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The Moses Mystery: The African Origins of the Jewish People by Gary Greenberg

Review from KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, 8:3, Fall 1997 followed by author’s response

The Moses Mystery:
The African Origins of the Jewish People
By Gary Greenberg
1997, Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, NJ;
308 pages, no illustrations; $24.95 hardcover;
ISBN 1-55972-371-8

Gary Greenberg’s treatise, another contribution to the Egyptian/Israelite/Exodus controversy, strikes out along a totally fresh and unique course. The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, he asserts, derive from the pharaonic kings lists of ancient Egypt. In fact, for Greenberg, virtually the entire book of Genesis—not to mention other parts of the Pentateuch— has its source in Egyptian antecedents. Therefore, deduces the author, the twelve tribes of Israel never existed and the ancient Israelites were originally followers of the Aten-worshipping Akhenaten. Moses fled Egypt after Akhenaten’s death, returned to Egypt where he and the deceased pharaoh’s partisans made common cause in a coup against Rameses I, then he led these remnants of the hated Atenists out of Egypt (the Exodus). These Egyptian expatriates, Greenberg holds, reinterpreted Egyptian history and myth into what became the genealogies and stories of Genesis and Exodus, the legends of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

Central to The Moses Mystery are two assumptions: that, for the Jews, 3761 BC was the beginning of the Genesis genealogies; and that the ages of the patriarchs, as recorded in these genealogies, are reliable. Second, that, among other things, biblical circumcision derived from the ritual whereby the dead Egyptian king (Horus) became the god Osiris, and that Jacob and Esau were originally the gods Horus and Set. Chapters 1-10 of The Moses Mystery deal with chronological matters, while chapters 11-14 discuss the lives of the patriarchs and their alleged Egyptian counterparts. Chapter 15 provides a summary of Greenberg’s take on what is, admittedly, a very complex and thorny set of problems.

A study such as this demands the deepest scholarship and the most sound methodology. This Herculean task the author undertakes with aplomb. Some of his results are insightful and valuable, for example his equation of the reign lengths of the Twelfth Dynasty, as preserved in Manetho vis-a-vis the extant Egyptian king lists, is masterful (74-76), as is his correct refutation of the 215-year sojourn of Israel theory.

In terms of scholarship, however, many flaws and shortcomings confront the knowledgeable reader. Greenberg’s assertion that there is no extra-biblical evidence [for] David, Solomon, or the vast and glorious empire over which they ruled (13) contradicts recent discoveries at Tell Dan and Moab, which mention King David by name. The Bubastite Portal, well-known for so long, documents the existence of an Israelite state powerful enough to cause a major pharaoh to glory in his defeat of it. Other “bloopers” include: (1) the assertion that Moses killed an Egyptian soldier (141), (2) Amenhotep was a throne name (149) and (3) that the Amarna Letters show the disintegration of Egyptian authority in Palestine (160). This list is by no means exhaustive.

Methodologically, Greenberg encounters difficulties even more serious. His whole argument hangs on a key anchor point, Jewish tradition’s dating of creation as taking place in 3761 BC. This point in time he chooses without discussion or elaboration, perhaps unaware of the possibility that years might be missing from the figure. An error of even a few decades would ripple down the year totals, obviating any possible links between Genesis genealogies and the Egyptian king lists. Better would have been to start with 1 Kings 6:1—which gives 480 years as the total from Solomon’s fourth year to the Exodus—then, counting backward, arriving at dates for the biblical patriarchs. Greenberg effectively rejects this possibility because, according to his calculations, the fourth year of Solomon (if there existed such a person!) would fall in 1017 BC. He comes to this conclusion, apparently, without consulting Thiele’s The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, long respected as the standard work in the chronology of the Israelite rulers, which puts Solomon’s fourth year at 966 BC. When Greenberg can make his numbers coincide with Egyptian chronology, he displays the results in neatly arranged tables (the books contains ten of these). When he cannot, he accuses the biblical authors of “sloppy editing” (135) or of making arithmetical errors (140). This latter judgment is strange, since it is these very numbers in the biblical record Greenberg relies on to make his ultimate case. Of Manetho’s work, the author writes: “...Manetho’s original history, before it was redacted by subsequent editors, contained an accurate chronological account of Egyptian dynasties” (282). This means that Manetho’s chronology, as we have it, does not correspond to reality. So, reasons the author, it must have originally. Such methodology is nothing more than “begging the question.”

Even more ingenuous, the author interprets biblical customs and stories in terms of Egyptian religion. For him Israelite circumcision is nothing more than a reenactment of the ritual whereby Horus (the living king) becomes Osiris (the dead king), for both Israelite and Egyptian stories deal with the penis: Jewish men cut theirs, the Egyptian god lost his (246-247).

