Singing Women

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So far, I’ve seen little hints scattered through the text of women who seem to have once been far more important than the credit they are given in the book that has survived down to me. I summarized what I’ve noticed in my post on Judges 13, in the discussion of Samson’s unnamed mother:

There have been several times that I’ve sensed hints of older stories, stories that seem to have been about priestesses or perhaps even goddesses. God telling Sarah about Isaac, Sarah bedding with the kings of two nations (Pharaoh and Abimelech), Rebekah bedding with a third kingMiriam’s song of praiseZipporah’s circumcision of her sonDeborah’s song, etc. Here, we have another that I would put in the same category – though she is given no name, it is clear that it is through her that God wishes to communicate with Manoah’s family. I suspect that the latter portion of the chapter, where he switches to speaking directly to Manoah, may have been a later edit, because coming the second time to Manoah’s wife while she is alone just seems far too deliberate to me.

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

Most interesting of all – at least to me – is that we have had three “songs” so far in the text, and that all three have been sung by women. I’ve already mentioned Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 and Deborah’s in Judges 5, and now we can add Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. And though our sample size is still quite small, I’ve been drumming up a few ideas about these songs that I’d like to throw out into the void of the internet.

Deborah’s song, though ostensibly sung by her, is clearly more about her. In Miriam and Hannah’s case, however, the two women seem to be given the voice of the nation – it falls to them to praise God and to express the people’s hope for the future. In Miriam’s case, she expresses the people’s (ideal) trust that God was leading them toward a land in which they could be planted (Exodus 15:16-18), a concern for obvious reasons at the time. Hannah also uses her look to the future to address present concerns; all through Judges, we were reminded that “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). So Hannah’s pressing concern is that rule be established, and that those who succeeded in a time of such higgeldy-piggeldy morals would soon find themselves at a disadvantage, and that there should be a king (1 Sam. 2:10).

So as we saw with Sarah and Rebekah, it seems that women are seen to be performing the roles of high priestess, in the later cases legitimizing monarchies, and in these cases interceding with God.

Which leaves us with three possibilities, that I can see. (1) My pattern-finding brain is finding patterns where they don’t exist, (2) these songs serve a literary purpose that was, at least at one time, seen to be feminine, or (3) these stories are remnants from cultic tradition in which women played a more central role.

Watching the Ten Commandments, Part II

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I’ve finally gotten around to watching the second part of The Ten Commandments with Yule Brenner and Charleton Heston. It’s only been 2.5 years, which is fairly par for the course as far as my movie-watching habits go. If you need a refresher (why would you?), you can find my review of Part I here.

The first part of the movie covers Moses’s early life in Egypt, his flight to Midian, meeting Zipporah, and closes with Moses returning from his first encounter with God. The second part sees his return to Egypt, the plagues, Israel’s escape from Egypt, the parting of the sea, the issuing of the decalogue, and ends with Moses heading off to die.

10Commandments1When Moses first returns to Egypt (uneventfully, there’s no Exodus 4:24-26), he confronts Rameses while the latter is accepting tributes. Notably, one of the tributes is offered by a certain Priam of Troy who is, inexplicably, dressed like a blue Roman soldier. The dating for this to be the Priam of Troy is possible depending on your historian of choice.

Moses has Aaron pull his staff-into-snake trick (the literal passing of the baton as incomprehensible on screen as it was in text). When Rameses’s son flinches, there’s a bit of nasty foreshadowing when his mother, Nefretiri, tells him not to worry because “nothing of his [Moses’s] will harm you.” The scene ends, as in the text, with Pharaoh punishing the Hebrews by making them make bricks without straw – though in the movie version he allows them to collect gleanings. Unless I’m mistaken, this is an addition.

Now, we never really see the Israelites making these bricks. When we see them working in Part I, they are pulling blocks of stone around, presumably because someone thought it was more dramatic. In context, it’s rather funny to see them griping about not being allowed to make their stone blocks with straw, though.

Nefretiri plays a fairly common femme fatale/Lady Macbeth character. She tries to tempt Moses,  is rebuffed, then lashes out by holding the Israelites hostage. In the text, we are told that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he has more opportunities to show off how mighty he is. Here, it is Nefretiri who convinces Rameses to keep the Hebrews captive (ostensibly to get back at Moses, though Rameses later accuses her of doing it to keep Moses around).

10CommandmentsThe plagues are largely skipped over. Given the costs involved in showing them, it’s quite understandable. We do see a few glimpses, though, such as the hail storm from Exodus 9:24. Interestingly, while most translations have it as a hail storm with lightning, others have it as “hail and fire.” In the movie, they had this as regular hail that, for some reason, ignites on the backdrop while failing to set Rameses – who is standing in it – on fire.

