Only the Egyptians have horses in “Genesis” and “Exodus” though Canaanites do have horses in “Deuteronomy”. (No wonder the people of Israel were reluctant to embark upon an invasion of the Promised Land.) Solomon had horses, but he is the possessor of what is supposedly a great kingdom. The domestication of horses is therefore the sign of great military power as well as of an advanced civilization. Wendy Doniger reminds us of this in her recent “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. She makes a big deal of the importance of horses, both for commerce and conquest and also as religious sacrifices. By that standard, the Israelites of the Five Books of Moses must be regarded as an inferior people even if they are possessed of what they think to be a superior God, one which is carried around by them, on foot, in an Ark. Remember, they walked rather than rode out of Egypt.
That image and idea of a horseless people is of central importance to what is ever afterwards regarded as the central moment in Jewish history: the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. “Exodus”, which is a cohesive and extended narrative, and so very different from “Genesis”, which is known for its abbreviated narratives, is different as well from the retellings of the Exodus story that are found in the three other of the Five Books of Moses, interrupted as they are with digressions on law and authority. “Exodus” gives horses a certain pride of place, even if scholarship suggests that a chariot cavalry was anachronistic in that it did not develop until a few hundred years after the supposed time of the exodus. Four times in a few paragraphs in “Exodus” is repeated the tag phrase: “the Pharaoh, his horsemen, his chariots, his soldiers”. These are all the same thing: the sign and the fact of a highly disciplined and trained fighting force available at a moment’s notice to a ruler, and the sign of an economically and technologically developed country, as is the case today, when rapid movement of devastating force is available to nations engaged in “asymmetric” combat with suicide bombers and guerillas equipped with weapons and only such transport as is captured from the enemy.
The chariot is made possible by the large scale domestication of horses rather than just of asses and also by the invention of that very elegant machine, the chariot, which combines a platform with wheels. The platform is able to move at considerable speed, perhaps nearly as fast as the horses that pull it were they shorn of that burden. This machine can deal with the uneven ground that might easily unseat a standing rider. Chariots allow projectiles to be sent out into the air for long distances because the spear thrower who might accompany the charioteer has a solid place on which to set his feet and that gives energy to his throw. The chariot is therefore the tank of its time, a formidable weapon of war, here in “Exodus” used to recapture a departing people, even though a great number of the departing might be killed when rounding them up, something not thought advisable in the recapture of slaves, who are valuable property, and so a chariot led attack on the departing is a measure to be taken only if the previously subjugated population really does seem to be making good on its exit from home territory. Maybe they would have faltered or returned to their homes and their slavery if they had been left to try to get themselves organized and had failed at that. But the Israelites had done well enough to get to the borders of Egypt, and so the chariots had to be sent, like the cavalry, at the last minute.
Not that the Pharaoh had not been willing to use harsh measures before. The narrative provided by “Exodus” suggests that the Pharaoh had used near genocidal means from the beginning to try to control the political impulses of the Israelites. He had ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill off the male offspring, which they had not done, claiming that the Hebrew women gave birth on their own, without benefit of midwives, and for this God praised the midwives, because otherwise that would have put an end to the Israelite rebellion then and there. So it was clear that the Israelites had a well organized social structure on their own that was independent of the Egyptians.
The Egyptians then tried to rule the Israelites indirectly. They made it more costly for the Israelites who, we may surmise, had a monopoly in the construction industry, to produce bricks. The Egyptians required the Israelites to provide their own straw, a necessary additive in the manufacture of bricks, but the Israelites were able to manage that. Then the Egyptians imposed the equivalent of a one child rule similar to the one that has operated in China for a few generations now, presumably as a way to control the population of a group growing too powerful.
Maybe the Israelites weren’t really slaves but just a subordinated people. Maybe, on the other hand, they were slaves and the Egyptians were just culling the herd so as to keep the number of Israelites manageable. The “Exodus” account seems garbled because getting rid of male children would bring an end to the Israelites, which is not what you want to do with either a slave population or a subordinate population that is working for you. Maybe it was supposed that some males would live because their births would slip through the cracks but a great number would not, and that is all the policy makers care about. The presentation of the story as calling for the death of all male children is of use because it serves the literary purpose of bringing this story into line with the other attacks on children: the Egyptian massacre of first born followed afterwards by the massacre of the first born of the Egyptians.
