How to Escape from Pharaoh

The Israelites Leaving Egypt (1828), oil by Scottish painter David Roberts (1796-1864). Shadowed in the middle foreground are a small group of seated camels, which recent research has shown to be an anachronism. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fun fact: No camels were used during the flight from Egypt.

There’s a cute cutaway in the long and fabulously expensive Exodus sequence in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, which seems visually founded on the 19th century painting atop this post. In a short series of shots, a camel munches on a branch full of dates carried by a wiry older man, who tries to shoo it away with shouts while the dromedary blissfully ignores his attempts. DeMille can be forgiven for including the brief scene, since the Hebrew Bible claims that even Abraham had camels (Genesis 12:16). But in yet another example of discrepancies between biblical narratives and scientific evidence,  recent carbon dating of camel bones in Israel have pretty much established that the domesticated “ships of the desert” only came into wide use in the Levant centuries after the latest possible date for the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. So when I was drafting my research-based retelling of the Exodus from the point of view of teenage Israelite twins, I stuck with oxen as rides for the elderly and children.

This was the kind of groundwork I indulged in multiple times during every daily writing session over the years it took me to draft the trilogy. I wanted to make my teen twin protagonists’ big sister a crack shot with a bow, so I had to find out what kinds of birds might have been hunted around the Nile Delta for her to practice her archery skills. Tal and Aram, my twins, celebrate their thirteenth birthday amid the Ten Plagues; so I had to figure out a cost-effective gift from their family (once I learned that birthday gift-giving might have been a thing even among the working class in ancient Egypt). Since I was writing in the first person, alternating chapters between Tal’s voice and Aram’s, I needed a formula for how they would describe increments of time shorter than an hour – since the modern Hebrew word for “minute” is never used in the Bible. (There’s a famous verse in Job – 14:5 – that reads, “You have decided the length of our lives – You know how many months we will live, and we are not given a minute longer” in one popular translation. But most other versions say something along the lines of, “you have set limits [w]e cannot exceed,” which is closer to the literal meaning of the Hebrew.) And of course, I always had a list of Biblical insults close to hand. I was trying to make the books halfway realistic, after all.

I also did plenty of fascinating research that was left completely out of the novels: stuff about Philistines and Sea Peoples living in Egypt at the time of Rameses II; anything to do with the Hyksos, a pharaonic dynasty of Semites who ruled Egypt from the capitol Avaris; and ancient Egyptian beliefs about demonic possession, to name a few side pursuits that hit the cutting-room floor (or, actually, the block and backspace key). But my main questions were all about what daily life might have looked like for Tal and Aram as they approached the age of thirteen, when they would be inducted into the bonds of slavery to Pharaoh – and especially afterward, once their people had fled Egypt.

Medieval haggadah illustration
A hand-painted illumination from a mid-14th century Spanish haggadah, or Passover service prayer book. The upper panel shows the Israelites escaping with their “plunder [from] the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36), and the lower panel their pursuit by Pharaoh’s army. The artist portrayed medieval dress and architecture, since they were unlikely to have seen Egypt or the Holy Land with their own eyes. Image credit: Rylands Sephardi Haggadah, ©2017 The University of Manchester Library Special Collections, Creative Commons Attribution License version 4.0.

Investigations into the everyday life of ancient ordinary people are tough for archaeologists. Poor families like Aram and Tal’s didn’t tend to own a lot of jewelry that outlasts the ravages of time. Their household objects, and even their homes, were not well-built like the temples were. And of course they were almost never mummified unless they happened to be servants of the superrich. But there is a certain amount that can be deduced about the lower strata of ancient Semitic societies by looking at the Middle East’s best-known nomads, the Bedouin.

Although Bedouin tribes of various ethnic backgrounds have maintained nomadic lifestyles on the Arabian peninsula for millennia, the range for their roaming has been progressively hemmed in by the development of modern states. Today they are largely sedentary, and consider themselves Muslims. But traces of their pre-Islamic traditions and belief systems are hurriedly being preserved by scholars before they disappear entirely. For instance, this video was made to document the surprising number of people who need to work together in order to raise a Bedouin tent. 

According to Clinton Bailey, an Israeli investigator of Bedouin culture for more than half a century, these nomads’ religion is a cornucopia of both ancient and more ancient articles of faith. The potent brew of beliefs and tales that itinerant tribes and clans spread throughout their territories might well mirror the course taken by the multiple texts we call the Hebrew Bible. I had already done thorough research on what is known about the relationships between sedentary and nomadic Semitic tribes in the ancient world: They were tense, but also mutually beneficial. One Bedouin saying struck me as a good rule of thumb to follow as I wrote about how Tal and Aram were swept up into political discord among the Israelites: “I against my brothers, I and my brothers against my cousins, I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” It seemed clear to me that, once the Israelites had fled from Pharaoh, there would be rivalries among tribal leaders – including those who might want to topple Moses (assuming he existed). But it was also likely that survival skills brought to the table by the still-practicing nomads among the tribes would be vital as they all fled together.

A drinking cup made of Nile silt, unusually well preserved. Cheap, plain and fragile, this type of pottery probably typified most Egyptians’ tableware. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The tribespeople would know how to set up tents, and then pack them up again to put more distance between themselves and Pharaoh’s troops the following day. They would be able to make cooking fires from goat and cow dung. They would be familiar with the turn-offs and side roads along the major trade routes of the time, and, most crucially, where to find water nearby. And once the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai (the most plausible location of which I’ve written about in more detail), they would know how to swiftly build ovens out of clay in order to make bread, and how to construct quick and simple sheepfolds for the flocks.

According to the biblical narrative, Moses lived in Midian for several years (Exodus 2:15), forging alliances among the Bedouin-like Semitic tribes there. His father-in-law Jethro, a “priest of Midian” (Ex. 18:1), advises him to organize political power among the Israelites in a manner very similar to the Bedouins’ social/political organization today, with “leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Ex. 18:21). While the Hebrew Bible does not explicitly say that Jethro was a nomad himself, we know that modern Saudi Arabia – where Midian was located – prides itself on its Bedouin heritage

So the Israelites, who had lived settled lives in solid houses for generations in Egypt, probably survived the flight from their homes by uniting with wanderers they considered cousins. These two sides of Jewish identity – sedentary and nomadic – have lived on for thousands of years, all the way up to a dramatic appearance in what is arguably the best-known product of American-Jewish culture: the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof

I’ve experienced this wayfaring in my own life. Although I’m a native New Yorker, I’ve lived in California, Iowa, Israel, the German capital Berlin, a mountain village outside of Munich, and now Ohio. Both of my brothers have similar Jewish geographies. Are we home yet?

Who knows?

A tent city in Mina, Saudi Arabia, housing up to three million Muslim pilgrims to Mecca during the Hajj. The air conditioning units and fireproof building materials are updates on the cultural legacy of the Bedouin in the Arabian peninsula.

4 thoughts on “How to Escape from Pharaoh”

  1. Pingback: Israel in Arabia

  2. Pingback: The Brink of Slavery

    1. I’m quite sure I can spend the rest of my life digging into this (pardon the pun)! Thank you for the kind comment.

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