The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit C

Jacobovici in a tomb at Beni Hasan

Simcha Jacobovici in a tomb at Beni Hasan. © Associated Producers.

Jacobovici begins the third segment of The Exodus Decoded with video of wall paintings from a tomb at Beni Hasan in Egypt—his Exhibit C. The mural on the wall shows a group of “Semites” (Jacobovici’s term) traveling to Egypt in a caravan. Jacobovici draws attention to the “families and flocks” depicted here, and then claims, “The hieroglyphic inscription on the wall calls these people the Amo—God’s people.” Jacobovici follows this error up with a remarkably audacious claim: “Looking at the right place, during the right time, we are the first to recognize a veritable snapshot of the migration of the biblical Israelites to Egypt.”

Just prior to the commercial break that preceded this scene, Jacobovici had set out two premises that would reveal their importance only in connection with the Beni Hasan wall paintings. First, at the end of the second segment, Jacobovici claims, “We know from the Bible that the Israelites arrived in Egypt some two hundred years before their exodus.” From my article “The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit B2,” you may already know that Jacobovici arrives at 1500 BC for the date of the exodus by “rounding off” John Bimson’s date for the exodus, 1470 BC, up by thirty years, and by moving the events described in Ahmose’s Tempest Stela and the subsequent expulsion of the Hyksos from Lower Egypt down by anywhere from thirty-five to fifty years. With this statement about the timing of the exodus relative to the migration of Jacob’s tribe into Canaan, Jacobovici once again bends standard chronologies to fit his speculative reconstructions.

The biblical text to which Jacobovici refers in the quotation above can only be Genesis 15:13–14, which quotes God as telling Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will live as strangers in a land not their own, and [your descendants] will serve [the people of that land], and [the people of that land] will oppress [your descendants] for four hundred years, but then I will sentence the nation that they will serve, and after that they will go out with great wealth” (my translation). The plain sense of the text clearly states the length of the Israelite oppression—or perhaps the whole sojourn—in Egypt as four hundred years. Where did Jacobovici get his two hundred years? He does not say—an appalling lack of detail at best. An uninformed viewer who takes Jacobovici at his word will go away thinking, “The Bible says that the Israelites would be in Egypt for two hundred years.” In fact, Jacobovici halves the biblical figure.

Perhaps Jacobovici follows an alternative interpretation of the text that starts counting the four hundred years from the moment God makes this announcement to Abraham. Biblical narrators frequently decline to mark time’s passage scrupulously, and the Abraham narrative is a mixed bag in this regard. According to Genesis 16:16, Abraham (Abram at the time) was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born; Genesis 21:5 puts him at one hundred years old when Isaac was born. The biblical narrator does not bother to specify, however, the amount of elapsed time between the events of Genesis 15 and the events of Genesis 16 (reading the book of Genesis as a continuous, integrated narrative, with all the difficulties that entails). Abraham left Haran for Canaan at age seventy-five, says Genesis 11:26; allowing time for the journey to Egypt (Genesis 12), the issues with Lot (Genesis 13), and the war of the kings (Genesis 14) would seem to put the events of Genesis 15 at least some five years into Abraham’s story. Let’s round this off and say that Genesis 15 could be pushed as early as Abraham’s eightieth year of life. Isaac was born twenty years later (Genesis 21:5), and Jacob was born when Isaac was sixty years old (Genesis 25:26). This gives us an elapsed time of eighty years between the covenant-making scene of Genesis 15 and the birth of Jacob (again, if we take the numbers at face value and read Genesis as a coherent narrative). In Genesis 47:9, when Jacob appears before Pharaoh, he gives his age as 130 years. Adding Jacob’s 130 years to the eighty years elapsed between the covenant scene and Jacob’s birth yields 210 years, leaving 190 out of the original 400 years for the Israelites to sojourn in Egypt. Jacobovici does not explain any of this—which I find unscrupulous—but I can’t see any way to get to Jacobovici’s figure of two hundred years except by following this logic and rounding the 190 years up to two hundred.

