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Exodus: Fact or Fiction?

Updated on August 15, 2013

The Ten Commandments


Freedom from Egypt

In the second book of the Bible, Exodus, the main character is Moses. The first scenes are set in ancient Egypt. This was a foreign land to the Hebrews. Previously, Jacob (also known as Israel) and his descendants, had come to Egypt more than 400 years ago. The number of Hebrews in Egypt had grown from 70 to over half a million.

Hebrews comprised a class of people to whom the Egyptians had come to feel superior. In fact, the Hebrews had gone from their initial status as royal guests and leaders who were highly esteemed, all the way down to the level of slaves, who were severely mistreated by the Egyptians.

Cruelty came to characterize the Egyptian king, the Pharaoh, who ordered that all male babies of the Hebrews should be killed in order to avoid any spirited uprising. One such baby was Moses. He happened to be one of the descendants of Jacob's (Israel's) 12 sons. That son, of 400 years ago, was named Levi.

Moses' mom hid him in a basket by the edge of the river where Pharoh's daughter bathed. She spotted baby Moses, took him home, and raised him to adulthood. But one day, Moses went into town and saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.

Moses killed the Egyptian then, fearing punishment, fled to a remote area where he later met and married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a priest.

One day, while tending his flock of sheep, Moses saw an amazing, burning bush. God was inside the flame and spoke to Moses, telling him to go back to Pharaoh and get permission to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt. God told Moses to return his people to Canaan, from which Jacob and his sons had come more than 400 years ago. (Moses' ancestor Jacob had been born there, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham, a descendant of Noah, whose ancestors were Adam and Eve.)

The Pharaoh repeatedly refused to let the Hebrews leave Egypt. Nevertheless, Moses and his brother Aaron kept pleading. God punished the Egyptians each time Pharaoh refused until finally God killed all first-born children and animals in Egypt, except Hebrews who had put lambs' blood by their front doors so that God's destroyers would pass over those households.

As the Hebrews fled, Pharaoh and his army pursued, but they were drowned in the Red Sea. Moses had parted the waters, allowing the half million Hebrews to pass through before the waters suddenly converged on the Egyptian army.

For 40 years, God gave bread each morning to the Hebrews. It always appeared like frost, sustaining them until finally they would come to Canaan (where the country of Israel is today).

But along the journey, they stopped on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula about 300 miles south of Canaan. There they defeated and killed Amalek and his people.

It was in this region, on Mount Sinai, that God spoke to Moses, giving him the 10 Commandments and many examples of justice in cases involving criminal and civil law.

God also told Moses how to construct a detailed tabernacle to house the stone tablets on which God had written the 10 Commandments. The tabernacle was a giant, intricate tent, to be constructed of valuable materials such as gold, silver, brass, strong wood, and fine thread. Aaron and his 2 sons were to be the priests dressed in splendid clothing. Burnt offerings of animals would take place inside the opulent tent.

But while Moses was on the mountain, going 40 days without food or drink, the Hebrews down below became impatient and lost faith. Aaron made a figurine of a calf to see if they wanted to worship that instead of God.

Moses returned and broke the tablets in rage when he saw the disorderly blasphemy of his people. When Moses realized that only Levi's descendants kept faith in God, he ordered the killing of three thousand blasphemers.

Moses went back up the mountain, where God rewrote the 10 Commandments on new stone tablets.

When Moses came back down, he had the beautiful tabernacle and elaborate tent constructed, along with the clothing for the priests, just as God had instructed with detailed specifications.

Many have questioned the authenticity of the story of Exodus, but few will question the basic principles of the Ten Commandments and the concept of faith in God as a valuable tool to extricate people from troubles that seem insoluble.

To most scholars, the basic story of the Hebrews being in Egypt seems very reasonable. The exact details of the people involved cannot be proven however. There is therefore the danger that many people will lose faith in the Bible, if it is shown that the exact facts cannot be established conclusively by historical evidence.

The holy tabernacle in which the ark of the covenant was kept, being stones on which God Himself wrote the Ten Commandments, has only the "Lost Ark" mythology and Hollywood movies to back up the argument that it's all real. The truth for agnostics and atheists who are filled with doubt may be quite different.

It is one thing to say that God inspired the Bible, but another to say He (or She) wrote the Bible. Truly, the Bible is about faith in God. Undoubtedly, most people have faith in God and believe God can help through the many trials we face in our imperfect human circumstances. But God is quoted in exact words in the story of Exodus and many other places in the Bible. "Thus spoke the Lord God of Israel," are words that introduce exact quotations of what was told to Moses.

Many people have close friends and family members who are doubters. They might say the Bible is an entertainment piece, written for people at a time when movies, paperbacks, and Internet weren't available. It's possible to believe this theory while simultaneously believing in God as a Being with whom we can communicate, sincerely praying for assistance with worldly problems, even if it's done without any organized religion to insist on the accuracy of biblical accounts.

Doubters point to the historical fact that other stories, similar to that of Moses challenging the pharaoh, existed in Egypt at the time of, and prior to, the writing of Exodus. It's tempting to seize upon this fact as tending to disprove Exodus, but by the same token, it doesn't undeniably disprove the Exodus story either.

Exodus can be read on many levels, maybe absolute truth, maybe complete fiction. The essence of religion always lies inside the mind. Free to think as we may, those of us with religious faith and those who are atheists as well, have between our opposing views an invisible discipline that we impose on each other, requiring respect for a common moral sense of honor and empathy.


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