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Ancient Jewish History: Egypt and the Wanderings

(c. 1500 - 1250 BCE)

The Children of Israel in Egypt

However dim and uncertain Hebrew history is in the age of the patriarchs, there is no question that the migration out of Egypt around 1250 BC is the single most important event in Hebrew history. More than anything else in history, this event gave the Hebrews an identity, a nation, a founder, and a name, used for the first time in the very first line of Exodus, the biblical account of the migration: "bene yisrael," "the children of Israel."

How did this happen? How did this diverse set of tribal groups all worshipping a god they called "god," suddenly cohere into a more or less unified national group? What happened in Egypt that didn't happen with other foreigners living there?

Well, we really can't answer that question, for we have almost no account whatsoever of the Hebrews in Egypt, even in Hebrew history. For all the momentousness of the events of the migration for the Hebrews and the dramatic nature of the rescue, including plagues and catastrophes raining down on Egypt, the Egyptians do not seem to have noticed the Hebrews or to even know that they were living in their country. While we have several Egyptian records of foreign groups during the New Kingdom, they are records of actively expelling groups they feel are threatening or overly powerful. The Hebrews never appear in these records, nor do any of the events recounted in the Hebrew history of the event. The Hebrews themselves are only interested in the events directly leading up to the migration; all the events in the centuries preceding are passed over in silence.

We can make some guesses about the Hebrews in Egypt, though. It isn't unreasonable to believe that a sizable Hebrew population lived in the north of Egypt from about 1500-1250 BC; enormous numbers of tribal groups, most of them Semitic, had been settling in northern Egypt from about 1800 BC. These foreigners had grown so powerful that for a short time they dominated Egypt, ruling the Egyptians themselves; this period is called the Third Intermediate Period in Egyptian history. When the Egyptians reasserted dominance over Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom, they actively expelled as many foreigners as they could. Life got fairly harsh for these foreigners, who were called "habiru," which was applied to landless aliens (taken from the word, "apiru," or foreigner). Is this where the Hebrews got their name? It's a hotly contested issue. Nevertheless, the New Kingdom kings also began to garrison their borders in the north and east in order to prevent foreigners from entering the country in the first place. In particular, the Egyptian king, Seti I (1305-1290), moved his capital to Avaris at the very north of the Nile delta. This move was a shrewd move, for it established a powerful military presence right at the entrance to Egypt.

Garrisoned cities, however, don't pop into existence at a whim; they are labor intensive affairs. Typically, building projects involved heavy taxation of local populations; these taxes took the form of labor taxes. It isn't unreasonable to guess that the heaviest burden of these taxes fell on the foreigners living in the area, which would include the Hebrews. As best as we can guess, we believe that these building projects form the substance of the oppression of the Hebrews described in Exodus.

Moses and the Yahweh Cult

Nothing, however, should have prevented these oppressed and miserable foreigners from spilling into the anonymity of history—as so many had done before and since. One figure, however, changed the course of this history and united some of these foreigners into a distinct people; he also gave them a religion and a theology that would forever unite them in a singular purpose in history. That person was Moses. In spite of the masterful portrayal of him in Exodus , he is a difficult figure to pin down. Few people dispute that Moses was a reality in history, whether as an individual or a group of individuals, but there are several perplexing aspects of the man. First, he has an Egyptian name (as do many of his relatives). Second, he seems to spend a large amount of time among a non-Hebrew people, the Midianites, where he marries and seems to learn the Yahweh religion, and some of its cultic practices, from the Midianites. Are there two Moses, an Egyptian and a Hebrew? Or an Egyptian and a Midianite? And are the Midianites the first peoples to worship Yahweh and who then transmit this religion to the Hebrews? The question is complicated by the presence of Miriam, Moses' sister, in the migration. For she is the first individual in the Hebrew bible to be called a "prophet," and seems to have been an important player in the migration, possibly even being the principle figure in the climactic battle between the Egyptians and the Hebrews at the Sea of Reeds. At some point, however, there was a falling out between Miriam and Moses, and Miriam gets lost to history.

It is equally difficult to pinpoint exactly who participated in the migration. Although the focus is on the Hebrews, Exodus claims that a "diverse group of peoples" left Egypt with Moses. Who were these? Did they include other Semites? Was the migration to Egypt a staggered affair, or was it a single, heroic migration as indicated in Exodus? What resistance did the Egyptians put up? What was the nature of their battle with the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds? The account of this battle is vitally important to Hebrew history, for the deliverance of the Hebrews at the Sea of Reeds stands as the single most powerful symbol of Yahweh's protection of the Hebrews. Exodus gives two accounts; in the first, Yahweh blows the water away to create a ford, and the Egyptians get stuck in the mud and go home. In the second, Yahweh separates the waters and drowns the Egyptians when they try to cross. Which is the correct account?

It's difficult to answer any of these questions. In the end, the only account we have of the migration from Egypt is the Hebrew account. Several salient aspects give this narrative its foundational role in the Hebrew view of history. First, Moses is especially chosen by Yahweh to deliver Yahweh's people. In other words, Yahweh directly intervenes in history in order to bring about his purposes for his people. Second, the people of Yahweh become a national entity, identified by the name, "bene yisrael," rather than simply being a diverse group of tribes. They are united around a specific leader, Moses. Third, the events in Egypt, including the plagues and the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds when pursued by the king's army, are meant to serve as the primary proof of God's election of the Hebrews. There's no question that these stories were told and retold among the Hebrews as the most important events of their history. For in the events leading up to and involving the migration from Egypt, Yahweh proved once and for all that he would use and protect the Hebrews as the people, and the only people, selected by Yahweh. Third, Hebrew religion became the Yahweh religion. The Hebrews did not worship "Yahweh" before the migration, but learned the cult, according to Exodus, from Moses during the migration.

This introduction to Yahweh and the Yahweh cult occurred in the southernmost region of the Arabian peninsula, in an area around Mount Sinai. This area had been occupied by a nomadic, tribal people called Midianites. They seem to have worshipped a kind of nature god which they believed lived on Mount Sinai. It is here, living with a priest of the Midianites, called Jethro, that Moses first encounters Yahweh (on Mount Sinai) and learns his name for the first time. The name of god, which in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, is difficult to explain. Scholars generally believe that it derives from the Semitic word, "to be," and so means something like, "he causes to be." Nevertheless, when Moses returns to Sinai with the people of Israel and stays in the area (this period is called the Sinai pericope), Jethro declares that he has always known Yahweh to be the most powerful of all gods (was the Midianite religion, then, a religion of Yahweh?). During the Sinai pericope, all the laws and cultic practices of the new Yahweh religion are set down. The laws themselves come directly from Yahweh in the Decalogue, or "ten commandments." The Decalogue is a unique part of the Hebrew Torah in that it is the only part of Hebrew scriptures which claims to be the words of god written down on the spot .

Whatever happened in the migration from Egypt to Canaan, it is clear that somewhere in this period the general laws and cultic practices of the Hebrews settled down into a definite form. These laws and this new cult of Yahweh would form the eternal character of the Hebrews down to the present day. What began as a "diverse group of peoples" has become one people, who then systematically begin to settle the land of the Canaanites.

Sources: The Hebrews: A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.