The moral messages of religious myths (4) 6

Do biblical myths convey a “higher”, “transcendent” morality? Do all, some, or any of them possess a validity for all human beings for as long as the human race exists?

To find an answer to those questions, we posted  The moral messages of religious myths (1), (June 29, 2017), in which we discussed the story of Adam and Eve; next The moral messages of religious myths (2), (July 21, 2017), which was about Cain and Abel; and then The moral messages of religious myths (3), (September 24, 2017), about Abraham not sacrificing his son Isaac. 

Now we come to the story of Prince Moses of Egypt and his capricious god.

The story is told in the Book of Exodus. Here’s an outline of it.

The Pharaoh of Egypt decided that the Israelite population was growing too large, so he ordered that every Israelite boy must be killed as soon as he was born.

An Israelite mother tried to save her new-born son by putting him in a papyrus basket coated with tar and pitch and floating it on the edge of the River Nile.

Pharaoh’s daughter found him and brought him up as her own son, a prince of Egypt named Moses.

When Moses was 80 years old, and long since returned to the Israelites, God told  him to lead the Israelites, who were  badly-treated slaves, out of Egypt to a land he would give them.

So Moses demanded of Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused.

God then sent a series of ten plagues to afflict the Egyptians, miraculously instigated by Moses’s brother Aaron. He was 83, and carried a magician’s rod which he used to launch the plagues.

The plagues were: water turning into blood (briefly); frogs overrunning the land; lice afflicting the people; wild animals and/or flies threatening or tormenting them; their cattle becoming diseased; the people erupting in boils; heavy hailstorms beating down on them; swarms of locusts devouring their crops; darkness over all the land for three days; and finally, every firstborn Egyptian child being killed by God in one night.

Each time, the plague was represented to Pharaoh by Moses as a punishment to him for not freeing the Israelites.

Some of the plagues so distressed Pharaoh that he thought of granting Moses’s demand. But every time this happened, God “hardened his heart” and he changed his mind. Until the last plague.

It is stipulated in some cases that the Israelites, living apart from the Egyptians  were let off the plague. The hail, for instance, did not fall  where they lived, and their cattle did not fall sick. And on the night God killed the firstborn he “passed over” the dwellings of the Israelites. How did the omniscient Almighty know which were their houses? He had instructed them (presumably through Moses and/or Aaron) to “smear the upper post” of their doors with the blood of a lamb or goat. As they lived apart, God had easily been able to tell their neighborhood and their cattle from those of the Egyptians when visiting earlier plagues upon the land, but in this instance he needed the markers.

This time Pharaoh let the Israelites go.

They did not go over land ,“through the way of the Philistines”, but were  led by Moses straight to the Red Sea. “But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.” How “harnessed”, and why, is not explained.

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.”

And then again Pharaoh changed  his mind. He pursued them with all his horses and chariots. And he nearly caught up with them where they were  camped on the shore of the Red Sea, but an angel puts a screen of darkness over them to keep the Egyptians from seeing them.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and it dried up. “The Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”

The Egyptians saw them crossing, and pursued them; “went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

But when the Israelites had safely reached the far shore of the Red Sea, Moses, on God’s orders, “stretched forth his hand over the sea” and “the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them”.

It is hard to see what moral principle can be extracted from the story. Don’t enslave Israelites? Don’t enslave anyone? Don’t needle Jehovah?

The story should not enhance the reputation of the Israelite God. As he had access to Pharaoh’s heart, rather than repeatedly “hardening” it, he could have softened it to useful effect the first time Moses asked for the freeing of the slaves. But of course the sending of the horrifying plagues does much to impress upon the attentive mind the awe-inspiring power of the Ruler of the Universe.

The tellers of the story clearly intended to achieve an impression of shock and awe; but there is no indication that they intended their terrifying tale to carry a moral message in itself. Their aim  was to establish a narrative, starting with a glorification of Moses and the Israelite God, which was fundamental to the Jewish religion: how the LAW which is the essence of Judaism came to be given by God through Moses to the Jewish people.

The Exodus is a preamble to the story of the giving of the Law. The Law was to be for everyday earthly life. There was nothing “higher” or “transcendent” about it. Though it was moral law, to be believed by the faithful as coming from God, it was not a formula for an afterlife of bliss overseen by the Almighty himself, but a set of rules to be administered by men.

Who really authored those rules? No doubt many legislators over many years. The first of them may have been a prince of Egypt named Moses.

