Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson I

The Field of Zoan

Read Exodus I.

§ 1. Recapitulation

This story of Exodus is but a continuation of the story we read in Genesis. You remember what we learned there:—

(1) That God had a great purpose for the children of Israel, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the world, that they should bear the torch of God's light for all the nations upon earth.

(2) That it seems to have been necessary for His purpose that they should go down to live and learn, and suffer in Egypt, and thus become welded into a nation. So God revealed to Abraham what should happen in Egypt, and that afterwards the nation should be restored to Palestine (Genesis xv. 13).

(3) That in His providence, in what seemed the merest chance ways, Joseph got sold into Egypt, and the famine came and drove down his brethren, and he became prime minister to Pharaoh, and invited down all his family. So God's purpose began to be fulfilled.

(4) That the patriarchs looked forward to the final fulfilment of these promises. Did Abraham see the promises fulfilled? Did Isaac? Did Jacob? What is said in the Epistle to the Hebrews? (xi. 13). "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but, etc." And then at last Joseph died, with less apparent likelihood of fulfilment than ever. But as he was dying, he took an oath of his brethren, "God will surely visit you, and bring you to the land which He promised, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence." So he died, "and they embalmed him, and he was put in a mummy case in Egypt." (Genesis 1. 26). That is the last word of Genesis, and for centuries afterwards careless people in Egypt or Goshen might smile at the foolishness of Joseph's faith. But 500 years later comes Exodus, and then Joshua and the Kings and the Prophets, and at last the coming of Christ, and the long history of the Church. Does it look now as if God had failed in His promise?

§ 2. The Gap in the Story

"Joseph died and they put him in a mummy case in Egypt." After this there is a great gap in the story—300 years of silence while the Israelites lived and were enslaved in Egypt, and the mummy of their dead chief lay in its burial case waiting to be carried away when the Deliverance should come.

During that long period many stirring events happened in Egypt, changes of dynasties, new races of kings, just as happened in England when Saxon and Norman and Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties succeeded one after the other to the throne. We know a good deal now about Egyptian history from the many discoveries of monuments of the Pharaohs, and from the writings and pictures that have been found in the old tombs. But they tell us very little about the shepherds from Palestine who had been left in Goshen after the death of the great prime minister Zapenath-Paneah. Enough, however, is known to make the chief students of Egyptian history pretty well agreed as to the period when the Exodus story comes in. More than 2000 years before Christ, they tell us, a great defeat fell upon Egypt. A foreign race, the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings, invaded the land and subdued it, and reigned as conquerors just as William the Conqueror and his Normans did in the old Saxon days in England. It is thought that one of these Hyksos kings, Apepi, was the Pharaoh of Joseph's day. Then came the Great Revolution, when the native Egyptians rose against them, laid in ruins their royal city of Tanis, and swept them with terrible slaughter from the land, and a native race of kings succeeded to the throne. Then came another revolution, and another new line of Pharaohs, the Rameses dynasty, and it is with the first four of these Rameses kings that our story is concerned. They were called—

Rameses I

Seti I



This, it is believed, was the new race of kings "that knew not Joseph." In England, when the Normans came, they neither knew nor cared about the great men or the great deeds of the Saxon time. So it would naturally be here. Probably the enslaving of the Israelites began under the first two of these Rameses Pharaohs. Then came the specially cruel treatment under Rameses II., "Rameses the Great,"  "the Pharaoh of the Oppression." He is known in Egyptian history as the great builder of cities, just the man that would need slaves to work hard for him in the brick-fields. The name of the store city RAMESES seems also to point to him as its builder, since he was the most famous king of that name. And later on some years ago M. Naville discovered and excavated the other store city of Pithom, and found from the inscriptions that King Rameses had been active there. So we have good reason to believe that this great royal builder Rameses II. was really the Pharaoh who oppressed Israel. When he died (Exodus ii. 23) he was succeeded by his son Merenptah, a weaker king, but also a builder, who carried on and completed his father's designs. He, it is believed, was the Pharaoh who contended so fiercely with Moses, and would not let Israel go. Some day you may be able to study for yourselves the reasons which have led Egyptian scholars to fix thus the time of the Exodus. We cannot go into the matter more fully here.

§ 3. The Field of Zoan

Before we begin the story of Moses, would it not be well to have some idea of the place and the times in which its scenes occurred? In the after-life of Israel a place called ZOAN seems to have stood out prominently in the national memory. When speaking of Hebron, the historian says, "it was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt." (Numbers xiii. 22). And when the Psalmist long afterwards is celebrating God's wonders in Egypt, he writes,—

"Marvellous things did He in the sight of their fathers,

In the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan."

And again:—

"How He had wrought His signs in Egypt,

And His wonders in the field of Zoan."—(Psalm 100. 12, 43.)

So if we could find out what and where Zoan was we should probably find out from Egyptian history something more than we are told in the Bible about the story of Israel.

