Home Special Reports The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

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


Some of them are unique to one source, some are not, but ultimately, the claim is that these have all been merged, and have left us then with an overall total of ten. This may in fact be true. Nevertheless, as much as we like to engage sometimes in this kind of analysis about the sources that have gone into the composition of the text, it’s also always important to keep your eye on the final form of the text as we’ve received it.
Literary analysis that is sensitive to the larger contours of the account will reveal the artistic hand of the final editing. Some scholars have noticed that the plagues are organized in three sets of three. There are literary links that connect them and make it clear that these are three sets of three, followed by the climactic tenth plague and again, three and ten are ideal numbers in our biblical texts. Each set of three shares certain structural and literary features.
So, in each set, the first and second plague are forewarned, that’s what the FW is on the side, whereas the third plague is not. So a warning, a warning, and then a third plague; a warning, a warning, and then a third plague; a warning, a warning, and then a third plague. In each set, the first plague is accompanied by a notation of the time in the morning.
It’s also introduced by God’s speech, when God says, “Present yourself before Pharaoh,” and to do this in the morning. So, each of the first plagues in the sets of three is introduced this way. Now the second plague in each set of three is introduced with the divine instruction, “Go to Pharaoh.” The third plague in each set has no forewarning and no introduction.
So, this sort of structural repetition creates a crescendo that leads then to the final and most devastating plague, which is the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn sons. The slaughter may be understood as measure for measure punishment for the Egyptians’ earlier killing of Hebrew infants, but it’s represented in the biblical text as retaliation for Egypt’s treatment of Israel, and Israel is referred to as the firstborn son of Yahweh.
So, in Exodus 4:22, Yahweh tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my firstborn son. I have said to you, “Let my son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son.'” So, it’s seen as retaliation. In this last plague, God or his angel of death passes over Egypt at midnight, slaying every Egyptian firstborn male.
Moses orders each Israelite to perform a ritual action, and this action will protect them from the slaughter. The ritual consists of two parts. Each family is told to sacrifice a lamb. The lamb will then be eaten as a family meal, and its blood will be smeared on the doorposts to mark the house so the angel of death knows to pass over that house, and the pun works in Hebrew, as well as English, which is kind of handy.
In addition, each family is to eat unleavened bread. So according to Exodus, this Passover ritual was established on Israel’s last night of slavery while the angel of death passed over the dwellings that were marked with blood. The story attests to a phenomenon that’s long been observed by biblical commentators and scholars, and that is the Israelite historicization of pre-existing ritual practices.
In other words, what we probably have here are two older, separate, springtime rituals. One would be characteristic of semi-nomadic pastoralists: the sacrifice of the first lamb born in the spring to the deity in order to procure favor and continued blessing on the flocks for the spring. The other would be characteristic of agriculturalists: it would be an offering of the very first barley that would be harvested in the spring.
It would be quickly ground into flour and used before it even has time to ferment, so as to quickly offer something to the deity, again, to procure favor for the rest of the crop. It’s supposed by many that Israel was formed from the merger, or the merging of diverse groups, including farmers and shepherds in Canaan.
The rituals of these older groups were retained and then linked to the story of the enslavement and liberation of the Hebrews. So you have older nature festivals and observances that have been historicized. They’re associated now with events in the life of the new nation, rather than being grounded in the cycles of nature.
This may in fact be then part of the process of differentiation from the practices of Israel’s neighbors, who would have celebrated these springtime rituals. So now the blood of the sacrificial lamb is said to have protected the Hebrews from the angel of death, and the bread now is said to have been eaten, consumed in unleavened form, because the Hebrews left Egypt in such a hurry.
They had no time to allow the dough to rise. Historicization; and we’ll see this historicization of rituals recurring again and again. And following the last plague, Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to go into the desert to worship their God, but he quickly changes his mind, and he sends his infantry and his chariots in hot pursuit of the Israelites, and they soon find themselves trapped between the Egyptians and something referred to as Yam Suph, meaning Reed Sea. It isn’t the Red Sea.
That’s a mistranslation that occurred very, very early on, so it’s led to the notion that they were at the Gulf of Aqaba, or somewhere near the actual big ocean water. Some of the Israelites despair, and they want to surrender. “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?
Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying let us be, we will serve the Egyptians, for it’s better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses rallies them, and then in the moment of crisis, God intervenes on Israel’s behalf. Once again, source critics see in the account of the parting of the Reed Sea, in Exodus 14 and 15, three different versions of the event that have been interwoven.
I have to stress, though, that scholars differ very much on where the seams in the text are, what parts of the story belong to J, or E, or P, so you’ll read very, very different accounts. There’s some consensus, but a lot of disagreement. One thing that most people do in fact agree on is that the oldest account of the event is a poetic fragment that’s found in Exodus 15, verses one to 12, in particular.
