This will be somewhat of a rambling post, but not horribly rambling. I will start out with what Philo says about the Exodus in Special Laws II:217-219. Then, I will interact with a fictional book that I recently read about the Exodus: Mesu Andrews’ Miriam. (I received a complimentary review copy of that from the publisher, by the way.) Finally, I will offer some thoughts about the ABC TV show On Kings and Prophets, which is about Saul, David, and Samuel.
In Deuteronomy 26, there is a law about how the Israelites are to bring firstfruits to God at the sanctuary. In doing so, the Israelites are to make a statement to God about where they came from, and where they are now. The statement is in vv 5-10, and it is as follows:
A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous:
6 And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage:
7 And when we cried unto the LORD God of our fathers, the LORD heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression:
8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders:
9 And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey.
10 And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O LORD, hast given me. (KJV)
The first century Jewish exegete (or eisegete) Philo of Alexandria renders this recitation as follows, in Special Laws II:217-219:
“The leaders of our nation renounced Syria, and migrated to Egypt. Being but few in number, they increased till they became a populous nation. Their descendants being oppressed in innumerable ways by the natives of the land, when no assistance did any longer appear to be expected from men, became the supplicants of God, having fled for refuge to entreat his assistance. (218) Therefore he, who is merciful to all who are unjustly treated, having received their supplication, smote those who oppressed them with signs and wonders, and prodigies, and with all the marvellous works which he wrought at that time. And he delivered those who were being insulted and enduring every kind of perfidious oppression, not only leading them forth to freedom, but even giving them in addition a most fertile land; (219) for it is from the fruits of this land, O bounteous God! that we now bring you the first fruits; if indeed it is a proper expression to say that he who receives them from you brings them to you. For, O Master! they are all your favours and your gifts, of which you have thought us worthy, and so enabled us to live comfortably and to rejoice in unexpected blessings which thou hast given to us, who did not expect them.” (C.D. Yonge’s translation)
Philo may have composed this version of the recitation himself or drawn it from someplace else. This version of the recitation probably draws from the Septuagint, but it also adds elaboration of its own. The Septuagint of Deuteronomy 26:3 states that the Israelite’s father cast aside Syria and went down to Egypt. Similarly, Philo’s version of the recitation affirms that the leaders of Israel renounced Syria and went down to Egypt. Philo’s version also elaborates on the Israelites calling out to God while being oppressed, and God delivering them. In Philo’s version, the Israelites cry out to God when there is no other place to turn, when it did not appear that any human being would help them.
This made me think about Mesu Andrews’ Miriam, which is about the Exodus. In Miriam, the Israelites have to make some pretty serious adjustments when Moses comes to deliver them. They are not exactly on the right page religiously. Moses’ sister Miriam worships the God of Israel under the name of El Shaddai, but she has to transcend her longstanding comfortable relationship with God when this God is about to do something new. Miriam’s nephew Eleazar does not even know if he likes this God whom Moses is proclaiming, and who is striking the Egyptians (and, initially, even the Israelites) with plagues. And many Israelites worship pagan gods, including the pagan gods of Egypt. What is more, there are Israelites who are reluctant to go out into the desert and start a new life. Eleazar is fearful of his Egyptian oppressors and the power they have over his life and the lives of anyone he may love. Still, that existence is what he knows, and he is hesitant to part from it for the unknown.
This is not exactly the picture that we get in The Ten Commandments (1956) or The Prince of Egypt. In the 1956 Ten Commandments, the Israelites, with the possible exception of Dathan, believe in the Hebrew God. They hope for deliverance. They cry out to God for deliverance. Their faith is the only thing they have to hold onto in the midst of their bitter life. The Prince of Egypt opens with the song “Deliver Us,” as the Israelite slaves cry out to God to deliver them and to fulfill God’s promises to them. Later in the movie, Miriam and Zipporah sing, “Many nights we prayed, with no proof anyone could hear…”
Mesu Andrews’ version is probably more (albeit not exactly) similar to the 2006 ABC version of The Ten Commandments. There, the Israelites have different opinions about the God of Israel. Some believe in God, while others reject God or do not believe in him. “Then where is he?!”, Moses’ father Amram shouts at one of his pious fellow Israelites. “What has he ever done for us?!”
Both Mesu Andrews’ version of the Exodus and the version that is in the 1956 Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt can find support in Scripture. The Israelites did cry out to God when they were suffering oppression in Egypt, according to Deuteronomy 26:7. And yet, Ezekiel 20 paints a picture of God trying to show the Israelites in Egypt his divine power. In that chapter, God encourages the Israelites to reject the gods of Egypt. But the Israelites are stubbornly resistant towards God’s plea. God does not just want to deliver the Israelites physically but also spiritually, and the latter task is very difficult.
Then there is Exodus 2-3. The Israelites cry when they are in bondage, and God hears their cry and sees their suffering. What is interesting is that the passage does not explicitly say that they were crying out to God in prayer. It says that they were crying. They could have been groaning on account of their afflictions, without calling out to God. Still, their cries reached God’s ear.
Which version do I prefer? All of them contribute valuable insights, in my opinion. Hoping in the face of hopelessness can be powerful. At the same time, many of us can find that our bondage is not simply physical but psychological and spiritual as well. We may become accustomed to our bondage, or we may buy into the societal values that keep us in bondage rather than transcending them through faith. I think that Mesu Andrews should have done something with the biblical concept of the Israelites calling out to God. Still, her portrayal of the Israelites as not exactly on the right page when God was showing up to deliver them is an intriguing take on the story.
That brings me to the ABC program On Kings and Prophets. This show premiered last Tuesday, and it is about the biblical story of Saul, David, and Samuel. In the show, Samuel is a spooky prophet who tells King Saul, in the name of the LORD, to slaughter the Amalekites, in retaliation for the Amalekites attacking Israel hundreds of years before soon after the Exodus. Saul is reluctant to do this for a variety of reasons. Saul is concerned about the Philistines, not the Amalekites, who are not an immediate threat to Israel. Saul wonders why he should attack Amalek over something that took place hundreds of years before. Saul reflects on how Israel is supposed to be a light to the nations, and he wonders if he would be imitating the brutality of the Amalekites were he to slaughter all of them—-men, women, and children. Then there are people who are telling him that Samuel is interested in power, anyway, since Samuel used to be in charge of Israel, until Saul became king.
Then there is David. At least in the first episode, David is not particularly pious. He is a goodhearted man, for he tries to intercede with his father when his father cannot pay his taxes, due to a lion eating his flock. David kills the lion, but he attributes that more to his skill or to luck than to God. Michal, Saul’s daughter, who would eventually become David’s wife, tells David that God was helping him out. David hears the idea, but it is somewhat odd, or foreign, to him.
The show’s interaction with the slaughter of the Amalekites is intriguing, and yet it could have been a little more balanced. In the Bible, when Samuel kills Agag, the king of Amalek, Samuel does not just mention something that occurred hundreds of years before, which is what happens in the show. Rather, Samuel says that Agag’s sword left women childless, and now Samuel was doing the same to him (I Samuel 15:33). Granted, there are many who doubt or dispute that the Conquest in the Bible can be adequately defended or explained away, and they may have a point. Still, the show could have presented a little more balance by highlighting that Agag was not exactly an angel, himself.
The portrayal of David is interesting because David, like the Israelites in Mesu Andrews’ Miriam, is not all together, spiritually. His faith in God in the show may turn out to be a journey, something that develops, rather than something that has always come naturally to him. I am looking forward to seeing how that unfolds!