The heart of the matter may be that the slaves, or whatever they were, were becoming too numerous and that was a political threat but they were also so productive that fewer of them were needed. How do you control a subordinate population when you don’t want to kill the golden goose? Whatever the answer to that question, the fact of it is itself of the highest importance. This is a new kind of threat, one to the stability of the social structure, and such is not the case with occasional food shortages or the tribal unrest or the failed amalgamation of populations (as that is recounted in the tale of Dinah) with which “Genesis” had made the reader familiar. Distinctive bodies of people do not rebel in oriental despotisms, but here it is happening.
Whatever the answers to the textual questions might be, the overall pattern is clear. God serves as an advisor and cheerleader for the Israelites who manage their own rebellion. They first resist by using internal social structure--the professional community of midwives-- to protect their children and are apparently successful at it. God need do nothing but praise them for that. Then they succeed at maintaining their prosperity even though they have to manufacture bricks rather than just build with them. This draws no comment from God, who is not required to weigh in on a purely economic issue as well as because the narrator does not want to draw attention to the fact that the Israelites managed this hurdle. It would be as if Jefferson had also listed in the Declaration of Independence all the good things King George had done for the Colonies.
Then Moses and Aaron negotiate with the Pharaoh for the terms of release of the Israelites. That itself is a sign that things were going well for the Israelite cause. The apartheid regime began negotiating with Mandela only when they realized that the game was about over. The negotiations between the Israelites and the Egyptians were conducted against the background of plagues, which is the sort of guerrilla warfare that makes negotiations between ruler and ruled all the more urgent, however much it may also prompt one side or the other to contemplate ending the negotiations altogether. God takes credit for the plagues and for the parlor trick whereby Aaron’s rod turns into a snake, but doesn’t provide advice on what the Israelite negotiators should settle for. This is left to Aaron and Moses, who are engaged in the normal process of high stakes negotiation: what, if anything, to compromise so as to achieve their aims, which is the evacuation of the Jews from Egypt rather than an autonomous region within it or rights within the Egyptian polity. This aim is like that of Spartacus, to take people to a seacoast and thereafter elsewhere.
Intergroup maneuvering, economic interplay, negotiations, are all the stuff of ordinary political life, whatever the magical trappings, and however bloody the relation between a superior group and a subordinate group can become. These interactions are just of the sort that S. N. Eisenstadt says are characteristic of bureaucratic empires such as ancient Egypt. The ruler pursues the political interests of the government by inveigling the cooperation of various subordinate groups through taxation, special favors, and regulation. The ruler is never secure; the people under him never satisfied. (Spinoza made the same point about the Seventeenth Century French monarchy.) But, for some reason, the Israelites would not settle for some compromise, even if it would better their material and social situation, and even though the Pharaoh had expected that compromise would be the outcome in that he withheld his chariots until the last minute. Why couldn’t the Israelites settle for some reasonable accommodation?
Once they had moved themselves to the shores of the Red Sea, the Israelites could no longer manage the conflict. They have to hope that God will exercise his powers to intervene in a most visible way when the chariots confront them as they are about to make good their escape. That may have always been the Egyptian plan--not to call up the cavalry until the last minute, should they then become necessary--but it was not a plan that the Israelites could have planned to deal with. The Israelites were not an organized military group on their own, just a number of families moving along on foot with perhaps some asses to carry their baggage. They were as surprised as were the Egyptians by what God did and that is part of what makes the story a miracle: it is an intervention unexpected as well as fortuitous. Brute force is not so manageable as politics, especially not the brute force of the greatest army then on the face of the earth. So “Exodus” is, among the many other things it is, a tribute to the power of technology and to the fact that technology is distinctive in that there is no answer to it with negotiations or clever practice.
So the Israelites are mesmerized by the technology of chariots as the final appeal of a ruler. What did they have to contest it? They had shown they were good at social organization and at entrepreneurship and at moral clarity. These traits were among the ones that Joseph had brought with him to Egypt, though it may have been in Egypt that he picked up the ability to disguise his perspicacity about people and situations as a gift for the interpretation of dreams. The distinctive virtues of the Israelites will flower when they leave Egypt and form their own nation. Talents hidden or stunted in adversity can blossom in another environment. Organizational and political skills and moral clarity would make them a great nation. They would get chariots later. The intellectual inventions that allow the Israelites to think they can go against the grain of history is the invention of a literal God and the conception of that God as one of abstractions.These two claims on reality exist independent of the power conferred by chariots.
