Exodus Through Deception: Asking for a Three-Day Festival
God’s Dual Message
When God speaks to Moses in the wilderness for the first time, he tells Moses that he has seen the suffering of the Israelites and will bring them to Canaan, a land of milk and honey (Exod 3:7-8). He then repeats that he has seen the pressure Israel has been subjected to, and is sending Moses to Pharaoh to free the people (3:9–10). After Moses objects (v. 11) that he doesn’t know what he should tell the Israelites about who is sending him, God reveals his special name YHWH (vv. 12-15), and then continues to describe Moses’ mission.
First, he must go to the elders (3:16) and tell them the plan:
שמות ג:טז …פָּקֹד פָּקַדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת הֶעָשׂוּי לָכֶם בְּמִצְרָיִם.ג:יז וָאֹמַר אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵעֳנִי מִצְרַיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.
Exod 3:16 …“I have taken note of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt, 3:17 and I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.” (NJPS with adjustments)
Thus, the Israelite elders are to be told that the plan is for the Israelites to leave Egypt permanently and relocate to Canaan. Once Moses has explained this, however, he is to go to the king of Egypt, and surprisingly only ask to go out for three days to sacrifice to God in the wilderness:
שמות ג:יח וְשָׁמְעוּ לְקֹלֶךָ וּבָאתָ אַתָּה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַאֲמַרְתֶּם אֵלָיו יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִיִּים נִקְרָה עָלֵינוּ וְעַתָּה נֵלֲכָה נָּא דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְנִזְבְּחָה לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ.
Exod 3:18 They will listen to you; then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, “YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH our God.”
Moses will repeat this lie to Pharaoh continuously throughout the story.
The Three-Day Festival as a Theme of the Plague Narrative
As commanded, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh, and announce the upcoming festival:
שמות ה:א …וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר….ה:ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים נִקְרָא עָלֵינוּ נֵלֲכָה נָּא דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְנִזְבְּחָה לַיְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ פֶּן יִפְגָּעֵנוּ בַּדֶּבֶר אוֹ בֶחָרֶב.
Exod 5:1 …They went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel: Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness.” …. 5:3 They said, “The God of the Hebrews has called to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH our God, lest he strike us with pestilence or sword.”
Pharaoh rejects this requested holiday, and the story continues with the plagues, tension building around Moses consistently asking for the festival, and Pharaoh slowing giving way.
1. Blood & 2. Frogs—Pharaoh Ignores, Gives In, Relents
God tells Moses to repeat the request to worship God in the wilderness before the plague of blood (7:16; 1st plague) and then before the plague of frogs (7:26; 2nd plague), which he ostensibly does. After the frogs swarm Egypt, Pharaoh gives in, offering to let the people sacrifice to YHWH (8:4), but soon relents (8:11). The third plague (lice) comes with no warning.
4. Swarms & 5. Pestilence—Pharaoh Negotiates, Gives in, Relents, Ignores
God again tells Moses to make his claim, before the plague of swarms (8:16; 4th plague). This time, Pharaoh tries to negotiate with Moses, suggesting that they may leave, but need to stay nearby:
שמות ח:כא וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר לְכוּ זִבְחוּ לֵאלֹהֵיכֶם בָּאָרֶץ. ח:כב וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לֹא נָכוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן… ח:כג דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים נֵלֵךְ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְזָבַחְנוּ לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר אֵלֵינוּ. ח:כדוַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת…
Exod 8:21 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land.” 8:22 But Moses replied, “It would not be right to do this… 8:23 So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to YHWH our God as He may command us.” 8:24 Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to YHWH your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far…
Soon thereafter, Pharaoh again relents (8:28). God makes the same command before the plague of pestilence (9:1; 5th plague), but Pharaoh’s heart remains heavy. The 6th plague (boils) comes with no warning.
7. Hail & 8. Locusts—Pharaoh Ignores, Negotiates, and Gets Angry
God again issues the command before the plague of hail (9:13, 7th plague), and then before the plague of locusts (10:3; 8th plague). This time, upon hearing that YHWH will bring locusts upon Egypt, the Egyptians themselves intercede, suggesting that Pharaoh release the people to worship God:
שמות י:ז וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 10:7 Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship YHWH their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?”
