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Moses and the Exodus

  • Posted 11.18.08
  • NOVA

Even people who know little about the Bible likely can recount the story of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt in an extraordinary exodus. In this interview, Carol Meyers, an archeologist and professor of religion at Duke University, reflects on the significance of the Moses narrative in ancient times, the role it plays in American history, and why it continues to resonate with us today.

Painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Moses, captured here by the 17th-century Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, is an icon of leadership, piety, and liberation throughout western culture. Enlarge Photo credit: © SuperStock

Beyond fact or fiction

NOVA: Questions about whether or not events in the Bible really happened evoke strong passions. As a biblical scholar, how do you see the issue of historical authenticity in terms of the earliest biblical accounts—the ones for which there is little archeological evidence?

Carol Meyers: Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There's something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It's not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it's a kind of collective cultural memory.

When a group of people experience things that are extremely important to their existence as a group, they often maintain collective memories of these events over generations. And these memories are probably augmented and elaborated and maybe even ritualized as a way of maintaining their relevance.

We can understand how mnemohistory works by looking at how it operates in more recent periods. We see this, for instance, in legends about figures in American history—George Washington is a wonderful example. Legends have something historic in them but yet are developed and expanded. I think that some of the accounts of the ancestors in the book of Genesis are similar. They are exciting, important, attention-grabbing, message-bearing narratives that are developed around characters who may have played an important role in the lives of the pre-Israelite ancestors.

Painting of Moses preparing to smash the Ten Commandments.

Rembrandt reinforced Moses's larger-than-life image. Here, heartbroken after his people ignored God's commandments, Moses prepares to smash the holy tablets. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy The Bridgeman Art Library International

Let's turn to one of the most vivid figures in the Bible, Moses. Who is the Moses of the Bible, and could there have been such a person?

The Moses of the Bible is larger than life. The Moses of the Bible is a diplomat negotiating with the pharaoh; he is a lawgiver bringing the Ten Commandments, the Covenant, down from Sinai. The Moses of the Bible is a military man leading the Israelites in battles. He's the one who organizes Israel's judiciary. He's also the prophet par excellence and a quasi-priestly figure involved in offering sacrifices and setting up the priestly complex, the tabernacle. There's virtually nothing in terms of national leadership that Moses doesn't do. And, of course, he's also a person, a family man.

Now, no one individual could possibly have done all that. So the tales are a kind of aggrandizement. He is also associated with miracles—the memorable story of being found in a basket in the Nile and being saved, miraculously, to grow up in the pharaoh's household. And he dies somewhere in the mountains of Moab. Only God knows where he's buried; God is said to have buried him. This is highly unusual and, again, accords him a special place.

"It's possible that a charismatic leader, a Moses, rallied people and urged them to make the difficult and traumatic and dangerous journey."

What spurs the transformation of a real person into such a legendary figure?

We can see the Moses narratives as the products of a period of trauma. We see this at other times and places. Think about our own American history. In the difficult period of the Revolutionary War, there's a lot of trauma and turmoil. Should people fight for freedom and risk losing everything? Or should they remain dominated by European colonial powers? And one man, George Washington, emerges as a superhero, the one in whom people could put their faith, who would take them to new terrain, who would lead them to independence. If you look at the biographies of George Washington that were written before 1855, you would think he was a demigod. The mythology about him is incredible.

In some ways, we have that kind of material about Moses. The hype about him is a way of expressing the fact that people could trust his judgment. They could trust that there would be success in this highly risky venture of leaving a place where they at least had food and water and going to a place where they might not have enough food and water. But they were apparently convinced it was worth the risk, if they might eventually be able to determine the course of their own lives and to escape the tyranny of Egyptian control.

Painting of Israelites as Egyptian slaves.

The Victorian artist Sir Edward John Poynter titled this painting "Israel in Egypt," but many scholars today question whether Israelites were ever slaves under the pharaohs. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy The Bridgeman Art Library International

Evidence of the Exodus

You and other scholars point out that there isn't evidence outside the Bible, in historic documents and the archeological record, for a mass migration from Egypt involving hundreds of thousands of people. But it may be plausible that there was a much smaller exodus, an exodus of people originally from the land of Canaan who were returning to it. Is that right?

Yes. Despite all the ways in which the exodus narratives in the Bible seem to be non-historic, something about the overall pattern can, in fact, be related to what we know from historical sources was going on at the end of the Late Bronze Age [circa 1200 B.C.E.], around when the Bible's chronology places the story of departure from Egypt.

Now, what is the evidence? First of all, during this period there likely were a lot of people from the land of Canaan, from regions of the eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt. Sometimes they were taken there as slaves. The local kings of the city-states in Canaan would offer slaves as tribute to the pharaohs in order to remain in their good graces. This is documented in the Amarna letters discovered in Egypt. So we know that there were people taken to Egypt as slaves.

There were also traders from the eastern Mediterranean who went to Egypt for commercial reasons. And there also probably were people from Canaan who went to Egypt during periods of extended drought and famine, as is reported in the Bible for Abraham and Sarah.

