The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit E

“Now that we have found hard evidence for the arrival of the Israelites in Egypt, and their rise to power, we went searching for archaeological proof of their downfall and the slavery that led to the exodus,” says Simcha Jacobovici, about twenty-two minutes into The Exodus Decoded. As “hard evidence” for the Israelites’ arrival in Egypt, Jacobovici presented some wall paintings of Canaanite traders entering Egypt to sell cosmetics about 200 years before Jacobovici says the Israelites arrived, and as “hard evidence” for the Israelites’ rise to power—which in the Bible applies only to one guy, Joseph, not the whole group—he presented Hyksos seals or signet rings inscribed with the name of the Hyksos king Yaqub-Hor. In other articles, I’ve explained why the Beni Hasan tomb paintings and the Yaqub-Hor signet ring have nothing specifically to do with the biblical Israelites and can’t bear the weight Jacobovici places on them. In this installment, I’ll show that Jacobovici’s “proof” of the Israelites’ downfall into slavery exhibits the same sorts of mistakes.

First, we need to review the necessary pieces of Jacobovici’s argument. Jacobovici proposes to equate the expulsion of the Hyksos with the biblical exodus. As one link in his chain of reasoning, Jacobovici argues that Joseph rose to power in a Hyksos environment, and this is where the Yaqub-Hor seals come in. After forging (weakly) the preparatory links, Jacobovici now seeks to demonstrate that Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians. It’s important to note here how sharply Jacobovici’s scenario departs from Manetho’s story (our main source, known secondarily as filtered through other ancient historians) of the Hyksos period in Egypt. These sources do not depict the Hyksos as a population enslaved by the Egyptians! Yet, somehow, that is what viewers must believe if they are to follow Jacobovici’s reasoning.

Map showing the location of Serabit el-Khadim

The location of Serabit el-Khadim, from a map published in Biblical Archaeologist 45 (1982)

Jacobovici’s search for “archaeological proof” of the Israelites’ enslavement takes him to Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai peninsula. Already, viewers who know their Bibles should hear alarm bells going off. The book of Exodus nowhere suggests that the Israelites performed slave labor in the Sinai peninsula. According to the story as told, they fled into the Sinai peninsula to get away from their Egyptian oppressors. Jacobovici rewrites the story’s geography. Beginning in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50) and consistently throughout the story of the oppression and exodus (Exodus 1–15), the Bible associates the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt with the eastern part of the Nile delta region. This generally-accepted understanding of references to the “land of Goshen” in Genesis and Exodus accords with the biblical localization of Israelite slave labor around the cities of Pithom and Ramesses (built more or less on the site of Avaris). If a large number of Israelite slaves left traces of themselves behind, and if those traces remain archaeologically discernible until today, we should expect to find that evidence in the Nile delta region. Yet Jacobovici seeks his “proof” about 250 miles southwest of the delta, at Serabit el-Khadim. On top of that, the biblical narrative of Israelite enslavement focuses entirely on the conscription of Israelite labor to support Egyptian construction projects, but Jacobovici goes looking for evidence of Israelite enslavement at a turquoise mine. On the face of it, Jacobovici has mixed apples and oranges from the very beginning of the search for Exhibit E.

After a few “local flavor” shots of Bedouin showing their hospitality to Jacobovici and his camera crew, Jacobovici asserts, “The ancient turquoise mines are off the beaten tourist track. The only ones who know their way in this area are the Bedouins who still live at the foot of the mines.” While the first sentence is true, the second is calculated to make it sound like one has to go to great lengths to court local Bedouin sympathies in order even to find the mines. Ridiculous. Dozens of archaeological teams have visited Serabit el-Khadim in the last century. Its location is well-documented (and shown on the map above). But this kind of “we-were-there-first” treasure-hunter spin permeates The Exodus Decoded. As the camera follows Jacobovici and his companions walking through dusty rocks, Jacobovici’s voiceover claims, “We learned of this place from old papers published in obscure journals.” I don’t know why Jacobovici trolled through “obscure journals” for such information, when articles about Serabit el-Khadim have been published in well-established journals such as Levant, Israel Exploration Journal, and Biblical Archaeologist, not to mention such mainstream reference works as The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (Abrams, 1995) and The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2000). A simple Google search for “Serabit el-Khadim” returned 989 hits, most of which predate The Exodus Decoded. Sir William Flinders Petrie—arguably one of the least obscure archaeologists of his generation, or any since—explored Serabit el-Khadim in 1904–1905, with publication of his findings following in 1905 and 1906. Jacobovici tries to make it sound like this “evidence” has been overlooked or buried in “obscure journals,” but quite the opposite is true. Prominent archaeologists and scholars interested in Bronze Age Egypt and Canaan have been studying Serabit el-Khadim and its artifacts for over a century.

