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The Forgotten Genocidal Commandment Behind the Story of the Exodus

The dark side of the story of the liberation from Egypt

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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'Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still,' John Martin, 1816.
'Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still,' John Martin, 1816.Credit: National Gallery of Art
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Can the Bible be taken as a moral and political exemplar? The American philosopher Michael Walzer believes it can. His book “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible” (Yale University Press, 2012) has recently appeared in Hebrew translation, and his best-known work, “Exodus and Revolution” (1985), also exists in Hebrew. In the latter, Walzer depicts the Exodus as a revolutionary program and as a basis for a radical politics of liberation. “Wherever people know the Bible, and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and (sometimes) inspired their resistance,” he writes. This story, he argues, is a source for “the idea of a deliverance from suffering and oppression: this-worldly redemption, liberation, revolution.”

Walzer, who is Jewish and a Zionist, identifies the biblical tale with “the modern Exodus”: the establishment of the State of Israel. In his reading, after centuries in which the Jews did not have the opportunity to act in the real world according to that biblical model, Zionism made it possible. Accordingly, the author adds Zionism to the list of heroic struggles of liberation in the modern age, headed by the struggle to liberate the slaves and the subsequent struggle for equality of blacks in the United States, who used the biblical phrase “Let my people go” from the Book of Exodus as a central element in their rhetoric.

All this rings pleasantly in the Zionist reader’s ear. It’s flattering to get confirmation from one of the world’s leading philosophers that the Exodus from Egypt – the national story we retell every year – is a primary model for political liberation. Indeed, we have taken pleasure in this since the inception of Zionism.

A year ago, Education Minister Naftali Bennett recommended that Israelis add to the readings of the Passover seder David Ben-Gurion’s testimony to the Peel Commission, established by Britain in 1936, to investigate the causes of the Arab Revolt in Palestine that same year. Ben-Gurion took pride in the fact that, after more than 3,500 years, Jews still remember every detail of the Exodus and commemorate its date, the clothing worn by the Israelites and even the food they ate.

“Any Jewish child, whether in America or Russia, Yemen or Germany, knows that his forefathers left Egypt at dawn on the 15th of [the Hebrew month of] Nisan,” Ben-Gurion told the commission, adding, “What did they wear? Their belts were tied, and their staffs were in their hands. They ate matza and arrived at the Red Sea after seven days.”

The Exodus is a terrific story. So national, yet so humanistic. The primary source of all enlightened values. But is the story’s depiction by Walzer, Ben-Gurion and others compatible with the biblical account? Not really. Because, attached to the story of freedom from bondage is a tale far less humanistic: the commandment to annihilate the peoples of Canaan during the conquest of the land. We should not forget that this is one of the most detailed set of instructions for genocide we have from the ancient world.

Accounts of slave uprisings are truly enthralling. But what we have here is a somewhat different story. Let’s say you were told about a group of oppressed people who escaped from a certain country and then adopted a fanatic, murderous general as their leader. They invaded a neighboring country, ravaged its cities and did not even allow the original inhabitants to live under their rule. That’s certainly a far less heartening story – but it’s the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The emancipation cannot be divorced from the subsequent bloodbath: In the wake of the leader Moses perforce comes the conqueror Joshua. Walzer himself notes that “the end of the Exodus story, the promised land, was present at the beginning.”

And what is the promised land? It is not empty terrain, but a place in which other people live. This is stated explicitly in Joshua 24:13: “I have given you a land for which you did not labor and towns which you did not build, and you have settled in them.”

It was not by chance that the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said remarked, ““There is no Israel without the conquest of Canaan then as now.”

Why, then, do we not tell the story of the annihilation of the Canaanite peoples each year? Of how the injunction “you shall not let a soul remain alive” was realized? Of course, there are some who live that tale, too. Many members of the settlement movement take Joshua’s conquests as the political model for their actions. But not only them. In the midst of the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion wrote a description in his diary of the victories of “Israel’s armies” and of how they launched a “massive attack on the centers of Arab power in the country.” According to this account, “they smote the kings of Lod and Ramle, the kings of Beit Naballah and Deir Tarif, the kings of Kula and Migdal Tzedek.”

B-G as Joshua

Ben-Gurion knew that there was no king in Lod in his day, but massacre and expulsion certainly took place there. He imaged himself as Joshua, and the ethnic cleansing that was perpetrated in various parts of the country as a mythic biblical war. That, too, regrettably, is the heritage of the Exodus. But for the benefit of the British authorities, he omitted that part of it.

In any event, even for those who do not advocate ethnic cleansing, not to mention genocide, it’s worth remembering the dark side of the story of the liberation from Egypt. Because, in the end, it is not a unique story. In many political movements, revolutionary energy is accompanied by a murderous dynamic. Together with the termination of the monarchical regime in France came the Terror; the removal of the czarist regime eventuated in the gulags; and in the wake of India’s liberation from British rule, 15 million people became refugees and hundreds of thousands were murdered. Freedom fighters quickly become cruel oppressors, spurred by the same momentum that enabled them to break the chains of oppression. Our own story illustrates that tragic dynamic splendidly.

On the other hand, it’s likely that neither the Exodus from Egypt nor the conquest of Canaan ever happened. Despite centuries of feverish research, not a trace has been found to this day of a passage across Sinai by nomads during the period of King Ramses. Scholars think the narrative emerged primarily in the period of Josiah, a few decades before the Babylonian exile. The annihilation of the Canaanites is also a non-event. According to the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, the Israelite entity did not arrive from outside but developed within the local Canaanite population. “In fact, the distinction between Israelites and Canaanites is quite slight,” he says. The ancient Israelites worshiped Baal and Asherah, and their culture was Canaanite. Eradicating the Canaanites would have been tantamount to eradicating themselves.

It’s more than likely, then, that the Exodus from Egypt and the atrocities that followed never occurred. When we relate this story, we can take solace in the fact that it is an imagined tradition that was invented 700 years after the events it ostensibly depicts.

Thank heaven for that.

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