TIME TO GO
So Abraham and all his family, flocks, cattle, menservants and maidservants and everything they had, all went down to Egypt to live off the fat of the land. They were indeed fruitful and did indeed multiply.
Eventually Israel, Joseph, all his brothers, and that whole generation died off.
Well, Pharaohs came and Pharaohs went and about 250-300 years down the road a new Pharaoh was in charge. This Pharaoh never knew Joseph and didn’t care that he had saved the country or anything like that. That was a long time ago.
All he knew was these Israelites had become so numerous he was afraid they might try to take over or conspire against him in some way. So he did what any good absolute ruler would do; first he enslaved them and made their lives miserable. Then he tried to outright eliminate them. But he found it harder than he’d figured .
Finally, in his frustration, he ordered every newborn Hebrew male be thrown in the Nile River to drown. That should do it.
This is the climate into which Moses was born. According to Pharaoh he should have been thrown into the Nile and drowned. Nowhere is it said who was doing the collecting and throwing of babies in the river, but I would imagine it wasn’t the mothers.
Somehow Moses’ mother was able to hide him for three months. But when she couldn’t do it anymore she put him in a little basket and placed him among the reeds in the Nile. What she expected to happen isn’t said but, as luck would have it, Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to take a bath.
Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket with the baby and immediately surmised it was a Hebrew baby. Rather than throw him in the river like she was supposed to, she decided to take him home and keep her as her own1 But first she needed someone to nurse him. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Moses’ real mother just happened to be nearby so she got the job.2
Eventually Moses was brought into the house of Pharaoh and raised as his daughter’s own son. How they were able to pull this off is one of the great mysteries of the Old Testament. Shouldn’t he have just been thrown in the river with all the rest of the male babies? How did Pharaoh’s daughter get away with going against her father’s direct orders? How did Pharaoh not notice his daughter had a brand new baby son? How did a Hebrew grow up in Pharaoh’s own household and nobody notice? None of this is explained.
The next thing we know, Moses is all grown up and one day he went out to “his people” and saw their oppression. How did Moses even know he was a Hebrew? He’d been brought up in the royal court, son of Pharaoh’s daughter, grandson of Pharaoh. He was totally immersed in the royal family. Again, there’s no clue but, if we’re going to be literalists, we won’t question any of this, we’ll just take the story at its word.
So Moses was out wandering around one day and saw an Egyptian beating on one of the Hebrew slaves, one of “his people”. Moses looked around, and when he thought nobody was looking, he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.
But it turned out somebody saw him and when Pharaoh heard about it he was out for Moses’ blood. Moses hightailed it and escaped to the land of Midian, about 300 miles away, on the east side of the Gulf of Arabia, better known as the Red Sea.
Moses helped some girls at a well, saving them from some shepherds with bad intent. As it turned out these girls were the daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian. Being a grateful father, Jethro gave Moses one of his daughters for a wife and she bore him a son named Gershom.
During his time in Midian, Pharaoh and the people who are looking for Moses all died off.
THE BURNING BUSH
According to the Bible, Moses was out with the flocks one day when he came across a burning bush. The bush wasn’t being consumed, it was just burning. There are a lot of interpretations of the significance of this burning bush and none of them are about an actual bush in flames3. If you’re interested it’s pretty easy to look up.
Regardless, this is when ‘an angel of the Lord’ appeared to Moses and told him to go back to Egypt and free his people. This is the beginning of the whole Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt which is hugely significant in the Jewish experience.
This ‘angel of the Lord’ phrase is pretty significant also because, as we’ve seen before, this, more than likely, is just some guy delivering a message.
But Moses didn’t want to go back. He was hugely conflicted and made up every excuse he could think of to get out of it. One of his arguments was, when he got back to Egypt, he’d have to have some credibility. Under whose authority was he acting? Why would anybody listen to him if they didn’t know who’d sent him?
And from the burning bush God said, “I Am That I Am. Tell them ‘I Am’ sent you.” This is a pretty famous saying and deserves more scrutiny than it usually gets.
The actual Hebrew interpretation is Ehyeh asher ehyeh. Ehyeh has several meanings4. One is “I am,” another is “I will be,” another is “I will cause to be,” and yet another is “I create.” And asher can mean “that,” or “who,” or even “what.” So this phrase is interpreted in many ways; “I am that I am,” “I am who I am,” “I cause to be what I cause to be,” or “I create what I create.”
If we were to take a metaphysical approach it wouldn’t be a stretch to interpret this phrase as, “I Am what I create”. Just that one phrase has huge ramifications. But let’s not get into that right now, let’s stick with Moses.
