Every year but this one, I seem to catch the TV when the movie The Ten Commandments is on, and I’m always reminded how much I like the story of Passover. It’s such a fantastical tale, so far out of reality in so many ways. I always wonder what the hell really happened at that time, because so much of it is over the top.
Lots of questions such as:
- How could a mass exodus of over 600,000 people not leave a single piece of archaeological evidence?
- Just where was the Land of Goshen? Nobody knows.
- Which pharaoh was the oppressive one in Exodus? He is never named, and no one knows for certain. Seems like an important detail.
- Why would the Jews start worshiping a golden cow (an ancient Egyptian goddess/god, Hathor/Apis)? Weren’t they JEWS?
- How could slaves, who only knew how to make bricks, immediately begin fighting battles with Semitic tribes in Sinai and win?
- How did slaves have gold to make a golden calf? The bible also mentions that the slaves had slaves themselves. Huh?
Over the last year I’ve read a few books dealing with Egyptology and links between ancient Egypt and the ancient Hebrews, which have painted a more realistic picture of what might have happened. There are of course some books, such as this one, which try to explain the miracles/plagues in the Exodus with natural causes, but the books below take the bible less literally, and combine to describe a much more plausible scenario.
- Secrets of the Exodus – The Egyptian Origins of the Hebrew People
- The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran
What I Believe Probably Happened
Based on my readings, I believe a more likely account of what happened is the following:
- In the 18th Dynasty, Pharaoh Akhenaten (Akhenaton) turns Egypt upside down:
- He moves the capitol to a brand new city (Akhetaten),
- disbands the ancient priests,
- destroys old gods and statues in the ancient temples,
- creates a new monotheistic religion worshiping the solar disc Aten (Aton),
- establishes a cult following that flocks from far away lands to live in the new capitol.
- Akhenaten’s religion is more approachable now that the leadership hierarchy is abandoned, making for more avid followers. Sexuality is not oppressed, animal sacrifice is banned (implying tolerance to living things), art of this time is more emotionally expressive, and individuals can take a more active role in their own spirituality (houses at Akhetaten have been discovered to have prayer niches in entry ways to worship the Aten).
- Akhenaten’s capitol becomes a multilingual, cosmopolitan hub, attracting people from Persia, Babylon, and more. Everyone wants to see this utopia.
- With his focus on the new capital and religion, the rest of Egypt is neglected and becomes bitter and estranged. The priests who once had much power are angry.
- Akhenaten’s right-hand man, the grand vizier Ay (also revered as a god), is placed in charge of the rest of Egypt, travels the country, and gets an earful from the disgruntled Egyptians.
- Akhenaten dies after a rule of 17 years, and is succeeded by Smenkhkare (possibly his brother) for just a few years before death. Smenkhkare attempts to continue the religion of Aten.
- Tutankhaten (King Tut) is too young to effectively rule, so vizier Ay acts as the real leader.
- Ay understands the current state of affairs in Egypt. Much of the population is angry, the border lands are being attacked by invading tribes, and he needs to do something about this strange cult (that still reveres him) occupying this newly built city. The other Egyptians are ready to attack and destroy the heretics and their city, and Ay does not want civil war.
- His solution is to give the Atenists their own territory, in Canaan, and use them as a proxy army to help reinforce the Northern border that has been under attack.
- They need to leave quickly, the city is to be abandoned.
- Possibly under the direction of generals Horemheb and Ramesses (future Pharaohs), the Atenists are led north, across the Red Sea, and into Sinai. They are given military aid, supplies (manna? quail?), and training.
- While in the desert, some Atenists revolt and desire to return to ancient Egypt (the Golden Calf episode).
- Tutankhaten changes his name to Tutankhamum, moves the capitol back to Thebes, and abandons the new religion, reinstating the old gods and priests. Ay declares Akhetaten a “cursed city” and it is abandoned (not destroyed), lost and forgotten, much of it buried under sand, until the 1700’s when finally rediscovered again.
- Time and distance begin to separate the Atenists from their Egyptian past. The strange blend of multinational Atenists evolve their own language based on Egyptian. Lack of knowledge to train scribes in hieroglyphs leads to Hebrew as a shorthand version of Egyptian. Monotheism is continued.
- More time and distance. The Babylonians destroy the Jewish temple, battle and push into Egypt, and exile the Jews to Persia.
- Under Babylonian rule, where it is not permissible to speak favorably of their Egyptian past, the Jewish scribes are forced to alter their stories. Figures from Babylon (Abraham) play a more prominent role in history, and Egypt’s role is deprecated and made negative.
The justifications for this are numerous. A few are listed here:
- Tutankhamun’s tomb contained several artifacts similar to Hebrew ones:
- An ark, with wooden poles, similar to the ark of the covenant. One inner box contained gold foil panels with angelic figures having wings facing each other, similar to the angels on the ark of the covenant.
- The ark was covered in a fringed shawl, similar to tzitzit.
- The mummy had a golden skull cap, similar to the Kippah. The mummy also had a headpiece, bracelets on the arm, and rings covering the middle two fingers, similar to Tefillin.
- Ay and Aten (Aton) are linguistically related to the words for God in Hebrew. Ay is spelled with two reeds in hieroglyphs , similar to the word God spelled in Hebrew with two Yods י י . The yod is the “Y” sound, and so God in Hebrew is essentially unpronounceable (“YY”). In order to make it audible, it is pronounced “Adonai” instead. “Adon” means lord in Hebrew, and is very similar to Aten/Aton. Adon-Ay (Aton-Ay) is a natural fit here (Lord Ay).
- Many linguistic similarities between Hebrew and Egyptian (e.g. “Ra” the old polytheistic sun god means “Bad/Evil” in Hebrew).
- Similar mythology (Adam and Eve’s snake (similar to snakes in Ancient Egyptian mythology), the tree of life (lots of references in Egypt to sacred trees, including at Akhetaten), parting of the red sea (parting of the primordial waters myth), Moses and the basket down the Nile (predated by a similar Egyptian tale).
- The Copper Scroll of Qumran – An account of buried treasure, inscribed on copper, and found with the Dead Sea scrolls, has generally been seen to describe treasure possibly hidden after destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, although no treasures have ever been found where described. Makes more sense if you assume that the treasure came from Akhetaten as the Atenists fled, and was buried while leaving the city.
- Similarity between the Great Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 109.
- Similarity between the tablets of the ten commandments and royal cartouches.
When you start to follow this line of thinking, it seems that more and more evidence can fall into place and support this.