In our most recent newsletter, I encouraged each of you to think about and make a list of the “things I mean to know.” These are the things that you think you know in Judaism, the things you are sure of but don’t know the evidence behind. And sure enough, many of you wrote me this week and shared with me some of the things on your lists. One of the more common things that some of you shared with me was regarding Moses. Did he really exist? Did he actually write down the Torah from start to finish, hearing it whispered in his ear from God on Sinai?
To be fair, it’s a big question, and you’re right, most Jews either assume Moses existed, or “know” Moses existed without any evidence to support it. Obviously, when it comes to things like this, it’s not like the examples given in my monthly newsletter, such as the way Earth revolves around the Sun. There is no hard evidence that Moses existed, meaning there has never been a grave or body or piece of archeological evidence that proved his existence, not in Israelite or Egyptian cultures. But this does not prove or disprove his existence; in fact, any argument that Moses existed or did not exist is an argument from silence, from that which doesn’t exist versus that which does. That being said, considering the theological implications surrounding Moses’ existence, I think it incredibly important that if you are to decide whether Moses did or did not exist, you should have as much information on this as possible.
Fittingly, this year I’m going to teach an Adult Education session in my advanced class, “Biblical Ambiguities,” called “A Silence Too Loud,” and this session will absolutely address this issue, so I’m hesitant to spoil that session here. I’m going to encourage all of you, then, who have this question, to consider attending that class. Nevertheless, before that time comes, I want to mention a few things here to get you started…
The first thing you should be aware of when looking into this issue is that there is no direct evidence that ever Israelites lived or were enslaved in ancient Egypt—not during the time when the Exodus is supposed to have happened, nor any other ancient period. Considering that Exodus claims we numbered 2,000,000 by the time we left Egypt, and that Egypt’s full population was about 3 to 4 million at that time, it is extremely unlikely that this massive change in population would not have been in Egyptian records. We do, on the other hand, have some “indirect” evidence that some Semitic cultures (meaning Canaanites) may have had relations with Egypt or even lived there in ancient times. If you look at the history of ancient Egypt, you would find that there were at one point actually two kingdoms, the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom. The Semitic cultures began migrating to Egypt, as both kingdoms were apparently a “breadbasket of the world.” Some of these “Semites” became traders, some slaves, some prisoners, and some even rose to power in the government and became pharaohs! There is evidence to suggest that at one point the Lower Kingdom of Egypt was ruled by Canaanite pharaohs. Amazingly, one of the Canaanite Pharaohs mentioned was named “Yaqub,” which sounds suspiciously like “Jacob,” and may have been the basis of the Jacob story when Jacob settled in Egypt with his son Joseph as viceroy.
Historically, at a certain point, the Egyptians removed both the Canaanite rulers and other foreign rulers known as the Hyksos, and declared one kingdom, fully Egyptian. The foreigners in power were cast out after a “blood feud” in which Egyptians retook control of their land. When we read that “a new king arose in Egypt that did not know Joseph,” this very well may point to the “cleansing” of foreign powers in Egypt by the new kingdom. Archaeology suggests the Hyksos and Canaanites were expelled from Egypt, through the Sinai into Southern Canaan, which is certainly the path Moses and the Israelites took according to our Torah.
So, was the Exodus a historical understanding of something that happened that Egypt did not write about, or was it just a fable? Was it an expansion on the historical account of the removal of the Hyksos and Canaanite rulers? These are questions for you to decide.
One other aspect to mention regarding the existence of Moses is the first verse of our book of Deuteronomy, which complicated the narrative that God whispered to Torah to Moses and Moses wrote it down. The verse states, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan [river].” This means that whomever wrote Deuteronomy was writing it from the land of Canaan, writing about what Moses said to the Israelites at Sinai, which was “on the other side of the Jordan” river. If you’re Moses, writing down every last word God whispered into your ear, not only is it awkward that you are writing about your life and death in the third person, it seems altogether unlikely that you will write “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” You’d more likely write, “these are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel at Sinai.” Now, this doesn’t point to whether or not Moses existed, but it does cast doubt that Moses wrote the entire Torah and presented it at Sinai. This sentence within the Torah indicates that, at the very least, the book of Deuteronomy (or parts of it) were written after the conquest of the holy land.
With that, I hope that you are getting excited thinking about Moses’ existence and the “evidence” that exists for and against it. As for the rest, I look forward to teaching you the lesson “A Silence Too Loud” in January! You won’t want to miss this one!