“Moses was our leader” — Part Two

Taking up where the first of these two posts left off – Moses, with a rag-tag “mixed multitude” of escaped slaves, was leading them through the Sinai Peninsula to the comparative safety of Midian, in northwest Arabia. The Kenite wild man, Hobab (Kenites were a Midianite tribe) was acting as their guide. The “multitude” would have comprised two or three thousand folk at most, despite the incredible figures the King James English Bible gives. Modern scholars tend to think that “six hundred thousand” men of an age to bear weapons and fight is an error of translation, and that the Hebrew actually means so-and-so many “households.”

It might for all I know. This much is sure. Six hundred thousand men of fighting age (twenty) would imply at least two hundred thousand male youths and children below that age, and about one hundred thousand minimum above fighting age (sixty). That makes nine hundred thousand males, and, of course, the same number of women and girls. One point eight million Hebrews all up. Toss in another two hundred thou for the “mixed multitude” that the Bible says went out of Egypt with them, and you have a round two million.

The entire population of Egypt proper in the new kingdom was about three million. The greatest city, Memphis, had a population of two hundred thousand, tops – and that’s with the mighty Nile to provide its water, and allow a steady stream of barges and ships to bring it supplies. In no way compatible with reality could two million people survive in the desert for forty years, or, if they did, do so without leaving traces for later archaeologists to find. Their rubbish heaps alone would be as large as the pyramids.

Another point with which to deal in passing, is the notion that Israel was a single homogeneous people with a single culture and tongue when it left Egypt – the Twelve Tribes, descended each from one of Isaac’s sons, Benjamin, Reuben, Ephraim, etcetera. It wasn’t. Some of the tribes that would later become part of the nation of Israel were settled in Canaan already, some, no doubt, were established in Midian, and some grew out of the group that fled with Moses. The latter would have been made up of Syrians, Hittites, Shasu, and some Midianites like Hobab, some Egyptians, and some Nubians.

To unite them and keep them united, they had to have, quickly, what every tribe and nation in those days needed – a god or gods in common. Moses was a potential prophet even before he reached Midian; he’d have scribal and priestly training as a noble’s son, and, in this blogger’s opinion, had at least been attracted in his youth by the “heresy” of Akhenaten, which leaned in the direction of monotheism. But – also in my opinion – the perfectly orthodox Egyptian religion of Amun-Ra, in his day the greatest god of Egypt, supplied more of the tenets of Moses’ religion than Atenism did.

Amun had been a mere local god of Thebes while the Hyksos invaders ruled the Delta. When the princes of Thebes led the resistance and beat the invaders, Amun became a potent god throughout Egypt, his temples immense, rich and ubiquitous, his priesthood supreme. He even absorbed the attributes of the sun-god and became known as Amun-Ra. Since Egypt then established an empire under his patronage, he came to be considered universal – “Lord of the Thrones of the World” and “He Whose Rays Reach the Ends of the Earth”. As the patron god of Thebes, he had his main temple there, and as Egypt’s empire grew, so did the massive size and incredible wealth of his temple and priesthood. Today we call it Karnak. In ancient times it was called “the Most Perfect of Places.”

The basic features of that titanic temple were laid out by the formidable warrior Pharaoh Tuthmoses I, his daughter Hatshepsut, the no less redoubtable “female Pharaoh”, and her nephew Tuthmoses III, who detested her. (She ran the country and held him back from assuming power for years.) Seti I and his son Rameses II between them added the mighty hypostyle hall. Champollion said it seemed to have been “conceived by men a hundred feet high.” A long white avenue with rows of ram-headed sphinxes on each side led to the temple complex. Such was the expression of Amun-Ra’s world-encompassing power. The later temple of Solomon in Israel, despite its legendary status and the glorious descriptions of it given in the Bible, was probably a hut by comparison.

Amun-Ra had other resemblances to the capital-G God Israel was to worship later, besides mere power. He was called “The Hidden One” and men were at least wary of speaking his name, which was held to be excessively holy. More accurately, he had many names by which he was called, but his true name was secret. Like other Egyptian gods, he was worshipped in a temple which had an outer courtyard, an inner courtyard, and an inmost fane which only priests were allowed to enter after a purification ritual. On special occasions Amun-Ra’s portable shrine, or ark, was carried before the people – and it went with Egypt’s army when the soldiers battled in foreign campaigns, since it was believed to bring victory. He was regarded as a universal creator god, and also as one who gave justice to the poor, the humble, and the powerless.

Moses had the brilliant idea of creating, not just a new nation worshipping an unseen, universal god, but a nation of priests dedicated to that god. He imposed a number of Egyptian religious customs and compromised on others. Egyptian priests had to be circumcised as a matter of ritual cleanliness – check. They were forbidden to eat pork – check. They might not wear linen garments and woolen ones together – check. Only the actual and appointed priests might enter the inner shrine of the temple, the Holy of Holies, and then only after a purification ritual – check.

