As we move into Exodus, time passes suddenly. We move away from the individual novella of Joseph to several hundred years later, just as we often do in the Book of Mormon. Just how long, we don’t actually know. Depending on how one calculates or what part of the Bible one reads, it could be 430 years, 400 years, 4 “generations” (whatever that might mean) or much less time; Moses is the great-grandson of Levi, for example. The problem is that the Bible itself isn’t entirely consistent on this point.
The readings today presuppose that enough time has passed for Joseph’s 70 relatives who came down to Egypt to grow large enough to be a threat, and this is the catalyst for these chapters. The anonymous Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” enslaves his descendants and puts them to work. Only a charismatic and spiritually powerful prophet with ties to both Egypt and Israel is able to deliver them.
The new pharaoh who came into power (1:8) apparently did not “know” Joseph, which may mean that he was either wholly ignorant of his own nation’s history, or (more likely) that he simply chose to act in ignorance of Joseph’s wise counsel and how the Egyptians had benefited from it (Gen. 41). Verse 8 is also a striking example of a characteristic not only of Exodus in general but of many portions of biblical narrative: The writer does not provide a full, detailed account of what he is reporting.- Enns, Exodus
The way Israelites (and Jews today) have come to look at the Exodus story is analogous in some ways to Mormons and Joseph Smith’s First Vision. That is, we assume today’s common understanding and usage of the story is identical to the way it was in the 1820s and 30s. The first vision was told several times, with details that vary somewhat. This is somewhat problematic, but not terribly so, and has long been known and discussed in the Ensign (one example) and lds.org (with links to original documents at the Joseph Smith Papers Project) and elsewhere.
“Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between the canonical  account, and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith’s own hand in 1832… Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer or historian would expect to find contradictions in competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event. And despite the contradictions, key elements abide.” Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, 171.
The first vision accounts reflect human memory, audience, and oral retellings, just as the details in Exodus 15 (an older poetic retelling) differ from those in the prose around it. Today we look to the first vision as the fundamental beginning of the LDS Church and Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet. Missionaries tell it early and frequently, and it often becomes a sticking point of black-and-white on which everything hinges. While Joseph Smith’s understanding of the first vision shifted from being largely personal to having much broader scope, he nevertheless didn’t conceive of it as the beginning of the Church or his own calling. The vision itself gave him “no sense of mission, no emerging prophetic identity” (Rough Stone Rolling, 43). Early missionaries didn’t refer to it. By contrast, “If Joseph initially understood the first vision as his conversion, similar to thousands of other evangelical conversions, this vision [of Moroni in 1823] wrenched Joseph out of any ordinary track.” (Ibid. 44). Indeed, he looked back on Moroni’s first visitation, description of the Book of Mormon and the work he was to do as the beginning of his calling and the restoration, not our now-capitalized First Vision.
There is less than two-hundred years time between the first vision and now, and we have very close primary sources, but the significance our tradition attaches to it today differs from its early day.
What, then, should we understand of the oral transmission over hundreds of years of a miraculous account that becomes foundational for Israelite theology and identity? When read closely and carefully, much in these Exodus chapters is a challenge. Numbers don’t add up, the history doesn’t quite match or is ambiguous, etc. What can we say, then, about history here?
First, Richard Clifford, a Catholic priest and Harvard PhD in Old Testament, expresses the truism here that “there is no single principle of interpretation that covers all cases of disputed historicity. What one says about Adam and Eve or the flood does not necessarily apply to the Abraham stories, the exodus plagues, the miracles of Jesus or the resurrection. Consequently, one need not fear a domino effect.” I make a similar argument about historicity, Jonah, and the Book of Mormon here.
Second, without going into deep and long arguments, the likely source of our Exodus text is oral tradition, which preserves the past while also shaping and expanding it. Like Genesis, Exodus is largely written in good Hebrew of the 9-6th centuries BC, centuries after the events it depicts. Exodus 15, a poem recounting the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, is actually older and written in archaic Hebrew. It is likely that this poem predates the prose narrative, and may even serve as a source of the written prose. As I recall, Baruch Halpern argues that Exodus 15 shows evidence of eyewitness testimony, captured in poetry.
My take is that something like the Exodus happened, but probably in much much smaller numbers than depicted, and not as dramatic. This is not because I reject miracles or lack faith, but because of my understanding of the nature of the text, historical context, and close reading. In any case, if you’d like to get a good dsummary of the arguments, I recommend picking up Shanks, ed. Ancient Israel, which is a balanced introductory history among those I recommend. (And we’re getting into parts of the Bible that reading history can really help us understand.)
Let’s focus on Moses, who, after being raised royally in some regard, eventually comes to identify with his own people and kills an overseer beating an Israelite. Commentators are split on whether the episode casts Moses in a positive light (deliverer, wakening egalitarianism) or a negative light (impulsive, disregard for law, secrecy).