This complaint leads to another round of negotiations, with Pharaoh saying:
שמות י:ח… לְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִי וָמִי הַהֹלְכִים. י:ט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵךְ בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ נֵלֵךְ כִּי חַג יְ־הֹוָה לָנוּ.
Exod 10:8 …“Go, worship YHWH your God! Who are the ones to go?” 10:9 Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe YHWH’s festival.”
Moses’ response gives no ground, and clearly implies to Pharaoh that the three-day holiday is a ruse. Pharaoh justifiably responds with indignation:
שמות י:י וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יְהִי כֵן יְ־הֹוָה עִמָּכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם.י:יא לֹא כֵן לְכוּ נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָה כִּי אֹתָהּ אַתֶּם מְבַקְשִׁים וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֹתָם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי פַרְעֹה.
Exod 10:10 But he said to them, “YHWH be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief. 10:11 No! You menfolk go and worship YHWH, since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.
After 9. Darkness—Pharaoh Negotiates Again, Gets Angry Again
No warning comes before the 9th plague (darkness), but afterwards, Pharaoh calls Moses and Aaron back for one final attempt at negotiation, permitting the Israelites to leave, but insisting that they leave their flocks and herds behind as collateral. Moses gives no ground, even insisting that Pharaoh must provide additional sacrificial animals:
שמות י:כד וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר לְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָה רַק צֹאנְכֶם וּבְקַרְכֶם יֻצָּג גַּם טַפְּכֶם יֵלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם. י:כהוַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה גַּם אַתָּה תִּתֵּן בְּיָדֵנוּ זְבָחִים וְעֹלוֹת וְעָשִׂינוּ לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ.י:כו וְגַם מִקְנֵנוּ יֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ לֹא תִשָּׁאֵר פַּרְסָה כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ נִקַּח לַעֲבֹד אֶת יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וַאֲנַחְנוּ לֹא נֵדַע מַה נַּעֲבֹד אֶת יְ־הֹוָה עַד בֹּאֵנוּ שָׁמָּה.
Exod 10:24 Pharaoh then summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship YHWH! Only your flocks and your herds shall be left behind; even your children may go with you.” 10:25 But Moses said, “You yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to YHWH our God; 10:26 our own livestock, too, shall go along with us — not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of YHWH our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship YHWH until we arrive there.”
One can almost picture Moses smirking while he delivers this speech, but Pharaoh does not enjoy the feeling that he is being played. He responds aggressively:
שמות י:כח וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ פַרְעֹה לֵךְ מֵעָלָי הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ אַל תֹּסֶף רְאוֹת פָּנַי כִּי בְּיוֹם רְאֹתְךָ פָנַי תָּמוּת.
Exod 10:28 Pharaoh said to him, “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” 
After 10. Death of the Firstborn—Pharaoh Capitulates
Moses leaves in a huff (11:8b), but after the plague of the firstborn (10thplague), Pharaoh calls him back one final time; this time he capitulates, allowing Israel to take its flocks and herds to celebrate this festival:
שמות יב:לא וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי גַּם אַתֶּם גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָה כְּדַבֶּרְכֶם. יב:לב גַּם צֹאנְכֶם גַּם בְּקַרְכֶם קְחוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם וָלֵכוּ וּבֵרַכְתֶּם גַּם אֹתִי.
Exod 12:31 He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship YHWH as you said! 12:32 Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”
Even after all this, however, Pharaoh does not offer to free the Israelites for good, but only for the requested festival. Officially, at least, this was the only demand Moses made of him, and Pharaoh makes specific reference to this request when he says “worship YHWH as you said.”
Nevertheless, as YHWH said to Moses at the beginning, he has no intention of having the Israelites return to Egypt. Moses has been lying to Pharaoh all the way through. Before trying to explain what the purpose of this lie may have been, we should turn to a second element in the exodus story which is also based on deception.
Leaving Egypt with Wealth
As part of God’s instructions to Moses in the wilderness, he tells Moses the following:
שמות ג:כאוְנָתַתִּי אֶת חֵן הָעָם הַזֶּה בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם. ג:כב וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם וְנִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 3:21 And I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed. 3:22 Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus despoiling the Egyptians.
There is some debate among commentators whether the word שאלה here means to request or to borrow. Nevertheless, in the context of God’s command it is likely the latter. Since Moses was to announce that the Israelites are merely going on a three-day holiday, the Israelites would appear to be asking for “holiday-ware.” The Israelites—or at least Moses and the elders—know that this is not true and that the goods will never be returned.
