Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pahro and Pharaoh

Statue of Hatshepsut, the female Pharaoh

About eight years ago, I went through a phase when I was very interested in researching the historical background of yetzias Mitzrayim. At this point, while I had my questions and doubts, I still mostly believed in what I had been taught in yeshiva. I was also newly interested in history – while I had discovered that I liked reading about history while in high school, I didn’t start reading history books instead of novels until I was in college.

What I found was fascinating.

If the Hebrew and secular calendars are adjusted for an apparent 165 year discrepancy a surprising number of things line up.

The New Kingdom period in Egypt begins at roughly the same time that the Jews were enslaved. The New Kingdom marks the point at which the Hyksos, a Semitic people that had ruled Egypt for a hundred years, were ousted by the Egyptians. It was indeed a new Pharaoh who was now ruling over Egypt, from a new dynasty and a different peoples than the one who was indebted to Yosef. This new ruling class would feel no obligation to the memory of someone who had been a collaborator with their former oppressors. If anything, it would give weight to their concerns related by the Chumash: that the Jews would side with the enemies of Egypt. In the Chumash, this concern seems to come out of the blue. Within its historical context, it makes sense. The Egyptians were concerned that the Semitic Jews would side with the recently deposed Semitic Hyksos, exactly as Yosef had done. The solution was to enslave all the Jews.

The Pharaoh into whose household Moshe is adopted is Ahmose. Mose, an Egyptian word that means “born of,” is both given by the Chumash as Moshe’s name and is the major component of the Pharaoh’s name.

The Chumash says that Pharaoh died, and the work became harder under the new Pharaoh. There is a medrash that says Pharaoh had leprosy, and would bathe in the blood of Jewish children to try to alleviate his condition. The Pharaoh who died was Thutmose II, whose mummy was found to be covered in lesions, evidence of a severe skin disease. He was succeeded by his teenage son Thutmose III, with Hatshepsut, Thutmose III’s mother (and Thutmose II’s wife AND sister) serving as regent. Hatshepsut quickly displaced her son and ruled as Pharaoh in her own right, the only woman ever to do so. To help solidify her rule she erected many monuments to herself which depicted her as male – monuments built by slaves.

The Pharaoh Moshe went to to demand the Jews’ freedom was Hatshepsut. Pharaoh didn’t die during makos bechoros, despite being a firstborn, because only the firstborn males died. Firstborn women did not.

In the early 1800s a document from about the same time as yetzias Mitzrayim was discovered in Memphis, Egypt. Called the Ipuwer Papyrus after its author, an Egyptian named Ipuwer, it described violent upheavals in Egypt: famine, drought, and slaves escaping with the Egyptians’ wealth.

After Hatshepsut’s death, Thutmose III had her monuments destroyed and all mentions of her chiseled off walls and steles. We only know of Hatshepsut because of the accidental discovery of her tomb. The popular theory is that Thutmose III had her memory erased as revenge for her displacing him as pharaoh. Might it also have been to erase the memory of an embarrassing defeat at the hand of the Egyptians’ former slaves? Could this mass erasure program also account for the lack of Egyptian records of the Jews living in Egypt?

About a century after Thutmose III, Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten, built a new capital city from scratch, and forced Egypt to adopt the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun-disc. (When he died, Egypt quickly reverted to worshiping its entire pantheon of gods, and Akhenaten’s new city was abandoned.) Was Amenhotep/Akhenaten inspired to monotheism by the recent display of power by a monotheistic god?

What I found made me feel confident that my frumkeit rested on solid ground. Even then, I wondered what an Egyptologist would make of the parallels I found, but it made me feel that my religion was rooted in historical fact.

Yet there were things that didn’t quite fit. According to the same timeline, the pyramids had been built a couple of centuries before the mabul! Some poking around online led me to one article that claimed the Great Sphinx, built about the same time as the pyramids at Giza, had horizontal weathering patterns consistent with flood damage. There was my answer: the pyramids HAD been built before the mabul – and had survived! I speculated that their size and heavy stone construction were what had saved them from the floodwaters. Happily, the same principle could be applied to other ancient monuments.

