This is part 15 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.
Click here to read the entire series.
So here we arrive.
Up to this point, what Moses has been recording are the things he was told--sagas he received handed down through the centuries, brought to him by the Spirit. Starting now are the things which Moses' readers could themselves go verify: things which happened during the lifetimes of people whom they knew.
Moses, Prince of Egypt (Exo 1-2)
When we last left our story, the Jews were popular: Joseph was ruling as Vizier of Egypt, having protected the Egyptians during times of famine and helped Joseph's Pharaoh grow quite powerful and strong. However, things change: Joseph died, power of Vizier shifted back to Egyptians, and kings came and went. As we alluded before, it is known that the Hyksos--kings from a Semite background--ruled from about 1650 to 1550 BC, being thrown out roughly a century before the exodus of Moses.
It really does not matter who the specific Pharaohs were to our story; however, the historical evidence for one lines up so closely to the Biblical record that it is quite interesting. Thutmose III was a young child when he became Pharaoh in 1479 BC, and fits every requirement in Biblical or archaeological history. Going forward I will assume that Thutmose III was Pharaoh when Moses came around; this might not be the case. If you disagree, just substitute whoever's name you choose.
So by the time Thutmose III is born, the Hebrews have fallen from favor. The Egyptians, generally speaking, see the Semitic peoples as foreigners who should be either enslaved or driven out. Thutmose II, the father of Thutmose III, had led some military campaigns into Syria and Sinai, and the feeling of dislike was probably mutual. Thutmose II died in 1479 BC, leaving his child son Thutmose III as Pharaoh. Unqualified to rule, Thutmose III's aunt/stepmother, Hatshepsut, ruled as his co-regent (for 21 years, until she died). Their household consisted of the young "king in name only" as well as his half-sister, the princess Neferure. When her mother ascended to the throne, Neferure had a position higher than most Egyptian princesses in history: her title was Lady of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mistress of the Lands, and God's Wife of Amun. She was a person of considerable power, as was her mother. Thutmose III was, essentially, like Joffrey from Game of Thrones: powerful in name, but simply used as a chess piece by his far more politically savvy mother and relatives.
Under the reigns of Thutmose I, II, and III, the Hebrews have been reduced from power, their Egyptian lands taken back to Pharaoh from them. Fearing that the Jews would join their distant Semite relatives in one of the many anti-Hyskos campaigns, they are forced into slavery (Ex 1:1:14) to keep them docile. They attempt population control, demanding that all male Hebrews be killed (Ex 1:15-22), but failing to convince the Egyptian subjects to perform such acts of mass murder.
One such child is in danger of being slain at the age of three months--Moses. So he is placed in a basket and sent down the Nile river...a desperate act which God uses to His glory. The daugher of Pharaoh--I would argue, Neferure--is bathing in the Nile and saves the child. I argue that it is likely Neferure, because I seriously doubt that the "average" daughter of Pharaoh would so boldly deny his orders like this, raising a slave child sentenced to the death penalty as a member of the family. However, if the woman is Neferure, this takes on an interesting twist: she is the powerful and favored child of Hatshepsut, who is ruling as the co-regent Pharaoh at the time.
So Moses is raised in Pharaoh's own household (Exo 2:1-10), likely to the great anger of Thutmose III.
For those Game of Thrones fans out there, just picture Thutmose III as Joffrey--which is close enough for our cases. A king by birth but constantly finding himself unable to wield his power. His near relatives rule as his "hand of the king" (Tyrion in GoT, Neferure in Egypt), blatantly disobeying his orders due to their superior political power and in spite of his name. Also in both cases, a politically savvy and power-hungry mother (Cersei in GoT, Hatshepsut in Egypt) rules as co-regent but, in reality, pulls all of the strings possible.
To stretch of GoT references even further: imagine that Joffrey orders all Targaryans (his political enemies, for the unintiatied) to be killed...only to one day find that his "hand of the king" uncle Tyrion has adopted one to raise as his child, and thus like a brother to Joffrey! He would be furious, and his hatred for the child would be unmatched.
And this is why, my friends, I find GoT so interesting...it so well captures the human condition. For this is exaclty the case with Thutmose III. His father and grandfather had been driving out the Semitic Hyksos, and while he sits idly by, Pharaoh in name only, his half-sister and favored child of his mother goes and actually adopts one of the little brute Semites herself! Even worse, his stepmother undoes the work of his father and grandfather, reopening trade with Semites in the Levant. Oh yes, I imagine that the childhood of Moses in the palace was one of stepping lightly around the little Pharaoh. And I find it difficult to imagine Pharoah Thutmose III receiving him well. (Indeed, after Hatshepsut would die later, Thutmose III would deface her monuments and reverse many policies, indicating his hatred of his step-mother's co-regency.)
