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D'var Torah: Beshelach

Last week we were treated to a spirited discussion on how the biblical text which states repeatedly how God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart should be interpreted. Did God actually interfere with Pharaoh’s free will? We decided that the evidence is yes, God did. Some of the clues come from the Hebrew text, which intriguingly uses two different terms to describe how Pharaoh’s heart was influenced. One term, usually used when Pharaoh uses his own initiative to become stubborn, is from the root “kaf-bet-dalet,” kavod, which can mean “heavy,” or “honor” or even “make difficult.” Tellingly, it’s also the root of the word for the liver, the organ that is the seat of one’s will and emotion, according to the belief of the ancients.

The second term is based on the root “chet-zayn-kuf,” chazak, meaning “strengthen,” and this is the term that’s usually used when God is influencing Pharaoh’s stubbornness. All of the uses of these two terms throughout parshiot Va’era, Bo, and Beshalach appear to be a deliberate setup for a word-play that explains why God influenced Pharaoh as He did, and the setup culminates in today’s parashah, in verse 14:17, where God tells Moses what He’s been doing all along:

וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מְחַזֵּק אֶת-לֵב מִצְרַיִם, וְיָבֹאוּ, אַחֲרֵיהֶם; וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה ...

I will strengthen the hearts of the Egyptians and they will follow you and I will be honored [or: my will shall prevail; or: I shall cause difficulty] over Pharaoh...

For these last three parshiot, Pharaoh has been kavoding himself and God has been chazaking him; Pharaoh was honoring himself, since he was the god of the Egyptians, after all. And God has been right in there helping him to do just that, by strengthening Pharaoh’s own stubborn inclinations that were fostered by a lifetime of his belief in his own powers as a god. What we are witnessing here is a battle of the gods from the Bible’s perspective and it culminates at this point, as God is forcing His influence not only on Pharaoh but now on his entire army. The reason? God intends to show the Egyptians who the real God truly is, as the text states in the next verse:

When I have this triumph over Pharaoh, his chariot corps and cavalry, Egypt will know that I am God (14:18).

Within just a few more verses, the Sea is parted, the Israelites cross, the Egyptian army is drowned, and soon, after a brief celebration, the great Exodus trek begins in earnest.

Of the many questions about the historicity of the events mentioned in the Bible, none loom as large as those two: the parting of the Sea and the Exodus trek. The miraculous parting of the Sea, with its drama and hyperbole, has all the hallmarks of a well-told folktale, and even the long story of the Exodus shlep is itself considered by most scholars to be a myth. The parting of the Sea can certainly be understood in terms of its being a polemic against Egyptian beliefs. But don’t overlook another very similar event: the parting of the Jordan River that allows Joshua and the Israelites to cross as they begin their conquest of Canaan. The close similarity of these stories suggests a common source, and two different versions of this story seem to have existed, one from the JE (Yahwist–Elohist) source and another from the P (Priestly) tradition. In the account of the Exodus these sources appear to have been combined, but in the Joshua story only the contribution of the P source is evident. It’s this version of the Sea crossing that gets all the embellishment and attention.

Although exploring the origin of the Sea crossing story is interesting, the larger issue of the historicity of the Exodus account itself is much more so. A slow but steady accumulation of archeological discoveries and reinterpretations of earlier findings is beginning to reveal that perhaps the account of an exodus of a people who left Egypt to settle in Canaan is a tradition of a real event after all. Ancient historical sources such as Josephus have chronicled the Exodus event but the historical information has been corrupted not only by inaccurate reporting but also by an insufficient understanding of Egyptian history of the early New Kingdom.

Scholars have maintained that if any event as great as the Exodus as described in the Bible had occurred, Egyptian records of the event would exist. This is true; we have no contemporaneous Egyptian description of an event that corroborates the biblical account. But recent archeological findings are slowly encroaching into this picture; for example, just a few years ago, researchers showed that the exodus way-stations mentioned in the Bible match Egyptian written records of locales in southern Canaan that had been either fortified by Egypt in the mid-eighteenth dynasty or were otherwise well known to Egyptian chroniclers, and both lists, Egyptian and biblical, are in the identical order.

