Showing posts with label Moses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Moses. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

History mystery: Moses And The Exodus



The exodus from Egypt is not only the central story of the Jewish tradition but a consoling narrative for all those in need of hope. The biblical legend of the exodus from Egypt has brought great meaning to many cultures. For example, black slaves incorporated the story of the Exodus from Egypt into their plantation songs and imagined themselves as latter-day children of Israel, waiting to travel to the Promised Land. It comes as somewhat of a surprise then, that for the entire event’s historical important, there is little consensus among scholars as to its authenticity. Surprisingly, the only true scholarly agreement about the Exodus is that there is no definitive evidence available to corroborate it – no ancient tablets referring to it specifically, no revelatory hieroglyphic illustrations, no remains of temporary dwellings haunting the Judean wilderness. In fact, no record of Moses or of the Exodus is contained in all of ancient Egypt’s chronicles. This historical silence troubles many archaeologists, who point out those artifacts from even late Stone Age cultures have emerged from the area.

A mass exodus and a 40-year sojourn through the Sinai would certainly have reverberated through the region, they argue, leaving some imprint. They often explain the story as a latter-day political fabrication, invented to unite the disparate tribes living in Canaan. But other archaeologists are quick to defend the possible authenticity of the Exodus narrative. The lack of historical records could be explained by the ancient Israelites’ use of perishable papyrus for their documentation (unlike many of their neighbors who used the more durable clay). They explain the lack of Egyptian documentation by pointing out that history’s losers often neglect to record events unfavorable to them. They also point out that the Bible does not explicitly refer to the pyramids, but no one doubts their existence. These scholars also have some fragmentary nonbiblical material in their arsenal. There is the legend described by the first century BC Greek historian Strabo of a ancient army drowning on the coast of Canaan, “near Egypt.” There is also a Phoenician legend of a hero named Danaos, who led his followers out of Egypt after a series of disasters befell the land, eerily echoing the biblical tale. Another theory suggests that there were actually multiple oppressions and expulsions, and that the Exodus narrative is a compilation of these events. Even if we accept that the Exodus did occur, plenty of controversy persists.

To start, scholars disagree on the correct dating of the event. In I Kings 6:1, the Exodus is said to have occurred some 480 years before Solomon began building the Temple, which would place it at around 1446 BC. But this date conflicts with others included in the Old Testament. The Book of Exodus contains a passage that claims the Israelites were building “treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses,” for the Egyptian pharaoh. Scholars believe that Raamses was Pi-Ramesse, a Nile delta city built by Ramses II, in the late 13th century BC. This date for the Exodus is in accord with the earliest known reference to the people of Israel outside of the Bible- a granite monument found in a temple to Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II.

The hieroglyphs on the monument commemorate the military victories of the Pharaoh, and include a line boasting of vanquishing the Israelites during a campaign in Canaan in 1210 BC. For the Israelites to have been established by that time in Canaan, observes point out, the Exodus must have occurred at least a half century before. Some scholars have approached the Exodus story not from a historical perspective but from a scientific one, attempting to explain the naturalistic mechanisms behind Moses’ miracles. Scientists have also tried to explain the parting of the Red Sea (which is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew for “Reed Sea”). One of the more popular theories points to tidal waves that would have swept through the region after the explosion of a massive volcano. The scientific basis to the story mattered little to the generations who found comfort in the Exodus story. They cared little about the mechanism that parted the waters, but only that the waters parted at all, and that a promised land lay somewhere on the other side.