God states explicitly that by making this request, the Israelites will be able to despoil the Egyptians, and this is what is reported as the Israelites leave Egypt:
שמות יב:לה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת.יב:לו וַי־הֹוָה נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 12:35 The Israelites did Moses’ bidding and requested from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. 12:36 And YHWH disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they despoiled the Egyptians.
Chasing the Israelites
A lie about a three-day festival has a brief shelf-life and soon it becomes clear to the Egyptians that the Israelites are not going to return. When the Egyptians realize this, they give chase:
שמות יד:ה …וַיֵּהָפֵךְ לְבַב פַּרְעֹה וַעֲבָדָיו אֶל הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂינוּ כִּי שִׁלַּחְנוּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָבְדֵנוּ.
Exod 14:5 …The heart of Pharaoh and his courtiers turned against the people and they said, “What is this we have done, for we have released Israel from our service?”
This verse uses the verb עבד for “service,” the same verb repeated time and time again about Israel wanting to serve YHWH in the wilderness, and is likely meant as a play on words. The verse suggests that some point after three days, Pharaoh and the Egyptians realize they have been tricked, and then chase after the Israelites, only to be drowned in the Sea.
Rashi, basing himself on the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael’s reading of the opening of this verse, already intuited this point:
ויגד למלך מצרים – איקטורין שלח עמהם, וכיון שהגיעו לשלשת ימים שקבעו לילך ולשוב וראו שאינן חוזרין למצרים, באו והגידו לפרעה.
“And it was told to the King of Egypt” – he sent officials with them, and once the three days that were designated to go and return had passed, and they saw that they weren’t returning to Egypt, they went and told the king.
Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508), in his gloss on Exodus 10, explicitly connects the Egyptian chase with the borrowed finery as well:
שהיא ענין הכרחי כדי שמצרים אח”כ ירדפו אחריהם בעבורה
It [=the borrowing] was necessary to ensure that the Egyptians chase after them [=the Israelites] to recover it [=borrowed goods].
In other words, it isn’t just that the Egyptians happen to chase the Israelites, but that this was part of the plan. By leading the Egyptian army to the Sea, God can then strike them all at once and drown them as a punishment for the pain they caused his people. As Dean Andrew Nicholas puts it, in his, The Trickster Revisited: “Trickery or deception does not bring about the Divine triumph over the Egyptians; it merely prods them into the ultimate trap.” (p. 68)
Humiliating the Egyptians with Trickery
The trick humiliates Pharaoh and the Egyptians, who began the Israelites’ enslavement by “outsmarting” them (הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ; Exod 1:10) by calling upon them to labor—a standard demand from a king in ancient times—and then keeping them in service perpetually (Exod 1:11-14). The Israelites outsmarting the Egyptians in turn may be intended as a tit for tat response.
In fact, Pharaoh’s explosive tantrums when faced with Moses’ brazen refusal to back down on any item, which demonstrate to Pharaoh that Moses is not negotiating in good faith, can all be considered part of this humiliation and ultimately, part of God’s punishment.
Trickery to Get Wealth: A Biblical Motif
The deception also seems to be part of a theme of trickery found elsewhere in the Torah, often in order to obtain wealth. For example, Jacob tricks Laban into an agreement giving him all the speckled or spotted sheep, all the while knowing that he can ensure the lambs are born looking that way (Gen 30:25–31:21).
Abraham Fools Pharaoh and Becomes Wealthy
An even better example: when Abraham goes to Egypt, he fools Pharaoh into thinking that Sarai is his sister, and Pharaoh pays handsomely for the privilege of marrying her. Once he takes her, however, he is struck with a plague and realizes what occurred—but too late to regain his silver, since he unwittingly crossed Abram’s god. Pharaoh has no choice but to have Abram take his wife back, and has him escorted out of Egypt with his newfound wealth (Gen 12:10-13:2).
The connection between the story of Abram and Pharaoh in Genesis and the story of the exodus was already noted by the Sages (Gen. Rab. 40; Theodor-Albeck ed.):
ר’ פינחס מש’ ר’ הושעיה אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאבינו אברהם צא וכבש את הדרך לפני בניך, ואת מוצא כל מה שכתוב באבינו אברהם כתוב בבניו…
R. Pinchas in the name of R. Hoshaiah said: “The Holy One, blessed be he, said to our father Abraham: ‘Go and pave the way for your descendants.’ For everything that is written about our father Abraham is written about his descendants…
This interpretation is quoted by Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides, 1194–1270) and R. Bahya ben Asher (ca. 1255–1340), in their glosses on Genesis 12:10, the former calling the Abraham story a “hint” (רמז) to what will happen with his descendants, and the latter invoking the principle “the fathers are a sign for the children” (האבות סימן לבנים).
