JEWS AND MOSES AND ANCIENT EGYPT

EGYPT, ISRAEL, MOSES AND HISTORY

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Egyptian dynasties and the Bible
Neither Moses or the Exodus is described in ancient Egyptian records, which are fairly extensive. There are references to “Asiatic” slaves in Egypt that may have been a reference to the Israelites. An Egyptian stele found in 1990 and dated to 1207 B.C., recounting the military victory of Pharaoh Merneptah, says, "Israel is laid waste." But other than that there is little evidence of even the Israelites existing in Moses’s time. No evidence comes from the Israelites themselves because they were a nomadic people with no material culture for archaeologists to dig up In any case the exodus from Egypt was a central event of the Bible. It is referred to not only in the Pentateuch but also in Prophets and the Psalms. Many historians feel that it marked the consolidation of the Hebrew tribes into a single nation and people.

The Exodus---if it happened--- is believed to have occurred around 1290 B.C., which roughly corresponds with the era of the Trojan War and the rule of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. The Exodus was written along with many other parts of the Old Testament in the 7th century B.C. during the reign of King Josiah of Judah.

Some scholars believe the concept of monotheism dates to Moses time rather than Abraham’s time. Monotheism appeared in Egypt under the pharaoh Akhenaten (1388 B.C. to 1336 B.C.), who lived rough 50 years before the time that Moses is thought to have been alive. Akhenaten attempted to introduce a form of monotheism to ancient Egypt. After his death there was a period of chaos and instability and for a while Egypt was ruled by high priests.

According to the Bible, Joseph and the Israelites were welcomed into Egypt by a pharaoh around the 16th century B.C. after their homeland in Canaan was stricken by drought and famine. Between 1630 and 1521 B.C., Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos, a Semitic people from western Asia. Some scholars have suggested the Hyksos may have included Israelites. Egyptian chronicles later refer to a people called the “Apiru,” which some scholars believe may have included the Hebrews and Israelites.

In Egypt, the Israelites were enslaved, a fate which they endured more than 300 years. The Egyptians "made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks." When the pharaoh viewed the Israelites as a threat he ordered that all male children be killed at birth by throwing them in the Nile. Cuneiform tablets refer ancient nomads for the Near Eat that were put to work building places and temples. Archaeologists believe that the Israelites were include in these nomadic groups.

The 19th Egyptian dynasty was founded in 1335 B.C. at a time when the Egyptian empire was breaking up as result of pressure from the Hittite Empire to the north. Some scholars have suggested that the Israelites may have been enslaved during this period by the Egyptians because they may have presented a threat.

Many scholars believe Ramses the Great (Ramses II, ruled 1279 to 1213 B.C.) was one of the pharaohs described in the story of Moses---either the Pharaoh of the Oppression, who enslaved the Israelites, or the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who pursued them into the sea after the Ten Plagues. Many scholars believe the pharaoh mentioned in Exodus was Ramses II (ruled 1279 to 1213). In the historical record there is no mention of Israel until the reign of Ramses son and successor Mernetah. By then Israel was a nation, not a group of displaced people.

Jews in Egypt

Grace Glueck wrote in the New York Times, “Led by Moses, the Jews fled en masse from Egypt around 1250 B.C., after centuries of bondage. So says the Bible's book of Exodus. But later books -- II Kings and Jeremiah -- report that 800 years later, during the fifth century B.C., Jews were once again living and worshiping there. The later biblical account was confirmed by the 1893 discovery of hundreds of papyrus scrolls from a settlement on Elephantine Island in the Nile. These scrolls were the centerpiece of a show held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2002 called ''Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt: A Family Archive From the Nile Valley.'' [Source: Grace Glueck, New York Times, March 15, 2002]

The scrolls, written in Aramaic, the daily language of Egyptian Jews and Persians, include a marriage contract, a deed of release from slavery, real estate transactions and a loan agreement, but no other objects associated with the family exist. The documents are important in that not only do they confirm the return of Jews to Egypt but also because it points up the good relationships among the various ethnic groups who inhabited the small island. Under the religiously tolerant Persians who ruled Egypt at the time, members of these groups were serving on Elephantine as mercenary forces guarding the country's southern frontier.

Not Ananiah, the scrolls' original owner, however. For 47 years (from 449 to 402 B.C.) he was a member of the Jewish priesthood attached to the Temple of Yahou (Jehovah), where animal sacrifices took place. And what were Jews doing back in Egypt? They were descendants of those who had fled from the Babylonians, who had conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and consigned the Jewish elite to exile in Babylonia. Those who made it to Egypt were the soldiers and common people, who practiced a more rudimentary form of Judaism that still involved the worship of more than one god.

