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Miracles, genocide, and the case against the Bible


Moses was innocent

Many people condemn Moses on the following grounds:

But look closer, and all those criticisms fall apart. We will also look at similar claims in the rest of the Old Testament.

Exodus 1: Israel in Egypt

Exodus chapter 1 makes a very modest claim:

And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls:
[... years later, the Egyptians] did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour. And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah" (Exodus 1:11-15)

Seventy souls: everything about this passage indicates small numbers.

Taskmasters: Hebrew "sar" meaning prince or ruler. It does not imply "slave driver".

Built: Hebrew "banah" meaning to build or rebuild. We cannot assume these were new cities.

Treasure cities: Hebrew "micknah iyr" meaning supply cities. No gold is implied.

Cities: Hebrew "iyr": a city, town, "place of waking, guarded": anything with walls so you could sleep and wake up safely. Cities could be very small in ancient times.

Pithom and Raamses: very small settlements, needing very few workers. Pithom in this period was a small town (called Tckenu at the time), used for supplying soldiers who pass through. Raamses (Per-Ramesses) had been abandoned as a royal residence years before, but nobody is going to waste an abandoned palace, so a few people would still live there. It sounds like it was used as a supply station, like Tckenu. Exodus was compiled from older sources around 600BC, so used the names that were familiar at the time.

Bondage: Hebrew "abodah" meaning work, labour or service. They were badly treated but this does not imply they were slaves.

Midwives: There were only two midwives needed to oversee all births. So there cannot have been many Israelites.

Conclusion: business as usual

So a small number of Hebrews were employed in rebuilding minor towns. Possibly the higher number (twenty thousand, see below) included other unhappy workers who joined the group when they left.

All wealthy nations use immigrant labour for unpopular jobs. It would be unthinkable if Egypt was any different. Canaan was the poor country next door, so obviously there would be Canaanite migrant workers in Egypt.

But in hindsight...

The Bible just adds the names of their ancestors (Israel and his sons) and the fact that they felt Egypt was highly unfair.

All of these details are utterly unremarkable. But this time the workers had a superb leader and went on to do great things. So they look back and see the hand of God in every detail.

How we know that Moses was a real person

Given that the immigrant workers were treated badly, and were not allowed to leave, sooner or later it is inevitable that somebody would represent their grievances.

To have any chance of Pharaoh listening this person would need to be an Egyptian of some rank. So we know that somebody like Moses would have arisen from time to time. The name "Moses" is of course his Hebrew name, we are not told his Egyptian name.

So we can be sure they have a Moses-like representative from time to time, and occasionally this person would succeed.

Moses the great leader

The Israelites who left went on to do great things. So they remembered their leader as a great man. But this was only obvious in hindsight.

From Egypt's point of view this was just an everyday industrial dispute, albeit with a very clever leader.

The prince and the bullrushes

In later years the Israelites grew very successful, and naturally wanted to know the origin of Moses.

When Moses appeared and had influence with the Egyptians it was natural for the people to remember another lucky Israelite, the baby raised by one of Pharaoh's many daughters.

The two were sufficiently similar (both were Israelites who made good in Egypt) that they were considered the same person. Moses was the last of the great patriarchs whose names probably refer to dynasties: see part three of this book for details.

Prophets and Miracles

A "miracle" is just a great and memorable event, something unexpected and hard to explain at first. They are evidence of a clever leader. But in hindsight the miracles are not supernatural. In fact, very few prophets perform miracles at all, at least not anything worth remembering. Miracles are easily explained by luck, expertise and hindsight.

Take for example the ten plagues of Egypt. The ten plagues have been explained in many ways, and here is just one: they were all the result of a drought.

Moses was a polymath

If Moses knew enough to outsmart the Egyptians he was clearly very smart. The people associated him with the baby who was raised a prince and disappeared forty years earlier, so this new Moses probably had an Egyptian education. He also studied under the desert priests of Midian. He clearly thought a lot about economics, as most of his writings concern laws. These laws are similar to the code of Hamurabi, so he probably read widely. Moses also knew magic tricks, such as making a snake look like a stick (a trick that Pharaoh's magicians also knew). In short, Moses was a polymath. He had a brilliant mind and wide ranging education. He saw connections that others did not.

Ten plagues: Moses knew about rivers

According to the text, Moses was left as a baby in the rushes by the Nile. He the lived in Egypt, dominated by the Nile. He then lived in a desert, where water sources are the most important thing in the world. His most famous act was leading thousands of people across a marshy land where Pharaoh's chariots could not follow. His final miracle was to find a water source amid some rocks. Moses was an expert on water, rivers and marshes. This is one way to explain the ten plagues. It is also possible that the plagues were simply exaggerated, or there was some other natural cause, or there are translation errors.

  1. 'The river turning red'
    A drought sometimes led to growth of a red colored bacteria. If Moses saw the early stages of a massive bacterial bloom then he could use his knowledge to his advantage. 'Pharaoh I will turn the river red!'
  2. 'Frogs'
    If the water had too much bacteria it would become toxic. Moses knew that the frogs and other amphibious life would leave the river. 'Pharaoh, there will be a plague of frogs!'
  3. 'Flies'
    The frogs would die, leading to a plague of flies. Remember that Moses waited for each plague before announcing the next. he was simply observant and cunning, staying a few steps ahead of the other "wise men".
  4. 'Death of wild animals':
    A result of disease from the flies.
  5. 'Pestilence:
    Flies bring disease to people as well.
  6. 'Boils'
    Moses noted a particular disease will be common. In later years, when leading the people in the desert, Moses showed a particular interest in hygiene (see the plague of Peor and the rules for toilets, discussed later). If Pharaoh had given in at this point then Moses could have halted the plagues at any time. He could do this simply by calming the people, and giving them good hygiene advice and telling them to be patient. But Pharaoh did not give in, so Moses continued to whip up hysteria.
  7. 'Locusts'
    Disease and drought makes locusts hungry, causing them to swarm.
  8. 'Hailstones and fire'
    At this point Moses uses his understanding of psychology. By this point the people are terrified and think Moses has magical powers. They will exaggerate anything as further evidence of his magic. Rumors will become recorded as fact. A distant hailstorm in some part of the empire will be blamed on Moses. The people will remember the eruption of the volcano on Crete (which destroyed the Minoan civilization and caused hot ash to fall from the sky). In the days before mass communication rumors were just as dangerous as real events. Hence Jesus would later warn about wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes in diverse places - the worst panic comes from what people think is just around the corner. Moses benefits from this hysteria.
  9. 'Darkness':
    At this point of panic even normal events like large sand storms can be claimed by Moses. Moses sees an approaching sand storm and the people, blinded by panic, are unable to see that statistically it could have happened anyway. Moses is the master of leading superstitious people.
  10. 'Death of firstborn'
    Finally, when there were no more plagues to use, life began to return to normal. After the famine and plague the people begin to gather food again. When food is short the firstborn eat first and have their largest portions. So they are the first to die from eating the diseased cattle. Some linguists have pointed out that the word for 'firstborn' is very close to the word for 'most important' so it could simply refer to the deaths of important people.
    The passover lamb
    This explains the blood painted on the doors that saved the Israelites. In Exodus chapter 12, Moses told the people to find the newborn animal, make sure it had no blemishes of any kind, then wait fourteen days, then cook it thoroughly before eating it. These four steps minimised the chance of disease. The blood on the doors proves they have done it. The Egyptians meanwhile took none of these four steps and were far more likely to become sick.

The ten plagues are a triumph of logic over the supernatural. Moses could see them coming, and used the Egyptians' superstition and fear against them.

Only 5,000 men in the exodus

How many Israelites left Egypt? Exodus 1 suggests a few thousand at most. Yet a census in the book of Numbers suggests half a million adult males, implying a population of almost two million! This is far too many to live together in the desert for forty years. This is part of a pattern of impossibly large numbers. For example, Kohath was Moses' grandfather (see Exodus 6:16-20). Yet in the days of Moses, Kohath supposedly had 8,600 living male descendants (Numbers 3:27-28). All the evidence indicates a translation problem: the word translated as "thousand" also means "troop" or "family".

[After a long and technical discussion:] "If there were '273 first born Israelites who exceed the number of Levites' (Num. iii 46), then the total number of Israelite men aged over 20 in the census following the Exodus was about 5000, not 603,550 as apparently recorded in Numbers. The apparent error in Numbers arises because the ancient Hebrew word 'lp can mean 'thousand', 'troop', or 'leader', according to the context. [...] The total number of men, women and children at the Exodus was about 20,000 rather than the figure of over 2 million apparently suggested by the book of Numbers." (Colin Humphreys, www.jstor.org/ discover/10.2307/1585502)

Other chapters in the book of Numbers confirm this conclusion. E.g:

And of the children of Israel's half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the Lord. [...] And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons. (Numbers 31:30, 40)

Thirty and two persons, being one portion in fifty, implies a total number is 1600, not 16000 as written. Number inflation seems to be very common in these early books. As the earlier quote mentioned, a single ambiguous Hebrew word like 'lp' easily explains the difficulty and solves the problem.

A 5,000 man army was routine, business as usual.

The Bible dates the exodus at roughly 1400 BC. Would 5,000 men (plus women and children) stand out as unusual?

"The Egyptian army in the time of Ramses II (1300 B.C.) has been estimated at more than 100,000 men. This force was comprised largely of conscripts, most of whom garrisoned strong points throughout the empire and carried out public works projects. The actual field army was organized into divisions of 5,000 men that could be deployed individually or as a combined force of several divisions. The Battle of Kadesh in 1304 B.C. between the Hittites and the Egyptians is the first ancient battle for which we have accurate strength figures. In that battle the Egyptians mounted a four division force of 20,000 men against the Hittite army of 17,000." (source)

So Egypt routinely moved armies of this size to other lands, and we only know about them because of very occasional reference in later histories, often copied centuries later. The book of Exodus fits the pattern.

Parting the Red Sea.

"The Hebrew term for the place of the crossing is 'Yam Suph'. Although this has traditionally been thought to refer to the salt water inlet located between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, known in English as the Red Sea, this is a mistranslation from the Greek Septuagint, and Hebrew suph never means 'red' but rather 'reeds. ' [...] General scholarly opinion is that the Exodus story combines a number of traditions, one of them at the 'Reed Sea' (Lake Timsah, with the Egyptians defeated when the wheels of their chariots become clogged). " (Wikipedia)

Moses chose the ideal route to escape from Egypt. He got his people through the swamp on foot, while the heavier and wider Egyptian chariots with their narrow wheels would become stuck. Moses applied logic and won.

Although a phrase translated wall of water was used, this could refer to how the water was a barrier to the Egyptians.

Further evidence against the miracles is the reaction of the people:

And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying , Let us alone , that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:11-12. )

If Moses could really cause plagues they would be mad to oppose him. If he could really part the mighty Red Sea they would be insane to think he could not feed them. But from what they had seen, the Egyptians were stronger.

Harsh laws? They saved thousands of lives.

After leaving Egypt Moses gave Israel his laws. These laws are famous for appearing to be very strict: the death penalty for something as modest as not showing respect to parents. But there is good reason for that, as a detterrant: the penalties would almost never be carried out.

Why so harsh?

First, why even threaten such strict punishments? Because the nation was living on a knife edge. These were slaves who had just escaped the most powerful nation on earth, they were surrounded by hostile tribes, they were wandering in a desert, living close together for protection. They needed three absolutes for survival: strength, hygiene and unity.

  1. Strength: Good economic rules (to keep the nations fed and able to resist enemies).
  2. Good hygiene (to prevent plague in this pre-scientific age).
  3. Unity (to survive in the desert, surrounded by enemies).