One day after Moses has grown, he sees an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews. Moses murders the Egyptian in cold blood, and hides the body. But his secret begins to spread (Exo 2:11-14). Clearly Thutmose III is pleased, for he immediately orders the death of his adoptive nephew (Exo 2:15). Moses flees out of the country, to Midian--an area with some of his cousin Semites (the descendents of Abraham through his second wife, Keturah). It was likely located just across the Red Sea.
Moses lived in this desert area halfway between Canaan and Egypt for 40 years, marrying a woman and starting a family (Exo 2:16-21).
During this time, the king of Egypt died. Now some take this to mean that a male Pharaoh died (hence the name king), and ignore all of the pro-Thutmose III evidence, displacing the Exodus to other times. This is a mistake coming from a misunderstanding of Egypt. Egypt did not have queens--there is no history of a ruling queen. When women served as regents (as did Hatshepsut), she receives the title, "King of Egypt." If you read inscriptions of her today, you will find the same. So there is no surprise that Moses referred to her here by her proper title.
So Hatshepsut died in 1458 BC, and her son Thutmose III (now about 29 years old) takes full power. Unsurprisingly, the lives of Egyptians worsens: they cry out to God for the resulting slavery, and God decides to enact His rescue plan (Exo 2:22-25).
God's Rescue Plan (Exo 3-11)
God appears to Moses miraculously, as a burning bush which cannot be consumed. God identifies Himself simply as, "I AM WHO I AM" and tells Moses to go and free his people from Egypt. Moses is hesitant: he worries that he will be unable to persuade the Egyptians (being seen as a Hebrew), and be unable to persuade the Hebrews (being an Egyptian). God sees this not as a limitation, but a strength--and performs miraculous signs before Moses to demonstrate His power (Exo 3:1-4:9).
Interesting, is it not? For we are told later that Moses is a type of Christ (Heb 3), for having led God's people from slavery. And sure enough, just like Jesus, Moses is a citizen of two worlds: fully Egyptian and fully Hebrew, just as Jesus is fully God and fully man. And just as with Jesus, this dual citizenship is not a hindrance for Moses, but the very thing that is required by God to make His plan come to fruition.
Moses still is concerned, for he is a stutterer, and worries that he will not be respected as a result. God takes away this excuse as well, sending Moses' brother Aaron--a smoother talker, apparently--to partner with him (Exo 4:10-17).
So it is that Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh Thutmose III, that hater and oppressor of the Hebrews, now with no co-regent standing between him and absolute authority. Moses much have been absolutely terrified. Nevertheless, he came and served anyway.
The next several chapters follow a pattern: Moses and Aaron demand for God's people to be let go, and Pharaoh refuses to do so. So God brings a plague on the Egyptians to prove His authority. Rinse, and repeat 10 times.
I wish not to go through each of the plagues, which are well chronicled and described in detail for you to read yourself (Exo 4:18-10:29). With the plagues, I only wish to make one comment--an observation I first made in an Ancient Near East class in college, over a decade ago, which served as the seeds to this entire "interpret Torah through Moses' Egyptian eyes" concept: the plagues are God's direct attack on the Egyptian pantheon.
Recall that in Genesis 1, I argued (hopefully effectively) that the primary purpose of the first chapter of Torah is to demonstrate to the Hebrews that the Egyptian gods are not real powers: they are simply things created by YWHW, the one true God. This flew in the face of every other culture of the day, and was a revolutionary statement.
Well if Genesis 1 was the claim, Exodus 7-10 is supposed to be the proof. Here, one at a time, God challenges and defeats these alleged gods. (This is a favored practice of YHWH: see also 1 Kings 18.)
First, God turns the holy river of the Nile to blood, showing authority over Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile (Exo 7:14-24). Then He sends a plague of frogs, showing authority over Heqet, the frog-faced goddess of fertility (Exo 8:1-15). Next comes a plague where God turns the dust into lice or gnats--demonstrating His authority over Geb, the god of the earth (Exo 8:16-19). Next God sends a plague of flies specifically to the Egyptians, leaving the Hebrews alone; this may have been seen as an attack on the Egyptian people specifically (since the Hebrews were excluded) or on the god Khepri, who supposedly ruled over creative acts and rebirth (Exo 8:20-32). Next, God attacks the livestock with a plague (possibly anthrax, having been spread by the insects) in Exo 9:1-7; this is an attack on Hathor and Bat, a cow-headed combination of two goddesses representing love and protection. Next up comes a plague of boils, probably attacking Sekhmet, the god of medicine and pestilence prevention (Exo 9:8-12).
Now we up the ante even more, as God begins targeting the major dieties revered by huge Egyptian cults. (Notice how much more long and detailed these descriptions are--helping to highlight their relative importance.) First comes a devastating thunderstorm with massive hail, stripping trees and killing livestock (Exo 9:13-35)--a clear attack on two major dieties, Nut (the sky goddess) and Shu (the air god). Next up, God sends a massive locust invasion to destroy Egypt's crops (Exo 10:1-20)--this could of course be an attack on minor diety Senehem, the locust-headed god of protection from pests; but I think rather it is an attack on Osiris, an Egyptian harvest-god who became seen as the central figure in rebirth and immortality.
