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The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

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According to the text, the Israelites have multiplied, they’ve filled the land of Goshen that had been given to them during Joseph’s tenure in office, and this new pharaoh who feared them. He didn’t know Joseph, he feared the foreign presence, he rose and he attempted to curb their growth. He pressed all of the adult males into slavery. The text says “harsh labor at mortar and brick,” but the text says, “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out,” so Pharaoh resorts to more drastic measures.
He decrees the murder of all newborn Israelite males at the hands of Egyptian midwives. He’s thwarted by these midwives. They say: Oh, these ladies are too quick; we get there too late, they’ve already given birth by the time we arrive. They allow the male infants to live. So the pharaoh enlists all of the people to annihilate the Israelites by drowning all newborn males in the Nile River. This leads then to the account of the birth of Moses, and his exposure to the Nile River. He is born into a Levite family.
The Levites will be priests in Israel, so he’s born to a priestly family. He’s hidden away for three months, and then he’s placed in a wicker basket, which is lined with bitumen, a tar, and set among the bulrushes at the edge of the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter will eventually discover him. His own mother will volunteer to be his nurse, and Pharaoh’s daughter will eventually adopt him and name his Moses: again, this is an Egyptian name. The etymology given in the biblical text is invented.
A lot of scholars have noted that this story is full of irony. The rescue of Moses, who will foil Pharaoh, is affected by the daughter of that pharaoh, and Moses grows up and is sheltered right in the pharaoh’s own palace. Further, the significance of Moses is hinted at through literary allusions in the narrative of his birth, his infancy.
The basket in which he is placed is called an ark: the Hebrew word is tevah. This word is used precisely twice in the entire Hebrew Bible. It’s not the same word that’s used for Ark of the Covenant, by the way: the Ark of the Covenant, the word is aron. This word for ark, tevah, occurs exactly twice: here, and in the story of Noah’s ark. Noah’s ark is a Tevah.
Scholars have always been quick to point out that in both cases, this ark, this tevah, is in the words of one scholar “the instrument of salvation through perilous waters” [Sarna 1986, 28], waters that threaten to capsize it, and so blot out God’s hopes and plans for his creatures.
Moreover, the basket is placed among the reeds, the Hebrew word for reeds is suph-and that’s a hint or an allusion to the fact that Moses will lead the Israelites through the “Reed Sea,” the Yam Suph. It’s not the Red Sea, it’s the Reed Sea, but we’ll talk about that later also.
This legendary birth story has important parallels in Ancient Near Eastern and other literature. It’s very common to find stories of the extraordinary events that surround the birth of someone who will later become great: Cyrus of Persia, Oedipus, Jesus, and so on.
Many scholars have pointed out that this story in particular is paralleled by the birth story of a great Akkadian king, Sargon, from about 2300 BCE, Sargon of Akkad. Strikingly similar story to Moses. [He’s] placed in a basket lined with tar, put in the river, and so on. It underscores the degree to which this story is part of a literary genre, part of a literary convention, how much the Exodus story itself is very much a literary story.
Nothing is said of Moses’ childhood, but we learn of his awareness of his Israelite identity, or his identification with the Hebrews, in the following passage: this is in Exodus 2:11-15: Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.
He turned this way and that, and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting, and so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us?
Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh.
He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well. So coming to the aid of an oppressed kinsman, Moses kills an Egyptian, and he has to flee to the territory of Midian. There at the well, again he acts to defend the defenseless.
This is a key to his character; these two episodes are the two that we’re given of Moses’ life. So continuing verses 16 and 17 in Exodus 2: “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.”
So again, this is a key to Moses’ character, aiding the defenseless. Moses will later marry Zipporah, one of these women, and live as a shepherd in Midian for about 40 years. Now, the situation of the Israelites in Egypt, the text says, remains bitter. Exodus 2:23-24: “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage, and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.”
