Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Exodus: Myth, Legend or Truth?‎

Is the story in the Bible of the Exodus a myth? More than probably yes. The actual question should be, “Is it based on a cumulative of several narratives?” The answer is yes more than probably. Remember the first five Books of the Bible are based on "Oral Tradition" since the earliest examples of written Paleo-Hebrew date from the 10th century BCE, in the form of primitive drawings.

Now let us examine the possible proofs of the myth that is the Passover narrative described in the Exodus.

The only contemporary Egyptian source which actually mentions Israel is the stele (pillar with inscription) of King Merneptah from the fifth year of his reign (1207 B.C.E.), recording among his many victories: "Carved off is Ashkelon, seized upon in Gezer…Israel is laid waste, his seed
no more."
 This inscription implies that an entity named Israel existed in Canaan at the time, yet it is difficult to determine precisely what it was. One thing, however, may be regarded as certain: if the Israelites indeed emerged out of Egypt, their migration took place before the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E.

In the Leiden Museum in Holland there is a papyrus that was written at the end of the Middle Kingdom, around 1650 B.C.E. that was found in Egypt. It is called, “The Admonitions of an Egyptian” written by an Egyptian known as Ipuwer. Scribes copied it in the 19th Dynasty, in the 1200s B.C.E. In his story Ipuwer recount plagues described in the Bible. (The biblical plagues befell the Egyptians at the time of Moses and the Exodus, which has been dated sometime between (1570 to 1290 B.C.E.) The disparity of the dates between the Ipuwer and the story of the Exodus is enough to convince many scholars that there is no relation exists between the two but the similarities of the plagues mentioned are striking.

One of the most contentious problems regarding the Exodus investigation is the fact that there is no archeological evidence for various places mentioned in the biblical travel itinerary of the Israelites as they fled Egypt for the Promised Land in Canaan. A number of biblical sites have been corroborated by Egyptian map sources done in the Late Bronze age, in Dynasties XVIII and XIX between 1560-1200 B.C.E while most date the Exodus in the range of 1400-1200 B.C.E.  Among the sites recorded are; Dibon (Numbers 13:45), a city where the Israelites' camped on their way to invade Canaan, and Hebron (Numbers 13:22), another city targeted for invasion, Iyyn and Abel (biblical Abel Shittim) both in Numbers 13: 45-50; Yom haMelach (Numbers 34:3); and Athar (Hebrew Atharim) (Numbers 21:1). This evidence is strong that these cities did indeed exist at the time of the Exodus since they are found on the temple walls of ancient Egyptian kings. Most importantly they are documented in the most important extra-biblical source Egypt.

Is the story of Joseph as a Hebrew advisor to Egyptian kings in the narrative of the Bible at the time of the Exodus true? A tomb dated to around 1353-1335 B.C.E.  in the Saqqara region of Egypt was originally discovered by the legendary archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie in the 1880s belonged to a man called Aper-el, the Egyptian version of a Hebrew name. This Aper-el (El-being the Hebrew reference to God indicating that this advisor was a Hebrew/Jew) was a vizier to the famous Amenhotep III (1370-1293 B.C.E., 18th Dynasty) and later to his son, the monotheistic king Akhenaten. In the book of Genesis, Joseph rose from captive to be second only to the Pharaoh, and he was empowered to save Egypt from starvation during a seven-year drought.
Was Aper-el/Aperia indeed a Hebrew advisor to the young king Akhenaten? If so, did Aper-el/Aperia influence Akhenaten's thinking toward monotheism? In any case, it would place a Hebrew advisor to the kings within the range of years claimed for the Exodus just as Joseph was to an Egyptian king hundreds of years earlier.

Next, there is a papyrus from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, about 1740 B.C.E. possibly from Thebes, in the Brooklyn Museum which contains a list of slaves. On the list is a slave named Shifra and others with Semitic names. As the Exodus narrative goes in the Bible, a Hebrew woman with the same name, Shifra, was one of two midwives the Pharaoh commissioned to kill all the male Hebrew children at the time Moses was born (Exodus 1:15).  

As Jews our prayer book contains the phrases zecher l’ma’asei bereshit and zecher litziyat mitzrayim — “to commemorate the acts of Creation” and “to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.” Just as the Shabbat Kiddush consists of two paragraphs. The first recounts Creation; the second, the Exodus. So why remember and commererate things that didn't happen?

Apparently God (or, if you prefer, whoever gave the Ten Commandments) thought the Exodus significant enough to open the Ten Commandments with reference to one event — the Exodus: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” Even one who doesn’t believe that God gave the Ten Commandments would have to explain why reference to something that never happened would so move the ancient Israelites. In addition, the two versions of the Ten Commandments — the one from God in Exodus and the one from Moses in Deuteronomy — differ with regard to the reason for Shabbat. The first version’s reason is the Creation (by keeping the Shabbat, we reaffirm weekly that God created the world); the second version’s reason is the Exodus (“You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” — and only free people can have a day of rest each week).

So as a story, "Why do we Jews have it?" People don't make up stories like that, certainly not about themselves. So there must be some truth behind the story so that we can be proud of it. There's nothing like a good legend to lift a nation's confidence. That's why most peoples of the world claim to have powerful forebears, like great kings and mighty warriors. "So why do we Jews claim to have come from such lowly and ignoble origins. What purpose could that have served? Why would people invent an embarrassing legend about themselves? Yet we Jews proudly declare a most undignified beginning: we began as a slave nation. Every year we retell the Exodus saga, and say: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." Even the escape from Egypt cannot be accredited to our own power: "G-d took us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." G-d had to "reach out" and save us. Such an un-heroic heritage!

So while those who proclaim to be the descendants of demi-gods are today subjects for archaeologists and historians. The children of Israel, descendants of simple slaves, are alive and thriving. The message of Passover to us as Jews is that there is no need to cover up our humble beginnings. The Jewish belief is that greatness is not a thing of our past; it is with us now and it will be with us in the future ahead of us.

So was the story of the Passover and of the Exodus a “Morality Play” as is with many of the stories of the Bible meant to teach the uneducated? More than probably yes. The story of the Exodus of the Jewish people was meant to inspire, not by glorying in an illustrious past, but rather by promising a brighter future. We the Hapiru –the ancient Hebrews were slaves, but we have a destiny to bring freedom to all the oppressed people of the world.