Saturday, April 30, 2011

What was Moshe’s name?

I was thinking about my latest post last night, and it occurred to me that “Moshe” probably was not Moshe’s real name. What follows is purely speculation, as I haven’t yet researched any of this, but:

1) Perhaps “Moshe” was a nickname for people with “Mose” as part of their name, rather like calling someone named McSomething “Mac.”

2) Perhaps Moshe’s name started out like all of the Pharaohs with “Mose” as part of their name, and had a god’s name as a beginning – such as Ramose (born-of-Ra) or Thutmose (born-of-Thoth) - and the name of the idolatrous god was later dropped as incongruous with the man who spoke directly with (the jealous) God and was the greatest monotheistic leader of all time.*

Call me cynical, but I’m leaning towards the second explanation.

*In keeping with the pasuk that says he was named for where the Egyptian princess found him, perhaps he was named for the god of the Nile, in which case his proper name would have been Hapimose – born-of-Hapi, god of the Nile.

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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Anniversary, an Index, and a Proposal

Here we are again, another year gone by. Tomorrow is two years since I put up the first post on this blog. I looked through the last year’s worth of posts just now, and I found to my surprise that they comprise not even a quarter of the total. A lot has happened in the last year, but day-to-day I haven’t really gotten any busier. Just lazier, I suppose. Or less enthusiastic.

On an unrelated note, I’ve been wondering if it might be useful to create a central index for the blogosphere. There are only a couple of dozen Jewish skeptic blogs at any given time, and the old ones tend to disappear, either because they’re taken down or because no one links to them anymore. What do you think?

Year Two Index

Best of
Bias and Rationality
An exploration of whether biases influence reasoning and whether those biases affect the validity of conclusions.
Corrupting Influences
Which is more dangerous – licentious material or dissenting information, and the use of the fear of the former to ban the latter.
Jewish Music
By far my most popular post. A side-by-side comparison of some mainstream “Jewish” songs and the pop tunes that they copied.
Eisav HaRasha?
A straight reading of the Chumash shows that Eisav wasn’t quite as evil as he’s made out to be, and Yaakov was no paragon of virtue.

Bias and Rationality
The Force Behind Nature
Just Shoot Him!
Euphemisms, Shema, and Paradigms
“God Himself Couldn’t Sink This Ship”Eisav HaRasha?
With Gratitude to Hashem…
Suicide is Painless…
The Celestial Bank

Response to articles / things read / events
Big Brother is Watching You…
Debugged Kashrus
Tiferes Yisroel Update
When Humans Become Gods

Reminiscing / culture
I Have Met the Other, and He is Me
Corrupting Influences
Jewish Music
Frummer Than God

1st Century Spin Doctors

Search Judaism
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section four I
Unfortunately, the last in the series. Maybe someday I’ll go back to it. Probably not. After a while it went from being fun to being annoying.

For Fun
Shaped Like a BLOGG!