April 14, 2024
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The ‘New King’ Who Enslaved Us

Parshat Shemot sets the stage for the Exodus by recounting how the Israelites became enslaved (Exod. 1:7-14). First, we are told that a “new king” arose. This Pharaoh took note of the Israelites’ growth in population and power and accused them of being what we used to call a “fifth column”: a group that undermines society from within, usually in collusion with a foreign power. Using this fabrication as a pretext, Pharaoh enslaved our ancestors.

Our Sages debate whether this Pharaoh was truly a new king or an existing ruler who turned into history’s first and most notorious anti-Semite. Rabbi Marcus Lehmann has an enlightening take on this. In his Haggadah he notes that the Torah’s word for the new Pharaoh’s ascension is va’yakam, a unique usage and one Rabbi Lehmann says indicates a usurpation.

Our use of 1374 BCE as a proposed Exodus date enables us to tentatively validate Rabbi Lehmann’s interpretation. The Seder Olam estimates that the Israelites were first enslaved sometime between the death of Jacob’s son Levi 116 years before the Exodus and Miriam’s birth 86 years before the Exodus. Using the rough midpoint of 105 years produces 1479 BCE as the year the oppression began. Indeed, a new Pharaoh did arise in 1479 BCE and is considered by most scholars to have been a usurper. Thutmose II had just died. His son Thutmose III—who became one of Egypt’s greatest rulers—was thought too young to assume power. So, his aunt and stepmother Hatshepsut seized the throne. She may have been a co-regent for the first few years but afterward she clearly ruled as a full-fledged Pharaoh.

If the biblical Pharaoh was a woman, it could help explain the method she chose to kill Jewish babies. First, this Pharaoh used midwives as the instruments of death and even communicated the order to them in person. Second, she was familiar with the ancient birthing process, referring to the avna’im, the specially shaped seat that ancient Egyptians used in the delivery of a baby (Exod. 1:16). And if this Pharaoh was a usurper, we can understand how it came about that the midwives were not punished for disobeying a direct order from Pharaoh. The royal court was in disarray over Hatshepsut’s ascension, so it is conceivable that her order of punishment was disobeyed or countermanded by a powerful faction that opposed her and sought to embarrass her.

In addition to the biblical hints of Hatshepsut, we may have proof of Hatshepsut’s enslavement of the Israelites in her own words. One of her most famous inscriptions, found in the Speos Artemidos grotto not too far from Memphis, Egypt, boasted that she expelled the Hyksos. This was a false boast; Ahmose I rid Egypt of the Hyksos a half-century before Hatshepsut ruled. However, the late Egyptologist Hans Goedicke came up with a new interpretation of the inscription that would put the issue of a false boast to rest: Hatshepsut was boasting of having rid Egypt of the Israelites. Here is the relevant excerpt from the inscription, with the traditional translation bracketed in italics and Goedicke’s in bold type:

For [I have raised up what was dismembered beginning from] I annulled the former privileges that existed since the time when the Asiatics were [in the midst of the Delta], in the region of (in) Avaris of Lower Egypt, with [vagrants in their midst toppling what had been made], the immigrants among them disregard the tasks which were assigned to them… [I have banished the gods’ abomination, the earth removing their footprints.] And when I allowed the abominations of the gods [i.e., these immigrants] to depart, the earth swallowed their footsteps!

It is clear that the “Asiatics … in the region of Avaris” refers to the Hyksos. The question Goedicke in effect raised about the traditional translation and resolved in his reinterpretation is: who was Hatshepsut calling “vagrants in their midst”? He evidently answered by asserting that the hieroglyphic text could also mean “immigrants among them,” which would justify the conclusion that she may well have been referring to the Israelites.

[As an aside, I believe the phrase “among them” allows us to conclude that the Asiatics referred to in the inscription may not have physically lived with the Hyksos in Avaris but rather were considered part of Hyksos society even if they lived elsewhere. In my prior column, I laid out reasons to believe the Israelites lived near Heliopolis.]

Goedicke took the last phrase in the quoted passage—the earth has swallowed their footsteps—to indicate that Hatshepsut was writing of the Exodus itself. However, it was fairly common for Pharaohs and other contemporary rulers to claim that enemies defeated on the battlefield were completely vanquished without a remnant left. Kenneth Kitchen calls this “rhetorical style” (Joshua’s statement in a number of verses in Chapter 10 that he smote everyone and left none remaining may be a biblical example). Thus, it is possible that Hatshepsut was boasting of having “rid” Egypt of the Israelites by enslaving them.

The motif of enslavement as a way of ridding Egypt of the Israelites may be echoed in a purportedly history-based account written by Manetho, the third-century BCE Egyptian priest/historian. (I will have more to say about Manetho’s writings in a few weeks.) In that account, Pharaoh Amenophis (Greek for “Amenhotep” and almost certainly Amenhotep III) was told that the gods wanted him to gather and expel the lepers from Egypt. But he enslaved them instead. As Josephus asked, “How came the king not to comply with the [wishes of the gods as relayed to him by a sage]? For his injunction was that those that were maimed should be expelled out of Egypt, while the king only sent them to work in the quarries, as if he were rather in want of laborers.” Despite this, Manetho’s Pharaoh decided that enslavement would be tantamount to expulsion, and so perhaps did Hatshepsut.

I also find it interesting that according to Manetho, Amenophis first enslaved the lepers but then—“afraid that the gods would be angry at him”—released them, whereupon they allied themselves with the Hyksos (who now live in Judea), waged war against Egypt, ruled Egypt for 13 years, and then departed from Egypt after being defeated by Amenophis and his allies. This sounds like the very scenario the “new king” in Exod. 1:10 feared: that the Israelites will join Egypt’s enemies and wage war against it, and then depart from the land. Could the Egyptian priests from whom Manetho drew his information have distorted true historical events in order to show that the biblical Pharaoh’s fear was warranted? Perhaps, especially given the ancient Egyptian propensity to cover up or erase the national memory of painful events.

By Ira Friedman

 Ira Friedman, a retired attorney, is an independent researcher with an interest in the intersection of the Torah and ancient Egyptian history.

 

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