The author devotes much space to linking incidents in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Esau and Jacob with Egyptian models. He foresees that critics might nit-pick at some specifics, but is seemingly unaware of Near Eastern clues in the patriarchal narratives which place the origin of these tales well into the Second Millennium BC. These include Abraham and Isaac describing their wives as sisters (sister was the highest level of wife in Mesopotamian culture), Sarah letting her maidservant bear a child in her stead (a custom well-attested at Nuzi) and Esau’s selling of his birthright (also attested at Nuzi). Such specifics and others place the origin of the Pentateuch circa 1500 BC, for these customs were unknown or illegal in the Israel of monarchical or exilic times (ca. 950-500 BC). They also were unknown to the Egyptians, so could not have originated from that quarter.

Greenberg’s contention that Esau is Set and Jacob Horus, that the story of these patriarchs derives from The Contending of Horus and Set (238), therefore, is untenable prima facie, for the patriarchal narrative predates the Egyptian myth, which was first attested in 1145-1141 BC, during the reign of Rameses V. As for the author’s assertions that Abram and Sarai are thinly disguised from Re and Hathor, Abraham and Sarah from Geb and Nut (250-253), these and other fanciful equations require more space than is available here to evaluate and refute.

Greenberg, leaving no stone unturned, also plumbs extant Egyptian sources, chiefly Manetho as quoted by Josephus, for clues to the Exodus. While to be commended, this view is also fraught with peril. Manetho’s work, The Aegyptiaca, compiled more than 1,000 years after the Exodus, survives only in excerpts by the admittedly partisan Josephus. The latter, identifying the Israelites with the Hyksos, only then cites the Egyptian historian, Manetho, in a rather lengthy quote recounting a story of civil war among the Egyptians, the flight of a Pharaoh Amenophis into Nubia, the reconquest of Egypt by the same king, and the subsequent ousting of Asiatics from Egypt— along with discontented Egyptians. Greenberg assumes that Manetho’s description accurately depicts the events leading up to and concluding in the Exodus. For him Amenophis is Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, with the reference to a high-priest, Osarseph (Moses) banning the worship of the gods corresponding to Akhenaten’s well-known agenda.

The chronological objections notwithstanding, Manetho’s account smacks more of the Egyptian war of liberation against the Hyksos than of Akhenaten’s pogrom. The king Amenophis, however, could be the pharaoh of the Exodus - Amenhotep II, who ruled Egypt at the time of the biblically implied date. If Manetho’s Amenophis is, indeed, Akhenaten, the radical departure of events as related in the Ptolemaic historian’s account from those of the Bible precludes that Manetho is speaking solely of that king’s reign. Osarseph as Moses’s original name, unattested both in Egyptian sources and the Exodus, must be discarded. Manetho’s account squares almost exactly with what historians know about Ahmose I’s war against the Hyksos, who Hatshepsut accuses of -ruling without Re,- i.e., of being enemies of the gods. So Manetho—while he may have added legends deriving from Akhenaten’s time—is certainly recounting the course of the Egyptian war of liberation against the Hyksos. It is Josephus who equates the Hyksos with the Israelites, not Manetho. Greenberg’s Moses Mystery, all things considered, fails to justify the unique interpretation it suggests: that proper names of Egyptian gods correspond to their alleged counterparts in the Bible, that the patriarchal tales derive from Egyptian models, that the Exodus occurred during the reign of Rameses I in a form radically different from the biblical account. While lawyer Greenberg deserves praise for confronting a wide range of evidence, his case, arguments and summation are reminiscent of the guy in the muffler ad: “Don’t worry, I’ll make it fit.”

O. Zuhdi

Following is Gary Greenberg’s letter to the Editor of KMT about this review

I want to thank Mr. Zuhdi for taking the time to read and review my book, The Moses Mystery; the African Origins of the Jewish People. I appreciate both his praise and his thoughtful criticisms. I do, however, have a few points I would like to respond to or clarify.

Mr. Zuhdi states that I anchor my chronological arguments on the use of 3761 BC (the traditional Jewish date of Creation) “without discussion or elaboration, perhaps unaware of the possibility that years might be missing from the figure. An error of even a few decades would ripple down the year totals, obviating any links between Genesis genealogies and the Egyptian king-lists.” His complaint fails to come to grips with the core arguments presented over several chapters in my book.