But the plain sense of the text simply doesn’t say what Jacobovici wants it to say. I can’t see any linguistic justification for the exegetical shenanigans described above. Proponents might argue, in favor of the “shortened” interpretation, that it creates a span of 480 years from Abraham to the exodus, and 1 Kings 6:1 postulates a 480-year gap between the exodus and the beginning of the construction of Solomon’s temple. That’s a nice symmetry, but not one that the Hebrew Bible itself actually proposes. Proponents might also argue that the Torah’s list of the elapsed generations better fits a 190-year sojourn than a four-hundred-year sojourn. Moses’s ancestry, for example, is given in Exodus as Levi to Kohath to Amram to Moses, removing Moses a mere three generations from the migration of Jacob and his sons. However, the 190-year figure doesn’t necessarily resolve the difficulties. According to Genesis 46:11, Kohath was born in Canaan, before Jacob and his family migrated to Egypt. So were all five of Judah’s sons, at least three of whom must be considered to have already reached marriageable age, based on the story in Genesis 38. The narrator gives us no other information about Kohath, so readers have no idea whether to think of Kohath as being closer to, say, Shelah’s age or Perez’s age (to stick with our sons-of-Judah analogy). It seems to me more reasonable to think of Kohath as more or less on a par in age with Er, Onan, and Shelah than with Perez and Zerah, but it’s all guesswork here. If Kohath were of marriageable age already, then you really only have two generations in those 190 years, which divides out to 95-year generations! Even if you have three generations to manage, if Kohath is much younger at the time of his migration to Egypt, you still have three 63-year generations—over one and a half times the standard biblical “constant” of forty years per generation. Shortening the sojourn to 190–195 years from 400 does shave some time off these generations, but it doesn’t really make the generational gap reasonable. The larger point to be made here is that nothing in Genesis 15:13 prompts this mathematical juggling; rather, it derives from a desire to make Genesis 15:13 fit some other chronological scheme that in the interpreter’s judgment (as distinct from some explicit statement of the text) needs reconciliation with that verse. Jacobovici here follows an interpretive technique that cuts the text’s time frame in half.

Jacobovici’s misinterpretations of biblical language don’t stop there. Jacobovici goes on to say that “In the original Hebrew, the Bible calls the Israelites ‘God’s people,’ or ‘Amo Israel.’” He then goes looking for “hard evidence of Amo” around 1700 BC—a figure derived from adding the aforementioned two hundred to Jacobovici’s drastically rounded-off date of 1500 BC for the exodus. Jacobovici’s claims could easily mislead viewers who know no Hebrew into thinking that “Amo Israel” is Biblical Hebrew for “God’s people”—but it’s not—and that “Amo” is a proper noun—but it’s not. Jacobovici’s Hebrew עָמוֹ, pronounced amo, is really a compound word, formed by starting with the the Hebrew word עָם (am), “a people (group),” and adding the third person masculine singular possessive suffix וֹ– (–o), hence עָמוֹ (amo), “his people.” Jacobovici’s exact phrase, עָמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל (amo Israel) or “his people Israel,” appears a mere seven times in the Hebrew Bible (Judg 11:23; 2 Sam 5:12; 1 Kgs 8:56, 59; 1 Chron 14:2; 2 Chron 31:8; 35:3). Another seven times, you see the phrase without the possessive “his” or with the definite article attached. It’s rather more common (twenty-seven occurrences) to see עָמִי יִשְׂרָאֵל (ami Israel), “my people Israel,” in biblical quotations of divine speech. Most importantly, עָמוֹ is not a proper noun, as Jacobovici wishes to treat it. Rather, am is a common noun, “people (group),” and when it appears alongside the name Israel, whether alone, or accompanied by a possessive suffix like “his” (yielding עָמוֹ, amo) or “my” (yielding עָמִי, ami), or by the definite article (yielding הָעָם), It’s a descriptive word, not part of a name. It’s also not specifically a term for God’s people. In the seven times where the phrase עָמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל appears in the Hebrew Bible, the possessive suffix וֹ does, of course, refer to God. However, there are over 100 other occurrences of עָמוֹ in the Hebrew Bible, where the possessive וֹ suffix refers to some human being or other. I’ll content myself with just one example to substantiate this claim, though I could give 116 of them. Consider Exodus 1:9, “[Pharaoh] said to עָמוֹ, ‘Look, the Israelite עָם is much too numerous for us.’” Here עָמוֹ, “his people,” clearly means Pharaoh’s people, the Egyptians. For Jacobovici’s linguistic equation of the amw of the Beni Hasan caption with the biblical Israelites to work, the biblical term עָמוֹ would have to be a proper noun that referred exclusively to the Israelites. But that’s not true, so the equation falls apart on the biblical side.

