Jews, Egypt & slavery: a historic account
CANAANITES, HEBREWS, ISRAELITES
The Canaanites were a group of ancient, Semitic-speaking cultures in the region of the Southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and parts of Syria and Lebanon), which they collectively called “Canaan,” some 6500-3000 years ago.
The vast majority of Canaanite cultures have long ceased to exist. Hebrew — the ancestral language of the Jewish People — is the only Canaanite language still spoken today.
Archaeologically and linguistically-speaking, it’s well-established that the Israelites emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes; interestingly, however, the Hebrew G-d does not have Canaanite origins, but rather, likely came from Egypt.
The Hebrews were a group of Semitic-speaking, often nomadic peoples Indigenous to Canaan. The Israelites were a confederation of Hebrew tribes that came together eventually to found the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1047 BCE-930 BCE). While there is archeological and historical debate regarding the grandiosity of the United Monarchy as depicted in the Torah, there is enough archeological evidence to assume that a centralised Israelite state existed during this period.
Jews are descended from the Israelites, who were in turn descended from the Hebrew tribes. Samaritans, our closest ethnoreligious cousins, are also descended from the Israelites and Hebrews but are not Jews. All of this is extensively corroborated by historical, genetic, and archeological record.
EXODUS IN THE TORAH
Due to a severe famine, many Hebrews migrate to Egypt. When the Pharaoh of Egypt starts to worry that the Hebrews will outnumber his people, he enslaves them, and decrees that all of their newborn sons must be tossed into the Nile. After Yocheved gives birth to a son, Moses, she puts him in a basket and releases him into the flow of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and adopts him.
Moses grows up believing that he is Egyptian. When he is older, G-d appears to him behind a burning bush and commands that Moses tell the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
When Pharaoh says no, G-d unleashes ten plagues. During the tenth plague, G-d strikes down on every Egyptian firstborn. After Pharaoh’s son is killed, he agrees to let the Hebrews go; however, he quickly changes his mind and his army chases after the Israelites, who are trapped by the Red Sea. Moses, through the power of G-d, parts the Red Sea.
The Hebrews wander the desert for 40 years before reaching the Land of Israel. During this period, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
Historians have hotly debated the veracity of the story of Exodus for centuries. The Egyptians kept no record of any Hebrew tribe living among them, whether enslaved or not, but historians have pointed to several interesting points.
(1) the names of the cities where the Israelites encamped on their way to Canaan are corroborated by Egyptian sources; (2) the tomb of a likely Hebrew advisor to the Pharaoh was found in the 1800s; and (3) there are similarities between the (Semitic) name of a slave in an Egyptian papyrus to the name of a Hebrew slave in the Torah (Hebrew is a Semitic language, whereas Coptic/Ancient Egyptian is not).
An alternate historical perspective is that a small group of Semitic peoples traveled to and from Egypt in ancient times. One of these groups were the Levites — and Moses was a Levite. Many of the names in Exodus — including Moses — are Egyptian names.
It’s possible that the Levites departed Egypt and later joined the other Hebrew tribes. The Levites, for example, emphasised that the Israelites must not mistreat foreigners. They were also the only tribe that spoke of male circumcision, which was an Egyptian practice.
SEMITES IN EGYPT
The story of Exodus as depicted in the Torah is quite clearly not a literal historical account. If, as Exodus States, “600,000 men on foot, beside children” had fled Egypt, we’d certainly have a clear record, considering that at the time, the total population of Egypt is estimated to have been around 3-4.5 million people. But that doesn’t mean that no Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt.
It’s important to remember that the Torah is a specific text consisting of the scared mythologies, laws, and spiritual beliefs of two specific tribes (i.e. Jews and Samaritans). Most rabbis agree that while the Torah is “true” and “the word of G-d,” not all of it is supposed to be interpreted as literal historical documentation. The Talmud explains at various points where the Torah is not meant to be taken literally.
There is a long and clear record of Semitic peoples of Canaanite origin in Egypt some 4000 years ago, around the period of the story of Exodus. In fact, much of the histories of the Upper Egyptian Kingdom and the Lower Egyptian Kingdom are deeply tied to the history of Canaan.
Many of these Semitic peoples came to Egypt as immigrants or traders, but others were prisoners of war (i.e. slaves). For example, an ancient papyrus shows that an Egyptian lord owned 77 slaves, 48 of them of Semitic origin.
There is a long line of Canaanite pharaohs, beginning some 3,700 years ago. One of these Canaanite pharaohs was named Yaqub (Jacob, or Yaakov in Hebrew). Yaqub’s existence is corroborated by 27 scarabs found in Egypt, the Levant, and one near Haifa, Israel. This provides a possible origin to the Torah narrative of the Israelite patriarch Jacob settling in Egypt.