One of the more credible theories of Sigmund Freud was that Moses was not an Israelite at all but an Egyptian. His idea (explained in his book Moses and Monotheism) is that the fable of his being born to an Israelite mother and adopted by an Egyptian princess, then returning to “his” people as their liberator and law-giver, was a necessary invention as it simply would not do for him not to have been a Jew. (Which means that the story of Pharaoh ordering all newborn boys to be killed was a whopping slander made up for its expedience. But it must be stressed that the biblical story is not history; it is myth.)

The commonly accepted dating of the giving of the Law to the Israelites by Moses is circa 1250 B.C.E. Freud puts it back into the previous century which allows him to propose that Moses was an adherent of the short-lived religion of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, who reigned for only seventeen years and in that time tried to introduce the worship of One God manifest as the Sun. As soon as he died, the powerful priests of the old polytheistic religion brought it back, and did their best to wipe out every trace of the Akhenaton heresy. In Freud’s account, Moses continued to believe in Akhenaton’s One God, and as the enslaved Israelites also believed in One God – “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – he adopted them as his people, effected their release from Egypt, and set them on course to becoming a distinct nation bound together by laws of his native land (under Akhenaton?).

For anyone curious about how the Israelites came to be in Egypt, the enormous novel Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann tells a version of the the story magnificently. Joseph, the Israelite sold by his eleven brothers and brought to Egypt as a slave, gets on so well with Akhenaton that he becomes the pharaoh’s right-hand man. After many years, his brothers come to Egypt to buy grain, because drought has brought famine to the land where they live. Joseph conceals his identity at first, but is generous to them. They are gob-smacked when they discover who their benefactor really is. They return whence they came, but eventually they come to live in Egypt. The story does not proceed beyond the life of Joseph. How much historical fact is in it, it is impossible to know.

Posted under Christianity, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, October 29, 2017

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This post has 6 comments.

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  • Bruce

    The whole “hardening of Pharoah’s heart” thing is, to me, an excellent biblical refutation of the free will defense. Many Christians attempt to solve the problem of evil with the idea that free will, the ability to make our own choices without direct interference from god, is utterly sacrosanct to god. This passage completely destroys that; you cannot get any greater a level of interference in a person’s choice than god himself literally going, “no, you’re going to think and do THIS instead of what you were going to do.” Pharaoh’s heart wouldn’t have needed “hardening” had he not a desire to release the Israelites, and god (or rather the priests that created it) needed an excuse to show off his supposed power.

    • liz

      Yes, I can remember hearing some pretty convoluted and incoherent scriptural ‘interpretations’ explaining how Pharoah still had a ‘free will’ in spite of God’s obvious use of him as a prop in the Exodus drama.

  • liz

    Freuds theory about Moses and Akhenaton is interesting. But whether it was Akhenaton or not, it does seem likely that the Israelites derived the 10 Commandments from the Egyptians, since they closely mirror declarations found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
    The story of the Exodus demonstrates that the Bible was written not by the hand of God, but by and for men of primitive times, to build the image of a powerful deity who’s authority rested in the priesthood established by Moses.
    You make a great point in noting that although God could have softened Pharoahs heart, he instead hardened it, which conveniently set the stage for the dramatic epic of the plagues demonstrating his power. This is a glimpse into the mentality of primitive tribalism, in which the tribal deity with the greatest show of magical powers conquers the other gods. (Its been noted that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” implies the existence of other gods!)
    The killing of Egyptians (and later the other pagan tribes, and apostates) by the God of the Israelites, and by them at his command, can’t be justified any more than the killing of infidels and apostates by Muslims at the command of Allah.
    The fact that such commands are barbaric and unacceptable in a rational, civilized world proves that neither religion is ‘supernaturally’ inspired, and that both are inferior to a morality based on objective reasoning.

    • Leonidis

      Religious people will still ignore the parts of the bible they don’t like, repeat the happy parts they do like and have zero cognitive dissonance as a result. The problem of religion lies in teaching critical thinking and scientific method, and it’s application in everyday decisions. They never question their preconceived beliefs, while reading their horoscopes, getting high, detoxing with magic oils, and bashing the vaccinations that prevented them from getting seriously ill. Grade schools don’t teach anything useful anymore and colleges work them through the system to keep their federal student loan money flowing. All the systems that should teach them anything are failing on every level, and to top it off they all go once a week to a place where everyone is nice to them, and they reinforce their world view.

      • liz

        Exactly. Critical thinking is dangerous to the survival of both the religious and leftist belief systems, so it has been purged from education by both the Left and the Right.

        • Bruce

          Agreed. Every time I see some bible thumper decry the leftist indoctrination in our schools, then turn around and declare that “we need god back in the classroom,” it just tells me what’s really biting them is that someone else is doing the indoctrination instead of them.