There’s more to consider, too. A body of literature was produced by Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, and Roman historians between the fourth century BCE to the first century CE that does contain an Egyptian perspective of the events during the putative period of the Exodus. Much of this material is incomplete or has been corrupted in transmission, but it does allow a limited reconstruction that hints at an Egyptian perspective.

Mantheo, the second-century BCE Egyptian historian, produced the most important history of this period and his history influenced many authors who drew on his work. A detailed retelling of his account, however, only appears in Josephus. According to Mantheo, as transmitted by Josephus, Moses was an Egyptian priest named Osarseph who organized a rebellion among oppressed Egyptians and foreigners who suffered from “impurities” including leprosy and were made to live apart from the general population. Osarseph, with the aid of Canaanite allies, seized power from the pharaoh, desecrated Egypt’s temples, and despoiled the land. The deposed pharaoh, after a passage of thirteen years, was able to raise a sufficient army to chase Osarseph and his followers into Canaan.

Egyptologists accept Mantheo’s account as retold by Josephus as a corrupted version of events under Akhenaten, but reject the claim that Moses had been a priest under his reign. These critics maintain that after Mantheo’s manuscript had been written, someone, for socio-religious or political reasons, inserted the Moses-Osarseph passages into the manuscript; this altered version became widely circulated, and this was the manuscript that came into Josephus’ hands. There are problems with the chronology of the Egyptian kings as told by Josephus, who puts rulers in different orders than we now know to be correct, and who even names some rulers who cannot be identified at all. These inaccuracies have led scholars to discount Josephus’ account of Mantheos’ history in all areas that cannot be independently verified. But the existence of this account and others that draw upon texts by other authors, the originals of which are no longer extant, has resulted in ever larger numbers of archeologists looking into possible links between the period of turmoil around the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty—the putative period of the Exodus.

More hypotheses based upon actual archeological information has been published about this period in the last fifteen years than in the last two hundred. Much of the speculation has revolved around the brief of rise of monotheism in Egypt under Akhenaten (1353–1335 BCE) and the political and social upheaval this religious revolution caused and these events could have produced this intriguing scenario. A figure we now know as Moses could have served as a priest, even as chief priest, under Akhenaten and after Akhenaten’s death had to flee Egypt to avoid execution. This was a tumultuous period caused by Akhenaten’s attempts to eliminate polytheistic worship. After his death, unrest amounting to a virtual civil war ensued, and Akhenaten’s three immediate successors (Smenkhkare, ca. 3 years; Tutankhamen, ca. 10 years; and Ay, ca. 4 years) were ineffective in restoring control until Horemhab, not of royal blood but the chief military leader, assumed the throne as the last king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. We know as a fact that Horemhab scoured the entire country to remove all vestiges of Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult, destroying buildings, inscriptions, and monuments. This historical purge was so effective that it wasn’t until the nineteenth century, when archeologists discovered the ruins of Akhenaten’s capital city, that the world learned of him.

After Horemhab’s death, so goes this scenario, Moses returned to Egypt and, uniting the remaining members of the Akhenaten cult, fomented civil war and attempted to oust Rameses I, who was a notoriously weak ruler. The coup failed, but to quell the civil war Moses and his supporters were allowed safe passage out of Egypt—this was the real Exodus. Once in Canaan, Moses and his followers, who apparently comprised a strong military force, were able to forge alliances with local Canaanite kings and other nomadic groups from the region including the Hittites and immigrants from southern Anatolia. These various groups, which occupied the territory north of the Judean hills to the Galilee region, soon became allied and eventually formed biblical Israel, which begins to appear archaeologically in the eleventh century BCE.

This is a compelling story and elements that support parts of it have been archeologically verified. The parts we don't know about include the personalities involved—the Hebrew leaders, especially Moses and Joshua. But archeological work continues in the Nile Delta and in Israel so a new discovery that sheds light on this ancient mystery may come at any time. Meanwhile, we read the Torah and wonder....

Shabbat shalom.

January 2014

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