2: What if… there’s a mountain in Arabia…?
What if… Egypt was a good place for the Israelites?
1. Why did the Egyptians let the Israelites stay? Genesis 46:31-34 says the Israelites were herdsmen – a despised occupation in Egypt; they presented no threat to Egyptian jobs.
2. Where did the Israelites live in Egypt? Goshen was probably hill-country – fine for animals but not particularly fertile, quite likely near the Nile delta where Rameses would later be built.
3. Did the Israelites mix with Egyptians? There probably weren’t any Egyptians near Goshen till work started on Rameses. At that point Israelite men were probably enslaved to work on the palace. Their wives may well have become servants in Egyptian houses.
4. How long did the Israelites stay in Egypt? Exodus 12:40 says they stayed 430 years. This could mean a little under 10 generations. (40 for a generation, 10 for a countable number.)
5. What did they do while they were there? Until they were enslaved, the Israelites probably enjoyed relative peace and security – a good time to consolidate their faith, and confirm their oral traditions. Scholars often compare the Genesis stories with myths from other cultures – e.g. the Gilgamesh chronicles from Babylon. We might imagine the Israelites concentrating on keeping their holy stories “pure” rather than embellishing them for entertainment or writing them down for education. (And as herdsmen, they probably hadn’t developed writing yet anyway.)
What if… Moses should have waited to act?
1. Why did Pharaoh enslave the Israelites? Exodus 1:8-2:15. If Pharaoh was building a palace on the Nile delta, the Israelites might have offered an obvious local source of conscripted labor.
2. Could the Israelites have escaped? Ezekiel 20:6-8 suggests that God told the Israelites to leave Egypt earlier, but they seem to have been too comfortable then to move.
3. Why did Pharaoh kill the baby boys? Organizing the Israelites into slave gangs would have been good for productivity but bad for Egyptian security. Pharaoh was probably trying to ensure they didn’t also organize into armies.
4. How were the children killed? Initially Pharaoh asked the Israelite midwives to work for him but they refused. (Note, there appear to have only been two midwives, which provides a way to estimate how many families they would have served.) When the midwives “failed” to kill the children, Pharaoh probably ordered his soldiers to kill any young boys they found while rounding up workers in the villages. (Note Aaron was three years older than Moses, and may have been born before this time.)
5. Why does the Bible spend time talking about midwives, and Moses’ sister and mother? Perhaps because, contrary to popular opinion, women play important Biblical roles.
6. What happened to Moses as a child? Moses’ sister hid him where Pharaoh’s daughter would find him. His mother took care of him, at home when he was small, and probably as a servant in the palace when he grew older. She might well have taught Moses the traditional stories of Genesis, and as the first “educated” Israelite he might have been first to write them down.
7. Why did Moses fight and run away? Moses had everything going for him, and might well have seen himself as especially chosen by God. Trusting in “my destiny, my plan,” instead of God’s will is a mistake we all too often make.
What if… there were roads in the desert?
1. Where did Moses run away to? Exodus 2:15-22 & 3:1. Genesis 25:2 introduces Midian, a son of Abraham, and in Genesis 37:28 Joseph is sold to Midianite traders. Remains of Midianite settlements from the time period of the Exodus story are found in northwest Arabia, East of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. Arabian traditions include many stories of Moses in this area, giving credence to the suggestion that this might be where Moses fled.
2. How did he get there? If Moses was hurrying to escape, he would most likely have travelled by road. The main Egypt-Arabia trade route went across the Sinai Peninsula from the head of the Gulf of Suez to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. East of the Gulf of Aqaba, this met the Arabian North-South trade route.
3. Where did Moses live? The first major oasis going southwards in Midian is at Madian, now called al-Bad. Josephus says Moses fled to Madiana. The Koran says Shu’ayb (probably Jethro, Exodus 3:1 – Moses’ father-in-law) lived in Madian, and tradition places the Caves of Shu’ayb and the Wells of Moses there.
4. How long did it take him to get there? Arabian traditions say Moses traveled “nine nights’ encampment” from Egypt to Midian. Six days across Sinai plus three days down the Red Sea seems right from archeological evidence.
5. How did Moses live when he arrived there? In Exodus 2:15-17 Moses finds good water at the oasis and meets with shepherds and the priest Jethro’s daughter. A priest would probably be an important person, an elder in the city of Madian. Moses marries Jethro’s daughter and has children, but he does not circumcise them according to Jewish tradition, and in Exodus 4:18-26 it’s another woman (Moses’ wife) who acts as the instrument of God’s will.
What if… the mountain of God was the mountain of a different god?
1. Where is the Mountain of God? In Exodus 3:1-5 the Bible says Moses went to “the far side of the desert”. Arab shepherds still lead their flocks from coastal oases eastward to the high plains and mountains in summer so they can escape the heat. The volcanic soil provides good grazing for them.
2. What is the mountain called? Jethro probably followed the god Sin, a Midianite god represented by the crescent moon, bull’s horns, etc. so this might have been the Mountain of Sin, hence Sinai. The Bible uses Horeb and Sinai interchangeably (Exodus 31:18, 33:6) perhaps to avoid emphasizing a pagan name.
3. Where do our names, Sinai Peninsula and Mount Sinai, come from? They don’t come from ancient names, ancient traditions, or archeology. What we call the Sinai Peninsula was probably still under Egyptian control at the time of Moses, and so an unlikely place for him to take Jethro’s flocks.
4. What sort of a mountain is it? Holy mountains are often volcanoes, for obvious reasons. If we take the Bible literally, Mount Sinai does sound very like a volcano (even including the sound of trumpets). Exodus 19:16-19, Exodus 24:17, Deuteronomy 4:11
What if… bushes really
1. The burning bush is not a uniquely Jewish concept: The Oracle of Delphi was based on a permanently burning flame over which a temple was built. Recent discoveries have confirmed that the Delphi flame could be real rather than legend.
2. Hot gas from a volcanic went would turn an acacia bush to charcoal. In the Bible, the bush is not holy but the ground is, suggesting that fire comes from the ground, not the bush.
3. Do bushes grow on volcanoes? Bushes don’t grow on fresh lava, but broken down lava yields very fertile soil, good for grazing goats and growing bushes.
4. Is it okay to give miracles a “natural” explanation? See Matthew 8:27. The bush might be natural, but the timing, and Moses’ hearing God’s voice are both miraculous.