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Ian David Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 06:49 AM
Original message
No evidence that Jews or Hebrews were ever slaves in Egypt
As a Jew-- even as a Secular / Jewish Humanist, I find this deeply troubling.

I have absolutely no problem letting go of the magic and mysticism of the alleged miracles and plagues (I had discounted those, along with the tooth fairy when I was still in Hebrew school) but the idea of being descended from slaves who earned their freedom has always been a part of my cultural and personal identity.

Coming to the realization that I almost certainly need to jettison that supposition is hard.

Secular Passover Haggadah
Time to Rewrite the Script:
A Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews

by David Voron

Do you change your mind in response to new evidence? Of course, you say. But what if the new evidence contradicts your most deeply-held convictions? And what if these convictions are embedded in a set of beliefs shared with like-minded others in a social network that provides a sense of family and community? In other words, if the evidence threatens the warm fuzzy glow of group identity, does the evidence have a chance? Lets find out.


In addition, archaeological excavations do not support the Biblical Exodus story. Modern archaeological techniques are able to detect evidence of not only permanent settlements, but also of habitations of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world as far back as the third millennium B.C. However, there are no finds of a unique religious community living in a distinct area of the eastern delta of the Nile River (Land of Goshen) as described in Genesis. In addition, repeated excavations of areas corresponding to Kadesh-Barnea, where the Biblical Israelites lived for thirty-eight of their forty-eight years of wanderings, have revealed no evidence of any encampments. Finkelstein and Silberman point out that, although the sites mentioned in the Exodus story are real, archaeological excavations indicate that they were unoccupied when the Biblical Exodus would have taken place. For example, the Bible refers to messengers sent by Moses from Kadesh-Barnea to the king of Edom asking him to allow the Hebrews to pass through his land. However, the nation of Edom did not come into existence until the 7th century B.C. 9 Melvin Konner, anthropologist and teacher of Jewish studies at Emory University, sums it up this way in his recent book Unsettled, An Anthropology of the Jews: Except for the Torah text, there is no decisive proof that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, that they rebelled and walked away from the place, or that a leader such as Moses arose and took that people into the desert. 10 Futhermore, what evidence we do have, as discussed above, contradicts the Biblical account. How, then, did this fable come to be written?

Finkelstein and Silberman present the plausible thesis that the Deuteronomistic version of the Exodus, which brings together and embellishes the chronicles in the first four books of the Torah, was written during the 7th century B.C. The intent of the story was to rally the inhabitants of Judah against Egypt, which had become its most powerful enemy as Assyrian hegemony waned. Finkelstein and Silberman believe that the evil pharaoh in the Exodus story was actually modeled after the domineering Psamethicus I, who reigned from 664 to 610 B.C., approximately during the time that the Deuteronomistic version was written. This account was powerful propaganda that created an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judahs dreams in order to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead. In fact, the Egypt described in the Deuteronomistic account is uncannily similar in its geographical details to that of Psamethicus. 11

According to Redford, the memories of the Canaanite Hyskos ruling Egypt and subsequently being driven out (though not enslaved and not Hebrew) most likely formed the basis for the Exodus story. 12 The sequence of plagues in the Exodus may be related to the ancient Egyptian belief that the inability to worship multiple gods causes illness. The Amarna tablets indicate that Akhnaten imposed monotheism on polytheistic Egypt during his reign between 1372 and 1354 B.C., allegedly causing the populace to suffer a variety of maladies, which abated with the restoration of polytheism by Akhnatens successor. 13 14 Jonathan Kirsh notes that the basket-in-the-bullrushes infant-Moses story is clearly a cut-and-paste plagiarism copied almost verbatim from a Mesopotamian text. 15 In the words of Daniel Lazare, the stories of infant Moses, the plagues, and final exodus are unconnected folktales, linked together like pearls on a string. 16 What we have, according to David Denby, is a self-confirming, self-glorifying myth of origins, with Moses as the hero of the greatest campfire story ever told. 17

Let this eccentric Passover Haggadah be your exodus from ignorance. Emancipate yourself from the enslavement of illusory beliefs. Our parents and grandparents didnt know the Passover fable they passed on to us was totally contrived. We do. We can still celebrate our peoplehood, but we need to change the script. To quote a line from historian Isaac Deutschers essay, The Non-Jewish Jew, the Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry, belongs to a Jewish tradition. 18

References & Notes

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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 07:39 AM
Response to Original message
1. In conclusion:
"Coming to the realization that I almost certainly need to jettison that supposition is hard."
If it is too hard,
We're here! (The lounge is the better place for suchlike a post though).
Or you could choose to irrationally believe the original story bit, (wait, don't go bonkers, there is a qualifying clause attached), and just teach the younger generation that not bieng slave descended is true, and let in time the belief die with you. Seems the most humane way to go about it.... and in the meantime argue that the non-slavery thing is true.

