Moses in Egypt

Moses in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A painting by Nicolas Poussin depicting Moses' rescue from the Nile River

A fairly recent documentary starring Charlton Heston which has aired on the Discovery Channel and other education networks made an argument for Akhenaten, Egypt's 18th Dynasty heretic King with Moses of biblical fame. There is nothing new in this argument, which has been made since antiquity. Even Manetho, and Egyptian Priest (c. 300 BC) who wrote a valuable history of Egypt claims that the founder of monotheism, whom he called Osarsiph, assumed the name Moses and led his followers out of Egypt in Akhenaten's reign. Afterwards, other writers such as Lysimachus, Tacitus and Strabo also alluded to this association between Akhenaten and Moses. In the modern era, Sigmund Freud (an active collector of Egyptian artifacts) also proposed this theory in an influential study of Moses and monotheism, and today there is no small number of web sites that likewise continue this argument.

Akhenaten receiving life from the Aten

Akhenaten is frequently referred to as the heretic king because he revolutionized Egyptian religion, at least for a brief period, creating a system that was as close as ancient Egypt would ever come to monotheism with his worship of the Sun Disk called the Aten. Strict monotheism is first demanded of the Israelites in connection with Moses and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, and therefore, writers throughout the ages have made the association between Akhenaten and Moses.

However, the Old Testament offers no evidence of a relationship between Moses and Akhenaten, and in fact there has never been any direct evidence of Moses discovered in Egypt. It is even questionable whether the Old Testament authors could have even known about him at all. Because of Akhenaten's revolutionary religious ideas, his successors largely eliminated his memory by hammering and hacking his name and the record of his reign from monuments throughout Egypt.

Furthermore, Akhenaten's religion was, at least to some extent, the culmination of a path established by earlier pharaohs, but perhaps even more importantly, it should be noted that, according to the Bible, only after leaving Egypt were the Israelites given the laws of god which required that their Lord be worshipped exclusively. In fact, monotheism plays no real significant role in the Book of Exodus, which is assumed to be the earliest version of Moses' story, and by all accounts, prior to receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites worshipped more than one god. Hence, while Akhenaten cannot be completely ruled out as the Pharaoh of Exodus fame, there is not much reason to believe that he was, either.

In fact, the quest for Biblical accounts of ancient Egypt at least into the 19th Dynasty of Egypt's New Kingdom, take on an interesting approach by most investigators. Essentially, since there is no evidence to clearly support the existence of Joseph, or Moses, or the Israeli Exodus, most of the investigation examines what was possible, what cannot be ruled out, or what fits into and Egyptian context. In other words, is it possible that such events or people could have existed from what we know of ancient Egypt. Some specifics are very possible, such as Joseph's rise to importance in the Egyptian court. Other events, such as the Exodus, as specifically told in the Bible, are much more difficult. Though the Egyptians may not have liked to record defeats, it would seem very probable that, were the disasters inflicted upon them as detailed in the Bible, there would have survived some textual evidence. For example, the Egyptians certainly recorded events such as eclipses of the sun and the levels of the Nile Flood. Were the Nile to have turned to blood and every firstborn child suddenly have died, not to mention all of the other plagues mentioned in Exodus, there would have doubtless been some record left, particularly during the New Kingdom. Tomb records frequently provide us with the most meager of details, and we have, from that period, many thousands of documents recording civil actions and even commercial contracts.

Therefore, in order for serious scholars to accept the generality of such events, they must frequently reject some of the details as fiction. Therefore, we begin to ask the question of whether it was possible for Moses to have lived in Egypt. The bible tells us that between his birth in Egypt and death in Moab, Moses played many different roles. He had the privilege to speak with god, to plead on behalf of his community before the Pharaoh and to lead his people. He was a miracle worker, a prophet, a lawmaker and lawgiver, as well as a priest. Many scholars believe that at least some of these functions were only attributed to him in the course of tradition, but the key element here is his link between the Hebrews and Egypt.

Sargon II of Assyria from a relief at Dur-Sharrukin

One possibility is to interpret the biblical Exodus from Egypt is to set it against the known historical context of the Kingdom of Israel and the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 721 BC. In other words, the Exodus could have been modeled on the people of Samaria who were forcibly deported by their Assyrian conquerors. It could have reflected the circumstances, experiences and hopes of these people. Mostly, they needed a leader such as Moses.

The story of Moses' childhood has many features in common with the Mesopotamian legend of King Sargon, who, as an infant, was said to have been abandoned on the river in a basket. This story would have been fairly contemporary to the biblical authors of the 8th and 7th centuries BC who composed parts of the Old Testament. Hence, they may have adapted the Sargon legend to the Exodus, but this could have also reflected a more ancient memory of a similar event in Egypt. Therefore, while various details told in the Biblical account of Exodus may be fictional, that does not mean that some form of the Exodus did not take place, or that Moses himself did not exist. Certainly people of his race were in Egypt, and some probably served as slaves, as well as masters.

Otherwise, we must remember that people generally tend to build traditions around their historical founders, which in many cases are not planted firmly in reality. Egypt's own founder, Menes (though because of historical records, we may make speculate), is as difficult to identify as Moses, for while later tradition firmly places him at the roots of historical Egypt, contemporary proof is lacking. Consider also that only after several hundred years, historians now doubt that George Washington, one of the principal founding fathers of the United States, ever cut down an apple tree only to show the merits of honesty by confessing the act to his father.

In the final analysis, attributing Moses to a specific person, or even determining which specific Pharaoh was involved may always be a matter of speculation. To the modern reader, the biblical Moses seems to oscillate between tradition and reality, and more secure historical knowledge is probably not possible, at least at present.. And though an Exodus could have taken place, the specific details recorded in the Bible largely fall outside the sphere of probability, given the silence of any Egyptian record.

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