A literal God is one who acts directly on history rather than as a metaphorical force in history. A literal God might seem to be an appeal to superstition or primitivism, while an appeal to metaphor is to think of all the signs God can give in history that an event is carrying a moral meaning. So it is a metaphor but realistic to take notice of the fact that an assortment of wise men are all telling you to do the same thing, and so that is to be regarded as a way God “intervenes”, so to speak, into the world. What makes a literal God as plausible as a metaphorical one and, indeed, far more psychologically impressive, is that this characteristic of direct action is reserved for very few events and very few personages. Most Catholics can understand that Santa Claus is a metaphor while Jesus, the Son of God, is not.
The Book of Exodus is so rich in imagery that there are images other than that of the chariot to provide a sense of an efficacious power that might counter the literal power of the chariot. That would show the engagement of God with his creation in a way that cannot be denied. God must act as a truly causative force and therefore not through nature but in nature. One image is that of the wall of water to the left and the wall of water to the right of the dry path through the sea that has now been presented for the Israelites to use to gain their freedom. That would have been quite a formidable sight, one available to everyone there at the time, not just the religious cognoscenti, nor as God was available to an unaccompanied Moses at the time of the burning bush. It is as if God had descended in a chariot upon Central Park so as to make himself available for a photo op.
The Israelites would have had to have considerable confidence in their perception that a miracle was indeed taking place if they were to step onto the path left open by the cleaving of the sea, much more courage needed than is required today to drive over tall bridges or over causeways that move out of the sight of land. All you need in the modern instance is confidence that unseen engineers have set the bridge or causeway down properly. And yet the Israelites did it, perhaps because the approaching chariots left them little choice. Well, they could have surrendered, but this time it might have been full scale genocide rather than a return to slavery, the mutual killing of the first born making further negotiation impossible.
The image of the walls of water in part has resonance because it is a reminder of the Flood. In a place with many arid and semi-arid districts, an abundance of water is a threat as well as a boon. Everyone knew the Nile was a sliver that kept Egypt alive, and so the Israelites were engaged in negative space: the dry sliver keeping them alive. It is also a powerful image because it is so unnatural, so clearly a violation of the way seas operate and so is clearly miraculous to anyone who witnesses it or trusts to the accounts of what happened. Robert Alter appreciates that the image of the walls of water is meant to be understood literally. He supplies the Hebrew word that describes the cut as being sharp and rough and so there is no possibility of it being merely an exaggeration of some “normal” kind of parting of the seas. Martin Noth says that all of the source texts for the final redaction of the story also present the event of the parting of the sea as literal.
The most visually and theologically rich portrayal of the parting of the Red Sea does not make use of the device of walls of water, however much that image is present in “Exodus” and is the common understanding, thanks to Cecil B. De Mille, who makes the water roll back on itself, so that it is like a Niagara that does not make wet those close to it. That profound portrayal is supplied in Poussin’s “The Crossing of the Red Sea” which shows not the actual divide of the waters but the immediate aftermath, as if Poussin had read G. S. Lessing and knew that portraying the moment before or after the central event, whether in sculpture or painting, is more effective than portraying the central moment. Poussin treats the Israelites as if they were only slightly more composed than survivors of a shipwreck. They pull themselves out of the still flailing waters as if the sea had closed over them as well as the charioteers and so some of them had probably been lost to the waters. There are casualties that accompany even miracles, which is a very sobering thought.
The moment Poussin chooses to portray is right after the miracle and so is like the first few seconds after the Big Bang, when the aura of what happened is still around even though what is presented in now back in normal time. The people are just gathering themselves together, in twos and threes, in those intricate compositions that are so well known in Poussin, as well as being dragged down by their draperies, which some of them tug at so as to get out of the water. The faces of the survivors are painted small but even so they capture a moment of being dazed and yet awed and serene, not what would be expected of everyday survivors of a shipwreck but perhaps appropriate to this very special world historical event made by God. One man on the lower right is dragging a shield from the breakers, which is to be supposed to be from an Egyptian because the Israelites had no weapons of their own. So Poussin is paying tribute to the dead even at this moment of potential exaltation.