Now we know very well where Zoan is. There is a famous city in ancient history, the city of Tanis or Tsan, the royal city of the shepherd kings, and probably the scene of Joseph's glory, which there are several reasons for identifying with Zoan. One convincing reason is that 700 years after Moses a set of Greek scholars in Egypt  made the famous Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint Bible, and when translating the above verses of the 78th Psalm they rendered it,—

"Marvellous things did He in the sight of their fathers,

In the land of Egypt, in the field of Tanis."

Therefore they, residing in Egypt at a time when Tanis was still a flourishing provincial town, must have known that Zoan was but another name for the once famous Tanis, which had been the royal city of the Pharaohs in the land of Goshen 700 years before.

Egyptian history is perfectly clear as to the fact that Zoan or Tanis, which had been destroyed in the Great Revolution, when the Hyksos were driven out with great slaughter, was afterwards rebuilt in glory and splendour by Rameses the Great, "the Pharaoh of the Oppression." It was his royal city, and therefore, if scholars are right in fixing the date of the Exodus, Tanis would be certainly the city of Moses, and if we could form any idea of its appearance in the days of its glory, we should be able to call up in our minds in some degree some of the greatest scenes of his life.

§ 4. The Grave of a Dead City

Far away in the Delta of the Nile, in the centre of the ancient land of Goshen there lies to-day, the grave of a dead city. It is like a great sand island heaped up into desolate piles of reddish brown mud and strewed all over with ruins.

Nearly forty years ago (in 1884) a boat arrived one morning at the side of this desolate mound, and a traveller sprang ashore to view the dreary ruins in the dim light of the morning. The mound covered the ruins of the ancient city of Zoan, or Tanis, and the traveller was the famous explorer, Dr. Flinders Petrie, sent out from England by the Egypt Exploration Fund, to uncover this lost city of the Pharaohs. Some time before they had sent out a Frenchman, M. Naville, for the purpose, but he thought the task too great for the time at his disposal, and, turning aside in another direction, came unexpectedly upon the most fortunate find of his life, the buried store city of Pithom, which the Israelites had built for Pharaoh (Exodus i. 11).

So the exploring of Tanis remained for an Englishman. For five months Dr. Petrie worked at the ruins with his little band of helpers. He dug and explored and measured and photographed, till he had found and given to the world a list of the buried wonders, and an idea of what the ancient Tanis was like.

Digging for Egyptian cities is a curious sort of work, for usually there are two or three of them one under the other. Hundreds of years before Moses there was the older city of Tanis, the great royal city of the Hyksos Shepherd Kings, and probably the scene of Joseph's glory. In the Great Revolution that I told you of, this ancient Tanis was laid in utter ruins, and probably remained so for centuries getting gradually covered by the drifting desert sands. Then after centuries came King Rameses II., the Pharaoh of the Oppression, and rebuilt it in great stateliness and grandeur. And ages later still, there was a Roman town there, whose people were walking about over the buried statues and buildings of King Rameses' day. And even in Christian days it became the seat of a Christian bishopric, probably on account of the persistent Coptic tradition that it was the city of Moses' birth. So you see Dr. Petrie had no easy task when he gathered his crowd of Arab labourers to dig up the buried city of Moses and King Rameses.

First he found the ruins of a long double row of pillars and sphinxes, which he saw at once must have been the avenue of the temple. So he set to work and exposed the pillars and statues and the sphinxes of black marble, with their strange human faces and lion bodies. Then he dug on to the red granite temple, 1000 feet long, and the old houses of the city. But he could not get very far on with the work. "We can only imagine," he says, "what interest may await us when we reach the dwellings of the people who lived around the splendid temple . . . replete with noble statues, and dominated in every part by the royal splendour of RAMESES beloved by Amon." There could certainly be no question as to King Rameses' connection with it. Everywhere was the name of this vainglorious Pharaoh. Not content with his own pillars and sphinxes, Dr. Petrie found that he had chiselled off the names of the more ancient kings from their monuments, and everywhere covered them with his own. All the ruins told of King Rameses, how he had rebuilt Zoan and adorned it with splendid statues and buildings. The temple was so full of his monuments and inscriptions that one might almost believe that he himself was the god who was worshipped there. And what an old boaster he was! He calls himself "the Smiter of Nations, the Strong Bull, the Destroyer of His Enemies, Rames beloved of (the god) Amon." (See Flinders Petrie, Tanis.)

