Wibble Wednesday: Timeskips (Exodus 1:1–2:25)

Genesis is over! We pick up at the beginning of the Book of Exodus (a.k.a. ספר שמות). We’re now at פָּרָשַׁת שמות (“Names” portion), which introduces us to the Israelite nation a few generations later. A lot has changed, in both narrative scope and style, so I might need to focus on those things. This is a big parsha, with a lot happening, so I’m only going to look at the first two chapters now, and round it out next week.

The quick snarky summary: The Egyptians have forgotten about Joseph somehow, and wake up one morning and wonder what the hell all these Semites are doing there. They decide to use this mysterious new labor force, and commit appaling acts of genocide for no apparent reason. A baby slips through their net and ends up being raised as Egyptian royalty, runs away, and marries a Midianite. This unlikely cultural pastiche is selected by God to lead Israel.


I’d broadly divide the narrative elements of the Bible into three groups with regard to truth or falsity. There are the obviously mythical/allegorical parts, which include Genesis before Abraham, Jonah, and maybe another odd book or two. There are the bits which track pretty closely with what we actually know of history, which include large parts of Chronicles and Kings. And there’s the rest, which I’d broadly describe as “mythohistorical”: descriptive of events which are presented as fundamentally historical, but for which the actual archaeological evidence is lacking. I engaged with this dubious truthfulness somewhat back in Genesis, where large parts of the story, either in geography or in cultural aspects, didn’t actually hang together too well with the things we happen to know about the Middle Bronze Age Near East.

But in the end, the Genesis narratives can’t be completely discounted. While editorial meddling almost certainly modified elements of the cultural framework or geography to better match those known to the revisionists, there’s not actual disproof of the story. Proving a negative is notoriously difficult, and individual stories of that far back in history could have passed without external validation. There are figures of antiquity we know only by name and title, and nothing of their deeds; there are even figures (particularly kings and governors) who we know existed but have no record even of the names. So there are enough holes in the historical record that most of the Genesis narrative could’ve easily slipped through, except for the seven-years’-famine, which is a big enough event that the lack of contemporary reference is a bit odd.

Exodus, however, is a different kettle of fish, largely because of a stylistic shift. We are no longer telling the story of a tribe, but the story of a nation, and here the burden of proof, and the conspicuous absence thereof, becomes rather heavier. We know a lot about the currents of nations in the ancient world, and have a veritable crapton of archaeological studies of New Kingdom-era Egypt, and the absence of Israel from both is kinda telling.

There’s no gentle way to put this, but all evidence suggests that the Exodus never happened. There is no mention in the archaeological evidence of Semites being present in great numbers; the slavery customs of the time didn’t really support the notion of enslaving residents en masse; there is no evidence of natural disasters on the scope suggested by the story of the Plagues. These can all be kludged into a workable framework: maybe the Israelites were nomadic raiders who were captured and enslaved, maybe the population was quite small, maybe the Plagues were in fact much more limited in scope than stated — but honestly, doing so involves sufficiently heavy twisting of the story that the actual informational content of the Exodus story becomes very dubious. So I’m going to read the whole story as pure fiction, and only refer back to the history as an intepretive lens.

However, enough atheistic apologetics: what actually happens in this story? Well, we begin by recapping the last few bits of Genesis: Israel came down to Egypt with a household of seventy people, and the last of the old generation died. We’re then told that Israel multiplied prolifically (exactly how prolifically will become an arithmetical conundrum for later, once we actually get a census).

This one verse about them multiplying kind of constitutes a timeskip. Exactly how much time passed between the forefathers’ arrival in Egypt and the birth of Moses is not entirely clear. Ussher puts it at 135 years. The סדר עולם רבה‎ gives a comparable value of 130. Actual genealogies within the Biblical text suggest that the generation of Exodus was somewhere between 3 (Moses, great-grandson of Levi, according to his own genealogy) and 5 (Nahshon, great-great-great-grandson of Judah, according to Jesus’s genealogy) generations past the sons of Israel. These numbers all more-or-less accord with each other, which make the next verse that much weirder: that Joseph was unknown to Pharoah, which is kind of comparable to the suggestion that, say, Trent Lott had never heard of Abraham Lincoln. The justification for the enslavement is likewise flimsy: long-term cultural contact tended to cause assimilation, and the Hebrews, after a century in Egypt, would probably regard themselves as an Egyptian vassal state of sorts, under the protection of a quite powerful nation: it’s unlikely they’d get so good a deal from Hatti or Babylon, with whom they had no pre-existing relationship.

