This composition approaches the topic not from religious but historical viewpoint. The Bible is only referred to as historical source, not as to the holy book of Christian and Jewish religions. The following working up is meant to be free interpretation of the sources and does not strive for rendering any of them in fullness. The composition is not meant to represent religious standpoint or start theological debate. It is created by personal idea, formed by personal opinion. Its preparation has not been influenced by racial or religious prejudice, its writer has been motivated exclusively by her passion and rapture to the Ancient Egypt and her culture and the desire to reveal one of the most famous stories of the world through the eyes of the other party.
On these pages we always come up with topics that deal with events of the Ancient Egypt debated up to the present times and mysterious features of her culture. Scholars have been arguing about these issues trying hard to fill in the black holes with results of new researches but there may not be another topic that has been equally debated in scientific and religious circles during the history of such researches as the Exodus, the life of the Jewish people under the reign of pharaohs and its withdrawal from Egypt. Of course the subject has gained extra attention due to its religious context, but I would like to put light on the historical background though resulting from its nature the question can not be discussed disregarding its role in the Bible, consequently in the traditions of many peoples. The other reason of increased interest is that we have two different sources - born independently from each other - when we look for the answers. Yes, we can consider ourselves to be lucky since history is rarely so graceful. The remained information - sometimes not more than bits and pieces - are usually one-sided so they do not provide us genuine view of the actual events and processes. The farther we go back in time, the harder to get trustworthy information. Therefore it is especially fortunate if we can have more, mutually independent sources about a certain historical event happened back there, in the twilight of the past.
So which are these two sources in the case of the Exodus? The Bible is at our disposal, more precisely the second book of Moses which gives a detailed report about the miserable and woeful life of the Jews in Egypt, the runaway of the prophet called Moses, his being chosen by God and his return followed by his struggle with the pharaoh of that time, the ten plagues and then the withdrawal. In the Bible we have to face a coherent story, a comprehensive whole that allows no place for guesswork. The available information of other side are much more difficult to interpret. The Egyptian historical sources are more defective leaving more room for conclusions and conjecture. The picture assembles like a puzzle, the pieces of which are royal inscriptions, historical parallels, and archaeological artefacts. We may suppose that the Historian or the Egyptologist has an easy job: the pieces of the puzzle have to be joined up into the frame provided by the Bible and lo there it is the movie in front of your eyes, about the 3200-year-old story.
But the picture that assembles from the pieces doesnt seem to support the Biblical version. In this case the two sources totally contradict and disagree to each other. Poor scientist is in even more complicated situation. She or he has to mine out the details from the insufficient data that can enlighten the truth hidden somewhere between the contradicting statements.
This might be outstandingly complicated if the two testators were each others enemies, since both believed blindly in its own truth and the inscriptions reflect this belief. In such cases the testimony of a third - outsider - party would be precious (e.g. the report of a foreign merchant who witnesses the actual events personally) but unfortunately such a source is not remained. Further difficulties of interpretation come from the means of ideological manipulation that penetrates both sources: the Jewish religious propaganda on one side, the endless celebration of the king on the other.
The researcher nevertheless has some tools to unwrap the truth from the dazzling glaze of the propaganda. One of these methods - in which through the examination of the sources in other connections and either of the sources may be pronounced to be perfectly unreliable - here I would not deal with because it would unavoidably hurt the religious conviction of some readers. The other method is asking questions, searching for the answers in the contradicting crossroads. Then lets ask them and try to find the answers, based on the available sources.
Were the Jews really slaves in Egypt?
so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly (Moses II 1.13) - says the Bible. It is widely accepted that the Jewish people lived in slavery in Egypt though it is not mentioned even in the Bible itself. Moses talks about hard work, socage and drudgery torture but not slavery.
In Egypt the institution of slavery was not unknown but the slave, as work power never became essential factor of the economy like it was in the ancient Rome. Slaves were luxury articles, fancy goods, objects of present (the king often gave slaves as present for his loyal officials or military officers as acknowledgement) and mostly they were employed in the household. Only insignificant part of captives carried off during the wars was enslaved. Most of them were settled and given estate in the Valley of the Nile, which they could cultivate for themselves on under taxation for the royal treasury. Those were not slaves who worked in the agriculture and on the buildings, but free peasants who cultivated their own field and during the period of the swelling, when the Nile raised and prevented any kind of agricultural activity on the fields, they worked on the pharaohs buildings for wages! Some accounts have remained that provide evidence of allowance given by the pharaoh for the work performed at the buildings. This was obligatory and undoubtedly hard and cruel work but not slave-socage. And it was obligatory for everyone: Egyptian, Jew, and Nubian - in the same way.