Moses' laws were all based on these three goals. The slightest weakness in any of these three could mean thousands of death and the end of the nation. This was a period of desert warfare with no supply lines. All military leaders know that in these conditions survival depends on harsh discipline.

Were these penalties ever carried out?

But were the harsh rules ever carried out? Sometimes: the history covers hundreds of years before the law of Moses was effectively abandoned (by having kings: see part five of this book). Over that long period the Bible records several instances of people beng killed for their crimes. But if people followed Moses' laws and his example, those cases would be very rare. This is why:

  1. Get-out clauses.
    There were ways to avoid or reduce most punishments. E.g. what counts as showing no respect to a parent? Who is going to report it? In the case of rape, where it matters whether the victim complained, each side can argue over whether the victim tried to complain. In the case of murder, Moses created cities of refuge where a murderer could flee for safety.
  2. Flexibility.
    Moses said "thou shalt not kill" and then led the people in wars. He said do not covet your neighbour's property, yet they coveted the promised land. He presented these laws as eternal, yet they were a change from what went before. The laws only makes sense if you understand the spirit of the law: following logic, thriving as a nation, avoiding dangers. If you blindly keep the letter of the law then you are not following Moses' example.
  3. Equality.
    The bedrock of the law was equal access to land. Every family was economically equal; there were no kings or elites (under the law as Moses gave it: see part five of this book). So every family was in a position to argue back if they did not like a judgment.
    We have to remember that these people were pioneers. We cannot compare them to a settled class system with a strong central authority. Instead we should compare early Israel to frontier America, or to the earliest Romans: strong, proud men and women who would not submit to anybody.
  4. Consent.
    The judges had to judge by consent, because they were no elites, they were simply doing their job and were vastly outnumbered by the community. So the real basis of the law of Moses was not the strict rules, but whether or not you had the support of your neighbours.
    Anthropologists find this throughout pre-industrial societies: without gunpowder and literacy, centralised power and communication are limited. The real power lies in the informal laws. This is why unifying religious beliefs were so important.
  5. Deterrent.
    The society was culturally unified and lived close together: if somebody showed even a hint of wanting to break laws, other people would know. And after the laws is broken you have to live side by side with your victims. So the strict rules become a great deterrent.

Sadly these laws were not kept for long. Within a few hundred years Israel had kings, and was following the law blindly. This spelled disaster for the nation, as we shall see in part five.

But the laws as Moses gave then were designed to create a strong, equal, crime free world. Jesus understood this. He saw the underlying compassion behind the law, and continued Moses' flexible approach. Others did not.


At first glance, Moses looked like a dictator: his word was law, and anybody who threatened him was put to death. But appearances can be deceiving. Five facts must always be remembered about Moses:

Why Moses was so great

  1. Moses could not force anybody to do anything. The people were wanderers in a desert: there were no borders, so anybody could leave at any time. And Moses had no formal army (in ancient times the army was the people themselves: everybody defended their nation in time of war, and nobody was paid for it). If the majority ever disagreed with Moses they could simply ignore him and walk away. If they ever followed him it was their individual choice.
  2. Moses had no formal authority. He was a prophet, not a priest. Prophets are generally outsiders: their only authority is the truth of their worlds, and their reputation that comes from results. The formal rulers were the heads of the twelve tribes (the princes), and the high priest (a symbolic role, the priest who runs the tabernacle at the heart of the nation.)
  3. Moses never taxed the people. His system was to avoid tax (see part five of this book).So Korah's claim that Moses was a tyrant was especially unfair: "I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them." (Numbers 16:15)
  4. Whatever Moses had, he earned. He rescued the people from slavery. he was taking them to a land of milk and honey. Whenever they demanded food or water in the desert, he delivered (through leading them to quail or manna, or finding water under the rocks).
  5. Moses planned a nation of economic equals, with equal shares of land. Under his rules there could be no elites, so democracy would be automatic. See part five of this book for details.

So Moses was the world's greatest democrat. Like his contemporaries in Greece he was inventing democracy, but unlike them he planned to base it on economic justice. Moses was a visionary: he could visualise a better world that his followers could not imagine. But life was very hard: to create that promised land Moses had to make hard decisions, and of course sometimes made mistakes. People like that always make enemies.

The enemies of Moses

The only hope of entering the promised land was if the people were united. But the people always grumbled, and suggested going back to slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4-6, etc.). Why did the people grumble? Wasn't slavery terrible? We have to remember that their spokesmen were the leaders of the tribes, the princes. They controlled whatever wealth was there. The princes would not suffer in Egypt, but Moses was planning a more equal society. So it was in their interest to return, and persuade the people that Egypt was not so bad.

Moses had enough of this grumbling. The last straw was when the twelve spies, representing the twelve tribes, visited the promised land, and ten of them said it was too hard and they should go back to being slaves. Moses could not work with people like that. So he announced his intention to stay in the wilderness for forty years, until the present generation had died off. Obviously only the older ones would die off, but these include the leaders of households. They were "princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown" (Numbers 16:1). They didn't like this idea one bit.

The ones with most to lose (and most to gain by opposing Moses) were the Levites. They were hereditary minsiters, and it would not take much to turn theor symbolic authority into political power. They were led by Korah, a man of great wealth (according to both Josephus and the rabbinical commentaries). He led the princes to oppose Moses. They accused Moses of taking too much power:

And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD? (Numbers 16:3)

This was astonishing hypocrisy, because whereas Moses had no formal power at all, Korah wanted to be made high priest, the symbolic representative of the nation (Numbers 16:10). Korah said the people did not need strict leadership because they were already holy. because of this Korah represented a threat to the survival of the nation:

Why was Korah so dangerous?

If Korah won, there were two possible outcomes:

  1. Korah said the people did not need a leader like Moses, because they were already holy. But this would lead to lack of discipline and lack of unity.
  2. Korah wanted to be high priest. That was a merely symbolic role, but clearly Korah wanted it for more than that. By using the highest position for political purposes he would become in effect a king. This went against freedom and equality, everything Moses stood for. Worse, it would replace leaders based on merit with leaders based on accident of birth, and reward the greedy and corrupt.

If Korah won, thousands would die (see above). Yet Korah believed he was on the side of reason and democracy. That is what made him so dangerous. He was undermining the nation. Undermining is an interesting concept. It may have given Moses an idea...

Moses' dilemma

Faced with Korah and the rebels, their power as princes, their riches, and his smooth tongued flattery of the people ("they are all holy!"), Moses had three choices:

  1. Let Korah rebel: thousands will die.
  2. Give Korah an option to back down.
  3. Execute Korah to save the nation.

Option 1 is unacceptable, so Moses tried option 2:

And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow: And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each of you his censer. And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood in the door of the tabernacle of the congregation with Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16:16-18)

This was an ultimatum: a challenge to a showdown. Moses gave Korah one day to think about it. Korah could have backed down, or he could have come in a humble way, without the burning incense. The burning incense is symbol of their Levite authority, a symbol of their challenge to Moses. Korah knew what to expect: he had announced his desire to be the high priest, and he knew that Moses could hand out the sentence of death if the survival of the nation was at stake. But Korah thought he could make Moses back down because he had the wealthy princes on his side. Clearly he did not know Moses.

So what should Moses do now? He must have known that Korah would not back down. That leaves option 3: execute Korah to save the nation from disaster. But Korah and his followers will never accept that, and they outnumber Moses and have greater resources. They have sympathisers everywhere. Somehow Moses has to defeat them all before anyone has a chance to escape. What can he do?

Korah is swallowed up by the earth

To see what Moses planned, we must visualise the scene. He told Korah and his rebels to come back the next day, and stand in a specific place just outside the tabernacle. The tabernacle is a tented area with walls well over seven feet tall (five cubits, Exodus 27:18). Nobody could see over those walls. Moses had a day to plan something, just feet away from where his enemies would stand. But what was he planning? This was the man who claimed credit for ten plagues, and outwitted the mightest nation on earth. He was planning something dramatic, some "new thing":

And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me. But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD. (Numbers 16;28-30)

So Moses planned for a pit to open up beneath the rebels' feet!

And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them (Numbers 16;31)

So this is what Moses was doing behind those walls. This is why he wanted his enemies stood just the other side of the walls: he was digging a pit with short tunnels extending underneath the tent walls, underneath the unsuspecting rebels outside. This was a desert: the ground was sandy, easy to collapse, so he would need supports. At his signal the supports could be pulled away and the ground would collapse under the feat of Korah and the prince, trapping them in a pit.

That may not be exactly what happened, but it is the simplest explanation for what the Bible describes. Ancient military leaders often used earth works against their enemies, though usually in the form of building ramps to end sieges against impregnable fortresses: think of how Alexander the Great and Tyre, or Titus and Masada.

And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. (Numbers 16:32)

"Houses" probably does not mean buildings: they lived in tents. The Hebrew word, "bayith" also means "household" so could refer just to Korah's people standing with him.

And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense. (Numbers 16:32)

They were each carrying burning incense, so "fire from the lord" probably refers to this sacred fire burning their clothes - possibly Moses had added other flammable material in the pit. Note the poetic justice: Korah was undermining the nation, so Moses literally undermined him. Korah wanted the fires of burnt offerings to become real political power, and those same fires burned him to death.

But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD. (Numbers 16:41)

The people know that this was not supernatural: Moses dug that pit. Nobody liked the idea of executing Korah, but only Moses could see what would have happened if Korah lived.

Footnote: a plague that was not a plague

After the death of Korah Moses says "the plague is begun":

And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the LORD; the plague is begun. (Numbers 16:46)

The word translated "plague" is the Hebrew "Maggephah" meaning to die as if killed, but not just by disease. In Numbers 14:33-37 Moses had classed all causes of death in the wilderness as "Maggephah". Numbers 14 was where Moses planned for the older people to wander in the wilderness until they died. That is what sparked Korah's rebellion, and so when Korah died Moses said "the plague has begun." Obviously Korah's followers would want revenge, so Moses told Aaron to quickly run and defuse the situation:

And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed. (Numbers 16:47-48)

If the "plague" is the killing that Moses spoke about, then Aaron is standing in the middle of the fighting, calming the situation.

Now they that died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside them that died about the matter of Korah. (Numbers 16:49)

"Thousand" is "eleph" which can also mean a company of men under one leader, and is the same as the word for cattle or possession. As noted above, the extreme numbers of people are probably a result of translating a word that originally meant "leader" in its later meaning as "thousand". So this verse probably indicates that fourteen leaders and seven hundred followers died before Aaron could stop the fighting.

The brass serpent

So the forty year attrition in the wilderness began. After using a simple switching trick to impress the superstitious followers (Numbers chapter 17) Moses gets the princes to accept Aaron as high priest. In Numbers 18 and 19 Moses gives the Levites their instructions, with a special emphasis on personal hygiene: do not touch dead bodies; wash clothes; if you touch something infected wait several days before touching something else just to be sure, and so on.

In Numbers chapter 21, the emphasis on unity and hygiene receives its first test: snakes!

And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

This must be seen in the context of the previous chapters: Korah's rebellion and Moses' attempt to get Aaron as high priest. But Aaron cannot get the trust of the people, so he is stripped of his authority and soon after dies (Numbers 20:23-29). So the snakes came at a very bad time, when Moses' authority was at its lowest point. What can he do?

What to do when a snake bites and you have no modern medicine

The first task when a snake bites is to identify the kind of snake. "Fiery" might refer to their colour, or to the pain from the bite. Moses had enough time to build a metal snake, so the venom must be very slow to acting. This, and the location (Sinai) narrows down the candidates. It cannot be the Egyptian cobra, as this kills too quickly. The other desert cobra is not dangerous to humans. This leaves us with vipers. Generally only 1 to 15 percent of viper bites are fatal. (Source) Survival is helped by good first aid and also by not panicking: panic increases the blood flow, and thus the absorption of venom. Avoiding panic also avoids vigilantes heading into snake territory and doing something stupid.