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Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream
Ananiah first comes to notice in a marriage document dated Aug. 9, 449 by the Aramaic calendar, that legalized his union with Tamut, an Egyptian woman whose father had sold her to Meshullam, a not uncommon practice in payment of debts. By the time they got around to wedlock, the couple already had a 6-year-old son, not an unusual circumstance for that time and place. The contract freed their son, Palti, from slavery, but not Tamut.

Written by Aramaic scribes in proper legalese, all the contracts were signed by witnesses, who seemed to have some literacy. Ananiah's wedding contract provided a small dowry from Tamut, including a wool garment worth seven shekels, a mirror, a pair of sandals and six handfuls of castor oil. This civilized document also declared that if Ananiah wanted a divorce, he had to pay Tamut, or vice versa, and that on the death of one, the other inherited their joint property.

Another important scroll, 427 B.C. and signed by Meshullam, releases Tamut and the couple's daughter, Yehoishema, from their bondage to him. ''You are freed to God,'' says the declaration, on the condition that Tamut and her daughter look to the welfare of Meshullam and his son Zakkur for life. In 437 B.C., 12 years after his marriage, Ananiah bought a house from Bagazust, a Persian soldier, and his wife. The rather decrepit property was in a town called Khnum, named for an Egyptian god, right across the street from the temple. The sale is recorded in a third papyrus scroll, assuring clear title to the house, which is described as having a court, standing walls and windows, but no beams.

Four more scrolls are concerned with gifts of various parts of the house to Tamut and Yehoishema by Ananiah, and then the sale of the house, in 402 B.C., to Yehoishema's husband, also named Ananiah. (By this time the house had beams and two doors.) The last of the scrolls, dated 402 B.C., is a receipt for the borrowing of two months' rations of grain by the son-in-law -- at no interest, but with a penalty for failure to repay on time -- from Pakhnum, an Aramaean. Despite the expulsion of the Persians two years earlier, good business relations apparently continued between Jews and other ethnic groups.

Art with a Jewish connection from ancient Egypt include a quirky sarcophagus lid (664-332 B.C.) topped by an expressive relief face said to be from a Jewish cemetery at Tura, Egypt.

Moses's Early Life

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Pharaoh's Daughter Receives the Mother of Moses
According to the Bible and the Torah, Moses was born in Egypt to immigrant parents of the servant: Abraham and Jochebed from the Hebrew Levi tribe. After being hidden for three months, Moses was placed by his mother and sister in "an ark of bulrushes, and dabbed it with slime and pitch" and set afloat on the Nile after the Pharaoh issued an edict declaring all male infants born to Israeli slaves had to be killed.”

Christians and Jews believe Moses was discovered in the bulrushes by the Pharaoh's daughter. Muslims say he was found by the Pharaoh wife. According to the Judeo-Christian story, after being rescued Moses was adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter and was brought up as a prince in the Egyptian royal court where most likely, if the story is based in fact, he would have learned to read hieroglyphics and ride a chariot just as Ramses the Great at King Tutankhamun had. The Bible provides few details. When Moses was a young man he was informed of his true identity by his sister Miriam.

The tale of Moses’ youth resembles old folk stories from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Middle East. According to an ancient Assyrian narrative about the Mesopotamian king Akkad, who lived a thousand years before Moses, "My priestly mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen sealed my lid." In the Egyptian tale of the God Horas his mother Isis hid him from his wicked uncle Seth.

When Moses was three, one episode of his story goes, he snatched the crown off the Pharaoh's head. Dumbfounded, the Pharaoh decided to devise a test to see if Moses realized what he had done. Two plates were placed before the child: one with gold and one with red-hot coals. If he chose the gold one he was to be put to death. If he chose the one with coals he would be spared as "one without knowledge of his acts." Fortunately for him he grabbed the hot one, but unfortunately he stuck it in his mouth and seared his tongue, leaving him with halting speech.”

Moses is Forced to Flee Egypt

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Menephthah, the Pharaoh of the Exodus
Moses was forced to flee from Egypt to the Sinai when he murdered an Egyptian man who was abusing a Jewish slave. According to the Torah, "And he spied an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, when he saw there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand." If he hadn't committed this crime it seems plausible that he would have had a distinguished career in the Pharaoh's court.

Moses fled to a land called Midian, in northwest Arabia, east of the Gulf of Aqaba. While in the desert he met his wife Zipporah, daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro, while she was drawing water from a well. Moses stood up for Jethro when other shepherds tried to shoo him away from the well. For this Jethro offered Moses his daughter. She soon bore Moses a son.

This episode has similarities to a story that circulated in the time of Ramses about a courtier named Sunuhe who fled to the desert and lived with some Bedouins after being blamed for the assassination of a Pharaoh.

Moses returned to Egypt and confronted the Pharaoh: "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go." When Moses first asked the Pharaoh to let his people go the Pharaoh responded by increasing the Israelites work load. Then, not only were they required to make and carry bricks, they also had to raise and harvest straw as binder for the bricks.”

