Dear Readers: As a tribute to blog-mother, the Anchoress, I an honoring this Passover holiday with a review of the archeological evidence of Moses in ancient Egypt. I hope that I can do this for future holidays as well, as I am inspired by the serenity the Anchoress and her writings.
Many times, it has been my honor to be a Christian guest in Jewish homes during the Passover holiday. Because of her kindness this year, I would also like to dedicate today’s piece to my mother-in-law, who hosted my son and myself to a fine celebration. It was a brilliant start to our Easter-week celebrations.
Also, I never miss an Easter Season without watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. In fact, the introduction of this movie is worth watching today. DeMille’s introduction to his 1956 movie asks: “Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God?”
In fact, one of the most haunting images of my childhood was the Angle of Death mist slaying the Egyptian first born (about minute 1:30 of this clip). (MUT Note – this always makes me sad, given my great devotion to Egypt).
The Exodus, told so beautifully in the movie, is probably well known to all. Moses escaped Pharaoh’s attempt at infanticide when his Hebrew mother sent him down the Nile in a basket. Moses is then adopted by an ancient Egyptian princess. Eventually, Moses flees Egypt, encounters God, and comes back to free his fellow Hebrews. After Moses calls down 9 plagues on the Egyptians, the Pharaoh frees the Hebrews after the tenth plague takes his first-born son. The Hebrews leave Egypt via a parting Red Sea, then wander 40 years before they establish a homeland.
There is limited evidence for the Exodus, based on the Egyptian records. Needless to say, the Egyptians did not routinely record defeat. Humorously, a professor of Biblical archeology notes that is is not as if the Egyptians would write:
“A spokesman for Rameses the great, Pharaoh of Pharaohs, supreme ruler of Egypt, son of Ra, before whom all tremble in awe blinded by his brilliance, today announced that the man Moses had kicked his royal butt for all the world to see, thus proving that God is Yahweh and the 2,000-year-old culture of Egypt is a lie.”
(ref: Peter Feinman, “Drama of the Exodus,” Bible Review, February 1991, p.29)
And the Exodus was not immediately important to the rest of the world – just the Hebrews (who made the initial record) and the Egyptians (who did not promote the story). However, there are some elements of the story that are backed-up by Egyptian history and culture.
• The cities that the Hebrews were making, Pithom and Ramses, were real. Ramses the Great (aka, Ramses II, referred to as Ramses in the remaining essay), the probable pharaoh of the Exodus, was moving Egypt’s military, trade and financial centers closer to the Delta and the main trade routes of the Mediterranean. In fact, some of the most exciting archeology currently in Egypt is occurring at these cites. His palaces and temples, which would have been fabulous, unfortunately have sunk in the moist Delta soil (the temples in southern Egypt are far better preserved, including Ramses’ Abu Simbel). Teams are slowly digging out statues, temple stones, and other items.
• The Delta is exactly where the Israelites were stationed (Tel ed-Dab’a, as discussed above).
• These cities would have been primarily made of brick, as non-religious, functional buildings would not have been made of stone.
• The Red Sea is a mistranslation of – Sea of Reeds. This is the muddy area of the Delta that is crossed as you leave Egypt and go east. It would have been very challenging for cavalry to effectively cross that area in pursuit of fleeing Hebrews. In fact, the area is so hard to fight in, the Egyptians actually won their only real naval victory there, against the Sea Peoples, in a later dynasty.
• Egyptians used straw to make brick; people from Canaan did not. Therefore, if Israelites were using straw, it was under Egyptian influence.
• There is a passage that the midwives of ancient Egypt were told to watch the “two-stones”, in order to kill the male Hebrew infants. Two stones are actually what ancient Egyptians used for birthing stools – functional, if not comfortable.
• “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” is a concept/expression that is classically ancient Egyptian – as the actual organ of thought was deemed to have been the heart.
• The sticks-into-serpents trick is actually doable today by Egyptian magicians at any bazaar today.
• “Moses” is the actual ancient Egyptian word for “birth”. If an Egyptian princess wanted to highlight the “fact” that she had a son, this would have been a reasonable name to give him.
• There is a papyrus that indicates Ramses priests should distribute grain to the Apiru who are transporting stones. ‘Apiru” is remarkable similar in sound to Hebrew.
• The stela of Meneptah (1207 BC), is important evidence. Merneptah is the 13th son and successor to Ramses. The stela says: “Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe; Ashkelon has been overcome…..Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more”. The term used in conjunction with Israel is not “country” but translates roughly into “group of people”. At this point, the Israelites are still wandering.
• Counting backwards from the above date, Exodus would have taken place around year 20 of Ramses’ reign. This is about the year Ramses’ first son and heir, Amen-her-khepshef actually died.
Please see these sites for related reading:
The Exodus out of Egypt:Archaeology Basically Confirms Biblical History
Biblical Archeology – Passages Concerning Moses
And, finally, a new favorite site: EGYPTOMANIA