Why a brass snake on a pole?

So we see that Moses had to organize the people, to efficiently get first aid to anybody bitten, and generally avoid panic. But his authority was at its lowest point. He had to remind people of his leadership ability and make them choose to listen. We saw in part three of this book (with the serpent in the garden, "as wise as serpents" etc.) that serpents are the sign of wisdom, and ancient people reasoned that somebody who knew serpents was the best person to cure a serpent (hence the ancient Hebrew prayer to the mother of serpents). Moses had skill with snakes, as we saw in the court of Pharaoh. So Moses built a brass serpent on a pole. It said to everybody "I am the expert. Commit to follow me if you want to live. Following Moses would of course include the strictly organization and hygiene laws outlined in the previous chapters.

To claim that "every" person would be cured is of course hyperbole (the account would have been been recorded orally at first, leading to simplification), but it was not far off the reality. We would normally expect 85-99 percent to live, and by calming the people and providing good leadership, Moses increased the odds.

The brass serpent on a pole is a typical example of an Old Testament miracle. At first it appears to be absurd and supernatural, but on close examination it's the most logical action in the circumstances.

Make treaties, not war

And so we come to the "conquest" of Canaan, to the claim that Moses and Joshua stole the land, and that they commanded genocide. Both claims evaporate when we examine the evidence. You simply cannot wipe out an established nation with twenty thousand poorly equipped troups, most of them women and children.

Archeology shows that there was no massive conquest of Canaan. Instead the Israelites grew slowly, mostly at peace with their neighbors. Of course there were occasional battles, but that was normal for the time (and still is). This disturbs some Bible readers, who want to read about millions of Israelites waging war and killing their enemies. But the Bible confirms archeology: the Israelites made treaties where possible:

  1. Their ability to settle in Israel was the result of an agreement with Shechem. Moses was very clear that they should make peace with the people they meet on the way there (Deuteronomy 2:4-28).
  2. The Shechem agreement required Israel to fight Shechem's enemies rather than make peace with them.
  3. Their first great success, against Jericho, was thanks to an agreement with a resident, Rahab.
  4. Moses said to offer peace terms with the more distant nations (i.e. not the ones that were part of the Shechem agreement):

    "When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies , which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God." (Deuteronomy 20:10-18)
  5. The Midrash Rabbah (the official interpretation of scripture) said that offering peace first was the normal way:
    "Three things have been taught to God by Moses, to which God replied: 'You have taught me one thing' […] The third one was when the Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded him to make war against Sihon: 'Even if he does not look for war, “begin the conquest, engage him in battle' (Dt 2:24). But Moses did not proceed that way, as it is said: 'I sent ... messengers ...of peace' (Dt 2:26). God said to him: By your existence, I withdraw my words and adopt yours', as it is said: 'When you advance on a town to attack it, make an offer of peace' (Dt 20:10) (Numbers Rabbinical 19:33; see also 19:27). " (source)
  6. The people intermarried with the surrounding peoples:
    "The Israelites settled among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites; they took their daughters to wife and gave their own daughters to their sons" (Judges 3:5-6).
  7. In the book of Judges peaceful agreements allowed the people to live four hundred years as invaders with just a dozen or so battles. That is barely one battle per generation, and some of these were small.
  8. The Manassites, when unable to occupy the towns they had been assigned, lived alongside the Canaanites. When the Israelites grew stronger, they did put the Canaanites to forced labor (see slavery in part 5 of this book), but did not drive them out (Joshua 17:12-13).
  9. By the time of the kings altars to Baal (the Canaanite god) and YHWH (the Israelite God) sat happily alongside each other. For why that changed, see below.
  10. Offering peace first appears to be normal: otherwise why note that most of the cities refused to do it? For example:
    "There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle. " (Joshua 11:19)

The agreement with Shechem

Moses warned the people against making any covenants with the people who are already in the promised land:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Deut 7:1-3, see also Exodus 34:11-12)

This means no alternative to major warfare. However, twenty thousand people, mostly women and children, are nowhere near enough to do that.

Also, all that killing breaks one of the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Not Kill. While we can perhaps see the invasion in terms of justice (the Israelites have no land, and they have just as much claim on land as anybody else), to make no effort at covenants seems to break the spirit of the ten commandments.

All three problems are solved when we look more closely at the text. When planning the campaign Moses specifically commanded the people to head for Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal. Those are the hills on either side of the city of Shechem in the heart of the country:

And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God hath brought thee in unto the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt put the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal. Are they not on the other side Jordan, by the way where the sun goeth down, in the land of the Canaanites, which dwell in the champaign over against Gilgal, beside the plains of Moreh? (Deuteronomy 11:29-30; repeated in 27:4-13; obeyed in Joshua 8:33. )

When they arrived, Shechem allowed the people to settle. Shechem had been a friend of the Israelites since the days before the captivity in Egypt, and the returning Israelites settled there despite never fighting in that region:

And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph. (Joshua 24:32)

Shechem was an easy to defend location from which the Israelites could expand at their own pace. The price for Shechem's help seems to have been a promise to fight alongside Shechem in its own battles, and make no covenants with Shechem's enemies. But the Israelites were happy to make covenants with other people, such as Shechem itself and the Gibeonites (though the Gibeonites did not keep their part of the bargain: see Joshua chapters 9-10). (source)

More evidence for the agreement:

  1. In Numbers 13, twelve spies were sent to report on the land. So they went up, and searched the land from the wilderness of Zin unto Rehob, as men come to Hamath. (Numbers 13:21) In other words, they were sent to explore the central ridge, the mountainous area to the west of the Dead Sea and up toward Galilee, the area dominated by Shechem.
  2. Following the Exodus, then destroying Jericho and Ai, Joshua assembled the Israelites in Shechem. (Joshua 8:30-35).
  3. Jericho and Ai were easy to defeat (for reasons that will be discussed later), but Shechem was 24km away, much stronger, and in a well defended position. The people could not simply walk in unless there was a prior agreement.
  4. The journey to Shechem was through central hill territory that was easy to defend. How did 20,000 Israelites, mostly women and children, walk through that area safely unless they had an agreement?
  5. They then battled at the Waters of Merom and Hazor (Joshua 11). There were no campaigns in the central part of the country, around Shechem.
  6. They then returned to Shechem for a ceremony (Joshua 24). The climax of the campaign is when they make a permanent settlement and bury the bones of Joseph at Shechem.
  7. This would not even break Moses' no treaties rule. This is technically not a peace treaty with an enemy, this is the Israelites being welcomed by an old friend.

A number of the Amarna Letters (the most important archeological discovery of the time) indicate that the Shechemites were working with the "habiru" (the Hebrews, Israelites) to expand their territory.

"The king of Jerusalem complains that Lab'ayu [king of Shechem] gave the land of Shechem to the habiru (EA, Armana lette 289). The sons of Lab'ayu, and Miliku, king of Gezer, are accused of giving the land of the king (of Egypt) to the habiru (EA 287). The king of Megiddo charges that two sons of Lab'ayu have indeed given their money to the habiru and to the Suteans in order to wage war against me (EA 246). (3) Lab'ayu answers the charge that his son was 'consorting with the habiru' (EA 254). These allusions suggest a close alliance between Lab'ayu and the habiru. " (ibid)

Later generations kept this agreement quiet. Being effectively servants to Shechem did not fit the message of a miraculous conquest.

Shechem's desire for total war of course backfired. he that lives by the sword will die by the sword. Gideon, leader of Israel, had a Shechem-ite concubine, and they had a son. This son, Abimelech, was so warlike that he killed his brothers and had himself made king. This led to civil war in Shechem, during which much of the city was destroyed (see Judges chapter 9).

With the agreement fulfilled, Israel made more agreements with other cities to avoid warfare. This led to a golden age of increasing peace and prosperity. But centuries later the monarchs, who preferred war, edited the history of the time to make peace look like a bad thing. See part 5 for details.

Why the attitude to Baal later changed

Moses' hard line statements against other gods reflected the temporary conditions of wandering in the desert. Life was very tough and they needed military unity to survive. So Moses had zero tolerance to other gods which might bring division. Moses was just as hard with his own people as he was with others - see Exodus 32:14, 33-35; Numbers 28:5-11.

In the more comfortable times of the judges, when they enjoyed the results of good economic laws and good land, they could afford to be more understanding. The Bible (backed up by archaeology) shows a certain amount of tolerance, with altars to Baal and YHWH existing side by side. But once kings arose in Israel the Baal altars became far more serious.

The real problem was the kings, not Baal. If you are governed by judges, as Moses taught, and a judge follows Baal, you can just choose a better judge. But if a king follows Baal you are stuck. The prophets could not get rid of kings (that was the whole problem) but they could at least speak against Baal in a weak attempt to reduce the damage. For the damage caused by kings see part 5 of this book.


Logically, men and women are no different (except in minor physical ways). So God (logic) teaches equality. Jesus knew this, and taught that men and women should be treated exactly the same (see part eight of this book for how the learned Christians understood his words).

Unfortunately sexism is deeply rooted in almost all cultures: see the last saying of the gospel of Thomas and commentary for sexism among the apostles. Moses, coming from a time when women were routinely sold as property, had an even harder job.

It took most of the world thousands of years before women began to be treated the same as men, but Moses did what he could:

  1. He attacked the number one cause of women's suffering: supernatural belief. He taught he love of God (i.e. of logic) as the number one rule. Without the supernatural there is no way to justify sexism.
  2. He removed the second major cause of women's suffering: poverty. Read any history: women throughout history have had to accept bad husbands simply to survive. Which leads to the next point:
  3. He removed the third major cause of women's suffering: bad husbands. Moses allowed very limited polygamy. This may sound sexist at first, but see it from an economic perspective: it creates a shortage of women. The worst men simply cannot get wives. This produces a great pressure for men to shape up.

  4. Economic equality fed through into generally greater respect: so we see many strong females, especially in the time of the Judges (i.e. before the rise of kings and the end of equality): Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Huldah, Jochebed, Miriam, Noadiah, Rachel, Rebekah, Rahab, Ruth and Sarah all helped to guide Israel's history.
  5. When a woman was raped, only the man was punished (with death), and the woman was considered innocent unless she clearly consented (see below).
  6. Moses gave women more rights: for example, letting hem inherit land if there was no male heir (Numbers 27). This may seem like a small thing to modern eyes, but it required a change in the law, the the men still complained (in Numbers 36), so Moses had to compromise to please them (saying women can inherit but if so must marry within the same tribe)

Moses could not change the culture all at once: he had to compromise, letting the men still have final say in some things. It was very difficult to see any alternative: most of the sexist rules were to ensure that land could not be combined by elites using marriage as a excuse (see sexism and land rights, below).

Moses' focus on logic meant that sooner or later a way would be found to have economic equality and sexual equality. Jesus found that way, through his teachings on rent (see part six of this book for details.)


The Bible is sometimes criticized for condemning homosexuality. But that is probably a misreading of both Moses and Jesus. It is definitely a misreading of God (logic): there is no logical reason to oppose homosexuality today.


The law of Moses was a civil law: as long as you love logic (the first commandment) it had nothing to say about belief. The rules on sexuality were probably for reasons of inheritance, and with Jesus those reasons no longer applied.


Jesus taught that men and women are the same, and that love is the most important thing. He almost certainly either supported or was ambivalent to homosexuality.

(For details, see part eight of this book, especially the teachings on unity and division in Thomas, and how this may have been interpreted by the Naassenes).