At Serabit el-Khadim itself, Jacobovici actually poses a very valuable question: “We came here to find proof of the slaves that Moses led to freedom. But even if we found evidence for the presence of slaves, how could we be sure that they were Israelites?” Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the Bible describes Moses leading construction workers to freedom away from the Nile delta, not miners to freedom away from the middle of the Sinai peninsula, the question is really quite important. There’s plenty of evidence from Egyptian illustrations that the Egyptians conscripted “Asiatics” from Syria-Palestine into forced labor over a wide variety of time periods. In order to successfully connect any evidence of Egyptian-held slaves to Israelites pressed into slavery, one needs to show clear, specific, and characteristic (if not outright unique) link to the Israelites. As it turns out, Jacobovici’s answer falls far short of his question.

According to Jacobovici, “The Bible provides us with two clues. First, the followers of Moses did not use hieroglyphic writing like the Egyptians. Rather, the biblical tradition states that they used an early form of alphabetic writing.” In truth, the biblical tradition—to emphasize Jacobovici’s phrase—says nothing whatsoever about the type of writing that Moses or his Israelite contemporaries used. The fact that the canonical form of the biblical text is written in alphabetic Hebrew tells us nothing at all about how Moses would have written, hundreds of years before the composition of the biblical text as we know it. Both the material conditions of the Sinai peninsula and the biblical narrative itself tell us clearly that if Moses wrote anything, he wrote it on stone or clay tablets. If Moses did write anything on stone tablets, and if any of that content is preserved in the canonical form of the Hebrew Bible, then it’s quite obvious that the words must have been copied from the stone tablets onto papyrus or vellum or some other surface suitable for rolling into scrolls. Scribes could easily have “translated” non-alphabetic writing into alphabetic writing during the process of transferring material from stone to papyrus.

Personally, I don’t think it implausible that if Moses wrote anything, he wrote it in a proto-Sinaitic script. However, the proto-Sinaitic script, and in fact every script used to write Hebrew texts, from the earliest attested examples in the Iron Age (if the Gezer Calendar is written in Hebrew) all the way down to the Dead Sea Scrolls and beyond, was shared by Israel with the larger Levantine culture. In the Iron Age, Hebrew, Moabite, Phoenician, Aramaic, and other closely related languages (if it is really right to call these separate languages rather than thinking of them as distinct regional dialects of a common tongue) all used essentially the same alphabet. Take a nice, long look at the photographs shown here, which zoom in on Iron Age artifacts.

Detail of writing on the Gezer calendar

Detail of writing on the Gezer Calendar
Late tenth or early ninth century BC
Phoenician (following Rollston)

Detail of writing on the Mesha Stela (Moabite Stone)

Detail of writing on the Mesha Stela (Moabite Stone)
Late ninth century BC

Detail of writing on the Tel Dan Stela

Detail of writing on the Tel Dan Stela
Late ninth century BC

I hope slight fuzziness of Mesha Stela photograph doesn’t detract too much from your ability to make out the similarity of letter forms in tenth-to-ninth century Phoenician, ninth-century Moabite, and ninth-century Aramaic. Allowing for some small evolution in letter forms over the course of 100 years, it’s obvious that all three of these inscriptions are written using essentially the same alphabet. The important point to be made here with regard to what’s about to transpire in The Exodus Decoded is that the proto-Sinaitic script implies a writer who speaks a West Semitic dialect, but doesn’t imply anything more specific than that, and certainly doesn’t specifically indicate an Israelite or proto-Israelite.

Please keep this matter of writing systems and alphabets in mind as we return to The Exodus Decoded for Jacobovici’s second “clue” to a specifically Israelite identity for the Serabit el-Khadim slaves. “Also,” Jacobovici claims, “the Israelites did not worship the Egyptian gods, but a single god that the Bible calls ‘El.’” First—but less relevant to an assessment of The Exodus Decoded—both biblical and non-biblical evidence speaks against the claim that most Israelites actually worshiped only a single god. The biblical writers, and according to them the Israelite and Judean prophets of the later Iron Age, expended much energy trying to make Jacobovici’s statement (“the Israelites [worshiped] a single god”) true, but often with little success. Even Moses himself, according to the book of Numbers, couldn’t keep the mass of Israelites loyal to this “single god,” but had to contend with significant numbers of them “defecting” to (or, more likely “adding on”) the worship of Baal. The book of Judges reports that the Israelites frequently worshiped polytheistically, honoring the god of Israel alongside the (other) Canaanite gods, and later (in narrative sequence) texts criticize Judean kings for adopting the worship of Mesopotamian deities. Even the great Solomon, builder of the temple, gets excoriated in 1 Kings for worshiping a whole slate of “foreign” gods. The idea of monolatry (worshiping only one god, no matter how many might exist) is presented in the Bible as an ideal that Israel rarely (if ever) achieved and, indeed, to which (sadly) only a minority of Israelites strongly aspired.