Though Dr. Petrie found these splendid memorials overthrown and displaced, yet one could well imagine them whole and erect—one could imagine the scene in those far back days, when King Rameses reigned and worshipped in the temple, walking in procession through his grand avenue of sphinxes and obelisks, to worship the Sun and the River as gods, to be worshipped himself almost as a god. We cannot yet identify where his palace and public buildings stood, but we can see where he had erected, overtopping the city, the most stupendous monument that ever man had raised to himself, a great colossal statue, caned out of one solid block of red granite, 90 feet high, and weighing over 900 tons! Think of the vast labour and probably the cruel slave-driving involved in cutting that giant block from its far-off quarry, and bearing it to its destination right across Egypt. One can see the huge brick wall of the city crumbled into dust, and one can guess that somewhere, amid all its grandeur, there were rows of mean little slave huts, somewhere along the river, where men and women lived like beasts of burden, in pain and degradation, thinking that neither God nor man cared anything about them.

If we had sufficient money and leisure would it not be interesting to start off all of us together by the morning train to the ruins of Tanis to study on the spot the childhood of Moses? It would take us some weeks to go, and we must carry plenty of provisions, for Dr. Petrie found it very hard to get anything to eat. Fancy our sitting down next month on a piece of that huge statue of King Rameses, and thinking of the time when it was such a familiar object to the eyes of Moses, and when the Israelite slaves used to look up to it across the river and curse it and the tyrant in their bitter hearts! Then we might turn and look eastward for the Exodus route. Aye, we might go back 500 years earlier still, and think of the older city underneath the city of Rameses, and watch in imagination the splendid funeral of Jacob as it started from Tanis away to the far-off grave of his fathers in Hebron. From Zoan to Hebron!  I think I should like to open my Bible just then and read with a new connection that verse I have referred to (Numbers xiii. 22): "Now Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt."

§ 5. How Pharaoh "Dealt Wisely"

Now we are ready to read our lesson for to-day (Exodus i.). We can imagine the Pharaoh in his splendid new city of Tanis, with its stately buildings and its avenue of obelisks and sphinxes leading to the great temple, and his huge red statue, 90 feet high, commanding the whole scene. And outside, the bands of slaves bending under the whip of the taskmasters, and cursing Pharaoh and his vanity and cruelty, and the clever statesmanship that had "dealt wisely" with them, so as to gradually break down their spirit till they were too cowed and degraded to rise in the might of their numbers against him.

Pharaoh was afraid that their numbers would make them dangerous in case of a war—but he was also afraid that they should "get them up out of the land" (v.  10), and that he should lose all this valuable slave labour, so much wanted for his great buildings and for digging canals, and working at the hardest task in Egypt, the artificial watering of the land that was out of reach of the river. (See v.  14, for the two sorts of work.) So King Rameses "dealt wisely" with them, and got his fears quieted, and his lands watered, and his two store cities of Pithom and Rameses built. That was all that concerned him. Never mind Right or Mercy. Never mind Justice and the God of Justice if he can get his own will done.

But somehow Justice and the God of Justice are not so easily flung aside. No king or nation can do these things without putting themselves wrong with God, whether it be in Egypt long ago, or in America to-day. So God had to punish Egypt and to deliver Israel. Not that He was against Egypt any more than against Israel. This is no story of God's favouritism for one people as against another. It is the lesson of a divine eternal law that must be always and everywhere against wrong.

People don't think that God is watching—I am sure Pharaoh did not. And I am pretty sure the Israelites did not as they struggled on in their hopeless misery. I dare say they often thought with bitter mockery of the dead Joseph in his lonely mummy case, and of his hopeful prophecy, that God would surely visit them and deliver them. Yet all the time God's plan was being silently and slowly worked out, as we shall see in the following chapters.


Exodus xii. 41 gives the Israelites' sojourn as 430 years. The genealogies and the Egyptian chronology tend to confirm this. Rawlinson's Moses  conjecturally divides the period thus:—70 years under Joseph's protection, 160 years in which they were "afflicted," but not severely oppressed, and 100 years in which "their lives were made bitter, and the Egyptians made them to serve with rigour." (Exodus i. 14).

Probably the extreme measure of destroying the male infants was a temporary one, owing to dread of the formidable Kheta or Hittite race. They were a frequent source of uneasiness to Egypt, and the Israelites occupied the frontier which would first be attacked in an invasion by them. Naturally Pharaoh feared that they would side with the invaders, and so win their freedom, and all the more so since they probably resembled them in language, costume, habits, etc.

Verse 11, "Treasure Cities."—The Hebrew word corresponds very closely both in form and meaning with "magazines," depots of ammunition and provisions; the same word is used in 1 Kings ix. 19; 2 Chronicles viii. 4, and xxxii. 28.

Captives were employed in great numbers for building and enlarging such depots under the Egyptian kings of the 18th and 19th dynasties.—Speaker's Commentary.

Questions for Lesson I

Who is the chief person in the Exodus story?

Who was chief person dealt with at the end of Genesis?

What did Joseph prophesy as he died?

How many years had passed before the Exodus began?

Who was King Rameses?

Can you tell anything of the discovery of Moses' old city?

What was the condition of the Israelites in Egypt in Moses' day?

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