Opposition to homosexuality is based on the teaching of Paul. Some argue that Paul did not mean that at all, but either way, Paul was not Jesus (see parts eight and nine of this book).

Other arguments

Other arguments against homosexuality disappear upon closer inspection, For example, the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but unkindness to strangers:

"Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49)

Jude 1:7 refers to the sin of Sodom as going after "strange flesh" but the word "strange" is the Greek "hetero" meaning different, as in "hetero-sexual".

Lesbianism and men kissing men

Note that the law of Moses' opposition to homosexuality does not apply to lesbianism:

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." (Leviticus 18:22)

If "thou" means both male and female then women are explicity allowed to sleep with womankind! If "thou" means only men then women have no such laws at all.

The law also did not forbid sleeping non-sexually in the same bed: this was normal where people lived in extreme poverty and did not own more than one bed. Nor does it forbid men from close affection, such as David later had with Jonathan.

The law also does not forbid men kissing men in friendship: this was perfectly normal, as when Judas identified Jesus with a kiss:

"Both Matthew (26:47–50) and Mark (14:43–45) use the Greek verb kataphilein, which means to kiss firmly, intensely, passionately, tenderly or warmly. It is the same verb that Plutarch uses to describe a famous kiss that Alexander the Great gave Bagoas. According to Matthew, Jesus responded by saying "Friend, do what you are here to do." This has caused speculation that Jesus and Judas were actually in agreement with each other and there was no real betrayal." (Wikipedia) (Luke depicts Judas as evil, but Luke was written much later than Mark.)

Leviticus simply forbade full sexual intercourse between two men. This was probably for economic reasons:

Why the homosexual law existed

Leviticus 18 and 20 give the reasons for numerous sexual rules:

"Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled : therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants." (Leviticus 18:24-25)
"Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, spue you not out. And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said unto you, Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey: I am the LORD your God, which have separated you from other people." (Leviticus 20:22-24)

We are told that these rules exist so that Israel is not like Egypt of Canaan, so they will not be spewed or vomited from the land. How do sexual acts cause the land to spue or vomit people out? What is the logical mechanism?

Egypt and Canaan lost power because they were invaded by groups that were more economically more powerful. The message of the Bible (part five of this book) is that a kingdom is stronger if it concentrates less of its wealth in elites, but gives more to the wealth creators. When we note that the homosexuality laws were only targeted at men, and an explanation becomes obvious: it's about land rights (and, in the case of rules protecting children and animals, about not abusing power):

Sexism and land rights

The old covenant was designed when Israel left slavery in Egypt: it was designed to prevent any chance of slavery. It was based on equal access to land. When you have equal land you have equal wealth, and all other freedoms flow from that. To ensure this, land was passed down through families. But if both sexes could inherit, land could be concentrated through marriage: sooner or later a scheming elite could hold it all, and other people would be slaves again.

If only one sex can inherit then land can never be combined and the people remain roughly equal. For reasons of tradition it was decided that the sex to inherit was male. (Moses then added special laws to provide for widows, who otherwise would be landless.) But if men could marry men then we again have the problem that land could be combined and monopolies could arise. So Moses simply banned men from marrying. He did not need to ban women since they would not inherit land anyway. Of course, Moses may simply have been prejudiced, or there could have been special factors in the bronze age that are not obvious today.

Inheritance rules are often the basis of sexual rules. For example, once the medieval church became wealthy it would not allow priests to marry, in case they used the church's wealth to form powerful dynasties. These rules pay less attention to women because they are no economic threat. Famously in Victorian Britain homosexuality was banned, but only between males. It was a patriarchal society and nobody saw women as any threat.

The ban on male homosexuality ensured that land could not be concentrated in just a few hands. Under the new covenant, Jesus updated the law to allow people to sell land, but rent must be paid to society. Since land could be safely sold there was no reason to worry about inheritance rules. So there was no longer an economic reason for the ban on homosexuality.

How the homosexual law was ended by Jesus

Jesus said no laws would be ended until they were fulfilled (i.e. completed):

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy , but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass , one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." (Matthew 5:17-18)

Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets by preaching the kingdom of God:

"The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it" (Luke 16:16)

Jesus taught economic laws for the kingdom. In particular he updated the land laws by allowing land to be sold, as long as the rent went to whoever created the value (see part six opf this book for details).

This solved all problems with inheritance: thus the need to ban gay marriage was ended. Hence Jesus could treat men and women as all being men (see commentary to Thomas 114, in part eight).

Must a rape victim marry her rapist?

A common criticism is that the law of Moses says a woman who is raped must marry her rapist. Yet it says the opposite: where it was clearly rape, the rapist must die, and the woman is entirely innocent. This is more anti-rape than anything today. However, in the case of apparently consensual sex, it's more complicated.

There is no record of a woman actually being forced to marry her rapist: the law says the father must decide, and in practice he would tend to not allow it. For example in 2 Samuel 13, when Amnon (son of David) rapes his half-sister Tamar, she wants to marry him (because otherwise nobody else will) and they won't let her.

Here is the famous text, with preceding verses for context, from Deuteronomy 22:

"If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you." (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Note the reasoning: "because she cried not, being in the city." She is expected to cry out. These "cities" were very small: just walled villages where the people would come home after working in the fields. If anybody cried out, others would hear and come running, because sexual crimes were so serious. Obviously if the attacker somehow prevented a victim from screaming a fair judge would assume that she tried to scream (see above for how the law was designed to be flexible and merciful).

If the girl cries out, or if she is in the field too far away to be heard, she is assumed to be entirely innocent and the attacker must die:

"But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her." (Deuteronomy 22:25-27)

So in a clear case of rape, the man dies and the woman is innocent. Then we come to the passage usually quoted out of context:

"If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days." (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

"Not betrothed" means she is probably twelve years old or younger. So this is a way of saying she is not out in the fields: that is, she is expected to scream. This was a culture where sex outside marriage meant death, so every little girl would know to scream and scream if any man forced himself on her. (Also note that fifty shekels was around five years' wages: an enormous fine and not merely the dowry for a bride.)

Anybody older than twelve would almost certainly be betrothed: while the Israelites were generally monogamous, polygamy was allowed, which means there was always a shortage of women. This gave women bargaining power, as they could always find a partner, whereas the worst men could not.

Maybe the girl did not scream because she was raped by an authority figure? This is where the land laws are crucial. Everybody was economically equal: there were no elites. Every person could argue and disagree with every other person on equal grounds. The children would grow up seeing their parents talking back to authority figures (these were pioneers in a harsh land, not shrinking violets). Children were taught to respect parents, but not anybody else. So the girl would not be too scared to scream, and if she was, the father could argue this point with the judge: they are economic equals.

And what about the idea that the girl is forced to marry her attacker? The passage is from "Deuteronomy", which means "the repetition of the law": it is a review of a previous law. To understand the law we have to see the previous version:

"And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins." (Exodus 22:16-17)

So we see that her father can refuse to let the man marry his daughter. There is no recorded example of a girl being forced to marry her rapist.

Conclusion: Moses did his best to change the culture

The only injustice here is that the father has the final say, and being unmarried carried stigma and loss of money. That was exactly the same as in any other marriage. But could Moses have changed it?

We saw with the case of Korah and the princes of Israel that Moses faced great opposition from traditionalists. It took the rest of the world three thousand more years to begin to change those cultural attitudes. We can hardly blame Moses for not single handedly changing the culture overnight. He did what he could and that is what matters.

Kill all heretics?

Here is a wonderful piece of hypocrisy: Condemning Moses for rules that modern nations still have:

If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, And the sign or the wonder come to pass , whereof he spake unto thee, saying , Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee. If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying , Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death , and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die ; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Deuteronomy 13:1-10)

The sin is not in believing something, but in trying to get others to follow "the gods of the people which are round about you". In an age when each society as defined by its gods this meant campaigning against the state.

There was nothing to stop an individual from quietly leaving logic (God) and joining some other group that will lead the state back into bondage. But if that person tries to recruit others, to actively undermine the state, that is different.

Most countries to this day have the death penalty on their books for what they consider crimes against the state. e.g. in modern America:

"The Federal government retains the death penalty for non-murder offenses that are considered crimes against the state, including treason, espionage, and crimes under military jurisdiction." (Wikipedia)

And in time of war they're not too picky about due process. (Moses was writing when in the desert, about to enter a war) .

Yes, we can blame Moses for having harsh laws against treason, but so do we.


Slavery is unpaid work. In the ancient economy, when everybody lived close to starvation, slaves were paid the same as low skilled workers: enough to barely cover food and housing. The difference is that slaves were paid in food and housing, then cash at the end. This kind of "slavery" gave no economic advantage in Israel and so historians find very little evidence for it.

Hebrew slaves had to be freed after six years, and then had to be paid:

And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. (Deuteronomy 15:12-14)

More modern translations say that these slave 'sell themselves'. They do it for money:

"If any of your people -Hebrew men or women - sell themselves to you" (Deuteronomy 15:12, NIV)

If a slave (including a non-Hebrew) escapes they are free: the law forbids anybody from returning an escaped slave.

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

These slaves have to be well treated. If you hurt them, even if they just break a tooth, they have to go free.

And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake. And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake. (Exodus 21:26-27)

In summary, a slave has to be paid, well treated, can leave when they want, and makes roughly the same money as anybody else. It looks like they are only called a slave because they are paid in room and lodging and then a lump sum at the end. It's a strange kind of slavery.

Paul's defense of slavery

The real problem is the apostles in the New Testament. They did not understand the gospel (see part nine of this book). On the topic of slavery they wrote:

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." (Ephesians 6:5-6)

"Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." (1 Peter 2:18-29)

This might just be common sense: an escaped slave in the Roman world could be crucified (as memorably shown in the movie Spartacus). Christian slaves might think God would magically protect them, but the apostles were saying "no he won't, don't risk it."

The epistles of Peter are very late, seem to contradict Jesus' teachings on love, and most scholars say they were written long after the apostle's death. As for Paul, his views often conflicted with the apostles (see part eight of this book). So these verses do not override the earlier texts, and of course cannot override the final authority: logic.

Sex slavery?

Exodus 21 says "if a man sell his daughter as a maidservant." Moses was not able to stop the men selling their daughters, so at least he could minimise the harm:

"And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money." (Exodus 21:7-11)

The passage does not condone selling children.

The passage says "if" - if this happens then do it properly. As noted above, Moses did what he could to make the world better. But if he pushed too hard then all the leaders would rise up to try to force him from office, as Korah and the princes tried to do. Moses did what he could: when he could not force an ideal solution he at least made laws to protect the weak, as in this case.

It was a bad situation, but exactly how bad was it?

Why would a man sell his daughter? Either the man is evil, in which case the daughter would be better off with somebody else (as long as the person kept fair rules, as Moses insists on here). Or the man is very poor. If Moses' land laws are kept then everybody has land and nobody is poor. If a man cannot run his land well enough to make food, then once again the daughter is probably better off elsewhere.

This had nothing to do with sex slavery

The claim that this is sex slavery is based on the fact that it is possible that the girl had no choice. But that is just as true in a regular marriage. It was also true in the modern western world until the middle of the twentieth century.

Moses' laws were not fundamentally different from ours: until recent times women were sometimes powerless. Women could not get the best education or the best jobs. So she was pushed toward marriage. A bad man could persuade a woman to marry her, then treat her badly, and divorce was very difficult.

Critics expect Moses to achieve a change in culture that took the rest of us another three thousand years.

The real problem is our belief in the supernatural

If Moses was simply a man, then he achieved great things against tremendous odds. He was opposed by the traditional leaders (princes like Korah) yet he saved his people, improved their laws, promoted logic, and provided a template for economic justice: his land laws were more advanced (in principle) than anything we have today (see part five of this book).