Anyway, Moses kept arguing with this angel, who he now calls Lord, trying to get out of it, but the Lord won’t go for it. This Lord works a little magic but Moses still isn’t comfortable about the whole thing. Apparently Moses has a stutter and can’t speak well so he tried to use that as an excuse. But the Lord came back with, “Hey, take your brother Aaron with you and let him do the talking.”
Whoa! Wait a second! Where did this Aaron come from and since when did Moses have a brother? Was Moses leading two secret lives – one as grandson of Pharaoh and one as a poor Hebrew boy? And, by the way, Moses should have been the only Hebrew boy his age because all the other male babies had been thrown in the Nile, remember? Again, there’s no explanation so I guess we’re just supposed to accept it.
Eventually Moses gave in and headed for Egypt.
On the way back he stopped at a lodging and ‘the Lord’ tried to kill him. Just who was this ‘Lord’ anyway? Was it the same Lord that just spent all that time getting him to go to save his people or was it another ‘Lord’ who wanted to stop him? We’re never told but Moses’ wife circumcised his son, Gershom, and somehow that saved the day.
This is just one more instance where interpretations of words get a little wonky. As we’ve seen before and we will again, words like ‘Lord’ and ‘angel’ are often used interchangeably and do not necessarily refer to the Deity or his heavenly host. They often refer to human beings who may or may not be doing God’s work, depending on who’s doing the talking.
MOSES AND PHARAOH
So Moses met up with Aaron and they went back to Egypt to talk to the elders of Israel. Moses did a couple of magic tricks and that was good enough for the elders. They agreed to let Moses go to Pharaoh to see if he would set them free.
Before we go any further it’s important to note that Moses and the current Pharaoh had to have had a history together. After all, this Pharaoh was the heir to the Pharaoh whose daughter was Moses’ adopted mother, so there’s a good chance he’s Moses’ uncle. It’s been surmised that they could be cousins or even half-brothers depending on who married whom within the family. Insest was a common practice back then, especially within the royal families. Nothing is ever mentioned about this but it’s pretty certain these two guys knew each other and, from the events that follow, it’s apparent they didn’t like each other.
So Moses went up to Pharaoh and said the Israelites just wanted to go out into the desert for a few days to sacrifice and celebrate their God. But Pharaoh knew it was a scam from the get-go. He knew they were going to make a run for it and he wasn’t about to let that happen. He needed his slaves and he needed them to behave. So just to show his authority, he decided to make the Israelite slaves’ lives even more miserable.
I’m not sure what Moses expected but he seems to have made things even worse than before. The people groaned, Moses was disheartened and the elders were seriously pissed. But God had a plan. In fact God let on that he’d hardened Pharaoh’s heart on purpose just so he could beat his ass later and show off his awesome power.
This is where the Bible says Moses showed his magic and brought ten plagues on the Egyptians. These are 1) turning the Nile water into blood, 2) frogs everywhere, 3) lice everywhere, 4) flies everywhere, 5) livestock sick and die, 6) boils, 7) hail, 8) locusts everywhere, 9) darkness, 10) killing first born Egyptian children.
Most people who read this imagine it to be somewhat like the Cecil B. DeMille version, as played out with Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments’ .They assume Moses had the power of God behind him and just worked some pretty heavy magic. But, if you look a little closer and do some research, there are actually natural causes that Moses could have been privy to and claimed credit for.5 Anything from a volcano or an algae bloom.
The one thing that these explanations don’t really cover is the killing of the firstborn child. Commonly known as Passover, it was a night where the angel(s) of God bypassed all the Hebrew households and killed all the first born of the Egyptians.
I know this will get me in a lot of trouble but let’s take a look at what might have really happened.
Let’s take a step back here and see if we can take a look at this “set my people free” thing from a more secular vantage point.
First of all, this is all just theory so don’t get too freaked out if it goes up against your current beliefs. And let’s remember, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any of this happened in real life anyway, so your guess is as good as mine. There is no independent record of a guy named Moses leading a slave rebellion or anything else in the Exodus narrative. The Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians were notorious for meticulously documenting everything but, other than the Biblical writings themselves, there is no independent evidence of any of this.
But let’s assume it really happened. And let’s put the messages from God where they belong, as visions, dreams and intuitive interpretations by men who truly believed they were doing God’s work, not some booming voice from the sky.
So first let’s take on who Moses was. We know he was born a Hebrew and should have been thrown in the river at birth. But he wasn’t. He was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up in Pharaoh’s own house. How they pulled this off would be a miracle in itself, but let’s just accept that they did.
We know Moses’ real mother was brought in early on to nurse him. Let’s assume she stayed around as Moses grew up and secretly told him about his true heritage.