How goes life?
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Ian David Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 07:46 AM
Response to Reply #1
2. Well, who knows...
Maybe someday we'll find an Egyption pharoah burried with his own Klezmer band?

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muriel_volestrangler Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 11:46 AM
Response to Original message
3. I think I once read a theory that the Levites were refugees from Egypt
who brought their religion to Canaan, and managed to settle as the priestly caste of the pastoral Israelites who inhabited the area before any written records began (but they didn't convert the Canaanites who lived in towns), encouraging (or even insisting) on monotheism. This explains some things like the lack of an area for the Levites, the different aspects of who/what God is in the Old Testament (sometimes singular, sometimes plural), and how there was no archaeological evidence for Exodus - a small band might not have left any. It may have also tried to tie the Levite monotheism in with that of Akhenaton - I can't remember. Being the literate ones, the Levite history dominated that of the majority of the people when it was told and then written down. It seemed to be plausible when I read it, but I can't find it now.
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PinkUnicorn Donating Member (546 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 12:34 PM
Response to Reply #3
4. This one?
Possibly this?

More likely they were the Hyskos - Semitic/asiatics who were expelled from their domination of Egypt at the end of the Second Intermediate Period and the beginning of the 18th dynasty. Ankhenaten didn't arrive on the scene with his monotheistic stance until near the end of the 18th dynasty and he wasn't very popular in any case so it is unlikely he had a cadre of followers (oh and the pyramids were built about 1000 years before Ankehaten turned up, so forget Heston's depiction ;) ). Any exodus by 'Ankhentaten-ites' would have been very tiny indeed as the only official priest for Atenism was Ankenaten himself.

The other pharaoh they like to pick is Ramses II, because of a mention of Pi-Ramses (the city). Unfortunately this doesn't work either, because if people fled from Egypt to Canaan they would have encountered....the Egyptian armies who were on a conquest spree at the time and practically owned everything up the Syria. The Horus road through the Sinai was heavy patrolled at this point as well due to it being a source of gold and gems for the Egyptians and I doubt they would have failed to see several thousand (or even a few hundred) people walking off with Egypt's gold and silver.

But more than likely the tale is an embellished one of the Hyskos - "we didn't get kicked out, we left of our own will gods told us to!". They can then be assimilated with the nomadic cultures in the Canaan region a selective mixing of tales and there you have it. Also of interest is one of the main gods of the Hyskos was Set - the prototype Satan (though at the time he was considered cruel and bad tempered he was still a 'good guy'). The Cananites at the time were still very Nomadic, not even rating a mention as a people - this can be seen in the Merenptah stela (the nine bows are recognised countries/provinces, Isreal isn't incluced in them)

As for slavery - what was known as slavery in Egypt was very different from what we think of slavery (ie: Roman style). Egyptian slavery was more an indentured servitude, 'slaves' had some rights and their period of servitude would end after a certain time - it was primarily used for debtors, prisioners of war, and criminals. An entry is the 'Book of the Dead' the soul must assert - "I have not domineered over slaves" which is light years ahead of Roman attitudes.

The primary reason for this is that Egypt didn't need slaves - the fertile Nile generate huge amounts of grain, meaning that a permanent workforce to supply food while other projects were undertaken was not necessary - indeed the workers often sat around doing nothing during the inundation, freeing them up for other works such as building pyramids and temples.

As for matters little as long as it is recognised as a story, an item of cultural interest. Icelanders (I think) have a tale how they were founded by some tribal leader following floating driftwood, Rome has the tale of Romulus and Remus, but when it is taken literally - bad news.
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onager Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 02:53 PM
Response to Original message
5. The Egyptian POV
Edited on Mon Apr-17-06 02:56 PM by onager
If one thing irritates Egyptian tour guides more than stupid Americans asking about the space aliens who built the Pyramids, it's stupid Americans spouting the Charlton Heston View Of Egyptian History. :-)

As most of you know, I've spent much of the past year+ in Egypt, mostly in Alexandria. But I did spend some time in Cairo and visited the incredible Egyptian Museum several times.

The Museum contains the only mention of Israel in all of recorded Egyptian history...which goes back quite a ways. It appears on a Victory Stele (Big Writing-Covered Rock) from the time of Pharoah Meneptah, son of the long-lived Ramses II.

I've seen it with my own atheist eyes, which brings me to a baffling pheomenon I've noticed. Many websites run by Xian...cough, cough...historical experts seem desperate to make Ramses II "the Exodus Pharoah." As a former SoB-aptist who had the Exodus story drummed into my head from babyhood, that just doesn't make sense. Ramses II ruled Egypt for 67 years. If he had drowned with his army in a supernatural Red Sea occurrence, someone in Egypt would have probably noticed and mentioned it.

