It is well-known that many of the narrative books of the Bible contain similar traditions combined together, often in ways a modern reader would find contradictory. The Exodus from Egypt provides an interesting case. The overall narrative as it now stands paints a grandiose picture of Israel’s national past — millions of people enslaved in Egypt, who then escaped and wandered the desert for forty years before conquering the Promised Land. Yet hidden away in the text are vestigial traces of a very different story that spans only a few generations from the tribal patriarchs to the settlement of Canaan, and involves a far smaller group of people.
Detailed discussion of this tradition, which contradicts the more well-known aspects of the Exodus story, can be found in Jan-Wim Wesselius, “From stumbling blocks to cornerstones: The function of problematic episodes in the Primary History and in Ezra-Nehemiah”, delivered to the Oudtestamentisch Werkgezelschap in 2005.
The two competing traditions begin with Moses’ birth. In one tradition, the Israelites have spent 400 years in Egypt and grown so numerous, that Pharaoh commands all Egyptians to throw baby Israelite males into the Nile. Baby Moses is hidden from them and grows up to lead two million Israelites out of Egypt into the Wilderness for forty years. After Moses’ death, Joshua leads them to conquer the Promised Land, and then a long period of rule by judges commences.
The other tradition is much humbler in scale. It begins with a smaller group of Jacob’s descendants in Egypt. Amram, the father of Aaron, Moses and Miriam, is the grandson of the patriarch Levi, and his wife Jochebed is the daughter of Levi. (See Exodus 2:1, Exodus 6:16–20, and Numbers 26:57–59. Due to the blatant contradiction with the 400-year Egyptian sojourn, many English translations obscure or alter these passages — the NIV in particular.)
Pharaoh fears a future increase in their number, so he commands the two midwives who attend to them (Shiphrah and Puah, Exodus 1:15) to kill the Hebrews’ male babies. The midwives disobey his order, however, and Moses is born.
In this tradition, Moses leads the descendants of Jacob (just two generations’ worth) out of Egypt. He is capable of addressing the entire group at once and managing their affairs as a single individual. All the protagonists of the story are related to one another.
Moses and Aaron do not die in the wilderness, but settle the children of Israel in the Promised Land (1 Sam 12.8). At the end of the book of Judges, Moses’ grandson Jonathan becomes the priest to the Danites (Jg 18:30), and Aaron’s grandson Pinehas becomes a priest of Bethel (Jg 20:28). When all the events now portrayed in Exodus through Judges from the “large-scale tradition” are taken into account, there is no way this period of time could be just a generation or two removed from the events of the Exodus.
Giovanni Garbini (Myth and History in the Bible) also notes that the Hellenistic Jewish writers Demetrius, Eupolemus and Artapanus all describe Moses as a cultural hero who arrived in Jerusalem, as does the Greek writer Hecataeus of Abdera. These writers seem not to have known the Exodus story in its now-canonical form.
For more on the multiple Moses traditions in the Primary History, see:
Niesiołowski-Spanò, Łukasz. “The Broken Structure of the Moses Story: Or, Moses and the Jerusalem Temple”,Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament Vol. 23, No. 1, 23-37, 2009.
Ahlström, G.W., “Another Moses Tradition”, JNES 39 No. 1, 1980.
Garbini, Giovanni, Myth and History in the Bible, Journey for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 362, 2003.
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