It also falls apart on the Egyptian side. As Carol Redmount explains in “Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt” (chapter 2 of The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael Coogan [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), amw is "the most common appellation employed by Egyptians for people coming from the general region of ancient Syria-Palestine." Not just the Israelites, but anybody from the land of Canaan would be amw to second-millennium Egyptians, much like modern Americans might lump Persians, Chaldeans, Kurds, Arabs, and others together under the umbrella term "Middle Easterners." In modern scholarship, the term amw usually gets translated as "Asiatics." The term just isn't specific enough to link it to Israelites like Jacobovici tries to do.

“Asiatics” (amw) entering Egypt to sell cosmetics and other wares

"Asiatics" (amw) entering Egypt to sell cosmetics and other wares, from a wall painting in a tomb at Beni Hasan. Photo by Wikimedia Commons contributor Kurohito.

Jacobovici makes several other errors with regard to the Beni Hasan paintings. For one, the amw depicted in the mural are merchants, not migrants. Jacobovici conveniently fails to tell his audience that the caption to the mural explicitly states that this group of amw came to Egypt to sell stibium, black eye makeup (see, among other possible sources, William Shea, "Artistic Balance among the Beni Hasan Asiatics," Biblical Archaeologist 44 [1981]: 219-228; the quotation about eye-paint is on p. 221 and mentioned elsewhere). They weren’t moving in, just bringing their wares for trade. Moreover, the caption specifies that this caravan consisted of thirty-seven people led by one Ibshar (one could reverse-engineer the name into a West Semitic dialect as “Abishar”). When you take into account Jacob’s daughters-in-law, who aren’t counted in the biblical figure of seventy persons who migrated to Egypt with Jacob (I presume the figure likewise omits any granddaughters-in-law), Ibshar’s group numbers less than half the size of the biblical migrant clan. Finally—though unfortunately not surprisingly after the previous exhibits—Jacobovici plays ridiculously fast and loose with chronology when he claims that the Beni Hasan wall painting comes from “the right time” for Jacob’s migration to Canaan. According to the figures given earlier in the program, Jacobovici wants to date the exodus to 1500 BC (to make it synchronize with the Hyksos expulsion, never mind that the Hyksos expulsion under Ahmose was somewhere in the range of 1545–1535 BC), and he places the Israelite migration into Egypt two hundred years before that, around 1700 BC (near the time when the Hyksos migrated to Egypt). The Beni Hasan wall paintings, however, date—again, according to the caption—to the sixth year of Seostris II, or 1892 BCE (Shea, 221). That’s over 190 years earlier (and some sources give even earlier dates) than Jacob’s migration as dated by Jacobovici.

The Beni Hasan murals simply have nothing to do with the Israelites, except for depicting some people who inhabited the area the Israelites would inhabit centuries later. Jacobovici’s attempts to show otherwise depend on both linguistic and chronological mistakes.