They also had to be shaved and depilated all over their bodies, but besides being impractical on the desert, it was something no proud pagan desert warrior would accept. Shave our beards and genitals? What are we, women? Eunuchs? Never! So Moses let that one go.

We held our usual meetings and listened to the speeches.
We tried enthusiasm but it didn’t hit the spot.
The old time kick was missing without the Gyppy strong-arms
To bust up our conventions and chase us off the lot.

That brings us to the question of their time in the wilderness, no matter which “wilderness” it was. The Pentateuch says it was forty years. That becomes suspect at once. “Forty” is a traditional or sacred number used again and again in the Bible, usually in the context of a time of purification or testing. When the Flood cleansed the earth, it rained for “forty days and forty nights”. Moses traditionally lived for 120 years – forty as a prince of Egypt, forty more in Midian after he fled from Egypt, and then forty with the Hebrews in the desert after he led them out of bondage. He spent forty days and nights on the holy mountain to commune with God and receive the tablets of the Law. As mentioned last post, the First Book of Kings 6:1 dates the Exodus to 480 years before Solomon built his temple, or forty times twelve – a forty-year period for each of the twelve tribes. It even continues in the New Testament. Jesus fasted and was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. Then after his resurrection, he spent forty days on earth before making his ascension into heaven.

Whatever the actual span of years was, then, it surely wasn’t a literal forty. It might have been eighty, or a hundred, or even two hundred. The only certainties are, that we don’t know when Moses and his group of runaway slaves left Egypt, and we don’t know when it was that their descendants drifted into Canaan. We can be pretty sure that Moses had a length of life much closer to normal than the Bible tells us, and that in all likelihood he never had any concept of a “promised land” in Canaan for his people. To him it would have appeared an impossible notion, and he’d have been right. The Egyptian Empire of the New Kingdom controlled Canaan, southern Syria and Transjordan. That dominance hadn’t been seriously weakened since the time of Akhenaten. Horemheb, Seti I, Rameses II, and even that lesser character, Merenptah, had maintained it as a matter of high priority. Their reigns added together covered almost a hundred and twenty years. Not until Egypt was weakened by several short reigns and a couple of usurpers, and the last strong fighting Pharaoh, Rameses III, had the onslaughts of Libyans and Sea Peoples to give him all he could handle, could tribesmen from Midian begin moving north into Canaan with impunity. After Rameses III (in whose reign all the stories written so far about my character, Kamose the Magician, Archpriest of Anubis, are set) it was essentially all over for Egypt’s empire. A number of Pharaohs carried the name Rameses, but they were shadows of Rameses II and III, and Egypt’s control over Canaan and Syria vanished like hoarfrost in the sun. That gave the tribes from Midian (maybe the country was crowded by that time) their chance.

Even then the evidence is powerful that the blitzkrieg conquest of Canaan, described in the Book of Joshua, involving the destruction of Jericho, Ai and Hazor by that leader, never happened. And the Book of Judges which follows gives a somewhat different picture of a more gradual infiltration. Again, the period of the Judges couldn’t have lasted as long as the Bible declares (410 years) because the first King of Israel, Saul, was anointed by Samuel sometime around 1025 BCE. That would push Joshua’s career back to 1435 – before Moses was born. This blogger believes that they never knew each other, all right, but for the opposite reason. Joshua wasn’t born until after Moses had died.

Moses, I believe, did have a lot of trouble with his fractious people on the journey to Midian and after he arrived. Chiefly it arose from his high and magnificent concept of one universal creator-god, common to all men – which, as I’ve said, doubtless derived to a degree from the supreme Egyptian god Amun-Ra. His roughneck tribal followers had a much more primitive concept of their deity, as one who was concerned with them only, and was perfectly okay with their attacking, dispossessing and slaughtering other peoples who worshipped other gods. Or as REH says in his verses on the topic: –

Yes, Moses kicked the bucket but before he made the hurdle
He gave us rules and customs by which we should abide
The elders of the people, they swore to heed and follow
But Moses sneered and muttered and cursed us as he died.

“A dream I had,” said Moses, “I tried to make it real.
“I gave up life and fortune to labor with you dubs.
“You’ll put my work to laughter; you’ll grow purse-proud and haughty
“You’ll all become Rotarians and join the Lion Clubs.”

“You’ll slaughter tribes and cities and say you did God’s bidding.
“You’ll bow before foul Mammon, your women’s’ souls you’ll sell.
“You’ll seek to crush the prophets who teach the truths I taught you.
“You’re all a lot of bastards and you all can go to Hell.”