The Jewish people settled down on the land of Goshen in the Eastern half of the Delta, they were given fields there, they built their homes there, and they drove afield their animals there. Considering all these facts a question comes to my mind: if the people of Israel were enslaved on the land of Egypt, how could they have their house, field and cattle? How could a slave have any kind of personal property considered to be his own?
Who was Moses rival on the throne of Egypt?
This question is harder to answer than the previous one since the sovereign is only referred to, and remains unnamed even in the Bible. We cannot be sure whether we have to talk about one or two pharaohs. Maybe the pharaoh who reigned when Moses was born is identical with the one who confronted him during the withdrawal of the Jews, but according to the other version the king whose daughter found Moses in the basket is not the same as the one who rivalled Moses and the wish of his God.
The book of Moses mentions that the Jewish people worked on raising a city called Per Rameses in the age of Moses birth (actually the Bible talks about two cities, Pithom and Rameses but the etymological researches suppose that these must have been the same city). This was the capital of Rameses II, the building of which is referred to also in other sources. According to this information Moses must have been brought up in the court of Rameses II and later confronted Rameses or his successor, Merenptah when he demanded the release of his people.
In case we accept the first version - that the two pharaohs are the same person - than we must face Rameses, since only his reign was long enough (67 years long) to avoid chronological contradiction (even if we disregard the excessive temporal estimations of the Bible).
An inscription of pharaoh Merenptah, the so-called Israel-stela, supports this opinion. Its name comes from its being the first Egyptian evidence of the people of Israel. Egyptologist scholars have come to the consequence that Israel must have been an independent people standing against Egypt which means that the withdrawal must have been completed during the reign of Merenptah (here we also have to consider that Merenptah was rather aged already at his accession and reigned only for 10 years).
A detail of the text inscribed on the stela gives us a strong back up of this theory. The inscription lists the countries conquered by the pharaoh. In the Egyptian language there is a so-called haset-hieroglyph standing as determinative sign after the names of foreign countries. It's meaning is foreign country too. Nevertheless, after the name of Israel the remet-hieroglyph is written, which is the determinative of peoples. This necessarily makes us suppose that at that time the Jews were not settled down on their later homeland yet, and they must have been considered a wandering tribe. If we start from the basis given by the Bible i.e. the Jewish people migrated in the desert for 40 years then the withdrawal - taking the years of reign into consideration once again - must have been completed within the years of Rameses.
According to some interpretations Moses was born under the reign of Sethi I (father and predecessor of Rameses II) and the withdrawal must have taken place under the reign of Rameses again.
Neither of the opinions can be proven without doubts. Whichever you may accept, some details will remain contradictions anyway.
Why did the pharaoh refuse to let the Jews go?
Let me ask this question in another way: What reason did he have to detain them? The contemporary sources count Jews not more numerous than two or three thousand, contradicting the Bible that counts millions as the population of the Jewish people. Those days the population of the entire land of Egypt did not reach the scale of millions!
Work power was more than enough both on the fields and on the buildings. It was a matter of weeks to replace the Jewish peasants and workers with Asian or Nubian ones.
It is improbable that the pharaoh would let his beloved Egypt suffer from the ten plagues in order to hold back some thousand of easily replaceable work power. Conceivably, in the background of the confrontation there could have been the personal conflict of the pharaoh and Moses - his earlier beloved brother. Maybe the imperial propaganda did not let the pharaoh to show vulnerability. What would then prevent a rebellion later? If we try to imagine ourselves standing in the pharaohs shoes (sandals, as a matter of fact) it is hard to accept that he really believed in the divine origin of the ten plagues (see the next question).
The Bible provides a rather unambiguous answer about this issue. According to the Bible, God promises to harden the heart of the pharaoh in order to let his miracles work on the land of Egypt.
Besides the Exodus refers to Gods words saying that he hardens the heart of the pharaoh. The king shows willingness to give in for Moses demand but Moses always comes up with new ones. Later he wants to take not only his people but their animals, too. Then he wants more: their own animals are not enough. He demands sacrificial animals from the pharaoh. Well perhaps I would be a bit annoyed if I was the pharaoh.
Was it the Jews god who brought the ten plagues upon Egypt?
In this question we can lean on speculations only but if we step from plague to plague we will see that none of them necessarily takes divine intervention. As for me I dont assert or deny anything but we must consider the following possibilities:
4.1 He raised his staff at the presence of the Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile and the rivers and waters of Egypt ran red and were as blood. (Moses II. 7.20)
Unfortunately we could not see the Nile flood in Egypt - thanks to the Aswan High Dam. We have to rely on the descriptions given by the travellers of earlier ages if we want to know how the rising Nile looked like. Gaston Maspero, an Egyptologist who lived and worked around the turn of the century describes the sight in his book The History of the Ancient Egypt:
The water in its whole mass was dim, dark red coloured and rather more similar to blood than any other kind of mass.