One day in the wilderness at a place called Horeb, also Sinai, where there’s a mountain, Moses sees a flame in a bush that doesn’t consume the flame, and then he hears a voice. And the voice says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and Moses hides his face in fear, but God continues. He has a job for Moses: “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt, and have heeded their outcry because of the taskmaster; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.
I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me. Moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free my people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” [Exodus 3:7-10] Moses demurs: Who me? Why not my big brother Aaron, he’s a much better public speaker?
This is the line that he takes: I’m slow of tongue. But as we’ve already seen in Genesis, God chooses whom he chooses, and his reasons aren’t always fathomed. Moses says: May I say who sent me? He asks for God’s name. The Israelites will want to know who has sent me, and God replies with a sentence, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.”
This is a first-person sentence that can be translated, “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be,” or perhaps, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” We really don’t know, but it has something to do with “being.” So, he asks who God is, God says, “I am who am I am” or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” So, Moses, wisely enough, converts that into a third-person formula: okay, he will be who he will be, he is who he is, “Yahweh asher Yahweh.” God’s answer to the question of his name is this sentence, and Moses converts it from a first-person to a third-person sentence: he will be who he will be; he is who he is; he will cause to be, I think most people think now, what he will cause to be, and that sentence gets shortened to “Yahweh.”
This is the Bible’s explanation for the name Yahweh, and as the personal name of God, some have argued that the name Yahweh expresses the quality of being, an active, dynamic being. This God is one who brings things into being, whether it’s a cosmos from chaos, or now a new nation from a band of runaway slaves.
But it could well be that this is simply God’s way of not answering Moses’ question. We’ve seen how the Bible feels about revealing names, and the divine being who struggled and wrestled with Jacob sure didn’t want to give him his name. So I’ve often wondered if we’re to read this differently:
Who am I? I am who I am, and never you mind. There are certain important and unique features of this burning bush dialogue. First God identifies himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and as numerous commentators have pointed out, in so doing, the biblical writer is trying to establish an unbroken historic continuity between the present revelation to Moses, and the revelations and promises that are received by Israel’s forefathers, the patriarchs.
And yet, paradoxically, the very assertion of continuity only serves to underscore a fundamental discontinuity, because even as God asserts that he is the God of the patriarchs, he reveals to Moses a new name, Yahweh, so that Yahwism, and the Yahweh cult, can be said to begin only with Moses. Now, as we’ve seen, the biblical sources differ on this point.
According to the J source, in Genesis 4:26, the earliest humans worshiped Yahweh as Yahweh. The name was always known. J wants to assert a direct continuity between the God of the patriarchs, and the God of the Exodus. The P and E sources tell it a little differently. Exodus 6:2-4, a very important passage, is assigned to P, and here God says, “I am [Yahweh].
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name [Yahweh].” Now, this contradicts the J source, and many scholars have suggested that P and E preserve a memory of a time when Israel worshipped the Canaanite god, El. P and E wish to claim that the God who covenanted with the patriarchs is the God of the Exodus, but now with a new name.
They also, like J, want to assert a continuity, but in doing so, they do it in a way that really ultimately draws attention to the fundamental discontinuity, the sense of a new beginning. To understand that new beginning, we need to look at the differences between patriarchal religion, and the new Yahwism.
This list is based on information that’s supplied by many scholars. I’ve relied very much on Michael Coogan, but others as well. Look first at the sheet that gives you the titles of God, and you’ll see that in the patriarchal traditions so we’re talking about Genesis primarily; I’ve thrown in some other texts also, but focusing for a moment on the patriarchal traditions of Genesis – God is six times called El Shaddai.
Other names are El ‘Elyon, and El Olam, El Ro’i, El Beyt El. You can see the translations of these: the everlasting God, God most high, the God of seeing, the God of the house of God, and so on. El is the name of the chief God in the Canaanite pantheon. Flip over to the other side of your handout, where I discuss an important set of texts that were discovered at a place called Ras Shamra. Ras Shamra was ancient Ugarit.
