The big problem which confronts any attempt to make sense of early Hebrew history is how to bridge the gap between the literary and the archaeological evidence. On the one hand we have the evidence of the narrative contained in the Hebrew scriptures, most especially the Torah but also the historical books. And on the other hand we have the evidence of innumerable inscriptions unearthed in many different parts of the Middle East dating from the 2nd millenium BCE and making reference in passing to bands of runaway slaves and other fugitives known as Habiru. In particular there are references to Habiru participating in an uprising against Egyptian rule in Canaan in the 14th century BCE, Habiru being brought to Egypt as prisoners after the failure of the uprising and Habiru working as slaves on construction projects for the Egyptians. It has long been evident to me that the Hebrews must have been Habiru, but aside from their common status as slaves in Egypt and similar names, there seems to be little or nothing to connect the two groups.
To the contrary, if the narrative of Hebrew origins in the Torah is more or less literally true, then the Hebrews could not possibly have been Habiru. The Habiru formed a social class made up of fugitives from many different backgrounds, whereas the Torah depicts the Hebrews as all descended from the twelve sons of one father. Moreover, the Torah depicts the Hebrews prior to their enslavement in Egypt as peaceful shepherds, whereas there are many inscriptions which refer to Habiru as bandits or mercenaries. However the narrative of the adventures of Abraham, Isaac, Israel and his twelve sons was not written down until at least 500 years after the events which it purports to describe. How likely is it that this detailed narrative is factually correct, or that the Hebrews really were all descended from one man, or that they formed one big extended family under conditions of slavery? Seeing as the Torah is filled with all kinds of improbable or impossible events, is it not likely that the whole story of Israel and the twelve sons is just another part of a Hebrew myth of origins?
On the other hand, since we know that Habiru prisoners of war were held as slaves by the Egyptians, it appears that the one part of the narrative in the Torah that has to be true is the part about escaping from slavery in Egypt. Although the details of the escape may be mythical, the escape itself is consistent with both the literary and the archaeological evidence. It was in Canaan that some thousands of Habiru had been taken prisoner by the Egyptians and it was to Canaan that they or their descendants would have wished to return. But whereas the Torah states that 600,000 Hebrew men, plus uncounted women and children, plus a “mixed multitude” escaped from slavery in Egypt and then spent 40 years in a barren desert living on food that fell from the sky, the real story must have been quite different. Only a relatively small number of Habiru could have crossed the Sinai to Canaan, and it is probable that these Habiru went on to become the tribe of Levi, many of whose members as described in the Hebrew scriptures had Egyptian sounding names. The tribe of Levi was responsible for conducting the religious ceremonies of the Hebrews, suggesting that the fugitives from Egypt formed the leadership of a confederation of Habiru bands that had not been taken prisoner and remained in Canaan all along.
It seems clear that the function of the story of the children of Israel was to facilitate the transformation of the Habiru bands of Canaan into Hebrew tribes who were bound together by common religious beliefs, common laws and a common history. At some point in the evolution of the Hebrew confederation a decision was reached to claim a common ancestry for all the Habiru bands of Canaan. It is easy to see why this decision was reached but less easy to see how it came to be generally accepted. The Habiru formed scattered bands of armed fugitives who came from many different backgrounds and had little basis for imagining themselves all part of the same family. There must have been a lengthy process between the initial decision to claim common ancestry and the general acceptance of this claim. In any case, once the belief in a common ancestry became established, a mythical view of Hebrew origins became a necessity.
The center piece of this mythical view was the detailed narrative of the adventures of the Hebrew patriarchs provided by the Torah. This narrative in its written form is thought to date from the 8th or 9th centuries BCE and may have played a decisive role in the general acceptance of the claim that the Hebrew tribes had a common ancestry. Everyone assumes that the written narrative was derived from a previous oral tradition, but it is possible that it was the written narrative which first invented most of the details of the lives of the patriarchs. These details all went to establish an image of the early Hebrews as constituting a kind of bedouin tribe, which often named themselves as the “sons” of some revered ancestor. But having defined the Hebrews as one big tribe, the Torah had then to place all of them as slaves in Egypt and not just the tribe of Levi. This in turn made necessary the escape of a huge number of Hebrews from slavery and the many miracles necessary to sustain this huge number in the Sinai.
Miracles also surround the figure of Moses, raising the question of whether there was a real person behind the narrative in the Torah. But if the authors of the Torah invented a mythical leader for the Hebrews, why did they make him an Egyptian? The name Moses means “son” in the Egyptian language and the story of his rescue from a basket on the Nile looks like an attempt to provide him with a Hebrew ancestry which he evidently lacked. Moreover the god which Moses is said to have introduced to the Hebrews had many features in common with the supreme gods of the Egyptian religion. On balance it seems probable that there was a real person, by birth and upbringing an Egyptian, who became the leader of the Habiru who fled from Canaan. The main function of the miracles which surround him in the Torah was to demonstrate the reality and power of the god associated with him.
That is also the main function of the Torah as a whole, which was written by priests. When the Greeks learned of Moses they thought of him as a “lawgiver”, but in the Torah Moses does not initiate anything. Everything he does is because God told him to do it. Obedience to the will of God is the supreme value upheld by the Torah. But in reality the Habiru held in bondage in Egypt must have had a much more active role in their own liberation than the Torah suggests. The Habiru became Habiru in the first place by being rebellious. Just how and why they were able to flee from Egypt cannot be deduced from the story in the Torah but it undoubtedly required more struggle and fewer miracles than the priestly account would have it.
Moreover, the real miracle was not just the flight from Egypt but the ability of the fugitives to organize the various Habiru bands in Canaan into an effective confederation. According to the Hebrew Scriptures the tribe of Levi was the only one that was not assigned a definite territory but was scattered throughout the territory of the other tribes. It is evident that the fugitives from Egypt were mainly responsible for organizing the Habiru of Canaan into a force capable of conquering Canaan and ruling over it. In time the Levites came to be associated solely with religious ceremonies but their original role must have been above all political and organizational.
Bridging the gap betwen politics and religion were the stone tablets of the law. There is no way of knowing at precisely what stage in the evolution of the Habiru confederation the stone tablets were introduced. Perhaps they really were adopted in the Sinai, perhaps only later. Alphabetical writing was invented in the Sinai, so it is at least conceivable, although not very likely, that they were engraved there. However they may have been formed, they provided the Levites with a tangible expression of their basic message, the need for unity around certain clear principles if the Habiru confederation was to succeed. From that time to the present, the search for unity around evolving principles of self government has been the hallmark of Jewish thought and practice down through the ages..