Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A People in Search for a History, Pt. 5

The Exodus

Ask anyone in my generation about the exodus and a movie  immediately comes to our minds. Yeah.
Charlton Heston. Yul Bryner. Towering waves. A romantic triangle between Moses, Rameses, and Nefertiri. Huge armies and spectacular panoramas of Egypt. If that was the exodus, any thought that this exodus actually happened seems silly. It's a movie, for goodness sake!

   But if you saw the movie as I did on the big screen rather on television last Easter season, you may remember the producer and director Cecil B. DeMille stepping out on a bare stage to speak to movie-goers about the background of the story. (This preamble is usually skipped on TV.)

   I was vaguely aware of the biblical story before seeing DeMille and the movie, and I remember thinking: There's more here than I remember from Sunday school. Fifty years later when I watched the entire film again, this time on DVD, I was again intrigued by what DeMille knew of Moses that the Bible does not relate.

   Where did he get the additional information?

   Some of it came from Josephus Antiquities, Book II some from Philo Judaeus Philo. Today as we read these texts, the first impression is that there is a lot of hype, literary license, and a clear apologetic purpose.  But there is also information that cannot be accounted for by creative license, filling in the sparse narrative of the biblical narrative, or by allegory (Philo). There are pieces that are intended to be read as factual and which seem to have required sources outside the Bible.

   What were those sources?

   Jospehus refers to several of his sources in Contra Apion. They include a quotation from an Egyptian priest-historian Manetho writing from about 300 B.C. (see Josephus' quote of Manetho Manetho). Egyptologist Dr. Donald B. Redford writes in Pharaonic King Lists, Annals and Day Books (Benben Publications, 1986) "we may with confidence postulate for the material in his history a written source found in the [Egyptian] temple library, and nothing more." But we can postulate that, and infer that written sources were purely Egyptian without dependence upon the biblical account.

  Josephus also includes a reference to Chaeremon of Alexandria (mid-first century A.D.) who, as a Egyptian historian, wrote about the Egyptian history of Moses. His account of Moses and Manetho's agree sufficiently to say that they are the same story, but they differ in significant details so that we may infer they depended upon different sources.

   Josephus and Philo may have been DeMille's sources, but they were not the only ancient writers to mention Moses. Wiki Moses  It turns out that Moses and the exodus is a very durable story in ancient history. It is true that Greek and Egyptian writers portray Moses as a mythical or legendary character. BUT THE CORRELATION IN THE CORE OF THE STORIES POINT TO A LITERAL PERSON AND TO THE EXODUS AS A HISTORICAL EVENT.

Before Moses

   Here we return to the biblical account and to the history of Egypt.

   The book of Exodus begins with the backstory of the people of Israel in Egypt. Sometime after Joseph brought his family to Egypt during the time of Asiatic  (Hyksos) migration in the early 2nd millennium B.C. a new king came to the throne who "knew not Joseph." ("Knew not" may mean had no respect for rather than did not know about.)
8 Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. 9 And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: 10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land. (Exodus 1)

   This would have been after the Egyptians under Pharaoh Ahmose I (reign 1570-1546) expelled the Hyksos Pharaohs and the Asiatic people of Avaris in 1550 B.C. At that time Ahmose I and Thutmose I (reign 1520-1492)  in several campaigns north along the coast of the Levant pursued the Hyksos as far as the Euphrates River in Syria and sought to make the borders of Egypt firm against any reinvasion of the Hyksos.

   Much of the focus of the Pharaohs in the years after the expulsion of the Hyksos was defensive. They feared the return of the Hyksos. It is understandable that the Egyptian Pharaohs would have seen any remaining Asiatics in Egypt, including the people of Israel, as potential enemies.

   Consequently, the Pharaohs established measures to reduce and control the Asiatic (Canaanite and
Israelite) and Nubian people who had allied with the Hyksos rulers. This mural painted on the walls of the tomb of Rekhmire, the Egyptian vizier (or prime minister) in the mid-15th century B.C.E. illustrate the practice of forced labor during the reign of Thutmose III (reign 1458-1425). Center for Online Jewish Studies The painting includes both Asiatic and Nubian slaves. This is at precisely the traditional time of the exodus and is described in Exodus 1:
11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1)

   Moses and the Exodus

   As noted above, there is adequate reference to Moses or a Moses-like character in Egyptian sources in addition to the biblical text to conclude that Moses was a literal, historical person. There is adequate reference to conclude that he was seen by the Egyptian Pharaohs as a threat and that the Egyptians expelled him and the people of the upper eastern Nile Delta from Egypt. In other words, there is adequate evidence to affirm as historical an exodus of the Israelite people, or a portion of the Israelite people, at about the time that has been traditionally assigned to the exodus, 1450 B.C. But the exodus itself?

