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Story of a People
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
PART ONE THE DESERT
The desert was cruel and hard and dry, and these were the people of the desert. They were herdsmen; their wealth was in sheep and goats and they moved often, from one sparse pasture to another, from one water hole to another. Their community was tribal, and their chief was the patriarch of the tribe, the ruler absolute, the dispenser of justice and lord of life and death. He had many wives—possibly the right to sleep with any woman in the tribe who was unmarried and make her pregnant. His power was very great but it was limited by three harsh adversaries: poverty, hardship, and hunger.
The size of each tribe varied, perhaps from a minimum of a hundred to a maximum of a thousand. Hardly ever more than a thousand, for the water holes have not changed much in the three and a half thousand years since then, and we know that if a tribe increased to over a thousand, neither water nor pasture would support it.
The tribesmen lived in tents. They wove cloth from the wool of their beasts and worked leather from the skins. They worked copper into weapons, and when they were fortunate enough to trade their wool or cheese for some of the rare and precious tin, they made tools out of bronze. As yet they knew no iron, and their progress from place to place was on foot.
Their range of wandering and grazing was about three hundred miles in length from south to northeast in a ribbon fifty or sixty miles wide, from the southern part of the Sinai peninsula through the Negeb, and then in a sort of crescent through the area known as Jordan today. This is not to imply that all the tribes grazed over the entire area. Most likely, each tribe had grazing rights in a limited area. If the grass and water were good, then the particular tribe would cling to their place; but since the grass and water were like as not less than good, the tribe would look for a better place, and since another tribe had the better place, it meant war and bloodshed.
Life was hard, demanding, and bitter; but the air was clean and the night sky was filled with the presence of the universe, and herdsmen have time to contemplate and dream.
Three and a half thousand years ago, there must have been hundreds of these tribes in the vast desert that stretched from the Red Sea to the Syrian highlands. Since it would have been difficult if not impossible for a band of herdsmen to exist alone, the tribes were linked into loose confederations, binding themselves to a common if distant ancestor, and a common history-mythology, often a wonderful quilt of stories, transmitted verbally from generation to generation.
The confederated tribes would call themselves the children of the common ancestor, but this was merely a generic means of identification, which the desert herdsmen used for any and all nations. Our own interest is focused upon a singular group of tribes who called themselves the Children of Israel, or in their own tongue, the Beni-Yisrael.
* * *
Exactly how many of these Children of Israel tribes—how many minor clans and gens and subfamilies—there were, we do not know. Records centuries later talk of the twelve tribes of Israel, but 12 was a magic number, a symbol-number, and even if we do a simple count out of the Bible, we come up with fourteen—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Gad, Naphtali, Asher, Joseph, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. This was reduced to twelve by eliminating the "Joseph" designation entirely, and then taking the two so-called Joseph tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, and counting them as half-tribes. Possibly there were a number of other "Joseph tribes" that history and the Bible forgot, and possibly the Amo-rites, another grouping of desert tribes, were so closely connected with the Beni-Yisrael, that there was a shifting back and forth.
Certainly, the Midianite tribal grouping, whose livestock grazed over the wild and sparse badlands of southern Sinai, were intimately connected with the Israelites, for out of their tribe of Ken came Moses' bloodline if not Moses himself. And since the Kenites were unquestionably absorbed into the Israel grouping, we have fifteen tribes.
Some hold that Abraham, the ultimate ancestor in the strange and beautiful mythology of these desert tribesmen, was an Amorite, since the Amorites told the same wonderful stories of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but the mythology was shared by the Midianites, and possibly even by the fierce Amalekites, who were a common enemy of the Beni-Yisrael.
All we know of these tribes with any degree of certainty is that generation after generation they shared alike the bitter desert existence, squabbling among themselves, fighting each other on occasion, wandering in the wilderness—not just for forty years but for hundreds and hundreds of years—and always with a window open to gaze upon milk and honey. For always within sight of their own dry rock and sand were the pastures of Eden, the green meadows of the Jordan Valley; the lush pasturelands of the Nile Delta; the fig trees and the date palms, the golden fields of wheat and barley, the fat milk-cows, the great, snow-topped peaks of the Lebanon Range; the cedar-topped mountains of Galilee.
How their mouths watered, how their hands shook with frustration, how their women wept in hunger and thirst when they looked upon these riches! The riches were there, but not for the taking; the riches were well guarded indeed, by mighty walled cities, by disciplined armies of thousands of mail-clad spearmen and bowmen, by brazen power beyond the wildest dreams of these desert herdsmen.
