The Jews Didn’t Build the Pyramids
And other things that Egyptian culture reveals about the Book of Exodus
If you’d like to appreciate rush hour traffic on the George Washington bridge, where I drive to work every morning, then I suggest a visit to Cairo. I was recently a scholar-in-residence for a tour group in Egypt and while driving in Cairo I began to feel nostalgic for New York City traffic.
Some other more significant highlights of the trip were the incredible archaeological sites and the remnants of Jewish presence in Egypt over the past 2,000 years.
Visiting the area of ancient Tanis (Pitom in the Bible) we saw bricks from the time of the Egyptian exile, and they were made of mud, clay and straw as described in the book of Exodus (5:7, 11, 16). Wall paintings in Egypt, such as those in the tomb of Rekh-mi-Re at Thebes, depict foreigners working at brick making using straw and clay. They also suggest that one of the primary tasks was the carrying of these bricks to worksites. The book of Exodus (5:4) refers to carrying burdens as one of the tasks of the Israelite slaves.
This, by the way, is one of the indicators that the Jews did not build the pyramids, which were made of cut limestone blocks, not bricks. In addition, the pyramids were built well before the Children of Israel ever entered Egypt. Sorry to disappoint, but it was indeed aliens.
Joseph and Hieroglyphics
Joseph, was the first Israelite to arrive in Egypt, sold as a slave and brought there by Midianite traders (Genesis 37:28). Interestingly, a wall painting in the tomb of Khum-Hotep III at Beni Hasan depicts a caravan of Semitic Nomads, probably Midianites, entering Egypt bearing goods and slaves to sell.
Tzaphaneth – Paaneah – Joseph’s title in Hieroglyphics
After Joseph’s rise to fame by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams he is given the title, “Tzapheneth Pa’aneach” (Genesis 41:42-45). When spelled out in hieroglyphics Tza-pa-neth means “the Neth speaks”, or “the god speaks” and “Paaneach” is pa-anakh “the life.” This is a fitting title for Joseph who always spoke in the name of God, attributed his success to God and, literally, brought life (ankh in Egyptian) to Egypt during its years of famine.
Egyptian Dream Book
Joseph’s dream interpretation can be understood in the context of Egyptian culture, since dreams were regarded as extremely significant. There were numerous methods of dream interpretation that were used and were recorded in special “dream books,” one of which is extant in a copy made in the 13th Century BCE. (Views of the Biblical World, Vol. I, p. 101)
The Name of Moses
Moses was found by the daughter of Pharaoh who gave him the name Moshe, which the Bible explains as “drawn from water”, referring to his being saved from the Nile (Exodus 2:10). Two ancient sources, Josephus Flavius, the Roman-Jewish historian, and Philo, the Egyptian- Jewish philosopher, both explain that “mo” is Egyptian for “water” and “uses” is Egyptian for “drawn from” (Josephus, Antiquities 2:9:6; Philo, De Vita Moses, 2:17).
There are those who maintain that the Egyptian “moshe” means “son of” and hence we find many Egyptian names with “moshe” or “mose” as a suffix. Ahmose, means “son of the moon;” Kamose, means “son of Ra’s majesty” and Thutmose, “son of Thot.”
There are some sources that believe the name of Moses was preserved in the non-Jewish world as the legendary Musaeus, teacher of Orpheus, from whom the Muses obtained their name, and reputation as sources of wisdom. So next time you refer to someone as your muse, keep in mind that you may be referencing Judaism’s ultimate muse, Moses. (Josephus, Antiquities 2:9:6; Philo, De Vita Moses, 2:17; Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica 9:27; Kaplan, The Living Torah, pp. 147-148)
The Ram-God and the Passover Offering
When the Jewish people were about to leave Egypt God commanded them to obtain a sheep or ram, slaughter it and roast it whole on a spit. They were forbidden to boil or bake it and they were supposed to eat in in a gathering of family and friends. (Exodus 12:3-8). This seems to be a strange commandment to give the slaves in preparation for their freedom and the Exodus. The emphasis the Bible puts on the mode of cooking is particularly strange.
The Ram god Khnum
Archaeology throws some light on this curious ritual. A sandstone relief dating to about 1300 B.C.E shows a picture of a muscular human body with a ram’s head. This is the Ram-god Khnum, the Lord of the First Cataract, who presided over the annual rise of the Nile, according to Egyptian mythology (Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1995, p. 61). The Egyptians would have therefore attached some importance or divine symbolism to rams or sheep.
The Jewish people were not only physically enslaved to the Egyptians, but, like many other slaves, they were also psychologically and ideologically enslaved to the Egyptians. Psychologically – they had a slave mentality that imbued in them a fear and awe of their slave-masters. Ideologically – the Jews had almost lost their tradition of monotheism inherited from Abraham (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1:3). In order to redeem the Jews, God wanted to free them, not only physically, but also in mind and thought.
Clay brick with straw visible
Now we can understand the Passover offering of a ram as an act of tremendous courage, an act of defiance and an act of rebellion. For slaves to summon the courage to take the symbol of an Egyptian deity, kill it and eat it was quite extraordinary. Not only that, but the Bible commanded them to roast it whole on a spit so that its aroma would be unavoidable to the Egyptians and so that they would instantly recognize a ram on the spit. One can imagine two Egyptians, Ahknaten and Imenhotep walking along in Thebes, smelling the BBQ, looking over the fence into the Goldstein’s backyard and exclaiming, “Oh my god! He’s right there on the spit!” The Jews were thus freeing themselves from their slave mentality, protesting idolatry and, basically saying, “In yo face!” to their former masters.
These are some insights that indicate the intimate knowledge of Egyptian culture in the Hebrew Bible and the reality of slavery and redemption for the Jewish people. Have a wonderful, joyful Passover!