Another Look at the Exodus and Conquest Narratives
By: Rev. Dr. Don Wagner
Since my Sunday school days, I have been fascinated by the dramatic Exodus and conquest narratives in the Bible. Most people are familiar with the rise of Moses as an infant and his rescue from the Nile River by Pharaoh's daughter. Moses was raised in Pharaoh's courts but, after killing an Egyptian soldier who was oppressing a Hebrew slave, he had to flee Egypt. Moses received the call of YHWH (Hebrew letters for Yahweh, God) to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery (remember the “burning bush” incident?) and returned to confront Pharaoh with the demand: “Let my people Go.” After the plagues and visitation of the Angel of Death, Pharaoh temporarily consented to free the slaves, Moses led the people out of Egypt, barely escaping when the Egyptian soldiers drowned in the Red Sea. Then Moses led the people through the wilderness for 40 years and brought them to the edge of the Promised Land, dying on a mountain overlooking the land. The Black spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” captures the spirit of liberation from oppression and has inspired a variety of movements seeking justice and freedom.
The biblical narrative of the Exodus inspired Black and white abolitionists and several slave rebellions since the first slave ship arrived on these shores in 1619. The demand for racial justice for Black U.S. citizens has taken too long, and today we see their demands gaining support from people of all colors and classes than at any time in recent history. The horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis this summer has galvanized a powerful movement of Black, Brown, Red and White protestors who have risen to lead a global movement to end the scourge of systemic racism. Many of us watched the funeral services for George Floyd and heard the Exodus narrative invoked by choirs and preachers. Likewise repeated references to the Exodus chants and songs: “Let my people go.”
The Exodus story originated with the Jewish people and has been a constant source of inspiration during their long history of resistance against the stain of antisemitism. From the ghettos of Spain to the ovens at Dachau and Auschwitz, the Jewish people have risen to demand an end to this vicious plague, often driven by the false accusation from Christians that the Jewish people were “the Christ killers.” Many of us have attended a Passover Seder where the events of the Exodus are remembered annually to further inspire Jews to be free and faithful. Today, the Black struggle to end slavery and all forms of discrimination is bringing these two communities together in a united struggle for civil rights and freedom for both peoples. Similarly , the long campaign by Black South Africans to end Apartheid drew on the Exodus narrative as its Black churches played a crucial role in the long struggle for freedom.
Despite this inspired history and relevance to our respective faith traditions, the Exodus narrative raises a number of questions about its history, origins, and even its theological message of liberation. Several Jewish and Christian theologians along with secular historians have raised serious questions about the history and authenticity of the Exodus and conquest narratives. A growing number of scholars are claiming the Exodus and conquest narratives are not historical documents. These stories may be inspirational but cannot be considered actual history. They are texts dealing with what the scholars call “stories of mythic origins,”. The Israeli Professor Shlomo Sand, Professor of History Emeritus at Tel Aviv University, has written extensively on the Exodus and conquest texts as well as other Biblical passages. His conclusion is the Jewish people were never enslaved in Egypt, and the Exodus event never happened. Several Christian theologians such as Thomas Thompson and Keith Whitelam have reached the same conclusion based on the lack of archeological evidence.
For many years, I have struggled with various aspects of the Exodus and conquest narratives. I recall asking my Sunday school teacher in junior high school why God was portrayed in the Exodus and conquest stories, as a “god of war” who supports death and pillage. I was told to simply accept the Bible as it is written and not question the word of God. The teacher’s response went something like this: “God had reasons for punishing Pharaoh and Egyptian families with the “Angel of Death” because Pharaoh “hardened his heart” and would not let the Hebrew slaves go.” Or in the case of Joshua: “The Jewish people had to destroy the pagan Canaanites so God’s people would be pure and undefiled from these corrupt idolaters.” Really? Don’t the Ten Commandments say something about stealing and murder? How does that work, I wondered?
Finding these answers unsatisfactory, I raised them again in seminary, emphasizing the problematic image of God in the Exodus and Book of Joshua, where the invading Israelites were told by God to annihilate every man, woman, child, and even animals. Wasn’t that “ethnic cleansing?” I found some professors who were sympathetic to the questions. One said these passages have a “early or primitive understanding of God,” but, through progressive revelation, the understanding of God in the bible matures. Another professor expressed views similar to Professor Sands, saying the stories were not historical but “stories of origin.” Many of these passages were written after the Exile by various Rabbis and scholars. They are part of the stories and texts that were passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and were eventually written down. The scholars who finally assembled the books of the bible placed the different texts together so future generations could do the critical analysis of bible study and research called “hermeneutics” (interpretation).