This is often referred to as the Song of the Sea, and here the image is one of sinking and drowning in the Sea of Reeds. You have a wind that blasts from God’s nostrils, the waters stand straight like a wall, and at a second blast, the sea then covers the Egyptians, and they sink like a stone in the majestic waters.
The hymn doesn’t anywhere refer to people crossing over on dry land. It seems to depict a storm at sea, almost as if the Egyptians are in boats, and a big wind makes a giant wave, and another wind then makes it crash down on them. So they’re swamped by these roiling waters.
But the name Yam Suph, Reed Sea, implies a more marsh-like setting, rather than the open sea. John Collins, who is a professor at the Yale Divinity School, points out that this image particularly in poetic passages, this image of sinking in deep waters, occurs often in Hebrew poetry [Collins 2004, 115- 1190].
It occurs particularly in the book of Psalms, where it’s a metaphor for distress. In Psalm 69, the Psalmist asks God to save him, for “waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” [RSV; see note 1].
But a few verses later it’s clear that the poet isn’t really drowning: this is a metaphor for his difficult situation. “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.
Many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely.” So, Collins suggests that the poem in Exodus 15 is celebrating and preserving a historical memory of an escape from or a defeat of Pharaoh, and that the drowning image is used metaphorically, as it is elsewhere in Hebrew poetry to describe the Egyptians’ humiliation and defeat.
Later writers take this poetic image and fill out the allusion to drowning in this ancient song, and compose the prose accounts in Exodus 14, in which the metaphor is literalized. According to these prose accounts now, Pharaoh’s army was literally drowned in water. But even in the prose accounts in Exodus 14, we can see a composite of two intertwined versions.
In the material that’s usually associated with P, Moses is depicted as stretching out his staff, first to divide the waters, which stand like a wall so that the Israelites can cross over on dry land; and then, he holds out his staff to bring the waters crashing down on the Egyptians. But according to one little section – this is just verses 24 and 25 in Exodus 14; some attribute this to J – it seems that the Egyptians were stymied by their own chariots.
The image we get there is that the Israelites are working their way through the marsh on foot, and the Egyptians’ chariot wheels can’t make it through the marsh. They get stuck in the mud, and this forces them to give up the chase.
So, the final narrative that emerges from this long process of transmission: perhaps a core image of escape on foot, where chariots are bogged, a poem that describes the defeat in metaphorical terms using a drowning and sinking image, and then prose elaboration on these previous traditions that have a very dramatic element of the sea being parted and crashing down on the Egyptians.
A long process of transmission, interweaving, literary embellishment has gone into the creation of this account in Exodus 14 and 15. But the story as it stands reiterates a motif that we’ve seen before: that of the threatened destruction of God’s creation, or God’s people, by chaotic waters, and of divine salvation from that threat.
What’s interesting about the Song of the Sea, this poetic fragment in Exodus 15, is that here the Hebrews adopt the language of Canaanite myth and apply it to Yahweh. If you still have that sheet that was handed out before, listing different epithets for Baal, and listing epithets for Yahweh, it would be handy to have that, or to take a look at it later again, because the description of Yahweh is that of a storm god in Exodus 15.
He heaps up the waters with a blast of wind, like a storm at sea, and this is reminiscent of the Canaanite storm god Baal, as you see on your handout. Baal is said to ride on the clouds, he’s a storm god, and he’s accompanied by wind and rain.
At the beginning of the rainy season, Baal opens a slit, or makes a slit in the clouds, and thunders and shakes the Earth. In one important legend that we have from the Canaanite texts, the Ugaritic texts, he defeats an adversary who’s known as Prince Sea, or Judge River.
After he vanquishes this watery foe, he is acclaimed the king of the gods, and the king of men, and he is housed in a home, not a tent as El was. El was housed in a tent, but now this Baal is housed in a permanent structure, a home that is on top of a mountain, and is built of cedar.
Now, ancient Hebrew descriptions of Yahweh employ very similar language in the poetic passage here in Exodus 15, but also in other poetic passages.
So, for example, Psalm 68:5, “Extol him who rides the clouds, the Lord is his name,” Yahweh is his name. So “Extol him who rides the clouds, Yahweh is his name,” as if to say [Yahweh] not Baal. So Yahweh is described like Baal, as riding on the clouds.
Psalm 29 also employs the language of a storm god. “The voice of the Lord is over the waters. The God of glory thunders, the Lord, over the mighty waters.” Some scholars think this actually was originally a psalm about Baal that was simply adopted and referred to Yahweh.
Images of God engaged in a battle with some kind of watery foe also appear in the Psalms. Psalm 74: “O, God, my king from of old, who brings deliverance throughout the land; it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters;” and so on.