The Nile brings settling rich in iron oxide with the flood from the Ethiopian highland. This settling gives her that typical red colour and makes her similar to a river of blood in the first period - lasting for only a couple of days - of the flood.
4.2 So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt and the frogs came out and cover the land. (Moses II. 8.6.)
The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies, and even the ground where they are.. (Moses II. 8.21)
The parasites and other species for which they served as food necessarily increase significantly in the months of the flood due to the wetter environment.
Neither the cattle-plague was a unique occurrence (it happens sometimes also in our age, right?). Egyptians tried to keep off domestic animals from the migrating wild herds since the wild animals might have carry infections that meant no harm for them but killed the domestic animals within a few days. According to an earlier source, once the pharaohs entire stud perished because a herd of gnus passed by the pharaohs stables.
Epidemics could have raged among humans too. During the reign of Rameses II a lot of captives were settled down all around Egypt. Foreign ethnic groups often brought new kinds of diseases upon their new country, infections the immune system of the natives could not resist (see the Indians and the flu in America). Also the larger number of insects could have increased the hazard of infection in the country.
Hail or burning ice? As for the hail, in the ancient ages the climate of Egypt did not use to be as dry as today. Rain was very rare also then but not unique and the same applies to hail. There is no reason to doubt the natural occurrence of such a weather event. Fire falling down from clear sky? This is less probable than the previous possibility but not impossible. This would not have been the only meteor-rain in the history of our planet, right?
Invasion of locusts happened not only once in the history of the empire. We know about more examples when they increased and swarmed from the swamps of the Delta southwards and rushed down the valley eating up everything green.
4.3 And he stretched forth his hand towards the heavens and there was dark all through the land of Egypt. (Moses II. 10.22.)
Also the three-day-long darkness can be a disaster of nature, I can prove it because I could witness such an event myself. From March to May lasts the period of winds in the Valley, when a phenomenon can be observed called khamseen by the Arabians. The wind lifts the sand and the air becomes full of sand so heavily as the rays of the sun cannot shine through sometimes for days until the sand falls down again. And why did the darkness keep away from Goshen? I saw Cairo at noon in dusk. 30 kilometres southwards the sun shone brightly.
4.4 On that same night I pass through the land of Egypt, and strike down every firstborn... (Moses II. 12.12)
We are not able even nowadays to protect our children from the infective childrens diseases. Medical science has wide special literature concerning the most endangered ages of each disease. In my opinion the first-born terminology must be metaphorical and refers to a certain ages. If I am wrong, not only children would have died since there are as many adults firstborns to their parents. The son of the pharaoh must have in the age most endangered by that specific disease.
The plagues could have cast down Egypt. Who or what brought them forth? Well I leave it to your belief and conviction whether but the question based on the above written at least gives some reason to brood.
5. Why cant we find concrete reference to the Exodus among the Egyptian inscriptions?
We have to search for the answer partly in the Egyptian propaganda, partly in the religion. The ideology of divine kingship required the king to be victorious, the texts tell about only his glory, his results. On the other hand the written word was considered to bear magical power in the ancient Egypt. Everything written down was equal to real, existing things. If you wanted to erase someone - even her or his memory - from history all you had to do is to erase his or her name from the buildings and inscriptions. If the inscription disappeared the person or event itself disappeared too. It just did no happen. (This is the way that Thutmosis III tried to erase the memory of his predecessor and aunt, Queen Hatshepsut.)
Being aware of these traditions it is not surprising that not a single stela or papyrus shows any reference either about Moses or the withdrawal of his people (considering the headcount it couldnt have been significant enough to mention anyway from the viewpoint of such a great empire) or about the plagues upon Egypt.
My questions can bring numerous other questions to surface; there must be details that avoided my attention. The answers due to the nature of the questions cannot be satisfactory since we have so little data on which we could form our opinion and set up our standpoint. Maybe the ultimate answer still lies under the warm sand of the Egyptian desert or among the ruins of the city of Per Rameses.
Certainly this topic can be subject of free dispute but this time I kindly ask every reader to restrict her or his arguments and counter-arguments to the historical aspect of the topic. I have discussed this topic with Egyptologist student-colleagues, Jewish acquaintances and orthodox Roman Catholic relatives and I have always had to see that if religious aspects entered the debate, the discussion always ended up in confrontation of emotions and tempers instead of arguments of sense.
Everybody has the right to accept or reject the whole or part(s) of the above written according to taste or opinion and interpret this story as her or his conviction dictates.