The name Moses was found in Egypt

Moses: hero of the Bible, deliverer of the Israelites

How did Moses lead his people from Egypt to Canaan? Scholars argue about this to this day. And also about whether the prophet ever existed

The "Abyssinian Baptist Church" in Harlem, New York, is filled to capacity on Sundays. Well-dressed black Americans sit on the pews with their colorfully dressed wives next to them. The pastor finishes his sermon with enthusiasm and starts a song that everyone present is enthusiastic about. "When Israel was in Egypt Land" tells of how the Lord God sends his prophet Moses to briefly tell the Pharaoh: "Let my people go!"

What is just as loudly praised by New York believers as it is by congregations in South Africa or Indonesia is one of the archetypes of Christianity: the Exodus, the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, written down in the five books of Moses. It is a dramatic story about how an oppressed people are set free by their God. His tool is Moses, who wrests permission from the reluctant Pharaoh to emigrate. When the Pharaonic army nevertheless pursues the Israelites, God divides the sea through which his people flee, then the waters collapse over the persecutors. On the way to the Promised Land, the crowd wandered through the desert for 40 years. God gives his "chosen people" the Ten Commandments and makes an eternal covenant with them.

Throughout the years of wandering, Moses is the recognized guide. He prevents apostasy when apostates choose a golden calf as their new cult symbol, and leads his people to victory in all battles. He is the only prophet in the Bible who has seen God, and even in death he is privileged: Yahweh personally buries him.

Moses is a key figure

He is considered the founder of monotheism - the first of the commandments of Yahweh that he transmitted is: "You shall have no other gods besides me" - and thus the founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Without it, the State of Israel would lack territorial legitimacy, the claim to Palestine, to the "land of promise" promised by God. And finally, Moses is the lawgiver whose Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, influenced the ethical order of the whole world. All need Moses. "It would have to be invented if tradition did not report it," writes the Old Testament scholar Rudolf Smend.

But did Moses even exist?

Everything we know about Moses is from a single source: the Old Testament. Up until the time of the Enlightenment, the Doctors of the Church were convinced that Moses himself had written it. Today, after 150 years of scholarly biblical criticism, this assumption has been rejected. An editorial team of Jewish priests wrote the five books of Moses in the fifth century BC. Compiled - only 800 years after the time in which Moses, if he existed, presumably lived.

The aim of the priests: With the Old Testament - the Torah, the law, as it is called in Judaism - they wanted to create a binding basis for their faith for everyone. A historical justification for the covenant that Yahweh, the one and only God, had made with the Jewish people. And for this covenant a mediator was needed: Moses the prophet.

Renowned historians consider the Exodus tale neither a credible factual account nor a mere invention. The five books of Moses are rather a concentrate of stories that the tribes of Palestine have passed on orally over centuries, from generation to generation. The experiences of foreign peoples have been mixed in, other things have been deliberately embellished. The search for the true essence of the Exodus report is therefore one of the greatest challenges faced by Old Testament scholars to this day.

Egypt in the 13th century BC. The country is a great power. The pharaohs, above all Ramses II, extended the empire to Syria in the north and deep into Sudan in the south. The only political competitor, the Hittite people, are far away in the north, in Asia Minor. A peace treaty with their ruler, 1258 BC. Closed by Ramses II. BC, delimits the spheres of influence on both sides and guarantees undisturbed trade and traffic flows.

The land on the Nile, fertile, rich and well-ordered, is an attractive land. The nomads of the neighboring deserts look jealously at the abundance. Sometimes she opens up to them: "We let people pass as far as the ponds in order to keep them and their cattle alive through the good will of the Pharaoh," an Egyptian border official wrote to his superior. This is how the children of Israel immigrated, described in the story of Joseph in Genesis.

The Israelites, Pharaoh and the city of Ramses

The subsequent sufferings of the people in Egypt are described in detail in the Bible. But when could all of this have happened? Outside of the Bible there is only one contemporary source for the mere existence of the Israelites: on a stele, a memorial stone of Pharaoh Merenptah, there is talk of a tribe called "Israel" living in Palestine. The stele is dated to 1208 BC. The exodus must have taken place before this date. Possibly only shortly before, in the time of Pharaoh Ramses II. (1279 to 1213 BC). Because in the second book of Moses it says: "They had to build the cities of Pitom and Ramses as storage for the Pharaoh". Scientists suspect that the historical Piramesse was meant by the city of Ramses. And indeed Ramses II had this place expanded into a large city.