This brief moment of the aftershock of a momentous event is accompanied by the wordlessness of awe and gratitude for what God has done. The glow of that moment will dissipate, but for the moment God is still present in the dark rectangular cloud mentioned in “Exodus” as what shows the way during daytime. It hangs in the sky of the Poussin painting so as to suggest the end of a storm, but the shape suggests something more. It is the barrier that God created between the Egyptians and the Israelites before the Israelites began their crossing. It is also like the rectangular solids Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick use in “2001” to mark the presence in this solar system of Clarke’s substitute for God: some far off intelligent race which every once in awhile intervenes to allow a race of sentient beings to survive. Only rarely do these creatures make themselves known through their objects.
Poussin is more able than anyone else I can think of to treat the crossing of the Red Sea as both a religious and a natural event. All the physical elements of a shipwreck are there as well as the emotions and surroundings that would accompany a shipwreck, except there are intimations of something more: there is a feeling of release after a great religious moment has passed, it having transformed not only individual lives but all of human history. The reader of “Exodus”, however, knows full well that there are many more magisterial religious moments that will soon transpire: the wandering in the wilderness; Moses’ trip up and down Mount Sinai; the arrival at the door to the Promised Land.
Treating the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea as something to be explained away by providing a scientific explanation of how the winds could have separated the Sea of Reeds so as to provide a path through the water is to miss the point of the story, which is that it takes God’s grandeur to counter human invented technology, just as it had taken God’s grandeur to defeat the Tower of Babel, another claim of the power of human ingenuity to recraft the world. Moreover, the imagery seriously redefines the relation of God to his people and God to the world.
There is a sequencing of events, the stakes ever more significant. The beginning and most of the struggle between the Egyptians and the Israelites can be understood, as has been suggested, in strictly secular terms. There are group dynamics between the rulers and the institutions of those oppressed; there are economic sanctions; there are negotiations. Even the plagues can be understood as urged on by God through his siding with Aaron and Moses, but the plagues are themselves mostly natural: kinds of pestilence and other disaster that can come in that climate. The parting of the Red Sea, however, is a necessity in that the failure to do so will result in the destruction of Israel, and that God cannot allow. And so He steps out of the shadows, no longer the instigator or the presiding presence, to take an active part in the history of Israel. Moses may be the one who raises his arms to part the seas, but he is acting out of his special relation to God, and so here distinguishes himself from being a mere patriarch or prophet or priest or magician by becoming a co-adjustor with God, a singular relation to God not to be repeated until the same claim is made for Jesus.
This intervention of God into history contributes to making of Judaism what it would become called: a historical religion. That means that the interventions of God into the world is always momentous and also very rare. Not every chance event or bad emotion bears the mark of the supernatural. God intervenes, becomes clear in history as an actual force, only when there is no other recourse than God to change things, and only then does God declare himself by indeed changing things, his capacity to do so become visible. So the story of the parting of the Red Sea can be taken as part of the path to the secular because it restricts the arena for the operation of the supernatural. It also helps put humankind on the road to the secular because these few events when God intervenes are to be taken as having actually happened, “historical” in the same way that events of ordinary life are actual. It is therefore possible to describe them as being true or untrue, while mythological events always play on the close relation between a metaphor and a simile, the wise man or magician always knowing that what is attributed to the gods can also be attributed to a human passion and who is to say whether it is better to refer a feeling or event to one or the other?
Putting a truth value on a supernatural intervention, treating it as a fact, means that there is no need to distinguish between miraculous times and non-miraculous times. There never was, to the imagination of “Exodus”, a time whose characteristic was that miracles occurred on a regular basis, only times when miracles were called that because they took place only when they had to. The same goes for another of the momentous interventions by God into human events that takes place in “Exodus”: the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. It was the enormity of a people living without a law that made Mount Sinai necessary, for only afterwards would it be understood that people needed law not only as a practical expedient whereby tribal unrest might be mitigated, as is provided for in the Book of the Covenant, where penalties are assigned for bad deeds done when one tribe raids another, but as the necessary bedrock upon such an obstreperous people as the Israelites can become suitable to abide together rather than remain an anarchic mob subject to the whims of the moment.