Passover is about a natural disaster. Humans have been talking about it ever since. We are very good at remembering tragedies.
For the past century, people have faced a new challenge when making sense of the Passover story: archaeologists in the 1900s were not able to find evidence of Passover. This has struck at the heart of religious people’s confidence in their own history. Many scholars, and even some rabbis, started to think it wasn’t real. It is time to set the record straight.
In recent years, our understanding of the evidence has begun to change. Archaeologists were looking for evidence in the correction location, but at the wrong time.
3,600 years ago, the Mediterranean region was devastated by one of the largest volcanic events in human history. An island off the coast of Greece, called Thera (now called Santorini), was vaporized by a volcanic eruption. The eruption was seven times stronger than Krakatoa in 1883. It ended the Minoan civilization. Satellite images of the island plainly reveal its volcanic past. There used to be a mountain in the center of Santorini. The eruption sent massive shockwaves and ash clouds across the sea toward Northern Egypt.
The Hebrew Bible contains the Jewish record of this natural disaster. The biblical version has faced enormous scrutiny because it is a poetic retelling. There are Ten Plagues in the story, and Passover ends when Moses presents the Ten Commandments. Ten and Ten. This is a poetic device, but we can look inside the artistry to recover an important detail.
One of the Ten Plagues is translated into English as the Plague of Hail. Curiously, the biblical authors reported that the stones were intermingled with fire when they fell from the sky. The fire ran all along the ground. The stones that fell from the Egyptian sky were not icy hailstones from a thunderstorm. These were volcanic fragments that were still burning hot when they landed. This destruction of ancient Egypt was volcanic destruction.
The biblical authors weren’t the only people to record this event; and they weren’t the only ones to believe it was an act of God. 2,200 years ago, an Egyptian historian named Manetho recorded the experiences of his ancestors: “a blast from God came out of nowhere and destroyed all of Egypt”. The kingdom of Egypt was so devastated that afterward, foreigners easily conquered it. Manetho reported that they took control without a single battle. They ruled for more than 100 years. Their reign is a well-documented fact of Egyptian history.
We might not agree with how Manetho or the biblical authors interpreted these events, but it wasn’t outrageous for them to think God was involved. In modern insurance policies we still refer to natural disasters as “Acts of God.”
Without the Act of God that temporarily destroyed the power of ancient Egypt, our world would be vastly different. Without Passover there is no Judaism. Without Passover there is no Christianity and there is no Islam, as both are variations on the religion of Moses. This cataclysm transformed how billions of humans relate to the Divine.
The core of Passover is gratitude for survival. Each year at Passover, however we make sense of the forces beyond our control, let’s gather together and be grateful to be alive.
Most of us don’t know the real story of Moses. We think we do, but we don’t. We only know the greatest hits. This has caused us to get it wrong from the start.
Moses was one of the most famous infants in the religious history of the world. When Moses was born, he had to be hidden. The Pharaoh had decreed that every male baby born to the enslaved Israelites was to be drowned in the Nile River. His mother was defiant, crafty, and careful. She kept her son hidden for three months and while doing so she hatched a plan. She discovered where one of the Pharaoh’s daughters came down to bathe in the river. She put Moses into a water-proofed basket, then carefully floated Moses toward the princess. The princess received the basket, opened it to see Moses, and exclaimed: “This is one of the Hebrew babies.”
What an odd choice of words.
Many of us know the story of Moses from one of the three major motion pictures about him (The Ten Commandments (1956), The Prince of Egypt (1998), or Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)). According to these, Moses grew up in the Egyptian palace, never knowing that he was the biological child of enslaved, Hebrew-speaking Israelites. This lack of self-knowledge is what allowed him to thrive as a mighty Egyptian prince.
We can renovate our understanding of Moses when we correctly perceive the moment of his adoption. How could an Egyptian princess immediately know what kind of baby Moses was? The answer lies in an aspect of Moses we never acknowledge: his genitals.
