MOSHEH MAKES HIS APPEARANCE IN THE HISTORY OF YISRAEL
'A Hebrew child,’ the princess exclaimed and at once made up her mind to save him.
It was in the Nile Delta about 1260 B.C. during the reign of the renowned and formidable Pharaoh Rameses II of the XIXth dynasty, that one of his daughters, with her companions, went down as usual to bathe in an offshoot of the river. There, among the reed beds she noticed a basket made of papyrus and coated with pitch and bitumen. The little vessel was quickly seized and opened. Inside they found a tiny child, barely three months old. He was crying. ‘It is a Hebrew child,’ the princess exclaimed with pity. And she at once made up her mind to save him.
How are we to explain the fact that in the middle of the twelfth century B.C. a ‘bene-lsrael’ could have been found in so dramatic a situation, far from Canaan (the present-day Palestine) and so sadly abandoned in a channel of the Nile?
The Sons Of Yacob-Yisrael In Egypt From The Arrival Of Yoseph (C. 1650) To The Birth Of Mosheh (C. 1260)
Some four hundred years before the curious episode just recounted, the tribes of the bene-Yisrael had settled in a remote sector of the kingdom of Egypt. It began with Yoseph, one of the sons of Yacob and Rachel. He had unwittingly aroused the hatred of his ten brothers, who, taking advantage of an encounter with some Midianite merchants on their way to the Nile Delta, decided to sell Yoseph as a slave. He thus found himself unexpectedly transplanted into Egypt.
At this period the Delta was militarily occupied by the Hyksos. 2 In this new social situation, Canaanites were comparatively numerous, at least in the key positions. Yoseph discovered that he was among members of his own race. Helped by an active mind and favorable circumstances, it was not long before he had scaled the ladder of the administrative hierarchy. A chapter in Bereshith (Genesis) (41:37-45) relates with obvious relish the extraordinary success of this Hebrew slave, a slave, but very sharp witted. The time came when he was given the full confidence of a Hyksos leader, the master of the Delta, and he became the monarch’s vizier (prime minister).
As a good brother, a good son, and a proper Semite, he was quick to summon his whole family to this wealthy foreign land over which he ruled as a high official. Hitherto they had remained on the parched steppe of Hebron. Now, in Scriptural language this Hebrew tribe came down ‘into Egypt’. As a result of recent archaeological discoveries we can say with a little more geographical precision that the bene-Yisrael then came to settle in the Wadi Tumilat, in the land of Goshen (or Gessen), a territory east of the Delta. They continued to be raisers of livestock, that is, sheep and goats, and continued as nomads in this frontier region bordering the wilderness of Shur (or Etham). In addition, taking advantage of the irrigation afforded by the sluices of the Nile, they engaged in small-scale agricultural and horticultural activities.
Suddenly the position changed. In about 1580, a movement of national liberation that originated in the south, confronted the invaders, and soon, after fierce campaigns, succeeded in driving the unwanted Hyksos out of the country.
Meanwhile, in the borderland of Goshen, the Hebrew tribe of Yacob’s descendants had not moved. They saw no reason to follow their protectors in their retreat to Canaan. As in the days of the Hyksos’ occupation, the Yisraelite shepherds carried on their undistinguished, quiet and peaceful pastoral life in the area east of the Delta. Naturally they took care not to attract excessive Egyptian attention. On its part, Pharaoh’s government seems to have accepted without undue reluctance the presence of these bearded Semites in a border region, of no great interest, at least to the cultivators of the Nile valley, accustomed to better crops than could be grown there. It was a modus vivendi like many another, and ultimately matters seemed to be working out for the best.
And yet a historian may be allowed to record a certain disquiet about the further development of the belief of the ONE and ONLY YAHWEH, unexpectedly revealed, some centuries beforehand, to an obscure nomadic shepherd named Abraham. The pomp and glittering display of the numerous and differing Egyptian cults too often proved an allurement to the Hebrews.