While Jacobovici gives in to wishful thinking by attributing monolatry to the Israelites in general over a long time period, Jacobovici’s does correctly identify “El” as one of the names the Israelites used for their national deity. You can even hear it in the name “Israel,” in Hebrew Yisra-El, probably “El rules.” Many Higgaion readers have probably encountered the terms “El Shaddai” and “El Elyon,” used in the Bible as epithets for Israel’s god. Jacobovici gets this much exactly right. However, the case isn’t as simple as Jacobovici makes it seem, for two reasons. First, while the god of Israel is indeed called “El” in the Bible, so are other gods. El is not just a proper noun referring to Israel’s god; it is also a common noun that can be used to refer to any god or, in the plural, group of gods. At the time The Exodus Decoded aired, one could say “the President” and mean George W. Bush, or Hosni Mubarak, or any number of other people, depending on the context. One could also speak of “the president” and not mean any specific president, as in a phrase like “the president leads his or her nation.” The Hebrew word el works the same way.

Figurine of the Canaanite God El from Megiddo (Modern Israel) Stratum VII Late Bronze II (1400-1200 BC)

Figurine of the Canaanite God El (1400–1200 BC). Photo by Mary Harrsch; used under a Creative Commons license.

Second—and probably more important for the present discussion—the divine name “El” is ubiquitous in Bronze and Iron Age Canaan. Long before any Israelites in Syria–Palestine called their god “El,” the inhabitants of that region already called the high god or “father god” in their pantheon “El.” The Baal myth cycle from Ugarit bear ample testimony to this, as the god El features prominently in these Bronze Age Canaanite myths. The divine proper noun “El” is so widespread throughout the Levant over a broad stretch of time, never mind the use of el as a common noun, that the mere occurrence of the divine name “El” in a text or inscription cannot diagnose its specific cultural origin, and certainly wouldn’t prove that an Israelite authored that text or inscription.

On that note, it is worth recognizing that the most common name for the Israelite god in the Bible—the name I have been avoiding up until now so as not to confuse matters—is “Yahweh.” The name “El” occurs about 225 times in the Tanakh, and in a few of those cases it doesn’t refer to the god of Israel. On the other hand, the name “Yahweh” occurs over 6,800 times in the Tanakh, and it always refers to Israel’s national deity. The name even appears on the Mesha Stela—a Moabite inscription mentioned above—as the name of Israel’s national deity. If a divine name could mark an inscription as culturally Israelite, it would be “Yahweh” (though even here we should treat lightly, as theophoric names with Yah or Yahu elements are attested in non-Israelite, Bronze Age cultures).

All of this background information helps to show why Jacobovici’s treatment of the Serabit el-Khadim graffiti don’t prove anything about Israelites. In The Exodus Decoded, Jacobovici claims, “To support our new biblical timeline, we needed to find alphabetic inscriptions carved by slaves some 3500 years ago. In our wildest dreams, they would also mention the biblical god El.” As a passing note, please remember that Jacobovici’s timeline doesn’t match either the Bible or Egyptian history; see earlier articles in this series for details. Note the audacity of Jacobovici’s claim, too. He acts like he and his team sat around theorizing about what they would need to find, and then set out to find it—as if this material hadn’t first appeared in the scholarly literature more than a hundred years earlier. In fact, archaeologists started studying the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim no later than 1905. It’s fun to see the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions on-site, but it’s annoying that Jacobovici acts like he and his team have made a remarkable discovery. If your own travel budget can’t get you to Serabit el-Khadim, just look in Biblical Archaeologist 45 (1982) for a photograph of the inscription. In fact, the inscription shown in the film isn’t the “El” inscription at all.

