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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Biblical Narrative

The Exodus saga in the Bible incorporates events in Egypt after the death of Joseph through the Israelite departure, the wilderness wanderings, and the Sinai revelations, up to but not including the conquest of Canaan. The account, largely in narrative form, spreads over four books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

As the book of Exodus begins, Joseph and all of his generation have died, and Joseph's descendants “multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exod. 1.7 ). There is now a new pharaoh ruling Egypt, “who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1.8 ). This new king fears the Israelites as a large and potentially dangerous fifth column in his land. So he enslaves the Israelites, forcing them to build the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses, and making “their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor” (Exod. 1.14 ). But harsh treatment only makes the Israelites grow more numerous and strong, so the pharaoh orders all male Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile. In this context we read Moses' birth narrative; to avoid the slaughter, the baby's mother places him in a reed basket along the bank of the river, where he is found by Pharaoh's daughter and, ironically, raised in the Egyptian royal court.

After reaching adulthood, Moses one day impetuously kills an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew. He flees Egypt, settles in nomadic Midian, and marries. Meanwhile the Israelites in Egypt groan under their harsh bondage. The old Pharaoh dies, only to be replaced by a new, equally pitiless ruler. Eventually God calls to Moses from a bush burning in the wilderness and commands him to return to Egypt to deliver his people from their oppression and lead them forth “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3.8 ). Reluctantly accepting his commission, Moses goes back to Egypt, and initiates a series of patterned confrontations with Pharaoh. In each, Moses pleads with Pharaoh to “let my people go,” Pharaoh is obdurate, Moses dramatically performs a miracle that devastates the Egyptians, Pharaoh first relents and then recants. In this way, nine spectacular plagues descend on the Egyptians: bloodwater, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. The series culminates with the tenth and deadliest plague, in which all firstborn Egyptians, human and animal, die; this both leads into and explains the origin of the Passover ritual. At long last Pharaoh permits the Israelites to leave, only to change his mind one last time and send his army after Moses. But his Egyptian soldiers meet their death in the Red (or Reed) Sea, whose waters miraculously part for the fleeing Israelites and then close over Pharaoh's doomed army.

Delivered from their oppressor, the Israelites continue their journey into Sinai and camp at the base of the mountain of God. There, in one of the most momentous theophanies of the Bible, God appears to Moses and the Israelites. With Moses as mediator, God makes a covenant with Israel, whose stipulations include the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, and the series of laws known as the Covenant Code or the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20–23; 24.7 ). In addition, God reveals to Moses the specifications for building, furnishing, and staffing the tabernacle, where God will dwell in the midst of the congregation (Exod. 25–31 ). Almost as soon as it is made, the covenant is broken as the Israelites disgrace themselves in the golden calf incident (Exod. 32 ). The covenant is immediately reestablished, however, revealing God's mercy, and the tabernacle is constructed so that the glory of God may descend upon it.

The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy continue the Exodus epic. More laws and ritual regulations are given, and the Israelites travel through the Sinai wilderness by stages, their itinerary provided in detail. The people are a tiresome and faithless lot during their long and arduous journey. They murmur, whine, and rebel constantly, blind to God's favors and signs. God's anger is kindled almost continuously, but he invariably forgives the Israelites, despite their unfailing intransigence, through the intercession of Moses, who continues to act as covenant mediator and interpreter of God's redemptive work. Finally, after an abortive attack on Canaan during which the people transgress yet again, God has had enough; he informs the Israelites that those whom he brought out of Egypt will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. Rather, they will remain in the wilderness, and after forty years (that is, after the death of their entire generation) their children will be the ones to fulfill the covenant promise and occupy Canaan.

The Israelites remain at Kadesh-barnea for much of these forty years, but eventually move into Transjordan. There they encounter the kings of Moab and Edom and conquer the kings of the Amorites and Bashan. Anticipating the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites divide the land among their tribes by lot, delineate the borders of Israelite dominion, and designate the Levitical cities. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses gives a series of farewell addresses to his people: he reviews the mighty acts of God, stresses the Israelites' escape from Egypt with its associated miracles, reiterates the Decalogue, proclaims a second extensive corpus of laws and regulations, warns solemnly of coming temptations in the land of Canaan, and adjures the people to love and to remain loyal to God in the Promised Land. At long last, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses climbs to the summit of Mount Nebo and gazes across the Jordan River to the Promised Land. God shows Moses all the land and then tells him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (Deut. 34.4 ). And Moses, the servant of the Lord, dies, while below him on the fields of Moab his people ready themselves to conquer Canaan.

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