For hundreds of years, the Israelite descendants of the patriarch Abraham, circumcised their male babies on the eighth day of life. Circumcision was not unique to the Israelites in the ancient world. Circumcision was also an Egyptian custom, but they practiced the rite very differently. During the time of Moses, Egyptians circumcised males during adolescence. The Hebrew ancestors of Moses were the only people in the region who circumcised males as babies.
The people who first wrote the story of Moses were Israelite priests. When they recorded that infant Moses was kept in hiding for three months, they were telling their audience that he had been circumcised by his parents. At this point of Israelite history, they had only one requirement in their religion: infant circumcision. The biblical authors wanted us to know that Moses’ parents were good Israelites, and that Moses was a proper Hebrew baby.
Until the 1800s, every author who wrote about Moses assumed that everyone, including Moses, knew that he was an Israelite. For many of the earliest extra-biblical sources, this was the essential feature of his character. These later authors wanted us to know that Moses was loyal to Israel and their God during every breath of his life in Egypt. It has only been in these past two hundred years that we have changed Moses’ story to add psychological intrigue.
But according to the original story, everyone in the Egyptian palace would have been reminded that baby Moses was an Israelite every time they had to change his diaper or when he took a bath. What would it have been like for him to grow up in such circumstances?
How early in his life did Moses realize that his penis was different than the other children in Egypt? How did the royal family explain it to him? How would it have impacted him when spending time with his peers in the palace? What sort of taunts, judgmental glances, or indelicate questions might have come his way? How would he feel as his adoptive brothers and cousins were celebrated with ritual adolescent circumcision? They, not Moses, would receive the affirmation of the elders in the ceremony that would make them into Egyptian men.
According to the original story, Moses did not perform a single memorable deed in his life among the Egyptians. In the biblical version, when he encountered his enslaved Israelite kinsmen, they did not think him worthy of respect. The ideas that Moses was a contemplative philosopher, a master of organizing men and a mighty general were added to his story more than a thousand years after Moses died. These ideas are fan fiction.
If we want to know what kind of man created the foundations for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we must understand how his life began. Moses was an Israelite boy, estranged from his biological family due to desperation. As a boy in the Egyptian palace he was an outsider from the start. Moses was immersed in alienation. How could such a boy become the man who would transform the religious history of the world?
There is but one of many features of his life that we have failed to understand. But instead of seeking clarity, we have just been telling the same stories over and over. Moses is the man who transformed religion from a casual celebration of the Divine into a matter of life and death. We have all be impacted by his legacy, consenting or not. It is our right to know the full story.
Among the most famous features of the story of Moses is his presentation of the stone tablets at the base of Mount Sinai. For the past three millennia, people have gathered together for a festival to celebrate this moment. In the sacred calendar of ancient Israel, this festival was known as Shavuot or Pentecost. The event also coincides with the wheat harvest: they would bring their grain to the Temple in Jerusalem to share it with the priests in charge of Israelite religion. This celebration was, and still is, focused on things received. The people received the Ten Commandments of God, the priests received wheat from the farmers. When religious leaders decide what gets said aloud at these events, they have chosen to emphasize the arrival of the Ten Commandments as blessed gifts. This is a sanitized version of how these Laws arrived into the lives of the ancient Israelites.
If we are going to properly understand our own history as a species, we must talk about what was lost when the Ten Commandments arrived. When Moses presented the Ten Commandments, he took away the ancestral religious practices of the people he was leading.
Centuries before Moses was born, his Israelite ancestors already had a well-established version of religion. Their rhythms of their religious lives had been established by their original patriarch, a man named Abraham. His religious contributions were so foundational to the lives of his descendants that they referred to the Creator as the God of Abraham.
When an ancient famine forced the Israelites to migrate to Egypt, they carried their religious practices with them. When a new Pharaoh came to power and forced the Israelites into a state of permanent enslavement, their religion provided them with hope. And after Moses led them out of Egypt, they continued to carry their ancestral religion in their hearts.