Others view the encounter with the Egyptian simply as a plot point, a device necessary for getting Moses out of Egypt and into the desert, where he meets Jethro/Reuel/Hobab his father-in-law.
I wrote a paper my first year of grad school that my advisor thought had potential. I never developed it further, but the main idea is that this episode constitutes literary foreshadow. Moses stands in for God, and the Egyptian stands in for Egypt and/or Pharaoh.
- Moses sees the Egyptians smiting a Hebrew; Yahweh sees Egypt smiting Israel.
- Moses kills the Egyptian; Yahweh kills Egypt.
- Moses buries the Egyptian under sand; Yahweh buries the army under water.
- In spite of deliverance, the Hebrews resent Moses. In spite of deliverance, Israelites rebel against Yahweh in the wilderness.
- Lastly, they ask Moses “who made you a prince and a ruler over us?” (Exo 2:14) As it turns out, God does. Moses is named as a judge and appoints “princes” in Exodus 18:13 and 21.
That’s my take on that short episode.
As for the name Moses, it is not a Hebrew name, though a folk etymology is put in the mouth of the Egyptian princess who names him. (Why Egyptian royalty would know the language of slaves is not explained.)
She named him Moses (Heb. mosheh), “because,” she said, “I drew him [Heb. mashati] out of the water.” (Exo 2:10)
Moses is a shortened Egyptian name that we’ve seen elsewhere, in fact, as Ahmose, Kamose,Tuthmose, and Ramses, all well-known Egyptian kings.The word msh means “son” or “begotten by” and was usually accompanied by the name of an Egyptian deity. Ramses means “begotten by Ra” and Moses would have had a similar divine name attached.
- Pyramids– Our word “pyramid” is of Greek origin, meaning something like “grain pile.” The Greeks apparently called them “pyramids” either because they resembled heaps of grain or in the mistaken belief that they functioned as granaries. While the great pyramids at Giza that are not the only Egyptian pyramids, they are the ones we tend to imagine. They were not really built by slaves, Israelite or not. How do we know? First, the Biblical text depicts the Israelites making mud-bricks, but the pyramids are constructed out of stone. Second, that stone is finely carved and engineered. Slave labor may have moved it into place, but skilled labor was required to carve, cut, design, and place. Lastly, the pyramids at Giza predate any potential dating of the Exodus by 1000 years. The last one was finished around 2500 BC, far before any dating of the Exodus.
- Hyksos- Egypt has been ruled by different groups at different times, though all tended to adopt Egyptian language and culture. One of these groups consisted of “Asiatics” who apparently came from Canaan, and established a capital at Avaris. They ruled Egypt in the 15th Dynasty, from c. 1650-1550 BC. They were eventually kicked out by “native” Egyptians, and driven back to Canaan. While this has some obvious affinities with the Joseph story, it is the opposite of Exodus. The Israelites weren’t driven out like the Hyksos, they fled. Nevertheless, it’s possible the Joseph story and Exodus reflect a memory of the Hyksos. If you want to get into this and other such history, here’s an article by Bible scholar Baruch Halpern (25 pages).
- Moses and Sargon- A young boy whose life is threatened is placed in a basket and set in a river, but he ends up growing into a great ruler of the land. Moses? No, it’s actually the story of Sargon, a Mesopotamian king.
The Legend of Sargon tells of his rise to power around 2300 B.C. The story may have been written well after Sargon’s lifetime, though it is nearly impossible to arrive at a precise date for the composition of the text. It begins
Sargon, strong king, king of Agade (Akkad), am I.
My mother was a high priestess, my father I do not know.
My paternal kin inhabit the mountain region.
My city of birth is Azupiranu, which lies on the bank of the Euphrates.
My mother, a high priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She placed me in a reed basket, with bitumen she caulked my hatch.
She abandoned me to the river from which I could not escape.
The river carried me along; to Aqqi, the water drawer, it brought me.
Aqqi, the water drawer, when immersing his bucket lifted me up.
Aqqi, the water drawer, raised me as his adopted son.
Like Moses’ mother, Sargon’s mother places her baby in a reed basket, seals it, and sets it adrift on a river. Like Moses, Sargon is then taken from the water by the one who eventually adopts him. Determining the relationship between such accounts is not an easy problem to solve. Could the authors of some of these stories have borrowed the idea from others? Possibly. There is evidence, however, to suggest that it was not uncommon for a child to be abandoned…. While the Moses narrative likely does not depend on the Sargon legend, it may well be that the biblical story attempts to describe the events in Moses’ life in such a way that an astute reader in the ancient world would recognize the “abandoned child” theme and foresee that great achievements are in store for this lonely infant afloat on the river.- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary.
- Pharaoh– Pharaoh means “the big house,” referring to the king by metonymy, a figure of speech substituting an associated noun for the actual noun. When “Pharaoh” says this or does that, we should understand it to be analogous to “Today the White House said…” Whether the Hebrew authors understood that metonymy is another question.
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