After seminary, I was blessed to serve as the assistant pastor of a vibrant Black congregation in Newark, New Jersey. Other than our Jewish friends, no community celebrates the Exodus narrative like the Black church. The Exodus is at the heart of Black theology, worship and spirituality. The Exodus narrative has inspired slave rebellions, Black orators, and organizers from Frederick Douglass to Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr, to Bishop William Barber and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign today.
I was so inspired by the faith of the Black community and what the Exodus narrative meant to the congregation, that I suspended my critical theological questions. I simply enjoyed the rich experience of the Black tradition. The church I served had a dynamic 55 member choir that also produced recordings of their Gospel music. When the Black church sings their hymns of faith and quest for freedom, it moves you with soul and heart-felt sincerity. They are reminded it is God who deserves their praise, and God is the liberator and source of hope even in the most desperate conditions. They sing together or alone, and carry the message with them when they leave the church, especially when the trials and tribulations come down on them during the week. When they rise up to march in protest, the spirituals like “Go Down Moses” and many others are part of the movement. Spirituals, blues, hip hop and rap are filled with songs of resistance. Today we are witnessing the power of the Black protest tradition, and the Exodus is at the heart of it all.
Once I moved to another pastorate and then became a professor, the troublesome questions about the God of the Exodus and conquest of the promised land resurfaced. I returned to the critical evaluation of the narratives and searched for answers. When I became involved in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict I was forced to rethink the theology of the Exodus and the especially the “conquest of Palestine” because it was happening again. A new set of questions emerged around the “promised land” and chosen people. How is it the “god” of the Exodus and conquest is telling the people of modern Israel to seize the land again? When I learned the history of injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people and their loss of land since the creation of the state of Israel (in 1948), I was forced to rethink the theology that supported these injustices. Many Christians and Jews defended the theft of land and even murder of Palestinians by using the book of Joshua as a rationale. I reached the point where I could not accept the teaching that God promised modern, historic Palestine to the Jewish people as if God were a “divine real estate agent.”
As I worked with Palestinian Christians, Muslms, and Jewish activists, I heard how the Government of Israel and pro-Israel lobby (both Jewish and Christian) were using the Bible to justify illegal land confiscation from Palestinian families in the occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and even in the Galilee. At this point, I became acquainted with the relatively new approach caled Palestinian Christian liberation theology.
I developed a close friendship with the first Palestinian Christan liberation theologian, Rev. Naim Ateek, who was the Dean of St. Georges’ Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem. His story helps explain why he began to read the Bible differently. Rev. Ateek shared the tragedy that befell his family in May 1948, a few days after Israel became a state. He was ten years old when Israeli soldiers entered his peaceful village of Beisan, just 22 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. Early the next morning the soldiers ordered all the men of the village to meet in the city square. The soldiers gave them one hour to pack their suitcases and report to the square. They said it “was for their own safety” as there would be fighting in the area. The families were told to hurry and not delay or there would be serious consequences. Each person could bring one suitcase and no more. They were also told they would not be gone long and could return in a few weeks when things quieted down.
When the families returned to the village square, the soldiers ordered Muslims to get on certain busses and Christians on others. Muslims were driven to the nearby Jordan River and sent across it to the Jordanian desert where they had to fend for themselves. Christians were driven to Nazareth, the closest Palestinian city, and left at the outskirts. Families took them in and provided temporary shelter. After a few months, the families asked when they could return and were told by Israeli authorities they could never return. “Your homes have been given to Jewish families and now you are on your own.” There was no compensation. The Palestinians lost everything. If they tried to return, they would be shot on sight or put on trial and jailed for life. The Ateeks were not the only ones. Over 500 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground during and shortly after 1948 and 750,000-800,000 Palestinians (according to United Nations statistics ) became refugees. Palestinians call this period the “Nakba” (catastrophe).
