The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit K

Happily, I can begin this segment of my extended review of The Exodus Decoded with virtually unqualified praise for one of Jacobovici’s claims. As the program moves toward its third half-hour, James Cameron acknowledges that “believers … may feel that a scientific explanation of the biblical story takes God out of the equation.” Jacobovici then reappears and asserts, “But in the book of Exodus, God does not suspend nature. He manipulates it.” For the most part, this statement is correct. Most of the biblical plagues represent intensifications of phenomena the Egyptians already know quite well: swarms of frogs, insect infestations, diseases, hailstorms, and so on. However much I agree with that statement, though, some of the biblical plagues, and the signs accompanying them—the water turning to blood, the death of the firstborn, and, earlier in the story, the “sticks to snakes” trick and Moses’s leprous hand—go well beyond a mere intensification of some natural phenomenon. And when Jacobovici then takes the next step to claim that “according to the Bible, we should be able to understand the science behind the miracles,” he’s really gone beyond what the biblical data will support.

Jacobovici also gets it right when he disconnects the parting of the sea from the main body of the Red Sea as we normally think of it today. Jacobovici correctly notes that the biblical name for the sea that God parted for the Israelites is “Yam Suf,” more properly translated “Sea of Reeds.” The tradition of “translating” “Yam Suf” as “Red Sea” dates back to the Greek Septuagint, so it’s a very old tradition. However, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the Israelites traveling from the Nile delta hundreds of kilometers south in order to cross over the main body of the Red Sea—in one night. Rather, if the Red Sea is involved, it would only be the northern tip of the western “rabbit ear” at the top of the Red Sea, known to us today as the Gulf of Suez. For many years, scholars have debated whether the Gulf of Suez or some other body of water was meant by the biblical writer who used the term “Yam Suf,” without any real resolution of the issue.

But then Jacobovici’s typical methods resurface. “Using our dates for the exodus,” Jacobovici claims, “we tracked down an ancient artifact that records the precise location of Yam Suf. It also provides us with the first archaeological evidence for the parting of the Sea.” Using Jacobovici’s dates for the exodus is, as you know from earlier installments of this extended review, a very bad idea. There’s no need to rehearse all that here; go back and read the earlier installments if you wish. Instead, let’s focus on Jacobovici’s Exhibit K, the El-Arish Inscription, and this artifact’s alleged revelations. For reference, I’ll follow F. L. Griffith’s translation of the inscription, as provided in Sean Mewhinney’s article “El-Arish Revisited,” Kronos 11.2 (1986).

A drawing of the El-Arish shrine and inscription

A drawing of the El-Arish shrine and inscription

Jacobovici claims that this artifact, called the El-Arish Inscription,”tells the entire story of the exodus from Pharaoh’s point of view.” Actually, it does no such thing. The text of the El-Arish Inscription is a story about the gods, and it dates from Ptolemaic times, over a thousand years after Ahmose and Jacobovici’s date for the exodus. Moreover, on almost every point of interpretation, Jacobovici gets it wrong.

“The Bible calls Moses a king,” Jacobovici claims. “On this stone, Moses is called ‘the Prince of the Desert.’” He’s wrong on both counts. The book of Exodus does not refer to Moses as a king; the word “king” (Hebrew מֶלֶךְ, melek) occurs only 14 times in the book of Exodus, and in each case it’s referring to Pharaoh, never to Moses. I can’t find any other verse in the Bible that refers to Moses as a king, either. Jacobovici’s second claim makes it sound like Moses is unequivocally referenced in the inscription, though this is not true at all. Moses’s name doesn’t appear in the El-Arish Inscription. I also can’t find the phrase “prince of the desert” in the El-Arish Inscription. There are references to a “great chief of the plain” and a “prince of the hills,” but it’s obvious from the context that these titles refer to a god, either Shu or Seb (Geb). Two big mistakes or misrepresentations, and we’ve barely gotten started on the El-Arish Inscription.

“The Bible calls the Israelites ‘God’s people.’ The granite calls them ‘the evil ones.’” Well, if you have a reference to “God’s people” in one text, and a reference to “evil ones” in another text, those obviously refer to the same group, right? Once again, Jacobovici makes it sound like the identification of the Israelites on the El-Arish Inscription were as solid as the granite shrine itself, but that’s just not true. The Israelites aren’t mentioned by name on in the inscription, so Jacobovici needs to justify his identification of the “evil ones” as Israelites on some other grounds, or should admit that the identification is mere speculation. The El-Arish Inscription does refer to “evil ones” or, in Griffith’s translation, “evil-doers.” However, it’s clear from lines 24–28 of the inscription that these “evil-doers” are perceived as invaders, not as fleeing slaves:

Then the children of the dragon Apep, the evil-doers [of Usheru?] and of the red country came upon the road of At Nebes, invading Egypt at nightfall…….. now these evil-doers came from the Eastern hills [upon] all the roads of At Nebes:

Also, lines 22–24 of the inscription make it clear that when the god Ra fought with (these? other?) evil-doers years later, he was victorious. This does not fit the story of the Israelites crossing the Sea at all. It’s not even close.

