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 chapter 1 makes a very modest claim:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
Other chapters in the book of Numbers confirm this conclusion. E.g:
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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:
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:
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...
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:
Option 1 is unacceptable, so Moses tried option 2:
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?
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":
So Moses planned for a pit to open up beneath the rebels' feet!
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.
"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.
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.
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":
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:
If the "plague" is the killing that Moses spoke about, then Aaron is standing in the middle of the fighting, calming the situation.
"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.
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!
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.
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:
Moses warned the people against making any covenants with the people who are already in the promised land:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 against homosexuality disappear upon closer inspection, For example, the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but unkindness to strangers:
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".
Note that the law of Moses' opposition to homosexuality does not apply to lesbianism:
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:
Leviticus simply forbade full sexual intercourse between two men. This was probably for economic reasons:
Leviticus 18 and 20 give the reasons for numerous sexual rules:
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):
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.
Jesus said no laws would be ended until they were fulfilled (i.e. completed):
Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets by preaching the kingdom of God:
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).
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:
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:
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:
"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:
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.
Here is a wonderful piece of hypocrisy: Condemning Moses for rules that modern nations still have:
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
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:
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:
More modern translations say that these slave 'sell themselves'. They do it for money:
If a slave (including a non-Hebrew) escapes they are free: the law forbids anybody from returning an escaped slave.
These slaves have to be well treated. If you hurt them, even if they just break a tooth, they have to go free.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
For a clearer statement on magic, see Deuteronomy:
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.
This is probably a bad translation:
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.
Numbers 25 illustrates the problem with the supernatural approach to the Bible:
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.
"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":
In the desert, with poor nutrition and no access to healthcare, poor public health could kill hundreds. Hence laws like this one:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Next comes the part that might seem shocking:
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:
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.
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.
Having avoided the plague the Israelites finally enter the promised land:
Joshua seems to be waiting for something
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).
'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!
'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.
Why mention the city of Adam? This is the key to the event, and why it was not supernatural:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
The Bible records that, after the Israelites walked across the river on dry land, the local cities were terrified.
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:
'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.
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
'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.
One of the early battles (almost certainly helping the Shechemites) was particularly memorable:
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.
'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.
'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.
The crazy thunderstorm, yet enough light to see by, seemed to be a miracle. But it was perfectly within the bounds of unusual weather.
'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:
Let us look at the Amalekite campaign in detail.
'Amalek': this seem to refer to any group (e.g. from the Midianites, Edomites or Kenites) that wants Israel dead. This is why:
'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:
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:"
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, 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.
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:
'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.
'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.
'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.
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'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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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?
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.
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?
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!
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
'Covenant': Hebrew "beriyth" - covenant, alliance, pledge, constitution, ordinance (monarch to subjects). In other words, a contract.
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.
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
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
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.