And yet…

The history of Egypt is not interrupted by a world-changing flood in the centuries after the construction of the Great Pyramids. There is no sudden gap in the record, no rediscovery and adoption of an ancient culture by new people such as would be expected to if nearly all of humanity was wiped out. Instead, Egyptian history flows smoothly, year after year, millennium after millennium, a continuous culture that lasted for some three thousand years.

Even yetzias Mitzrayim, the event for which I’d found plausible evidence, seems to have left no mark on Egyptian history. The reign of Thutmose III was not marked by a period of rebuilding from the devastation of the maakos and the shock of losing a huge number of slaves that must have been essential to a large part of the Egyptian economy. It was instead a period of conquest and increased prosperity.

Worse, if we are to take midrashim at face value, as I had done for many of my points above, we also had to take at face value to medrash that says that Hashem killed four-fifths of the Bnei Yosroel during maakos choshech. That would mean that Hashem killed some twelve million people for the crime of not wanting to leave the only life their families had known for generations and follow an Egyptian prince into the desert.

In the long run, I’m not sure if this particular foray into biblical historicity was a net gain or loss for my religiosity, but this way of relating to biblical stories – expecting them to conform to other known facts about the world – was terribly harmful to my emunah. There is something to be said for the approach that non-Torah knowledge is to be avoided and that the Torah is right and everything that might contradict it, up to and including our own senses, is wrong. Such an epistemology is maddening to anyone who doesn’t already accept it, and is based on circular logic, but it is effective at keeping people within the fold. For me, trying to make the Torah fit with the world we know was what eventually led me to conclude that it is best understood as mythology rather than history.


  1. I think the core of the Biblical story is quite plausible and compatible with this version of Egyptian history, but not the details. If you imagine it taking place in a small scale, a small group of slaves from a single area, than it fits. In fact it is almost certain that small groups of slaves did sometimes escape from egypt, accross the red sea toward the northern arabian peninsula. It is plausible that a group- or multiple groups at different dates- of them may have tired of bedouin lifestyle and entered canaan and their narrative become part of the local narrative
    The miracles are exxaggerations of course, but the sense of deliverance is surely accurate.
    As is the sense of exhaustion and despair iin the desert, that peeks through time and time again through the curtain the biblical party line tires to lay over it.

  2. I completely relate to your experience, but surely you don't really believe it when you say,
    "There is something to be said for the approach that non-Torah knowledge is to be avoided......everything that might contradict it, up to and including our own senses, is wrong."

    ...unless you're simply crediting such thinking as being effective in its own particular goal, which *is* "keeping people within the fold"---whether or not you personally share that goal.

    Yes, it *seems* tragic for people to lose their faith--but that alone hardly validates the specific [wrong or inaccurate] details of that faith, no?

    I think one practical approach, if one isn't inclined to just toss it all away, is as kisarita said, to try for a modified, workable intepretation of stories....
    ...But medrashim? fugeddaboutit---they all seem geared toward finding the least realistic, most fantastical, unverifiable explanation for every tiny event in the Chumash. Too often, it puts the whole thing on the level of mythology, or worse, comic books.

  3. > ...unless you're simply crediting such thinking as being effective in its own particular goal

    Yes, that’s what I meant.

    > ...But medrashim? fugeddaboutit---they all seem geared toward finding the least realistic, most fantastical, unverifiable explanation for every tiny event in the Chumash.

    Some of them. And some are reinterpreting the text to fit with a new reality or party line, and some are just filling in the backstory. Oddly, it seems that the fantastical midrashim are the most popular.

    > Too often, it puts the whole thing on the level of mythology,

    It IS mythology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, parts of tanach directly mirror other cultures’ myths. As mythological characters go, the god of the bible isn’t so bad.

    > or worse, comic books.

    Hey, what’s wrong with comic books? :)

  4. Gone through a similar experience. I came across something online that mentioned how the Exodus was impossible. I rolled my eyes thinking what a ridiculous notion, just because there is an absence of evidence doesn't mean that is evidence of absence.

    A little while later I looked into it a little further. The more I read the more it bothered me and the more doubts I had. I kind of stopped my studies short, because it started to bother me a lot.

    Although I try to pay lip service to the idea of the Tanach being a factual account of history, a belief I used to hold very strongly. Now in the back of my mind, I just can't shake the feeling that this is just a myth.

    Not enjoying this dissonance one bit.