Wednesday, 8 February 2012

HISTORY OF ISRAELITE RELIGION Second Stage: Religion of the Liberated Larger Group (Exodus Group)


Summary based on Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, vol.1: From the Beginnings to the End of the Exile, translated by John Bowden, British edition (London: SCM Press, 1994) 40-66.

Those who handed down the history of Israel record the story of the Exodus group as the second but decisive phase of its history. Traditionally the complex social status of the people of Israel as slaves and conscripts for forced labour, their experience of liberation by god Yahweh through Moses and the powerful theophany of Yahweh at Sinai are upheld as the foundation events of the Israelite religion. In the view of the tradition, the exodus group refers to the Israelites 600,000 men (Ex 12.37) who lived in Egypt, five centuries after the time of Abraham. The group originally is believed to have entered Egypt, as a small group of families compelled by famine. Suspecting their increase with the years in strength and number, the rulers of Egypt impose them to harsh labour. Yet, the group is miraculously redeemed by the mighty hand of Yahweh crossing the sea of Reeds under the guidance of Moses despite the military supremacy of its opponents. Yahweh then appears to them in Mount Sinai and makes a covenant with them.

Scholars are quick to note that every detail of what is written down does not correspond to the actual events, as the major mass of the source is nearly 700-800 years distant from the events. Further the significance of Pentateuch for Yahweh religion is of later origin. One finds no mention of Exodus-Sinai tradition in the books composed before exile, like prophet Isaiah. The faithful dissemination of the events, on the other hand hint that they probably played a leading role among the tribes of Central Palestine and Northern Kingdom. Despite the controversies that surround the subject, it is important because we could find possible explanation of the special features of Yahweh religion only in the thickly crowded story of the Exodus group present in Exodus – Deuteronomy. Our task here is threefold: first to understand the identity and social organization of the Exodus group, second to name the decisive religious experience in the event of liberation and in their life in the wilderness, and third to present the transition of worship from the patriarchal religion to structured religion of the larger liberated group.

Identity and Social Organization of the Exodus Group

Contrary to the traditional material that magnifies the number of Israelites, scholars argue that only one group lived in Egypt which later contributed its religious experience to the tribal alliance. However the tradition is correct pointing the increase in the size of the group, and that they were group of workers conscripted into forced labour by the state (Ex 1. 11-14, 5.3-19) to build the store cities of Pithom and Ramses. But the Exodus group was mixed (Ex 12.38, Num 11.4). Because, it was detachment of ‘prisoners of war’ of ethnically differing origin; according to the theory W. Helck only such group was involved in state building. Moreover the term ‘hap/biru’, ‘Hebrew’ in English which is explicitly used to refer to the Exodus group in the Bible (Ex 1-12),  in cuneiform resources (the earliest know system of writing used in ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian writings) was used only to refer to ‘outlaws’, those that disrupted the Near East as looting bands. In Egyptian resources they were known as prw. There is a mention of these prws to have collected grains from Egypt and labored in building the store cities. So this sufficiently proves that the Exodus group originally was a band of fugitives; it is further proved by repeated reports of the lack of solidarity which was initially the characteristic of the group (Ex 2.11-15, 5.20f, 6.9). 

With the meager evidences about the structure, composition and living condition, the scholars assume that probably it must have been a tribal organization despite any solid evidence of tribal structures or ethnic coherence. Besides the scholars are suspicious of the general assumption that the group was ‘former nomads’ who had sought refuge with their herds in the Nile Delta in an emergency. But there are no Egyptian evidences for the involvement of nomads in the state forced labour. The OT, in addition, portrays Exodus group as ignorant of the nomadic customs (Ex 9.26, Num 10.29-32). Moreover the fact that Moses had an Egyptian name and was identified by the Midianites as an Egyptian, suggest that the Exodus group though consisted of semitic elements, economically adapted the Egyptian way of living. In other words, it is wrong to associate the origin of Yahweh religion to nomads, instead it is connected to people who are socially declassed as outlaws and conscripts to forced labour living in a foreign land.

Religious Experience: Exodus-Sinai Events

The Exodus group experiences god Yahweh in the process of their historical and political liberation from Egypt and in his magnificent theophany at Sinai, the mountain of God. The book of Exodus reports in different ways how this assimilated group of foreign forced laborers, with no solidarity, incapable of political action and oppressed, by the initiative of God gain a political leader, hope and strength to make a common political act of liberation. Because the first attempt of rebellion by Moses (Ex 2. 11-14) comes to grief, people do not recognize him as leader. They threaten to denounce him. So he flees Egypt and outside the Egyptian sphere of power, gets to know god Yahweh. Then on the basis of the oracle of Yahweh he returns to his people and successfully accomplishes the mission of liberation. Yahweh therefore is experienced by the group as a god who at the decisive moment finds it a political leader to motivate it for its liberation and enables it to succeed. It is good to note that only in the act of liberation the Exodus group first gets to know the god Yahweh through Moses (Ex 3.13f, 15; 6.2). This does not mean that the group hand no religion nor their worship of  family gods and other Semitic and Egyptian gods. But point made, only in the act of liberation the group feels a special tie to the god Yahweh.

