Sunday, June 10, 2012

Moses and Egypt

The story of Moses and Egypt is one that I'm not so certain about how we interpret it.  The traditional view of a massive slave population that is shepherded out of Egypt is one that I think even LDS orthodox sources (institute manuals or FARMS, can't remember which it was) limit with possible interpretations of how the large numbers of people could be reinterpreted as mistranslations of linguistically similar phrases.  There's one thing I feel fairly certain of.  Our view of the pre-exodus Israelites being wretched slaves is probably a bunch of ethnocentric bias.  Probably closer to the truth is that the Israelites were a local aristocracy that had their privileges taken away so that they had to pay a sort of "human labor" tax that was typical of Egyptian peasants.

Here's how the reasoning works:
Genesis 47:12 suggests that Jacob and his family were being fed by the gift of Joseph's rank and position- ie would probably be exempt from selling themselves and their possessions as described in 47:14-20 because they had Joseph giving them the food for free.  You end up with a unique political situation of 3 land owning classes, being Israelites, the Priests (47:22) and the Pharaoh himself (47:20).  So it seems inappropriate to interpret them as equals with the Egyptians and then were slaves, they are an aristocracy.  This seems supported by Exodus 1:9 which shows the Israelites as being a competing political center of power.  From the historical record we know that a large part of Pharaoh's social organizing power lay in conscripting normal peasants to work on public works projects when the land was not fit for farming.  Exodus 1:11 describes the Israelites getting conscripted or a public works project.  So when we think of the Israelites as slaves we are probably misreading the situation.  If the Israelites are still shepherds at this time the work season may have felt more oppressive to them since sheep and cows don't have seasons of the year where you can ignore them because the Nile is doing the wrong thing at the moment.  However from the perspective of Egyptian government they probably simply had their aristocratic privileges removed and are being made to work on public works projects like normal citizens.  These public works projects would expose them more directly to the Egyptian religion as many of the building projects I'm guessing had sacred contexts to them.  Being required to work on public buildings to the honor of a God-King and his pantheon you don't believe in could eventually pressure the Israelites to socially bond into the Egyptian religion.  This might increase the importance for the Isrealites to leave before they completely blended their culture in.

The really funny thing about this is that all the biblical archeologists who are looking for evidence of a massive slave class are probably never going to find anything because the condition of slavery as referred to biblically is probably just the hard labor life of a typical ancient Egyptian peasant- so it would be comparatively indistinguishable from the surrounding Egyptians who were working there.  There could be differences for certain, but not anywhere near as many especially since they would be living in worker camps (not their own permanent dwellings where they might make more dent on artwork or literature) along with typical Egyptians.  Even if the tale of Moses leading the tribes out of Egypt is in general outline correct and not a history/legend mix, the chances of any archeological Hebrew slave class being found in the Pi-Ramsees is pretty much nil.

2 comments:

Julia - Finding My Way Softly said...

I haven't done any research, but I have certainly heard it suggested that the change had to do with a chance from being subject to paying monetary taxes, to being physically taxed or proscripted. If they were only paying taxes, they would have had the chance to acquire more than they needed for subsistence and paying taxes. Someone who works for Pharoah would not be given more than was needed to survive, and so wealth couldn't be accumulated or political power created under those conditions.

If Esther could become queen, (or a wife of Pharoah) it is likely that the physical differences between Egyptians and Jews were not readily evident. Her uncle certainly knew a lot about palace politics, and while personal servants might know the habits of their master's house, it would be a stretch to say that a political understanding of the kingdom would be easily discernable from a servant in the household of the Pharoah. Political power is needed beyond the walls of a single household, even if that household is that of Pharoah.

I can see why Jewish leaders, and God, would not want the Jews to become too entrenched in a political/religious system that was changing from a taxed "agent," to a slave who is dependent on the government of Pharoah for all their needs, without political voice or power to influence what work is being assigned and the terms of daily life. Thanks for an interesting read and letting me think about something, besides the election, in depth.

CrouchingOwl said...

Another way to look at the Esther being queen of Persia situation is that in a cosmopolitan environment where so many different cultures converge together that people to a certain extent stop paying attention to some things quite as much. For example when I lived on the east coast most people had very little reaction to knowing that I was LDS. There were many different religions and cultures mixed in our area that my being different did not make me significantly unique since I was one of many types of differences anyone around me could observe.