Naim’s family started attending an Anglican church in Nazareth where they heard British missionaries teaching the Bible and saying God was blessing the new nation of Israel as they were fulfilling Bible prophecy. The missionaries said, “We all have to accept the fact that this is in the Bible and you have no choice but to accept the fact that Israel deserves the land.” This was a bitter pill for the Palestinians to swallow as they had lost everything—homes, land, jobs, all of their belongings. Naim’s father was a Bible teacher and lay preacher at their former church in Beisan, but he and the community did not interpret the Bible like the missionaries. They believed the word of God was being distorted by the missionaries. To Naim and most Palestinians, these teachings made no sense in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Hebrew Prophets. These experiences set Naim on a course as an Anglican priest to bring a different approach to these biblical texts that challenged the Christian Zionist views of the British missionaries.
A few years ago, I attended a conference in Vancouver, B.C. on peace and justice in the Holy Land. I was honored to be invited to speak on the same program with my friend Rev. Naim Ateek, who was scheduled to give the opening keynote address for the conference. I sat next to him at the opening worship and we were both moved by a brief ceremony led by an indigenous native Aboriginal tribal leader from the Vancouver region. He was joined by women from the tribe and they chanted prayers in the language of their forefathers and mothers in recognition of the land and lives lost when white invaders took their land and murdered their ancestors. They led us in a prayer of confession and forgiveness and I was reminded of what we in the United States have done to our indigenous people.
After this moving ceremony, an Anglican priest from Vancouver read a scripture passage from the Book of Joshua, where God instructs the Israelites to annihilate every man, woman, and child in Jericho (Joshua 6) and take their land. When the scripture portion concluded, the priest said, “This is the word of the Lord” as is the custom in the Anglican tradition. Most of the people gathered responded with the refrain, “Thanks be to God, Amen.” But Rev. Ateek shouted, “This is NOT the word of the Lord.” Several people around us cringed in shock and disbelief. How could a priest say this?
The selection of the Joshua passage was the choice of the priest and not coordinated with Rev. Ateek, whose response was spontaneous. The timing was perfect for the message from the next speaker who was none other than Rev. Naim Ateek. He stood in the pulpit, his clerical collar neatly in place, and smiled with a warm welcome to the opening session of the conference. He confirmed the selection from Joshua 6 was a surprise to him to hear that evening but it was the perfect introduction to his message on why Joshua and similar scripture passages are not the word of the Lord.
Rev. Ateek told the story of what happened to his family in May 1948, and how his Palestinian Christian family lost everything in one day. He told how they were deceived by the Israeli soldiers who told them they could return, but to this day, some seventy years later, his family is forbidden to return. He remembered how his older brother realized he forgot his precious radio and ran back to the house, despite his parents screaming at him to forget the radio. Fortunately, he made it back to the square with the radio in hand. He remembered the sadness as Christians and Musliims were separated. The two communities lived peacefully together in their village and he lost many Muslim friends that day.
When they heard the British missionaries telling them it was God’s will that they lose their lands and homes, it was a problem Naim never forgot. How could the Bible be used to justify death, theft, and destruction? After Naim finished seminary, he decided to work on these issues and founded the “Sabeel Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology,” in Jerusalem. Sabeel has pioneered the new theology of Palestinian liberation theology where the texts are challenged and a critical theological approach is used to bring hope and justice to the Christian community. Liberation theology has brought inspiration and a commitment to pursue justice against overwhelming odds.
Without entering into a long discussion on Biblical hermeneutics, I would like to address a few themes I find helpful in Palestinian liberation theology. We all know the Bible is a complex book and we are discouraged from lifting a verse or even a chapter out of its context. There are three contexts to consider.
First, we must consider the immediate context of the chapter and how the verse and particular themes are understood in the chapter and within the book itself..
A second context considers how the chapter of a particular book (the message of the author and that book) is understood within the overall message of the Bible. This is the canonical context. We can easily see that there are several texts from the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus that critique the narrow or warlike view of God found in the book of Joshua. This “god” directs violence and favors the Jewish people over “Gentiles.” It is important to use a good Bible commentary that considers these interpretative issues, called “Biblical hermeneutics.”
A third context to be considered is for Christians who consider the texts in light of the life and message of Jesus. This is the Christian context. Jesus’ message is one of universal love and justice for all God’s children. It dieparts from the tribal interpretations we found in the book of Joshua, If we understand God to be a God of inclusive love and justice for all people, we will be more critical of texts that claim God is directing people to murder, steal, and annihilate every man, woman, child and even animals in the conquest of Canaan.