Detail of one of the Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions

Exhibit 1. It may be hard to make out the lines on the photograph, but this is the famous ‘el inscription from Serabit el-Khadim. The figure that looks like a figure 8 that doesn’t close at the top is a proto-Sinaitic א. The diagonal line below it with the hook at the top is the ל. From top to bottom, the inscription reads אל, ‘el, perhaps “God.” There may be missing letters above it that would form a theophoric name. (Photo credit: Ancient Hebrew Research Center)

Detail of one of the Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions

Exhibit 2. Another proto-Sinaitic inscription from Serabit el-Khadim. The letters going down the left-hand side appear to be, from top to bottom, אב, then an undecipherable letter, then מ, then another undecipherable letter. The line across the bottom, from right to left, appears to be an undecipherable letter, then מעאמ, then another undecipherable letter. The letters אל do not appear together in this inscription; in fact, there’s no ל here at all. El isn’t in this inscription. (Photo credit: Ancient Hebrew Research Center)

The Serabit el-Khadim inscription featured in The Exodus Decoded

Exhibit 3. Due to the loss of image quality in capturing a digital image from videotape, and the small size of the picture shown here, you may find it hard to make out the inscription shown here (that’s Jacobovici’s right hand in the lower portion, and the shadow of his head on the left). Jacobovici claims that this inscription reads “El, save me.” He calls it a 3500-hundred-year-old cry for help with the earliest recorded instance of the name of Israel’s god, El. However, this is the same inscription as Exhibit 2—which doesn’t even have a ל in it, much less the name אל. El shows up in a completely different inscription, Exhibit 1.

ED Serabit2 detail

Exhibit 4. Close-up on the letters אבnot אל—in the alleged “El” inscription presented in The Exodus Decoded. There’s no El here. See above.

One of the Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions

Exhibit 5. Another apparent el inscription from Serabit el-Khadim. Again, it can be hard to make out the letters in this picture, but the jagged lines on the right are an מ, the thing that looks vaguely like a bull’s head with big horns is an א, and a hooked-line ל is barely visible beneath the א. The proposed reading is מאל, “from El.” (Photo credit: Ancient Hebrew Research Center)

There appear to be two proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim that include the letters אל, which possibly form the divine name “El” or indicate its inclusion in a theophoric name. Neither of the “El” inscriptions reads “El, save me,” and neither of the “El” inscriptions is actually shown in The Exodus Decoded. The inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim that are shown in The Exodus Decoded are not “El” inscriptions and do not even contain the correct letters to be such. Jacobovici’s presentation is either incompetent or deceptive—there’s just no other way to parse it.

But even if an “El, save me” inscription existed at Serabit el-Khadim, and even if Jacobovici had put it on screen, that still wouldn’t prove that an Israelite inscribed those words. As mentioned above, “El” is a ubiquitous divine name in the Bronze and Iron Age Levant. Nothing specifically ties the Serabit el-Khadim uses of “El” to Israelites or proto-Israelites instead of some other Canaanite group that venerated a deity named “El.” Suppose archaeologists from the future excavate the White House trash dump and find a self-adhesive nametag that contains the printed English letters “HI I’M” and then, in handwritten English, “GEORGE.” Lacking any other links to any specific “George,” our archaeologists would be unable to tell whether the nametag had been worn by George H. W. Bush, George Stephanopolous, George W. Bush, or any number of other “Georges” who might have had occasion to wear such a nametag at a White House function. The same applies to “El” here.

In fact, if we accept Jacobovici’s erroneous contention that the Israelites were always and only monotheists (or at least monolatrists), then evidence from the Serabit el-Khadim proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would actually compel us to conclude that the inscriptions were not Israelite. In Jacobovici’s selective presentation, he fails to mention another divine name found in the Serabit el-Khadim proto-Sinaitic inscriptions: “Ba’alat,” the feminine form of “Ba’al.”

One of the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim

Exhibit 6. The letters that start in the upper left-hand corner in the photo and form the leftmost word, curving down to the bottom right, read מתלבעלת, possibly “death to/for Ba’alat.” The letters מת might not form a complete word, but something—perhaps a worker’s death—is apparently being dedicated to a goddess named Ba’alat. (Photo credit: Ancient Hebrew Research Center)

The presence of “to/for Ba’alat” in this inscription scuttles the idea that the Serabit el-Khadim miners were El-only monolatrists. One could argue, of course, that some of the miners at Serabit el-Khadim were El-only monolatrists, but this is special pleading and there’s no way to prove it from the evidence available. The evidence suggests, at a maximum, that the Semitic-speaking miners at Serabit el-Khadim revered a god named “El” and a goddess named “Ba’alat.” Interpreted more cautiously, the inscriptions may not even tell us that. They certainly don’t tell us that the miners were Israelites—and, remember that in any event the Bible portrays the Hebrew slaves as construction workers, not miners. Jacobovici’s reconstruction doesn’t match the biblical story and lacks historical believability.