Since Piramesse was located in the eastern Nile Delta, archaeologists have been searching the ruins for traces of biblical history. But no inscriptions or papyri mention Moses or his tribe by name. Which does not have to mean that the children of Israel did not exist - perhaps they were just not worth mentioning to the Egyptians, as a small group in the army of foreign workers and prisoners of war.

The foreigners brought in for labor had often lived in Egypt for generations, some of them relatively firmly integrated. This could also apply to the tribe whose leader had a common Egyptian name: Moses. The Bible endows him with an unusual origin - floating in a rush basket on the Nile - as well as an unusual youth - brought up at the court of the Pharaoh. Neither is historically proven, but there are many examples of how in antiquity the upbringing of important men was mythically inflated in a similar way. The story of the ten plagues with which Moses is said to have forced the exodus from Pharaoh may also have served to consolidate the myth - after all, it impressively demonstrated the power of Moses and his God.

The Bible made the new beginning dramatic. The Israelites and other prisoners, 600,000 in all, went out by night and fog. So quickly that not even sourdough could be prepared for baking bread. The memory of it comes back to life every year in the highest of all Jewish festivals, the Passover.

Even then, the Sinai peninsula was not a deserted area

The Bible Students judge the process more soberly. Such a high number of people could never have survived in the desert due to a lack of water and food. The Sinai Peninsula could not feed more than 10,000 nomads at any time, and even then the desert was not deserted, but already populated by other tribes. At best, the researchers consider a number of a few thousand Israelites to be realistic, others even assume only a few hundred refugees.

The Israelites moved east from Ramses City and, when the Pharaoh's chariots caught up with them on the Red Sea, received further evidence of the strength of their god: On the banks of the "Sea of ​​Reeds" his prophet split the waters, the Israelites passed dry At foot the ford, the advancing Egyptians drowned.

Even without the "miracle", a defeat of the famous general Ramses II against a crowd of poorly armed nomads would sound implausible. In addition, references to such an event should have been found in Egyptian sources.

The Moses expert Ernst Knauf, who teaches in Bern, interprets the story in a rather unspectacular way. He suspects that nomads of Sinai witnessed how Egyptian chariots standing at the end of a wadi were washed into the sea by a sudden torrent after heavy rains inland. A song about the event emerged, spread from camp to camp, adorned with increasing drama. On their march through the desert the Israelites heard it and adopted it as the salvation act of their God in their own history.

How did Moses lead his confidants through Sinai? The assumptions about it fill entire libraries, multitudes of archaeologists have turned almost every stone in Sinai. The Bible itself does not make research easier: it gives two different escape routes. One, the northern one, ran along the great military road connecting Egypt and Palestine along the Mediterranean Sea. The other, the southern one, ran east of the bitter lakes, along today's canal, to the banks of the Gulf of Suez. The only thing that both have in common is the starting point: the city of Ramses. Is it conceivable that Moses divided his followers into two groups? And why should one of them have taken the dangerous route over the well-guarded military road?

The two routes apparently go back to two different traditions. One reports of a large crowd of emigrants who used the military road because the Egyptians wanted it that way: The people were expelled when an epidemic struck the country. But the other group fled, so in order to bypass the Egyptian bases, they had to take the southern route, which was more deprived.

Miracles of the Prophet Moses or of Nature?

This route is documented in the Bible with a wealth of references. The author Werner Keller used it to map the entire route precisely and wrote the bestseller about it in 1955: "And the Bible is right after all". Today, after 45 years of further intensive research, the Kiel historian Herbert Donner draws a sobering conclusion in his "History of the People of Israel": "Even a reasonably sensible and understandable route cannot be reconstructed." The most plausible seems to be a course based on the need to find water, food and pasture for the cattle. Accordingly, Moses would have opted for the old trade route along the Red Sea, which connects Egypt with the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Chadem in the interior of Sinai. From there, Wadi Feiran offered the only way to get to the Mount of Moses, the Gebel Musa, for a larger group.