What I show in my book is that the Genesis birth and death chronology appears to coincide perfectly, on a direct year-to-year correlation, with the high Egyptian chronology for every datable dynasty down to the Eighteenth and for the ascension dates of several kings in the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties. For example, in the same chapter where Mr. Zuhdi refers to my “masterful” analysis of Manetho’s Twelfth Dynasty reign lengths vis-à-vis the extant Egyptian king-lists, I also have a detailed analysis of several Genesis birth dates vis-à-vis the high Twelfth Dynasty chronology (1991 starting date). That analysis shows that once allowances are made for the double-counting of coregencies, six of the last seven birth dates in Genesis include precise correlations with the high Egyptian chronology for Menthotpe’s unification of Thebes, (2040 BC, birth of Eber in Genesis), the starting dates for the first four kings of the Twelfth Dynasty, and the starting date for the seventh king of the Twelfth Dynasty. A second Genesis sequence gives the death dates for Terah and Eber as 1680 and 1576, providing the high chronology dates for the start of the Fifteenth and Eighteenth Dynasties. (Note Eber’s birth and death dates, 2040 and 1576, frame the starting dates for both the Middle and New Kingdoms in the high chronology.)

Given the handful of Genesis dates following the start of the Middle Kingdom, such a set of sequential coincidences can’t be dismissed as a random occurrence, and they follow from a Genesis starting date of 3761 BC. Several other chapters of the book are replete with detailed evidence of the precise alignments between the Genesis birth and death chronologies and the high Egyptian chronology, covering the period from the start of the First Dynasty to the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Now, it may be that my Twelfth Dynasty analysis is wrong and subject to error or criticism. I would welcome a discussion on the matter. But one can’t simply say that I fail to provide a discussion or elaboration of why Genesis chronology begins with the traditional Jewish date of 3761 BC, or why I rely on Genesis chronology to give me an accurate chronology for Egyptian dynastic dating.

Mr. Zuhdi also challenges my conclusions because they disagree with other theories that he holds to. For example, he asserts that I overlook clues that support evidence for the existence of the patriarchs well into the second millenium. Mr. Zuhdi’s view is just one of many possible conclusions and it is rapidly losing adherents among modern biblical scholars. The prominent Palestinian archaeologist Wlliam Dever, in a recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, says, “We’ve given up the patriarchs. That’s a dead issue.” Certainly I could have, in an ideal world, have discussed every possible theory on every possible issue, even those without significant academic support, but the realities of popular publishing and personal time commitments limit how much material can be included. I had to edit my manuscript down from over three times the length of the present book, and even the full length didn’t include everything Mr. Zuhdi would have preferred to include.

Nevertheless, the more important issue is whether my chronological analysis stands up to valid criticism. If I am wrong, then much of my theory fails. If I am right, then most of these other theories are explicitly refuted, whether I mention them or not.

Another criticism alleges that I try to explain the Israelite custom of circumcision in terms of Egyptian religion. In fact, what I did was point out that circumcision (according to Herodotus, for instance) originated in Egypt, and that may explain where the Israelites got it from. My attempt to develop a theory of circumcision from the myth of Set castrating Osiris was merely a speculative attempt to determine why the Egyptians (not the Israelites) adopted circumcision.

Returning to the criticism of my attempt to explain patriarchal history in terms of the Osiris-Horus-Set cycle, I do not say that the Israelites took their patriarchal history from the specific copy of “The Contendings of Horus and Set” that has been dated to the Twentieth Dynasty. What I did do is show that there is a large body of material concerning Horus and Set, beginning with the royal feuds in the Second Dynasty and continuing down to the time of Plutarch, that gives us an account of the Osiris legend. I point out the relative conservatism in the Egyptian transmissions of these myths and point to several features in the body of the literature that find expression in the Book of Genesis. As to “The Contendings of Horus and Set”, I point out that several incidents in the Patriarchal history have nearly identical parallels in the Egyptian story. I do not claim that the particular copy of that Egyptian text that has been preserved contains the first printing of the several stories contained within or that it formed a template for Genesis.

One last point: Mr. Zuhdi challenges my claim that the Amarna letters document a deterioration in Egyptian authority over Palestine, and gives this as an example of the kind of scholarly errors I made. Let me therefore quote briefly from Redford’s Akhenaten: The Heretic King. “At any rate, Amenophis IV soon found it impossible to enforce his will in Egypt’s Levantine sphere of influence. . . . The king’s control over his Canaanite governors was so loose that they scandalously intercepted and robbed official legates from Babylon and apparently suffered not at all for their crimes. The unfulfilled pleas for troops that are so characteristic of the Amarna letters do not indicate the pharaoh’s disinterest, but rather his indecision. (167, emphasis added.)

While I would like to respond to other points, I believe that for purposes of a letter to the editor, this is sufficient. I welcome further discussion, pro or con, from those who have read my book.

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