None of that is new. Sigmund Freud, no less, laid it out in his work Moses and Monotheism (1937). Among other views expounded here, he held that Moses wasn’t Jewish but Egyptian. With that I thoroughly agree; it stands out like a silver coin on red velvet. I rather doubt that the people rebelled against Moses and killed him in their disagreement with his religious principles, as Freud theorizes. It’s possible but the verdict would have to be, “Not proven.” In my – I admit amateur and untrained – estimate, Moses or Hapimoses was born about the third year of Tutankhamen’s reign, into a noble and priestly family in a normal way. He escaped from Egypt with the absconding slaves at about the age of thirty-six and spent the rest of his life in Midian, a prophet and religious leader, dying at last at about eighty. His career included marrying Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, Hobab’s sister, and fathering Gershom and Eleazer. The sacred mountain of Horeb where he communed with God was in Midian, not in the Sinai Peninsula, and definitely not the mountain known as Sinai today.

Joshua – again, if he wasn’t a legend, and led the people of Moses into Canaan – must have been born years after Moses died and never known him personally.

Same applies to Aaron. True, REH mentions him in his ribald verses on the Exodus and the entry into Canaan by the Hebrews, the first time imputing the use of crooked dice to Moses’ (alleged) brother. I say alleged because there’s a lot of doubt that they were really related, or even knew each other. That whole business about the golden calf beneath the sacred mountain, with Aaron going along with this idolatry, played for all it’s worth by de Mille in The Ten Commandments is odd if you don’t know what the golden calf was or when it was really set up. It actually dates to the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel, in the late tenth century BCE – after David and Solomon. Jeroboam I (there was a later king with the same name) led the revolt of the northern tribes that split the kingdom in two, Israel in the north, Judah in the south. It didn’t suit him politically to have his people going down to Jerusalem, capital of Judah, to worship, so he set up two main shrines at the two ends of his own kingdom, with the image of a gilded bull in each one, and told his subjects to worship there. The documents on which the Book of Exodus is based weren’t written until after that time … considerably long after. The so-called J and E documents, about the earliest, were written after 900 BCE and before 722 BCE, when the northern kingdom of Israel fell.

The bull was sacred to the tribal god El. Israel was formed from an amalgamation of tribes, some of which called their deity Yahweh and some of which called him El. You can find him referred to by both names in the Bible – or as Elohim, which is the plural. (And El, by the way, was a Canaanite god to begin with, having a female consort, the goddess Asherah or Astarte – held as an abomination by the later priests of Judah.) The writer of the document that condemns the golden calf as an idol, and denigrates Aaron, was a Levite who had an interest in touting the superior status of Moses. There were rival priesthoods struggling to impose their religious ideas, some claiming descent and inspiration from Moses, some from Aaron. Then, when the kingdom was united again – or rather, after Israel was destroyed and the refugees poured into Judah – the two had to be reconciled somehow, at least to a degree. So Moses and Aaron were revised into brothers, with Moses the superior prophet.

Well. With Moses dead and buried, the people he had tried to teach his religious revelations grew less and less inclined to worship a universal god and more content with a tribal god. They lived in Midian for a couple of generations, after he was gone – or even longer. The place wasn’t the “wilderness” the Bible suggests it was. In fact it lay at the northern end of the incense trail from Yemen, and the Arabian camel had quite possibly been domesticated by then, though it wasn’t much known outside Arabia yet. Whether the incense was carried in donkey or camel caravans, Midian would have been pretty prosperous as the main way-station for the trade, between Yemen in the south and Syria and Egypt in the north. It had a few rich towns at least.

Perhaps as early as the reign of Pharaoh Merenptah, with the Egyptian Empire growing weaker and more demoralized, people began drifting north from Midian into the tempting lands of Canaan. Joshua may have been their leader. The overwhelming, swift and bloody conquest of Canaan described in the Book of Joshua is legend, not actuality. Jericho was occupied by a much declined population of squatters by Joshua’s day, and its famous walls would have been in a terrible state of disrepair – if it wasn’t absolutely deserted and the walls long fallen, which is more likely. But supposing that Joshua did attack it – its springs of water at least would have been important to him — and the walls were still standing, he’d have had to get over them or reduce them. Even as poorly patched shadows of their former strength, they might have done to hold back a force of half-civilized Midianites.

The collapse of the walls is sometimes attributed to a divine miracle and sometimes to a possible convenient earthquake. This blogger suspects that while the priests were marching around the walls for days, blowing ram’s-horn trumpets and carrying the Ark, Joshua had sappers digging under the decrepit walls at their weakest until a section of them collapsed. The sappers would have been crushed under the masonry and the priests would have given the credit to God in the later written versions of the event. If it’s correct that Joshua sent spies into the country, and to Jericho itself, where the brothel-keeper Rahab sheltered them, she might have sold them information about the state of the walls and the best places to undermine them.