However, if we believe in the supernatural then Moses was evil. He could have used his magic powers to force the people to obey. So he has no excuse not to have modern enlightened views.

So any condemnation of Moses is based on the assumption that the supernatural exists. But the supernatural does not exist, so the criticism fails.

Witches should be put to death?

"And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed , and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Exodus 22:16-18, King James Version)"

Lok at the context. This is about a man who has unlawful sex. It has nothing to do with witches as we know them. So let's look at the Hebrew:

Witch: Hebrew 'kashaph': All the words translated as "soothsayer", "magician", "sorceror", "witch" etc. refer to secret dangerous knowledge. "Kasaph" means either knowledge of dangerous herbs or a dangerous "whisperer". The man who seduces the maiden is a dangerous, poisonous whisperer. The ancient Greek Septuagint translates this as "pharmakia" meaning poisoner: do not suffer a poisoner to live.

So this is about whispering in the shadows: in this case, about persuading a probably naive and powerless girl to do something she will later regret. This gets us to the crux of the matter: what is magic?

"There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness. The very language about magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events. A grimmoir for example, the book of spells is simply a fancy way of saying grammar. Indeed, to cast a spell, is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness. And I believe that this is why an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world that you are likely to see to a Shaman." (source)

Magic is nothing more than the ability to persuade people of things that they would not otherwise believe. It is the opposite of logic. The man who can persuade a girl to have sex with him, when that girl is the one who might become pregnant and have her life ruined, is a magician. He is a cunning whisperer. His argument would never stand up in the cold light of day. The law against sexual whispering is a law against the most dangerous kinds of liars. The kind of man who would destroy a young girl's life, and then by clever argument not take any responsibility (in this case, not marry or provide for her.)

The law of Moses is about worshipping logic. So it has no time for those who whisperer in the dark.

Why necromancy was so dangerous

For a clearer statement on magic, see Deuteronomy:

"A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death : they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them." (Deuteronomy 20:27)

A man also or woman: this is not just about female witches. Also note that when both sexes are intended, both are said. "Man now lying with mankind as with womankind" only mentioned men, so does not forbid lesbians.

familiar spirit: necromancer - one who claims to speak to the dead.

wizard: defined in most Hebrew guides as as a necromancer. So the whole danger is from necromancy (speaking to the dead).

Why is necromancy so bad?

Why is necromancy so bad to a rational person? Because it is elitist: the necromancer claims special information he or she does not have, e.g. by summoning some great leader in order to influence a living person. The classic case is the witch of Endor trying to influence Saul by claiming to represent Samuel (1 Samuel 28).

Moses was strongly against eitism, as it leads to slavery, bad leadership, and death of innocents. Moses remembered Egypt, where bad leaders justified their power by claiming to represent dead ancestors, and where the religion was centered the idea of supernaturally surviving death.

Cutting off hands? A bad translation.

"When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)"

This is probably a bad translation:

  1. The Hebrew does not say genitals, it says "mabush" literally "that excites shame".
  2. The hand idea contradicts the "eye for an eye" principle: she does not "cut off" his shameful parts. And while grasping them might make him infertile, this is very unlikely.
  3. The words are different. While verse 11 says she puts forth her hand (Hebrew "yad"), the punishment in verse 12 is to cut her "hollow", the Hebrew word "kaph". Kaph means anything hollow shaped that hides things. It is used for the palm of the hand (e.g. God hides his people in the hollow of his hand), and also for the sole of the foot, for spoons that we eat with, for tree branches (because they hide things), clouds (ditto), door handles, and even the pelvic area. This last example is the closest in context. In Genesis 32:25 Jacob wrestles with an angel, and the angel touched his "kaph" which caused Jacob pain. Similarly in the present verse, the men are wrestling, the woman reaches out her hand to the other man, and as punishment she is to have her "kaph" cut.
  4. "Not pity her" is literally "not cover her up". "A primitive root; properly to cover, that is, (figuratively) to compassionate:—pity, regard, spare." (Strong's concordance)

So this literally says, if a man's wife uses her hand to shame another man, you are to cut her hollow area, and do not cover her shame.

Since the law of Moses was about "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" this must mean "shame for shame". So cutting her "hollow area" to make her "uncovered" in a shameful way presumably means shaving her pelvic area. (See Jerome T. Walsh "You Shall Cut Off Her... Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11012" in Journal of Semitic Studies vol 49 no.1, Spring 2004, p.56.)

The law is clear that priests are not to shave (Leviticus 21:5), and if a woman's head is shaved it is a sign of humiliation (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), so the shaving interpretation fits the text whereas cutting off a hand does not.


Regarding war, Moses very occasionally said to kill everyone in a tribe. At first this makes no sense: Moses only had twenty thousand people and most of them were women and children. How could they conquer the local tribes so thoroughly that they could kill every person?

The agreement with Shechem explains it: The Israelites had made a pact with Shechem and had to play by Shechem's rules. We have seen that the normal process was to make treaties and peacefully, but when Shechem went to war it did not want the Israelites in the army to keep making peace.

However, there are two cases where Moses might sound bloodthirsty: against the Midianites and the Amalekites. At first glance these seem to involve killing women and children, but appearances can be deceptive.

The Midianite incident took place at the start of the conquest of Canaan and the Amalekite incident took place at the end. We will now look at both incidents along with the miracles that took place in between.

The plague at Peor

Numbers 25 illustrates the problem with the supernatural approach to the Bible:

And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor. And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand. (Numbers 25:4-9)

The supernatual explanation makes no sense. The context is the problem: the plague comes out of nowhere. Many scholars conclude that this is evidence of two original sources (Yahweist and Elohist) being badly mixed together. But we should apply Occam's razor. There is no need to imagine multiple sources when there is a much simpler explanation to the problem, and it is in the text itself.

The first thing we notice is that 24,000 is a lot of people, considering that the entire Israelite nation at this point is only 20,000. This is probably another example where "companies" or "families" and "thousands" had the same word (as discussed earlier). With that in mind, let us look back at the previous chapters, and see what led up to this. What made Moses so angry?

In Numbers 23 and 24 we meet the Edomite prophet Balaam. He is held in high respect by the king, and is smart enough to know they cannot win by force. But according to Numbers 31:15 he then comes up with this more subtle plan. The Israelite men of the time had all been born in the desert, the children of slaves, had never eaten meat. All they had known was hardship and denial under a very strict prophet. So the Moabites introduced them to decadent pleasure: first good food, then sex, then more extreme sex, then getting them involved in Baal worship as part of the deal. There is no way they will go back to Moses after this. At least, that seems to be the plan.

And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. (Numbers 25:1-3)

"Baal Pe-or" means "lord of the opening of the skin" or "lord of the skin orifices". Later commentaries refer to these particular whoredoms as being particularly unhealthy: without going into detail, they are a public health risk involving fecal matter. The plague is summed up in the blog "Shlomo's Drash":

"As an Environmental Health professional I see this as an outbreak from fecal sources. When one eats and sacrifices in a room full of sewage bad things are going to happen. [...] The Rabbis note an interesting thing about the Peor incident. The word vayitzamed, attached is used to describe the Israelite men in Numbers 25:3, but could also be translated as addicted, or harnessed. Even when told to destroy their habit completely they couldn’t, because of their addiction, of being in the thrall of these women. The rabbis go further and describe this seduction. To summarize a rather long passage, the women start by selling wares in markets, then after selling a new garment, ask for the man to enter and have a little to eat, all the while acting sexy and talking of common ancestry. After the meal, the text continues: Once the Israelite solicited her she would say to him: ‘I will not listen to you until you slaughter this animal to Peor and bow down to the idol. ’ He would object: ‘I will not bow down to idols!’ She would answer him: ‘ You will only appear as though you were uncovering yourself [to use the toilet]! ‘And so he would be led astray after her and do as he was bidden. [Numbers R. XX: 23]" (shlomosnewdrash.wordpress.com/ category/peor/)

In the desert, with poor nutrition and no access to healthcare, poor public health could kill hundreds. Hence laws like this one:

You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it; You shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement (Deut 23:13-14)

The priests were especially concerned with hygiene: their actions require various washings, so they serve as an example of physical hygiene to others. Hence it was the priest Phinehas who acts. Note that he goes into the man's tent: this is where the man's entire family would be. The man is bringing a biological plague to his family: the priest is not strong enough to stop both the man and the woman, so he has to act quickly. By doing such a dramatic thing he shakes all the Israelite men to their senses and they realize the seriousness of what they are doing. Those two deaths save Israel.

Here we see how a supernatural belief harms the Bible, but a more naturalistic approach teaches us why we have evolved to feel disgust at certain practices: it's just good hygiene.

Only those who wanted to fight were still there

The Midianites were mainly nomadic: the desert soil will not support year round herds. So moving on was normal, from time to time. In this case they were warned to move on first, in the strongest terms. In Numbers 22 and 23 the Edomites see how effective the Israelites are at fighting. In Numbers 24 and 25 the Edomites' greatest prophet, Balaam, warns them that the Israelites will kill them. In Numbers 25 we have their attempts to defeat the Israelites through cunning, and how it fails, but does lead to disease that kills hundreds. They then must know that Moses will come back to finish the job, but Moses gives them plenty of time first (in Numbers 26-20 where Moses counts his people and gives them final teachings). No Midianite could have been in any doubt: to choose to stay instead of moving on meant a fight to the death that Israel would almost certainly win. Those who stayed must have chosen to do so. Either because they wanted to go down fighting, or they had the plague.

Killing the plague carriers who refused to leave

The last major act before Moses died was his most shocking: ordering the slaying of the Midianite women. This was Moses' last act: It was not typical, it was the only time such a thing happened (Moses did not enter the promised land so was not involved in most of the battles.)

At other time, even when Moses says to kill everyone his men only kill the adult males. But this involves physical disease carriers, so this is different.

"And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. [...] And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. (Numbers 31:7, 15-16)

The women who remain are to be killed as they are the ones who brought the disease. Moses then spends the remainder of the chapter making sure everything is thoroughly cleaned, to make sure no disease can come back into the camp.

Moses was wracked with guilt? It was his last act.

It is possible that even Moses thought he had gone too far his time: soon after this somebody calling himself God (or possibly Moses' own conscience) took him up a mountain, showed him the promised land, and said he would never get there.

Then he died, but we are not told how: all we know is that he was healthy when he climbed the mountain. (See Deuteronomy 34:4-7) His second in command, Aaron, also died under suspicious circumstances:

And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. (Numbers 20:28)

The official reason for their deaths was that God killed them because they did not give sufficient credit to God for a minor miracle just before the Midianite killings (in Numbers chapter 20, and an almost identical miracle in Exodus 17 - possibly the same event copied differently). This sounds so trivial in comparison to what happened next that it sounds like a face saving exercise: it could never be admitted that Moses lost his stomach for war.

Allowing the Midianite girls to live

Next comes the part that might seem shocking:

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18)

How young were they? Old enough to fight. Anybody else would have left.

Why kill the boys? People married as soon as they hit puberty, and the Midianites were all involved in unhygienic sex, so any sexually active person could be a carrier.

Why leave the girls who have not slept with men? It is easier to prove a girl is a virgin, so those will not have any disease. Nobody can be sure with the boys.

Was there a medical test for virginity?