Strangely, Rameses denies the miraculous nature of the plagues, coming up with a naturalistic explanation – despite the fact that he watched, just a few minutes prior, the water in his jug turn to blood. The scene felt like a rather heavy-handed attack on the movement in biblical scholarship to find natural explanations for miracles.

The film-makers seem to have been understandably troubled by the slaughter of the first born from Exodus 12. Rather than God just doing it because he can, the film-makers chose to have Rameses order the slaughter of the first-born Israelites first (echoing the killing that brought Moses into the royal household in the first place), making the supernatural plague a retaliation. That being said, Moses is the jerk who, when Rameses relents, starts rattling off all the people and stuff he’s going to take with him when he leaves as Nefretiri is onscreen holding her dead child.

They also add a strange detail – Nefretiri comes to Moses’s home and sends away Zipporah and her son. Perhaps this was included to prevent the audience from seeing her as a full baddie. The film-makers also seem to really like Bithiah – the princess who finds the baby Moses. On the night of the plague, she defects to the Israelite side and, during their eventual escape, brings an old man onto her palanquin.

In the movie version, the Israelites are released when Rameses thinks that it might save his son. They do not lie and escape under false pretences. They do still steal from the Egyptians, though, only in the movie, it seems to be a foreshadowing of the Golden Calf story, showing the greed/vice that the movie will tie explicitly to that episode. It is not commanded by God, as it was in Exodus.

Joshua features far more prominently than he does in the text at this point. Not only is he seen to be organizing the escaping Israelites, he is also given a love interest – Lilia, who is married (or perhaps simply cohabitating) with Dathan. Dathan, too, sees his role expanded from a minor baddie in Numbers 16 to a traitor/overseer, maybe-rapist, and the principal instigator of the Golden Calf incident.

10Commandments2Speaking of which, Korah is there as well, though only as a brief name-drop. When Moses throws the tablets down in anger upon finding the people worshipping an idol and getting up to all sorts of nasty business (everything from partying to attempted human sacrifice), the ground under the idolaters opens up, as it does in Numbers 16. This is quite different from the Golden Calf story in the text, where Moses has the faithful cut the idolaters down with swords. This wouldn’t, I suspect, have fit with the image they were trying to present.

At least Aaron is seen to be centrally involved in the making of the Calf.

Interestingly, Moses curses the idolaters by telling them that “for this you shall drink bitter waters.” This seems to be a reference to Numbers 5, but that was a test, not a curse, and was used on women suspected of adultery. I think it likely that a script-writer just wanted a “biblical-sounding curse” and that’s what someone came up with.

On the whole, I found Part II much slower and duller than the first. Then again, much of it could simply be because I’ve never been a fan of action sequences. I tend to listen to movies rather than watch them; I need to keep my hands busy, so I do other things and only look up occasionally. For me, a long action sequence is nothing but a bunch of fast-paced music and, depending on the movie, the sound of explosions. I did try to actively watch The Ten Commandments – easy enough while my paintbrush was replaced with a pen for taking notes – but the long periods without dialogue toward the end of the movie had me fidgeting all over the place.

Even so, it was an interesting movie. It’s very clearly dated by its special effects and acting style, but it was interesting to see what they did with source material that doesn’t lend itself easily to film adaptation. I found it particularly interesting to re-watch the movie after Noah has come out. I haven’t actually seen Noah yet, but I’ve heard complaints from many quarters about how unfaithful it is to the source material, whereas the only complaints I’ve heard about The Ten Commandments have to do with hammy acting. This is something I particularly noticed with The History Channel’s The Bible, since that has been getting a lot of play in churches, despite clearly inventing a lot of details that contradict the text. One might be excused for assuming that the reaction to embellishment is guided more by whether they mesh with the viewer’s preconceived ideas than simply their presence.

The Ephod and Teraphim


In Judges, Micah has a shrine that includes an ephod and a teraphim – clearly cultic objects of some sort – that the Danites later steal. But what are they, exactly?

Many translations render the word “teraphim” in Judges 18:17 as “household gods,” and it is apparently the word used when Rachel steals the household gods from her father in Genesis 31. According to Wikipedia, the “-im” ending does not necessarily mean that the word refers to plural objects. Wikipedia goes on to say:

According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first born male adult humans, shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate; it was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. During the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon, evidence of the use of human skulls as cult objects was uncovered, lending credence to the Rabbinical conjecture. The implied size and the fact that Michal could pretend that one was David, has led to the Rabbinical conjecture that they were heads, possibly mummified human heads.

Which is just totally metal!

