Evil Pharoah

Book of Exodus Is a Great Plot, but Did It Ever Happen?

Scholars are more divided than ever on the history depicted in 'Prince of Egypt.'

The Los Angeles Times | Calendar section

By Jessica Seigel

THE BIBLE says Moses ended his days buried in a place unknown to any man. His supposed nemesis, Pharaoh Ramses II, however, ended up in a glass case at the Cairo Museum. Pinched-looking and a bit tattered, he may be one of the few experts on the Exodus story that DreamWorks executives did not consult for their animated movie, "Prince of Egypt."

While Yul Brynner played him with haughty disdain in the Cold War-era "The Ten Commandments," (1956) the recently released epic "Prince" casts the pharaoh as a sympathetic victim of family dysfunction. In this psychologically-sensitive 1990s version, Rameses (DreamWorks' spelling of the pharaoh's name) and Moses grow up as adopted brothers who mature into reluctant opponents divided by birth and destiny.

When Moses demands "Let my people go," Rameses fears appearing weak; he refuses, and hardens his heart because he feels rejected. (The "Prince of Egypt" Web site from DreamWorks, http//:www.prince-of-egypt.com, offers study guides that compare the Bible with this animated version.)

Unlike Hollywood movies, the original Exodus story of the Old Testament offers few details—psychological or otherwise—about the hard-hearted pharaoh, omitting even his name. The tradition in "Ten Commandments" and "Prince of Egypt" casting the egotistical, fanatical builder Rameses II as the Hebrew oppressor stems from early 20th century scholarship.

But today, a new generation of skeptical archeologists doubt even the broad outlines of the Bible story telling how: Hebrews from the House of Joseph settled in Egypt during a famine; were enslaved under a later, hostile regime; escaped in a mass migration; wandered in the desert 40 years; then finally reached the land to the north called Canaan.

Did the biblical story of Exodus loosely depicted in "Ten Commandments" and "Prince of Egypt" ever happen? Scholars are divided on the subject. Many archeologists now trace Israelite origins to isolated villages in the hills of Canaan—the biblical name for ancient Israel. According to this theory, these settlers were locals rather than immigrant invaders as described in the Book of Joshua.

"It's a raging debate," says William Propp, professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. "Scholars on one side pick out details that might be true. On the other side, they pick out details that might be false. Then they argue like lawyers."

The new theory of ancient Israel's origins is based on excavations showing a sudden population growth in Israel's rugged hill country during the late 13th and early 12th century BC. Methodical surveys of hundreds of isolated ancient villages suggest the rise of egalitarian farming and herding communities inhabited by extended families. These hill settlers were probably early Hebrews, the theory goes, because—among other reasons—comparatively few pork bones were found at these sites. Some scholars attribute this diet to ancient Jewish laws banning the pig as food.

The new view of Israel having indigenous origins removes the need for an Exodus story, says William Dever, professor of Near Eastern Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "But that story has been basic to Jews for 3,000 years and to Christians for 2,000 years," Dever says. "You can't just dismiss it out of hand. You have to account for it. I do."

The search to verify the Bible was once the defining quest of modern Western archeology. For more than a century, scholars have cycled between belief and skepticism, marshaling evidence to fit their ideology and outlook. Skeptical archeologists, today in the ascendancy, point out that the Book of Exodus likely was written down centuries after the supposed events.

Why did the legend spread? These scholars explain that Canaanites, oppressed for generations by an occupying Egyptian force, would have appreciated a tale about the God Yahweh overpowering a pharaoh. Compounding the uncertainty, records from ancient Egypt do not mention Moses or events described in Exodus.

"Egyptian history is silent on the subject," says Dever. "The earliest mention of Israel outside the Bible dates to the reign of Merenptah, who succeeded Ramses II. In a carved relief proclaiming his military victories, Merenptah boasted of defeating a stateless people called Israel, during his 1208 BC campaign into Canaan. Some scholars believe this inscription suggests that the Israelites had only arrived in Canaan during, or shortly after, the reign of Ramses II. Others insist it could also mean the Israelites never left Canaan."

Traditionalists counter that ancient history, politics, population migrations, and geography fit the Exodus scenario. "It's not stretching the facts too far to say the Israelites could have been in Egypt. It's not like we're saying they were in China and there was an exodus to Japan," says James Hoffmeier, director of Archeology and professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. "There's a very skeptical mood in many circles," he notes. "If there's a piece of evidence that might support the Bible, they split and analyze it to death."

Scholars note that the Book of Exodus names the city of Ramses as one site where the Israelites toiled. Excavations in the 1970s finally located that city near the city of Qantir, showing that both Ramses II and the foreign Hyksos kings before him used the site as capitals. Traditionalists believe that the expulsion of those alien rulers might have signaled the change to a new dynasty hostile to resident foreigners, like the Hebrews.

The remains of vast public works, warehouses, and troop quarters at Qantir fit the brief Exodus description of the "store city" Ramses. The extensive capital city of Ramses would have required thousands of forced laborers and slaves, many of whom were foreigners or captives from conquered lands, particularly Canaan. The spectacular crowd scenes in "Prince of Egypt" showing the suffering of slave workers certainly reflect that ancient reality.

In other hints backing the biblical story, the Book of Exodus includes characters with Egyptian names, like Moses. And records from Egypt do tell of slaves escaping into the Sinai desert on a path similar to the one described in the Bible and depicted in "Prince." Were any of those slaves Israelites? "I think a small group did come out of Egypt, which to them could only be explained in miraculous terms," says Dever.

Whether some Hebrews escaped bondage in Egypt, their numbers were undoubtedly far fewer than the biblical count of more than 600,000. At the time, the pharaoh's mighty army numbered only about 25,000 soldiers, while only 3 million to 5 million people lived in all of Egypt, according to Frank Yurco, research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

But the message of the Book of Exodus, which Jews commemorate at the yearly Passover feast, does not depend on a multitude escaping from bondage to freedom—a few is enough. It is a story of origins, liberation, identity and faith echoed in America's founding myth, celebrated each year at Thanksgiving. Only about 100 pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower, yet that journey stands as a national symbol. "If someone said all the Americans came over on the Mayflower, that would be a lie," says Propp, who believes the Exodus story also could have grown from a small group's journey. "A myth can be false, but also true."

Jan. 3, 1999