The test was not medical: the whole point was to avoid contact with possible disease. There were much easier ways to tell virginity:

"Because virginity was generally associated with legal proof for blood-inheritance issues in ancient cultures (e.g. , land, property, kinship, relationships), virginity itself was often marked by some type of clothing (e.g. , the robe of Tamar in 2 Sam 13) or by cosmetic means (cf. the Hindu ‘pre-marriage dot’); as was more typically non-virginal married status (e.g. , veils, headwear, jewelry, or certain hairstyles). Of course, non-virginal unmarried status (e.g. , temple prostitutes and secular prostitutes) were also indicated by special markings or adornments (e.g. jewelry, dress—cf. Proverbs 7. 10; Hos 2. 4-5). " (christianthinktank.com/ midian.html)

As for the claim by some that these were sex slaves, in those days people married as soon as they were physically mature, so unmarried girls would be children, averaging five or ten years old. Though the Israelites were accused of many things when they sinned, they were never accused of pedophilia.

Balaam's talking donkey?

As a footnote, the prophet Balaam (mentioned above) reported that his donkey spoke to him. This seems to be an example of divination: a very useful logical tool: it lets you put a dangerous idea into someone else's mouth. It's a face saving trick.

In ancient times there was very little free speech. If you told a king something he did not want to hear then you might be killed. Similarly, if you were a king and thought your enemy was stronger than you then you could not say it for fear of seeming weak. So the ancient very wisely invented divination: they would look at chicken bones, or birds in the sky, or anything essentially random, and then interpret it as a message. This allowed a person to safely say what he really felt, because it was not him saying it.

For example, if a Roman general was ready for battle, but had a gut feeling that his side would lose, he could not say the other side is stronger than us. Instead he would consult the chicken bones and say sorry, I really want to fight, but the gods will not let us. (Technically this is correct: the gods are logic, and logic sometimes goes against our plans. The chicken bones are just a medium to allow logic to be spoken. )

In the case of Balaam, he was obviously having second thoughts at the time. So when his donkey stumbled on the road he decided it was a message from God. He reported the message as if the animal had spoken. Pet owners know that animals can indeed communicate through actions, but they just need to be interpreted. By interpreting the stumbling as a message, logic could prevail, and Balaam's reputation was safe.

Crossing the Jordan

Having avoided the plague the Israelites finally enter the promised land:

And Joshua rose early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and came to Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. (Joshua 3: 1)

Joshua seems to be waiting for something

And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the host (Joshua 3:2)

They waited three days. It would take one day for his men to travel north until they find a suitable spot to dam the river, one day for messenger to get back with news, and perhaps another day to see the sign (like something floating down the water to say they are ready).

And they commanded the people, saying , When ye see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go : for ye have not passed this way heretofore. (Joshua 3: 3-4)

'Two thousand cubits': about half a mile. This means they are not close enough to see what Joshua sees. Also, half a mile distance suggests the people were spread out to see what was happening. There were 20,000 people in the exodus, and let's assume they each require one cubit width (18 inches) and spread out over 2,000 cubits. That is 2,000 people wide, or 10 people deep. Allowing for extra space and carts, that could be like a line of people twenty people deep.

The towns on the other side of the Jordan can't tell how deep the line is , but the line will be very wide. Imagine their terror! What appears to be a vast army is gathering on the other side. Next the Jordan will suddenly dry up! A miracle! And they all walk across in a huge terrifying mass!

And Joshua said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites. (Joshua 3: 10)

'Hereby ye shall know': Joshua needed a miracle like Moses performed: to make sure they follow him, and to put the fear of YHWH into the city of Jericho (and other villages). For maximum effect the people would all cross at once. If the wide line is twenty people deep they would only need to dry up the river for a very short time. Seeing thousands of people walk across the river all at once would be unforgettable and awe inspiring, equal to anything Moses did.

That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed , and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho. (Joshua 3:16)

Why mention the city of Adam? This is the key to the event, and why it was not supernatural:

The city Adam

"About 17 miles north of Jericho, at the site generally thought to have been the town of Adam (Tell ed-Damiyeh or modern-day Damiya), there is geological evidence that numerous landslides temporarily dammed the Jordan River at various times. At least seven historical earthquakes precipitated landslides that dammed the Jordan River near Damiya: 1927 AD (July 11 – stopped flow for 22 hours)1906 AD (stopped flow for 24 hours)1834 AD1546 AD (Jan 14 – stopped flow for two days)1534 AD1267 AD (December 8 – stopped flow for 10 hours) 1160 AD [...] Because of its steep gradient, the Jordan River cuts several gorges, including one in the vicinity of Adam. There the river is deeply incised. " (preachitteachit.org/ ron-test/ask-roger/archives/ post/archive/2008/ september/article/ did-the-israelites-really-walk-across-the-water/)

A landslide is possible, but that would require extremely good luck to happen at just the right time. But anywhere that a landslide could fill must be narrow with a lot of earth ready to fall.

This is an ideal spot for an army to shovel earth for an artificial dam.

The conquest: a summary

In summary, Joshua needed a dramatic miracle to inspire his people and terrify the local towns. The Jordan provided the perfect opportunity. One day's march up the river was a spot where it could easily be dammed. The river could be allowed to flow through the bottom of the dam until the dam was complete. Then the river would stop as the waters built up ready to burst the dam. That allowed a minute or so when thousands of Israelite could walk across the river, side by side, in a terrifying spectacle.

A later crossing of the Jordan

Many years later Elijah, the great showman, also walks across the river, as part of his dramatic farewell. In 2 Kings 2 he has fifty witnesses, and tells them to stand a long way off (so they can't see how he and Elisha do the trick). He then dramatically rolls up his cloak, hits the water so it splashes to the right and the left, and walks across the Jordan. he probably uses pre-arranged stepping stones on a carefully chosen shallow part, but from a distance it looks like he made the waters part. We should never assume a complicated explanation when a simple one will do. To finish the unforgettable spectacle he is hen met by a chariot covered in torches, so it seems that he's carried away in flames and whirling smoke. Nobody puts on a spectacle like Elijah! Though by that point he had trained Elisha to continue his legacy.

The battle of Jericho

Having terrified the local people, Joshua led his people to the nearby city of Jericho. They walked around the walls once a day for several days, then blew horns and the walls fell down.

At the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it - men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. (Joshua 6:16-20)

Internal Bible dating suggests that this took place around 1407 BC. But carbon dating of the ruins of Jericho say it was abandoned in 1550 BC:

"About 1550 B. C. the Egyptians destroyed it violently along with most other major Palestinian cities, and it was never again a significant city. As far as the evidence goes, it was not even fortified. However, there was indeed subsequent occupation. During the 14th century [around Joshua's time], at least three Middle Bronze Age tombs were opened and new burials inserted, and some very fragmentary remains of buildings and floors of the same general age were found above the spring. [...] The evidence suggests that the Late Bronze Age occupation was slight, but most of what there was of it was eroded away in the unoccupied centuries which followed" (source)

The city still had some inhabitants

Jericho had a very long and proud history prior to 1550 BC: it is one of the oldest cities in the world. So it would still be remembered. The Bible often refers to near Jericho, indicating that it was still a notable land mark even after its 1550BC destruction. Jericho was now known as the city of palm trees - it was better known for its trees than its buildings. But the ruins would make a good place for a small settlement. Discussing the period of Joshua's attack, archeologists note:

"There is limited evidence of urban or village life throughout the region. Temporary structures, more like sheds than houses, have been uncovered on the sides of some tells (e.g. Jericho [Tell es-Sultan]) and other hillsides. " (bu.edu/anep/MB.html)

Toward the end of the late bronze age (to 1200 BC): there were the beginning of mud brick and even some stone houses. So Joshua met a city that was a famous land mark, but the walls were mostly made of wood or mud. These walls could be easily knocked down if they were not well defended. So Joshua used psychology to demoralize the inhabitants:

Psychological warfare

The Bible records that, after the Israelites walked across the river on dry land, the local cities were terrified.

And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt , neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath. (Joshua 2:9-11)

The fact that the people were terrified indicates the city of Jericho was not well fortified. Archeology confirms this. But some Bible readers imagine thick stone walls, because of the following verse:

Then she let them down by a cord through the window: for her house was upon the town wall, and she dwelt upon the wall. (Joshua 2:15)

'Upon': this could mean the house was perched on top of a very wide stone wall. Or it could just mean the house formed part of the all, indicating much weaker defenses. Occam's razor suggests the simpler explanation (do not imagine something complicated when something simple will do). Archeology confirms it: the city had very lfew stone buildings at this point, so the walls would be wooden or mud fences between the houses at the edge of the city.

And they said unto Joshua, Truly the LORD hath delivered into our hands all the land; for even all the inhabitants of the country do faint because of us. (Joshua 2:24)

This fear is not consistent with thick stone walls, but it is perfectly consistent with wood and mud walls that might keep out the occasional bandit but not a determined army.

And he said unto the people, Pass on, and compass the city, and let him that is armed pass on before the ark of the LORD. (Joshua 6:7)

Joshua was using psychology. The Bible emphasizes the panic because this was the whole point: Joshua had an apparently massive army invade the land by miraculously walking across the river on dry ground, then they circled the city of Jericho in silence, with their weapons at the front. The people would be in an ever increasing state of fear. What were these miracle workers planning? When would they attack? Then at the end they blew horns and made a noise. The people inside would be frozen with terror.

And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him. (Joshua 6:5)

'All the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down': it is common to shout when giving a great physical push, all together.

'Flat': The walls fell down flat. If they were massive thick walls of stone then they could not be flat, they would be huge piles of rubble. A wall that can become flat suggests wood or mud.

So the LORD was with Joshua; and his fame was noised throughout all the country. (Joshua 6:5)

The psychological arfare was working. First they walk across the water. Then they make walls fall down by simply shouting. The whole nation would be terrified. This is the only way to win when your army is so small (20,000 including women and children).


According to the "new chronology" championed by David Rohl, conventional Bronze age dates are wrong, and the destruction of the stone city, usually dated around 1550 BC, should really be dated around 1400BC, exactly the time of Joshua. If so, then Joshua really did defeat a large fortified city. If that is the case the archeology suggests something very interesting indeed:

There are many skeletons in the remains of the destroyed city, and that is consistent with conquest. But the skeletons do not show signs of death by other warfare or starvation. The suggestion is that they died of plague. A plague would explain why they gave up after Joshua marched round the city for day after day. They were all dying inside and Joshua's march prevented them from escaping. Eventually the dying people threw open the gates: better to die in battle than from the plague. The city was then flattened and burnt to prevent the plague spreading.

Where did the plague come from? The first contact with the city is with Rahab the harlot. This took place just after the plague at Peor, among the Midianites, spread by poor hygiene and unsafe sexual practices among the nomads. This would explain why Moses and later prophets were so strict and conservative about sexual matters (e.g. banning anything they did not understand, such as homosexual acts). They saw people dying by their thousand in horrible ways, and knew it was somehow linked to sexual activity, but they did not have the scientific expertise to know exactly what was happening. So their only response was moral lockdown: ban all but the minimum necessary sex for procreation, and hope the plague never comes back.

If the plague was transmitted sexually why was Rahab spared? In Joshua chapter 2, Rahab explains that the people are already "fainting" because of them, yet Jericho is a well fortified city.

All the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. (Joshua 2:9-10)

Notice that she refers to the Red Sea and not crossing the Jordan. The Red Sea incident came after a plague. Og and Sihon led to the plague of Peor. The spies then tell her to quarantine her house: anybody who leaves the walls of her house will die. Rahab lives in the city walls, and as a prostitute she would be an expert on avoiding sexually transmitted disease. It sounds like she knows about the coming plague and keeps herself clean.

Or as a third alternative the critics may be right. Maybe the plague was insignificant and Joshua just killed a lot of people to take (or re-take) the land. That happens in war. The purpose of this part of the book is to see the Old Testament in the most sympathetic way possible, but the fact remains that war is war, and whatever we want to believe, the truth is more important.