So the teraphim remains something of a mystery, but what about the ephod? Well, we know from Judges 8:26-27 that it is a thing which can me made with recycled gold earrings. Both ephod and teraphim, then, seem to refer to idol-like cultic objects which, my study Bible writes, were “perhaps used for divination” (p.317). This is detail is supported by Judges 18:5, where the Danites ask Micah’s priest, who is in charge of the ephod and teraphim, is asked to “inquire of God” (something that would almost certainly be done through divination).

All our previous mentions of the ephod say that it is something a priest is supposed to wear. In Exodus 28:6-14, the ephod is to be made out of variously coloured yarns. It is to have shoulder pieces (onto which should be attached two onyx stones inscribed with the names of the tribes), and it is to be worn under the priestly breastplate (which contains the Urim and Thummim, which are almost certainly involved in divination). In Exodus 29:5, we are told that the high priest must wear “the tunic and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and [be girded] with the decorated band of the ephod.”

Similarly, in Leviticus 8:6-7, Moses places the ephod on Aaron, then binds it to him with the decorated band of the ephod.

What I get from this is that the ephod is an object that the Levitical high priest is supposed to wear strapped onto his body. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was worn by folk priests in the time of Judges, though. It could just as easily have been an object that was originally placed on a shrine and only incorporated into the priestly vestments at a later date. This is suggested by Judges 8:26-27, in which Gideon’s ephod is worshipped.

What’s the deal with Joshua?

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So far, Joshua has been something of a secondary character. He does get mentioned, but the context is usually that he’s assisting someone, or shadowing some other character around.

The River Jordan, by JW McGarvey, 1894

The River Jordan, by JW McGarvey, 1894

Exodus 17: In our first encounter with Joshua, he is leading the battle against the Amalekites while Moses waves his arms in the air to cheer them on (his unwavering support giving Joshua’s forces the drive they needed to win the day). This story feels out of place in the narrative – What were the Amalekites doing there, anyway? Why is the defeat of the Amalekites not mentioned again – say, when the Hebrews actually get close to Amalekite territories? It feels like there was a tradition where Moses casts his weird hand-waving spell to win a battle and, when it was being added to the narrative, the editor/author added Joshua – known leader of armies – into the story.

Exodus 24: Joshua goes up the mountain with Moses, then mysteriously disappears. At the time, I wondered if there might be a separate strain of narratives about Joshua that included a bit where he gets to meet God on Mt. Sinai – with or without Moses – and that this portion of the story was grafted onto the tale of Moses receiving the commandments. Another possibility being that a pro-Joshua camp has been trying to lend him (or his descendants) extra legitimacy by setting him up as some sort of apprentice or trusted friend to Moses.

Exodus 32: Joshua is suddenly on the mountain with Moses again when they hear noises coming from below. In a cutesy bit of foreshadowing (perhaps a joke about how war-obsessed Joshua will later prove himself to be), Joshua assumes that it’s the sound of battle. Moses, more level-headed, recognizes the sound of partying and idol worship.

Exodus 33: Joshua is pitted against Aaron in two competing traditions. According to the Levites, the tent of meeting is located in the centre of the camp and it is tended by the priests. But in Exodus 33, the tent is located outside of camp and it’s tended by Joshua.

Numbers 11: When two elders suddenly start prophesying in the middle of camp, Joshua fears that they might be competition for Moses. He runs to warn Moses of the possible threat and is rebuked because the elders are legit. In this story, Joshua is set up as being a do-gooder, looking out for Moses. And while he is rebuked, he isn’t given leprosy or stricken with a plague as others are when they misinterpret something God has said or done. From this, I get the impression that Joshua was grafted in an existing story to show how loyal he is to Moses.

Numbers 13: Oshea, son of Nun Joshua, is listed among the spies sent into Canaan. While all the other spies are only mentioned once, his presence is highlighted a second time, emphasising him (and possibly indicating him as the leader of the spies, though this is unclear). The name is clearly similar to that of Joshua, son of Nun, but it still differs from every other instance that we’ve seen so far. When the spies give their “evil report,” only Caleb is mentioned opposing them. From the context, it seems that Oshea is going along with what the others are saying.

Numbers 14: In our most recent sighting, Joshua is quite clearly shown as part of Moses’ inner circle, and he is aligned with Caleb among the spies. Though we are never told that Joshua had sided with Caleb in Numbers 13, the two of them are the only spies spared of the original 12.

If I had to venture a guess, it would be that the Oshea in Numbers 13 is part of one tradition and may or may not refer to the Joshua we meet just a chapter later,  though that Joshua has clearly assumed Oshea’s role as the story progresses.