Judges 5 is also another ancient song fragment in verses four to five. It uses the same kind of imagery. Now, Michael Coogan, who’s a very important biblical scholar and an expert in the Canaanite texts, the Ugaritic materials, has made some intriguing observations in connection with the biblical representation of Yahweh in terms that are so reminiscent of the storm god, Baal [Coogan 2006, 101-3].
He notes that Baal was the key figure in a change, a change in the religion of Canaan, that happened somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE, and that is also the traditional time for what we think of as the Exodus and the introduction of Yahwism, or the differentiation of Yahwism.
At this time, somewhere in this period, there was a transfer of power in the Canaanite pantheon from the older gods to younger gods. The older god El, the sky god, was replaced by the younger storm god, Baal, and he was replaced by virtue of his defeat of Prince Sea, or whoever this watery foe is.
So El is replaced by Baal after a defeat of some watery foe. Coogan notes that about the same time, there seems to have been a similar change in many of the world’s traditions, or many of the traditions of the region.
We have a younger storm god who usurps power from an older god by virtue of a victory over a water god. Remember Enuma Elish, which we read at the very beginning of the part 1,2,3 and 4. We have the young storm god, Marduk, who defeats Tiamat, the watery ferocious deep monster, and does so by blasting a wind into her, and so establishes his claim to rule, instead of the old sky god, Anu. In India, the storm god Indra about this time assumes the place of a previous god, Dyaus.
In Greece, Zeus, who is associated with a storm, thunder, lightning bolts you think of in the hands of Zeus – he replaces Kronos, who had been the head of the pantheon. And so here in Exodus, we find that just as the nation of Israel is coming into existence, just as the Israelites are making the transition from a nomadic existence to a more settled way of life ultimately in their own land, there seems to be a collective memory of a similar change in her religion.
Like the storm gods in the myths of Israel’s neighbors, Yahweh heaps up the waters with a blast of wind. He wins a stunning victory, he establishes himself as the god of the Israelites in place of El, who was worshipped by Israel’s patriarchs, remember. And like the Canaanite god, Baal, Yahweh, as we will see as we continue to read the text, will eventually want a house for himself atop a mountain, Mount Zion, and it will be lined with cedar.
There are of course, important ways in which Israel’s use of the storm god motif diverges from that of other Ancient Near Eastern stories. The most important is that Yahweh’s battle is a historic battle, rather than a mythic battle. The sea is not Yahweh’s opponent, nor is Yahweh’s enemy another god. Yahweh is doing battle here with a human foe, the Egyptian pharaoh and his army.
The sea is a weapon deployed. It’s a weapon in the divine arsenal, and it’s deployed on behalf of Israel, but, again, Yahweh is depicted by the biblical writer as transcending nature, using forces of nature for a historical purpose, acting in history to deliver his people, and create a new nation, Israel. So just as in Genesis 1, the universe is created when the wind of God parts the primeval waters, so in Exodus 14 and 15, a new nation is created when the wind of God parts the waters of the Reed Sea.
But to describe what was understood to be a historic event, a one-time event, not a recurring mythical event, but a historic event, the ancient Israelites employed language and images drawn naturally from the traditions and myths of their broader cultural context, or I should say, traditions and myths, that were the cultural context in which they themselves existed, while at the same time differentiating themselves to some degree.
Now, as has long been noted, the Exodus event became the paradigm of God’s salvation of his people, and when I say salvation, I don’t mean that in the later Christian sense of personal salvation from sin. That’s a notion that’s anachronistically read back into the Hebrew Bible. It’s not there. Salvation in the Hebrew Bible does not refer to an individual’s deliverance from a sinful nature. This is not a concept we find in the Hebrew Bible.
It refers instead, to the concrete, collective, communal salvation from national suffering and oppression, particularly in the form of foreign rule or enslavement. When biblical writers speak of Yahweh as Israel’s redeemer and savior, they are referring to Yahweh’s physical deliverance of the nation from the hands of her foes.
We’re going to see this increasingly as we move to the prophetic material. So the exodus is a paradigm for salvation, but it would be a mistake, I think, to view the Exodus as the climax of the preceding narrative.
We’ve gotten to this point now: we had this big dramatic scene at the Reed Sea, but the physical redemption of the Israelites is not in fact the end of our story. It’s a dramatic way-station in a story that’s going to reach its climax in the covenant that will be concluded at Sinai, and as many sensitive readers of the Bible have noted, the road from Egypt leads not to the other side of the Reed Sea, but on to Sinai.
God’s redemption of the Israelites is a redemption for a purpose, a purpose that doesn’t become clear until we get to Sinai, for at Sinai the Israelites will become God’s people, bound by a covenant. And so the story continues. In the third month, after the Exodus, the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamp at the mountain where Moses was first called by God, the text says.