   The biblical account of the exodus, however, still seems exaggerated. Six hundred thousand men on foot plus women and children and baggage leaving Egypt in mass is extreme. The lack of evidence for a forty-year trek through the desert or an encampment at Kadesh Barnea for "many days," not to speak of two  million people in the desert, leaves archaeologists skeptical. The opposition from the people of Edom, a people far fewer in number than the estimated two million Israelites and the details of life and organization in the desert, leave biblical scholars puzzled. They don't seem to make sense if there were two million people. And there are other anomalies. But...

  The large numbers in the biblical text are really not a surprise. Egyptian literature ascribes equally large numbers to their own armies in various campaigns. There were four hundred-eighty thousand soldiers who laid siege the Hyksos capital of Avaris according to Manetho in Josephus:

"The shepherds [Hyksos] had built a wall surrounding this city, which was large and strong, in order to keep all their possessions and plunder in a place of strength.
Tethmosis, son of Alisphragmuthosis, attempted to take the city by force and by siege with four hundred and eighty thousand men surrounding it. But he despaired of taking the place by siege, and concluded a treaty with them, that they should leave Egypt, and go, without any harm coming to them, wherever they wished. After the conclusion of the treaty they left with their families and chattels, not fewer than two hundred and forty thousand people, and crossed the desert into Syria. (Against Apion, Book 1, section 73)
   Exaggeration? Maybe not.

   Though the numbers in this campaign, for which there is ample historical evidence, seem exaggerated to us, it is possible they are not. Ahmose's campaign against the Hyksos may well have taken the larger part of the men under arms in Upper Egypt, the Theban Pharaoh's kingdom.

   It is likewise possible that the  number of Israelites who left Egypt under Moses a century later were, in fact, "six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children" (Exodus 12:37). Manetho writes that the people of Avaris (the presumed Israelites) were aided by two hundred thousand men from those who had been previously expelled to Jerusalem (Against Apion, Book 1, section 227). Those men would have considerably increased the number of Israelites.

   Josephus continuing to quote Manetho writes that the Egyptians mustered "three hundred thousand of the most warlike Egyptians against the enemy," which in this case was the people gathered to Osarsiph, the man Josephus identifies as Moses. Three hundred thousand would not be out of line with the biblical account that states Pharaoh took "six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them" (Exodus 14:7).

   Our present knowledge of Egypt calls into question the accuracy of Manetho's history. He seems to conflate several different events, and he doesn't seem to have the kings identified correctly. Even Josephus considered Manetho's history inaccurate and an anti-Semitic polemic. But if Manetho was using numbers he found in more ancient Egyptian texts, the numbers may have reflected an older tradition, and related to the biblical account of the exodus, the numbers found in Exodus at least fit the custom of the ancient writers to insert large numbers when writing about military campaigns.

   Bottom line, the large numbers do not make the biblical narrative unhistorical any more than the large numbers make the Egyptian siege of Avaris unhistorical.

   In addition, the story of the Israelites in Sinai is plausible. If the route taken by the fleeing Israelites took them to south central Sinai, as the tradition biblical description recommends,  "they would have found a reasonably adequate water supply and a relatively comfortable climate that makes it possible to maintain a daily lifestyle suitably adapted to the conditions of the desert." Itzhaq Beit Arieh  


   Other details and sometimes lack of details in the biblical narrative of the exodus are still puzzling. Were the forty years of wandering symbolic or literal? Where did their journey take them? Is Jebal el Lawz in Arabia a better fit for Mt. Sinai than Nebal Musa in the southern Sinai? What were the Egyptians doing? Were they simply glad to get rid of the rebels? Neither the Bible nor Egyptian history give us enough information to answer those questions.

   But the core of the exodus narrative, correlated as it is with Egyptian texts, reliefs, and archaeological evidence for Israel in Canaan in the centuries following the exodus, seems very probable. 

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