From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Hurray for the Hyksos

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – In every generation, some people are determined to deny the reality of Jewish nationhood.

In the first century C.E., an Egyptian named Apion stood at the head of the anti-Jewish faction in Alexandria, lobbying the emperor Caligula to outlaw Judaism. Central to Apion’s case was the claim that the Jews had no tangible historical roots, but were a recent invention and consequently should be denied the rights that are extended to established ethnic or political communities.

The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius devoted a special treatise, “Against Apion,” to the refutation of Apion’s calumnies. He was particularly interested in providing evidence that the nation of Israel was of great antiquity and was mentioned in early non-Jewish sources.

There were several authors whose fascinating works have only survived by virtue of being quoted in Against Apion. One such figure was an Egyptian priest named Manetho who composed a detailed history of his people based on Egyptian sacred texts that he translated into Greek. Josephus made extensive —albeit selective— use of Manetho’s chronicle the “Aegyptiaca.”

In truth, it is not entirely clear that Manetho mentioned the Hebrews or Jews at all in his history (which has not survived in its complete original form). What he did mention was an obscure northwestern Semitic nation called the Hyksos who invaded Egypt in the nineteenth century B.C.E. and according to his narrative, began an occupation that was marked by widespread slaughter and destruction of temples. Afterwards the Hyksos expanded into Judaea where they built the city of Jerusalem as a bulwark against Assyria.

Another passage cited from Manetho spoke of the Egyptian king Amenophis who wished to be vouchsafed communication from the gods, and for that reason was required to purge the homeland of lepers and impure persons. For that purpose, he enslaved eighty thousand people, forced them to labour in stone quarries, and relocated them to the former Hyksos capital city.

A leader of this slave community emerged in the guise of Osarsiph, an ex-priest who instituted a new and blasphemous religion that rejected the traditional Egyptian gods, permitted the consumption of sheep and cattle (which were eschewed by pious Egyptians), and discouraged interaction with outsiders. Not surprisingly, Osarsiph was equated with the Moses of the Bible —though not all scholars agree that this crucial identification was proposed by Manetho himself. The Egyptian tradition also tells of Osarsiph making contact with the Hyksos contingent in Jerusalem.

Josephus found it convenient to accept Manetho’s accounts as proof that Moses, his people and his religion were around in very early times. Of course, this also raised some difficulties, in that there were elements in the Egyptian tales about evicted lepers that clearly conflicted with the Jewish memory of our miraculous exodus, and were quite embarrassing to our national pride.

Josephus, while confessing to his own ignorance of the Egyptian language, proposed an etymology of the word “Hyksos” as “shepherd kings,” though he personally preferred “captive shepherds.”  (Remember that the biblical story stresses that “all shepherds are abominable to Egyptians.”)  Modern Egyptologists favour something more like “chieftains of the hill-country,” or “from foreign lands.” This title referred to the leaders of the people, not to the entire ethnic group.

Manetho’s depiction of the Hyksos as brutal foreign invaders has not received much scholarly support in more recent studies. Archeological evidence suggests that they were more likely a migrating tribe who gradually infiltrated Egyptian society, adopting the language and artistic norms of the majority culture to the point that their religion and architectural styles blended Semitic with Egyptian elements. Some of their prominent leaders rose to positions of power in the Egyptian government. Eventually they were driven out by Pharaoh Ahmose I in the sixteenth century B.C.E.

Contrary to Manetho’s claim that they ruled Egypt for five centuries, the royal chronology indicates that the Hyksos dynasty consisted of only six rulers whose combined reigns spanned a single century.

In any case, Josephus found Manetho’s records to be very useful from two perspectives. In the first place, they proved that “the so-called Shepherds, our ancestors” left Egypt and settled in “our land” in what the Greeks considered the remote past. Secondly, they showed that the Hyksos / Israelites were not native Egyptians, but had arrived there from elsewhere, thereby confirming the biblical story.

As for all those elements that did not dovetail with the Jewish version, especially the accusation that the Jews were descended from lepers who were expelled from Egypt—well, Josephus dismisses them and claims that Manetho must have gathered them from questionable legends, not from trustworthy documents.

The archeological evidence indicates that the period of Hyksos rule in Egypt was generally one of prosperity. And yet after their overthrow, they were vilified as despised foreigners, and the memories of their social assimilation and economic contributions were suppressed. This recalls the Bible’s account of that ungrateful “new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.”

Notwithstanding all the contradictions between Manetho and the Torah, Josephus’s approach continues to attract adherents. For instance, a recent study claims to trace the historical “DNA” of the Jewish people back to three basic ethnic components, one of which consisted of a mixture of local Canaanites and Hyksos refugees. The author argues that it was the collective memories of this group that eventually evolved into the biblical stories about the Hebrew lad Joseph rising to influence in the Egyptian royal court, the enslavement of the Hebrews, and their exodus to the promised land.

Against this theory, however, others note that the sequence of the biblical story about Joseph and his family’s migrations to Egypt is entirely different from that of the Hyksos’ rise to Egyptian leadership; and that neither Joseph nor any other Israelite ever became an actual ruler of Egypt.

Well, if nothing else, this suggests another topic for animated discussion about the Exodus to keep us conversing all night, like those ancient sages in the Haggadah.

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