Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Bring on Cecil B. DeMille

The story we are about to read is not only the foundational myth of the Jewish people. It has also become a foundational myth of American Christian identity thanks to the 1956 movie starring Charlton Heston. The movie actually differs from the Biblical story in minor respects, but more important I think is that it fills in the blanks. The Biblical account is quite vague as to historical context, and offers little in the way of visual detail or specificity of action. It's mostly an outline, concerned with plot but little concerned with character. (The Torah doesn't get subjected to much literary criticism but I'm willing to go there.) The movie however has made the story vivid, and it's the version that people actually know, that fills their imaginations. So let's get started, with our critical eyes open.

Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.
Again, this is typical of the Exodus story. These people are complete blanks, we don't even know their names.
But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket[a] for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
This story is a well-known mythic archetype. It appears to have been lifted from the myth of the birth of Sargon, an Akkadian emperor who reigned shortly before these events. The birth was described in a document written in the 7th Century BC, again not long before Exodus was written 
Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
“Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses,[b] saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
Once again, the tale is very sketchily rendered. As Pharaoh has ordered that the male Hebrew babies be killed, why the exception? The people -- the sister, the nurse, the princess -- still have no names. Would the unnamed Pharaoh really have countenanced his (unnamed) daughter adopting a female son? In the movie, this Pharaoh's successor is named Ramses, BTW, but he has no name in the Bible. DeMille's choice was presumably made because Ramses II is the most famous Pharaoh, but he lived nearly a millennium after these events supposedly occurred. He actually conquered Canaan BTW, and that real historical event could conceivably have influenced the concept of the Egyptian captivity. However, it did not happen in Egypt.
11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 
Moses is a bad-ass for sure. The Egyptian is presumably armed.
The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”
14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”
15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. 16 
Midian, as you may recall, was a son of Abraham and the Midianites are mentioned several times in the Torah. They are named as the people who bought Joseph from his brothers. (At other points it was the Ishmaelites. Whatever.)  And they will come up again. However, there is no historical evidence for their existence. Scholars do not know where Midian was or who they were. In the movie, they worship the God of Abraham, BTW, but in this account we learn almost nothing about them.
Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.
Again, bad-ass Moses overcomes several shepherds. But why didn't they want the women to water their flocks?
18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”
19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”
20 “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”
This is pretty strange because as you will see  next week the guy's name is not actually Reuel, it's Jethro. Midianites, Ishmaelites; Reuel, Jethro; Jacob, Israel. Whatev.
21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom,[c] saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”
23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
So God apparently had forgotten all about it for a while but now he remembers the covenant. Remember he's all powerful -- he set this whole thing up on purpose. Or maybe not? I'm confused.


  1. Exodus 2:3 The Hebrew can also mean ark, as in Gen. 6:14.
  2. Exodus 2:10 Moses sounds like the Hebrew for draw out.
  3. Exodus 2:22 Gershom sounds like the Hebrew for a foreigner there.

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