The Time of Moses
Posted on Saturday, 30 July, 2016 | 4 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker
A good many people used to be fairly familiar with the basic Biblical narrative: A people called the Israelites, more or less the ancestors of modern Jews, were descended from Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Abraham had migrated to what is now Israel, then the land of Canaan, from Sumer, in the southern part of what is now Iraq, at the head of the Persian Gulf. Later, Jacob led a good many Israelites to settle in the Land of Goshen, meaning the eastern Nile Delta in northern (lower) Egypt. Eventually, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, and then Pharaoh, fearing a revolt, decided to murder all their first-born sons (which would practically have ensured such a revolt). Moses’ mother, acting in desperation, set him adrift in the Nile in a tarred wicker basket. He was found by an Egyptian princess, adopted by her, and named “Moses.” Yet somehow Biblical history was able to record the names of his parents and his brother (Aaron). As a young man Moses saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and killed the Egyptian. He was forced to flee into the Sinai desert and eventually made his way to the land of Midian, just east of the northern Red Sea, where the Israelites had distant relatives. After many years he saw a bush seemingly burning but not consumed, and heard the voice of the Angel of the Lord speaking to him from the bush, ordering him to return to Egypt to free his people and lead them to the “promised land,” in Canaan.
In Egypt, aided by his brother Aaron, he demonstrated to the Egyptian priests that the God of the Israelites was more powerful than their gods, and Pharaoh agreed to release the Israelites, but then reneged on his promise, whereupon the Israelite God unleashed a terrible series of “plagues” on the common people of Egypt, such as turning the Nile to “blood,” culminating with the killing of all their first born sons. Pharaoh then let the Israelites go, and the whole tribe walked east into the Sinai desert. Pharaoh changed his mind yet again and pursued them with his war chariots. Moses, with some help from God, parted the Red Sea and the Israelites walked across on the seafloor, but when the Egyptians tried to follow the sea poured back and drowned them. Fed by a mysterious fall of “manna” from the sky, and following a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai, smoking and burning like a volcano, and camped there for some time while Moses ascended the peak and brought back the Ten Commandments. After yet more adventures and misadventures they reached Canaan, though Moses died before they got there. Could any of this be true? If so, when did it happen?
Many legends contain a grain or more of truth, and oral traditions can be passed down for thousands of years with little distortion. The Indians of America’s Pacific Northwest have legends clearly describing the climactic eruption of the Mt. Mazama super volcano that created Crater Lake…almost six thousand years ago. People all across the world have legends of a mega-flood, and, about 11,600 years ago, the Earth warmed and the ice age glaciers melted and poured into the seas, flooding the continental shelves, with much of the melting taking place within a few decades.
Moses, as explained above, is an Egyptian name, and the Egyptians left no record of any adoption of an Israelite, nor of any killing of first born sons (a story repeated in the New Testament, with Herod replacing Pharaoh as the villain). Nor have they any record of a pursuit of Israelites, nor of the drowning of an army. Had they pursued the Israelites, their chariots would have caught them long before they got anywhere near the Red Sea. The wicker basket legend was lifted from the story of the Akkadian (a Semitic people in Sumer) King Sargon. There is no mention of Moses in any Hebrew text prior to the Babylonian captivity, which did not begin until 597 B.C. On the other hand, the “burning bush” could well be a reference to a “ghost light,” like the ones videotaped and studied near Marfa, Texas, and in Norway. We need to remain open to the possibility that some paranormal entity, perhaps literally God, spoke to Moses from the bush. The pillar of fire and smoke sounds like a reference to a volcano, as does Mt. Sinai. The “manna” falling from the sky may also be more than a mere fable; in more recent times there have been many, many verified cases of falls of fish, frogs, seeds, and nuts (among other things). The Israelites may literally have dined on some edible material like this on at least one occasion (although this brings us no closer to understanding the mystery).
There has long been a theory that the crossing of the “Red Sea” was the result of a mistranslation of ancient texts, and really referred to some shallow bay or marsh just east of the Nile Delta. The Hebrew term “yam suph” means reed or seaweed “sea.” Lake Sirbonis (really a brackish bay on the Mediterranean coast) may have been the real “Red Sea,” or Lake Tanis, or some other body of water that no longer exists. This is about the area where the Egyptians would have caught the Israelites, a long way before the real Red Sea and its Gulf of Aqaba, and low tides may have enabled them to cross a shallow bay, or winds may have blown the water back long enough for the Israelites to cross, but high tides or the dying down of the wind could have stopped their pursuers. Some die-hard fundamentalist Christians insist that a sort of “land bridge” crosses the Gulf of Aqaba and that such a wind set back could have enabled the Israelites to cross there, but charts show it is far too deep, and, as stated above, the Egyptians would have caught them long before that.
