The Book of Exodus mentions a Pharaoh who appointed Joseph to high office; a later Pharaoh who “did not know” him; a Pharaoh who ordered the death of all male Hebrew babies; a Pharaoh who tried to kill Moses, and the Pharaoh of the Exodus itself. There are thus possibly five Pharaohs who aren’t named, though later books in the Hebrew Bible do name Pharaohs, like Shishak and Neco. Perhaps by the time the Exodus story was completed, no one could remember their names, or perhaps this indicates that the story is at least partly fictional. This matters, since the story’s presented as the momentous historical event that gave birth to Israel.
To put my cards on the table, I think there was a historical exodus, but only of a particular group of related people, who were later incorporated into the people called Israel who were already living in the land of Canaan. The incomers’ exodus story was adopted by the latter, in time becoming their ‘national epic’. After all, there are many Americans who identity with the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, despite having no direct connection to them. As someone once said, “Never let facts get in the way of a good story”.
The story’s hero is Moses but, once again, in this context of history and fiction, there’s something we should note. The book of Genesis is chock-full of family details and history. We follow the divergent ups-and-downs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their various wives and children. In contrast, however, we know next to nothing about the ‘real’ parents of Moses; about his supposed early life in the Egyptian court; or about his own wife and children who’re given little more than three opaque verses in Exodus 4:24-26. So, what kind of ‘history’ is this?
As I’ve said, I think there was an exodus, but its details, over centuries of re-telling, have been progressively ‘amplified’ and greatly exaggerated. Since we’re told there were 603,550 adult males, this suggests a total Hebrew population of around 2,000,000 – never mind their sheep and goats. As Richard Friedman points out in his book, “The Exodus”, ”if the people were marching eight across, when the first ones got to Mount Sinai, half the people were still in Egypt.”
Moses, like many another hero, has an ‘exceptional’ birth story. His parents, we’re told, were of humble stock but, after the Pharaoh ordered all male Hebrew babies to be drowned in the Nile, Moses (delicious irony) is actually rescued from the Nile, and is adopted by none other than a daughter of that same Pharaoh! How did she justify such a rescue, one wonders? And for good measure, through the stratagem of his older sister, the baby is breast-fed by his own mother, prior to being accepted as an adopted grandson of the Pharaoh of Egypt. This is an incredible story, and a very famous Jew, Sigmund Freud, had some things to say about it ….. next time.