Now we reach our two worst plagues--at least to the Egyptians.
First comes darkness, which covered the entire land (Exo 10:21-29). This is a direct assault on Amon-Ra, the sun god and most powerful god of the Egyptian pantheon. Just as Genesis 1 began with a clear declaration that light comes from God (it is the first creation noted), so too is the worst of the anti-Egyptian-god plagues reserved for Amon-Ra. For YWHW to assert the ability to eclipse the sun at will showed that even this greatest of Egyptian gods was impotent in comparison to Him.
And then we have what we see as the worst of the plagues, and certainly what Thutmose III saw as the worst: the death of every Egyptian firstborn son (Exo 11:1-10). And what Egyptian god was this attacking? None other than Pharaoh himself--the one who called himself the man-god, the one who claimed his firstborn son had divine authority over the land. God had just shown that the Egyptian gods were nothing compared to Him: now He shows that Pharaoh is not His approved Vizier to the earth.
Ah, here is a good testable historical prediction, is it not? We have already shown how Thutmose III and Hatshepsut's relationship explains much, but if the Bible is true and he truly was the Pharaoh of the time, his eldest son should have died sometime before him, no? And that is exactly what happened. Thutmose III is succeeded by Amenhotep II, his second son, because his eldest son Amenemhat died at some point before Thutmose's reign ends. Thutmose would reign about 20 years after the Exodus occurred, and being about 30 at the time of the Exodus' beginning, we should assume that his son is nearing his late teens at the time he is struck down.
(Aside: Some complain of a God who would strike down the firstborn sons. Isn't that cruel, they ask? Perhaps so...but think of this: why do you call only this cruel? What kind of life was left for the Egyptians here? By the time God finished, their waters were polluted, their livestock dying off, their harvests destroyed, their chief slaves taken away from them, the prince and heir of their kingdom killed, and their own physical health at risk. Make no mistake: the plagues left Egypt in a rough spot. Its justice I am not going to discuss in this post--perhaps another time--but do not isolate only the last plague as the bad one: all are devastating to Egypt.)
The Exodus (Exo 12-18)
So after God has discredited the Egyptian gods and Pharaoh, and fully roused the support of the Hebrews, He enacts the Exodus, the fleeing from slavery. This begins in the act of Passover, which the Jews would celebrate forever, and still do today: for the first time in history, God gives specific ritual commandments for how to perform a particular religious celebration (Exo 12:1-30), and those who celebrated this were "passed over" from the plague of the firstborn.
How important is Passover? Note this: it was instituted before the Jewish religion. God has not yet started His new religion yet--this is the first real commandment of it (unless you want to count circumcision, but that is an identifier of ethnicity moreso than a religious rite at this point in history).
The Hebrew slaves flee from Egypt in the dead of night, heading East toward the promised land (Exo 12:31-13:16). The Hebrews numbered in the millions (as we shall see). So this was no minor, unnoticed escape. Sure enough, by the time they had gotten to the Red Sea, Pharaoh had caught up to them (Exo 13:17-14:9). How much time had passed?
Well, I don't want to get into the big arguments about where/how the Egyptians crossed the Red Sea. (A good primer is here, for those interested.) Roughly speaking, it takes about two weeks before the Hebrews have set up camp at the Red Sea, and they camp there for another week before Pharaoh catches up.
I know, it seems anticlimatic: we are used to the picture of the Hebrews racing out of Egypt, Pharaoh nipping at their heels. But rather the Exodus was a slow and steady plod toward the Sea, while Egypt begins to recover. Pharaoh Thutmose III is furious, and decides to re-enslave the Egyptians so he sends an army out to find them. So it is that, nearly a month after Passover, the Hebrews find themselves trapped between part of Pharaoh's army and the Red Sea. God miraculously parts the seas, and the Hebrews cross safely while the Egyptians drown (Exo 14:10-15:21).
Thutmose III survived to go on and wage numerous wars, many aimed at the Semites across the Red Sea; eventually however, he focused on conquering Nubia. He died in 1425 BC, about 20 years after the Exodus. His great-great-grandson, Akhenaten, was famously the one and only monotheistic Egyptian Pharaoh--perhaps inspired by the Semites before him? (We'll never know, as most evidencce of his reign was wiped out by his followers.)
The Egyptians would travel into the wilderness over the course of the next three weeks, aiming rougly for the area where Moses lived during his flight from Egypt as a youth. At that point, Moses' father-in-law Jethro--a wise adviser--departs and returns to his former home. Moses has set up judges underneath him to help with the day to day administration of these freed slaves (Exo 15:22-18:27).
But no one knows what to expect next.
God has entered the Game of Thrones. He has freed His people.