Excerpts from Bible as History

Forced labour in Pithom and Raamses

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10. Forced labour in Pithom and Raamses.

Joseph had died a long time ago — a story in pictures from a prince's tomb — Pithom labour camp in Egyptian texts — the royal seat is transferred to the delta — Harnesses II — a builder's enthusiasm and vanity lead to a fraud — Montet unearths the bond-city of Raamses — Moses wrote his name “MS” — a Mesopotamian story about a baby in the bulrushes — Moses emigrates to Midian — plagues are no strangers to Egypt.
Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. Therefore they did set over them taskmasters, to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure-cities [R. V. Store-cities], Pithom and Raamses” (Ex. 1:8-11).
The new king who “knew not Joseph” was most likely Ramesses II or one of his predecessors. His ignorance is understandable if Joseph lived centuries before him in the days of the Hyksos. The names of these Hyksos rulers who were so cordially detested by Egyptians have hardly been recorded, far less the names of their dignitaries and officials. Even if this pharaoh of the new dynasty, whether it was Ramesses II or a predecessor, had known of Joseph, that is as far as he would have wanted it to go. Joseph was bound to be an object of contempt to any nationally conscious Egyptian for two reasons. One, that he was an “Asiatic” and a miserable “Sandrambler,” and, two, that he was the highest official of the hated occupying power. From the latter point of view any appeal to Joseph would hardly have been a recommendation for Israel in the eyes of a pharaoh.

What forced labour meant in ancient Egypt, and what the Children of Israel experienced at the great building projects on the Nile, can be gathered from a very old painting that Percy A. Newberry, the discoverer of the portrayal of the people who comprise the caravan at Beni-Hasan, found in a rock tomb west of the royal city of Thebes.

On the walls of a spacious vault there is a series of paintings from the life of a great dignitary, the vizier Rekhmire, showing what he had done for the benefit of his country. One scene shows him in charge of public works. The detail shows the manufacture of Egyptian bricks, the most notable feature being the light-skinned workmen, who are clad only in linen aprons. A comparison with the dark-skinned overseers shows that the fair-skinned men are probably Semites, but certainly not Egyptians. “He provides us with bread, beer and every good thing.” Yet despite these words of praise about the quality of the diet, there is no doubt about the fact that they are not working voluntarily but compulsorily. “The rod is in my hand,” one of the Egyptian overseers is saying, according to the hieroglyphic inscription. “Be not idle.”

The picture is an impressive illustration of the Biblical words: “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour, and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage in mortar and in bricks” (Ex. 1:13-14). Israel was of shepherd stock, unused to work of any other kind, which was therefore twice as hard for them. Building and brick making were forced labour.

The painting in the rock-tomb shows a scene from the building of the Temple of Amun in Thebes. The “classical” bond-cities of the children of Israel were however Pithom and Raamses. Both names appear in slightly different form in Egyptian inventories. “Per-Itum,” “House of the god Atum,” is the name of a town which does not date back further than the time of Ramesses II. Per-Ramesses-Meri-Imen, which has already been mentioned, is the Biblical Raamses. An inscription of the time of Ramesses II speaks of “PR”, “who hauled the stones for the great fortress of the city of Per-Ramesses-Meri-Imen. “PR” is Egyptian hieroglyphics for Semites.

The question of where these bond-cities were situated remained a problem. It was known that the rulers of the New Kingdom had moved their seat from ancient Thebes northward to Avaris, which was the place from which the Hyksos had also ruled the country. The new type of international power-politics made it seem advisable to be nearer the centre of things than was the case with Thebes, which lay much farther south. From the delta they could much more easily keep an eye on turbulent “Asia,” their dominions in Canaan and Syria. Pharaoh Ramesses II gave his name to the new capital. Avaris became the city of Per-Ramesses-Meri-Imen.

After a fair amount of guesswork and supposition archaeologists' picks put an end to all differences of opinion about the site of one of the bond-cities. Anyone who goes to Egypt can include a trip round its ruins in his program. It is 60 miles by car from Cairo. About half way down the Suez Canal, where it goes through what was the Lake of Crocodiles,17 a dried up watercourse known as Wadi Tumilat stretches westward till it strikes the easternmost arm of the Nile. There two mounds of rubble lie about 9 miles apart. One is Tell er-Retabe, which was perhaps the Biblical Pithom, the other is Tell el-Maskhuta, which many scholars consider to be Pithom, whereas others consider it to be the Biblical Succoth (Ex. 12:37; 13:20). Apart from remains of granaries, inscriptions have also been found which refer to storehouses.

If there had been patent laws 4,000 years ago, the Egyptians could have claimed exclusive rights over granaries. The silos on Canadian and American wheat farms are still built on the same principle. Admittedly Egyptian silos did not reach the same gigantic proportions, but granaries, circular buildings about 25 feet in diameter with ramps leading up to the feeder, were not uncommon on the Nile. As grand vizier Joseph built granaries (Gen. 41:48ff) and as slave labourers his descendants built granaries in the land of Goshen.