The city of Ai

You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves (Joshua 8:1-2).

'Ai': Hebrew for heap of ruins. Ai is probably el Tell, a city that was ruined for thousand years. Like Jericho it was a famous city but would only have a small residual population, with thin city walls. It makes another easy win. It cements the reputation that these miracle workers can defeat city after city. It's all about psychology.

'you may carry off their plunder' this is consistent with Jericho having a plague but Ai did not.

After this the Israelites continue to Shechem as arranged. With their reputation established through one trick and two easy wins, they can settle down, gain help from the Shechemites in defeating other groups, and slowly expand as needed. The rest of the book of Joshua and Judges describe slow assimilation with relatively few battles; Judges for example describes just twelve battles over four hundred years. But because those battles are the focus of the book it gives the illusion of constant warfare.

The sun stands still?

One of the early battles (almost certainly helping the Shechemites) was particularly memorable:

And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died : they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword. (Joshua 10:11)

This sounds like a freak thunderstorm. Note that it was not caused by the leader, he simply prayed as normal, and this event only became memorable afterwards because of the weather.

'More died': this could be hyperbole, or could be because the cold and freak weather weakened and confused the enemy, making them easy prey.

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. (Joshua 10:12)

'Stand thou still': Hebrew "damam" meaning be silent or still. He wants it to stay in the sky. he expected the thunderstorm to obscure the sun, making it easy for his enemies to escape. He is asking for the sunlight to remain despite the black clouds.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed , until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies . Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

'Hasted not to go down about a whole day': the word "a" is not in the Hebrew, so the simplest explanation is this refers to the whole day. That is, the sun maintained its light the whole day. This was notable because the thunderstorm made the sky black. Somehow enough sun shone through that Joshua could finish the battle and take advantage of his good luck. There is no suggestion that the day was longer than normal, only that the sun could be seen when Joshua expected it to be hidden.

And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the LORD fought for Israel.

The crazy thunderstorm, yet enough light to see by, seemed to be a miracle. But it was perfectly within the bounds of unusual weather.

Killing babies: it probably never happened.

Samuel also said unto Saul, The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. (1 Samuel 15:1)

'The words of the Lord': Samuel is claiming that his words are logic. But Samuel is human and could be wrong. Or he could be misquoted:

The exact wording of the book of Samuel is less reliable than other books. By comparing the oldest Bibles, the Masoretic, Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls versions, we see more differences between copies of Samuel compared with copies of other books. It appears that Samuel was at first not considered a prophet like Isaiah or Moses (prophets are outsiders, and Samuel, with his official position, was more like a bureaucrat). It seems that later readers felt it was acceptable to update the book to suit later beliefs. (See "The Amalekite Problem" at doxa.ws/Bible/amel_problem.html)

However, it could also be accurate, so the rest of this section assumes that it is. If Samuel is accurate then probably no babies were killed, because:

  1. Samuel's words were classic hyperbole
  2. Amalekite probably just meant "enemy" so would tend to be adult, by definition.
  3. They were nomads with plenty of warning to escape. Any mothers would have done so.

Let us look at the Amalekite campaign in detail.


Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. (1 Samuel 15:2)

'Amalek': this seem to refer to any group (e.g. from the Midianites, Edomites or Kenites) that wants Israel dead. This is why:

  1. Verse 7 says they live in an area already occupied by Midianites and Edomites, so they are probably a sub-group of Midianites and Edomites.
  2. Verse 7 says the region was next to Egypt, but the Egyptians never mention Amalekites as a separate tribe, so the term probably refers to a type of person, not a tribe.
  3. II Samuel 1:8, 13 refers to single Amalekites amid the Israelites: that is hardly likely if the Amalekites are a tribe the Israelites are determined to wipe out.
  4. In later centuries it was even more clear: Amalekite just meant anybody who wants us dead.

"In the tannaitic Haggadah of the first century Amalek stands for Rome (Bacher, 'Ag. Tan. ' i. 146 et seq. , 211 et seq. ); ... Arabic writers have attached great importance to the name of the Amalekites, and have invented many stories about this primeval nation, which they fancied to have ruled over Arabia and the surrounding countries, especially over Egypt. Noldeke ('Über die Amalekiter, ' Gottingen, 1864) has fully shown the fictitious character of all these tales. " (Jewish Encyclopedia)

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)

'Go and smite': Amalekites had four hundred years of attacking Israel, so a military campaign finally seemed the logical choice.

'And suckling': this claim cannot have been carried out, because:

  1. Amalekites were not a tribe, so could not have babies. An amalekite was anybody like Amalek, that is, anybody who wanted Israel destroyed. See commentary to verse 7
  2. Samuel was broadcasting his intentions and then waited (verse 5). This allowed any mothers will take their children to safety.
  3. The target area was far larger than Saul could cover quickly (see verse 7), and the enemy were nomads, constantly on the move. So it would be easy and normal for Amalekites to move on before Saul arrived. They would only stay if they wanted to fight.
  4. Amalekites were mixed in with the other population (see verses 5-6, commentary). It would be impossible to identify them unless they wanted to be found.


In the days before mass communication, psychological warfare was the most effective kind of warfare. The goal was to terrify the enemy so they would either run away or give up. It was routine to claim to destroy every living person. For example, one famous Egyptian monument records a military victory against the Hebrews. It says:"

"Israel is destroyed, their seed is no more."

If there was no more Israeli seed then even babies muist have been hunted down and killed, and there would be no more nation of Israel. Yet Israel survived.

So "kill all their seed" was just hyperbole, designed to frighten enemies. Nothing more.

What if Samuel really meant to kill babies?

What if, despite the evidence that the book of Samuel is unreliable, and despite the evidence that the kill babies command was hyperbole, what if this was accurate and Samuel really ment it? Then he was simply wrong. Samuel was a human, not God.

Modern hypocrisy

Even if Samuel commanded this, are we any better? For example, America is a nation founded on genocide against the native peoples, and babies inevitably died. More recently, America dropped nuclear bombs on civilians, including babies, to end of World War II. Later it napalmed villages (containing families and children) in Vietnam. Today its drone strikes routinely hit children as collateral damage. America could choose to wage war in a way that does not kill children (e.g. by not using drone strikes) but chooses not to.

America is no worse than other countries. Almost every country kills children in war: Britain in WWII fire bombed Dresden: it did not have to, but felt that killing civilians, including children, might hasten the end of the war. Even outside of war, we routinely make choices that kill children, because we think in the long term lives will be saved: the World Bank does this every time it enforces economic austerity. It makes choices that will lead to the deaths of innocents, but believes that in the long run this is best for the nation. A study of economics shows that we make choices like that all the time: like Samuel, we believe that the alternative will be even worse, so we make the choice: we drop bombs, or we withhold money, and the choice has consequences. Whatever Samuel did, it is hypocritical to pretend we are morally better.

But unlike us, Samuel probably didn't kill any babies. Let us continue with the Bible account:

And Saul came to a city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley. (1 Samuel 15:5)

'A city of Amalek': all other references to Amalekites indicate they were nomads, so would not have cities. It is more likely that Amalekite refers to any group among the nomads that wanted the Israelites dead (see verses 6 nd 7).

'Laid wait': he waited. They had time to leave at their leisure if they wanted to. They were nomads with a history of attacking srael. They had no reason to stay unless they wanted to fight again.

And Saul said unto the Kenites, Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them: for ye shewed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt. So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. (1 Samuel 15:6)

'Lest I destroy you with them': Saul was afraid he would accidentally kill the wrong people. This implies that Amelekites are hard to tell apart from others. At this time most fighting was hand to had: so even at close distance Amalekites were hard to tell apart. So any Amalekite who wanted to leave could simply say I am a Kenite and walk away.

Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur, that is over against Egypt. (1 Samuel 15:7)

'From Havilah until thou comest to Shur': Havilah is the extreme east for nomads: towards Babylon (Genesis 2:11; 10:29; compare I Chronicles 1:23, etc. ). So Shur to Havilah means the entire desert, that is, a vast area already occupied by Midian and Edom.

Summary of the Amalekite campaign

In summary, "Amalekites" probably referred to adults from other tribes who wanted to fight. The reference to kill everyone including babies was typical hyperbole of the time. It just meant "total destruction" of whoever was there, in this case enemy warriors, their supporters, and their cattle. (Why kill the cattle? Presumably so that nobody can profit from war.)

Elijah: how he became famous

Elijah's drought is another perfect example of a miracle that seems to be proof of the supernatural, but is quite the opposite. In 1 Kings 17-18, the prophet Elijah tells wicked king Ahab that God will punish him with a great be a great drought. The drought then begins, and Elijah waits in the desert and is fed by ravens. Finally Elijah prays and the drought ends. It appears to be a supernatural thing, but is perfectly rational when we look closer.

The key is to remember the land laws, and that this was Elijah's first "miracle". If it was his second miracle it would be hard to explain, but as his first it has a perfectly rational cause. It was a matter of statistics.

Hundreds of prophets

Moses' land laws meant there was no underclass. And although kings had recently appeared, the average person was not afraid of authority. Ahab's great sin was to try to take land for himself. The predictable result is that hundreds or thousands of people would openly speak against him. People who fearlessly speak truth, at great personal risk, are called prophets. There were four hundred Baal prophets at a single meeting a couple of years later. No doubt hundreds of YHWH prophets. Elijah was one of these: a proud man denouncing Ahab.

Rational prophets

What would a rational prophet say? Well look at what Ahab was doing. By taking land he was undermining the economy. A critic could rightly predict that enemies would invade the weakened state eventually. That was Isaiah's warning, many years later. Isaiah was highly educated, he observed international politics, and could rationally see the results of a weak economy. But Elijah was not highly educated. He was a man of the desert, so his expertise was elsewhere.

A desert dweller's mind is always on conserving water. For the nation to survive, each person must work tirelessly to irrigate and plan ahead, and must have complete trust in their leaders. Ahab was undermining this. Why should people irrigate land if Ahab would steal it? Desert dwellers also have some insight into patterns of rainfall. Elijah believed a drought was coming, and Ahab's actions would make it far worse. That was a rational conclusion, with nothing supernatural about it.

Statistically, miracles are guaranteed

Could Elijah be sure of a drought, rationally? No. Elijah was one of hundred of unknown prophets. Most are forgotten because their predictions did not come true. But sooner or later one was bound to be correct, and that man was Elijah. Once he won the lottery, so to speak, he was careful not to make such predictions again. His later miracles were carefully planned to be risk-free.

The drought prediction was not a complete guess of course. he could not be sure, but he had a rough idea. Elijah lived in the desert, and any desert people who cannot predict rainfall do not survive. The following quote is about a different desert group in modern times, but the principles are the same:

"Drought was predicted in a number of ways. The most common early warning system was based on observation of weather patterns. 'Usually around the first of Esfand [21 February] you can tell whether the year will bring a drought. It’s just like the saying, “saali ke nekoost az bahaarash peydast” [a good year is heralded by a good spring].' In addition to this simple prediction, the sub-tribes would send scouts (peeshgharaavol) to the ranges about 20 days before the planned day of the migration. These scouts were experts at assessing the condition of the grazing lands and would bring back news that allowed the tribe to adjust the date or duration of the migration if necessary to avoid the harshest impact of the drought. [...] One sub-tribe of the Qashqai Tribal Confederation, the Hoolegooh, who were known as monnajem (astronomers), were specialists in predicting the chances and duration of drought. They used their knowledge of vegetation patterns, wind patterns and cloud patterns to predict rainfall and drought. This allowed them to prepare themselves well in advance for any drought. Some of them are so expert that in the autumn they can predict a drought in the following year. They can even predict the time of rain during the day. They figure this out from the direction and patterns of the wind. For instance, based on the way the wind is blowing now they will tell you whether there will be rain in 5 months time." (From a report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation)

What about the great length of the drought? The story of Elijah is set in the ninth century BC, not long after a period of multi year droughts.