In 1928, a peasant in Syria discovered a tomb at Ras Shamra, which was subsequently excavated by the French, and it was found to contain a library of tablets that were written in a language very, very close to biblical Hebrew.
It’s clear that Hebrew is simply a Canaanite dialect, in fact, I remember reading one scholar who said if you go back far enough, you’d be really hard pressed to tell the difference between Canaanite and Hebrew and in these texts, we read of the exploits of the gods of Canaanite religion.
These gods include the sky god, El, I’ve listed here, the father of the various gods and humans. El has a wife, Asherah: she’s listed third on your paper, a mother goddess; their daughter, Anat, who is a goddess of love and war. She’s quite fierce.
Then their son, Baal, who is a storm god. He’s depicted in mythological literature as defeating both the chaotic sea god, Yam, and the god of death, Mot. There are striking resemblances between the biblical gods of the Patriarchs and the Canaanite god El.
El is the head of a council of gods. He is said to have a long white beard. He dwells on a mountaintop in a tent. His epithets include “Father of all creatures,” “Bull,” “King.” He’s also described as the protector of patriarchs, patriarchal figures, “a God of the father of the clan,” it says in the text.
He guides them. He protects them. He promises them descendants. Many biblical passages depict God exactly this way, as the head of a council of divine beings. He’s occasionally described with some of the epithets that are associated with El.
He’s referred to as the father of all creatures. There are poetic passages in which he is referred to as “Bull.” Also, certainly as “King.” And in the patriarchal narratives, God refers to himself as the God of the Father. “I am the God of the father,” the same way El is referred to. He guides and protects the patriarchs. He makes promises of progeny to Abraham and his heirs. He also is associated with a mountaintop, Sinai, and gives instructions for the building of a tabernacle, a tent-like structure, in which he will dwell.
Many personal and place names in the patriarchal narratives are compounds in which one element is El. Israel, Ishmael, Beth-el. El is the God of the Patriarchs. By contrast, after the time of Moses, Israelite names start to be formed using Yah, or Yahu, as part of the name Yahweh: Elijah in Hebrew is Eliyahu.
So you start to have theophorics, names that use a name of a deity, which are using forms of Yahu instead of El. There are other descriptions in the Bible of God, which are much more reminiscent, however, of the storm god, Baal.
According to Canaanite mythology, Baal defeated El, and assumed his position at a certain point as the head of the Canaanite pantheon, so there was a switch in Canaanite mythology, from El to Baal becoming supreme. Like Baal, Yahweh is said to ride on the clouds: we have a poetic passage in which that’s the case.
His revelations are accompanied by thunderstorms, earthquakes: Baal is the god of the storm. There are poetic fragments also that allude to Yahweh’s victory over water foes, and that is a motif that’s associated with Baal, who does battle with the Yam, with the sea. And finally, also associated with Israel’s God, we have Ancient Near Eastern holy war traditions.
God is depicted as a warrior, who leads his host [he’s], the Lord of hosts in battle. He’s armed with spear and bow and arrows. The worship practices of ancient Israel and Judah clearly resemble what we know of Canaanite and Ancient Near Eastern worship practices.
Canaanite religious ritual took place in small temples that housed cultic statues. There were stone pillars, perhaps symbols of the gods, or memorials to the dead. There were altars for animal sacrifices, cereal, liquid sacrifices. Similarly, Israel’s gods, or Israel’s God, was worshiped at various high places: they’re referred to as elevated or high places.
They were shrines with little altars, maybe cultic pillars, and wooden poles: the word for a wooden pole that’s used in the Bible is asherah. These shrines may have been associated with some kind of contact with ancestors, some kind of cult of the dead.
Now, worship at these local altars and high places would come to be banned: Deuteronomy is going to polemicize against this. Deuteronomy will insist that all worship must occur in one central sanctuary and these outlying areas, and their asherot are to be destroyed. It will decree the destruction of all of these altars and high places.