And let’s further assume that Moses took his Hebrew heritage to heart. He took it on enough to where, when he saw one of the cruel Egyptian taskmasters beating on a Hebrew slave, he killed the Egyptian in cold blood. It’s obvious, for whatever reason, Moses was vested in the Hebrew’s plight. Vested enough to kill.
As we already know, when he was found out, he made a run for it and escaped to Midian. There he got married and seemed to be settling in.
But then, years later, someone showed up6 and convinced him to go back to Egypt to help set his people free. Moses didn’t want to do it but the Lord worked on him until he wore him down and agreed to give it a try.
But why Moses? It had been almost 60 years since he left Egypt. Why now? Why him?
Well, let’s remember Moses was of the Royal household. Just that fact would ensure he could at least get an audience with the current Pharaoh who, as we’ve already established, was very likely a pretty close relative. And we know Moses felt deeply enough for his Hebrew heritage to kill for it. Deeply enough to go back and lead his people to freedom.
The way it’s written it looks like this was Moses’ first encounter with this messenger. But, as we’ve seen before7, there are often big gaps in these stories. There very well could have been an ongoing dialogue between Moses and the Hebrew community back in Egypt. For all we know Moses was living in exile as the leader of the rebel resistance. Perhaps this messenger was relaying the decision that it was time to act but Moses didn’t think it was time yet. But it was too late, his brother Aaron was already on his way to Midian to meet him.8
I don’t know about you, but that sounds more feasible than some guy showing up out of the blue hoping Moses would lead them out of bondage.
So Moses went back to Egypt to call out Pharaoh and demand his people’s freedom. And this was no small group of ragtag rebels. Later on, when they finally escape Egypt, we’ll find that there were over 600,000 men, not counting the women, children and grandparents. That’s a formidable group. No wonder Pharaoh was afraid of them.
So Moses and Pharaoh went back and forth, both working their magic on each other. But Pharaoh had no more intention of letting his slaves go as a Southern plantation owner would free his cotton pickers.
All the plaques didn’t work so now Moses had to play his last card, killing all the first born of the Egyptians. After all, the Egyptians had killed all those Hebrew babies way back when so it was only fair, right?
But how did this really go down? First, Moses told all the Hebrews to kill a lamb, paint some blood on their doorposts, and don’t go outside no matter what. The blood on the doorposts would show ‘the destroyer’ that Hebrews lived in that house so leave them alone. It was like a secret code.
At midnight, all hell broke loose and innocent Egyptian children throughout the land were slaughtered by the thousands. So much for holding life sacred.
But how did all these children die? Was it the invisible hand of God striking them down in their beds? Cecil B. DeMille portrayed it as a shadow coming over and they all just died in their sleep.
Or was it jihad?; the passion of mujahideen, ‘the angels of God’, an army of thousands of angry Hebrew freedom fighters coordinating a vicious attack in the name of God? The blood on the doorposts was their sign to pass over that home, but to enter every other house and kill the children. Only a human would need a sign like that. It’s hard to imagine an all-powerful, all-knowing God would need a mark on a doorpost so he won’t get confused. That sign was for men.
After that night the Egyptians couldn’t get rid of the Hebrews fast enough. “Here, take anything you want, just go!” And so the Hebrews plundered the Egyptians and took off. And that was no easy feat. Conservative estimates put over 2 million people hitting the road all at once 9. Talk about a traffic jam. Just to get an idea of how many people that is, imagine the entire populations of Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit, Michigan; and Dallas, Texas all going somewhere together all at once. That’s a lot of people.
So, after 430 years in Egypt, over two million Jews took off into the desert with no clear destination in mind.
They got as far as the Red Sea before Pharaoh changed his mind and came after them. You can only imagine the pressure he was under to bring these child-murdering slaves to justice.
But Moses was ready. According to the Bible God told Moses to hold up and wait for Pharaoh so he could show off a little.
The Israelites weren’t too happy about it when they saw Pharaoh and his army coming. The elders started whining and having second thoughts. Apparently these people had short memories or didn’t really trust Moses or their God.
You probably already know what happened. God parted the Red Sea, the Israelites crossed and when Pharaoh and his army chased them the sea closed in on them and they all drowned.
The Biblical account says Moses stretched out his hand and a great wind came and separated the sea so there was a wall of water on either side. After the Israelites got across, he stretched his hand forth again and the waters closed in on the Egyptians, killing them all.
Aramaic lore is known for grandiose exaggeration so most scientists and scholars doubt this account. But they have other, more plausible, natural explanations. From extreme tidal changes to a strong wind exposing a reef hidden in the shallows. It’s easy enough to look these alternative theories up so I won’t waste too much time on them here.