But in all of these examples, Joshua feels unnatural, as though he’s been stitched into the narrative. The purpose seems propagandish – he is clearly being set up as a successor to Moses, and therefore shown assisting him and displaying his loyalty. Does anyone else have thoughts about the possible reasons for pasting Joshua into these stories? Or want to tell me that I’m reading into it too much?

Inside and outside

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David Plotz made a  pretty interesting argument about the location of food sources during the time the Hebrews spend in the wilderness. If we’re interpreting correctly, the manna, which God is happy for the Hebrews to eat, is collected “round about the camp” (Exodus 16:13). The forbidden quail, on the other hand, are gathered “a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp” (Numbers 11:31).

We’ve seen hints of this ‘inside vs outside’ discussion in relation to the tent of meeting, as well. We get hints – such as Exodus 33:7 which reads: “Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting” – of an older tradition in which the tabernacle was kept apart from the people. This was clearly replaced by a later tradition in which the tent of meeting is found in the centre of the camp (as shown in Numbers 2).

[This tradition may be connected to the ones that describe Moses as being assisted by elders, rather than 12 tribal leaders, since the narrative about Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11:26-30 describes them as having remained “in the camp” instead of going “out to the tent” (v.26).]

It may be that the association of being “in the camp” as having God’s sanction and the wilderness being associated with the opposite conflicted with the tradition of locating the tent of meeting outside of camp, helping to elevate the primacy of locating the tent in the centre of camp.


History Channel’s The Bible: Episodes 1 & 2, “Beginnings” and “Exodus”


I’ve finally gotten around to watching the first two episodes of the History Channel’s The Bible miniseries (I wanted to wait on the rest of the episodes because, you know, spoilers). The episodes, titled Beginnings and Exodus, cover the events of the Pentateuch – from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

The Bible

Conceptually, having Bible stories at all on something called the History Channel isn’t problem-free. Even among theologians, the idea that the Bible is primarily historical truth isn’t exactly considered a settled matter. But I, personally, am okay with it. Whether or not the stories are historical in a literal sense, they are certainly worth discussing in a historical context. I’d feel the same way about a History Channel Trojan War miniseries. And, at least, the series begins with a card screen telling us that it is “an adaptation of Bible stories.”

The problem is that the card screen also tells us that “it endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book,” which is a rather misleading statement.

Throughout the episodes, the authors’ theological slant is plainly evident in what they change, what they add, and what they leave out. In several cases, the departures are significant, and they colour interpretation.

The most obvious example of what I mean is what I like to call the “Hot Jesus Injections.” Throughout the episodes, there are glimpses and hints of Jesus, even though it covers only the events from Genesis through to Deuteronomy. One of the three angels that come to Abraham (wearing a hood of a different colour from the two others, of course) always has his back turned to the camera or is seen out of focus, yet he is quite clearly the actor who will play Jesus later on in the film.

The same actor also provides the voice of God whenever he speaks to the patriarchs (and Sarah). This comes out rather silly because, of course, they chose an actor who could portray a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” He can hardly muster the thunderous boom of the Old Testament God. So what we get are the patriarchs getting thrown about by these violent storms, seeing these great acts of nature, and then this totally chill, stoner voice with a slight reverb coming down from the skies. It’s decidedly underwhelming.

Which brings me to the subject of race. There’s some attempt to at least get white people with brown eyes and dirty-blonde hair at the lightest, so I guess that’s a start – and the angels accompanying God tick off a few diversity boxes – but I expect a Bible-based miniseries coming out in 2013 to do a whole lot better than White Jesus.

White Jesus

Several narratives are altered to make them less morally troubling. For example, turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just because she looked back at her home as she flees is troubling, to put it lightly. So they set her up early on as someone who is chronically contrary, making sure that the audience will be predisposed not to see her as a victim.

When God tells Abraham to go into Canaan, Lot’s wife argues against the idea. Later, when they arrive, they find that they have so many animals that they cannot graze them all together. In the Bible, Abraham proposes that they separate, so Lot heads off to Sodom. But in the miniseries, it’s Lot’s wife who nags Lot into separating, clearly against Abraham’s wishes. That’s not just filling in the gaps to make a more compelling narrative for a screen adaptation, that’s outright contradicting the source material to fit a theological agenda. Just to make it even more clear that Lot’s wife totally deserves what’s coming to her, the miniseries has her scoff at faith in “a god we cannot see.”

