Monday, December 15, 2008

The Moses Rebellion

I've always had my doubts about the story of Moses as told in Exodus.

Suppose a Muslim Jihadist came to George Bush and said that everything from Katrina to the stock market crash were signs from Allah that America should release the detainees at Guantanamo, get out of Iraq, stop supporting Israel and take ham off the menu at Dominoes.

Would you believe him? Probably not. Likewise, I think Pharaoh just shook his head every time Moses came to town trying to blame whatever recent misfortune befell Egypt on his mysterious god who was angry because the Hebrews were slaves.

The Plagues
The truth is, if you know anything about that region, then you know that whatever hell Moses rained down on Egypt isn't all that different from the hell that rains down on them most of the time anyway. It was an ecological disaster that prompted the Jews to move to Egypt in the first place.

Pretty much all of the plagues that befell Egypt fall into the category of normal but unfortunate ecological disasters. All, except one.

The Angel of Death
The last plague, the death of the first-born, finally tipped the balance and freed the Jews. One interpretation of this is that an angel of death moved among the Egyptians in the form of a green mist, killing children. This is what you see in the movie with Charlton Heston.

Would a loving God condone the killing of children, even if they were pagan children and their parents were persecuting the chosen people? Probably not.

"First Born" can mean children, but it can also mean the head of the household. Many cultures at that time passed their wealth down to the first born male. That would mean that many of the wealthiest and most powerful adult men in a culture were "first born".

You can read this part of the story as God acting in mysterious ways, but you can also read it as a slave rebellion. A clue as to which is the correct interpretation might be the blood on the door.

The Jews were told to paint lambs blood on their doors as a sign that whatever was out killing the first born should pass them over. Now, the angel of death (whatever that is) probably wouldn't need a sign to know who to kill and who not to kill, but an army of rebel slaves going through town killing the heads of the households would.

When this country still had slaves, we also had slave rebellions. The most famous was led by a man named Nat Turner. None of the American slave rebellions ended in anyone being freed, but they were very similar to what we see in exodus in that they featured slaves, going through the community, killing the male slave holders.

For Nat Turner's army, it was easy to tell who was the enemy: they were white. For Jews living in Egypt, the racial or biological differences wouldn't have been nearly so pronounced. They would need some sort of sign to know who not to kill. The blood on the door was just such a sign.

Free at Last!
After a night of such killings, the next day the Egyptians would have been completely unable to prevent the Jews from leaving. At that time, most cultures didn't have a standing army. It took some time to bring an armed force together, which gave the Jews a significant head start in getting out of town.

Once the Jews were clear of Egypt, we're told that Pharaoh had a change of heart and sent chariots after them. You could say he had a change of heart, but you could also say that it took him some time to raise an army to go after the rebels.

Another clue that this was a slave rebellion is that the Jews took Egyptian gold with them. They would use it later to construct the golden calf idol while they waited for Moses to return with the ten commandments. It's unlikely the Egyptians would give up their gold willingly. The Jews would have to take it by force.

The Battle of the Red Sea
The same holds true for the miracle crossing of the Red Sea. Exodus doesn't give a very precise location for the crossing. Historically, people have placed it in the south at a particularly deep part of the sea. If that's where it was then their crossing would have to have been a pretty impressive miracle.

Suppose it was farther north though, in the Sea of Reeds? This area was more like a broad marsh than a deep sea. Strong winds and low tides would take most of the standing water out of the marsh and the Jews, traveling on foot with their flocks could easily pass through it, but the Egyptians, traveling on chariots would have been hopelessly stuck in the mud.

The Jews could hide in the tall reeds and pick off the bogged down Egyptians from a covered position. So, was the crossing of the Red Sea really a battle and not a mind-blowing special effect kind of miracle? It seems more likely.

Chariots were like the stealth fighters of their day. With them, a smaller group of Egyptians could conquer a much larger army on foot. But, with their chariots stuck in the mud, the Egyptians would have been sitting ducks.

What about God?
So, does this mean there was no God and the story of Exodus was just the act of men? Not necessarily. Throughout history, very few slave rebellions ended successfully. Nearly all slave rebellions ended with the slaves being returned to slavery and their leaders executed. That this story ended with the slaves going free could be a sign of God's intervention.

Exodus tells the story of Egyptian society weakened by a series of natural disasters to the point where an organized slave rebellion could beat the odds and enforce their own freedom. I have no trouble seeing the hand of God in that.

It's not as beautiful a story as the version presented by Cecil B Demille in his movie, but by telling the story more realistically, it also becomes much harder to dismiss. It also tells us that God still works in our lives even without the special-effects type of miracles we see in the movies.

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