As for the Canaanites, the well-fed, well-dressed, well-protected, cultured, and civilized people who were so secure behind the mighty walls of their cities—they strolled upon the ramparts, shaded themselves against the hot sun with parasols, gazed at the distant desert, saw the black tents of the wanderers, and made a name for them, a word, a designation: They called them the "Hebrews," or in the language of the time and place, the Ivrim, which means "those who come from the other side of the river."
Periodically, when thirst and hunger drove the Beni-Yisrael to desperation, they crossed the Jordan River or moved up out of Sinai and matched their bronze-tipped spears and copper knives against the disciplined ranks of armored soldiers; and on those rare occasions when desperate courage carried the day, they were halted by the stone walls.
And again, weakened, half-dead of thirst and hunger, they put their courage aside and pleaded for help—and sometimes their plea was granted. At times when the king of Egypt was moved either by need for slave labor or by other needs, he would allow the herdsmen to bring their stock into the Nile Delta; and again, possibly in exchange for women, this or that petty Palestinian king would give them water rights and grazing privileges.
Since these moments of desperation recurred again and again throughout their history, references to them were woven into the Beni-Yisrael's mythology. All over the land of milk and honey there were places that their ancestors, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, had touched or rested on; caves where their dead lay; stone altars they had built for worship. Though the land was forbidden, they were not strangers to it.
After endless years of grazing upon paradise and enduring for the most part the barrenness of the desert, three changes took place, channeling the lives of these herdsmen—shepherds, creatures of the range—in a different direction.
First, iron reached them, coming from the west, from a people called the Hittites who had learned that a man with an iron sword and iron helmet is not to be faced or halted by a man armed with copper and bronze.
Second, the horse appeared. The Beni-Yisrael were drovers; shepherds who trudged slowly, painfully, endlessly across the burning badlands; who hid themselves in the shade of the arroyos from the murderous noonday sun; who gazed across the stony wasteland of the Negeb and Sinai and Jordan with hopeless resignation, for in the desert the man on foot is at best a gambler with a lucky throw and at worst a sojourner in hell.
We are not sure where the Children of Israel first found horses; most likely the horse entered their lives with the chariot—the two together, an incredible invention of man that was to change not only ancient warfare but the whole ancient way of life. Some hold that the Hittites brought the chariot with the iron sword, while others suspect that the chariot came from Crete or Greece, across the sea to Egypt, and from Egypt into Palestine. However it was, the chariot appeared in the whole eastern Mediterranean basin at more or less the same time, about twelve hundred years before our era.
The iron sword and the horse and chariot were the great equalizers; they catapulted the herdsman into history. Desert-parched, bitter with longing, the foot-bound wanderer of the desert and the badlands was suddenly mobile, just as the Plains Indian who captured the first wild Spanish horse became mobile. In one day, the herdsmen could cross an area that took three days on foot. Before his wild horses and bronze-clad chariot, the once-disciplined foot soldiers broke and fled. The great walled cities could resist him, but the fertile valleys in which they stood were his for the taking. The pent-up longing of the Bedouin Beni-Yisrael exploded into motion. The patriarchs were replaced by war chiefs; they stood in their chariots with brazen helmets and colored feathers and they swept under the walls of the cities and hurled their nine-foot spears in defiance. They cut out their footholds, first on the east bank of the Jordan River, and then across the river and into Palestine proper.
Fierce, wild, merciless, their war manners embroidered with the totemic gods they worshipped—the bull, the unicorn, the snake, and the lion—they terrorized the more or less cultured Palestinians. These people, the Canaanites of Palestine, closed the gates of their cities, and sent messengers to their great protector, the king of Egypt, pleading for help. "The Hebrews, the barbarians from the desert, from across the river, are upon us. Help us."
But the king of Egypt had his own problems—barbarians with chariots and iron swords cutting into his own land.
Thus two of the changes, the iron sword and the horse—and then a third, a man called Moses.
* * *
Without Moses, the Jews are unthinkable, unimaginable; and here I talk of Jews specifically, in both the historical and contemporary sense. Not the Children of Israel—the Beni-Yisrael—not the desert tribesmen, not the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age barbarians who swept into Palestine from the desert and overwhelmed the Canaanites; they were not the instrument of Moses and neither was Moses their instrument. His instrument was the Jew, and in due course this will be explained. Moses was the Jew. He stepped into history as the Jew, and so the Jew stepped into history, and became so much a part of it.
In all of history, there' is no one quite like Moses, no other man who put this kind of stamp on a handful of people, and in a sense gave them to eternity. He looms through the ages as a giant, not only as a man but as a force and as a memory.
