We’re going to look at a few more preliminary matters before jumping into the heart of the argument. Here’s Part 1 if you missed it.
The thrust of this essay is to carefully engage the Exodus text to examine Israel’s interactions with and laws concerning non-Israelites to determine if any guiding principles exist. These texts can naturally be divided into the following three categories; those dealing with Israel’s self identity, those dealing with Israel and Egypt, and finally those dealing with Israel and other tribes. Examining the text in such a way reveals that Israel was in the book of Exodus a recognizable, ethnic unit selected for preferential treatment by God.17
The basis of this treatment however is not cultural or racial superiority, but God’s covenant with Abraham. Thus in fulfillment of that covenant, the majority of Israel were blood descendants of Abraham, and those outside people groups which threatened the ongoing fulfillment of this promise are dealt with harshly. However, other outsiders were readily included in the community of Israel if they displayed faith in God and submitted to God’s kingship. In summary, though Israel is a distinct, unified culture, the demarcation line for God’s favor is worship, not blood.
The first task to support the above conclusion is to confirm the ethnic distinctiveness of Israel from Exodus 1:7 onward. While many of those filling the pews on Sunday morning take this fact for granted, much recent scholarship does not. Many in academia understand the designation “Hebrew” used in Exodus as a reference, not to Israel in particular, but to any people or persons living outside of settled society. Certainly, the term ‘apiru appears in a variety of cultures throughout the Ancient Near East from 2000 – 1200 B.C. to describe the aforementioned class of wanderers, a description not unbecoming of the patriarchs and early Israelites. Furthermore, it is likely there is a linguistic connection between Hebrew and ‘apiru.18
As will be demonstrated below, however, “Hebrew” simply cannot be anything but an ethnic Israelite by the time Moses comes around.
In addition to those claiming Israel is only a sociological community, a number of recent works suggest or state explicitly Israel is unique neither in ethnicity nor social class, but only in theological conviction.19
J. Daniel Hays has perhaps the strongest opinion on the issue writing, “the central unifying and identifying feature of this people is the covenant relationship that Yahweh will form . . . thus one of the major boundaries that will delineate this ethnic group called the children of Israel from others groups is a theological one and not merely a biological one.”20
So while the emphasis on God’s inclusion of all nations in his plans by these scholars is to be appreciated, it is the contention of this paper they have done so by underestimating and devaluing the theological worth of God’s loyalty to the literal family of Abraham.
Next time, I’ll seek to demonstrate the above point from the text.
17) For simplicity’s sake the name “God” will be used throughout this paper to refer to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
18) Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250- 1050 B.C.E (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 401-409.
19) For a few examples see Walter Bruggeman A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel’s Communal Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994); J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. New Studies In Biblical Theology 14 (Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2003); Karen Strand Winslow, “Ethnicity, Exogamy, and Zipporah,” Women in Judaism 4 no. 1 (2006): 1-13.
20) Hays, From Every People and Nation, 66.