All of this makes it absolutely silly when Abraham goes on about how he’s been promised “as many descendants as the stars, to populate our land.” This comes right after his separation from Lot because the land is already full with just their two households. Maybe he should adjust his ambitions a little…

The destruction of Sodom and God’s conversation with Abraham surrounding that event really struck me. In the biblical story, God is all in a huff and will destroy the whole city, but Abraham argues with him and manages to talk him down a bit – at least enough for God to send the angels in to find any good men. But in the miniseries, the conversation is about Abraham discovering Jesus’ plan, and Jesus being all “don’t worry, bro. I got this.”

Lot never offers up his daughters to the city-dwellers, and he never sleeps with them after. There’s also no mention of Abraham prostituting his wife (twice). But the narrator makes a special point of the fact that Lot “never saw Abraham again” after he fled from Sodom – which, even if it fits with the biblical narrative, was certainly not something that attention was drawn to. I cannot figure out why the miniseries chose to highlight this. Given that the narrator is used so seldom, I can’t help but think that it served some kind of purpose, but I can’t think of what it might be.


I found it interesting that the ‘baby in the basket’ narrative is almost entirely glossed over. The narrator never mentions it, nor does the princess (who tells Moses of his origins). All we get is half a second of footage of picking up the basket.

Once Moses escapes to Midian, a card screen tells us that he waits 40 years before God appears to him as the burning bush. I get that the actor they got to play Young Moses lacked the gravitas they needed to play Prophet Moses, but why choose 40? I don’t remember that being in the biblical narrative, so I can only think that it was just an excuse to get a more mountain man-looking actor in.

Speaking of the burning bush, the narrative was oddly done. I found the bush itself to be rather lacklustre, and the Hippy Jesus voice coming from it really didn’t lend it any of the mysterium tremendum that I had imagined from reading the Bible text. I also found that the miniseries Moses doesn’t show any of the humility that the biblical Moses had when encountering the burning bush.

Zipporah is entirely absent. On a related note, I found the Miriam-Aaron relationship to be rather disturbing. Miriam is shown to have two children, while Aaron apparently has none (or, at least, is never shown to be associated with any children other than Miriam’s). Neither is ever shown with a spouse. Not only that, but they seem rather close – and not in the way of a brother and sister – while waiting out the Passover night. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I got a distinct Lannister vibe from them, and it was creepy.

Aaron and Miriam

I found the ten plagues to be quite well done, visually. Interestingly, the “who can turn their staff into the mightiest serpent” contest with the pharaoh’s court magicians never happens. I suppose that the miniseries’ authors didn’t want to show anyone other than a God Approved Prophet having magical powers. Again, I feel that theology got in the way of retelling the story.

After the Passover plague, the pharaoh agrees to allow the Hebrews to leave. This was the same narrative I’d heard in Sunday School, and it was the same in The Ten Commandments. But, as we learned when we read Exodus 12, the pharaoh only allows the Israelites to leave because they lied and told him that they were just poppin’ ’round the corner for mo’. The lies (and the stealing from the Egyptians) are erased by the miniseries’ authors.

Once in the wilderness, there’s no golden calf, no rebellions, no reason given for why it would take them 40 years to get to Canaan. There is, however, the carving of the decalogue, which was actually a pretty cool scene.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the acting was quite decent (though maybe they could lay off on making the actors run around the block right before each take, because I found the huffing and puffing – particularly when Moses has his audience with the pharaoh – to be quite distracting), despite the many odd casting choices. I’ve already mentioned the white-washing and tokenism, but there were also some rather offensive choices, such as putting someone with dwarfism among the baddies who capture Lot. Because, you know, physical deformity is always a reflection of inner sin, right? Sort of the Disney method of character design.

There’s some odd absurdities as well. For example, there’s the scene where Lot is captured and Abraham’s household come to rescue him. For some reason, the captors decided to use the most absolutely useless gags I’ve ever seen – while gagged, Lot manages to call out, with perfect clarity, to his wife. I get that making a proper gag is really hard, but these are actors. They could have at least pretended not to be able to speak!

I also felt that the authors allowed their theology to get in the way of both accuracy and good storytelling (and, in many instances, both at the same time). It was enough that I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it to anyone who hasn’t already read the relevant biblical chapters.

If watching TV isn’t your thing, good news! The stories of The Bible are now available in a book!


Moses and Abraham

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As I’m reading about Moses, it occurred to me that there are a few similarities to the stories about Abraham. I’m not saying that there is a connection, but it’s interesting to look at. I can’t help but wonder if the two heroes were not occasionally confused, or if stories were sometimes mis-attributed (and then the new associations carried forward).


Both Moses and Abraham are immigrants to Canaan (though ***SPOILERS*** Moses doesn’t quite make it). Abraham came from the east, from the Ur region (“of the Chaldeans”), as we see in Genesis 11. Moses comes from the west, from Egypt – as we see in Exodus 2.

