascend the mountain. In agreement with the common belief that nearness to the gods was the privilege of a few, Yahweh tells Moses to let the priests come "near the Lord" to consecrate themselves. The others, He says, should not "break through to the Lord to gaze" because it would cause many to perish. Moses assures Yahweh, and then Yahweh delivers his Ten Commandments and numerous other laws to Moses.
According to Exodus 20:1-17, Yahweh commands that Moses and his followers have no other gods, worship no idol "or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth." He commands that they should not take his name in vain, that they should keep the Sabbath as weekly day of rest, that they should honor their father and mother, not murder one another, nor commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, and that they must not covet their neighbor's possessions, including wives and servants.
The Book of Exodus describes Moses as having come across the small kingdoms of Edom and Moab, which archaeologists believe were not settled until after 1300. Those believing that the Old Testament is without error cling to 1446 as the year of the Exodus. Others estimate that it was under Ramses' successor, Merneptah, that the Hebrews might have managed to flee en masse from Egypt – Merneptah having ruled from around 1224 to 1211. It is speculated that an exodus of Hebrew slaves might have occurred when Merneptah withdrew his troops from his frontier facing Canaan in preparation for a war developing on his frontier with a kingdom on his western border. The archaeologist Israel Finkelstein contends in The Bible Unearthed (2002) that if even a fraction of the 600,000 followers of Moses had passed through the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years, as claimed in the story, archaeological evidence of it would be abundant. But archaeologists have found none
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