The Israelites were precious little prepared for desert life. Again and again, according to the biblical description, they got into trouble and found neither water nor food. Their leader helped them out of trouble every time. From a scientific point of view, the "miracles" ascribed to Moses prove above all that the prophet knew his way around the desert better than his followers. For most of the miracles, plausible sounding explanations have been found. The "Manna that covered the ground and satiated the hungry Israelites" had already been recognized in 1823 by the German botanist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg as the secretion of a scale insect that settled on the tamarisk. The quail falling from the sky were probably exhausted migratory birds. The British governor of Sinai, C. S. Jarvis, among others, experienced in the thirties that nomads, like Moses, can beat water out of rock.

Michelangelo's mighty Moses sits at the tomb of Pope Julius II at San Pietro in Rome. With a patriarch's beard and the tablets of the law, he symbolizes what happens on Mount Sinai: the handing over of the Ten Commandments, the proclamation of faith in the one God, of whom it is forbidden to form an image. In deliberate contrast to the worship of many gods and images in Egypt and the whole of the Orient, Moses preached his rigid monotheism - for many believers the most momentous achievement of the prophet in history.

Modern research has put this view of things into perspective. In ancient Israel, at least until the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. BC, polytheism was still widespread. Yahweh was depicted and even got a female addition, the goddess Asherah. The pure form of Jewish monotheism only emerged after a long process lasting over hundreds of years. Presumably because it offered the best opportunity to differentiate oneself from the religions of other, politically dominant peoples.

Moses did not formulate the Ten Commandments either

Moses has also lost importance in his role as lawgiver. His cultic prescriptions summarized in the third book of Moses were not formulated by him, but arose much later. Even more important: Even the concise and concise form of the Ten Commandments are no longer considered to be Mosaic. It is not conceivable that Moses prescribed the seventh day of the week as a day of rest, the Sabbath, for his nomads, nor does it make sense to set up the commandment in the camp of a wandering people, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. The conclusion is that the Decalogue was formulated among farmers and city dwellers only after the conquest of Palestine.

In the discussion about which peak of Sinai should be considered the Mount of Moses, the most diverse mountains have been named. Most of the faithful adhere to the conviction of the Empress Helena, who declared the 2285 meter high Gebel Musa to be the place of the event in AD 324. It would have been plausible, however, if Moses, in order to be as close as possible to God, had climbed the next 350 meters higher Gebel Katarina. Some researchers, on the other hand, favor the 2070 meter high Gebel Serbal, which towers over the Feiran oasis: The Israelites would have found the 40 days of waiting for Moses in the oasis easier than on the barren edge of the other mountains.

According to the Bible, those waiting took advantage of Moses' absence to create a "golden calf" as a vivid image of God in the oasis. They chose this animal because it reminded them of the Apis bull, worshiped as a deity in Egypt. The heretical act offended Yahweh. As a punishment, he did not let the Israelites see the Promised Land until the next generation.

Moses, the prophet between truth and fiction

It is quite possible that there was no golden calf. But in the dramaturgical intention with which this narrative could later be woven into the tradition, scholars believe that they once again recognize a historical core: that the Israelites actually did not go straight to Palestine, which would have taken them only two weeks, but several more Stayed in the desert for decades. Historically, this delay would have made sense. It was not until the beginning of the 12th century when the Egyptians withdrew from Palestine as the power of order that the tribes of the desert found it easier to advance against the small kingdoms and city-states of Palestine.

Moses died before his people reached the Promised Land. The Bible's assertion that he assured his followers of his new home in Palestine when he left Egypt does not stand up to criticism of the sources. This connection was added to the tradition later.

The life of Moses, the Exodus, the covenant with Yahweh and the conquest of the land are still a not completely deciphered mixture of truth and fiction, which the authors of the Old Testament arranged in terms of salvation history, not historically. Collective memories from nearly a thousand years fused together to create the image of Moses, the hero, prophet and liberator of Israel. The most radical Moses biographer, the highly respected Old Testament scholar Martin Noth, who tore apart the Moses legends like no other, comes to the conclusion at the end of his reflections that only one thing is known for certain about Moses: that he was on Mount Nebo in present-day Jordan is buried. So he lived.