Friday, February 22, 2008

Ethnic War, Ancient Edition: Exodus 1-2

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

My memories of Exodus from reading it the last time are minimal, perhaps because I was paying too little attention at the time (it was one of those mad dashes through the Old Testament, the ones that usually peter out somewhere in Deuteronomy or Numbers.) The NKJV version I’ve just pulled off the shelf helpfully opens with the title “The Second Book of Moses Called Exodus,” which is intriguing since Moses himself does not in fact appear in “The First Book of Moses Called Genesis.” If I were still to take the Bible as the literal word of God, accepting the authorship of Moses makes a kind of sense – he is the first important figure in Hebrew history after the patriarchs of the previous book, and responsible for the creation of the bulk of the Jewish law – though really it serves no purpose, since presumably God could have dictated the history of the world to some other marginally literate individual as easily as he could have to Moses.

The picture of ethnic relations in ancient Egypt described in the beginning of Exodus – what is now “chapter 1” – describes an intriguing tension between the Egyptians and a people now known as the “children of Israel,” at least within the text – so named because they are the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel who arrived in Egypt at the end of Genesis and, via Joseph, went on to occupy privileged positions in a vastly reformed, thoroughly nationalized economy. These “children of Israel” prospered and multiplied until “the land was filled with them.” This is a considerable accomplishment, and a new pharaoh even makes the implausible claim that the Israelites have grown more numerous than the Egyptians.

A new ruler, “who did not know Joseph,” incites his people against the Israelites and effectively enslaves them, although my NKJV translation does not actually use the word – instead, it speaks of specially appointed “taskmasters” who make the Israelites “serve with rigour.” Heavy burdens were set upon the Israelites, like building new “supply cities.” This move is an intriguing one. Clearly there is more going on than that the new pharaoh “did not know Joseph.” By this time, Joseph himself must be long dead, for one thing – not only this pharaoh and his predecessors could not have known Joseph personally. Another way to take this statement would be that the new pharaoh was simply unaware of Joseph’s actions on behalf of the Egyptian royalty, which cemented the monarchy’s position in society. This, too, seems somewhat unlikely, given the importance of Joseph in Egyptian history (or at least Egyptian history as described in the Bible, something which does not necessarily correspond to the archaeological evidence as we now have it). Presumably part of the education of ancient royalty involved at least some understanding of the recent history of the bases of their power.

A more cynical political analysis suggests a possible alternative. Recall that at the end of Genesis Joseph was responsible for reforms which doubtless caused massive resentment among the Egyptian public – a permanent income tax, nationalization of property, and effective enserfment. A new government – or at least a new pharaoh – takes charge and perhaps has difficulty maintaining its stranglehold over the economy and society. The government, not the Israelites, is the one collecting the taxes, and searches for a way to distract the people from its own shortcomings by identifying an enemy. The Jews have played this role in the recent past as well, as have other ethnic and religious groups, although it is very unusual (not to mention implausible and almost certainly an exaggeration) that they would be an economically dominant majority at the time of the new repression. In this case, the Egyptians might have been particularly receptive to such a diversionary tactic given their recollection of the role Joseph had played in their subjugation. This does not provide a moral justification for the Egyptians’ actions, but it does provide an alternative understanding to the bald and repetitive story of an evil king attacking God’s people. Either way, the subjugation of the Israelites echoes their assistance in the subjugation of the Egyptians so many years before.

Having grasped the difficulty of oppressing a majority, and possessed by the sort of genocidal tendencies so common to people in the Old Testament, the pharaoh hits upon a new and novel method of reducing the Israelite population: he instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill all sons born to Israelite women. The midwives disobeyed, apparently because they “feared God.” They justified the lack of infant corpses to the pharaoh on ethnic grounds, too: “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Since there are apparently only two midwives to cover the entire Israelite population (v. 15 helpfully names them for us, as Shiphrah and Puah), it is entirely understandable that they would frequently be late, whether the new mothers are “lively” or not. God rewards the midwives and the Israelites generally and they continue to “multiply and grow very mighty,” despite the fact they are apparently now in slavery. At this point one must begin to wonder how a population which is large, rich, and “mighty” could be so easily subdued and enslaved by the less numerous, weaker Egyptians. In any event, a frustrated pharaoh orders a new tactic: “every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”

Presumably, the pharaoh expects the Israelite girls to grow up to be either exploited by or married off to Egyptian men (or perhaps he intends both). If this is true, then at least some of the gendered aspects of genocide have changed relatively little over the last three thousand years. As becomes typical of Israelite practice later on, the women are largely irrelevant to the question of bloodlines: they are a sort of reproductive investment, property which can produce new children on a fairly regular basis. It is the power of the Israelites, not their identity as Israelites, which is resented.