Plagues of Egypt

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Death of the Pharaoh's first-born son
When the Pharaoh refused again the Ten Plagues of Egypt were unleashed on the land one after another. In the First the Nile turned to blood, a phenomena some scholars say might have been caused by red mud pouring down the river from Ethiopia. The plagues of frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease and bolis that followed, they say, are conditions usually associated with seasonal floods. The seventh plague, hail and fire, may have been a hailstorm with lightning or a volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean. The eight plague, locusts, still swarm from time to time. The three days of darkness that followed may have been a sandstorm.

In the tenth plague the firstborn of every Egyptian family was killed, even the pharaoh's oldest son. Exodus 12:29 in the Bible reads: "at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn of the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon." Historians have yet to find any evidence of this event.

Finally after the tenth plague the Pharaoh at last let Moses and the Israelites go. Before the plague struck Israelites were told to sacrifice a lamb and paint their doorways with its blood. Their homes were passed over by the plague, which is the origin of the Passover holiday. During Passover, Jews eat unleavened bread or matzo. The explanation for this tradition is that the Jews were forced to pack up and leave Egypt so quickly they didn't have time to leaven their bread.”

Moses and the Exodus

After the 10th plague and the observation of the first Passover, Moses and the Israelites embarked on their Exodus from the Land of Goshen in the Nile Delta in Egypt to the Promised Land. The Israelites at first were reluctant to have Moses lead them. There is little evidence of the Exodus. There are accounts of Egyptian raids into Palestine that brought back captives in the 12th century B.C. but there was no record of huge masses of people escaping and crossing the Sinai.

According to the Bible, the Israelites numbered some 600,000 adult males and their families: perhaps two million people. That is an awful lot of people to wandering around a desert with barely enough food to feed goats and Bedouins. Some scholar believe the 600,000 figures was actually taken from a census in Israel centuries later. Other scholars say the Hebrew word eleph which translate to thousand, may in fact mean "family." Some 600 families, with about a total of 1,500 people, seems like a more reasonable number.”

The route between Goshen in the Nile Delta in Egypt and the Promised Land in Canaan (Israel) crossed the Sinai Peninsula. Some scholars believe that Moses followed a northern route across the Sinai. Other say he took a southern route. Both point to the miracles of manna and quails to back up their argument.

Most of the geographic location described on the Books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are impossible to locate on a map. The journey began on the Nile Delta and ended on Mount Nebo in Jordan, a distance roughly equivalent to the distance between New York and Washington D.C.”

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Pharaoh pursues the Israelites

Most scholars believe that if the Exodus indeed took place the Israelites left the Nile Delta and entered the Sinai where the Suez Canal is today, which completely bypasses the Red Sea. Kadesh-barnes, where the Israelites stopped for 38 years before entering the Promised Land, is thought to be the oasis of Ayn al Qudayrat, near the Israeli city of Beersheba.

There are four major routes between Goshen and Kadesh-barnes. The Northern routes passes through a Sea of Reeds in the Mediterranean. The other three pass through a Sea of Reeds near the present-day Suez Canal. Of these, one route reaches southern Sinai while the other two pass through the center of the Sinai. From Kadesh-Barnea to Mt. Nebo the are two major routes

Proponents of the southern route theory say after skirting the Red Sea, the Israelites headed southeast to Great Bitter Lake and Little Bitter Lake, which are full of reeds and equated with the "Reed Sea." Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, is believed to be a 7,497-foot purple granite peak long called Gebel in the southern Sinai.

Moses and the Parting of the Red Sea

After the Israelites left Egypt the Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the Israelites go and sent an army in pursuit of them and cornered them at the Red Sea. To allow the Israelites to escape Moses parted the Red Sea. According to the Torah, "And the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on the right and on their left." When the Egyptian chariots pursued them the waters of the Red Sea collapsed and drowned them.

To explain the parting of the Red Sea some scientists suggest that Moses passed through the swampy region near where the Suez Canal is today. They speculate that if Moses arrived at a time when a strong low tide coincided with strong winds the Red Sea might "part" enough to be crossed on foot. When the Egyptians crossed the tides ebbed and winds died, swamping the pursuers.

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Drowning of the Pharaohs Host in the Red Sea

Adding further credence to this theory is the fact that the Hebrew phrase, Yam Suph , traditionally translated to "Red Sea," should actually be read as "Reed Sea." The Bitter Lakes, Lake Sirbonis (a Mediterranean lagoon now called Sabkhet el Bardowil) and Lake Manzala, where the water is shallow enough to be crossed on foot, both have lots of reeds.”

The victory song sung after a defeat of the Egyptian cavalry resembled Canaanite poems from the 14th century B.C.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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