Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

Passover: Now we can ask the Four Questions

Now that Passover is behind us, we can look at the account of the Exodus more dispassionately. Archaeologists are unwilling to discuss the subject as they will be considered to be heretical and unpatriotic if they have to say that there is no evidence for it on the ground or in inscriptions or anything external to the Hebrew Bible. There is no Egyptian evidence , not even of the dramatic parting of the Red Sea, nothing of the enslavement of the Israelites and nothing of the ten plagues. However, though we have been looking for direct evidence and have found none, there are texts and artifacts that bear on the story. But one has to accept that that these were later collected and interpreted by a later Jewish source who used them to make a comprehensible account with the Jewish people at its centre.

What were the Israelites doing in Egypt? They were an underclass and had been invited into the country to do the dirty jobs and. as they multiplied, they were resented and sidelined into producing mudbricks and trained to build in them. The greatest mudbrick project in the history of Egypt was the building of the city of Akhetaten, The heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten needed a new centre for the worship of his single god, the Aten, the disc of the sun, and he needed it quickly, so that he could marginalize the traditional gods of Karnak and their powerful priests. He chose a site on the east bank of the Nile, well away from the traditional religious centres, and he ordered the new royal city to be built in two years. He enlisted the army and the hosts of the underclass, gave them basic accommodation near the site and they built it, not in stone but in mudbrick, not in two years but in eight.

But Akhenaten’s religious reforms were not popular with the Egyptians and when he died the priests took their revenge on his successor and probable son-in-law, the boy-king Tutankhamun. The city was abandoned and its riches looted. The population disappeared and with them most of the treasures. Akhetaten (city of “the horizon of the sun-disc”) fell into ruin and decay and it was not until the early 20th century that a German archaeological team, financed by the Jewish Berlin-based cloth merchant James Simon, started to dig into the sand-covered site, now called El Amarna, and uncovered its history.

There were still treasures to unearth, like the bust of Nefertiti and the text of the Hymn of the Aten, a forerunner of out Psalm 104 (Borkhi Nafshi), and also a pointer to the Restoration Stele, later found at Karnak. This described how the priests had threatened Tutankhamun. They claimed that their multiple gods insisted on being returned to their rightful place in the religion of the country, and if the Pharaoh did not allow this, the gods would reign terror over the land. Hapi, the androgynous god o f the Nile, would turn its water to blood. Heket, the goddess of fertility, whose image was a frog, would unleash her frogspawn to cover the land, while the people and their cattle would suffer disease. Osiris, guardian deity of the ripening corn, would no longer protect it from attack by locusts and the sun god Ra would disappear for several days and let darkness rule. Bad enough but, worst of all, the Pharaoh would lose his firstborn son, only his six daughters would remain alive, and the established dynastic succession of father to son would fail.

Tiutankhamun was quick to allow the gods to resume their place in society, restored their offerings and so averted the threats, but the last curse had already fallen, and it was the young Tutankhamun, who had been married to one of the Pharaoh’s daughters, who inherited the throne, though he was not in the direct line of succession.

In the turmoil of the abandonment of the royal city, while religion was changing back to the old gods, and the centre was suffering acute depopulation, its mudbrick builders saw their chance, and they escaped with the treasures left behind by the elite. These will have included a battle-tent, the one that had been prepared fo Tutankhamun. The boy-Pharaoh had had a magnificent establishment, as we know from the treasures found by Howard Carter in his tomb in 1922. There were beds and chairs mounted on carrying staves, much rich ornamental jewelry and jars and, above all, a miniature wooden shrine protected by four winged and gilded females, and lined inside and out in gold, but no battle- tent. However there was a casket showing on its painted lid and sides the boy king riding his war chariot against the enemy, so he was made ready for battle, but where was the tent?

Every Pharaoh had to have a battle-tent for when he went to war, a shrine that could house the war-god for oracular consultation and supplication as the battle raged. That of Ramesses the Great is known, as it is shown on his temple at Abu Simbel, in the midst of the battle of Kadesh, that he nearly lost. It was constructed of two chambers, one square, one longer, surrounded by a lengthy courtyard, and the priests inside it are shown worshipping the god, in the form of a plaque, overshadowed and protected by two winged figures. Though seventy years earlier, the battle-tent of King Tut would no doubt have been similar.

His tent was not in the tomb because it had been carried off by the Israelites in their escape from the city. They knew they had to fight their wqy out of Egypt and across the Sinai, they were organized as a military force and they realised that they needed a battle-shrine for their God. They adapted Tutankamun’s tent to their needs and were meticulous in describing it in their records, how they rebuilt it, all its quantities, how they encamped around it to protect it and allow their leader to consult the deity, the Shekhinah, invisibly mounted on a gold-covered ark-like throne protected by two winged cherubim. They installed an Egyptian-style table of bread to provide sustenance, and a lamp, and hung many protective curtains inside and out.

This tent, now the Mishkan or Tabernacle, accompanied them throughout the desert Wilderness, and the Ark of the Covenant and the table of shewbread, based on Egyptian models, protected them for forty years.. When the time came to record their adventures, though probably only much later, it was the prophet Samuel who wrote their history, when he had to convince the people that Saul was appointed king to combine and lead the twelve disparate tribes, that came out of Egypt and Canaan, before the battle of Jabesh-Gilead, when it says, “Then Samuel told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book, and laid it up before the Lord” (I Samuel 10:25).

The boy Samuel had had access to the Egyptian records that his chief, Eli the High Priest, had inherited and kept safe, being a descendant of the priests and Levites that had formed the core of the Israelites of the Exodus.

So who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus? It was Akhenaten, the heretic Pharaoh, who started the process and it was his son-in-law Tutankhamun, who witnessed the evacuation of the royal city of Akhetaten, who avoided nine of the plagues and then inadvertently “Let My people go.”

About the Author
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is a senior fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem
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