The Exodus times Three

In its final form, Exodus, like the Bible’s other opening books, was a well-crafted compilation using a variety of oral and written source materials. These had originated, and then been expanded upon, for at least five centuries, in different locations, at diverse times, by numberless story tellers and writers. The final editors had exemplary respect for this ‘traditional’ material, and tried to include as much as possible, despite inevitable inconsistencies and contradictions. They did commendably well, but scholarly analysis has pinpointed the ‘joins’, insertions and consequent anomalies which, in my view, serve to enrich our understanding and appreciation of the finished article.

A good example is the story of the escaping Israelites crossing what the Hebrew Bible calls “the sea of reeds”. Some take this to mean the Red Sea or, more likely, one of its two ‘branches’, the Gulf of Suez or of Aqaba. I’m more inclined to favour the marshy areas, or wetlands, to the east of what’s now the Suez Canal. I’m also inclined to think there actually was an exodus of escaping forced labourers, but exceedingly less numerous than the suggested over two million, never mind their herds of “sheep, goats and cattle”. 

Scholars have shown that three versions of the ‘sea-crossing’ story have been incorporated into the final text. 

(i) in Exodus 14, there’s the highly dramatic ‘Red Sea’ version which has been a magnet for blockbuster movie directors. Moses lifted his staff and “the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians followed, and when the Israelites reached the other side, Moses lifted his staff again, and the returning waters engulfed the Egyptians”. Wow !!

(ii) in Exodus 15:1-18, there’s a poetic version, with no mention of Moses’ staff, nor of any escaping slaves ! It tells of an occasion when Pharaoh’s army “was drowned in the Red Sea”. “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them, they sank like lead in the mighty waters”. If this army had been, as in Exodus 14, tramping across a dry sea floor, there would’ve been no ‘depths’ into which they could’ve sunk like lead. This sounds more like a story originally about a battle at sea – a useful poem which has been adapted and inserted to create a suitably eye- and ear-catching climax to the Exodus story.

(iii) In Exodus 14:24-25 (two verses inserted into the chapter) a third version makes its appearance. “Yahweh .. threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty”. The Israelites and their animals could find their way through the wetlands of the “sea of reeds”, but the Egyptian chariots stuck fast in the mud, and they gave up the chase. Now that seems to me the simplest and most credible account of something that may very well have happened, and been remembered for the years yet to come.

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