It is mistaken to conceive God Yahweh to have been associated with Israel from the beginning. Gathering evidences from the OT tradition and further research, the scholars conclude that the term ‘Yahweh’ has its origin in the hilly wilderness, the desert region of the southern Palestine, which is not part of the territory of Israel. Later the place is called as Sinai. Furthermore, old poetic texts note a local link between Yahweh and this region. Egyptian lists from 14th and 13th BCE, attest the name ‘Yahweh’ to same region of Southern Palestine. It is highly probable that Yahweh was worshipped here by Kenites the nomadic group of Midianites, before he became the God of Israel. Remember Moses is said to have married a Midianite woman whose father has been a Midianite Priest (Ex 2.16; 3.1; 18.1). Though the tradition fluctuates about the name of his father in law, Reuel (2.18), Jethro (3.1) and Jether (4.18), his last name was Kenite. It is quite possible therefore that Moses first got to know this god through the mediation of his Midianite father-in-law before receiving from his the oracle that sent him back to Egypt and made his the liberator of his group. So the god Yahweh is older than Israel. Moreover it was important that he was an alien God unknown to the Egyptian pantheon of gods, thus in a position to break their religious system and challenge their social structure. As a mountain God of the wild worshipped by the freedom loving nomads he could not but be the symbol of liberation for Moses and his people – ‘God of the Hebrews’ (Ex 3.18,  5.3, 7.16; 9.1,13; 10.3). Apart from these the plague narratives and the highlight of Moses as worthy of an exclusive theophany, as a magical religious leader are works of the later traditions.

Second key experience according to the tradition is the encounter of God on Sinai. Scholars question the authenticity of Sinai tradition as recorded in the text (Ex 19 – Num 10). Theophany of Yahweh at Sinai, scholars argue could have been the result their worship in the mountain sanctuary. Just as Moses had come to know, so in turn the Midianites introduced the Exodus group to the cult of Yahweh at the mountain of God. Tradition records following events to have taken place at Sinai: theophany, foundation of the cult, proclamation of the commandments and making of the covenant. Scholars on the other hand, note that event at the most would have become the foundation for the regular worship of Yahweh by the group. The rest are ascribed to the vested interests of the post-exilic writers.

Characteristics of the Religion of the Exodus Group

Similar to the experience of patriarchs, in the Yahweh religion the action of god Yahweh is related to the central situation of the group in an emergency; like the family god Yahweh too attaches to the group, reveals a future for it and sees to its survival. But the similarities end here. Since the religion is of the larger group, the experience of god’s saving intervention is more complex than the former Patriarchal religion. First, the span of the ‘divine word of promise’ is extended enormously, from a year in the religion of the smaller group to a span of generation (40 years) in the religion of the larger group.  This was mostly due to the long drawn out political-historical process in the case of the latter.

Second, Yahweh does not relate to directly to the people concerned, but through an intermediary. This is the fundamental characteristic of the religion of the larger group. Religious representation, in this phase is decisive for the relationship between god Yahweh and people. Moreover there arises specific religious cult, which strengthened the bond between Yahweh and the people and reinforced the social composition of the group. The cult is performed in a holy place; it is bound to a holy time which separates itself from the regular history (Ex 24.16; 19.10f,15); the participants are asked to prepare themselves by special rites (Ex 19.10, 14f: washing clothes, sexual continence); it is performed by one or more mediators who enter the sacred place to perform the rites. Thus there arose religious association who claimed to be guardians of the cult and code, alongside the tribal organization (Ex 32.25-29). Further the traditional sources mention the use of sacred equipments like ‘tent of meeting’ (Ex 33. 7-11 11.16f, 24; Deut 31.14f) and ‘ark’ (Num 10.35f; 14.44). Though their importance as cultic objects gains momentum in the later phase of the Israelite religion, still their usage was the imitation of the small tent that carried the images of tribal gods among the tribes of that region. It mostly served as portable sanctuary where people would connect to Yahweh through Moses or priests.

Third, Religion of the larger group involved to a much greater degree human decision and participation than the simple relationship of trust adequate in the family piety. In other words, it demanded faith. Given the particular situation – the socio-political liberation – in which the Yahweh religion begun, it necessitated both loyalty within and the explicit distance from the neighboring religions and worships. Basic legal norms and simple form of legislations guarded the inner unity and the latter intention gave rise to exclucivism.   Sole worship of Yahweh and lack of images were another characteristic of this phase. It was however, less a choice and more an effect of the simple social structure. This later develops into a covenant which is the foundation of the Israelite religion.

Putting them together, religion in the liberated larger group was centred on their experience of god Yahweh in the act of political liberation and in his theophany at Sinai. It was the real beginning of the institutionalized Israelite religion. It consisted of elements like, cult of Yahweh, religious representation, basic norms and simple legislations (covenant) that would later be noted as the distinctive characteristics of Israelite religion. 

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