Let’s remember Moses had spent over 20 years in the area around the Red Sea. He would have known it very well and would have known exactly where the shallows were, when they were likely to be exposed, and for how long. So it’s not inconceivable that Moses had a grand plan all along and set Pharaoh up . With this one gesture Moses would make sure the Egyptians would leave them alone for good. And it worked. Not another word is said about Egyptians chasing them through the desert, even though they were out there for a long time.
There’s also no record at all among Egyptian writings that any of this ever happened at all. So we can accept it as literal truth or as part of a long narrative meant to give meaning to the Hebrew people.12 We’ll get into that later on.
There’s a lot more to this story – miracles, manna and some other things – so, if you’re interested, I suggest you read it on your own.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Once they were free of the Egyptians, Moses hiked his merry band to the foot of Mount Sinai where they set up camp.
God told Moses to go up the mountain so he could give him some instructions. These instructions are what the Hebrews call ‘The Ten Sayings’ and Christians call ‘The Ten Commandments.
So Moses went up the mountain and God gave him the Ten Commandments, etched out on stone tablets. These sayings are the cornerstone of Hebrew law.
If you’ve never actually seen them, here they are:
- You shall have no other Gods before me
- You shall not make any idol or image and bow down before it
- You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain
- You shall honor the Sabbath.
- You shall honor your father and mother.
- You shall not kill
- You shall not commit adultery
- You shall not steal
- You shall not bear false witness
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or any of his things
These all seem pretty reasonable and highbrow until you consider God just killed thousands of innocent children. And pretty much every patriarch, from Abraham on down, were lying, cheating, scoundrels. Not to mention Moses himself being a cold blooded murderer.
Maybe Moses was recognizing all these previous mistakes and was trying to figure out a way not to make them again. Who knows? Let’s just accept it as a good standard to shoot for.
So Moses came down the mountain and read the Ten Commandments to the people and they all agreed they were a great set of rules and they would abide by them.
But then Moses went back up to the mountain where God gave him a bunch more instructions. And I mean a bunch.
By the time he was done, Moses had been up on the mountain so long that the people were getting restless. Was he coming back? Was he dead? What should they do?
So rather than send somebody up to look for him, what did they do? They gathered up all the gold jewelry they’d plundered from the Egyptians, melted it down and got Aaron to make them a big golden statue of a calf. They called it their new God and partied like it was 1999.
But God got wind of it and was totally irate. He was ready to kill them all but Moses talked him out of it. As we’ve seen before, talking God out of something is not as hard as you might think.
Anyway, Moses came down the mountain with two stone tablets. People usually think these stone tablets had the Ten Commandments but that can’t be because he’d already brought them down. 13
What is actually on these particular tablets is open to debate but regardless, when Moses saw the people partying around the golden calf he slammed the tablets down, breaking them to pieces.
Then he ground up the golden calf into dust and demanded Aaron tell him why he let this happen. Aaron’s answer is priceless.
He said all the people gave him their gold and he threw it in the fire and out popped this golden calf, I’m serious, that’s what he said. Seriously, if that actually happened, I’d worship it too. Sounds more like something a six year old might come up with when he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Well, that didn’t cut it for Moses. He got Aaron and the sons of Levi (henceforth known as the Levites) on his side and they killed three thousand of their own people. So much for ‘thou shalt not kill.’ Moses was old school, he knew how to take control.
For good measure God sent them a plague killing another untold multitude.
After all this, it was time for Moses to lay down the Law.
1And hide him from her dad
2Nobody put 2 and 2 together and wondered why a lactating Jew would just happen to be right where abandoned Jewish baby was found
3The Aramaic language is full of exaggeration and symbolism and many linguists believe it represents Moses grappling with a moral dilemma, much like Jacob wrestling with an angel or Jonah in the belly of the fish.
6In a burning bush.
7Remember Abraham, Lot, the angels and Sodom and Gomorrah
9Exodus 12:37 says about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children came up out of Egypt. According to most scholars we can assume each of these men had at least a mother and/or father, a wife and/or children, etc. So we can conservatively estimate each of these guys to represent four people.
10 Exodus 12:42 Another example of this story being written after the fact when it mentions,”… this night is a night of watching kept throughout the generations.”
11There’s a phrase used here which is worth mentioning as it will come into play later on. Moses says, “It shall be as a mark on your hand and shall be as a frontlet between your eyes.” This phrase is used several times in the Bible (Exodus 13:16 Deuteronomy 6:8 Revelation 13:16-17) and is often interpreted to mean some sort of actual mark, like a tattoo or birthmark or something – ‘the mark
12See “Documentary Thesis”
13Unless, like we’ve seen before, it’s really two versions of the same story. Don’t get me started.