Exodus, Israel’s Beginnings

Exodus, Israel’s Beginnings

The time between the death of Joseph (Genesis 50) and the birth of Moses (Exodus 2) was a period of unrecorded history. The descendants of Jacob preserved no detailed memories of this time. According to “E” they were in Egypt 400 years (Genesis 15:13). “P” on the other hand writes they were there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). The New American Bible cautions not to take these figures literally (Genesis 15:16).

Of this period we do know that at the time of Joseph some of them were a privileged group of Semites in an Egyptian culture. As time passed they forgot the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and worshipped the Gods of Egypt (Ezekiel 20:07). They fell upon evil days and were forced into slavery by a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. The pharaoh of the exodus was Ramses II (BCE 1290-1224).

Who Were These People?

Some scholars identify them with the influx of the Amorites into Mesopotamia made up of groups of nomads, some who later were called the “Apiru.” In the 14th century Amarna letters written by the Palestinian city lords to the Pharaohs asking for protection, they appear to have been nomads without a place of their own.

The Abraham/Jacob cycles were put in writing over a thousand years after the fact for the purpose of showing common roots of the multiple tribal traditions of a diverse people.

In Egypt we have the Joseph clans probably joined later by the Leah clans making up the “Apiru” who were to become slaves under the Pharaohs. They fled from Egypt, were joined by other groups of “mixed ancestry” (Exodus 12:38) and entered Palestine where they were supported by the “Apiru” already living there. In may ways the so-called conquest can be better described as an “inside job.”  It was from the fusion of all these people that the tribal federation was formed. The twelve tribe union based on Jacob and his sons was probably legendary. The magnet drawing these diverse people together was Yahwism.

The Five Episodes of Exodus

1. The story of Moses (02:01 07:07).
2. The struggle between Moses (and Aaron) and the Pharaoh (07:08 10:29)
3. The tenth plague and the Passover (11:01 13:16).
4. The departure, the pursuit, and the crossing of the sea and the song of victory (13:17 15:1-21).
5. The giving of the law, the covenant and the cult (20-40).

The first fifteen chapters of Exodus form an inseparable unity that is the basis of Israel’s faith. For the people of Israel it is their most important historical and religious memory. The crossing of the sea and the song of victory have an epic quality to them. These five episodes are woven like a scarlet thread throughout the fabric of the Hebrew Scripture from the Pentateuch to the latest books, Daniel and Wisdom. It is summed up in a creedal form in Deuteronomy 26:05-09.

More about Moses

The order to kill all male children prepares the way for the story of Moses’ birth.  This story has been compared to other similar legends of certain heroes. In the Mesopotamian legend of Sargon, his mother puts the baby in a basket of rushes, sealed the lid with bitumen, and placed the basket in the river. It was taken out by Akki, a drawer of water, who raised Sargon as his own son. The boy became a great king. This could well be inspired by the customs of adoption in the ancient Near East.

Where Was Yahwism Born?

Moses fled Egypt after slaying the task-maker going to Midian where he stayed with a priest named Jethro. He married Zipporah, one of the priest’s seven daughters.  According to “E” the name of Yahweh was revealed to Moses in Midian (Exodus 03:13-15) and Jethro himself invoked the name of Yahweh at a sacrificial meal (Exodus 18:07-12). In the “J” tradition, Yahweh’s name was first used much earlier (Genesis 04:26b). This was probably an anachronism.

The name Yahweh can be interpreted not only as “I AM” but also as the “only existing one.” He was a mystery to his people and He transcended them, but at the same time, he was active in their history and Israel was bound to recognize him as their only God and savior. Yahweh was not a god like those of other cultures who manifested himself in the phenomena of nature taking place in the cycle of the seasons (like the fertility and vegetation gods), but in historical events directly under his control.

This definition given to Moses in the beginning of his mission resulted in his shaping the direction that the Israelite religion was to take. It also is reflected in the last book of Christian literature, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelations 01:08).

Was the Religion of Moses True Monotheism?

It is important to understand that in the ancient Near East the existence of divine beings was universally accepted without question. In the Exodus setting, in the Song of Victory (Exodus 15:11), we read “who is like to you among the gods, oh Yahweh.” When Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, meets Moses and hears of their miraculous delivery from slavery in Egypt, he cries out: “Now I know that the Lord is a deity great beyond any other.” The existence of other gods is not denied in the first commandment of the Decalogue. In fact, it presumes their existence and forbids the Israelites to worship them.

In Israel there is no clear cut denial of the existence of other gods than Yahweh before deuteron-Isaiah in the sixth century (Isaiah 44:06). The theology prior to this time denies that there is any god like Yahweh. He is unique and the Israelites are to worship no god but Yahweh. This is a radical departure from the cult patterns of the ancient Semitic world. Their neighbors believed that no god should demand exclusive worship to the point of excluding other gods. However early Israelite theology was not concerned with the issue of monotheism, but has as its purpose to treat other gods as inferior to Yahweh.

The Passover

The rite of herdsmen killing a newborn lamb in the spring when moving to new pastures and using its blood to drive away evil spirits may go back to the dawn of history. The pre-Islamic Arabs had a spring rite such as this to insure the fertility of their flocks. The Israelites may have wanted consent to celebrate their form of this ancient rite which went back to their nomadic days (Exodus 05:01) while in Egypt, which the pharaoh denied.

Is the Exodus event based on historical fact? In Exodus 04:23 it says that only the pharaoh’s son will die. This could be at the roots of the story and as it was passed down orally, it took its present written form centuries later. We also have the poetic version found in Psalm 78:43-51 and Psalm 105:28-38 with only seven plagues ending with emphasis upon the death of the firstborn. This theme takes on the qualities of a liturgical proclamation, “Thus says the Lord” (Exodus 11:04).

This rite is pastoral and required no priest, no altar, with the blood of the victim playing an important role. The meat was roasted and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the participants were to be garbed in traveling clothes with their shepherd crooks in hand. The blood was applied to the doorway of the tent or house.  “When I see the blood I will passover you” (Exodus 12:13).

This feast in its earliest form was celebrated in the family. During the temple era it was celebrated there. Today observant Jews celebrate the Seder meal in their homes. 

This ancient rite is inextricably woven into Eucharistic theology and is the reason why we do what we do at mass. Christ is our Passover lamb.

"Exodus, Israel’s Beginnings"
-" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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