Friday, April 22, 2016

No Exodus, And Maybe Moses

Passover starts today. According to the Torah[1] the holiday is the annual commemoration of the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. It’s a great story, but the problem is that it’s almost certainly a story. It doesn’t hold together, and that’s even without getting into the magical elements, but the whole thing is more mythic account than clear reporting. It’s a story.

The first little hint is that we now know that the Egyptians used contract labor to build their pyramids.[2] No slaves. The phrase “for we were contract laborers in Egypt” just lacks something. There’s no indication that the contract laborers were some sort of foreign presence either. But someone could argue that the records of all this were lost.[3] Not gonna wash.

The bigger problem comes at the other end, where all the archeological evidence of Bronze-Age Israel indicates a standard slow rise of populations (with the occasional falls due to the usual, followed by slow rise). No big jumps in population because a major group suddenly came in, or city suddenly being established that didn’t start out as much smaller communities.[4] As you add up the evidence, it seems clear that there was no Exodus.

No Exodus, but what about Moses? Well, he does have an Egyptian name, or at least part of one, as that -moses ending seems to be related to the the Egyptian for “born of,” as in Thutmose or Ramesses, so there may have been some sort of Egyptian leader of the Hebrews. Kinda embarrassing if your great national story involves a foreign leader. Imagine if the first President of the United States was the Marquis de Lafayette and not Samuel Huntington.[5]

There’s also something of a strange story going on in Exodus, an artifact of its Eloist and Priestly sources. Moses is the hero of the Eloist version of the story, while Aaron is the hero of the Priestly version. You get this weird overlap of bits that are favorable to one or other, or you get the two doing similar things. The narrative that has come down to us, represents the eventual triumph of the Aaronite priesthood, while not completely writing the tales of the Mushite priesthood from the story. Unlike the Moses story, Aaron isn’t given any sort of Egyptian backstory (or any at all, really).[6]

If there’s no Exodus and two brothers turn out to be rival priestly groups (making their founders brothers is a good way to paper over the duplication in their stories), what about the Egyptians? Where were they? They in Canaan.

The Torah makes it clear on several occasions that the Egyptians gave the land of Canaan to the descendants of Joseph and his people, in other words: Israel. To put it another way, mighty Egypt established a client kingdom in coastal Canaan. Yeah, but where’s the archeological evidence for that? It’s not like we’re finding Egyptian sarcophagi in Israel, right?

Except we do. The flip side of the lack of evidence the presence of Hebrews in Egypt is the unmistakable evidence for the presence of Egyptians in Israel. That’s something you don’t seem to hear much about. It wasn’t until I traveled to Israel that I saw a mummy case from the Canaanite period. It was a “why did no one tell me about this?” moment. Then we travelled to Bet She’an and stood in the remains of the Egyptian governor’s palace, the center of regional rule for about three centuries.

About 1150 BCE, the site was destroyed by fire, for which (says Wikipedia) “the exact circumstances are unclear.” I would propose that during a time of instability in Egypt, when perhaps the garrisons were called home to defend the kingdom, there was a local uprising. Perhaps even an Egyptian official (a guy names [something]moses) got involved. When the dust settled and the Egyptians realized that reconquest of Canaan was not a good allocation of resources, the political map had changed.

Without an Exodus, the coastal Canaanites had a new identity, perhaps this was even a step on the path from polytheism towards monotheism (maybe the priests of El were particularly involved and took it as an opportunity to suppress rival cults).

There was no Exodus, and perhaps no Moses, and yet we gather to tell this fiction. And that’s okay. The story reminds us not only that freedom is good, but that it’s also be the oppressor. Many people would be happy to obtain their freedom at the cost of another’s (or even perceived security at someone else’s cost), but the Passover story reminds us that we should be neither the slave nor the overseer.

[I’ve written better, but I’m trying to squeeze this in during Passover preparations. I am thinking of this as a first draft version. Next year, for revisions!]

  1. That is, the first five books of the Bible.
  2. Payment included beer.
  3. Despite that we still have the beer records.
  4. We have a word for small communities being taken over by a large non-native population. Conquest.
  5. Huntington was the President of Congress after the Articles of Confederation. Prior to that, he had been president of the Continental Congress (although he was not the last of those). Wikipedia does not that under the Articles of Confederation, the President was not an executive, merely the presiding member of a legislative body, more akin to Speaker of the House or Senate President.
  6. Aaron makes a surprise entry in Exodus.  ↩

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