Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Exodus (ca. 450 B.c.)

The scriptural epic of Exodus (Departure), the second book of the Torah and the Old Testament, describes the Hebrews' escape from servitude in the Egyptian Empire about 1250 B.C. during the late Bronze Age. At journey's end, they founded a priest nation in Canaan (present-day Palestine). Reprising the enslavement of Jews during Egypt's 19th dynasty, possibly during the rule of Ramses II (ca. 1303-1213 B.C.) the narrative is featured on 18 of the DEAD SEA SCROLLS. The original text focuses on the extraordinary life of Moses, a near victim of the pharaoh's order to drown Hebrew boys in the Nile. Like other mythic heroes, Moses has an unconventional childhood. The abandoned infant, set adrift in a cradle woven of reeds and reared as royalty by a princess, rescues his captive people and leads them to the fabled Promised Land. A saga of displacement and deliverance, the narrative dramatizes the slavery of the Jews and the parallel growth of Moses as a young lord of the household of the pharaoh, who “made [Hebrew] lives bitter with hard bondage” (Exodus 1:14). Compassion for suffering diverts Moses' attention from his own luxury and privilege to the bondage of Hebrew drones. In a flash of vengeance, he strikes and kills an Egyptian overseer, thus becoming an outlaw like Robin Hood and Rob Roy and bonding himself to the fate of a subject people.

The narrative recognizes Moses's godliness through a magical epiphany, the voice of Yahweh (God) emitted from a burning bush. Connecting divinity to Hebraic monotheism, the voice identifies himself twice as a single power honored by human patrilineage—“the god of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). The drama pushes the text to a new level of personal identity with the Almighty, who proclaims, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14), an enigma of self-identity that has spawned unending theological contemplation. Like Arjuna, the self-effacing leader in the BHAGAVAD GITA, Moses declines the job of warrior or emancipator, but the voice refuses to rewrite Moses's fate. The coming battle against Pharaonic Egypt requires faith rather than weaponry or a display of military acumen. Moses convinces his followers of divine leadership by working wonders, turning a staff into a serpent and river water into blood. After nine pestilences subject the citizens to bloody Nile waters, frogs, lice, gnats, beetles, an epidemic among flocks and herds, boils, hail and thunder, locusts, and darkness, the Hebrews eat an unusual symbolic meal, the Passover, or “feast of unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:17), in preparation for the worst plague, the death of unprotected firstborn babes and beasts. In defeat, Pharaoh capitulates to Moses without having faced him on the battlefield.

A Nation on the Move

Following the Jews' escape, the combative narrative shifts to a peasant pilgrimage across the Red Sea, around the Philistine realm, and northeast to Mount Sinai. In Exodus 15:1-19, the Israelites raise a spontaneous anthem of praise as they leave the Red Sea. Feeding them in the desert are God's gifts, quail and manna, an unidentified subsistence food that falls from heaven in a symbolic gesture of support to the Israelites. At the appointed slope, Yahweh equips Moses with laws—a decalogue that opens with a monotheistic duty to reestablish order: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Amid acts of petulance, wrongdoing, and flouting of authority, the column marches on toward the Promised Land through a series of alien tribes, each posing a test of dedication to the emerging empire. As a focus of faith, they construct an incense altar and an ark of the tabernacle attended by vested priests. The portable ark bears sacred stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), potent symbols of divine approval. The ark accompanies the Children of Israel across the Jordan River to Mount Shiloh in Canaan until its permanent location in the ninth century B.C. at the temple of Jerusalem built by King Solomon.

The composition of the KORAN (A.D. 633) echoes the drama of Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh, who accuses the Hebrew leader of sorcery. The Islamic version pictures Moses as a confrontational HERO: “Woe betide you! Invent no falsehoods against God, or He will destroy you with a scourge. Impostors will surely come to grief” (Koran 20:61). The Carthaginian polemist TERTULLIAN cites the Ten Commandments as proof that Christians respected life. In discussions of native-born heroes, NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI'S Renaissance statecraft handbook The Prince (1514) lauds Moses as a political prodigy emerging from an enslaved people to lead them to freedom. The patriarchal bearded Moses has recurred throughout history in art, statuary, and bas-relief as well as in the Cecil B. DeMille screen saga The Ten Commandments (1956), featuring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as his adversary, Rameses II. Four decades later, Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee reprised the roles of the Hebrew and Egyptian leaders in Moses (1996), an Emmy-nominated Turner Network TV film. In 1998, an animated version, The Prince of Egypt, cast Val Kilmer as the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes as the Egyptian pharaoh.


Compier, Don H., Pui-lan Kwok, and Joerg Rieger.

Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Exodus. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986, 90-158.

The Koran. Translated by N. J. Dawood. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.