Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel

Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel

by Nahum M. Sarna


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The book of Exodus records the pivotal events in the formation of biblical Israel—the deliverance from slavery, the leadership of Moses, the wilderness wanderings, and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Bible scholar Nahum Sarna, whose widely praised Understanding Genesis has become a standard text, examines and illuminates the distinctiveness of the Exodus narrative in light of ancient Near Eastern history and contemporaneous cultures—Egyptian, Assyrian, Canaanite, and Babylonian. In a new foreword to this edition, Sarna takes up the debate over whether the exodus from Egypt really happened, clarifying the arguments on both sides and drawing us back to the uniqueness and enduring significance of biblical text.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805210637
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/31/2000
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 391,627
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

NAHUM M. SARNA is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. Author of Understanding Genesis and On the Book of Psalms, he is an editor and translator of the Jewish Publication Society's translation of the Bible.

Read an Excerpt

Exodus I
The newly founded community of Israelites in Egypt prospered at first, and their numbers grew enormously in the course of the years. The divine promises to the patriarchs that their posterity would be numerous were amply fulfilled. The Israelites had become a “great nation.” As the text has it, they “were fertile and prolific, they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” The term “land” here most likely refers to the area of their settlement, the region of the eastern part of the Nile Delta, not to Egypt as a whole. This population explosion was perceived as a threat and a danger to the security of Egypt, and when a “new king,” most probably the founder of a new dynasty, took over the reins of power, the situation came to a head.
The Hyksos and their expulsion
If the conclusion reached in the preceding chapter about the date of the Exodus be correct, the development of events becomes intelligible, and the historical background can be plausibly reconstructed. For this we have to go back a few centuries to what is called by historians of Egypt the “Second Intermediate Period,” which lasted from the eighteenth to the sixteenth centuries B.C.E. This is the era of the Hyksos, the Asiatics who seized power and ruled Egypt for about a century and a half. The name itself means “Rulers of Foreign Lands,” and strictly applied only to the chiefs themselves, but it has long been given a more general application.
The Hyksos were not organized invaders. They were rather a conglomeration of ethnic groups, among whom Semites predominated, who infiltrated into the land over a long period of time in ever-increasing numbers, probably coming from Canaan. By ca. 1720 B.C.E. they were fully in control of the eastern Delta of the Nile and had established their capital at Avaris. From this base they expanded southward into Lower Egypt. By ca. 1674 B.C.E. a Hyksos king with the Semitic name Salitis had occupied Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt. The Hyksos constituted the XVth and XVIth Dynasties, adopting the style and bureaucratic institutions of the traditional pharaohs. Gradually, Semites replaced Egyptians in high administrative office. The rise of Joseph to power and the migration of the Hebrews fits in well with what is known of the era of Hyksos rule. The Second Intermediate Period in Egyptian history is marked by a strong Semitic presence.
The Hyksos never seemed to have dominated Upper Egypt, where a native family retained control of that part of the country. It comprised the XVIIth Dynasty and operated out of Thebes, situated some three hundred thirty miles (four hundred thirty kilometers) upstream from modern Cairo. This became the focus of opposition to the Hyksos. One of the last kings of this dynasty, Seqenen-re II, began to organize the resistance. From the state of his mummy, which showed that he died at about the age of forty from a series of horrible head wounds, and from the fact that he received the title “The Brave,” it has been assumed that he fell in battle with the Hyksos. The struggle was continued by his son. Kamose, who succeeded in driving the Hyksos out of Upper Egypt and in recovering Memphis. The final and victorious stage in the liberation of Egypt was accomplished by Amose, brother of Kamose. He inflicted a crushing defeat on the Hyksos by capturing their capital of Avaris and driving them back into Canaan. Amose (ca. 1552-1527 B.C.E.) founded the XVIIIth Dynasty of pharaohs, and inaugurated the New Kingdom, the period of the Egyptian Empire, in the course of which the country reached the height of its power and magnificence.
The Hyksos occupation was a shameful humiliation for the Egyptians that had a profound effect upon the national psychology. About one hundred years after the liquidation of Hyksos rule, Queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1480-1469 B.C.E.) had carved about the entrance to the rock-cut temple she built at Speos Artimedos, (Istabl Antar) in Middle Egypt, an inscription in which she recalled the ruination of the country caused by these Asiatics.
As late as ca. 300 B.C.E., Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote a history of his country in Greek, reports, according to the fragment cited by the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 38-100 C.E.), that the Hyksos “savagely burnt the cities, razed the temples of the gods to the ground, and treated the whole native population with the utmost cruelty, massacring some and carrying off the wives and children into slavery.”
Whether or not these sources truly reflect historic reality is uncertain, but they give expression to the sharp and lasting impact that the episode had on the popular mind. Henceforth, Egypt was acutely conscious of the perils lurking in the outside world. The danger of foreign invasion, especially from Asia via the eastern Delta, haunted her thereafter and could never again be smugly ignored or underestimated. The fact is that the Semitic population was not driven out of that region with the expulsion of the Hyksos rulers, and it continued to reside there during the XVIIIth and XIXth Dynasties.

Table of Contents



The uses of the Exodus theme; The title; The connection with Genesis; Structure and content; The historical background.

The Oppression
The Hyksos and their expulsion; The enslavement of the Israelites; Brickmaking; The midwives.

The Births and Youth of Moses
The birth of Moses; The motif of the abandoned hero; The role of women; The name "Moses"; Moses' upbringing; The Midianites; Jethro.

The Commissioning of Moses
The Burning Bush; The "God of the Father(s); "A land flowing with milk and honey"; The ethnic complexity; Moses' reluctance; The Divine Name; The elders; "Hebrews"; Worship the wilderness; Stripping the Egyptians; Signs and wonders; Moses' continued resistance.

The Ten Plagues
The hardening of the heart; Bricks without straw; Demoralization; Signs before the pharaoh;  The plagues; The literary form; Judgments on the gods of Egypt.

The Passover and the Exodus
The calendar; The paschal lamb and the unleavened bread; Leaven; Bitter herbs; The blood; The death of the firstborn; "Six hundred thousand men on foot."

From Egypt to Sinai
The route of the Exodus; The Yam Suf; The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire; The miracle at the sea; Manna and quails; The battle with the Amalekites; The organization of the judiciary.

The Ten Commandments; Moses and Monotheism
Preparations for the theophany; The atmospheric disturbances; The covenant concept; Near Eastern parallels; Israelite innovations; The prohibition against idolatry; The Sabbath; Moses and monotheism.

The Laws
The Book of the Covenant; The casuistic formulation; The ancient Near Eastern laws; The nature of the law collections; The nature of the Torah's collections of laws; The distinctive feature of Israelite law; Lex talonis, or "an eye for an eye"; Lex talonis in the Torah.

The Tabernacle and the Golden Calf 
The plan of the Tabernacle; The furniture; The historical reality; The divine instructions and the celestial images; The Tabernacle and Sinai; The all-Israelite emphasis; Gradations of holiness; God's omnipresence; God's unity and perfection; The tablets; The Ark; The cherubim; The Tabernacle, the Sabbath, and Creation; The Golden Calf.





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