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Saturday, August 23, 2014

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The Exodus and earliest Israel

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The Exodus is a pivotal point in our history as a people. Not only does it mark our deliverance from slavery but it also witnesses our coming together as a nation.

The theophany at Sinai sees us receiving our laws. It is these laws and their observance that lie at the heart of Judaism.

As a story, the Exodus has captivated and enthralled for more than 3,000 years. Even Hollywood has portrayed the event a number of times. For those of us of a certain age, Moses will always be Charlton Heston and his chief adversary, the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, will forever look like Yul Brynner.

Ever since the latter part of the 19th century, which saw the emergence of archeology as a discipline, some scholars have been debating the veracity of the Exodus while others have been searching for proof of its existence.

One of the keys to unlocking this mystery is finding evidence of the existence of an entity called Israel outside of the Bible. Ideally it should occur in Egypt. If this can be done, then it makes the plausibility of the Exodus more convincing.

This is exactly what happened in Egypt in 1896 when the noted English Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie found a stele (royal inscription) belonging to the pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. Amazingly, in addition to mentioning the places Ashkelon and Yokneam, the stele also mentioned a people called Israel, thus giving us the earliest verifiable evidence of Israel outside of the Bible. It stated that Israel was destroyed, a propaganda claim that Egyptians have been making for 3,000 years.

The stele was significant, for it was an independent verification of Israel’s existence. It was dated to the latter part of the 13th century BCE, which meant that the Exodus must have happened earlier. Most biblical scholars subsequently dated it to the middle of the 13th century BCE. However there were, and still are, skeptics who refuse to believe that there was an Exodus. Some scholars believe that the group known as Israel had been in Canaan all along.

Recently, it was announced that new evidence was found for the existence of Israel. Once again it came from ancient Egyptian sources. It was found on an inscribed statue base that had been in the Berlin Egyptian Museum for decades but had been overlooked until two scholars re-examined it and saw what they believed to be the name of Israel. Remarkably, it was 200 years older than the Merneptah Stele and has been dated to the 15th century BCE. If this is true, then it has all sorts of ramifications for the Exodus and the origins of Israel.

When I asked the eminent Egyptologist Donald Redford about the new find, he was skeptical. He mentioned that the pronunciation of Israel is different than that on the Merneptah Stele. Now only one thing is certain, and that is that the debate is far from over.

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