Abraham’s fidelity and that of his descendants, shepherds in territories that were partly a wilderness, can be explained, at least to some extent, by the almost continued isolation of the clan. It had few relationships with the other nomadic groups, wandering in search of pasture hither and thither across the steppe, and practicing polytheism. As a rule it kept clear of the Canaanite cities in which immoral cults proliferated. Thus the patriarchs of the wilderness -Abraham, Yitschaq (Isaac) and Yacob -were able, as far as possible, and at the cost of much praiseworthy effort, to preserve the belief of their clan. They managed to retain without compromise, the idea of the ONE, SET APART YAHWEH. It is unnecessary to repeat that, at that date, this was a metaphysical conception of profound originality.
In the eastern Delta area, however, where the clan of the bene-Yisrael had been encamped for nearly four hundred years (1650-1250), their belief in this situation acquired an entirely new aspect. In the very centre of the land of Goshen where the Hebrews led their nomadic life, Egyptian fortresses had been erected, after the expulsion of the Hyksos, to stem the advance of the Hittites, the new opponents of the pharaoh’s power. Arsenals appeared, military stores and even cities -Pithom, for example -in the very heart of the former pastures. In these places the central government set up bastions, administrative centers, and huge temples with magnificent portals.
Excavations have uncovered these sanctuaries dedicated to the gods of the Nile valley. The Hebrews, therefore, were in a position, from time to time, to gaze in wonder at the sumptuous processions, led by colleges of kohen, brilliantly vested, and accompanied by musicians, singers and acolytes. To this was added the spell-binding poetry of a rich pantheon calculated to strike the imagination gods with animal heads, animals with the head of a man or woman and a complicated mythology of the dramatic domestic affairs of these gods.
Which then would take control of the soul of Yacob’s sons? Would it Be YAHWEH, their invisible ABBA, or Osiris, the Egyptian god with a hundred faces?
In the end Yisrael came out of the conflict victorious, but its spiritual triumph was costly. The price was such grievous suffering that its terrifying memory was never effaced from its annals. The hospitable territory of the Delta became in the words of the scribe: ‘the House of slavery’. Less rhetorically, we may express it as the imprisonment, the frightful slavery, persecution even to death, which soon emerged as a policy of extermination the prologue of Auschwitz. A word, or rather a name, Rameses II, explains it all.
So Yoseph went and told Pharaoh, ‘My father and brothers, along with their flocks and cattle and all their possessions, have come from the land of Canaan and are in the land of Goshen’ ...
‘. ..the land of Canaan is hard-pressed by famine. Now give your servants leave to stay in the land of Goshen.’ Then Pharaoh said to Yoseph, ‘They may stay in the land of Goshen. ..’
Bereshith (Genesis) 47:1,6
MAP OF THE EASTERN DELTA OF THE NILE
1‘Semite, Aramean, Yisraelite (or bene-Yisrael, a descendant of Yacob called Yisrael), Jew: all these terms are used by the Scriptures writers and by modern historians. It may be useful to give a summary explanation of them
and his clan belong to the great family of Semites; their waves of invasion
(originating probably in Arabia) bore down successively on Palestine and on the
great Mesopotamian valley
Aramean: Abraham and his descendants thought of themselves as Arameans a Semitic sub-group. A typical example after the Twelve Tribes had been established in Canaan, every Yisraelite peasant was obliged to come in the spring to offer the first-fruits of his land at the altar of YAHWEH He used a ritual formula that began ‘My father (it is Abraham, of course, who is meant) was an Aramean nomad’ In this way the disciple of YAHWEH affirmed his solidarity with an homogeneous group of pastoral tribes scattered throughout the Fertile Crescent.
Yisraelites (or also bene-Yisrael, that is, sons of Yisrael): This word designates the twelve sons of Yacob (who was called Yisrael, that is ‘YAHWEH is MIGHTY’, after the famous crossing of the Jabbok) who are the eponymous ancestors of the Twelve Tribes Jews (in Hebrew Yehudi) Etymology: Judah, the fourth son of Yacob and Leah It is a word that only came into use in the time of YermeYah (Jeremiah) (645-587); it then came to designate the people of south Palestine; at that period the word ‘Yisraelite’ came to mean strictly the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of the north.
These circumstances explain why the scribes, the editors of the Scriptures, use one or other of these names, according to the ethnological, political or religious point of view which they have to adopt in the course of their narrative.
2 The Hyksos, whose racial origin is still disputed, seem to have been Indo-Europeans coming from the great asiatic steppe, north of India.