“And then,” Jacobovici intones, “the granite corroborates the miracle of the parting of the sea. The symbol can be read by anyone: three waves and two knives, ‘the parted sea.’” Exactly what the hieroglyphic symbols here—Jacobovici shows them on-camera—are unclear to me, insofar as I am very much an amateur when it comes to reading hieroglyphics. Neither F. L. Griffith nor Georges Goyon—two early translators of the El-Arish Inscription, Griffith working in English and Goyon in French—seem to have quite known what to do with it. The three wavy lines are the sign for “water,” and can be used of a body of water; the function of the knife-like signs is unclear. Griffin apparently called it “the Place of the Whirlpool,” Goyon “the Hill of Two Knives.” Neither translated it “the parted sea,” which ought to be an indicator that Jacobovici’s glibness (“The symbol can be read by anyone”) is misplaced. To my surprise, Jacobovici has James K. Hoffmeier on camera opining that there could be a connection between the El-Arish Inscription and the story of the parting of the sea in Exodus 14. How Hoffmeier can say this about a Ptolemaic-era text that clearly tells a mythological story about the gods Shu, Geb, and Ra is a mystery to me, and The Exodus Decoded doesn’t provide any additional details of Hoffmeier’s reasoning. Hoffmeier is well-known to biblical scholars as one who still tries to champion the historical reliability of the exodus, but I just don’t see how anyone who has read the text of the El-Arish Inscription could come to this conclusion. (Of course, my inability to see it doesn’t make it wrong, but the cumulative case speaks against Jacobovici’s thesis.)

“To examine the text better, we got a pressing of the hieroglyphic. And as it turns out, the Egyptian text doesn’t just mention the parting of the sea, it also mentions a specific location next to where the sea parted. The place is called Pi-Harot, and today archaeologists know exactly where it was.” First, please recall that the text does not “mention the parting of the sea,” or at least not such that Griffith or Goyon recognized it. What Jacobovici and Hoffmeier see in the hieroglyphics probably results from wishful thinking. Second, note how Jacobovici makes it sound like the inscription associates the location that he calls “Pi-Harot” with the “parted sea,” whereas the actual inscription does nothing of the kind. According to the El-Arish Inscription in Griffith’s translation, here’s what happened at “Pekharti” (Griffith’s transliteration of this place-name):

The majesty of Shu departed to heaven with his attendants: Tefnut was in the place of her enthronement in Memphis. Now she proceeded to the royal house of Shu in the time of mid-day: the great cycle of nine gods were upon the path of eternity, the road of his father Ra Harmakhis. Then the majesty of [Seb met her] he found her in this? place which is called Pekharti?: he seized her by force: [the palace was in great [affliction]. Shu had departed to heaven: there was no exit from the palace by the space of nine days. Now these [nine] days were in violence and tempest: none whether god or man could see the face of his fellow.

The Egyptian gods Geb (left; also transliterated Seb)—one of the principal characters in the El-Arish Inscription—and Horus (right)

The Egyptian gods Geb (left; also transliterated Seb)—one of the principal characters in the El-Arish Inscription—and Horus (right). Photo by Wikimedia Commons contributor kairoinfo4u; used under a Creative Commons license.

The location “Pekharti”—Jacobovici’s “Pi-Harot,” proposed by Jacobovici to be equivalent to biblical Pi-hahiroth—has nothing to do in the El-Arish Inscription with any “parted sea” or any pursuit of “evil-doers.” In the inscription, “Pekharti” is the place where the god Seb (Griffith’s transliteration; usually transcribed as “Geb”) met and “seized by force” his mother Tefnut. The paragraph is entirely about conflicts between gods and does not in the slightest resemble the use to which Jacobovici puts it. In any event, place-names aside, the El-Arish Inscription tells a story about the adventures of the god Geb. It has nothing to do with a human pharaoh faced with a slave escape, much less with any specific reference to fleeing Israelites. Consciously or not, Jacobovici repeats the same mistakes as Immanuel Velikovsky, many years before. Velikovsky also proposed to connect the El-Arish Inscription to the biblical exodus, using the same alleged parallels as Jacobovici, plus a few others. The similarities between Jacobovici’s and Velikovsky’s treatments, and the disconnect between both and how the inscription actually reads, are such that Mewhinney’s comments about Velikovsky’s treatment apply equally well to Jacobovici’s:

[Velikovsky's] interpretations of the El-Arish Inscription are so obviously, blatantly wrong in so many particulars that it is hard to see why there should have been any controversy over the facts of the case, excepting only minor details. We find names altered and combined, words mistranslated, characters confused with one another or split into two, and events set in the wrong time and place. To permit Velikovsky to make the associations he does, one would have to take a sledgehammer to the shrine, smash it to bits, and reassemble the pieces in a different order.

It’s a pattern seen over and over again in The Exodus Decoded: Jacobovici grabs a few phrases from an ancient Egyptian text, pairs them up with snippets from the book of Exodus, and claims to have found “the same story” in both. In none of these cases, however, can Jacobovici’s claims stand up to an actual reading of the texts in question. Whether Jacobovici simply doesn’t know any better or is intentionally misrepresenting his “data,” The Exodus Decoded does a disservice to the viewing public.