The exodus enigma

How can we feel as if we personally left Egypt when the entire chonology of those events is so confused?

seder plate 88 (photo credit: )
seder plate 88
(photo credit: )
It is impossible to get away from the Exodus. It is folk history at its finest. Thanks to the Exodus the 12 sons of Jacob mutated into 13 tribes. Thanks to the Exodus the Israelites transformed themselves from a crowd of slaves into a rowdy tribal nation. Thanks to the Exodus, they trusted their leader enough to plunge blindly into the sea to escape the Egyptian chariots. And thanks to the Exodus they perceived their Maker and accepted His Commandments. Without the Exodus there would be no Jewish nation and no set of laws for them to live by. Without the Exodus there would be no generation of bonding in the Desert, and without the Exodus there could be no entry into the Promised Land. Above all, we need the Exodus on Seder night, the first night of Pessah, when we should try to consider ourselves as having taken part in it. But how do we do that? "Mnemo-history" - or the history of folk-memory - is what we record to establish our past. It is all we have to rely on for many ancient events, but it is worth checking to see if there is any other evidence to substantiate it. That the Jews came out of Egypt is pretty clear from the Bible account itself. It tells us that the Jordan Valley was as fertile as the garden of Egypt, so the listeners must have known the Egyptian Delta. It tells us that the spies entered Hebron, which was seven years older than Zoan in Egypt, so they must have been familiar with Zoan rather than with Hebron. Their leader tells them to make the Ark, whose pattern was shown to him by God, but the artifacts all followed Egyptian lines, the movable Tent, the golden Ark, the Cherubim and the bread-table, they all derived from Egyptian models. And they were told that Canaan is watered by rain, not by the foot-operated irrigation common to Egypt. That the Israelites were in Egypt is clear, but when did they come out of there? The Torah comes straight to the point. The prophecy to Abraham says they were to stay for 400 years, while after the event it tells us it was 430 years, not a major problem. But the rabbis limit the period to 210 years, claiming that the 400 years started from the birth of Isaac. WHY MAINTAIN this fiction against the word of the Torah? Because it tells us there were only four generations from Levi to Moses, via Kehoth and Amram, which makes it hard to stretch each generation out to a 100 years. Furthermore the Torah tells us the Israelites built the cities of Pithom and Ramesses. That is difficult as it has them working in Egypt sometime in the reign of the great Ramesses II, who ruled for 70 years from 1280 BCE. On the other hand, after they wandered for 40 years, Joshua claims they entered Canaan by trumpeting down the defenses of Jericho, whose walls were last destroyed in about 1560 BCE, according to the buried pottery. What do the Egyptian records tell us? Four Pharaohs claim that they drove out hated foreigners from their land. The first one was Kamose, who only reigned for two years, and he started to expel the hated Hyksos (the Semitic "kings of foreign lands") in about 1570 BCE. His brother Ahmose, who reigned after him for some 25 years, claims to have finished the job. That would fit nicely with expelling the Israelites with the Hyksos, as the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius says, and their coming to Jericho and destroying its walls a few years later. ANOTHER PHARAOH, the bearded Queen Hatshepsut, tells us that she also expelled hated foreigners, about 100 years later, and that would be about 1480 BCE. Another expulsion was claimed again a few years later by her nephew-successor Thutmosis III. His dating does not work with Jericho, but it does work with the rabbis‚ 210 years, as then the Jews would have entered Egypt about 1660 BCE, which is the time that the Semitic Hyksos invaded Egypt. Then however it does not work with the city of Ramesses, which could only have been so named in the time of the Ramesside dynasty in the 13th Century BCE. That could of course work with the Torah timing of about 400 years, as the Israelites would then have entered Egypt in about 1650 with the Hyksos, and left after building Ramesses City in about 1250 BCE. That last date also works with another Egyptian record, that of Merenptah, successor to Ramesses II, who claims that he invaded Canaan and destroyed Israel in about 1200 BCE. But then it does not work with the walls of Jericho. And it does not work for the rabbis, who have to believe that Solomon built the Temple 480 years after the Exodus. Seeing that the Temple was built around 950, that little marker puts the Exodus at about 1430 BCE, which does not work with anything, except perhaps an expulsion under Queen Hatshepsut. WE SEEM to be going round in circles and one thing is clear, we cannot square any one set of records with any others, and contradictions are inherent in the Torah and the rabbinic interpretations themselves. So where does that leave our powerful "mnemo-history?" That is a question that we must try and address, for how else can we consider ourselves to have been part of the Exodus? Earlier generations did not have the bother of knowing the Egyptian records. They were happy to rely on the assurances of the rabbis and their confidence in the history of folk-memory, but can we just sit back and accept their historical ignorance? The importance of "mnemo-history" is that, in the absence of anything more specific, we need it to explain our past. For our own peace of mind, we should not reject it but should attempt to refine it to our present-day consciences. If in itself it does not make sense, we ourselves still have to make sense of it. No doubt there are several ways of doing that, and some will still pretend to rely on the rabbis, but I would like to present another possible scenario. If we look carefully at the description of the wanderings in Sinai, we see that every incident is a minor miracle. It starts in Egypt with the ten plagues, each a miracle in itself, in spite of many attempts to find a rational explanation. As we come to the Wilderness, the waters part for the Israelites and then close again over the Egyptians. The people are protected by a pillar of cloud by day that turns to a pillar of fire at night. There are two or three million people on the trek and they have no bread, or not until the manna falls every morning, though not so on the Sabbath. There is no water for them until it spurts out of the rock. There is no meat until there is a glut of quails. While the people lack even the basic amenities, the most beautiful shrine and the richest priestly clothes are crafted out of the finest materials. Surely it is all an imaginative description, exactly as "mnemo-history" would and should be. Let us accept that and then apply our folk-memory history to the problem of the dates. WE CANNOT reconcile all the differing dates, thus it suggests that we are reading a kaleidoscopic amalgamation of many events, again a feature of "mnemo-history." The folk mind wants to remember many different events and put them together into one coherent, if miraculous, whole. As it does so it combines many memories and many numbers, in the process postulating miraculous explanations and inflated totals. My proposal is that this miraculous account of the Exodus is describing a series of events that took place over more than 300 years, when Semitic foreigners, including the Jews, left Egypt in wave after wave. Some came and went with the Hyksos, and destroyed Jericho on their way back. Some were expelled by Queen Hatshepsut and 480 years later helped to build Solomon's Temple. Some came after the Hyksos and were forced to build Pithom and Ramesses, and then left in haste to get to Canaan before Merenptah could claim to have destroyed Israel in their land. And some perhaps never left at all and stayed on to tell the tale from an Egyptian point of view, with an Egyptian slant to the agriculture of Canaan and an Egyptian description of the Mishkan. One question still looms large. Which set of caravans was led by Moses and which group received the Ten Commandments? That I cannot say but, for my own sake on Pessah night, I really do believe it was the caravan that I was on. The writer is a Fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.