Study Guide

Book of Exodus The Rise of Civilization

The Rise of Civilization

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. (NRSV 1:11)

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. (KJV 1:11)

Check out how the KJV jazzes up the text. "Treasure city" sounds way cooler than "supply city" in our book. But both words imply a new kind of city in the ancient world. When a civilization starts to ramp up steam, it needs areas devoted to certain kinds of industry. This is the beginning of something big for Egypt and the world.

"I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor's house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians." (NRSV 3:21-22)

And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty. But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians. (KJV 3:21-22)

Here, God isn't just a spiritual friend sitting on your shoulder—he has to deliver the loot. Loyalty ain't free. But wait, what about "Thou shalt not steal?" Well, the Ten Commandments aren't necessarily universal laws; in war, to the victor still go the spoils.

The Lord said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'"

And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river. (NRSV 7:19, 24)

And the Lord spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone.

And all the Egyptians digged round about the river for water to drink; for they could not drink of the water of the river. (KJV 7:19, 24)

Rivers are the heart and soul of ancient civilization. No river, no nothin'. So when God makes the water turn into blood, he's challenging the entire Egyptian civilization.

And think about it this way. God's mountain is in the middle of nowhere, he appears through fire, and he came out of the wilderness. This is totally a rural vs. urban moment—and guess who wins? What does Exodus have against cities anyway?

There was hail with fire flashing continually in the midst of it, such heavy hail as had never fallen in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. (NRSV 9:24)

So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. (KJV 9:24)

Ancient Israel was always caught between two big powers: Mesopotamia and Egypt. It got a lot of culture from each place, but both regions had national identities long before Israel did. The passage here implies a kind of pre-civilization barbaric past, where nature ran wild. What gives?

The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, "What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?" Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God." (NRSV 18:13-16)

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? Why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even? And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God: When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. (KJV 18:13-16)

Moses is at it again, taking on too much responsibility. When tons of people congregate in one place—i.e., civilization—they're going to need an efficient way to resolve disputes. Think about waiting in line for a Moses verdict. In the desert. Just saying. Jethro's solution solves a major problem for the young Israelite civilization.

"You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row; and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and a moonstone; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. You shall make for the breastpiece chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece." (NRSV 28:17-23)

And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones: the first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle: this shall be the first row. And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond. And the third row a ligure, an agate, and an amethyst.
And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper: they shall be set in gold in their inclosings. And the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings of a signet; every one with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes. And thou shalt make upon the breastplate chains at the ends of wreathen work of pure gold. And thou shalt make upon the breastplate two rings of gold, and shalt put the two rings on the two ends of the breastplate. (KJV 28:17-23)

Call this passage the "Golden Shopping List." Where is your average Israelite going to get all of this stuff? Truth is, he can't. This passage was written by people who had access to all of these materials; and it was written for men who knew how to mold the gold. We're talking a definite urban setting.

Pairing monetary goods like these with religious power is the ultimate endorsement. This mix of religious and economic power is crucial in understanding where these texts come from in the early-civ web.