The Search for Moses

As I might have expected the latest cinematic portrayal of Moses as an action-adventure hero has induced some consideration of whether there’s any evidence for the Exodus story. The short version is that there isn’t any.

There are no Egyptian inscriptions or documents that mention the Jews and if the Jewish people ever sojourned in Egypt, they left no artifacts or other evidence of it.

However, I think that they’re looking for their evidence in the wrong place and at the wrong time. There is early evidence of Jews in Egypt: the Achaemenid garrison at the first cataract of the Nile was largely manned by Jews, as is evidenced by the documents found there, the earliest non-Biblical descriptions of Jewish religious practices. If Moses actually lived, that’s probably where you’ll find him. Unfortunately, that would have been about a millennium later than most people imagine Moses to have lived.

Another possibility is that the “Egypt” of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t what we think of as Egypt. In classical antiquity countries weren’t distinguished by geographic or ethnic boundaries but by linguistic ones and Egypt was wherever Egyptian was spoken. The Egyptians occupied the land of Canaan several times over the centuries, most notably during the 14th century BC so presumably Egyptian was spoken there and where that was the case it was Egypt.

Mount Sinai, the mountain that Moses ascended to receive the Ten Commandments from the hand of God, at one time or another has been place all over the Middle East not only on the Sinai Peninsula but from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and beyond. There isn’t much evidence for any of these locations.

2 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    No interest in the movie, but I assume the characterization of Moses derives from Josephus’ description of Moses leading the Egyptian army against invading Ethiopians. I heard Ridley Scott explain that as a non-believer he needed a credible hook into the character which Josephus may have provided in his downplaying of the miraculous and providing a more Hellenized hero.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I wonder if Josephus’ story was influenced by knowing that there was a Jewish community of mercenaries at the First Cataract of the Nile?

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    The objection I’ve heard from Egypt about the movie strikes me as a bit anti-Semitic. Israel was frequently dominated by Egypt (when not from other regions), and such domination was most likely to open the area up to trade and flows of people, including slaves. Perhaps there is no evidence of Jewish slaves in particular, but this seems to be a reasonable conjecture. Also, Islam is not a fan of the Pharaoh, and so opposition to non-religious-based history, coupled with a touch pre-Islamic nationalism seems quite suspicious.

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