Ramses II and three slaves. Click for details.
The infant Moses retrieved from the Nile not by one of the many commoners washing family clothes but, of course, by a princess and her entourage who happened by.
Hey, this isn't Moses! It's Charlton Heston via Cecil B. DeMille! He has two tablets that if made of stone would have weighed a lot. He hardly has a grip on one, which would have come down on his head if DeMille had not created them of some lighter substance, like balsa wood.
The source that introduces us to people called Hebrews is the Book of Genesis, of the Five Books of Moses, or the Old Testament, Genesis 14:13 describing a man called Abraham as a Hebrew. Genesis describes Abraham as the son of Terah and the brother of Nahor and Haran, a family that dwelled at Ur, in the land of the Chaldeans. According to Genesis, Terah took his family to Haran, where he died. And from Haran, Abraham migrated with his family into Canaan. Some believe this was toward the end of the 2000s BCE, long before the Chaldeans established themselves in Sumer. Some others speculate that Abraham's migration from Haran came much later. In recent years, archaeologists have concluded that we have no evidence as to dates regarding Abraham. [link]
The question remains for some whether the Hebrews were the original people on this earth as described in scripture or whether instead they derived genetically from those Homo sapiens believed to have been in Africa some 130,000 years ago – the latter suggesting that like other ancient peoples the Hebrews were originally polytheistic.
Scripture describes the ancient Hebrews as close in attitude to hunter-gatherers insofar as they viewed themselves as "the people," as living at the center of the universe and as chosen by the heavens for special concern.
As was common among herders, the Hebrews had a masculine god of the sky and weather – a god concerned with them rather than as a god for all peoples. He was a god to be feared, a god with human characteristics such as anger and a capacity for pleasure, a god pleased by gifts – gifts created by sacrifices.
Like others, the Hebrews believed that a ritual killing of an animal sent the animal as a gift to the invisible world of the gods. And, according to Chapter 22 of Genesis, Abraham was at least familiar with human sacrifice. There he is described as having been tested by the Lord's command that he make an offering of his son Isaac.
Concerning gods other than Yahweh, the Biblical scholar, Mark S. Smith, writes of the chief god of the group named Israel as having the name El, as suggested in the name Israel. He writes of Genesis 49:24-25 presenting "a series of El epithets" and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casting Yahweh in the role of one of the sons of El. His discussion is extensive, from pages 32 to 43 in his book, The Early History of God.
Scholars have described The Book of Genesis as composed during "the monarchist period," specifically at the Court of Solomon, or "the priestly period" in the middle of the 5th century BCE. More recent scholarship has estimated that it was composed during the Babylonian exile, in the 6th century BCE.
The Garden of Eden has been described as possibly cultural memory of a time of hunting and gathering – a small society living amid nature – before the rise of agricultural society, gaining food by the sweat of one's brow and other miseries acquired with the transition.
The Garden of Eden part of the creation story (creation stories common to religions in ancient times) told in the Book of Genesis, with Adam described as the first of what we now call the human species. God creates a companion for Adam, Eve, from Adam's rib, so that he won't be alone. God has ceated a test, a tree – apple perhaps – whose fruit is not to be eaten. Eve knows that if she eats the fruit she will surely die, but coaxed by a serpent she eat it anyway. Eve has sinned, the weakness of woman cursing humankind. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Humanity is destined to a life of toil, hardship, disease, aging and death, with humanity never able to escape Eve's failure.
When the pharaoh Ramses II returned from Syria with his treaty of "everlasting peace," he put slaves to work on his creation of great buildings and monuments to celebrate what he claimed was his victory. Art work from this period depicts a tall and threatening Ramses holding a Semite, an Asian and a black man by their hair – three slaves feeling the sternness of Ramses' rule.
The Old Testament'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. This is the Moses of Old Testament legend. It is the heart of Judaism – Moses being to Judaism what Siddartha Gautama is to Buddhism and Jesus of Nazareth is to Christianity. It is a story that today's scholars believe was written centuries after Moses is purported to have lived and was written, some surmise, for the purpose of vindicating religious belief.
According to the Book of Exodus, the infant Moses was found on the banks of the Nile, not by a poor fisherman or a washer woman but by the pharaoh's daughter. Despite the contempt described as felt by Egyptians for Hebrews, the recognition of the infant as a Hebrew and the elitism and exclusiveness of the royal family, the pharaoh allowed his daughter to rear the Hebrew child as her own, and she spoke the language of the Hebrews.