Anyway, the Victory Stele is a straightforward account of Pharoah Meneptah taking his army west, to deal with Terrorist Insurgents in Libya. Then, as long as he was roaming the countryside with a perfectly good army, he decided to turn east and take care of some troublemakers in Palestine:

The princes are prostrate saying: "Shalom!"
Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:
Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed...

Well, spin by the ruling classes is also an ancient art. And that bit of propaganda is pretty funny, since Israel's seed is still in the same neighborhood and still annoying the Egyptians to this very day.

You can see the entire Victory Stele here:

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Taxloss Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 03:08 PM
Response to Original message
6. Does the truthfulness or otherwise of the story matter?
Whether true or not, the Jewish foundation myth is one of the greatest stories ever told, a Semitic Iliad and Odyssey, or the Hectorian legends of the Trojan foundation of London (and with it, the "Pretanic Isle" ...). It can still operate as a foundation legend even if it cannot be proven. Most foundation stories are surrounded by mythmaking - there are quite a few blatant falsehoods and surprising, but unmentioned, facts that crop up around 1776. Even if the Exodus cannot be relied on, Judaism has another greatly powerful story in Masada.

Also, I'm inherently suspicious of attempts to prove or disprove Bible stories. Such attempts are nearly always political in one way or another. It's wrong-headed to take a Bible story and attempt to establish the fact behind it, it's backwards. The available archaeological and other evidence should be fairly examined in a neutral spirit of enquiry. If it corresponds with a Bible story, so be it. If not, It is just another place where the Bible is literature. Powerful, but fiction.
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realisticphish Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 03:18 PM
Response to Reply #6
7. right on
I always hate those "Bible science" shows on The History Channel.

"Maybe THIS is how Moses parted the Red Sea!"
Or maybe God did it. Or aliens. Or they freaking made it up.

I'm a Christian, but i see no need to mess around with such things. As you said, if you find something that corroborates, yippee. If not :shrug: It's not like that will make the story leave the culture
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Ian David Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-18-06 08:33 AM
Response to Reply #6
9. As a Rationalist, I place more importance on actual history than on myth
And I'm embarrassed to say I never really questioned the idea that once my people were captives in Egypt.

It seemed like the sort of thing they wouldn't have been able to get away with saying if it weren't true.

After all, the Egyptians had a written language and kept careful records and such.

If I were on the team writing The Book of Exodus, and someone suggested, "Let's say that we were held captive in Egypt for a couple hundred years," I would have said, "We can't say that. The Egyptians have books, too. Everyone will know it's not true. Why don't we say we were slaves someplace else? Like Norway?"

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realisticphish Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-18-06 09:58 AM
Response to Reply #9
10. because
as everyone knows, Norwegians hate slavery :shrug:
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Taxloss Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-18-06 12:30 PM
Response to Reply #10
12. Tell that to the Vikings! n/t
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greyl Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-17-06 03:24 PM
Response to Original message
8. more related info:

Archaeological digs in the neighborhood of the Egyptian pyramids have brought forth evidence that the builders of the pyramids were just ordinary citizen-workers, not slaves, as popularly imagined. The slave-worker myth, first suggested in Exodus, has been perpetuated for centuries in art, literature, and motion pictures, but it was put to challenge in Daniel's Beyond Civilization. For more details:
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onager Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-18-06 10:21 AM
Response to Reply #8
11. That agrees with what I've heard/read.
The practice of using "citizen-workers" was very long lived in Egypt. Rounding up the fellahin (peasant farmers) and putting them to work on public-works projects didn't end until the 1860's, during the construction of the Suez Canal. (It only ended then because the Egyptian viceroy, while bloviating about "the dignity of Egyptian labor," really wanted to put a thumb in the eye of the French.)

Back in the days of the Pharoahs such workers weren't paid a salary, since the concept didn't exist yet. But the workers and sometimes their families had to be housed and fed at govt. expense. The ancient Egyptian archives show that the pyramid-building Pharoahs kept a close eye on construction expenses and often questioned their accountants about cost overruns for labor.

According to historically savvy Egyptians I've talked to, the Pyramids and other such projects were seen as tasks of immense national prestige. There are written records of very wealthy families volunteering their sons as laborers on such projects.

It would probably be safe to assume that those particular laborers did about as much work on the Pyramids as G.W. Bu$h did in the Texas National Guard.

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Ian David Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-18-06 02:38 PM
Response to Reply #11
13. The Exodus Enigma
The Exodus Enigma
Stephen Rosenberg, THE JERUSALEM POST Apr. 11, 2006

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


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, 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.

This article can also be read at
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