It seems that there’s a strong cultural memory about coming into Canaan from the outside, whether by following Abraham or by following Moses. It may be that, when the two narratives were merged into a single tradition, Abraham’s cycle was placed before Moses’ as an attempt to legitimize Moses’ later entry into Canaan (and its conquering by Joshua), since it would have established a prior Hebrew claim to the land (something the Abraham narrative is clearly all about).

Perhaps Abraham is the initial settler of the rural shrine priests, and Moses is the initial settler of the urban sanctuary priests…

Wives that matter

In both the narratives of Moses and Abraham, we see hints of wives who matter in a possibly cultic capacity. Twice, Abraham is said to have prostituted his wife, Sarah, to a king (to an Egyptian pharaoh in Genesis 12, and to Abimelech in Genesis 20). I have no idea how much credence this is given in scholarly circles, but it does – superficially, at least – sound vaguely like an echo of Inanna (or a similar myth) being brought into the Israelite belief system.

According to Wikipedia, there was Sumerian ritual referred to as the Sacred Marriage Rite in which a king would symbolically take the place of Inanna’s consort Dumuzi and sleep with her (represented on earth by a high priestess). This consummation between king and goddess granted the king’s reign legitimacy. By sleeping with Inanna, the king was placing himself as the earthly representation of the god-king Dumuzi – in much the same way as Egyptian Pharaohs would be seen as earthly representations of the god Horus.

So when we see Sarah sleeping with two kings, it seems that she is performing Inanna’s function, indicating that she may either be a shadow of a historical high priestess or an appropriation of the goddess herself. Either way, she seems to be cultically important. (Incidentally, we see the same story repeated a third time in Genesis 26, except this time it’s Isaac prostituting Rebekah to Abimelech.)

[If Sarah/Rebekah really are shadows of Inanna, I find it interesting that in the Biblical stories, it is the men – Abraham and Isaac – who are the active agents in getting their wives into bed with the kings, rather than something the women themselves are initiating.]

In Exodus 4, Moses falls deathly ill. In order to save him, his wife – Zipporah – circumcises their son and rubs the foreskin on Moses’ feet. Either this story is a different tradition of the origin of the commandment to circumcise (which, I’ll note, was otherwise given to Abraham in Genesis 17), or the practice had fallen by the wayside at some point (either culturally or just Moses, given his rather unusual infancy).

Regardless, Zipporah serves a cultic function – symbolically sacrificing Moses’ son and saving Moses from God’s wrath. It’s even possible that Zipporah is positioned as the initiator of the circumcision ritual.

A sacrificed son

Both Moses and Abraham must symbolically sacrifice their sons. In Genesis 22, Abraham is told by God that he must sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham follows God’s instructions and, once God is satisfied that Abraham really totally would go through with it, his hand is stayed and a lamb is sacrificed instead.

In Exodus 4, God tries to kill Moses, but Moses is saved just in time when Zipporah circumcises their son. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but it seems that circumcision – in that it endangers the mechanism by which a man might have descendants – may be a stand-in for child sacrifice. As with Isaac, it seems that Moses’ son is symbolically sacrificed to avert God’s wrath.

I find it interesting to note that Moses is shown to have only one son in the Exodus 4 story, though he has at least two everywhere else (that I’ve noticed). This parallels nicely with Abraham who, at this point in the narrative, also has only one son (having abandoned his other son in the wilderness).


So, what do you think? Is it plausible to think that both Moses and Abraham may have come from a single tradition, or that they might both be patriarch figures whose narratives have gotten a little muddled together at times? Have you encountered this theory before?

The origins of the Ten Commandments

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Someone on Facebook posted recently that the Ten Commandments are nothing but a rip-off from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Of course, these kinds of claims always make me suspicious since so many of them are very problematic. But I like to check these things out and I just happened to have a copy of the Book of the Dead at home (don’t ask).

And I did, in fact, find the relevant passage in The Book of the Dead: The Hieroglyphic Transcript and Translation into English of the Papyrus of Ani (Gramercy Books: New York, 1960).

The Biblical Ten Commandments: a refresher

In total, the Ten Commandments are listed three times in the Old Testament. Two of the versions, Exodus 20:3-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, go as follows:

  1. No other gods before God
  2. No graven images
  3. No taking God’s name in vain
  4. Keep the Sabbath
  5. Honour your parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No false witness against a neighbour
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions

There’s a third version over in Exodus 34:15-26 that’s quite different:

  1. Worship no other gods
  2. Make no idols
  3. Keep the Passover
  4. All first born belong to God
  5. Keep the Sabbath
  6. Keep the feasts of weeks, of the fruits and wheat harvests, and of ingathering
  7. No blood sacrifice should be made along with leavened bread
  8. Don’t keep leftovers from Passover
  9. The first fruits from the ground should be given to God
  10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk

Clearly, the Exodus 34 commandments are much more cultic than moral in focus, so they aren’t really applicable in this discussion.