The Book of Exodus describes Moses as having maintained a Hebrew identity despite his having been raised among Egyptian royalty since infancy. Exodus describes Moses as becoming enraged when coming upon an overseer mistreating another Hebrew. Moses killed the overseer and, although he belonged to the royal family, he found it necessary to flee into the desert.
Exodus describes Moses joining a family among Bedouin people called Midianites, in the Sinai desert. The head of the family was a priest, and Moses married the priest's daughter. One day the god of his father-in-law spoke to Moses from a burning bush that did not suffer the effects of fire, and the god described himself to Moses as the god of Abraham. It was then, according to the Book of Exodus, that the Hebrews acquired the god called Yahweh – to be translated in the Middle Ages as Jehovah. [note]
According to the Book of Exodus, Yahweh instructed Moses to return to Egypt, and Moses did. There Moses converted Hebrews to the worship of "the Lord" and convinced them to flee with him from Egypt. In keeping with the common belief in collective guilt and punishment, Yahweh is described as punishing more than Egypt's pharaoh (who alone among the Egyptians had the power to hold or release the Hebrews). Yahweh is described as punishing Egyptians far and wide, including all of their first-born. Yahweh is described as adding misery to the Egyptians in much the same manner that a Mesopotamian tale described the goddess Innana as having punished Sumer. Innana had sent three plagues against Sumer. Yahweh is described as having cast down upon the Egyptians plagues of boils, frogs, insects, hail to destroy their crops and a disease that killed their cattle.
According to one interpretation of the Book of Exodus, Yahweh opened the Red Sea to let the Hebrews pass. Then he closed it again, drowning the pharaoh and all his soldiers. The Egyptians kept records of the doings of their kings, but no mention of this great event has been found by modern historians, and no mention has been found of Moses – perhaps, argue some people in modern times, because Egyptian royalty would not have wanted to admit any defeat at the hands of the Hebrews.
Rather than "Red Sea," the correct interpretation of the term yam sûf in the Hebrew text in Exodus is "Reed Sea." Some people speculate that the crossing mentioned in Exodus was 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 could have become bogged down in the mud. The Red Sea is salt water and devoid of reeds. [note]
According to the Book of Exodus, three months after leaving Egypt, Moses and his followers camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses climbed the mountain. And Yahweh told him that if he and his followers obeyed, they would be his "own possession among all the peoples." Yahweh told Moses that he would 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 descended onto Mount Sinai and beckoned Moses to ascend the mountain. In agreement with the belief common in West Asia that nearness to the gods was the privilege of a few, Yahweh told Moses to let the priests come "near the Lord" to consecrate themselves. The others, he said, should not "break through to the Lord to gaze" because it would cause many to perish. Moses assured Yahweh. Then Yahweh delivered his Ten Commandments and numerous other laws.
According to the Old Testament (Exodus 20:1-17), Yahweh commanded 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 commanded that they should not take his name in vain, that they should keep the Sabbath a weekly day of rest, that they should honor their father and mother, not murder one another, nor commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, and not covet their neighbor's possessions, including wives and servants.
According to the Old Testament's First Book of Kings, 6:1, Moses and his fellow Hebrews fled from Egypt 480 years before Solomon was to begin building his temple in Jerusalem. This would have placed the exodus from Egypt in 1446, around a century and a half before the rule of Ramses and during a time of no major building in Egypt. 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. [note] 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. The mass 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 the kingdom on his western border.
Israel Finkelstein, of Tel Aviv University, contends that had even a fraction of the 600,000 claimed in the Bible passed through the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years, archaeological evidence of it would be abundant. But archaeolgists have found none, and Finkelstein doubts the accuracy of the story of Exodus.
The Old Testament (New American Standard)
The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, by Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazer, 2007. (An edited edition is online with Google Books.)
Who were the Israelites and where did they come from, by William G. Dever, 2006. (The 2003 version is summarized on this site, but comments on Amazon.com might be more extensive.)
Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, by Edward Shanks, 1999.
Authors of the Bible: Who, When, Where, What and Why, by Fred Glynn, 2006
Did God Have a Wife? by William G. Dever, 2005
What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It,, by William G. Dever, 2001
The Early History of God: Yahweh and the other deities in ancient Israel, by Mark S. Smith, 2002
The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, 2009
The Bible's Buried Secrets: archeology of the Hebrew Bible, NOVA, PBS.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.