Why is the Jewish holiday of Passover celebrated? Well, it is to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt by Moses and his people. This year it’s celebrated March 26th – April 2d. Is that Exodus a true story? Did it really happen? Is it just a legend or based on real events? When I studied comparative religion I learned an important concept that I often use in my own thinking when it concerns matters like these… Mythologization of history. This means that some things described might have actually happened, other things have been added later, been more or less widely embellished and exaggerated, certain things never happened, other events most likely did occur, not in exactly the same, but in a similar way than described. Other bits and pieces might have happened at different occassions, but been mixed later to compose a whole story and suit a certain purpose. A kind of rearrangement of true events in the own history to suit the leaders and the “national” identity. The times and dates mentioned might also sometimes vary from real events in history. This is what I believe is the case when it comes to the Exodus story and the character of Moses. It’s a mix of everything. This does not only apply on stories from the Bible but on all legends, myths, stories and sagas from various periods and cultures around our globe.
Truth is never simple and is always a mix of many truths, social groups’ experiences, prejudices, fears and prides. This is just as valid today in the battle of description rights about present events around us in Sweden and all over the world. That’s why the story of the Jewish Passover’s background story might be important to remember in that light.
Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, or Yetsia’t Mitsrayim in Hebrew. The Passover or Pésach in Hebrew has to do with that God “passed” the houses of the Hebrews after he told them to paint their door posts with blood from lambs before God unleashed the tenth plague in Egypt… The killing of all first-born males among both humans and animals. According to the second, fourth and fifth books of Moses in the Old Testament, Tana’kh, the books of Shemót, BaMidbar and Devarím, (The Names, In The Desert and The Sayings) The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. Their ancestor Joseph had come there in difficult times and helped that times Pharao by saving Egypt from famine. The Egyptian Pharaoh when Moses was born was afraid that the foreign Hebrews would multiply too much and decided to kill the infants. Compare this to the discussions in today’s Parliaments and media about immigrants. Moses’ mother Yokhebed lay her infant in a box of straw and put him in the Nile. The baby boy was found by the Egyptian princess who raised him as her own son. He grew up as an Egyptian prince, but as a grown-up man he learned of his oppressed real people, slew an overseer and was condemned to exile. Moses fled to Midian on the other side of Sinai where he met the priest Yethro and his daughters. He married one of them and lived with Yethro’s family. Later Moses saw a burning bush in the desert and heard the voice of God who told him to go back to Egypt and save his people from the oppression of Pharao. Moses took his family with him to Egypt and looked up Pharao at the court and told him to let the Hebrew people go and release them from their servitude. Pharao refused and Moses then – led by God – released ten plagues over Egypt as punishment, made the Nile red of blood, sent frogs, swarms of locusts etc. The tenth plague was the killing of the first-borns. Before that God ordered Moses and his brother Aharon to tell the people to slaughter lambs and paint the door-posts with their blood. He intended to pass those doors on the road of death. After the tenth plague where Pharao’s own son died he allowed the Hebrew slaves to leave. After a while he regretted it and pursued the Hebrews with waggons and soldiers. God divided the Sea of Reeves so that the Hebrews could pass and then drowned the Pharao and his soldiers. In the dessert Moses after a long while reached the Mountain of God, they camped there, Moses went up on the mountain, recieved the ten commandments from God, went down, saw his people honouring an idol god in the shape of a golden calf, got furious, broke the tablets, scolded his people and went up once more. When he returned with two new tablets with commandments Moses’ face was radiating of God’s presence. Years later they arrived to the land of Canaan, Moses died on Mount Horeb on the other side of the border, but his people could enter the Promised Land. That’s a summary of the story in the Bible.
Some scientists have said and still say that nothing of this has ever happened because they see the stories in the Bible as entirely imagination. From my perspective that’s an oversimplification of the matter. I will try to present some of the scientific findings and theories that exist today concerning whether Moses was a real person or not and if the Exodus did happen and if so when. In today’s debate two periods in history are presented as possible for the life of Moses and the Exodus. Maybe the story is a combination of several actual, true events from real history that almost happened as described in the Bible? They happened at different times, but have been preserved orally and in short notes on papyrus, stone and other ways, combined far away in Israel and Judah by scribes 400 – 800 years later, been embellished with invented parts, exaggerations, miracles and patriotism, and combined into a theological story of the history of the people.