Wealth as the Endgame for the Exodus
Only three chapters later, Abram and YHWH make a pact, the ברית בין הבתרים, “the covenant between the parts”:
בראשית טו:יגוַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.טו:יד וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.
Gen 15:13 And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; 15:14 but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth…”
This brief summary contains three main elements: slavery, judgment, and riches. God’s description ends not with freedom but with acquisition, implying that this was a key objective in allowing the Israelites to be enslaved. The trickery of the exodus story is closely connected to Abram’s trickery of Pharaoh: in both cases, the story ends with the protagonists leaving Egypt with great wealth.
The Centrality of the Deception Motif
Dean Andrew Nicholas summarizes the deception point:
The clear contradiction between the plan to deliver the people from Egypt and the instructions to ask for a mere three-day journey is not an editorial slip or an opening gambit. Rather, it is essential to a deceptive plot that would eventually release Israel, giving them the wealth of Egypt and destroying the enemy in the process. (p. 68)
Yet while this is true of the form the story takes now, I believe that this was not always the case, and that our story was constructed by an editor from two different traditions about the exodus.
Tricks and Plagues: A Narrative Logic Problem
In general, the point of using deception is to get one’s desired outcome without force. If force is used, little reason remains for using deception. Striking Egypt with plagues to force Pharaoh to consent, however, is using force.
To illustrate the point with a simple example, let’s imagine we want to steal someone’s money. We can take a deceptive route, such as tricking him into logging onto a fake website with his bank passwords. Alternatively, we can take the person’s money by force, by putting a gun to his head and telling him to wire the money to our account or face the consequences. But why on earth would we go to the trouble of making a fake website that looks like his bank’s website only to hold a gun to his head and tell him to sign in?!
Yet this is essentially what God does by telling Moses to lie about merely going on a holiday, then telling Moses that Pharaoh won’t fall for it so God will have to plague Egypt to get what he wants. So why have Moses lie then?
The theme of borrowing has similar problems. After experiencing the plagues, why would the Egyptians be favorably or kindly disposed toward the Israelites, lending them their gold, silver, and clothes? Especially since the Egyptians are describes as forcing Israel out:
שמות יב:לג וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל הָעָם לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן הָאָרֶץ כִּי אָמְרוּ כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים.
Exod 12:33 The Egyptians forced the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, “We shall all be dead.”
Why not simply demand their clothing and jewels in a straightforward manner, now that the Egyptians fear they are all about to die? Moreover, even once they realize it was a trick, why would they chase the Israelites into the wilderness to recapture them, after having experienced the frightening and deadly power of their god?
Two Versions of the Exodus Story
One way to explain this narrative logic problem is to suggest that the author of the (non-Priestly) exodus story was working with two different traditions. In one version (E), Moses is sent to release the Israelites by force. He does so by striking the Egyptians with plagues until the Egyptians literally force them out of their land.
In the other version (Proto-J), Moses is sent to trick Pharaoh, by telling him that the Israelites only wish to go on a three-day holiday. Pharaoh agrees to this, and the Israelites ask their neighbors for finery and leave. When Pharaoh realizes that this was a lie, he and the Egyptians chase the Israelites and are drowned in the sea.
Samuel Loewenstamm, late professor of Bible at The Hebrew University, noted that this motif must have begun independently of the plague story:
It can only be regarded as a relic of an old tradition—whether of a ruse by which Israel got permission to leave Egypt, or of a more general tradition about Israel’s helplessness there—that left no room for the bold notion that Israel simply presented an outright demand to be emancipated.
A later editor/author (RJE) combined the two stories, but he needed to reconceptualize the deception. If YHWH was going to plague the Egyptians, and Pharaoh was going to keep refusing until the plagues entirely destroyed his country, then what was the trick for? It was this problem that led the later J scribe to have Moses mock Pharaoh, in effect, with a request that Pharaoh suspects to be false but which his people believe and he is powerless to refuse.
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January 10, 2019
January 18, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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