Therapy didn’t exist in the 6th century BCE, so the Jews exiled from their homeland by the Chaldean Empire had to deal with their issues in other ways, such as writing sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific origin stories for themselves that repurposed the mythology of their captors, combined it with a few shreds of ancient history, and used it as a framing device for their covenantal laws.
Before we get to the real meat of Exodus, which basically just develops and intensifies the themes already present in Genesis, we have to deal with the question of historicity. Did any of the events of Exodus really happen?
What, not a good enough answer?
Well, essentially (and like Genesis) much of Exodus is drawn from ancient Mesopotamian mythology (see: Sargon being placed as an infant in a basket on the river; Hammurabi’s Code). Combine that with the fact that it was most likely written six or seven hundred years after the events it purports to describe, and the truly damning fact that there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever to support its historicity, and the case becomes insurmountable.
There is a theory about a kernel of history behind the events depicted in Exodus, however, that’s just too interesting not to share, and if true would have serious implications for all of Israel’s history. It is discussed in the link above, but here’s a short, clarified version, with some more speculative elements removed:
The Hyksos were a Semitic people that occupied much of Egypt, especially in the north, around the 17th century BCE. They warred with the Egyptians for about a century before being defeated by the 18th dynasty.
Basically, the theory goes that remnants of the Hyksos lived in Egypt as slaves (or impoverished laborers) until the rise of Atenism under Akhenaten. Atenism is an excellent contender for the title of “the first monotheistic religion ever” and some historians have suggested that Moses may have been a Hyksos descendant and Aten-worshiper who fled Egypt when Atenism fell into disfavor upon Akhenaten’s death. This would suggest that Judaism has its origins in Egypt with the cult of Aten!
Now, as I stressed earlier, there is no archaeological evidence at all to support this theory, as interesting as it is. Unless new evidence arises, it must be confined to speculation.
With respect to Jewish readers who may have a different take on this, I’m completely unbothered by the fact that the Exodus never really happened, or the fact that Moses was most likely not a real person. The point of the story, continuing from Genesis, is that God will remain faithful to His people no matter the hardships they face, or even if they should stray.
To make matters worse, Aaron, Moses’s brother and viceroy, immediately accedes to their request and then lies about it later, and ends up facing no consequences. This Aaron is held up as the standard all priests should aspire to, so his baffling incompetence here is a little surprising.
In any case, God decides to slaughter everyone, as He is wont to do, and start over with Moses. Moses, bless his heart, intercedes, and makes the great point that if God does that, the Egyptians would be vindicated after all. He also reminds God (isn’t it curious that God tends to forget things like this on occasion?) of the covenant He had made with Abraham.
God changes His mind (again, it’s strange that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being can change its mind, but whatever, I’ll roll with it) and spares (most of) the Israelites, and after a couple super-long, supremely boring sections on carpentry, we come to the end.
Ultimately the Exodus is a beautiful, if somewhat redundant, origin story for the Jewish people. It also serves to introduce the Jewish legal system in a brief and illuminating passage beginning at 20:1 with the Ten Commandments and ending abruptly and humorously with the very random “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” in 23:19, which is the reason my friend Amanda never got to try my cousin’s veal tortellini in cream sauce.
I remarked to Amanda (who is a Messianic Jew) that many of the laws were concerned less with “not being a bad person” and more with “actively being kind and doing good to others” such as “You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing” (23:2) or “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back” (23:4). She introduced me to the rabbinical concept of “tikkun olam” which in modern thought means, essentially, that Jews should be concerned with the well-being not just of themselves or their community, but the world at large.
Of course, there are other laws that are horrifying (“If [a slave’s] master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and [the slave] shall go out alone” (21: 4)) or downright hilarious (“You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live” 22:18; why only female sorcerers?), but hey, if we held all of these people up to our modern moral standards, we’d have to throw almost the entire Bible out. You’ve got to take the good with the bad; that’s something I think the ancient Priestly and Yahwist writers living through or after the Babylonian Captivity would’ve agreed with.
Next week: Leviticus. God help me.