Archaeology and the early Old Testament

writings of and commentary inspired by Charles Pellegrino

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Part III : The Exodus and the Raiders With the Lost Ark

Leaving Egypt - the Exodus

Nomadic people leave very little in the way of archaeological record, so the sojurn of the Israelites in the Sinai, ala Exodus is, to a big extent, unverifable. Still, if one accepts that the story of the 10 plagues is linked to the Thera eruption and the consequent effects it had on Egypt and that the biblical story of oppression and exodus in fact refer to references in Egyptian records of oppression by the Hyksos dynasty (Semite invaders, ie: Jews) and subsequent expulsions following an Egyptian revolution under Amose I; then the exodus story may in fact be a telescoping of several "exoduses" of Semites into one, the one which happened when the "earth shook, dark clouds of fire covered the earth, the sea swallowed egyptian armies and so forth" being the final (?) Thera-inspired exodus. From a literary viewpoint that makes sense since it would heighten the impact and message. Of course, the OT account is also "biased" since it was written by the Jews, after all, thus it casts them is the most favourable light. Mind you, while the Semites were originally oppressing the Egyptians and, in their turn, were oppressed when the Egyptians regained control, this does not mean that one or more Semite tribes that would eventually come to be called the Jews were amongst those in power - the proto Jews could have been the slaves/underdogs for both the Semite princes and then the Egyptian pharoahs. But the stories of Moses and Joseph would suggest that the Jews were among those who invaded and oppressed the Egyptians for a time. Which puts a new slant on the tale of Joseph! Of course, the Egyptian account is just as biased as the Jewish one, so the real truth may never be known, but archaeology does show that at the time Joseph and the Jews were in Egypt, Egypt was being ruled by Semite invaders. Where the Jews fitted in is another matter. Egyptian records make no mention of a bunch of Semites calling themselves Jews, or any other name associated with them, either historically or biblically.

Something that struck me during a sermon I recently heard on Exodus (the parting of the Red Sea) was that it said "as they travelled to the Red Sea the pillar of fire/cloud was ahead of them, as they went across it was behind them" (paraphrasing). Now, on their way out of Egypt they first would have had to travel north (roughly in the direction of Thera) and then south east (Thera would then be behind them). That suggests to me, if nothing else, that the fire/cloud was a stationary reference point that they may have used, even if they were filled with fear and not knowing wot it was. So it could, possibly, have been Thera, which would have been a cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night - for months, if not years after the original eruption and as the new volcanoe in the fresh crater grew. Combine their flight from a hostile people, great disturbances in the world and the possibility of facts being distorted etc becomes quite plausible. Subsequent references during "the" exodus to a volcanic Mt Sinai (there is no vuncanism in Sinai, present or within human history) may have been to Thera instead.

Then we come to the parting of the Red Sea. First off, likely the tidal wave from Thera? Well the description in exodus is almost idential to that used by other people who saw and described tidal waves, such as the one from Krakatoa. While the Thera tidal wave could not possibly have reached the Red Sea (Indian Ocean), it would have reached the trade route going along the north coast of Sinai to Canaan, which had Egyptian sentry posts etc all along it, so the Thera tidal wave would have swept down on pharoah's army (the string of sentry posts) like a great wall of water, killing them all.

And what of the reference to the Red Sea? Plainly Thera could have no effect there (Cecil DeMille aside!), but the Egyptians did have a canal going from the Red Sea to the Mediterrean, much like the modern Suez Canal, it may have referred to an incident on the northern part of the canal. The original text say's the incident happened at "yam sup", which translates as "Reed Sea", not the Red Sea, which would have been "yam adam". The marshland in Egypt's north has been known for many 1000's years as the Reed Sea and, given it's position, it would have been hit by the Thera tidal wave.

The Israelites may, or may not, have crossed the Reed Sea while the tidal wave sucked the water away and the returning water may have drowned pursuing Egyptians. Maybe. But the "parting" would have happened at the same time as the "plagues", so even if it did happen the chronology would be out. Maybe one bunch of Israelites fled and saw the "parting of the yam sup", another lot stayed longer (looting?) and saw (suffered?) the "plagues" and then left, the two groups meeting up and merging their travel stories. Sounds a reasonable alternative to me. As for Moses, he may or may not have existed, he may have been at the "parting" or he may have been at the plagues, but unless he was a very unusual person (or identical twins) he couldn't have been at both! The parting was not days or even months after the plagues, as the bible suggests, but at the same time.

In at least one aspect the OT Egypt sojurn may have been correct. After the Semite invaders were overthrown by the Egyptians, for the next 100 years or so, according to Egyptian records, some Semite tribes were used as slave labour in quarries, mines and building temples. But the Egyptian records don't distinguish b/t one semite tribe/race and another, they were all the same as east asians are all the "same" to westerners, despite being many different races. The last of the Semites were turfed out of Egypt following the Thera eruption which resulted in famine in Egypt.

