I continue to read through Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.
Leuchter sees the Exodus as a myth that has its only historical roots in the settlement of the central highlands, which freed Israel from Egyptian overlords and caused some clans to turn the sparse highlands into a productive and livable home. The Exodus myth uses the ideas of the sea and the wilderness in a cosmic, not a geographical, sense.
He sees this confirmed in texts that reflect protest by the Levites against the reversion to pre-Yahwist themes in the state religion of Jeroboam I and subsequent kings. Leuchter has detailed and learned discussions of three texts.
The first is the golden-calf story in Exodus 32. The northern monarchy had a charter myth of the Exodus. But the Levites changed it to condemn the calf and ancestor worship it supported.
The Levite perspective reflected in the Golden Calf tradition argues that the state cult is not an experiencing of the Exodus but a step into the mythic wasteland where YHWH’s enemies ventured forth to corrupt the sacred landscape. By extension, the sanctuaries that housed Jeroboam’s bull icons were identified with the underworld whence cosmic foes originated (p. 136).
As I understand it, in Leuchter’s theory, neither Jeroboam’s charter myth nor the Levite’s counter myth were about actual events. They were about the cosmic significance of Israel’s existence.
The same could be said of a second text, the so-called Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. He understands this as a liturgical poem recited at Levite-led assemblies. It views God, rather than the royal house, as the entity that has allotted land to the clans.
The poem ends in a violent and bloody image of divine vengeance. His interpretation of 32:43 is key. The Greek text of this verse has the phrase “bow down to him all gods” Leuchter takes this to reflect the oldest text, which had a reference to elohim. He interprets this as meaning “bow down to him all you venerated ancestors.” It is an image of the underworld submitting to YHWH.
These ancestral deities are delegitimized in v. 17 as “demons”, unknown gods, and new gods.
The final text he deals with is the book of Hosea. I cannot get into much of his very interesting discussion.
But, once again, he sees the imagery as reflecting Canaanite cosmology more than referring to historical events. In fact, he contrasts Hosea with Deuteronomy. Hosea and Deuteronomy have in common that they see Moses as a prophet. But Deuteronomy aligns with the Torah sources P and non P in seeing Moses as a historical figure with something like a biography. Deuteronomy has moved away from what he calls the “premonarchic mythotype”.
Important to Leuchter’s view is that these mythological texts are written over against the Canaanite god of death, Mot. Especially, compelling is his analysis of the oracles of Hosea as imagining the royal state and cult as possessed by the cosmic enemy, Mot/Death.
All of this contains much that is really helpful. But I, for one, just do not see the isolation of the cosmic/mythological from the historic/geographical. This goes back to Leuchter’s view that the Song of the Sea with its horses and riders thrown into the sea is mythological and does not refer to an event or a place.
I am not convinced. The other victory hymns of ancient Israel, like the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, seem to combine mythological themes with historical events.
In Judges 5 Sisera was defeated at the Kishon River—an event at a place. And in Exodus 15 it still looks to me like a chariot force was drown in a watery location near Egypt. In both cases God is said to have used water against the foe. Sure, this corresponds with mythological themes. But there was still an event and a place.