The patriarchal stories are clearly not the work of the Deuteronomist, and these stories must have had very longstanding traditional authority if they were adopted without serious modification by the Deuteronomist redactor, but not serious.
So what is going on here? What are we to make of the incredible similarity of Israel’s deity and cult to those of her neighbors? How are we to understand the rise of Israel’s God, Israel’s religion? Well, so far we’ve had two models that have been thrown out to you: the kind of classic evolutionary model.
From polytheism’s worship of many gods there’s a natural evolution to henotheism’s elevation of one god to a supreme position. One comes to be favored and then eventually becomes so important, the others really fall away, and you have the denial of all gods but the one. We saw Kaufman in the 1930s reacted against this.
He argued that monotheism and polytheism are so radically distinct that one could not possibly have evolved from the other. Surely there’s an element of truth in both models. The evolutionary model is, I think, responding to, and picking up on, the fact that in many respects, Yahweh resembles the gods of Israel’s neighbors. To be blunt, the patriarchs seem to have worshiped the Canaanite God, El.
The problem with the evolutionary model is that it doesn’t account for those aspects of the biblical text that show a clear polemical relationship between Israel’s religion and that of her neighbors.
Now, we saw when we read Genesis 1, that there was something going on there, there’s a polemic going on. There are strata within the Bible that are clearly polemicizing against a certain kind of mythological presentation of the deity. By contrast, Kaufman’s revolutionary model focuses almost exclusively on the dissimilarities and the polemical relationship between Yahwism and Canaanite polytheism.
But the revolutionary model also fails because it doesn’t acknowledge the many, many areas of contact, similarity, and even identity. So a third way has emerged in the last 20 years, or 15 years or so, and it’s one that seeks to avoid this dichotomy between polytheism and monotheism. Instead of viewing Israelite religion as an evolution from and a refinement, just this natural process of refinement of Canaanite religion, or as a radical break with and polemic against Canaanite religion, we have some biblical scholars Mark S. Smith is among them, and Steven Geller, who examine the cultural and ideological negotiations that gave rise to Israelite monotheism.
What do I mean? Mark Smith specifically describes the origin and development of Israelite religion as a process of what he calls convergence and differentiation. He writes, “Convergence involved the coalescence of various deities, and/or some of their features into the figure of Yahweh” [Smith 2002, 7-8]. There’s a period of convergence and blending of the deities. By contrast, he describes differentiation as a process whereby Israel came to reject its Canaanite roots, and create a separate identity.
At some point there was a desire to separate, and in that process of identity formation, a polemic began to develop that created Yahweh in a distinct way, differentiated from the Canaanite deities. So let’s consider Smith’s convergence first. The Canaanite roots of Israel’s ancestors are clear.
The Hebrew language itself is essentially Canaanite, a Canaanite dialect. The Canaanite god El was, from the biblical text, the God of Israel’s earliest ancestors. Through a process of convergence, he argues: the God Yahweh was the god that we think originally came from a region further south, Sinai, Edom, somewhere further south but this god, through a process of convergence and cultural mixing, began to take on the characteristics of other deities, first El, and then Baal, or sort of simultaneously El and Baal.
Later, certain aspects of this convergence would be polemicized against, and rejected as a Yahweh-only party sought to differentiate itself from those that it would now label as other, and call Canaanites, as distinct from Israelites. Smith’s model of convergence and then differentiation, has great explanatory power.
It explains the deep similarity of Israel’s deity and the deities of her neighbors, but it also explains the vehement biblical polemic against Canaanite religion, and Baal worship in particular, which we will come to see. It reminds one of sibling rivalry.
Siblings who obviously share a tremendous amount, and can be extraordinarily similar are precisely the siblings who can struggle and wrestle the most to differentiate themselves from one another. Smith’s model of convergence and differentiation also avoids unhelpful dichotomies. Israel is either like or unlike her neighbours that’s not helpful. It helps us understand Israel’s God as the end product of familiar cultural processes, processes of convergence, we see convergences of cultures all the time and differentiation.