The marginal status of the female offspring, however, is in this unusual case an intriguing contrast to the role of the women themselves. As I noted in various cases in my commentary in Genesis on this same track, major roles are not typically played by women; and when they are, these roles are usually negative. In this case, however, the actions of the Hebrew women stand as the resistance of their community to Egyptian oppression. The marginalized Israelites do not (yet) struggle against their chains through the actions of warriors, priests, or other men of God; here, it is women who fight Egyptian repression. Their roles are still limited to reproduction, but reproduction is a decisively political activity here: the (male) Pharaoh orders the (female) midwives to kill male newborns, but either the midwives, the mothers, or both refuse to obey. God blessed the Israelites for the women's courage: “the people increased and became even more numerous,” because “the midwives feared God.” The way v. 20-21 are constructed suggests that the midwives may have chosen this profession because they themselves were barren, or at least had no children; God then rewarded them for their courage by “giving them families of their own.” Exodus 1 represents a rare case of the courage and determination of the Israelite community being represented not by a small handful of male religious and political elites but by Israelite women.

The story of Moses in Exodus 2 begins with an elaboration on the Hebrew women's acts of resistance described in the previous chapter: a Levite woman gives birth to a male child and, after hiding him for three months, puts him in a floating basket and sends him off down the Nile, in the hands of fate and (presumably) of God. It is unclear what the Levite woman expected was going to happen – the chances of a baby surviving on its own after being sent down a river being rather slim – but is understandable. In this case, Moses is curiously fortunate, being found by the unlikely saviour of the Pharaoh's daughter. Her slave girl recognizes the crying baby as “one of the Hebrew babies,” suggesting perhaps that such abandonment was commonplace. It is not impossible that the slave girl herself was Hebrew (by this time, the Hebrews having been enslaved). Moses's older sister, who apparently had followed her infant brother's progress along the Nile, then approaches and suggests she will get “one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby.” The woman she has in mind is, of course, Moses's mother. Later, Moses is given up again, this time directly to the Pharaoh's daughter, who raised him as a son. How, precisely, the Pharaoh's daughter was able to justify the sudden arrival of a new son to her father (or to her husband, if she had one) is an interesting question which the Biblical account does not bother to answer.

The role of women in this account is again significant – indeed, there are no men involved at all. Moses's mother abandons him in order to avoid discovery by the Egyptian government, with the faint hope that by putting him in a basket she might allow him to survive as the child of another family farther down the Nile. Her daughter stands on the riverbanks to watch, and later plays an instrumental role in having Moses returned to his mother. The Pharaoh's daughter rescues the infant – or more precisely, her slavegirl does so on the woman's orders. These women are not mentioned again in the Bible, except for the sister, who might be Miriam.

Once Moses has grown up, indeed, the story returns to the traditional heroic figure – the strong and protective Hebrew warrior. Moses watches an Egyptian beating a slave, and then kills the Egyptian. It's not clear what was special about this particular experience; Moses had been raised at the Egyptian court and presumably would have been aware of such goings-on for quite some time. In any case, apparently he has had enough. He is surprised the next day when he breaks up a fight between two Hebrews and is not met with gratitude or respect. Moses's reasoning in this case is a very curious matter. He is afraid because they are aware he has killed an Egyptian; he seems blind to the fact that they might be resentful of his intervention because, in their eyes, he is just one more Egyptian noble. The great revelation that Moses is both an Egyptian noble and a Hebrew Levite never seems to happen; the Pharaoh expresses no surprise at Moses's new role as the priest of the Israelites several chapters later. This is one of the most confusing and contradictory points in the narrative.

At any rate, Moses seizes the opportunity to flee Egypt and goes into self-imposed exile in Midian, where in exchange for helping a priest's seven daughters get water for a flock of sheep, he gets a hot pastor's kid as a wife (Zipporah). He seems to accept his new, diminished status, but longs for his homeland via the name of his firstborn son, Gershom – the name apparently refers to “alien,” and at the birth the father somberly notes, “I have become an alien in a foreign land.” Fortunately, his time as a political dissident-in-exile soon comes to an end.

The status of Zipporah, or more accurately of her father Reuel, is curiously vague. Zipporah is not an Israelite by birth – which would become a problem for future Israelite men, but apparently is not a serious concern yet – and it is not clear in what religious tradition Reuel serves as “priest.” Were non-Israelite religious groups serving God at this time in Biblical history? Did Moses accept the charity and hospitality of a pagan family? Significantly, the writer of Exodus does not seem to care.