Many have placed Moses in the reign of Ramses II, or Ramses the Great who ruled in the 13th century BCE. He was a famous pharao, built cities, fought battles etc. His two cities Ramses or Pi-Ramses and Pithom are mentioned in Shemót/Exodus. That’s why many during the last century have focused on the 1200’s BCE and the reign of Ramses II and seen him as the cruel pharao described in Exodus. Maybe he was… in part. It’s possible that part of the story described took place under his reign, for a smaller group of the later Israeli’s ancestors. Not long ago archeologists found remnants of what once was his city Ramses, sections of his statue, inscriptions, house-remnants etc. The city was first called Avaris, but later re-named Ramses. According to the Bible this was one of the cities that the Hebrew slaves built. They had been in Egypt since the days of their ancestor Joseph in the 17th century BCE. Now this is interesting. There are some clues left that shed light on the possible core of truth in the Biblical stories. The Ipawer papyrus from the 16th century BCE, after the time of Senasret III and before the time of the Hychsos period describe Egypt plagued by social turmoil, uprisings, wars, cataclysmic natural disasters, famine and death. This might be connected to the days near Joseph. The Hychsos people was according to ancient Egyptian sources an Asiatic people from the Middle East who immigrated to Egypt, multiplied and also ruled the country for a while. This might be Joseph’s descendants or people that the stories later connected to that figure.
Another expression used in the old Egyptian sources from the New Kingdom (1550 – 1070 BCE) is “Apiru”, very similar to that of “Hebrew”. Some scholars today want to place Moses in that era, ca 1530 – 1430 BCE) I’ll return to that later. Exodus 9:31 – 32 contains a description of plants that existed in Egypt, but not all of them in Israel centuries later: flax, barley, wheat and spelt. In Exodus 5:7 the scribes tells us that the Hebrew slaves had to build houses of bricks that contained straw. Israeli houses were made of stones, while archeology in Egypt has proven that houses from the New Kingdom were made by bricks with straw. In Tanis, a dig in the vicinity of Luxor, near a mortuary temple, four-roomed houses were found from around 1200 BCE, exactly in the same fashion as later excavated in Israel and the Jordan valley. Not Egyptian style. They also found a stele from the days of Pharao Merneptah, (1213- 1203 BCE) who was the 13th son of Ramses the Great. The inscription said e.g.: “Canaan has been taken captive and wailing, Ashkelon is conquered, Gizer is subjugated, Yanoam is no more and Israel is laid waste”. This is the first and only time the name of Israel appears in Egyptian sources. This is likely national propaganda and boastful exaggeration since no ruler said anything of lost battles etc, but it’s still interesting. Maybe, just maybe some of the Jewish ancestors travelled to the land of Canaan a generation before… But was it Moses and his group? Maybe, maybe not.
According to Jewish mysticism and old forgotten sources astrologist sages predicted the birth of Moses long ago because of a big conjunction in the sky in the zodiak of Pisces. Compared with modern science about the ancient sky the date has been fixed to Newmoon February-March 1537 BCE. Moses was supposed to according to that ancient prophecy have been born three years later in 1534 BCE.
In that period an Egyptian princess lived who might be the princess mentioned in the story of Moses. That was Hatshepsut who later ruled Egypt as a female Pharao. The new theory explains that the Pharao that killed the children were Amentotep I, 1526 – 1505 BCE or maybe his father. The exact dates are uncertain, but roughly the same dates appear. Hatshepsut appear with someone close to her that later was expelled from court by Thutmoses II and his wife Iset who hated Hatshepsut. In this theory the man expelled from court was the historical Moses. Hatshepsut is said to have been hurt that her dear one wouldn’t call her Sat Nisut/Pharao’s Daughter. The flight to Midian should then take place ca 1492 – 1479 BCE and the Exodus under Pharao Thutmoses III, 1479 – 1435 BCE).
On the Sinai peninsula, 180 km from Suez, in Serabit El-Khadim, there are caves found that once were used for mining turkos stones for Egypt. The caves are dated to the days of Hatshepsut and on the walls are archaic Canaanite graffiti. Could this be a place for Moses to hide, or others like him? Hebrew slaves? On the border between Israel and Egypt there’s also Har Karkom,(The Mountain of God), a mountain ca 4000 meters high. By the foot of the mountain archeologists have found many circular stone formations, remnants of what might have been the site for the holy tabernacle, 12 stone pillars and carvings in stone. Among them a picture of something that looks like a Jewish altar with horns from the side. “The altar” with its horns is divided in ten squares, representing the ten commandments? Maybe, maybe not. We will never know for sure, and like all estimations and interpretations it’s speculative. But it’s not unlikely that this jigzaw puzzle contains the core of truth in the story.
Interpreting and expanding a message for a specific purpose to commemorate old national events is not unique for the scribes. This still happens today in patriotic, political and religious propaganda and various dichotomized debates all over the world. Just watch the debates and many fractions. We are no better 2500 – 3500 years later. In this case it’s a story of past events in the combined Jewish and Egyptian history. It’s like as when we write novels about Sweden or other countries in the Viking era, Middle Ages or something to strengthen the national pride. It’s just important to remember that we don’t use that patriotism and the stories to continue fighting each other. North Korea and USA, Israel and Iran, Iran and USA, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Mali, Israel, Turkey, Shi’a genocide in Pakistan. The list can expand. Will we ever learn from history? Let’s commemorate the true meaning of Passover, the solidarity, remember hard times, pride but also co-operation. Why not use that for a local, national and global purpose? We need each other.
Anders Moberg, March 28th 2013