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead tradition originates with the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, writing that would have been carved and painted onto the walls and coffins in a burial chamber, dating as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. Around 1800 BCE, these had morphed into the Book of Coming Forth by Day, what we call the Book of the Dead, and was painted on papyrus instead. The text contains a number of spells intended to assist the deceased on their way to the afterlife.

Though there is no canonical Book of the Dead and each one seems to have been unique to the particular deceased, the copies we have do seem to follow a common pattern described by Paul Barguet. You can read more about that over at Wikipedia.

In the Papyrus of Ani, Spell/Chapter 125 describes the deceased’s judgement before Ma’at, goddess of justice, in which the deceased must be able to make the following “negative confessions,” each addressed to a particular god (you can follow along on Wikipedia):

  1. I have not committed sin.
  2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
  3. I have not stolen.
  4. I have not slain men and women.
  5. I have not stolen grain.
  6. I have not purloined offerings.
  7. I have not stolen the property of the god.
  8. I have not uttered lies.
  9. I have not carried away food.
  10. I have not uttered curses.
  11. I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men.
  12. I have made none to weep.
  13. I have not eaten the heart [i.e I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse].
  14. I have not attacked any man.
  15. I am not a man of deceit.
  16. I have not stolen cultivated land.
  17. I have not been an eavesdropper.
  18. I have slandered [no man].
  19. I have not been angry without just cause.
  20. I have not debauched the wife of any man.
  21. I have not debauched the wife of [any] man. (repeats the previous affirmation but addressed to a different god).
  22. I have not polluted myself.
  23. I have terrorised none.
  24. I have not transgressed [the Law].
  25. I have not been wroth.
  26. I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.
  27. I have not blasphemed.
  28. I am not a man of violence.
  29. I am not a stirrer up of strife (or a disturber of the peace).
  30. I have not acted (or judged) with undue haste.
  31. I have not pried into matters.
  32. I have not multiplied my words in speaking.
  33. I have wronged none, I have done no evil.
  34. I have not worked witchcraft against the King (or blasphemed against the King).
  35. I have never stopped [the flow of] water.
  36. I have never raised my voice (spoken arrogantly, or in anger).
  37. I have not cursed (or blasphemed) God.
  38. I have not acted with evil rage.
  39. I have not stolen the bread of the gods.
  40. I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the Spirits of the dead.
  41. I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.
  42. I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god.

Similarities and differences

I’ve organized the negative confessions into the Exod. 20 / Deut. 5 version of the Ten Commandments as follows:

  1. No other gods before God: Given that the Ancient Egyptians were (mostly) polytheistic, it makes sense that this commandment would have no parallel.
  2. No graven images: Again, cultural differences mean that this commandment would make absolutely no sense in an Ancient Egyptian context.
  3. No taking God’s name in vain: I’ve treated this as a general “no blaspheming” commandment and included negative confessions #27, #37, and the second half of #41.
  4. Keep the Sabbath: I’m not seeing parallels for the Sabbath in the negative confessions. I think this one can be chalked up to cultural differences as well.
  5. Honour your parents: There’s really nothing specifically about honouring one’s parents in the negative confessions.
  6. No murder: This one is covered by #4.
  7. No adultery: Covered by #11 (which also covers homosexuality specifically, something not addressed in the Ten Commandments).
  8. No stealing: Quite a few of the negative confessions address stealing, and they can be roughly divided as follows:
    1. Stealing from others: #2, #3, #5, #9, #16, and the first half of #41.
    2. Stealing from the gods or the spirits of the dead: #6, #7, #39, #40, and #42.
  9. No false witness against a neighbour: I’ve subdivided these as follows:
    1. Lying: #8, #15, #18, and possibly #32.
    2. Uttered curses: #10.
    3. Other improper speech (such as speaking arrogantly or with a raised voice): #36.
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions: Coveting is not specifically covered in the negative confessions, but I would still include #20 and #21 in this category.

Of the remaining negative confessions, I think that they can best be organized as follows:

  • Don’t sin or make yourself impure: #1, #22, and #24.
  • Don’t cause harm to others (not covered by the specific categories of commandments 5-10): #12, #14, #23, #28, #29, and #33. #34 also belongs, though it refers to not causing harm to a specific individual (the king).
  • Regarding improper emotion: #13, #19, #25, #30, and #38.
  • Mind your own beeswax: #17 and #31.
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Fail to listen to the truth: #26.
    • Stop the flow of water: #35.