Incidently, Ezekiel 27-28 appears to be an account of the destruction of Thera (while the passage mentions Tyre, it may be based upon the earlier destruction of Thera and the Minoan Empire, of which Tyre was a distant outpost):

Son of man, take up a lament concerning Tyre. Say to Tyre, situated at the gateway to the sea, merchant of peoples on many coasts, This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You say, O Tyre, "I am perfect in beauty." Your domain was on the high seas ... [the Minoan Empire's great strength lay in it's virtual monopoly of trade in the Mediterrean Sea] ... Your oarsmen take you out to the high seas. But the east wind will break you to pieces in the heart of the sea. Your wealth ... will sink into the heart of the sea on the day of your shipwreck. The shorelands will quake when your seamen cry out ... They will raise their voice and cry bitterly over you; they will sprinkle dust on their heads and roll in ashes .. As they wail and mourn over you, they will take up a lament concerning you: "Who was ever silenced like Tyre, surrounded by the sea?" .. Now you are shattered by the sea in the depths of the waters; your wares and all your company have gone down with you .. I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations; they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom and pierce your shining splendor. They will bring you down to the pit, and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.

Mind you, one can interpret virtually anything out of the Bible, just look at the history of Christianity.

In the Wilderness

As with the account of the first part of the exodus, the biblical picture of a whole nation leaving Egypt, travelling around Sinai and then descending on Canaan like a plague is an oversimplification of the possible truth. More likely over a period of several 100 years groups and tribes (no millions) would have left Egypt and made their way to Canaan, where the Canaanites would have slowly have been outnumbered by the Semites. The "40 years in the wilderness" possibly could refer to the time needed for the Semites to amass enuf numbers of refugees from Egypt and make treaties with other kingdoms before trying to challenge the Canaanites. Also, for some time after Thera the Egyptians had military control over northern Sinai and frequently sent armies into Canaan. So it makes sense that the Hebrews went via southern Sinai and took their time getting to Canaan - simply avoiding the Egyptians! It also gave time for them to lose their Egyptian trappings and regain their Semite heritage, somewhat. The golden cow episode during the exodus and ba'al bull worship through the next 1000 years or so were due to remaining Egyptian influences (who'se most sacred animal was the bull, golden or otherwise).

It's at this time that the Hebrews came in contact with the radically generous new laws that were coming out of Sumeria, and so was born the Mosaic (OT) law. But even then, some were more equal with others. Mosaic law equated the worth of a slave to that of an ox! Under Mosaic law you could sell daughters as slaves, beat your wife to death and suffer no more penalty than if she were an ox too.

Speaking of the law, what about the stone tablets? Well there was a long and widespread tradition back then of people putting their laws in stone. The Minoans carved their laws in stone pillars, and so did Hammurabi who used a 7 foot tall stone tablet for his 200+ laws, many of which are very similar to the Mosaic law (but 300 years before Thera). According to Hammurabi's tablet, he too met his god (sun god) on a mountain where he received the tablets from the hands of the god. This tablet was captured by another king and broken into three, aka Moses throwning his tablets on the ground and breaking them. Unlike Moses' tablets, Hammurabi's are still around (in the Paris Louvre). Now one can talk about coincidences ... but there seem to be too many there to dismiss.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Yes, as the movie said, Hitler did search for the Ark. He did find what was reputed to be the spear thrust into JC on the cross.

Was there ever such a thing as the Ark of the Covenant? No one knows... but there almost certainly was an ark. Around that time, nomad tribes would often carry sacred chests with them when they went into war, made of gold or covered with gold, it was believed that their god would appear above the chest and lead them to victory. Several Hebrew arks have been found too. So not only did they have an ark, they likely had several of them! Maybe one is buried beneath the sands covering a forgotten Egyptian city ... *grin*

Jumping ahead a bit .. the Bible last mentions the Ark when it was ensconed in Solomon's Temple, but Jewish tradition holds that it dissapeared when the Babylonians sacked the temple (586BC).

Ethiopian tradition holds that Solomon gave a copy (?) of the ark to his son by the Queen of Sheba (modern ethiopia and Yemen, seperated by about 20 miles of water). The Song of Solomon is supposedly written by Solomon as a love poem to the Queen of Sheba and in SoS 1 she admits to being black (ie african). The Sheban ark contained a copy of the tablets, a bit of the broken ones, a bit of manna and a few other odds'n'ends. But like the Jewish one, it too disapeared, legend says that it ended up in Iram (in Oman), buried in the countless miles of caves beneath that buried city.

Wot of the Jewish Ark? Jewish legend holds that before the Temple was looted it was hidden beneath the temple in a maze of tunnels built by Solomon (no doubt he was wise enuf to predict that scenario) where the priests sealed themselves in a vault with the Ark and suicided so the secret could not be tortured out of them - much as the Egyptian pharoah's had planned, but possibly more successfully (in the latter case they made secret exits and so the tombs were looted). In fact tunnels have recently been discovered under the original foundations, but since they lie beneath the Dome of the Rock, one of the most important mosques in the world and in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem there hasn't exactly been a chance for further exploration. But it's most likely fate? The same as most other such "battle chests" and other gold covered relics ... the gold melted down and the wood and stone trashed so as to remove any curse.

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