I have finished reading Igor Lipovsky’s Early Israelites: Two People, One History.
One thing had been nagging at the back of my mind about Lipovsky’s notion that Moses sought permission from Pharaoh to make a pilgrimage to a Western Semite mountain of God three days into the wilderness from the Nile Delta.
I could not remember a mountain in that area. It would depend, I suppose, on how far they could go in a day. Not very far, I would think. I have a ranching background and believe that you could only go five or six miles a day driving livestock. Even on camels and not herding anything, fifteen miles a day in the wilderness would be stretching it, I think. There just are no mountains east of Ismalia in the Sinai desert anyplace where that rate would take them.
So I went back and looked at the passages in Exodus where Moses requests the pilgrimage into the wilderness. None of them mention the mountain of God. Exodus 3:18, 5:3, and 8:27 repeat the idea of going into the desert to make sacrifices. Exodus 5:1 says they want to hold a festival in the wilderness. They would have needed a place with a water source. There was a well on the “Way of Shur” that could have served as long as there were not too many pilgrims.
This in no way undermines Lipovsky’s insight that the Semites in Egypt wanted to renew an older practice of making pilgrimages to some point in the desert. Perhaps there was a group of sacred standing stones. Masseboth is the technical term. I know we have found some of these in the Sinai. Or maybe there was a sacred tree (terebinth) near the well.
What does seem useful in Lipovsky’s thinking is the idea that the proto-Israelites in Egypt were pagans. I think the evidence for this is pretty strong. Baal worship practiced by Semites in the Nile Delta is confirmed by the work of Manfred Beitak. They may have assimilated Egyptian religion by merging the Egyptian Seth with Baal.
This gives us something useful to say about the historical Moses. What accounts for the religious revolution that changed some of the Egyptian Semites into believers in YHWH, the one God of the Hebrew Bible? That there was one man with this vision who influenced a transformation in worship and ethics seems likely. This is because economic and social factors do not work as a full explanation.
Lipovsky asserts that during the period of the Judges, Israel completely reverted back to paganism. It may be a little more complicated than that. He paints the Aaronide and Levitical priests as motivated by greed and status. The sources do often paint them that way. But the sources often originate with people who had an interest in denigrating certain priestly lines. Some of the priests, at least, I think were motivated by a real opposition to the use of graven images. It was not full-blown monotheism. But it was not a complete reversion back to paganism either.
Where I have the most problem with Lipovsky is his reconstruction of the history of the northern tribes. He has to reconstruct it because he believes the Bible has deliberately obscured it in order to tell a common story about a united Israel–an Israel that only came into existence later.
I agree that not all the tribes were in Egypt at the time of Moses’ exodus. I think it is possible that the northern tribes come from people who had a connection to the Hyksos who left Egypt starting in the 16th century BCE. Lipovsky makes a compelling case for this.
Independently of Lipovsky, I also think a 12th century date for the Moses exodus make the most sense.
But I am not convinced that the former Hyksos house of Joseph became the Habiru of the Amarna Letters. There is other evidence besides the Amarna Letters. Lipovsky does not talk much about the archeological evidence about what happened to Hazor or about the sudden appearance of many villages in the highlands of Israel in the 12th century. Particularly, the Tel Masos village near Beer-Sheba seems relevant in light of a 12th century exodus.
As Donald Redford and others have claimed, the Hyksos were Canaanites of some sort. So why could they not have merged back into the population? William Dever argues that Israel arose from Canaanites who migrated out of the more settled parts of Canaan into the highlands. Israel Finkelstein likes the alternative idea that semi-nomads from the desert decided to settle in the highlands as, he says, they periodically did throughout history. And traditionalists say the tribes all came out of Egypt.
I am not sure why there could not be some truth in all of these. We do not know the history of the northern tribes. It seems to me possible (partly based on the enigmatic Song of Deborah) that the interests of herders and caravaneers from Jordan may have coincided with that of some lowland Caananite peasants to bring about a combination of revolt and migration related to the 13th century downfall of Hazor and the emergence of Merneptah’s Israel.
If this group included some people (the tribe of Reuben) related to a Jacob group still in Egypt, then an exodus and a merger of Israel with the Moses refugees may have happened somewhat as Lipovsky proposes. And all these people may have descended from people who had come out of Egypt at some point.
Even though I can not accept all of Lipovsky’s ideas, I welcome the boldness of his imaginative but well-informed proposals.