Your RDA of Irony

DeMille and the Floss

Jews throughout the world (any place big enough for a store) are now celebrating Passover. We recount the miraculous story of how we entered the Sinai looking like Charlton Heston and left looking like Edward G. Robinson.  We speak of Passover as a Feast because Jews have a wonderful sense of humor. Matzoh is the original styrofoam. If the Exodus actually occurred, archaeologists would be finding 3500 year-old matzoh crumbs throughout the Sinai. 

But there is no historical evidence to corroborate the story of Passover. You just cannot believe everything that the Bible and Cecil B. DeMille tell you. Egypt was a highly literate and sophisticated society, with a bureaucracy of scribes who would have recorded everything on time-withstanding papyrus.  Someone in the quartermaster’s office would have written–in triplicate–a request to replace those water-logged chariots. And Pharaoh’s media department would have proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” in driving the Jews away.

This is not to suggest that the Jews did not exist at the time. At the height of its empire (from the 15th to the 13th century B.C.) Egypt held hegemony over Canaan. The cities of Canaan repeatedly appealed for Egyptian help against invaders known as the Habiru. Although the Canaanite and Egyptian records never allude to any theological idiosyncrasies among these nomads, there is little doubt as to who the Habiru were and would become.

So there is historical evidence of the Hebrews’ conquest of Canaan. But the invasion came from the East (as a proper Semitic invasion would), not from the West. Why did the Jews claim to be escaped slaves from Egypt? Were the ancient Jews as status conscious as the current readers of The New York Times? Did they fancy the glamour of Egypt over their hardscrabble nomadic life?

On the contrary, the Torah revels in the primitive Bedouin culture of the Jews. Their enemies–the Egyptians, Canaanites and Philistines–lived in cities, an indication of their corrupt natures. The ancient Jews never aspired to Egyptian refinement. However, they may have thought it worth looting. In the 17th century Egypt was conquered by a Semitic horde known as the Hyksos. Perhaps in that invading army, among all those Semitic freebooters, was a contingent of Habiru. (Someone had to operate the P.X. and organize the U.S.O. shows.) And when, a century later, the Hyksos were driven out, the Habiru survivors might have spoken of their hasty departure.

Of course, there could be a theological basis for the story of the Jews’ triumph over the Egyptians. God was padding his resume.


p.s.  If you Gentiles are feeling slighted, here is the historic significance of this day:

  1. Leah says:

    Seriousy, though– the interesting question is why is the story there at all if nothing like it was experienced? Isn’t it posible that this Bedouin-type tribe went through a period of enslavement and then managed one way or another to be freed? Is it possible that the reason there’s no record of it except in the Bible is because to the Egyptians this little tribe did not seem significant, or if it had any significance, the history of losing control of a group of slaves is something a powerful state doesn’t want to commemorate? Since the Egyptians’ history was self-written (heiroglyphed? pictographed?), why would they want a record of a minor slave rebellion that proved successful?

    In other words, why this particular narrative? It seems very unlikely that this would be a narrative of another tribe that was adopted. Perhaps it was the narrative of anoter tribe that merged with the Habiru– but in that case, it’s part of the Hebrew ancestry then too. While many of the details in the story may indeed be on the order of fairy-tales (beginning with but not limited to the part where Pharaoh’s daughter just happens to find Moses among the bulrushes– I’m with Freud on that one), to me it seems logical that a people doesn’t come up with a narrative like that which is re-told every year with the spring holiday unless it has a kernel of reality.

  2. Eugene Finerman says:

    Dear Leah,

    You underestimate the Egyptian bureaucracy. Even a “minor’ slave escape would have produced a pyramid of papyrus-work. The guard commander who let the Habiru escape would be transferred to dune inspections in Libya. And, of course, the infuriated slave owners would be filing insurance claims with Mutual of Osirus.

    But seriously (which is contrary to my nature), Passover is a celebration of survival–the frequently precarious right to be Jewish in a frequently hostile world. Even if the Jews were not slaves in Egypt, they were oppressed by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Christendom. Ironically, our most lenient overlords were the Persians and the Moslems.

    By the way, don’t cite Freud as your official Passover spokesman. He contended that Moses was not a Jew.

    Happy Pesach.


    • Leah says:

      I’m well aware– Freud said that Moses was the illegitimate son of the princess herself and that finding him in the bulrushes was just the cover story. And why not? If you had to marry and procreate with your brother, it makes sense that the genetic fitness of a non-incestuously-conceived child would be a big improvement. It reminds me of the way several single female movie stars of the ’30s would stay out of the public eye for a few months and then have reporters come in to see the new baby they’d adopted (probably on some occasions they actually *had* adopted them). Anyway, it makes sense to me– but I’m Reform. I don’t care if Moses was actually Jewish or not. I think the conversion process to become Jewish should consist of two questions and a sentence: “You want to be Jewish? What are you, crazy? OK, be my guest.”

      Anyway, for me the narrative has certain qualities (not the miracles) that seem unlikely to have been entirely fabricated. Embroidered upon to be sure, but the cloth feels to me like something that has a basis in actual events.

      • Eugene Finerman says:

        Dear Leah,

        Yes, given the recent autopsy on King Tut, Nefertiti might have produced a healthier son with Edward G. Robinson rather than her own brother. (Of course, if we can mix movie casts, I thought that Michael Wilding was quite charming in “The Egyptian” and would have an appealing brother/husband.)

        Are you suggesting that Loretta Young did not find that infant daughter in a bullrush, the bullrush remarkably close to Clark Gable’s bedroom? If Louis B. Mayer believed her, shouldn’t we!


  3. Mary Ann Jung says:

    Happy Ten plagues to you too! Too bad there wasn’t a plague of snails-would’ve been much easier to run away from. Oh, and with no evidence of Exodus the current Egyptian lawsuit against the Jews for stealing their wealth can be thrown out…

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Egypt Sues Seinfeld

      Filing a lien on intellectual property rights, Egypt has identified Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David as escaped Hebrew slaves.

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