Review of S. Russell, Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Russell, Stephen C., Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature: Cisjordan-Israelite, Transjordan-Israelite, and Judahite Portrayals (BZAW, 403; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009). Pp. xix + 280. Hardback. €79.95/US$120.00. ISBN 978-3-11-022171-8.

Russell's book Images of Egypt is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation at New York University and focuses primarily on biblical texts he views as early that deal with Egypt. The thesis of the book develops a trend in recent scholarship, arguing that the memory of Egypt in early biblical traditions is not monolithic. The book instead proposes that this memory differs from one region to the other, reflecting the diversity of the memory of Egypt in the Cisjordan-Israelite traditions, Transjordan-Israelite traditions, and Judahite traditions. As Russell puts it, “Ancient Cisjordanian Israelites, Transjordanian Israelites and Judahites all remembered Egypt, and partly defined themselves in relation to it, but not in precisely the same way,” (p. 2). The task of the book is, therefore, to delineate the uniqueness of each one of these different regional traditions with regard to their memory of Egypt.

After dealing with the history of scholarship on the memory of Egypt in the first chapter, the second chapter of the book deals with texts that reflect Cisjordanian-Israelite traditions. To this end Russell focuses on the tradition of the golden calf in 1 Kgs 12:25–33 and Exod 32, the portrayal of Egypt in the eighth-century prophets Hosea and Amos, and the story of Joseph. After offering detailed exegetical discussions and arguments that concern the date and the provenance of each text, Russell notes that the Cisjordan-Israelite memories of Egypt entailed two distinctive themes that might have originated independently and were brought together at some point in the evolution of these traditions. “[T]wo major exodus themes were at least home in Cisjordan Israel: the notion of a journey from Egypt to Israel's land, and the military overtones of the exodus” (p. 75). The theme of the journey is mainly underlined by the use of the Hebrew verb עלה “to go up” (1 Kgs 12:28; Exod 32:4; Amos 3:2; Hos 12:14).

In order to underline the second theme, Russell appeals to “the martial flavor of the Bethel Calf Cult” (p. 50). Given the connection between the calf cult and the exodus tradition, the military overtones in Exod 32 are pointed out by the author in order to associate them with the Cisjordanian-Israelite memory of the exodus. The connection between the verb צחק “to play” with the pair “to eat and drink,” for instance, signals a celebration of a military victory (cf. Exod 32:6; Judg 9:27; 1 Sam 30:16). In addition, “the military aspect of the exodus may in turn be understood against the background of the military nature of early Israel” (p. 63). The military character of the early tribal Israel is evident in the incident of mustering the tribes for war in Judg 5.

The third chapter of the book discusses early Transjordanian-Israelite traditions about Egypt. This chapter mainly focuses on the memory of the exodus as attested in the Balaam oracles (Num 23:18–24; 24:3–9). This discussion leads Russell to conclude, “The memory of Egypt in Cisjordan had a different emphasis from that in Transjordan. The former focused on the idea of an exodus involving a journey out of Egypt, whereas the latter focused on liberation from oppression by Egypt” (pp. 119–20). Such a difference is marked by the use of two different verbs in order to describe the exodus event. While the Cisjordanian-Israelite traditions use the verb עלה, the Transjordanian-Israelite traditions use the verb יצא “to go out” (Num 23:22; 24:8). The memory of liberation from an Egyptian oppression probably reflects a memory of the withdrawal and the decline of the Egyptian imperial presence in the Levant around the twelfth century b.c.e. Interestingly, one of the Balaam oracles associate the event of the exodus with the god El (23:8). “In early Transjordanian circles, the god of deliverance from Egypt was El. Such attribution stands in contrast to all other biblical traditions, in which the god of the deliverance from Egypt and of the exodus was Yahweh” (p. 115)

The fourth chapter of the book is dedicated to the discussion of early Judahite traditions about Egypt. The texts that are discussed in this chapter include Exod 15:1b–18, Ps 68:29–32, and 1 Kgs 3:1. According to Russell these texts present opposing perspectives with regard to Egypt. Whereas Exod 15:1b–18 portrays Egypt as an enemy that is defeated by the divine warrior, 1 Kgs 3:1, which narrates Solomon's marriage to Pharaoh's daughter represents Egypt as a political ally. Psalm 68:29–32, which speaks of bronze that is being brought from Egypt, can be read as presenting Egypt in two different ways: “a subservient vassal paying tribute, or an ally in trade” (p. 193). The main argument of this chapter, however, lies in Russell's conclusion that these three “early” Judahite texts do not mention the exodus event in their remembrance of Egypt.

Despite the current location of the Song of the Sea in the book of Exodus (Exod 15:1b–18), that is, as the culmination of the exodus events and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Exod 14), Russell contends that the song makes no mention of an exodus from Egypt. Even the verb עבר “to cross” (cf. Exod 15:16) does not refer to the crossing of the people from Egypt into Canaan nor the crossing of the Jordan River. “Rather the verb is part of the poem's language that draws on old mythological motifs related to the ideology of kingship. As such, it refers to the tour of the people of Yahweh as they journey to Yahweh's sanctuary” (p. 176). Given the mythological and the metaphorical language of the poem, it is difficult to pinpoint a particular historical context for the defeat of an Egyptian army. For Russell the association between the Song of the Sea and the exodus tradition is due to Israelite influence on the southern traditions after the Assyrian invasion of Samaria in 722 b.c.e.