For over a hundred years now, critical scholars in the field of the Old Testament have played a game which might be entitled "Who was Moses, if—" or conversely, "Who wasn't Moses, if—" But all of them, apparently, appear to have overlooked a very important fact: that two thousand years ago, in the time of Philo—a wise and learned Jew of Alexandria—there were also critical scholars of the Old Testament; yet neither Philo nor any of his contemporaries doubted the existence of Moses. The likely reason for this is that in the great libraries of Egypt, particularly the one in Alexandria, there was ample material on Moses. Subsequently, all libraries were destroyed, just as every Jewish library in Jerusalem was destroyed. So while we have references to books about Moses, the actual books no longer exist. When books must be inscribed by hand on parchment, both the number of copies and the availability are limited. Jews, as the interested party, felt no need to document the existence of Moses; their own existence was proof sufficient of his.
Yet the plain fact of the matter is that we do not know who Moses was in terms of his origin. Few scholars still question the fact that his name is Egyptian, and that the mode of the name is either of the aristocracy or of the royal house. Moysha is the Hebrew pronunciation, and in Egyptian this means "a child is given." Still, Moysha is only half a name; the other half was usually the name of the god who gave the child—the method of naming reaching back to the time when Egyptians believed that gods fathered favored children. Thus Ramses, the Egyptian king of the time of Moses, was properly called Ra-Moysha, or "Ra [the sun god] has given a child." So with other royal names.
Then was Moses actually of the Egyptian royal house, as the Bible specifies? Was he plucked from the water by the king's daughter? Was he a cast-off child of the Levites? Or was he a Kenite, as were his wife and her people—which would make him a Midianite? Was he in all truth a great lord of the Egyptian foot soldiers and chariots? (This last is a rabbinical legend, yet the rabbis of two thousand years ago did not spin their legends from thin air.) Did he marry a princess of Ethiopia, or of Kush, and if he did, where was the Land of Rush?
Was he indeed, as the ancient Greek-Egyptian historian Manetho wrote, a despised upstart who led the "lepers" out of Egypt at the command of the Egyptian gods? This last claim is filled with interest and excitement. But the word leper is a mistranslation. The meaning of Manetho's label was "unclean," a leper being one who is deemed unclean in the physical sense; Manetho's use of it, applied to those Moses led, was in the religious sense, unclean, ritually defiled.
Then whom did Moses lead out of Egypt? Who were these people? What had they done to offend the gods of Egypt? Why were they unclean? Were they the Levites? And who were the Levites, that curious tribe of the Beni-Yisrael who received no land in conquered Palestine for their lot, but only the right of priesthood? And why did the Levites alone, among all the tribes, have Egyptian names, such names as Merari, Meriam, Assir, Putiel, Phinehas, Hophni, Pashur, Hur?
As of today, there are no answers to these questions. We know only this, that sometime in the thirteenth century before our era, probably during the long reign of Ramses II, a man called Moses led his followers out of Egypt. This happened concurrently with the transition of the Beni-Yisrael into chariot men and iron sword bearers. While Moses led his people out of Egypt, hundreds of miles away the desert herdsmen were swarming into Palestine.
* * *
Ramses II, the Pharaoh of the exodus, was a great builder. His father began and he completed the sprawling palace on the bank of the River Nile that the Egyptians called "The Great House," or in their own language, pharaoh. In time the kings of Egypt, being inseparable from this great house, took on its name and thus became the Pharaohs.
Ramses' lust for stone, size, and rock-ribbed immortality knew no limits. He built that giant statue of himself in the desert that Shelley describes in "Ozymandias." He built walled cities, colonnaded temples, and even islands in the Nile. He carved tombs out of the red rock of the Nile escarpment; until he was well into his eighties, he built with fury, frenzy, and unremitting compulsion.
And out of this compulsion to build came his insatiable need for labor. Never before had a king of Egypt employed the number of slaves that worked on the projects of Ramses II. He had agents in every slave market in the Near East; he sent expeditions into the highlands of what is today's Ethiopia to find him slaves; he instituted savage indebtedness laws to force his own people into slavery; and he enslaved many tribes that lived on the fringes of fertile Egypt, the seagoing fisherman tribes of the North African coast, the nomads of North Africa—when they were pressed by hunger and thirst, they came to the Nile for water and to, the Egyptian markets for fodder—and the nomads of Sinai who were allowed on occasion to graze their flocks in parts of the Delta.
So we have a historical background for that admonition that echoes and re-echoes through Jewish history: "—lest you forget that once you were slaves in Egypt." We are fairly certain the king who enslaved them was Ramses II. His reign was long enough to span the time the Bible tells of, and in that time he fathered dozens of children. There were enough royal progeny out of his loins to account for a Moses born to one of his wives or to allow for a Moses plucked from the rushes. There was constant war during his reign, so the rabbinical legends of the soldier Moses may have a basis in fact; and there was a tribe or a group or a cult of people called "Levites," whom this same Moses led out of Egypt.
Excerpted from The Jews by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1968 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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