Pharoah’s papyrus scrolls may not seem the most reliable sources for investigating the story of the Israelite’s Exodus, but Egyptologist Galit Dayan has found in them much compelling evidence to support the historicity of the biblical tale.
Two weeks before Passover, on March 17, Dayan presented her research to an audience of more than 200 at Sinai Temple. Dayan, who earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is the wife of Jacob Dayan, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, told the group that linguistic evidence reveals an ancient and deeply involved Jewish presence in Egypt that eventually disappears. To illustrate, she drew remarkable parallels between the language of Egyptian papyrus (hieroglyphs), the haggadah and the Bible, all of which contain references to the Exodus story. In piecing together these manuscripts, Dayan framed an Exodus narrative based on facts of Egyptian history and language to prove her theory that a mass Exodus did occur and that it happened during the reign of Ramses II.
In each of the Egyptian manuscripts Dayan discussed, the same familiar characters are mentioned: Moses (“an Egyptian name”), Pharoah, the Red Sea/Sea of Reeds (“Yam Suf” in Hebrew), Hebrews, Israelites and the presence of slaves in Egypt.
In one manuscript, known as the Ipuwer papyrus, there is an eerie description of chaos in Egypt: “Plague is throughout the land,” Dayan’s translation reads, “blood is everywhere — the river is blood … and the hail smote every herd of the field … the land is without light and there is a thick darkness throughout the land … the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt — from the firstborn of Pharoah that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the prison. …”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Dayan said with dramatic effect, “this is an Egyptian papyrus that is describing the same plagues that we have in our haggadah.” She explained her view that the 10 plagues were not random punishments inflicted by the Jewish God upon Egypt, but a “declaration of war” on the entire Egyptian system. Each plague, she said, corresponds to a different Egyptian god and the element of creation over which they held dominion. This means the plagues were not merely grave misfortunes but the most humiliating insults to the Egyptian people.
Dayan, who is a fan of atlases, made use of several maps to support her case. The “Map of the Lakes” depicts the location of several bodies of water in ancient Egypt — including the Yam Suf, or Red Sea — which the Israelites are said to have crossed on their way to Canaan. Although the Egyptians refer to the Yam Suf in a different location from where the Red Sea is located, Dayan said there is a manuscript that depicts “a lake full of suf, or reeds” as having dried out. This was a time, Dayan said excitedly, when “you could cross Yam Suf.”
Academics have narrowed the time period during which the Exodus might have occurred to the reign of three kings, or pharoahs, who are first called such in Egyptian texts. First was King Akhenaten, who reportedly brought monotheism to Egypt (as Dayan believes that groups of Hebrews resided in Egypt since the beginning of Jewish history, it is plausible either that the king passed monotheism onto the Jews or that they could have influenced his theology); next was Ramses II, who moved the Egyptian capital to the delta where many “Habirus” — or Hebrews — resided and also near to where the haggadah says that Israelites “built treasure cities Pitom and Ramses” for Pharoah; and then there is Merneptah Stele, the son of Ramses II who, among his many conquests, conquered “Israel” in the land of Canaan — an indication that the Israelites had already left Egypt and were living in the land.
So far, evidence of the Exodus exists only as pieces of a puzzle. These fragments of history, Dayan admits, appear within different manuscripts written at different times. “People today are still looking for the one piece, the one story — the Egyptian haggadah — that will include all the elements of the story together,” she said.
There are Jews who accept the historicity of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt as an indisputable fact of the Jewish story and for whom its legitimacy cannot be questioned. But within scholarly and scientific circles, whether the Exodus actually occurred is still an issue of serious inquiry and debate. Dayan represents a voice in the middle, sensitive to the Jewish story and also aware of the facts.
“I believe that we helped Egypt succeed and be a great empire,” Dayan said. “When you read the Bible, you can find the footprints of Egyptian culture all over the place. There are so many expressions in the haggadah, in the Bible, that are actually Egyptian expressions. How could we know Egyptian so well? Because we lived there.”
Of course, there are those who disagree. Among them is Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe, who led a Q-and-A discussion following Dayan’s lecture. Wolpe famously disputed the historicity of the Exodus in a 2001 sermon.
Did Dayan’s presentation change Wolpe’s mind — even a little?
“Not at all,” Wolpe said during the discussion. “But not because it doesn’t convince me that there’s evidence that makes the story plausible, because I think there is. … The reason that modern scholars dispute the historicity of the Exodus doesn’t have anything to do with the first two parts of the story [slavery in Egypt, the journey through the desert]; it has to do with the third part [when they arrive in the land].
“If, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Jews left Egypt, then you should be able to see new settlement patterns in Israel — and archaeologists have excavated Israel, and they don’t see a change in the building structure, in the pottery, all the things you think would change if there was a huge immigrant influx,” Wolpe said.
Though the evening ran late and Dayan did not have the opportunity to formally rebut Wolpe’s contentions, Dayan said after the lecture that the reason settlement patterns aren’t visible is because Israelites had not yet conquered their new homeland in Israel — they were nomads, and later papyrus scrolls depicted them as a people without a territory, which would have precluded them from building when they arrived.
To fill in the gaps, Dayan explained, Jews and Israelis would need access to archeological sites in Egypt, which she believes German archeologists are currently excavating. Because the political relationship between Egypt and Israel remains fraught, even archeological endeavors are challenging.
“As an Israeli and a Jew, I can tell you they will do everything they can not to let you dig in Egypt,” Dayan said. “I tried to do it with a French passport, but I didn’t succeed because I was born in Jerusalem. I think the Egyptians today are very afraid that we will find more to support the theory that we lived in the delta.”
“One [archaeologist] even said to me, ‘You know, we don’t want you to one day claim the delta,’ ” she joked.
At the end of the presentation, Wolpe asked Dayan whether any of the other ancient tribes of Egypt still exist, besides the Israelites.
“No,” she answered.
“Whereas, if you have a seder this year,” the rabbi said, turning to the audience, “you will be reenacting something thousands of years old that none of those other cultures who passed through that ancient world can do.”