Moses led the people to Mount Sinai so they could celebrate their God together. But soon after their arrival, Moses ascended the summit of Mount Sinai to obtain the famous stone tablets on which the Laws of God were written. He was gone so long that the authors of the story were relegated to describing the duration poetically: 40 days and 40 nights. From the perspective of these religious Israelites who were waiting to have a festival to God, he was clearly gone for too long.
The Israelites thought he had died. So they made their own festival without him. They did so in the ways they had learned from their ancestors. As part of this celebration to thank God, they built a deity statue, sometimes called an idol. This act provides the motive for what will follow.
The Second Commandment is a rule to prohibit the Israelites from building deity statues. The only reason this rule exists is because ancient Israelites loved building them. They were statue-building people. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, they were still carrying the tools needed to make such statues out of molten metal. The biblical authors have described the statue they made as a Golden Calf. But this is not quite right.
It may seem like a small thing, but one word in this story has not been understood correctly, and it changes everything. The Hebrew word translated as “Calf” is a gendered noun that actually means “young Bull” or “small Bull”. Out of all the possible shapes for a deity statue, why did these Israelites make a small Bull statue?
The answer to this question was not knowable for a long time.
In 1928 a farmer in western Syria ran his plow into a rock that proved to be part of an ancient temple. Archaeologists arrived and uncovered two libraries that included religious writings from the ancestral home of the Israelites, a place called Canaan. The land of Canaan was the home of Abraham, the original patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Abraham and his Canaanite neighbors referred to the Creator as El, or El Shaddai. Throughout the region, El was described as the Bull of Canaan. When these ancient people built deity statues to honor the supreme God who controlled nature, their statues were shaped like Bulls. In 1977, one of these ancient Bull statues was uncovered in the highlands of what used to be Canaan, and it now resides in the Israel Museum.
The Bull God El was so important to the Israelites that it is part of their name. The name Israel means “He who wrestles, or endures, with the God named El”. Muslims trace their ancestry through Abraham’s son Ishmael, which means “The God named El hears me.” The entire legacy of human monotheism is tethered to this Bull-shaped God.
The festival at Mount Sinai was a demonstration of the Israelites’ gratitude to the God of Abraham. The people woke up early to cook a feast, then they thanked God for rescuing them from a hopeless existence. They sat down to eat and drink. They rose up to sing, dance and play. Contrary to the dominant narrative, this was a beautiful and wholesome display of devotion to God.
But these Israelites were wrong in one essential way: Moses wasn’t dead. When he descended the mountain, carrying the stone tablets of the Law, the history of our species was completely transformed by rage.
The anger of Moses was provoked when he saw the people breaking the rule about deity statues. He seized their statue and destroyed it. And he was just getting started.
Next, Moses hastily assembled a religious army and ordered a massacre of his own people. According to the original story, 3,000 men were stabbed to death because Moses ordered it. Their only offense was practicing religion differently than Moses did.
This slaughter of his own people is the first documented religious execution in the history of our species. Moses built religious capital punishment into the fabric of his society. Moses made religion a matter of life and death.
The people who created, and who have perpetuated, the dominant narratives of Moses want us to remember what was gained at Mount Sinai. But if we are ever going to regain our ability to express our hearts freely to our Creator, we need to acknowledge what was lost. People lost their freedom to say thank you to God without fearing that they might offend authorities who could unleash deadly force. People lost their ability to celebrate in the ways they had learned from their parents and grandparents. People lost their lives.
Ever since Moses introduced deadly consequences into religion, people have been vulnerable to religious fear. We have been coerced into fearing that God is waiting to punish us for any and all of our misdeeds.
But these fears didn't always exist; and we are not condemned to a life of fear.
We can restore our religious freedom. In the second part of my book I examine the history of Moses and the Israelites in a way that takes all of their lives into consideration. Understanding how religious freedom became polluted with fear can help us learn how to get it back.