So Canaanites went to Egypt for a variety of reasons. They were generally assimilated—after a generation or two they became Egyptians. There is almost no evidence that those people left. But there are one or two Egyptian documents that record the flight of a handful of people who had been brought to Egypt for one reason or other and who didn't want to stay there.

Now, there is no direct evidence that such people were connected with the exodus narrative in the Bible. But in our western historical imagination, as we try to recreate the past, it's certainly worth considering that some of them, somehow, for some reason that we can never understand, maybe because life was so difficult for them in Egypt, thought that life would be greener than in the pastures that they had left.

And it's possible that a charismatic leader, a Moses, rallied a few of those people and urged them to make the difficult and traumatic and dangerous journey across the forbidding terrain of the Sinai Peninsula, back to what their collective memory maintained was a promised land.

A still of a NOVA recreation of the Exodus.

NOVA portrayed the Exodus in keeping with new scholarly insights, as the courageous journA sey of a small group of people. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Origins of the Israelites

Do you think that these people returning to Canaan met up with other Canaanites in the hill country and became the people of Israel?

The emergence of ancient Israel in the highlands of Palestine is shrouded in clouds and mystery. We'll really never know the whole story. We can only conjecture how the inhabitants of new settlements in the highlands, in places where there never had been any settlements before, somehow began to identify with each other. And, at least as I see it, they could have met with people who had made the trek across the Sinai Peninsula.

What was it that brought them together and gave them a new national identity, a new ethnicity? Many scholars, including me, would search in the theological realm. There is a belief in the Bible that the dream of escaping from Egypt and returning to an ancestral homeland could not have happened without supernatural intervention, divine intervention. And the group that had come from Egypt felt that one particular god, whom they called Yahweh, was responsible for this miracle of escape.

They spread the word to the highlanders, who themselves were migrants into the highlands, who perhaps had escaped from the tyranny of the Canaanite city-states or from an unsettled life as pastoralists across the Jordan River. And the idea of a god that represented freedom—freedom for people to keep the fruits of their own labor—this was a message that was so powerful that it brought people together and gave them a new kind of identity, which eventually became known by the term Israel.

A still of a NOVA recreation of the Exodus.

According to the new view of Exodus, the refugees met up with others in the hill country of Canaan and together formed the people of Israel. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Remembering the Exodus

So even though most of the early Israelites had not themselves made the exodus from Egypt, they adopt this story as part of their heritage.

Yes. While very few Israelites may have actually made the trek across Sinai, it becomes the national story of all Israelites and is celebrated in all kinds of ways. Their agricultural festivals become celebrations of freedom, for instance. Many aspects of a new culture emerge and are linked with the "memories" of exodus.

The people who made the exodus from Egypt remember the experience, relive it, recreate it in rituals. They pass their rituals on to others, to future generations and to other people. We do this in our own American lives: Very few of us have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and yet that story has become part of our national story.

"The theme of the Exodus is an archetype in not only the Bible but in western culture in general."

When was the story of the Exodus first written down?

It's really hard to know when the story of the exodus first was put into written form. But it appears in one of the earliest poems in the Bible, the Song of the Sea, found in the middle of the book of Exodus [Exod 15:1-22]. This victory hymn probably dates to the 12th century B.C.E.

It's also important to note that the Exodus is a theme that's mentioned over and over again in various parts of the Bible. And it's interesting to think about that in contrast, for example, to the early chapters in Genesis about the creation of the world and of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden. That motif rarely recurs in the Bible. It doesn't seem to be as important an aspect of biblical culture as was the exodus. The theme of a real people achieving freedom from oppression—that's something that resonates strongly with the biblical authors.

And it's a theme that still resonates with us today.

Absolutely. The theme of the exodus is an archetype in not only the Bible but in western culture in general. Even though it may be rooted in some cultural memory experienced by only a few people, it became a way of looking at the world that would have great power for generations and millennia to come—the idea that human beings should be free to determine the course of their own lives, to be able to work and enjoy the rewards of the work of their own hands and their own minds.

These are very powerful ideas that resonate in the human spirit. And Exodus gives narrative reality to those ideas. It would be compelling for peoples all over the world, wherever people find themselves subjected to domination and would like to live their lives in some other kind of way.

A mural depicting the traditional Exodus story.

This mural from an ancient synagogue in Syria, dated to around A.D. 245, shows Moses leading the Israelites, a story that continued to echo through the ages. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Zev Radovan

I think it's no accident that the founders of our own country, the United States, identified very strongly with the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. They felt that, in crossing the Atlantic Ocean and leaving the oppressive conditions of various European countries, they were coming to a place where they would be free from domination, where they would have religious freedom especially. And in the mythology of the colonial period in the United States, the crossing of the Atlantic somehow merged with the idea of the crossing of the Red Sea or Reed Sea of the Israelites. I think that the first seal of the United States actually depicted that kind of crossing.

Editor's note: Carol Meyers, like other academic scholars, uses the term B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of B.C. (Before Christ).

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program "The Bible's Buried Secrets". See the original site for more related features.

Interview of Carol Meyers conducted in August 2007 by Gary Glassman, producer, writer, and director of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, senior editor of NOVA Online

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