Finally, we need to consider the contemporary relevance of the text and contexts. How would this text preach today and how does it address our contemporary situation in Palestine and Israel in the light of faith and mandates of Kingdom ethics? When we read texts from Joshua such as the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6), we need to examine the context of each chapter and see it within the overall message of the Bible. We can consult commentaries to assist us with the different types of narratives and theologies that are found in the Bible. We will see there are different types of theology in both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels. Using the Bible to critique and challenge certain passages in the Bible makes Bible study exciting and more relevant to our lives and the times in which we live.
As an example, take the Joshua 6 passage and compare it to the story of Naboth in I Kings 21: 1-16. This passage raises issues that challenge the question of the ancient Israelites seizing the land of Canaan and murdering the residents. In the I Kings passage, King Ahab of Israel steps out of his palace and decides he would like to take the beautiful farm and vineyard owned by the Jezreelite farmer Naboth. Naboth is not Jewish. In fact he is a Jezreelite, one of the tribes that constituted the Canaanites. At times the Jezreelites were viewed as enemies of Israel.. Naboth tells Ahab he was sorry but the vineyard had been in his family for several generations and he needed to honor his forefathers by keeping the land. Ahab returned to the palace and told his queen Jezebel about the conversation. Jezebel began to concocks an evil plot. In it, Naboth was falsely accused of blaspheming the King. The poor farmer was stoned to death and King Ahab took the vineyard. Word of the evil deed came to the prophet Elijah who condemned the murder and theft claiming the “dogs will lick the blood of the King and the queen where the blood of Naboth was spilled.”
The I Kings passage represents a very different theology and understanding of God, the land of Israel, and justice compared to what we found in the book of Joshua. Had Naim Ateek’s missionary teachers utilized the Biblical exegesis of I Kings or Jesus as a guardian of the poor and the “outsider” (Gentiles), they would have been teaching a different interpretation of Joshua. They would have challenged what the modern nation of Israel did to the Ateek family and 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 by stealing land, forcing Palestinians to leave, and razing over 500 villages. The fact they used the book of Joshua to justify their actions is worse.
Sadly, many of Israel’s defenders today are still using the Bible in this way. The outgoing Israeli Ambassador at the United Nations, Ron Danny Danon used this very argument in a BBC interview on July 11, 2020, stating: “The Bible is our land deed to all of Judea and Samaria” (what some Israelis call the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem). The current government of Israel with support from the Trump Administration knows they are violating international law by stealing land for exclusive Jewish colonies today, so they claim the Bible gives them a “divine right” to drive the Palestinians out and take their land. Moreover, this is the view of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In closing, let me turn to another passage we might recommend to the Vice President, Secretary of State, and others that support this exclusionary interpretation. I have found a Parable of Jesus to have resonance when shared with Jewish, Muslim, and secular audiences concerned about social injustices. Both the Bible (including the Torah and other parts of the Hebew Bible and New Testament) are joined by the Qur’an in calling us to resist evil and demand justice. Muslims point to the strong message of justice in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad who challenged his own tribe, the Quraysh, who were oppressing the poor. In the parable as recorded in Luke 18: 1-8, Jesus urges us to demand justice in the face of injustice. The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is a clarion call to never give up and to stay the course in demanding justice, even when the odds are against you.
Jesus said, there was a judge in a certain city who feared neither God nor people. Apparently, this judge thought he was above the law and accountable to no one, including God. A widow approached the judge and the text said “Give me justice against my adversary.” The judge refused to grant her justice, probably dismissing the widow because she was a woman in a male dominant culture. The case dragged on for years but the widow never gave up. Finally, the widow wore down the judge who relented and said: “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice; she has been wearing me down by her constant pressure.”
The widow is a symbol of inspiration for all people who have been victimized by crimes of injustice, whether Black Americans fighting to overcome systemic racism, or women victimized by spouse abuse, or native American nations and tribes struggling to stop pipelines snaking through their land, or the forgotten Uygar Muslms facing genocidal policies in western China; or Palestinians trying to stay on their land and demand a just and lasting solution to their case. The Arabic word “sumud” (Steadfastness) captures the spirit of the poor widow. May we be inspired by “sumud”. “Go and do likewise.”