Man versus myth: does it matter if the Moses story is based on fact?
Man versus myth: does it matter if the Moses story is based on fact?

Man versus myth: does it matter if the Moses story is based on fact?

The Guardian

Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments
Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext
The Observer
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Man versus myth: does it matter if the Moses story is based on fact?
As Ridley Scott prepares to release another blockbuster based on the exodus, the row has reignited the debate over whether Judaism’s historical saviour actually existed
Andrew Brown
Andrew Brown
Sun 30 Nov 2014 00.05 GMT
The actor Christian Bale has said that Moses was “likely schizophrenic and one of the most barbaric characters I ever read about in my life”, which may illuminate the way he plays the character in Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings. But what light does it cast on the historical figure of Moses? The rather surprising answer is: none. There is no historical figure of Moses, and no reason from archaeology or history to suppose any of the exodus story is true.

Since the central rite of Jewish identity is the Passover festival, which commemorates the moment that Moses freed his people from slavery in Egypt, the absence of evidence outside the Bible story is potentially embarrassing, says Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who leads Reform Judaism in this country: “When I heard for the first time that the exodus might not have happened, I did want to weep … then I thought, what does this matter? You have to distinguish between truth and historicity.”

The controversy so far has usually dealt with the miraculous elements of the story – the plagues of blood and frogs and locusts, God’s slaughter of the firstborn children of Egypt and, especially, the parting of the Red Sea. One of the earliest attempts to demythologise the story occurred with the suggestion that the Red Sea was actually “the sea of reeds”, a swamp that might have been temporarily cleared by wind. Ridley Scott’s film turns God’s parting of the sea into an earthquake.

But the problem with historical evidence goes much deeper. “Moses himself has about as much historic reality as King Arthur,” British archaeologist Philip Davies famously concluded. A more moderate conclusion comes from the historian Tom Holland: “The likelihood that the biblical story records an actual event is fairly small.”

Cyprian Broodbank, the Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge University, wrote in his recent history of the Mediterranean that the exodus was “at best a refracted folk memory of earlier expulsions of Levantine people” following the reconquest of the Nile delta by the Egyptian king Ahmose around 1530BC.

This date is about 900 years earlier than the period in which the Hebrew Bible is supposed to have been codified and written down, including its first five books that were supposedly written by Moses himself. There is no archaeological evidence for the biblical story, and certainly no extra-biblical evidence, in Egyptian inscriptions. Not even the Bible account claims that the Israelites were employed as slaves to build the pyramids as they are in Hollywood. They are simply slaves.

Yet there are tantalising glimpses in the story of something that may be more than mere folk tale. For a start there is the name “Moses” itself, which is undoubtedly Egyptian rather than Hebrew, suggesting the stories drew on memories of real interactions. There were times in the 16th and 17th centuries BC when tribal groups from the eastern Mediterranean were found in what is now northern Egypt. And the story of Moses has a strange echo in the life of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, the first monotheist known to history.

He reigned from 1352 to 1338BC, and proclaimed that there was only one true God, Aten, the sun disc. All others were false, their temples were closed, their images destroyed and their names erased. When Akhenaten died, the old religious system revived and then obliterated his memory and, had it not been for the chance discovery of his tomb in the 19th century, the experiment would have been forgotten. As the historian Jan Assmann puts it: “Moses is a figure of memory, not of history, whereas Akhenaten is a figure of history, but not of memory.”

In the Bible, Moses did not invent monotheism. He had it revealed to him by the One God, who appeared in a burning bush and would not give his name – “I am that I am.” Unlike Akhenaten, who appeared alongside his God in sculptures, Moses was very clear about the difference between himself and God. He is horrified when God tells him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out, and arranges for his brother Aaron to be the front man and deliver the speeches.

“When you’re frightened, you internalise a voice that say’s I’m frightened, ‘why me, why do I have to do it?’ – that’s the Moses voice,” says Janner-Klausner. “What matters to me is that the language and the modelling of that kind of leadership is extremely true – to have a flawed leader, a reluctant leader. The question I ask of the story is: is there enduring truth that will move me, move the people I’m involved with, and give them liberation? Yes.”

Janner-Klausner, as a woman, could not be an orthodox rabbi. Indeed, orthodox rabbis are still compelled to believe that Moses himself wrote the Books of Moses, including Deuteronomy 34:5: “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He is buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is.”

But Alex Goldberg, an orthodox rabbi, takes an unemphatic view of the historicity of Moses. “I believe that Moses existed, but that’s not the point,” he says. “From a Jewish perspective, what matters is the theophany on Sinai and receiving the laws. We have faith that the Torah was given to us, and that there was a God event in Sinai. The way we’re taught it is, ‘well, our ancestors were there, and we always believe grandad and granny’.”

This obviously won’t satisfy the sceptics. It is part of the wider problem of the historical evidence for biblical narratives, of which there is little. That’s not the same as none. Egyptian and Assyrian documents of a much later date than the supposed exodus clearly mention the Hebrews, and archaeology shows that the inhabitants of inland Palestine, which is now the occupied West Bank, were refraining from pork by about 1000BC, while the people nearer the sea, in what is now Israel, were happily eating pigs.

Some features of what would become Judaism were clearly established a very long time ago. But there is no archaeological evidence for the bloodthirsty genocide of the Canaanites and the sacking of their cities, described with such relish in the book of Joshua, and even if David and Saul and Solomon all existed, they must have been mere tribal leaders and not the kings that appear in the Bible.

Yet what gives all these figures life is not their grandeur but their frailty. King David does wicked things, although he is chosen by God. Moses shrinks from his task, as the Israelites themselves shrink from his leadership and grumble as he leads them into the desert. But this humanity serves to magnify the inexplicable power and otherness of God. One of the breakthroughs of the Hebrew religion was that God was both more closely concerned with the morals of his people than any of the surrounding deities, but also more remote, even from his priests. This tendency reaches some kind of culmination in Islam, where God is “closer to you than the vein in your neck” but at the same time utterly separate from humanity and impossible to depict. Tom Holland points out that Moses is mentioned 137 times in the Qur’an.

And the story of the exodus, of the liberation of an enslaved people, has a power entirely independent of its historical truth. By believing that it happened, and that it was in a sense, still happening in eternity, people brought and still bring liberation into their lives today. The American civil rights movement could be seen as an attempt to re-imagine black Americans as Israelite slaves, led out of bondage to the promised land. If you go to the tomb of Martin Luther King in Atlanta, the parallels are obvious and deliberate. For many, regardless of whether he existed, Moses is as alive today as he ever was.

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