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Bible’s Buried Secrets (1/2)

(An 11th century Bible)
There is no evidence for Exodus as suggested by the Bible. That is one of the conclusions of the two hour NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, which aired on PBS on Nov 18th. This conclusion is not revolutionary; it has been suggested before, most recently by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist.

The Exodus, the most repeated story in the Hebrew Bible immortalized by Charlton Heston, suggests that about six hundred thousand men and their families escaped Egypt and reached the promised land. A century of archaeological work has found no such evidence but has found that during the time of the Exodus, dated between the Merneptah Stele (1275 B.C.E) and the Zayit Stone (1208 B.C.E), the promised land, Canaan, had just 25 settlements with 3000 – 5000 inhabitants.

Does this mean that the story of Exodus is pure mythology.? The documentary says it is possible that a few people escaped from Egypt, but they were not Israelites, but Canaanite slaves whose story survived as poetry and was transcribed after 1000 B.C.E.

This deconstruction of the Exodus was not the primary goal of the documentary, but just a causality while finding the origins of the Israelites and their concept of one God in a polytheistic world. In this journey which combines Bible and archaeology, many such articles of faith were demolished much to the angst of certain believers who called for withdrawing government funding for PBS.

Many Biblical scholars commented that there was nothing new in the program and it just summarized a century of scholarship, but for the lay person who is interested in the confluence of history, archaeology and religion, there was much to learn.

1. Who were the Israelites?
The Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. The original state of Canaan had a social collapse, not by Joshua’s invasion, but following a conflict between the elite and the commoners. Around this time there was the collapse of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian empire as well. The Israelites rise after this and they are made up of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people and there is a rapid rise in population from five thousand to 45 thousand in 200 years by 1000 B.C.E.

Looking for a new identity, radically different from the oppressive ancient Canaan society, these new Canaanites adopted stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua to symbolize freedom, deliverance and conquest. To distinguish themselves from their polytheistic past, they came up with a monotheistic God, adopted from a desert people called Shashu.

2. The Bible was written by humans.

Noah’s flood, in one page lasts 40 days and 40 nights and 150 days in another. Sometimes Abraham calls God, Yahweh, elsewhere Elohim. All these suggest that there were multiple authors for the Bible which challenges the view that Moses wrote the first five books.

Mahabharata by tradition acknowledges this type of revision.
The epic itself claims to have been originally just 8,800 verses composed by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa and called the Jaya. Later, it became 24,000 verses, called the Bharata, when it was recited by Vaishampayana. Finally, it was recited as the 100,000-versed epic (the Mahabharata) by Ugrashravas, the son of Lomaharshana. Thus, the tradition acknowledges that the Mahabharata grew in stages. [The Date Of The Mahabharata War]
In Biblical Studies, the Documentary Hypothesis states that the Bible was edited by scribes over a period of time. Based on language, the oldest one was found to be the book of Exodus, similar to how mandalas 2-7 are considered the oldest in Rig Veda and 1 and 10 the youngest.

3. Monotheism did not happen instantly.

While the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Babylonians and far away Indians worshipped many gods Israelites discovered the concept of one God. Where did they come up with this idea which survives to this day?

The answer lies in the journey of a small number of Caananite slaves from Egypt. They passed through a place called Midian (Jordan & Saudi Arabia), where a group of people known as the Shasu lived. According to the Egyptian texts, the Shasu lived in a place which was pronounced Yahu, which is similar to Yahweh, the patron god of Israel.
It is in Midian, according to the Bible that Moses first meets Yahweh in the form of a burning bush. When the Egyptian Caananites met the native Caananites, they told this story and since it was a powerful metaphor for freedom, it was adopted into the canon. The slaves attributed their freedom to the Midian God.
(to be continued..)

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