Recently, we gathered at Seder tables to recite the Exodus narrative. It should be remembered that ours isn’t the only version of the story. The Egyptians also relate a version. Their narrative is a mirror image, a view through their own particular lens, of Israel’s flight from Egypt. Just as the bible’s version gave the world enduring conceptions of liberty and freedom, the Egyptian narrative also bequeathed several lasting conceptions of its own.
The original Egyptian narrative may have been transmitted earlier, but it was produced in writing by the Egyptian historian Manetho in the second century b.c.e.
His narrative, preserved by Josephus and summarized here, informs us that the pharaoh Amenophis wanted to see the gods. Amenophis summoned a famous heathen priest to learn how this might be accomplished. The pharaoh was told to round up all the lepers and polluted people and drive them out of Egypt.
Pharaoh accordingly gathered some 80,000 leprous or polluted people. Rather than forcing them out of Egypt, he forced them into the Egyptian stone quarries as slaves. The heathen priest predicted the gods would react harshly to pharaoh’s disobedience and that the polluted people would someday take control of Egypt for thirteen years.
After years of a forced servitude, the polluted people established themselves in Avaris, the abandoned Hyskos capital. A leprous priest named Osarseph emerged as the slave leader. He engineered a revolt.
Amenophis caught wind of the planned revolt and, remembering the prediction of the heathen priest, sent his five year old son into hiding.
The polluted people took control and for thirteen years inflicted unspeakable damage on Egypt. It was during this time that the leprous priest Osarseph changed his name to Moses.
After the former slaves had ruled Egypt for thirteen years, Amenophis and his son returned from exile, raised an army and drove the polluted people out of Egypt and deep into Syria, where they established the city of Jerusalem.
Manetho’s narrative was written at a time when it was accepted that the line between history and fiction need not be too distinct. He and others wrote at a time when Alexandria was a Greek city. In the two centuries immediately before the common era, Alexandria was the glittering commercial, cultural and intellectual center in the Greco-Roman world and also had the largest Jewish population in the Diaspora. There was a profound cultural collision East and West, between the Hebraic spirit and the Hellenic spirit. Succeeding generations of Greek-Egyptian historians took up Manetho’s malevolent narrative and added their own interpretations, interpretations which became increasingly unflattering towards the Jews. From these narratives, we get the portrait of Jews as undistinguished, and fundamentally polluted, a ‘godless’ people, a group that hates the rest of mankind. These prototypical anti-Semitic writings also gave the world the calumny that once a year, Jews kidnap a non-Jew who they fattened, killed, then ate in the Temple.
Alexandria saw anti-Jewish riots and history’s first pogrom. Early in the common era, this war of narratives reached such a pitch that delegations were sent to present their case before the unbalanced emperor Caligula. The delegation for the Jews included the well known scholar Philo and on the other side was history’s first professional anti-Semite, Apion. Apion used Manetho as source material and this is rebutted by Josephus in his famous defense of Judaism, Against Apion.
The Egyptian narrative in various forms has survived the ages and had an undeniable impact on our world. While the events as described in the Egyptian narrative have been largely forgotten, elements of its malicious portrait of the Jews still survive among the vulgar. We can be thankful that more people have been attracted to and touched by the message of human dignity, liberation, freedom, and independence found in the narrative in the biblical book of Exodus.