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Moses narrative tried to root out any attraction to Egypt

Gili Kugler
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Published: 28 March 2018

Last updated: 5 March 2024

ACCORDING TO THE PROPHET EZEKIEL, God did not take the people of Israel out of Egypt because of their need for salvation. Reading further in the prophet’s review, we learn that the exodus was the realisation of a special relationship God designated for the people.

The relationship was inaugurated in the land of Egypt in the moment of God’s revelation to the people. This moment made the bond with them impossible to break, as its violation could damage God’s own reputation. This is what we read in Ezekiel 20:5-9:

“…On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob—making myself known to them in the land of Egypt—I swore to them, saying, I am the LORD your God. On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands… But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt.”

This narrative about Egypt differs remarkably from the well-known exodus story. Together with the lack of reference to the people’s need, the narrative mentions the idea that God has revealed himself to the whole nation, contradicting the famous story of God’s revelation in Egypt exclusively to Moses, the people’s representative and God’s mediator. Nevertheless, such a tradition, about a collective revelation, is not completely alien to the Bible

In the book of Samuel, in the speech to Eli the priest by the man of God, we read that God has revealed himself to the priest’s family, the Levites, “when they were in Egypt [related] to the house of Pharaoh”. The speech does not mention a situation of servitude in Egypt, and the basis of the revelation seems to be not the people’s needs, but the appointment of the Levites as those who enact the worship rituals.

Whereas this reference relates a revelation in Egypt to the Levites, another reference, found in a hidden corner of the exodus story, mentions a collective revelation in Egypt to the whole people of Israel, like the narrative of Ezekiel 20.

The Hebrew text of Exodus 2:23-25 recounts that God heard the cry of the people, remembered the early covenant with the people’s ancestors and then looked upon the people and knew. The last part of this description is syntactically odd. First, while the subject of the sentence, God, occurs twice in the verse, one of the verbs related to him lacks a required object: “… and God knew” – what or whom did God know? Moreover, it seems unnecessary to mention God’s “looking” and “knowing” after the information about God’s recognition of the people’s cry and his remembrance of the covenant.

The Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, proposes a better reading of this passage (Exodus 2:25), differentiating two consecutive stages in God’s reaction – seeing the people and then revealing to them: “And God looked upon the Israelites, and made himself known to them.”

Thus, instead of the redundant information about God’s “knowing”, which lacks a required object, the Greek uses a verb that contains both subject and object – made known, revealed himself. By that it links a consequence to God’s taking notice of the people – his being noticed by them.

The Greek translation of the Bible, dated to the third century BCE, preserves in numerous cases an earlier and more authentic version of the Bible, preceding the current version of the Hebrew text, which comes to us through medieval manuscripts (the Masoretic Text).

In the case of Exodus 2:25 the Greek translation reflects a preferable version, presenting an earlier tradition according to which God was revealed to the whole nation while still in Egypt.

This narrative was later replaced by the text of the exclusive relationship with Moses, integrated with a more popular narrative of oppression in the enemy’s country.

Prompted by anti-Egypt campaigns, this narrative aimed to root out the attraction of Egypt to the ancient Israelites – an attraction that can be traced in the Bible’s stories, laws, historiography and prophetic speeches.

The authors pursued a story of slavery and distress, followed by a concept of salvation conducted not only by God but also by a human redeemer, who was the only one to experience the divine revelation.

Exodus without slavery: An alternative history of the Israelites in Egypt

Main image: The Ibscha Relief from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, showing Semitic traders (possibly the Hyksos) coming to Egypt some 4,000 years ago (Wikimedia Commons)


About the author

Gili Kugler

Dr Gili Kugler is a Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies in Sydney University. Her book, When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move, was published this year by De Gruyter

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