But despite the flimsiness of the pretext, this is ultimately all jsut to get the Hebrews back at the bottom of their fortunes again so they can be rescued. This is kind of like the Joseph story: he’d become successful, which provides no real grist for conflict, so he’d have to suffer some setback. At the end of Genesis, the Hebrews were the revered saviors of a grateful nation, and there’s no real story in that, so we need a completely random twist of fate here. So Pharoah enslaves the Israelites and imposes tasks on them, and for no particularly good reason, embarks on a campaign of genocide, ordering the Hebrew midwives to kill Jewish babies. Presumably this is to keep their numbers down, but it seems like a pretty good instigation to rebellion (note: the prospect of actual active rebellion is never raised in the story). When the midwives refuse to carry out these orders, they’re rewarded by God in a rather opaque way: exactly what “וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם, בָּתִּים.” in Exodus 1:21 means is kinda unclear, ranging in translation from “caused them to become houses” (an amusing thought) to “gave them children” (a more likely blessing but a rather free translation).

Chapter 2 introduces a rather well-known motif common to many myths where a character is supposed to be of obscured or covert ancestry: the abandoned child. Off the top of my head, Sargon the Great, Paris of Troy, and Oedipus of Thebes are all pretty standard examples, although Moses differs a bit in the reason for his abandonment: the others are left to die due to prophecies of doom, whereas Moses is abandoned (in a manner suggesting hope for his survival) out of the much more mundane fear of earthly authorities. Chapter 2:5–9 plays with a little situational humor: the wetnurse hired to care for the child is none other than his birth mother, so she earns the legitimate right to care for him and even gets paid for it! But it’s worth noting that Moses was raised by Pharoah’s daughter from his weaning to maturity, presumably in the Egyptian court, which seems like it’d be unusual for two reasons: first, that the redeemer of the Jewish nation was raised in an Egyptian cultural identity and presumably identified with the Egyptian culture; second, that a fairly conspicuous ethnic Semite was hanging around the royal court in a time of tremendous racial persecution and nothing happens then that the Bible finds worth mentioning.

The fact that Moses presumably had an Egyptian cultural identity comes into play in the next part of this chapter, where he kills an Egyptian for beating an Israelite. Presumably, if we buy into the onerous-enslavement details, Egyptians beating Hebrews was part of the cultural fabric Moses had been assimilated into, so why this reaction? Quite unsurprisingly, his actions are regarded as a sensation, a subversion of legitimate authority, and a threat to the social order (I view these through a sort of antebellum South lens, which would basically put Moses here ona par with John Brown), so he ends up a fugitive from Egypt.

Like solo travelers and fugitives back in the book of Genesis (specifically, Eliezar and Jacob), Moses finds his fortunes in women at wells. In this story, as in the previous ones, a well can be a social hub; here we see it as the nexus of some sort of conflict, where the shepherds, either out of personal animosity or sexism (we’re not told which; I incline towards the sexism theory), harass the daughters of Reuel. Moses’s defense of them wins him shelter in Reuel’s house, and eventually marriage to one of his daughters. Clearly wells are a great place to find wives.

We close out this half-parsha with another indefinite timeskip (although we’re told it’s a “long time”), in which nothing of consequence happens except that Pharoah dies and is replaced by an apparently indistinguishable character. The fact that the following tale of stubbornness and punishment happens with a completely new villain is actually pretty odd: why’s he so attached to keeping the Israelites around? Enslaving them wasn’t even his idea in the first place!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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