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“Exodus, Conquest, and the Alchemy of Memory” by Ron Hendel

The contribution “Exodus, Conquest, and the Alchemy of Memory” by Ron Hendel to the new book Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of P. Kyle McCarter obviously is about the Exodus. Ron and I were contributors to the recent book of Five Views the Exodus (Jamzen, 2021). Much of what he and I wrote there also is in his contribution here and in my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Experience.

The format of that book was unusual. Each contributor submitted at 10,000-word article. Then each of the other four contributors wrote a 2,000-word response to each of the other four contributions. Finally, the original author wrote a 1500 word rejoinder. So each contribution consisted of a 10,000 article, four 2,000-word comments, and a 1,500 word response for 19,500 words in total. I think the attempt was for teachers to have a single book with multiple views with authors in conversation with each other. Naturally, no one changed anyone else’s mind.

Here, Hendel opens with a critique of William Foxwell Albright’s biblical methodology (107-110). The criticisms are of Albright’s conflation of literary realism of his reconstituted Bible with historical referentiality. One should note that Albright is better known for his analysis on the historicity of the Patriarchs and the Conquest than he is for the Exodus.

Hendel then shifts to the concept of cultural memory (110-113), a favorite of his for several years which he has written about in multiple studies as he acknowledges. He refers to how a people chose to remember something in terms of present relevance. The term “memnohistory” is critical here. Cultural memories are always being contested, negotiated, and revised. Instead of seeking what actually happened, the effort is to understand how the past is remembered. The work of Jan Assmann is cited here.

I note in passing the current brouhaha in the field of American history over the column in the summer newsletter by the president of the American Historical Association on the topic of “presentism.”

Hendel states:

I will argue that biblical traditions of exodus and conquest emerged in the context of the crystallization of Israel as a polity in the wake of the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. In historical terms, Israel was a successor state to Egyptian colonial rule (112).

Apparently a transformation of people from the abject condition of slavery to a new political-theological identity as the people of Yahweh did occur. The challenge, then, is to disentangle the folklore and history within the reconfigured memories of Egyptian bondage and deliverance.

Hendel engages specific biblical verses and traditions to illustrate the poetics of memory (113-117). These include:

1. The hardening of the heart (Ex.10:1-2) – “Yahweh’s deep motive for the dramatic sequence of heart, is to produce the material for a great story of deliverance from Egypt, which will become a cultural memory for all the generations of Israel” (114). True, but what is missing is how the memory of the mythic confrontation between Yahweh the Destroyer and Sekhmet, the goddess of plagues from the historical Exodus became part of the legacy through which J could craft this new tradition about the knowledge of Yahweh and Israel as the people of Yahweh (see the earlier blog on “Yahweh, the Destroyer” and the Exodus by Heath Dewrell).

2. What Rahab Knew (Josh. 2:9-11) – Hendel observes that the language of Rahab draws on the Song of the Sea (Ex.15). “The Canaanites’ collective response to the exodus and the intertextual quality of Rahab’s speech are striking features of poetic memory” (115). He recognizes that Rahab rightly perceives the conquest about to unfold in the Book of Joshua replicates what already has transpired in the exodus with the Jordan River replacing the Exodus Sea: “It is a collective memory whose fearsome power effects its own renewal and re-representation in the events of the conquest” (117).

Hendel stops his analysis there. Who is the person who made these connections? Who is the person who made this new collective memory? Who is the person who linked the going forth from Egypt with the conquest of the land of Canaan? Since Hendel rejects a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses, it is no surprise that he does not venture to speculate on the identity of who (meaning what king) renegotiated the memory of the Exodus and presented himself as fulfilling at Zion what Moses had envisioned at Sinai. How many choices are there?

Instead, Hendel turns to examining the meaning of the house of bondage (117-125). He is trying to thread the needle between the secular reality of a memory of the Exodus with the archaeological reality that no such event occurred. His solution is there was no Exodus from Egypt because the local Canaanites who would become Israelites already were in the land. Hence the movement going forth is not the key but the bondage is.

In this case, the answer is simple. The Egyptians ruled the land of Canaan throughout the Late Bronze Age. That rule “is the menohistorical background for the biblical depiction of the Egyptian house of bondage” (119). Hendel describes Egyptian imperialism based on Egyptian values where all Canaanites were abject slaves of Pharaoh. He provides examples from the Egyptian archaeological record attesting this perception by the people ruled in Canaan. He shows that the Canaanites endured forced labor on behalf of Pharaohs both in Egypt and in the land of Canaan.

Here is where Dan Fleming’s contribution to the McCarter book and Hendel’s work well together. Hendel has shown why the family of Jacob in the land of Canaan identified by Fleming naturally would ally with the people Israel of the Exodus from Egypt. At various times various scholars have proposed that there was a teeny-tiny exodus from Egypt and somehow those people managed to establish themselves in a leadership position in an expanded Israel including people in the land of Canaan who had not gone forth. Hendel has shown that the Canaanites who were slaves in Egypt (Manasseh) were connected to the slaves in Canaan in the family of Jacob. They probably were kin. But this avenue is not pursued by Hendel since he rejects the idea of a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses.

Skipping head, Hendel declares the exodus and conquest stories were one of the ways that ancient Israel constituted its ethnic boundaries and fashioned itself as the people of Yahweh. The Israelites were the people who remembered the exodus as the narrative par excellence of their formation as a people and a polity. In the new cultural memory of the exodus-conquest, the Israelites entered the land together already a cohesive polity. He allows that some of this entity may even have been former slaves returning home as the Egyptian Empire collapsed. And then by “the magic of social alchemy” this mixed multitude of peoples, all of them, became slaves in Egypt who went forth in the Exodus (where did Moses come from?), wandered in the wilderness and participated in the conquest.

How did all this happen? My preference is to look for human agency. Pieces of a puzzle do not miraculously come together. There are people who unite or who attempt to unite disparate peoples. Narmer, Alexander the Great, the Founding Fathers. Such efforts are not always successful. Moses in the Exodus begins the story, David first at Hebron and then at Zion continues it. The Israel of Moses expanded in the land of Canaan. It now included the family of Jacob with its memory of slavery under Egyptian imperialism going to Hebron to join Israel. It now included the anti-Egyptian Shasu Calebites already at Hebron as part of the kingdom of Judah. It would soon include the Canaanite cities David conquered. The Jericho Hendel mentions story symbolized Yahweh’s rule over Canaan now the Kingdom of Israel through the collapse of walled cities and his walking the ark of Yahweh around the city of Jerusalem in a procession. Hendel is right to point out the occurrence of a revised memory of the Exodus. The next step is to realize that David is the first one who revised the memory when he was faced with the challenge of ruling as king over a multitude of people as the first person born in the land of Canaan to rule the land of Canaan.