29. THE EXODUS COVER STORY
There are two versions of the Exodus story where Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt; the traditional cover story, and the real story.
Hundreds of years elapsed after Abraham’s visit to Egypt until the Biblical story of the Exodus – where Hebrew Moses claimed to rescue his people from the grievous oppression of the Pharaoh.
Egypt’s fortunes waxed and waned. It thrived in some periods, waging regional wars with its neighbours and expanding its influence from Nubia (Sudan) in the south through Palestine and into Lebanon in the north. About 1600 BC it again fell into the disarray of the ‘2nd Intermediate Period’, marked by yet another round of ‘plagues’ and famine. Around 1500 BC when Pharaoh Thutmosis III laid siege to the port-city of Joppa in Palestine his army was still using the magic mace weapon of the sun god – so they still had active access to nuclear technology. From the neighbourly skirmishes and regional wars, and from trade, Egypt of this period became a cosmopolitan place with a population mix of diverse prisoners, slaves, mercenaries and traders. It was a polyglot place, the very model of a modern multi-cultural society. But it was a feudal system; the population was largely prince or pauper; the oppressors and the oppressees.
Throughout this period there is no independent evidence of significant Hebrew presence in Egypt. Nor that they were oppressed any more or less than any other peasant. There is almost no evidence at all, or even acknowledgement, in Egyptian records of any presence of Israelites in Egypt. Except perhaps one inscription in-passing on the Merenptah stele from about 1220 BC. Nor are there any archaeological records from Egypt or from Mt Sinai of the so-called Exodus event. The Exodus is a very strong myth for which there is no firm evidence at all, outside the somewhat fanciful Biblical account.
Against that background there emerged the most incredible story. Incredible in the sense of not remotely believable – including the most fantastic, nonsensical, illogical and improbable events. And not just the parting of the Red Sea! It is as if the whole story was made up, a fiction. And yet it contained some very odd specific details that might be true. It is as if it were originally a real story which has become accidentally or deliberately embroidered to obfuscate and conceal the truth.
The story is told in the Book of Exodus and the corresponding chapters of Josephus’ Antiquities.
In the authorized account Moses was born in Egypt to uncertain Hebrew parents, with a paternal lineage supposedly traced back to Abraham. Like Abraham, and a later Jesus, his origin followed the standard mythic hero formula – born under a star, but at a time where a shaman had warned the King of a new child who would threaten his reign so there was an edict that all new-born males were to be killed. Moses was hidden in a basket in the bulrushes where he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, recognized as ‘one of us’ (a hybrid polygene), adopted and raised in the royal household. He was tall, fair, handsome and clever and became a Prince and General – whereby he learned all the sacred wisdom that had come down from Abraham.
Moses lived 40 years in Egypt until one day he unfortunately killed ‘an Egyptian’ (although Josephus says it was only because envious Egyptians plotted against him), after which he fled justice and spent the next 40 years as a goat-herder in Midian (on the upper Arabian peninsula). Then ‘god’ appeared in a ‘burning bush’ and told him to return to Egypt to rescue his people from the oppression of the Pharaoh. Now aged 80 he went back to Egypt, with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, where he pleaded and threatened the Pharaoh with his ‘rod’ and with ‘plagues’ – until the Pharaoh reluctantly agreed to let the Hebrews go. Moses rounded up about 600 thousand Hebrew men (and others) and set off across the desert to freedom – but the Pharaoh changed his mind and chased then down at the edge of the ‘Red Sea’. Whereupon Moses waved his wand and parted the sea allowing the Hebrews to escape – but then closed the roaring tides on the Pharaoh and his army, destroying them.
Moses and his people continued on to Mount Sinai, at the very far distant eastern end of the peninsula, where he received the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. The tribe wandered in the desert for another 40 years, with numerous skirmishes against various local tribes, until they eventually settled down in Canaan in the land of milk and honey where ‘God’ had promised the children of Abraham would flourish.
That’s the usual account but there are numerous issues with this story that stretch credibility.
The opening account of the birth is obviously a traditional formula for ancient hero figures (cf. Sargon of Akkad ca 2400 BC, then Abraham, Moses, Jesus), but that could be forgiven as mere embroidery. While the specter of ‘god’ speaking from a ‘burning bush’ and providing the means to part an ocean requires leaps of faith that defy rational analysis. A more mundane issue is that the whole construct revolves around major events involving a prominent ‘royal Prince’ of which there is no record in Egypt, and it entails the incredible number of around six hundred thousand Hebrew men ‘slaves’. Six hundred thousand ‘men’ implies a total number of over one million (with women and children), which is an extremely large number inconsistent with total population estimates for the time, and again with no record in Egypt.
The logistics of managing over one million people are mind-boggling. Imagine the food, water and baggage requirements to walk a distance of around 450 km from the Nile delta to Mt Sinai, across barren inhospitable country. If one million people walked in line on a path four abreast and a regular step apart – the line would extend around 250 kilometres, not counting stragglers, baggage animals and flocks of livestock. If the line moved at a brisk five kilometres per hour it would take 50 hours to pass a given point.
Even if ‘men’ meant all people, even 600 thousand is still a very large number and the corresponding line would extend 150 km and take 30 hours to pass a point. Still incredible!
Finally, the designation of ‘Red Sea’ is a plain mistranslation. The literal translation is something like ‘Moses opened the reed waters or ‘reed waves’.
Plainly the number of people involved is unsupported and unsupportable. While the parting of the Red Sea is just factually wrong – an elementary mistranslation. It did not happen – despite the visual imagery of Cecil B deMille’s 1956 cinematography. Yet there is enough detail to indicate that some part of the story really did happen. A Hebrew man, Moses, made an incursion into Egypt to obtain something valuable – that was resisted by the Pharaoh. Underneath the improbable embroidery there was a very different story.