Exodus dreaming: turning the literary into the literal

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by Neil Godfrey

Mario Liverani in his Israel’s history and the history of Israel explains that the idiom of people “going out” and “going in” to a land was used to describe a change in political dependence without any literal movement of the people from one place to another.

Liverani cites the following 8th century texts to illustrate the motif of arrival from Egypt being a well-known metaphor of liberation from a foreign power. They describe a change in political domination, not a migration of peoples from one locality to another.

Amos 9:7
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Aramaeans from Kir?

Hosea 7:11
Ephraim has become like a dove silly and without sense; they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria

Hosea 9:3
They shall not remain in the land Yahweh; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food

Hosea 12:2
Ephraim . . . they make a treaty with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt

“We should bear in mind that the terminology of ‘bringing out’ and ‘bringing back’, ‘sending out’ and ‘sending in’, the so-called ‘code of movement’, so evident in [Amos and] Hosea, had already been applied in the Late Bronze Age texts to indicate a shift in sovereignty, without implying any physical displacement of the people concerned, but only a shift in the political border.” (p.278, Liverani)

Liverani compares King Shuppiluliuma of the Hittites describing his conquest of central Syria:

I also brought the city of Qatna, together with its belongings and possessions, to Hatti . . . I plundered all of these lands in one year and brought them [literally: ‘I made them enter’] to Hatti (HDT 39-50; c.f. ANET, 318)

An an Amarna letter:

All the (rebellious) towns that I have mentioned to my Lord, my Lord knows if they went back! From the day of the departure of the troops of the king my Lord, they have all become hostile (EA 169, from Byblos)

And others:

“Egyptian texts also describe territorial conquest in terms of the capture of its population, even if in fact the submitted people remain in their place.” (p.278)

To Liverani it is significant that the first appearance of this motif occurs in the Northern Kingdom of Israel under Assyrian domination. Towards the end of the eighth century Assyria introduced the policy of literal mass deportations of peoples. It was at this time that the literary metaphor of “going out” gave way to a very literal idea of physical migration of peoples.

“The link between the ‘exodus’ from Egypt and ‘arrival’ in Canaan is, notoriously, among the most artificial and complicated in the entire corpus of traditions included in the Old Testament” (pp.280-281)

“Moses is never mentioned (apart from Mic. 6.4, a statement of very doubtful authenticity) before the post-exilic age; Sinai is mentioned a couple of times (Judge. 5:5; Pslam 68), but with no connection to the covenant between God and the people.” (p.281)

The late date of the composition of the Exodus story implies that it came from the imagination of an urban (Babylon or Jerusalem) dweller.

“The image of the desert, in the Exodus-Numbers complex, does not come from a pastoral society, seen as a place where the tribes live comfortably, but has the character of ‘place of refuge’ or ‘land of exile’, projecting a very uneasy urban perspective. The way is difficult and risky, full of dangers and lacking water . . . ” (p.281)

Thus we read in Deuteronomy 8:15

.. . the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions, a thirsty place with no water.

Liverani compares the Assyrian king Esarhaddon’s worries about taking his army across a desert:

.. . a remote district, a desert plain of salty land, a region of drought . . . (with) snakes and scorpions which cover the soil like andts (IAKA, 56-57)

Liverani does not make the comparison but it is not unlike the second century Hellenistic romance of Jason’s quest with the Argo for the Golden Fleece as told by Apollonius of Rhodes. Jason’s crew embark across the unknown Libyan desert and immediately suffer burning life-threatening thirst. They are not really prepared and rely totally on divinities to see them through their many unexpected adventures. Water at one time can only come by a miracle, by someone striking a rock with a stick so that water gushed out. Miraculous oases also appeared. And threatening serpents. It’s an armchair romance, just like in the Pentateuch, complete even with some of the same types of miracles so necessary for survival.

To Liverani the Moses story of water gushing out from the rock echoes the probably earlier written history in 2 Kings 3:16-17 where God miraculously filled a wadi with pools of water. He also sees a connection between the Exodus 15:22-25 miracle of Moses purifying the salty water and the (again earlier written) similar miracle by Elisha, in 2 Kings 1:19-22.

The biblical narrative of the desert wanderings thus resonates with the motifs from the literary urban dwellers.

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Neil Godfrey

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