Introduction

Boundary statuary at Tell Amarna tombs, Egypt, where thousands of slave laborer remains have been found. Image credit: Einsamer Schütze, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2015, thousands of graves of children and teens from biblical-era Egypt were found at the archaeological site of Tell el-Amarna, once the capital city of the “monotheistic” pharaoh Akhenaten. The skeletons showed signs of heavy labor, and had been wrapped only in rough matting before being dumped into the ground. Their families were unknown.

A Times of Israel reporter, Amanda Borschel-Dan, asked Amarna Project director Barry Kemp whether these skeletons could be the remains of Israelite slaves under Pharaoh.

His answer was a quick no.

“I am afraid that I do not accept the Old Testament narrative as a historical record, and therefore that there is any connection between Amarna and ‘Hebrew slaves,’” he replied promptly in an email.

From its very beginnings when a trowel plunged into Pompeiian dirt to inaugurate the world’s first dig, archaeology has unearthed the foundations of ancient beliefs alongside palaces and temples. But biblical archaeology cuts closer to modern faith. The Hebrew Bible feels like history, with its detailed navigational verses mixing exotic and proverbial place-names (e.g., “go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain and continue along the slopes east of the Sea of Galilee”) (Numbers 34:10-12). Zionism, a secular movement declaring that the true home of the world’s Jews is in today’s state of Israel, depends on a historical understanding of the Bible. So archaeologists like Kemp, who delve into ancient religions that probably were as different from our own monotheistic beliefs today as the sacred erotic frescoes of Pompeii are from papal encyclicals, sometimes uncover deeply held convictions that most of us recognize and many of us share. They are more than just stories limned with crusty antiquity.

“No archaeologist to my knowledge has attempted to discover, for example, The Shire or Mordor from the Lord of the Rings trilogy . . . But the Exodus sites are different.”
– James K. Hoffmeier, Biblical Archaeology Review

BIblical archaeologists known as “maximalists” are discovering evidence for various parts of the Exodus stories, from the location of the capital city of Ra’amses the Great, to contemporaneous reports of Semitic tribes flocking to Egypt in times of famine as told in the tale of Joseph (Genesis 42:2), to archaeological finds showing Egyptian influence on ancient Israel – and, possibly, vice versa.  And there have been recent articles on plenty of popular science websites as well as in newspapers about the possibility that the Ten Plagues story, as told in the ninth chapter of the book of Exodus, is explicable by modern climate science.

A library of books have been published, too, including The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories by Cambridge University physicist Colin J. Humphreys. I read it about ten years after its 2003 publication, when I was first thinking about writing a novel retelling the Exodus story from the point of view of Israelite teenagers. Although I found that Humphries was a little too keen to prove every bit of the biblical story, and his theories sometimes seemed to stretch to fit the ancient text like a record-setting piece of gum, everything in his book seemed at least plausible if not always extremely likely. So I decided to base my own novel on it.

I’ve been writing it ever since. I still am.

Along the way, I’ve amassed hundreds of links to solid research on an extensive assortment of topics. I’ve got stuff on limb amputation in ancient Egypt and beer-drinking among the Israelites. I’ve read up on conflicting biblical assertions about how long the Israelites were enslaved to Pharaoh. I’ve scanned chapters on Israelite marriage contracts in the Egyptian enclave of Elephantine, and articles on how to monitor a volcanic eruption through sound. Biblical archaeology is a hot field of debate and constant groundbreaking developments – pun intended – and as I take a break between drafts of what has become a 170,000-word manuscript, I thought that a blog like this might be both educational and entertaining.

The organizational principle of the website where these posts are linked is the three main geographical areas described in the Exodus stories (and the titles of what has become a trilogy of novels): Goshen, in the eastern Nile river delta; Midbar, variously translated as the “wilderness” or “desert” beyond the rich soil of the Nile floods; and Sina’i, or the Mountain of God sometimes called Horeb in the Hebrew Bible. Colin J. Humphries’s The Miracles of Exodus places this mountain in present-day Saudi Arabia, and gives a pretty detailed analysis of the walking route from Goshen through the Midbar to Sina’i. That’s why I started the blog with this flyover video I made in Google Earth, and the first post is the script of the narration. If you’re curious about the real events that may be behind the stories in the Hebrew Bible – without doubt the most influential book in human history – I hope you’ll consider subscribing here.

Path to the northern tombs at Tell Amarna, Egypt. Image credit: en:User:Markh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Introduction”

  1. Pingback: The Brink of Slavery

  2. Pingback: Welcome to “News From the Biblical Past”

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