"Between 1250 and 1100 B.C.E., all the great civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean – pharaonic Egypt, Mycenaean Greece and Crete, Ugarit in Syria and the large Canaanite city-states – were destroyed, ushering in new peoples and kingdoms including the first Kingdom of Israel. Now scientists are suggesting a climatic explanation for this great upheaval: A long dry period caused droughts, hunger and mass migration. Such is the conclusion of a three-year study published this week in Tel Aviv." (Referring to the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University)

So Elijah took an educated guess, along with hundred of others, and he got lucky. This catapaulted him to stardom and he made the most of it.

The ravens and the end of the drought

The fact that Elijah could not control the weather is clear from how the drought ended. When Elijah judged the drouhght was likely to end he told Ahab to climb a mountain and look many miles away for any sign of a cloud. Itwas a fairly safe bet that he would see a could somewhere. But he didn't. He had to do come back and make the journey again seven times befoe he saw anything (1 Kings 18:43). Clearly Elijah was guessing.

Finally, as for being fed by "ravens", the Hebrew word for raven is the same as the word for "Arabian" (see the same word in Isaiah 13:30, Jeremiah 3:2, Nehemiah 2:19m 2 Chronicles 21:16: 22:1). Elijah was a man of the desert. After angering Ahab with his prediction of drought he fled back to the desert and was fed by his Arab friends.

Elijah: proving which God is real

Perhaps the worst of all Biblical kings was Ahab (see part five of this book for why: Ahab stole land). he was opposed by perhaps the most spectacular of all Biblical prophets: Elijah.

Perhaps the most dramatic miracle in the Old Testament is when Elijah apparently calls fire from heaven in front of the whole nation. This is often remembered as a supernatural event. It is actually the opposite: prooff that the supernatural will always fail, and science will always win. Elijah makes Housini, Barnum and the Great Randhi look like amateurs. Elijah was possibly history's greatest showman, and he played for the highest stakes: economic democracy (see part five of this book).

And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? And he answered , I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim. Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table. (1 Kings 18:17-40)

Elijah then challenges the priests of Baal to call fire from heaven to consume an animal sacrifice. They call on their god all day and nothing happens. They pray and beg, they cut themselves until blood pours out, and nothing. Elijah just mocks them. Finally, in late afternoon, it is Elijah's turn.

And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water. [and Elijah said, in front of all Israel] Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said , The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God. And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape . And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (1 Kings 18:17-40)

Never did Elijah say his God was supernatural. Inviting thousands of spectators and over four hundred opponents against himself (and whatever assistant carried his wood) was pure spectacle. Soaking the wood four times is pure showmanship. Like all the best conjurers, he plays up to expectations and distracts fro what is actually a simple matter. He planned the whole event and provided his own wood. It would be so easy to have soaked his own wood in oil. The water would just run off, and soak into the desert sand, and any pools of water would have oil float to the surface. Elijah waited until it was dark and his dramatic public prayer distracted attention from whoever lit the fuse. Suddenly whoosh! The whole valley is lit up in a ball of flame. Elijah was simply smarter than his superstitious opponents.

Putting on such a show and having his followers kill the enemy may seem severe, but they were effectively at war. The king of Israel (Ahab) was destroying his own nation, . These were desperate times, and if a simple trick could turn the tide, so be it.

Endless food and raising the dead?

During the famine two events happened that are often called supernatural miracles, but that is not what the text says. It's juts a question of starving people getting a tiny amount of food, and one of them almost dies from hunger.

 And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up , because there had been no rain in the land. And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying , Arise , get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.  (1 Kings 17:7-9)

So here is the context for the later miracles. Elijah is short of food. He heard that a woman would feed him. Who told him? The word of the Lord just means logic or wisdom. There is no need to imagine supernatural means: Elijah was now a celebrity for opposing the hated king Ahab, so there would be people who wanted to secretly help him. No doubt one of them said "go and see this woman". So Elijah did.

He called to her, and said , Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand. And she said , As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die . (1 Kings 17:11-12)

The woman didn't know of any plans to feed Elijah. This is to be expected: when living under a brutal king, anyone who helps the king's enemies must be as secretive as possible. COmpare this to the resistance in occupied France in World War II. A message might come to a spy, saying "go to this house". The person at the house would be completely loyal, but would know as little as possible in case she was caught

And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste , neither shall the cruse of oil fail , until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth. And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah. (1 Kings 17:13-16)

Again we must apply Occam's razor: what is more likely? That food magically appeared? Or that it was secretly supplied by the resistance? Now see what happened immediately after:

And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick ; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him. (1 Kings 17:17)

What is the son sick with? We already know that: some result of hunger (in verse 12 the mother and son expected to die of hunger, so much be very weak). We are not told he is dead, only that he has no breath in him. These people were not doctors. It simply means that any breathing is too shallow to be detected, very shallow, so the starving man is close to death.

And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son? (1 Kings 17:18)

What sin is this? The only possible sin we know of is that the woman is harboring an enemy of the king. Why does she blame Elijah? The only thing Elijah has done is ensure that food arrives. But everyone is suffering from the famine so this must be very sparse or poor quality. Presumably either the food was bad or Elijah did not allow enough to the son. Why else would the mother blame Elijah?

And he said unto her, Give me thy son. And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into a loft, where he abode , and laid him upon his own bed. (1 Kings 17:19)

The loft would be the top of the house. Lying down there would give the son better airflow than being hugged tight by his mother in the claustrophobic lower part of the house. This supports the idea that "has no breath" means exactly what it says: this is a breathing problem.

And he cried unto the LORD, and said , O LORD my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn , by slaying her son? (1 Kings 17:20)

This is why people think the son was dead. But we have to remember Hebrew grammar: ancient Hebrew had no past or future tense, so past or future have to be inferred form the context. In this case the cause of the son losing breath was past, so past tense was used in the first part of the sentence. But "by slaying her son" could equally apply to what Elijah believed was happening. Given that the son revived, what is more likely: that he was dead, or that he was simply dying?

And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the LORD, and said , O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again , and he revived . (1 Kings 17:21-22)

What is "stretching over him"? it could alo be translated "measured over him" - it could be anything from checking a pulse to a major intervention. The purpose was to make the boy breathe again. So it was whatever was used as first aid at the time.

"Soul" is Hebrew "nephesh" meaning "that which gives breath", from the "naphash" meaning to take breath. So the boy started breathing again. Panic over!

Enemies killed by the hand of God

Elijah had one big signature trick, but it's a good one: he is an expert with fire. Fire, like smoke, is the visible sign of air, and air symbolizes breath, life, thought, and therefore God. years later the nation is again in danger, and the king of Israel was weak. So Elijah needed to use cunning to defeat enemy armies:

Then the king [of the enemy side] sent unto him [Elijah] a captain of fifty with his fifty. And he went up to him: and, behold, he sat on the top of an hill. And he spake unto him, Thou man of God, the king hath said , Come down. And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:9-10)

Elijah sits on top of a hill and refuses to come down: this is the key. We saw before that Elijah is an expert with fire, and has hundreds of followers ready to act as soldiers and kill the enemy. No doubt he had fifty archers with fire arrows just over the brow of the hill. Fire from heaven is calculated to terrify any believer in the supernatural, giving Elijah the upper hand.

For another of Elijah's famous miracles see the earlier discussion of Joshua crossing the river Jordan. Elijah did the same thing by placing the witnesses at a great distance: he probably used stepping stones. All great publicists use simple methods but with great skill: it's not what you do that creates an impact, it's the effect you can create in the public mind.

After Elijah there were very few miracle workers. The nation weakened and was taken into captivity. The Babylonian captivity (circa 600 BC) was the most traumatic event of the Bible, and probably when most of the Old Testament text was gathered together.

The Old and New Testament /Covenant /Contract

Jeremiah lived to see the destruction of the nation. (His second book, lamentations, is a lament for what was lost. ) The later prophets looked back to the lost greatness of the past and urged the people to repent so that their terrible life could get better.

The past and future were famously summed up by Jeremiah in chapter 31 of his book.

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers.... (Jeremiah 31:31-32)

This is where the terms Old Testament and New Testament came from. A testament is an agreement, a covenant or contract. This is an economic contract, showing once again that the entire Bible is about establishing an economic kingdom (see part five of this book).

In Jeremiah 31, verses 1-3 the people are in captivity, but God loves them and will remember them.

In verses 4-14 they will return to Israel and plant and build again and rejoice. They will forget the behavior that caused their captivity. Then we meet the concept of the redeemer:

The redeemer and new contract

For the LORD hath redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he. (Jeremiah 31:11)

The concept of a redeemer is economic: to redeem is pay a financial price or other debt: for the definition see part two of this book, discussing Job 19:25-26.

The contract referred to in Jeremiah 31 is a national one. Its nature and implied debt (and therefore the need for the debt to be redeemed) are as follows.

  1. First, Moses gave laws for economic strength: do not tax work, pay rent on land instead, deal fairly with others.
  2. Then, by following this more or less (in the Judges period) the nation grew much stronger.
  3. But later the people rejected the teachings and chose kings who taxed work. This weakened the nation, allowing a foreign power to take them into captivity.
  4. The people were now in a kind of debt: they must pay that debt in time and effort to gain freedom so they can start again with nothing.
  5. They were good citizens, so eventually a good ruler (Cyrus) treated them better, allowing some to return home. This was logic: be a good citizen, and good rulers will treat you better. Logic saved them: Logic (God) paid the price, redeeming their debt.

Jeremiah 31:15-17 says those left behind will weep to see their children leave. (This verse was later used about losing children to king Herod. )

Verses 18-27 say that God will remember Ephraim so he can come back and the promised land will be full again.

Verses 28-30 say that God (logic) broke them, so God (logic) will rebuild them. The younger generation can do well, unlike the parents who did badly and caused the problem.

Then we have the famous verses:

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31)

'Covenant': Hebrew "beriyth" - covenant, alliance, pledge, constitution, ordinance (monarch to subjects). In other words, a contract.

Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake , although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying , Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:32-34)

In other words, the people will understand the logic behind it. They will, not just blindly obey the prophet they will understand the reasons behind it.

For how this new covenant was also rejected see the end of part nine of this book, and the rise of the bishops. Eventually blind obedience became king again, and any alternate ideas were silenced by an appeal to authority rather than reason.

Finally, Jeremiah 31:35-37 promises that God will never forget you. This is because God is logic: logic is always there when we need him.

A footnote: Isaiah and other prophets

When this book was first uploaded, a reader asked "what about Isaiah?" He pointed to a verse where Isaiah apparently encouraged war against innocents. Which I hope meant the reader agreed with everything in my book, and had to look elsewhere for a counter argument. But this is not an exhaustive Bible commentary. I have no plans to review Isaiah in any depth.

This book is about economics. I am interested in the land laws of Moses and Jesus. As I see it, having kings means rejecting the law of Moses. That period of Israel's history is just a record of decline. The further we get from Moses and Jesus the less interested I become.

Regarding Isaiah in particular (treating Isaiah as a single person for convenience), he was an advisor the king: on the king's payroll. To me he is compromised. How can he preach against the real problem, kingship itself? So instead he preaches general good behaviour. Without addressing the issue of kingship he cannot fix the real problem, the economic weakness of the nation.

So did Isaiah encourage war against innocents? Maybe he did. That's what kings do, and Isaiah worked for the king. I'm far more interested in the early years when there were no kings at all. 


Part five: the message of the Bible