As for the volcanic “Mt. Sinai,” Jebel Musa, a fairly high peak (7,497 feet) in the Sinai Peninsula, is traditionally believed to be the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments. But Jebel Musa is not a volcano…and there are no volcanoes anywhere in the Sinai. But in the aforementioned land of Midian, east of the Red Sea Rift Zone, there are several volcanoes believed to have erupted in the last ten thousand years, perhaps fairly late in that period. These include the Al Harrah, and, south of that peak, a volcano known to have erupted in the last 4,500 years. Cambridge Professor Colin Humphreys thinks the culprit may have been Mt. Badr in that same region. Bear in mind that its column of ash, burning bright at night, would only have guided the Israelites during the last part of their journey. Also, it would have been very dangerous, indeed, nearly impossible, for them to have camped for long near an erupting volcano, or for Moses to have spent much time at or near its summit.
And, speaking of volcanoes, this brings us to the legendary “plagues” visited on Egypt. Some researchers who should have done more fact checking have suggested that these plagues were caused by the eruption of the super volcano Thera, located at the present Mediterranean island Santorini, then an outpost of Minoan civilization. But Thera erupted around 1,628 B.C., which, as we shall see, was far too early to fit the bill. And no Egyptian records refer to the disasters in Exodus, save for the Ipuwer Papyrus, which mentions only the Nile turning to “blood,” probably a red algae, and this seems to be referring to the drought that ended the Old Kingdom around 2,181 B.C.
But, again, is the basic Exodus story true, and, if so, when did it happen? Egyptian records do refer to a massive migration of Western Asian people called the “Hyksos,” and it is likely that these were primarily Canaanites, including the Israelites. A few seem to have come to the Delta as early as 1.800 B.C., and the main invasion was after 1,700 B.C., perhaps going on for several decades. The Hyksos brought composite bows, war chariots, and improved battle axes; unsurprisingly, with such military technology, they conquered Egypt and there were six Hyksos pharaohs before the natives, perhaps led by Ahmose I, drove them out around 1,560 B.C. A remainder stayed behind and were enslaved. So it seems likely that the Israelites, or some of them, did indeed live in the “Land of Goshen,” and were probably enslaved, and left in 1,560 B.C., or, probably, one to three centuries later. Traditional, including rabbinical, estimates for Moses’ time range from1592 B.C. to 1201 B.C., and these all fall in the period from thirty years to 359 years after the original expulsion of most of the Hyksos. We can never be sure, but, looking at a median date, it is quite likely that the exodus occurred around 1,380 B.C., give or take twenty years or so. On the other hand, the Bible says that the Israelites destroyed the town of Jericho, and Jericho IV was in fact destroyed around 1530 to 1550 B.C., so if they left Egypt with the other Hyksos around 1560 B.C. the Biblical account could be true.
As mentioned above, Ahmose I drove out the Hyksos, so if the Israelites left then, he was the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus. In 1,380 B.C. the Pharaoh would probably have been Amenhotep III, believed to have reigned from about 1,390 B.C. to perhaps 1,352 B.C. Or the Israelites may have left between these two dates, and there were three Pharaohs in that time.
Speculating further, it looks as if the Israelite tribe of Canaanites (or many of them, as some may have already returned to Canaan, or never left there to begin with) largely fled Egypt at that time, perhaps led by a renegade Egyptian named Moses (Sigmund Freud suggested that Moses may have been a renegade Egyptian priest during the reign of Ahkenaten, which lasted from about 1353 to 1334 B.C.). This seems improbable, but why would the Israelites, who had every reason to resent the Egyptians, assign an Egyptian name to their leader? Of course, it is also possible that the Biblical story is approximately true, and that Moses actually was an Israelite adopted and named by an Egyptian. Most likely, when the Israelites lived in Goshen they simply adopted some Egyptian words and Egyptian names…like Moses. Whatever their leader’s name, they fled through a shallow bay, lake, or marsh when the tide was out and/or there was a wind setback, and the pursuing Egyptians were bogged down and gave up the pursuit. They made their way to Midian, where they saw an erupting volcano and briefly camped as near it as they dared, and Moses (or whoever) either did or did not ascend part way up the mountain and return with stone tablets bearing the commandments, whether literally given to him by God (again, let’s keep our minds open) or inscribed by Moses himself.
Sometime later Moses died and the Israelites were led by Joshua (Joshua, Jessie, and Yeshua were variants of a common name, so he may really have been named “Joshua”) north into what is now Israel, where they settled, usually peacefully, but with some battles with their close relatives over land. As for this being the “promised land,” it was, after all, their original homeland; even Abraham, although he had lived in Sumer (if he existed at all) was probably of Canaanite ancestry, for the Israelites appear to have been nomadic herdsmen and travelling merchants, moving around from Mesopotamia in the east to Egypt in the west, learning from everyone as their religion and their culture evolved.
And if it didn’t happen that way, it should have.
Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.