Today, the religion of the Jewish People is known as Judaism. Its precursor was “Yahwism,” whose followers only worshiped the Hebrew G-d but didn’t necessarily reject the existence of the rest of the Canaanite pantheon.
Initially, YHWH was only one of the many deities that the Israelites worshipped. El, the most important Canaanite god, was the original “god of Israel,” the name Israel itself deriving from El (“Israel” roughly translates to “one who wrestles with G-d”). Over time, YHWH and the other gods merged into a singular G-d.
While it’s clear that there’s record of Semitic peoples enslaved in Egypt, some historians and archeologists argue that there is no direct evidence that Yahwists (i.e. Hebrews) were ever among them. This, however, is not entirely true.
First, it’s worth noting that the East Delta’s muddy conditions have destroyed nearly all papyri, so a lot of documentation is simply no longer available. Nevertheless, a papyrus from around 3,200 years ago attests that Egyptian authorities allowed a Yahwist Semitic tribe to pass the border fortress in the region of Tjeku. Shortly after this, the Merenptah stele is the first to mention the existence of “Israel” in Canaan.
In 1987, French archeologists discovered the tomb of a vizier to Ahmenotep II. His name was either “Aper-el” or “Aperia,” which could be related to the Canaanite/Hebrew god El or the Hebrew god YHWH, respectively. This interpretation would corroborate the timeline as depicted in Exodus.
The Hyksos were a group of Levantine origin that ruled Egypt between 1650 BCE–1550 BCE. Their origins are somewhat mysterious, but they spoke a Western Semitic language, and the famous Jewish historian from the first century, Josephus, attested that they were actually Hebrews. This, of course, is just a theory.
Pottery from the Hyksos period is clearly Canaanite, and “chemically derived” from Canaan (i.e. modern day Israel/Palestine).
In the 1500s BCE, following a 30-year blood feud, the Hyksos were ousted from power and driven out of Egypt through the Sinai into Canaan.
Some historians suspect the story of Exodus is based off distant Semitic memories of the ousting of the Hyksos. But the Hyksos were rulers, not slaves. However, when the Hyksos were expelled, the Egyptians also conquered the Levant, taking prisoners of war as slaves. In fact, some Egyptian scribes that write about this period describe scenes that very closely match scenes in the Passover Haggadah.
There is a popular misconception that Hebrew slaves built the pyramids. They did not. In fact, the Torah does *not* mention that the Hebrews built the pyramids. According to the Exodus narrative as depicted in the Torah, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt some 300 years *after* the completion of the pyramids. Archeological record indicates that the Hebrews could’ve been in Egypt even later than that.
So who *did* did build the pyramids?
Not slaves, Hebrew or otherwise, but likely paid seasonal agricultural Egyptian workers. A major giveaway is that archeologists have found gravesites for construction laborers near the pyramids. The gravesites contain a number of artifacts and goods that, according to ancient Egyptian religion, would’ve enabled the laborers to pass on to the afterlife. Slaves would not have been afforded this privilege.
The laborers also left an abundance of graffiti, hidden on blocks inside the pyramids, which were never meant to be seen. The graffiti provides clues on the workers’ origins, including gangs they belonged to (such as “the Drunkards of Menkaure” and “the Followers of the Powerful White Crown of Khufu”) and their towns and regions of origin.
It’s possible that the laborers performed this work as a form of “tax collection” or national service, but there is no evidence that they were coerced.
ORIGINS OF THE MYTH
If you thought that Jews built the pyramids, you are not alone. It’s a pretty common misconception — one that, once again, does *not* stem from the Torah.
First, it’s important to note that Jews did not become “Jews” until centuries later, after the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south in 930 BCE. The term “Jew” means “a person from [the Kingdom of] Judah.” In the context of the story of Exodus, it’s important to use the term “Hebrews,” both for accuracy and so as not to erase Samaritans, who, like Jews, are also the direct descendants of the Hebrews and Israelites.
With that out of the way: where does the myth that the Hebrews built the pyramids stem from?
Though the first to make the claim (as far as we know) was a Greek historian named Herodotus (484-425 BCE), aptly nicknamed “the Father of Lies,” the real source of the misconception today were Christians in early Hollywood.
In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille’s film, The Ten Commandments, depicted the Israelites as pyramid-builders. The film was reshot in 1956, and from then on, the myth snowballed. To this day, Hollywood films continue perpetuating the same verifiably, historically inaccurate myth.
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