Having fled slavery in Egypt, the Israelites receive various new orders from God, generally via Moses. Many of those in chapter 13 seem to confirm the patriarchal nature of this religious regime, demanding initially that the firstborn – “whatsoever openeth the womb” – is the property of the LORD, but then moving on to the explicit assertion that it’s the male firstborn that is actually of interest.
Not that being of the LORD is necessarily a good thing, unless you’re human, as for other species it seems to entail getting sacrificed:
13/15 “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.”
For once, in the this book, being female seems like a better option.
Despite the grim fates it prescribes for an awful lot of male creature, some of the language in this chapter is fantastically powerful and resonant – positively Biblical, in fact:
13/21 “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; and to go by day and night:
13/22 He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.”
But despite any lyrical tendencies that may be showing themselves, the LORD is still doing the whole dangerous capricious thing, hardening Pharaoh’s heart again (in chapter 14 verses 4, 8 and 17), apparently with the continued aim of being able punish the Egyptians for actions which God himself has engendered by the reaction that he inspires in Pharaoh.
Given that this chapter features another great Biblical iconic event, the parting of the Red Sea, this is fairly significant, as it involves the entire Egyptian army, complete with the poor horses who like all those poor animals that died in the Plagues have done nothing to anyone, getting swept away by the wrathful waters after the Israelites have passed.
Like many great events of the Bible, there have been many archaeologists and, to be blunt about it, pseudo-scholars running around trying to find geological and archaeological evidence for real events which might account for the legends. The actual creation of the Red Sea, a northern part of the African Rift Valley which ends with the Dead Sea, isn’t really a candidate, since it was a process which happened – whether suddenly or gradually is disputed – tens of millions of years ago. Film director James Cameron, whose other peer-reviewed scientific studies include Titanic and Terminator, managed to tweak Biblical estimates that the exodus probably took place around 1300BCE and push it back a few hundred years to coincide with the huge volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini, which probably destroyed the Minoan civilisation on Crete and is often associated with the creation of the legend of Atlantis. This is based on some re-readings of Egyptian carvings to decide that the eruption caused the plagues:
“The Exodus producers believe the waters were turned red by chemicals released by underwater tremors. Something similar happened to the lakes in Cameroon in 1986. If the waters were poisoned, amphibians would hop ashore, producing the biblical plague of frogs. When the frogs died, insects would have bred on their bodies leading to plagues of locusts, fleas and lice.
They in turn would have spread disease to humans, the plague of boils, and animals, the plague of dying livestock. They would also have threatened crops, forcing the Egyptians to store grain which might have then turned mouldy. Contaminated food might account for the plague of deaths among first-born Egyptian males. Weather conditions spawned by the eruption might also have caused the plagues of hailstorms and darkness.”
(The Sunday Times, 6th August 2006)
and then the same set of volcanic disturbances resulted in the parting of the waters of the Red Sea.
Most of Chapter 15 of Exodus reads like a hymn of praise the God for this salvation, lyrical and rhythmic and following the kind of verse forms typical of such songs, with repetition of the achievements for which praise is being given, and listing of other victories and strengths:
15/15“Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away.”
This gratitude, however, does not last long. Somewhat disempowered by several generations in slavery, the Israelites fairly rapidly start wailing and complaining about the lack of food and water, and generally being ungrateful and showing very little initiative.
15/24 “And the people began to murmur against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?”
This carries on in chapter 16, until finally God resolves the situation by sending manna from heaven, a kind of fluffy white frost which quickly disappears when the sun comes up and “bred worms, and stank” if people tried to gather it up to keep overnight. It does sound wonderful:
16/31 “And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”
However, the Israelites do apparently have to live on it for the forty (count ’em) years it takes for them to get through Sinai to Canaan (which seems a little excessive, it’s not THAT far, and hell they managed to invade the whole thing in less than a week during the Six Day War).
And now I’m going to finish off with a cartoon which doesn’t specifically relate to this post but I is vaguely associated with the whole theme of this blog, and which I thought was quite amusing.