There are many themes running through the Old Testament myth of Exodus – slavery, rescue and redemption, guidance, commandments on how to live, the creation of a nation, and God’s power over other gods. In this paper I will explore what appears to be the chief reasoning behind the creation of the Exodus myth – the explanation of the creation of a monotheistic religion and the similarities of the Exodus myth to the ancient myths, as well as how one should approach the reading of the myth..
First of all, we need to understand what a myth is. William Bascom says in his essay, “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives”, “Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past” (Dundes 9). Trying to prove the elements in the myth as factual are contrary to the very existence of the myth. In reading Old Testament Bible myth, the question of divine inspiration versus historical truth is often debated. “A myth makes a valid statement about the origins of the world, of society and of its institutions, about the gods and their relationship with mortals, in short, about everything on which human existence depends” (Graf 3).
Further, the context in which the myth was written must be taken into account when reading the story. Bronislaw Malinowski in his essay “The Role of Myth in Life” says that “The text, of course, is extremely important, but without the context it remains lifeless” (Malinowski 201). The context that needs to be addressed when reading the myth are the cultural and sociological components that surround a mythological text. This context, consisting of the understanding of the culture in which the myth extends from, is essential to effective communication of the text. As Malinowski says, myth “is not merely a story told but a reality lived” (Malinowski 198).
At the heart of the matter, the creators of a myth are attempting to explain their world in a world absent of science and sophisticated tools of research. In approaching myth, the reader must enter into the world of the creators of the myth, instead of attempting to impose their own societal beliefs and expectations on it. In short, we need to read the myth in imitation of how the myth was originally received.
In the myth of Exodus, a monotheistic system of worship was needed in order to create a unified nation with one god. Exodus attempts to provide an explanation for this movement away from the traditional polytheistic religion. Lauri Honko says in her essay, “The Problem of Defining Myth”, “…myths can be characterized as ontological: they are incorporated and integrated into a coherent view of the world, and they describe very important aspects of life and the universe” (Dundes 51). Within the pages of Exodus we find the first code of laws – the Ten Commandments – for living as a monotheistic society. God begins the Ten Commandments with admonishment to keep Him above all other gods,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:1-3).
In this passage, God reminds Moses that God is supreme above all other gods and he reminds Moses of the miracle he has performed in bringing the people out of Egypt. The result is that Exodus becomes for the Israelites the foundation myth for Judaism and the resulting culture.
This monotheistic type of system also serves as a mirror image of the historical patriarchal system. One example of this is reflected in the order to kill all boys born by Pharaoh. In keeping with the patriarchal system already in place, Pharaoh orders the killing of all boys – “The killing of boys rather than girls reflects a patrilineal society” (Coogan 85). Exodus attempts to explain the origins of the customs of a monotheistic religion within the framework of the recognizable institution of patriarchy.
God tells Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). This adherence to patriarchy assures Moses and the Israelites of continuity in the face of a new and frightening god. In Exodus 18:20 God commands Moses to “teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do”. Moses is set up by God to be the patriarchal leader of the Israelite people.
In addition, Exodus captures the narrative feel of previous Mesopotamian Myth. The story of Exodus has the distinctive mythical quality of gods at war with the poor human caught in the middle. Aaron and Pharaoh’s wizards pit their respective gods against one another - “Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs” (Exodus 7:12). Repeatedly, the God of Moses prevails over the gods of Egypt. Further, the one god in Exodus declares war on the other gods by challenging them to more and more powerful challenges.
In Exodus 1:18, the Song of Moses is sung by Moses and the Israelites. This song celebrates “God as warrior-king” (Coogan 103) and shows that the Israelites have accepted God as the one true god. The nature of all the ancient gods was a desire to be worshipped above all others and, in Exodus, God’s actions show this mythological god-like characteristic by insisting that the Israelites and the Egyptians recognize Him as the supreme god and worship only him.
The creation of the story of the Exodus serves to explain in the recognized language of the myth the reasoning behind the Israelites choice to move from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic religion. As Bronislaw says, myth is “intended…to explain by means of something concrete and intelligible an abstract idea” (Dundes 205). In the case of Exodus, the abstract idea of one god, as well as the abstract ideas of elements within the myth – the Parting of the Red Sea, the plagues, etc. By making these abstract elements concrete through myth, the people of the society are given a way to explain their new world of monotheism.
The myth of Exodus becomes a road map of proper behavior for the new society that has been liberated from slavery. Within the context of history, the myth offers future generations a glimpse of a new religions beginnings. As the new code of laws is set into place, a new and more powerful god emerges – a god of great strength, a god that supersedes all other gods, one god above all others.
Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. LA: University of California Press, 1984.
Graf, Fritz. Greek Mythology: An Introduction. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Segal, Robert A. Theorizing About Myth. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2004, 2006