The covenant concluded at Sinai is referred to as the Mosaic covenant. So this is now our third covenant that we have encountered; we will have one more coming. And the Mosaic covenant differs radically from the Noahide and the Abrahamic or patriarchal covenants that we’ve already seen, because here God makes no promises beyond being the patron or protector of Israel; and also, in this covenant, he sets terms that require obedience to a variety of laws and commandments.
So, the Mosaic covenant is neither unilateral, this is now a bilateral covenant, [involving] mutual, reciprocal obligations – nor is it unconditional like the other two. It is conditional. So this is our first bilateral, conditional covenant. If Israel doesn’t fulfill her obligations by obeying God’s Torah, his instructions, and living in accordance with his will, as expressed in the laws and instructions, then God will not fulfill his obligation of protection and blessing towards Israel.
Now, the biblical scholar Jon Levenson, here, maintains that historical critical scholarship has been unkind to biblical Israel, because of a pervasive bias between the two main foci of the religion of ancient Israel [Levenson 1995, Introduction]. Those are (1) the Torah, or the law- understood as the law, not a great translation, but Torah, taken to mean the law on the one hand; and, (2) the temple on the other. He says that, on the one hand, negative stereotypes rooted in Paul’s condemnation of Mosaic law as a deadening curse from which belief in Jesus offers liberation – that account colors scholarly accounts of the giving of the Torah. On the other hand, a Protestant distaste for priest-centered cultic ritual colors scholarly accounts of the temple, and its meaning for ancient Israelites. These biases are so much embedded in our culture, he says, they permeate the work of even secular scholars of the Bible, so that a negative view of the law affects interpretation of the book of Exodus.
Scholars tend to place great emphasis on the deliverance from Egypt as the high point in the Exodus narrative, rather than the more natural literary climax, which is the conclusion of the covenant at Mount Sinai, and the delivery of the Torah. So Levenson, in his book Sinai and Zion, tries to correct this prejudicial treatment. He says he seeks to give the two central institutions of Torah on the one hand, and Temple on the other, a fair hearing.
So, in his book, Sinai and Zion, Levenson explores what he calls the two great mountain traditions that express these central concepts: the tradition of Mount Sinai, that’s where Israel received the Torah, and entered into this defining covenantal relationship with God – and then on the other hand, the tradition of Mount Zion.
Zion will be the future site of the nation’s holy temple in Jerusalem. Mount Zion is in Jerusalem, it’s the Temple Mount today where the El-Aqsa mosque now is. Today, we’ll consider Levenson’s analysis of the Sinai tradition as an entrée into the Israelite concept of the Torah, and the covenant bond, its meaning and its implications. Levenson stresses the importance of the covenant formulary.
There are Ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Sinai covenant of the Bible, especially Hittite treaties that date 1500 to 1200, or so; also Assyrian treaties in about the eighth century, but they are in many ways continuous with what you find in the Hittite treaties, treaties between a suzerain and vassal. Remember we talked about two types of treaties: suzerainty treaties and parity treaties. Parity treaties are between equals, but suzerainty treaties are between a suzerain, who has a position obviously of power and authority, and a vassal.
He details the following six elements, especially in the Hittite treaties. They’re not all found in every treaty, but they’re often enough found that we can speak of these six elements. First there is a preamble. That’s found in every one. The suzerain identifies himself. Second of all, there’s generally an account of the historical circumstances that are leading to the treaty: so some kind of historical prologue.
Then we usually have some sort of set of stipulations and requirements, upon the vassal generally. Fourth, there’s generally some arrangement, either for the publication of the treaty, or its deposition, its safe-keeping in some sort of shrine.
There is generally a concluding invocation of witnesses, usually the gods are invoked as witnesses to a binding oath, some kind of covenantal oath that brings the treaty into effect, and it’s witnessed by gods. Lastly, there will be very often a list of blessings for the party who obeys, and curses for the party that violates the pact. The curses are particularly emphasized in the Assyrian treaties.
Levenson then identifies many of these elements in Yahweh’s very first speech to Moses. Moses and the Israelites arrive at Sinai, in Exodus 19, and God says the following in verses 3b to 8: The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.
Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him.
All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord. So Levenson, who draws actually on long-standing work by other scholars, and earlier in the twentieth century even, Levenson finds several of the main elements of the Hittite suzerainty treaties in this speech.
So verse 4, “You’ve seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings,” is the historical prologue. That’s the reason that we’re in the situation we’re in now, and making this covenant. Verse 5 contains God’s stipulations. It’s a very general condition, “If you obey my laws.” Basically, keep my covenant, obey me faithfully, that’s the conditional.
That’s going to be filled out and articulated at great length in the subsequent chapters when all the laws they have to obey are spelled out. The second half of verse 5 and 6 gives the reward: God is conferring on the Israelites this elevated status of royalty, of priesthood; “You’ll be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” In verse 8, the people solemnly undertake to fulfill the terms of the covenant, so we have at least three of the steps that we find in the Hittite treaties, as well.