The search for the other bond-city, Raamses,18 went on for a long time without success. Then nearly thirty years after the discovery of Pithom it was eventually found in 1930.

Ramesses II, the “Great,” has given the archaeologists many a hard nut to crack. Apparently his vanity was even greater than his passion for building. He never hesitated to deck himself in borrowed plumes: posterity would marvel at the great builder Ramesses II! And indeed it did. The experts could hardly grasp at first how it came about that on so many temples, public buildings and in other places they came upon the cipher “Ramesses II.” But when they examined the buildings a little more closely the explanation was plain. Many of these buildings must have been built centuries before Ramesses II. To pander to his own vanity however Ramesses II decided to have his monogram carved on them all.

In the delta the search for the city of Per-Ramesses-Meri-Imen led from one mound to another. One excavated site after another, throughout the Nile delta, was thought to be the one they were looking for: Pithom, Heliopolis, Pelusium and others. Guess-work came to an end only when the spade of Professor Pierre Montet of Strasbourg struck the ground near the present day fishing village of San in 1929. Thirty miles south-west of Port Said, Montet unearthed between 1929 and 1932 an unusual number of statues, sphinxes, columns, and fragments of buildings, all of them stamped with the crest of Ramesses II. This time there was scarcely any doubt that it was the remains of Per-Ramesses-Meri-Imen, the Biblical bond-city of Raamses.

Just as in Pithom they found here ruins of granaries and storehouses.

The Israelites became the victims, in the truest sense of the word, of Pharaoh's lust for building. The position of their immigration area made it easier for them to be dragooned into forced labour. The Goshen of the Bible with its rich grazings began just a few miles south of the new capital and went as far as Pithom. Nothing could be simpler than to drag these foreigners who lived, so to speak, on the doorstep of these great building projects, away from their flocks and tents and force them into servitude.

The ruins at San no longer give any indication of the splendour of the former metropolis. What the columns of Israelite levies saw on their daily march to the building sites we can only gather from a contemporary papyrus letter. It is written by a schoolboy Pai-Bes to his teacher Amen-em-Opet: “I have come to Per-Ramesses of the Beloved of Amun and find it wonderful. A splendid city without a rival. Re, the same god who founded Thebes, founded this according to the same plan. To live here is to have a glorious life. The countryside provides a wealth of good things. Every day they get fresh provisions and meat. Their pools are full of fish, their lagoons are thick with birds, their meadows are covered with green grass, the fruit from their well tilled fields has the taste of honey. Their storehouses are full of barley and corn and tower up to the sky. There are onions and chives to season the food, also pomegranates, apples, olives and figs from the orchards. Sweet wine from Kenkeme, which tastes nicer than honey. The Shi-Hor branch of the Nile produces salt and saltpeter. Their ships come and go. Everyday here there are fresh victuals and meat. People are glad to be able to live there and nobody cries: God help me! Simple folk live like great folk. Come! Let us celebrate there the festivals of heaven and the beginning of the seasons.”

Years later life in the barren wilderness had blotted out the recollection of their forced labour from the minds of the children of Israel. All they remembered was the plentiful food of the delta: “ Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and when we did eat bread to the full” (Ex. 16:3). “Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely: the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions and the garlic.” “Who shall give us flesh to eat for it was well with us in Egypt” (Num. 11:4-5, 18).

Discoveries during excavations, and contemporary texts, sometimes providing almost literal correspondence, confirm the Biblical picture. We must not think however that the academic dispute over the historicity of these events in the life of Israel is thereby settled.

Professor William Foxwell Albright of America has some sharp words to say on this subject. Since he is one of the few scholars with almost universal qualifications — as theologian, historian, philosopher, orient list, archaeologist, and comparative philologist — they may well be cited as conclusive. “According to our present knowledge of the topography of the eastern delta the account of the start of the Exodus, which is given in Ex. 12:37 and Ex. 13:20, is topographically absolutely correct.” Further proofs of the essentially historical nature of the Exodus story and of the journey in the area of Sinai, Midian and Kadesh can be supplied without great difficulty thanks to our growing knowledge of topography and archaeology.

We must content ourselves here with the assurance that the hypercritical attitude which previously obtained in respect of the earlier historical traditions of Israel has no longer any justification. Even the long-disputed date of the Exodus can now be fixed within reasonable limits.... If we put it at about 1290 B.C. we cannot go far wrong, since the first years of the reign of Ramesses II (1301-1234) were to a large extent occupied with building activities in the city to which he has given his name — the Raamses of Israelite tradition. The striking correspondence between this date and the length of their stay given by Ex. 12:40 as 430 years — “Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was 430 years” (Ex. 12:40) — may be purely coincidental but it is very remarkable. According to this the migration must have taken place about 1720 B.C.

The reign of Ramesses II is the time of the oppression and forced labour of Israel, but also the time at which Moses the great liberator of his people appears.