Differentiations of culture happen all the time as well. When and why, you may ask, did this differentiation occur? When and why did some Israelites adopt a Yahweh-only position, and seek to differentiate what they would call a pure Yahwism from the cult of Baal, for example?
The debate over that question is fierce, and it’s one we’re going to leave for another day. We will come back, as we continue moving through the biblical text, and we will address that question. But to sum up, it’s clear that the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are not strict Yahwists, as we will come to understand that term.
The P and the E sources preserve this insight; and they preserve it in their insistence that the Patriarchs worshiped God as El, but at the time of the Exodus, God revealed himself as Yahweh. There’s an interesting passage in the book of Joshua, Joshua 24:14-15. Joshua was the successor to Moses. He presents the Israelites with the following choice: “Now therefore revere the Lord,” using the word Yahweh, revere Yahweh, and serve him with undivided loyalty.
Put away the gods that your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt ” – put away the gods your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve Yahweh. Choose this day which ones you are going to serve, but I in my household will serve Yahweh,” serve the Lord.
Only later would a Yahweh-only party polemicize against and seek to suppress certain…what came to be seen as undesirable elements of Israelite-Judean religion, and these elements would be labeled Canaanite, as a part of a process of Israelite differentiation. But what appears in the Bible as a battle between Israelites, pure Yahwists, and Canaanites, pure polytheists, is indeed better understood as a civil war between Yahweh-only Israelites, and Israelites who are participating in the cult of their ancestors.
All biblical citations have been quoted from “Tanakh: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text.” Copyright (c) 1985 by The Jewish Publication Society. Single copies of the JPS biblical citations cited within the transcripts can be reproduced for personal and non-commercial uses only.
Sarna, Nahum. 1966. Understanding Genesis. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary.
Sarna, Nahum. 1986. Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books. Smith, Mark S. 2002. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Ex 5-24, 32; Skim Ex 25-40 (construction of the sanctuary) (2) Introduction to Leviticus (JSB pp. 203-206). Skim Lev 1-8 (sacrificial system), 11-17 (dietary laws and impurity system) (3) Introduction to Numbers (JSB pp. 281-284); Num 11-14, 16, 19-20, 25.
Now we shall start another aspect of the history of Palestine and Israel.
The Exodus from Egypt the Sinai: (Exodus 5-24, 32; Numbers).
In this section, I will trace the account of the Exodus (and the origin of the Passover festival as a historicization of older nature festivals) and Israel’s liberation from bondage under Pharaoh. The story reaches its climax with the covenant concluded between God and Israel through Moses at Sinai. Drawing heavily on the work of Jon Levenson, the lecture examines Ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Sinaitic covenant and describes the divine-human relationship (an intersection of law and love) that the covenant seeks to express.
So following the theophany at the burning bush, Moses returns to Egypt, and he initiates what will become ultimately a battle of wills between Pharaoh and God. The story in Exodus has high drama, and lots of folkloric elements, including this contest between Moses and Aaron on the one hand, and the magicians of Egypt on the other hand.
This kind of contest is a very common literary device. It’s a kind of “our boys are better than your boys” device. The Egyptian magicians who are initially able to mimic some of the plagues that are brought on by God they are quickly bested, and Yahweh’s defeat of the magicians is tantamount to the defeat of the gods of Egypt.
There are ten plagues. These include a pollution of the Nile, swarms of frogs, lice, insects, affliction of livestock, boils that afflict humans and animals, lightning and hail, locusts, total darkness, and all of this climaxes in the death of the firstborn males of Egypt in one night. And source critics looking at this material discern numerous, diverse sources that are interwoven throughout. These sources preserve different traditions on the number and the nature of the plagues, as well as the principal actors in the drama: God, Moses, Aaron. So according to the source critical analysis, no source contains ten plagues. J has eight and E has three, and P has five, and some of them are the same as one another, and some of them are different, and so on. The fable continues…