It does indeed seem that most of the Ten Commandments have parallels in the negative confessions of the Book of the Dead. As for whether the Ancient Hebrews actually stole their moral code from the Ancient Egyptians, that’s a much more difficult case to make.

The Mediterranean and Near East regions saw the writing of several such codes of law (which, like the Ten Commandments, mingled moral, cultic, and political concerns). Here’s a few for your perusal:

Trying to argue that the Ancient Hebrews stole their code specifically from another culture is far more difficult to argue, I think, than simply that the Ancient Hebrews were part of a broader cultural movement in the region.

Exodus 40: Putting the pedal to the metal

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God can’t help himself. He just has to micro-manage and gives some last minute instructions for setting up the tabernacle, and he makes Moses write down every single step he takes in arranging the furniture and the curtains just to make sure that nothing is missed or placed in a way that clashes with the principles of feng shui.

Next, God confirms that Aaron is to be his high priest (and his descendants after him). A questionable choice after the Golden Calf incident (in which Aaron not only built the thing, he also lied about it afterwards). He hardly seems to be the most competent spiritual leader.

Have you ever wondered how much time the Hebrews have spent at Sinai/Horeb? We’ve had talk about 40 days here and 40 days there, but according to my Study Bible, that’s just “a round number for an indefinitely long time” (p.109), so I haven’t bothered trying to get an estimate. In this chapter, however, we’re told specifically that Moses puts the tabernacle together on the first day of the first month of the second year (Exod. 40:17). Many chapters ago, we read that the Hebrews arrived at Sinai/Horeb “on the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone forth out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 19:1). Ergo, it’s been 9 months. BAM! Question answered.

Do you walk with the Lord?

Exodus 40In this chapter, we also get a description of how God is leading the Hebrews. He is presenting himself over the tabernacle in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exod. 40:38), so the people walk when they see him and stop when they don’t. This is the same system they were using way back in 13:21. I guess God’s had some time to cool off and no longer needs to get an angel to lead them since he “will not go up among you, lest I consume you in the way” (Exod. 33:3).

There is one rather confusing detail here, though. We’re told at several points through the story that God is physically present among the people when there’s a cloud hanging around the tabernacle. But in Exod. 33:9, we’re told that “when Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend.” In other words, God and Moses hang out together in the tabernacle.

But in this chapter, we’re told that “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it” (Exod. 40:35). Unless God hasn’t forgiven the Hebrews and that’s why he’s refusing to chat with Moses now! Oh my goodness, I think I’ve solved it!

Exodus 37-39: Bezalel gets ‘er done

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Exodus37These three chapters are literally a rehashing of Exodus 25-31. The only substantial difference is that all the “you shalls” have been replaced with “he dids.” These are pretty much among the top most boring things I’ve ever read, even worse than the begats in Genesis (which I think get so much attention because too few people get through them enough to reach the tail end of Exodus).

So rather than just making a bunch of posts about how boooooored I am, I decided to just combine Exodus 37-39 and knock them all out in one go. If you’re following at home and worried that I’m messing up your reading rhythm, don’t worry. You’ve already read these chapters back when we were doing Exodus 25-31. Take a vacation instead. Maybe find some Sabbath breakers to kill.

If I were really dedicated, I might do a line by line comparison between the instructions and the execution. But I won’t.

The only thing of note is that Exodus 38:24-26 gives us the results of the census we heard about in Exodus 30. The results? We have 603,550 men over the age of 30. So let’s take this opportunity to do a little math!

  1. Let’s assume that there is a roughly equal number of men and women over the age of 20. This gives us 1,207,100 adult Hebrews.
  2. Let’s be generous and say that each of these couples has only one child. Some may not be married or have had kids yet, while some undoubtedly have more than just one, so I think that an average of 1 child per 2 adults is a pretty generous assumption. This gives us 1,810,650 Hebrews.
  3. We know that there were 70 Hebrews who entered Egypt with Jacob (Gen. 46:27).
  4. God told Abraham that the Hebrews would spend 400 years in Egypt (Gen. 15:13), but after the fact, we’re told that they were there for 430 years (Exod. 12:40). I’m inclined to assume that God was rounding when he spoke to Abraham, but that the Exodus number is the exact one.
  5. Let’s assume that the Hebrews typically started having kids at 15. Again, I think we’re being generous, but let’s just go with that.
  6. Next, we need to Google “How to calculate exponential population growth.”
  7. Realize that you don’t understand the explanation at all.
  8. Give up.
  9. Cheat and simply conclude that the birth rate would have to be pretty incredible for the population to grow by that much in so few years.

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