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Let My People Go Make Up History

February 3, 2010

All evidence indicates that the Egyptian pyramids were built by well-treated Egyptians.  They were fed meat, given good living quarters, honorable burials, and worked in 3-month shifts.

No evidence indicates that there was ever a substantial population of Jewish slaves in Egypt.  Israel didn’t begin to exist until 6 centuries after the completion of the last pyramid.   The oldest Jewish settlement in Egypt for which there is documentation was in 250 B.C.E., a few millennia after the time of the pyramids’ construction, and those guys owned Egyptian slaves.  There’s certainly no evidence for the massive Exodus described in Exodus. 
Even if you overlook the lack of documentary evidence for the more prosaic plagues – bug infestations and disease among livestock – if the waters of most important river in Egypt turned into blood, someone from Egypt would have jotted that down. Ditto for the FrogStorm, darkness at the break of noon, chunks of burning hail, and sudden and mysterious death of all first-born Egyptian sons. The real Biblical shit. The Ipuwer Papyrus documents an ancient calamity that befell Egypt, but it predates the supposed time of the slaves by centuries.

This much is well-understood. The most recent episode of Skeptoid reminded me that no evidence supports the traditional Biblical narrative. Before anyone accuses me of using the literal meaning of the Bible as a straw man for their own religious beliefs, let me say that I understand very well that modern Judaism is not hung up on Biblical historicity. I am not accusing anyone (except for dyed-in-the-wool fundies) of being naive, stupid, or obstinate in the face of contradictory evidence.

What’s really caught my imagination is the obvious question that flows from the understanding that all these facts aren’t facts: why does anyone believe them?  The story of pyramids built by Jews in captivity seemed to be floating around the ancient world; it was described by Herodotus at about the time that Exodus was written.  But Herodotus was full of shit (in keeping with his “Father of Lies”, not his “Father of History” moniker).  So why would this story become so important to Jewish identity that it was memorialized in the ultimate Jewish authority?

I have no fucking idea, but it’s fun to speculate.  An important element of the pyramid story is that it allows the Jews to be both victim and victor;  no status is lower than slavery, but the pyramids are gorgeous and mysterious triumphs of ancient engineering and construction. If you’re going to lay claim to something, might as well be those. What’s particularly puzzling is that it’s not like this fake exodus story is tangential. In a sense, the entire Torah arises from it. Moses leads the Hebrews and receives the most important revelation God ever gives. There’s matzah, manna and a pillar of fire. A golden calf, for crying out loud! Why did these stories persist sans evidence?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    February 3, 2010 3:12 pm

    papyrus leiden 348 makes a contemporary mention slavery.

    • Barry permalink*
      February 3, 2010 3:42 pm

      Contemporaneous with what, and what does it say? I have not found anything that indicates any kind of program that approaches the scale necessary for the construction of the pyramids. Certainly nothing that contradicts the idea that the consturction was performed by well-compensated Egyptians.

  2. Jonathan permalink
    February 3, 2010 8:46 pm

    Can’t find the text online because of too many Egyptologist-mystics and fundies Google-clogging everything up. Read about it in school, here is a fundie take on it for lack of wanting to put in the effort:

    The debate I remember from school is whether the people the Egyptians sometimes called the Habiru and other times called the Apiru are in fact the Hebrews. The etymological similarity between the words Habiru and Hebrew is obvious.

    However, the Egyptians did keep “habiru” or “Apriu” slaves, or serfs if you will.

    “A list of goods bequeathed to several temples by Pharaoh Ramesses III (around 1160 BC) includes many serfs, Egyptian and foreign: 86,486 to Thebes (2607 foreigners), 12,364 to Heliopolis (2093 foreign), and 3079 to Memphis (205 foreign). The foreign serfs are described as “maryanu (soldiers), apiru, and people already settled in the temple estate”.”

    But anyway, the story holds important metaphysical implications in its depiction of a people going from slavery and bondage into freedom. I know that Dawkins is down on faith and all, and I know you aren’t talking about that here, but Catholics, who are smarter than fundies, would, without contradicting Dawkin’s definition of faith, describe the process of faith as a kind of self improvement. In ancient and modern Jewish mystical sects, as well as with Catholics, as well as many Eastern religions, people meditate over stories that are frequently nonsensical and at other times incredibly difficult. At the very least it can be called a mental exercise. You know, something to keep you sharp.

    And yeah, the story was and still is used by Jews to create a national identity. Not even most people past and present who literally believe in the story would argue with that. Unless they are fundie Christians 🙂

    And even if parts of the story are based in History, the bulk of it is still myth, making it a historiography… I think I just mangled that last word. Going to go watch Lost now. Bye.

  3. Jonathan permalink
    February 3, 2010 11:26 pm

    Slave revolt or a bunch of jerks sacking cities? It depends wheather you trust the egyptian sources or the Hebrew.

  4. Barry permalink*
    February 3, 2010 11:30 pm

    Hope you enjoyed Lost. The Wikipedia article mentions that there is a theory that the Habiru (and various other spellings thereof) may be Hebrews, but there are alternative scholarly explanations. Even granting that they were Hebrews for the sake of argument, it does not overcome the historical records of the Egyptian construction crews.

    So at best, it’s possible that tens of thousands of Hebrews were there. Still far short of the hundreds of thousands of people it took to build the pyramids. Also, they are mentioned in accounts of Ramses III, who was not associated with the construction of pyramids.

  5. Jonathan permalink
    February 4, 2010 12:25 am

    Well, look. If people draw up documents for the sale and trade of slaves, and then draw pictures of happy people hauling rocks, you can assume the documents were written for one purpose and the paintings drawn for another.

    Also, what we know about the creation of myths, King Arthur, etc, is that they are usually based on some sort of historical event, and then embellished over the course of centuries.

    Even if the biblical story has some basis in a historical event, of course the rest of it, Joseph seeing into the future and then his brothers attack him because their dad gave him a special coat and then sell him and he is brought to Egypt where he becomes the pharaoh’s favorite and then his brothers come and bow down to him and then a new pharaoh enslaves them and then mosses was put in a basket… etc… etc… etc… Of course that is all myth.

    But, this does not mean there was some conspiracy to create a national character. It is more likely that the stories developed naturally over hundreds of years of being retold before they were ever written down, and more likely that they reflected the national character of the people telling them, and so served to reinforce it.

    Yes, the following is hasidic, but it seems to be well sourced:

    Slavery in Egypt:

    • Barry permalink*
      February 4, 2010 7:03 am

      For the most part, I don’t believe that there is anything sinister or conspiratorial about the pseudohistory of the Jews (or any other people – everyone does it). It’s very interesting to me that, given an infinity of possible stories, the ones they went with are what they are.

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