Now Simian and Levi went down to spy the country.
They got as far as Jericho and met up with a drab.
She got ‘em drunk and talking, but took a fancy to ‘em
And took ‘em to the whore-house of a woman named Rahab.

The Canaanitish Legion came after Sim and Levi
But Rahab double-crossed ‘em and got the Hebrews out
And sent ‘em back a-hiking; they hit the camp next morning
Still lit and scarcely knowing what it was all about.

Now Rahab said to Levi, “Kid, we can help each other.
“I pay high for protection, then these slabs raid my joint.
“I give you inside data, you take the city over
“I run my joint wide-open, you sheenies get the point?”

There are bigger and more insuperable objections to the story of Joshua’s conquest and destruction of the city of Ai by clever misdirection and ambush. Ai was a long-abandoned ruin by the Late Bronze Age. There was a huge Early Bronze Age city on the site, but then, if the story of its overthrow by Joshua and the Hebrews is true, he must have flourished around 1400 BCE at the latest.

In 1400 BCE, Tuthmoses IV was the Pharaoh of Egypt, following Tuthmoses III and Amunhotep II, both of whom were energetic warriors who kept tight control of Canaan and Syria, reacting swiftly and ruthlessly to any trouble-makers. Tuthmoses IV followed their example. He forged an alliance with the Mitanni Empire of northern Syria, and during his reign he led his forces more than once into southern Syria and Palestine, to crush some uprisings there. But those uprisings were minor. If Joshua had been behind them he wouldn’t have gotten far. The grip of imperial Egypt on the area remained secure throughout that period. Nor does the Bible describe Joshua as ever having had any trouble from Egypt.

Joshua and his followers might, though, more plausibly, have been the ones who conquered and burnt the city of Hazor, as indeed the Bible credits them with doing. (Joshua Chapter 11.) It says that Hazor at that time was the most powerful of all those kingdoms. Joshua’s boys are on Biblical record as having killed everyone in the city, sparing none, as they did elsewhere. As REH expresses it through the mouth of his narrator:

We hung the Canaan captives, burned some in the fires,
And fixed the Canaan babies on spears till they were dead.
We raped the Canaan women then left ‘em for the desert
For we were the Chosen peoples as the priests had plainly said.

That’s no exaggeration, as the Bible itself confirms. Instructions are supposed to have come from God himself that a foreign city, whose people worshipped any divinity but him, might be called on to surrender forthwith and submit to servitude. If it refused, and was taken, all grown men and male infants too, were to be slaughtered. All women who weren’t virgins had to die also. The virgins might be taken as wives or slaves. Even a woman of the Chosen People who was discovered on her wedding night to have bedded a man already, must die. If she compounded the disgrace by being a priest’s daughter she had to be burnt alive. All down the ages the Amalekite tribe in particular was marked for merciless genocide. In King Saul’s time the prophet Samuel ordered him to wipe them out, man, woman, child and even the domestic animals. The offense that called for such treatment wasn’t anything the Amalekites had done in Saul and Samuel’s day, but because their ancestors had opposed the Israelites when they first came out of bondage in Egypt. That’s the stated cause. (First Book of Samuel, Chapter 15: 1-3.)

The Egyptians, the Philistines, and for that matter, probably the Amalekites themselves – even if they were habitual bandits – were more civilized.

As hinted earlier, there are huge contradictions between the accounts in the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges, which purport to describe the same period. Joshua describes the kings of Megiddo, Beth-Shean, Dor, and Gezer as having been defeated by the Israelites, and given the axe, naturally. The Book of Judges lists these same Canaanite cities as having remained uncaptured. It also describes the Israelites as often being humbled and beaten by their heathen enemies, always for the same reason – because “ … they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were round about them … ” (Judges Chapter 2).

That’s the way with prophets and priests. When things go well, it’s due to the grace and might of their god. When things go badly, it’s your fault.

Nevertheless, the descendants of the forced labor levies who absconded from Egypt did obtain a place to live in freedom – first in Midian, and later in Canaan. After the time of the judges they were forced to choose a king to lead them in battle against the Philistines, who had given the Egyptians a lot of trouble too, from the reign of Merenptah on to that of Rameses III, to whom they were known as the “Sea Peoples.” Rameses III trounced them off the Delta. The Israelites’ first king, Saul, led them well against the Philistines, but then he was supplanted by David, with the treacherous connivance of the prophet Samuel. The earliest post of mine that saw daylight in this fine weblog dealt with those events – “Mighty Saul and Sneaky Samuel,” also based on REH’s verses. Would the shade of Moses have approved of Samuel, or not? I wonder. But for better or worse:

Ah, those desert years were over, no more dusty leagues of travel.
No more sand dunes bare and dreary, nor dusty months of drouth.
How we shouted, in our triumph, swinging into Canaan,
Laughing into Canaan from the deserts of the south.

Read Part One