“And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and, when he saw that there was no man he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well” (Ex. 2:11,12,15).

Moses is a Hebrew who was born in Egypt, brought up by Egyptians, whose name can be connected with a Semitic root meaning “bring or take out, remove, extract,” but can also be interpreted as Egyptian. “Moses” means simply “boy, son.” A number of Pharaohs are called Ahmose, Amasis, Thutmose. And Thutmose was the name of the famous sculptor, among whose masterpieces the incomparably beautiful head of Nofretete is still the admiration of the world.

These are the facts. Egyptologists know that. But the general public picks on the famous Biblical story of Moses in the bulrushes, and it is not difficult for the eternal skeptic to produce it as an apparently valid argument against the credibility of Moses himself. “It is simply the birth-legend of Sargon” — they say. But they add mentally: “Plagiarism.”

Cuneiform texts have this to say of King Sargon, the founder of the Semitic dynasty of Akkad in 2360 B.C.: “I am Sargon, the powerful king, the king of Akkad. My mother was an Enitu priestess, I did not know any father.... My mother conceived me and bore me in secret. She put me in a little box made of reeds, sealing its lid with pitch. She put me in the river.... The river carried me away and brought me to Akki the drawer of water. Akki the drawer of water adopted me and brought me up as his son...”

The similarity with the Biblical story of Moses is in fact astounding: “And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch and put the child therein: and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink” (Ex. 2:3ff).

The basket-story is a very old Semitic folk-tale. It was handed down by word of mouth for many centuries. The Sargon legend of the third millennium B.C. is found on Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablets of the first millennium B.C. It is nothing more than the frills with which posterity has always loved to adorn the lives of great men. Who would dream of doubting the historicity of the Emperor Barbarossa, simply because he is said to be still sleeping under Kyffhauser?

Officials everywhere and all the time enjoy the protection of the state. So it was in the time of the Pharaohs. So it is today. It was for this reason that Moses had no choice but to flee from certain punishment after he had in righteous indignation killed the guard in charge of the labour gangs.

Moses does what Sinuhe had done before him. He flees eastward to get out of Egyptian territory. Since Canaan is occupied by Egypt, Moses chooses for his exile the mountains of Midian east of the Gulf of Aqabah, with which he had a remote connection. Ketura had been Abraham's second wife, after Sarah's death (Gen. 25:1). One of her sons was called Midian. The tribe of Midian is often called Kenites in the Old Testament (Num. 24:21). The name means “belonging to the coppersmiths” — Qain in Arabic, Qainaya in Aramaic = a smith. This designation connects up with the presence of metal in the neighbourhood of the tribal territory. The mountain ranges east of the Gulf of Aqabah are rich in copper, as the investigations of Nelson Glueck of America have indicated.

No country will willingly part with a cheap supply of forced foreign labour. Israel had to learn that too. Eventually we are told that it was the occurrence of plagues that compelled the Egyptians to give way. Whether they raged exactly at the time of Moses can so far neither be affirmed nor denied since no contemporary evidence on the subject has so far been found. But plagues are neither improbable nor unusual. Indeed they are part of Egypt's local colour. The water of the Nile “was turned to blood.” “And the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.” “Hies” appear, “lice,” a “cattle murrain” and “boils” — finally “hail,” “locusts” and “darkness” (Ex. 7-10). These things which the Bible describes are still experienced by the Egyptians, as, for example, the “red Nile.”

Deposits from the Abyssinian lakes often colour the flood waters a dark reddish-brown, especially in the Upper Nile. That might well be said to look like “blood.” — At the time of the floods “frogs” and also “flies” sometimes multiply so rapidly that they become regular plagues on the land. — Under the heading of “lice” would come undoubtedly the dog-fly. These often attack whole areas in swarms, affect eyes, nose and ears, and can be very painful.

Cattle pest is known all over the world. — The “boils” which attack human beings as well as animals may be the so-called “Nile-heat” or “Nile-itch.” This is an irritating and stinging rash which often develops into spreading ulcers. This horrible skin disease is also used as a threatened punishment by Moses in the course of the journey through the desert: “The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods and with the scab and with the itch whereof thou canst not be healed” (Deut. 28:27).

“Hailstorms” are extremely rare on the Nile, but they are not unknown. The season for them is January or February. — “Swarms of locusts” on the other hand are a typical and disastrous phenomenon in the countries of the Orient. — The same is true of sudden “darkness.” The Khamsin, also called the Simoon, is a blistering hot wind which whirls up vast masses of sand and drives them before it. They obscure the sun, give it a dull yellowish appearance and turn daylight into darkness. — Only the death of the “first-born” is a plague for which there is no parallel (Ex. 12) and the statement in the Bible that the plague of “darkness in all the land of Egypt” affected only the Egyptians, but not the Israelites living in Egypt, is, of course, incapable of any scientific explanation....

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