Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

The Torah IS history — through a different lens

In recent weeks, a number of articles have appeared once again asserting that the narratives in the Torah — especially the ones that are now unfolding in the weekly readings on Shabbat — have no basis in historical reality.

One such article, published in the daily newspaper Haaretz, said that despite “cutting-edge dating and molecular technologies, archaeologists increasingly agree…that generally, the Bible does not reflect historical truths.” This is especially true regarding Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Says the Haaretz article, “There is, in fact, no evidence to substantiate [the narratives in the Book of] Exodus.”

The Torah, however, is a theocentric — God-oriented — document. It is a record of events as they happened — but as viewed through a prism in which the Hand of God is everywhere to be seen and felt. It is not literal history, and never pretended to be. Actual events are “distorted” by this prism. A localized drought becomes a famine that covers the whole world. A major regional conflict becomes a desert skirmish. Naturally occurring phenomena become miracles. Everything is recast to make God the central character, and God’s will the central theme.

This does not mean the stories themselves are fiction or fable; only that they are not meant as literal history.

Is there any evidence that a Semitic thirtysomething (Joseph) rose to power in an Egyptian court, or that his family was well received by the Pharaoh and his court, only to eventually be turned into Egypt’s slaves? Is there evidence this family (now grown into a nation in number) was freed from slavery following a series of plagues?

There is some evidence to support parts of this (including all 10 plagues), the Haaretz article and others notwithstanding, but the evidence is flimsy and open to interpretation.

What is not flimsy and open to interpretation is the actual history of Egypt — into which the biblical story fits perfectly. Briefly stated, the saga of Israel in Egypt must begin with the capital city in the Nile Delta, and must end 430 years later with the capital again in the same place. Only twice in Egyptian history do we find the capital in the Delta: When the Hyksos reigned (the improperly named Hyksos were mostly Semites from the Canaan region who ruled s large chunk of Egypt for more than 150 years), and when the Ramesside pharaohs ruled from there. Four hundred and twenty-nine years elapse from when Joseph would have entered into Egypt and the Pharaoh Merneptah’s reign ended (he being the most likely Pharaoh of the Exodus).

Space does not allow for a detailed discussion, but here are some points to consider.

Even though the Torah is silent about the period between Joseph and Moses, we know a great deal from history about the Egypt of those years, especially of the 18th Dynasty. There is one segment of this period, however, of serious interest — the reign of Amenophis IV. He ruled Egypt from 1352 B.C.E. until 1338 B.C.E. A little over four chaotic decades later, the Ramesside era will begin.

In his fourth year, Amenophis IV changed his coronation name to Akhenaten and attempted to reform Egypt’s religion, giving it “a universalist tone which has all the trappings of monotheism,” according to the Egyptologist Nicolas Grimal.

The biblical text makes clear that Israel’s time in Egypt was not spent in actual slavery until near the end of the 430-year sojourn. Assuming the Joseph saga takes place in the years before the 18th Dynasty, meaning in the Hyksos period, something happened during the 18th Dynasty to cause a new king to arise in Egypt “who knew not Joseph,” and that turned the Egyptians against the Israelites.

That “something” may well have been Akhenaten and his short-lived religious revolution. Akhenaten’s “new” religion was Atenism, or the worship of one god — Aten, the sun — and he was heavy-handed in his approach to it. In the words of another Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, “In proportion as his power grew, the stronger the ardour with which he persecuted time-honoured tradition….[Even the] very word for ‘gods’ was taboo.”

Akhenaten’s religious revolution did not survive him. The enmity it produced was too strong for his three immediate successors — Smenkhkare, Tutankhamen, and Ay — to ignore or overcome. Their reigns were brief and suspect, so much so that by early in the 19th Dynasty, “all of the Amarna kings had been removed from the record, just as their names were erased from the monuments,” Grimal writes.

As far as Egypt was concerned, Horemheb, an army general with no royal blood who became the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, immediately followed Amenophis III. He devotes his career on the throne to wiping out any traces of Akhenaten and his heresy. He also was a prodigious builder.

If the Israelites were in Egypt at the time, and in one way or another adhered to monotheistic beliefs or tendencies, Horemheb surely would have seen them as a threat to be dealt with in the strongest ways possible. This would be especially true if their beliefs or tendencies somehow influenced the hateful heresies of Akhenaten.

Now here are two “facts” that admittedly are fanciful on their face, but because they emerge from annoying coincidences, beg for illumination nonetheless.

The first involves why the Akhenaten episode is known as the Amarna period. That is because it was at El-Amarna that he established his new capital. Akhenaten, however, never heard of the name Amarna. The name accrued to the site in the 18th century C.E. because a tribe known as the Beni Amran inhabited the area when it was discovered.

Who were the Beni Amran? Other than the tribe supposedly arrived at the site about 200 years before the archaeologists did, we know virtually nothing of it, including how it got its name. “Beni Amran” means “the children of Amran” in Arabic. In Hebrew, that works out to be the B’nai Amram, the children of Amram. In the Torah, the “children of Amram” are Levites, and their names were Aaron, Miriam, and Moses. Is there a connection between the B’nai Amram and the Beni Amran? No one has studied that, as yet.

As to the second fact, to reach Amarna, you must first travel to the ancient town of Mallawi, and take a ferry for a brief ride across the Nile to Amarna on the other side. Mallawi is derived from “Mal-Levi,” which literally means the City of the Levites — the city of the family that gave birth to Amram and Moses, the city of the family that would become Israel’s priests.

Could it be that it was the original “Beni Amran” who finally drove Akhenaten, who in his early days as king still showed fealty to Egypt’s pantheon of gods, to push Atenism to its limits? Is that why Israel was enslaved?

Very likely, we will never know the answer to these questions, or even whether they are legitimate questions to ask.

Can we truly argue, however, that the Torah does not reflect historical truths if we do not know who the Beni Amran are, and what a “city of the Levites” was doing in central Egypt right where Akhenaten set up his worship to the “one god”?

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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