Building on previous scholarship, Russell's study fleshes out concretely the diversity with regard to the memory of Egypt in early biblical traditions. Arguing that the memory of Egypt is not monolithic, the study underlines the fact that such diversity is not just delineated temporally (early and late) but also geographically (Cisjordan and Transjordan, Israelite and Judahite). This study, therefore, challenges scholarly assumptions with regard to the socio-religious formation of ancient Israel. Now one cannot just speak of one exodus tradition, but must instead consider a variety of exodus traditions. These traditions come to us with different emphases and divergent memories. Furthermore, this study underlines the role that the preexilic sanctuaries (e.g. Bethel) played in shaping these different traditions with regard to the memory of the exodus.

In addition, Russell's study contributes to the long-debated controversy of the origins of biblical Israel. The biblical and extra-biblical evidence underlines the complexity of the issue. Whether the Israelites are viewed as outsiders or as indigenous to the land of Canaan, such diversity is compatible with Russell's study on the nature of the memory of the exodus traditions. Although these three different regional traditions (Transjordanian-Israelite, Cisjordanian-Israelite, and Judahite) are rooted in Canaan and therefore underline Israel's origins as indigenous, the Transjordanian-Israelite tradition speaks of a journey from Egypt.

While the book speaks of the “images” of Egypt in the plural, most of the book is essentially dedicated to discussing the early memories of the exodus. Even in the case of the Judahite memory of Egypt, which according to the author does not mention the exodus tradition, the author spends a great deal of the discussion showing its lack of any reference to the exodus. In other words, the major theme that the book is dealing with is the memory or lack of memory of the exodus from Egypt. One might wonder whether a title addressing the presence or lack of the exodus in the Israelite memories of Egypt might have been more appropriate for the subject matter.

To be sure, there are a few texts discussed that do not speak about the exodus, such as 1 Kgs 3:1, Ps 68:29–32, and the story of Joseph. Since the book is interested in early biblical literature, at least the inclusion of 1 Kgs 3:1 and story of Joseph poses a problem with regard to the author's dating of these texts. In the case of 1 Kgs 3:1 Russell sees the time of Hezekiah to be the suitable time for the invention of the theme of Solomon's diplomatic marriage with Pharaoh's daughter. The reason would be an explanation for Hezekiah' pro-Egyptian policies. Two objections arise to this line of thought. On the one hand, this theory assumes that the reference to the diplomatic marriage is seen as a positive remark. If read along with 1 Kgs 11, this text could very well be anti-Egyptian or against the policy of diplomatic marriages. And if this is true, then the time of Josiah or other periods could also be suitable. Even if the text demands a positive perception of a pro-Egyptian policy, Hezekiah's time is not the only suitable period because Egypt continued to be looked upon an ally until the fall of Jerusalem (and then again much later).

As for the story of Joseph, Russell claims that some elements of the story must be earlier than 722. The reader is left, however, both without knowing which parts of the story should be considered early and which parts should be considered late, and also how the dating of this material influences Russell's construction of the image of Egypt in “early” texts. In addition to the issue of the dating, the story of Joseph portrays Egypt in a different manner than other places in the Bible. Egypt is a place of refuge for the Israelites, and Joseph's wisdom saves the Egyptians. Furthermore, Joseph marries an Egyptian. Thus the story paints a picture of Egyptian-Israelite relations in which the survival of each depends on the other. This portrayal of Egypt should be contrasted with those streams of tradition that see Egypt only as an enemy.

As Russell explains the unique usage of the verb יצא in the exodus formula from the Transjordanian traditions, he claims that the use of this verb designates a liberation from oppression, a notion that might be explained by the memory of the Egyptian imperial hegemony in the Levant. One wonders, however, if the Egyptian hegemony was more severe in the Transjordan than in the Cisjordan or the southern part of the Levant? If the Egyptian empire practiced its hegemony all over the Levant, what prompts each of these geographical locations to remember this hegemony in a different manner? This leads to the use of the other verb עלה, in the Cisjordanian-Israelite traditions. The verb is used by the author of 1 Kgs 12:28, when Jeroboam establishes the cult of the golden calves in Bethel. The context of this declaration is striking. The people of Israel are not oppressed by an external power, but rather by a Judahite king (Rehoboam; 1 Kgs 12:1–14). Further, Jeroboam himself was in Egypt, and he returned to Israel in order to become a king over the northern tribes (1 Kgs 12:1–3). How much might Jeroboam's “movement” from Egypt into Israel have influenced the construction of the formula of the exodus event in the Bethel cult to denote an event of movement as well? The formula is also used by the northern prophet Hosea, who threatens the Israelites with removal from their land (Hos 9:3, 6; 8:13). Here again we see the context of movement imposing itself on the religious and political scenery and possibly on the exodus formula itself.

Russell's book enriches our understanding of the geographical distribution of the biblical traditions, specifically those traditions that concern the memory of the central event of the exodus. The book can be highly recommended to scholars who are interested in the early stages of the formation of the exodus traditions and to those who are interested in the history of Israelite religion, particularly in the preexilic period.

Safwat Marzouk, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary