The Exodus Decoded: Final Exhibit

As The Exodus Decoded draws to a close, Simcha Jacobovici tries to bolster his unusual claim of Cretans (Minoans) leaving Egypt with Moses and then “returning” to Mycenae (on the Greek mainland) by drawing a connection between a piece of Mycenaean jewelry from Grave Circle A—the show’s “Final Exhibit”—and the famous biblical ark of the covenant. For several minutes, The Exodus Decoded treats viewers to an attractive CGI reconstruction of the tabernacle as it is described in the book of Exodus. Jacobovici even gives us some footage from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and who can complain about that? However, in several respects, Jacobovici misstates the facts, and these inaccuracies—whether intentional or unintentional—they don’t help his case. (The question of intentionality only goes to whether Jacobovici is a sloppy reader or a slick charlatan, not to whether he is correct.)

At the beginning of this segment, Jacobovici tells viewers that the entry curtain to the tabernacle was decorated with “winged lions, or griffons, figures usually associated with ancient Greece.” (Despite Jacobovici’s usage, “griffon” [also spelled "griffin" or "gryphon"] usually refers to creature with an eagle’s upper body and a lion’s lower body.) Jacobovici says that the same figures decorated the tabernacle’s inner curtain. A few minutes later, at the end of the Raiders footage, Jacobovici’s voiceover claims that book of Exodus attributes to the ark of the covenant “a golden cover crowned by birds.” However, Jacobovici’s “winged lions” and “birds” make no appearance in the book of Exodus. Rather, according to the book of Exodus, cherubim (pronounced k’rooveem; the –eem makes it plural) adorned the tabernacle’s interior walls (formed by curtains, since the tabernacle was designed for portability), and a pair of cherubim crownd (or, better, “guarded”) the lid of the ark. When modern Americans think of “cherubs,” their thoughts might easily be drawn to fat-bottomed Botticelli angels, but in the ancient Near East cherubim would have been conceived of as human-headed, animal-bodied, winged creatures that attended or guarded the divine throne room—more like a sphinx than a griffon, if you want to get technical. An ivory plaque from pre-Israelite Megiddo illustrates the Canaanite conception of such a creature, which in this carving flanks the king or prince on his throne.

A splendid ivory cherub from 9th–8th century BC Samaria

A splendid ivory cherub from 9th–8th century BC Samaria

Creatures like these are what the biblical narrator had in mind gracing the walls of the tabernacle (and later temple) and the ark of the covenant. They are neither lions nor birds, nor people, but an amalgamated creature. By casting the curtains’ cherubim as “winged lions,” Jacobovici hopes to draw a connection with ancient Greece. The connection is backwards; cherubim are well-attested in the ancient Near East well before griffons or the similar winged sphinxes are attested in Greece. It’s a “native” Near Eastern creature, not an import from Greece. By casting the cherubim on the ark of the covenant as “birds,” Jacobovici hopes to draw a more specific connection, as we shall see.

Before we get there, however, another of Jacobovici’s misreadings (or misrepresentations) of the biblical text requires correction. Jacobovici claims that the book of Exodus describes “a four-and-a-half meter high altar for sacrificial animals” (my emphasis)—but Jacobovici has tripled the size of the altar from its biblical dimensions! The instructions in Exodus 27:1 call for a sacrificial altar three cubits high. A cubit measures about 18 inches, so three cubits measures more like 4.5 feet, not 4.5 meters. A three-cubit altar works perfectly for a normal man standing on the ground. I doubt that Jacobovici mistook feet for meters. More likely, he attributed to the tabernacle the gigantic altar described in 2 Chronicles for Solomon’s temple. 2 Chronicles 4:1 does describe that altar as standing 10 cubits (about 15 feet, pretty close to 4.5 meters) high. Jacobovici also adds a ramp to the tabernacle’s altar, a detail not present in the Torah. Exodus 20:26 does prohibit the use of steps to ascend an altar (although Ezekiel 43:17 seems to ignore this little prohibition), but the description of the tabernacle’s altar says nothing about ramps, nor does the description of Solomon’s altar. Now I know full well that many artists’ depictions of Solomon’s altar will show a ramp or steps leading up to the top of the altar, but the artists infer this detail from necessity rather than basing it on an explicit biblical description. I also know that some cultic installations that survive from the Iron Age and even the Late Bronze Age attest to ramps or staircases (e.g., the altar or cult site that Adam Zertal excavated on Mount Ebal, and the big altar at Tel Dan), but some do not (e.g., the small limestone altar at Tel Dan, the cult stand from Ta’anach, the small incense altar from Ashkelon, the stone altar from Beersheba, and so on)—and while such a ramp makes perfect sense in the Chronicler’s vision of Solomon’s temple, the latter are more similar in size to the altar of burnt offering described in Exodus 27 (and 38). Simply put, under the influence of Chronicles or some other source, Jacobovici has vastly enlarged the altar described in the book of Exodus, and this distortion turns out to make a lot of difference in the program.

Now Jacobovici returns to Greece, looking for more support for his bizarre theory about Greeks leaving Egypt with Moses and then setting off from some unknown (and, unidentified by Jacobovici) port in the middle of the Sinai peninsula to go to Mycenae. As the camera (filming at a weird angle) shows Jacobovici studying the stelae from Grave Circle A, his voiceover claims that the Bible says the tribe of Dan helped to construct the ark of the covenant. Once again, Jacobovici engages in considerable overstatement, or at least exaggerated metonymy. According to the book of Exodus, an artisan named Bezalel, from the tribe of Judah, oversaw the tabernacle project; his assistant, Oholiab, did indeed hail from the tribe of Dan. We cannot claim a special relationship between the tribe of Dan and the ark of the covenant just because a Danite served as one of the two lead artisans on the project. Indeed, Exodus 37:1 explicitly states that Bezalel, a Judahite, “made the ark.” The ark-building passage doesn’t even mention Oholiab. Once again, Jacobovici has changed biblical data to make them fit his scenario, then claimed that his scenario “matches” the biblical story.

“Is it a coincidence,” Jacobovici asks, “that Homer calls the people buried at Mycenae Danaoi?” The answer to that question gets rather complicated and technical. In brief, if Homer’s Danaoi do have some connection with the biblical Danites, that connection probably went the opposite way from what Jacobovici proposes. A serious scholarly argument can be made that the “Sea Peoples” who migrated eastward across the Mediterranean into the Levant included some Danaoi; those Danaoi may then have encountered and even blended with some Israelites who absorbed the name, or already had a similar name, or something along those lines. Some scholars have suggested that Semites from Cilicia migrated westward to become the Danoi, but this would have no connection with the Israelites whatsoever. As in previous segments of The Exodus Decoded, Jacobovici tries to make hay here out mere phonetic resonances.

The actual Mycenaen pendant that Jacobovici tries to link to the ark of the covenant

The actual Mycenaen pendant that Jacobovici tries to link to the ark of the covenant

Jacobovici's imaginative 3D extrusion of the Mycenaen pendant

Jacobovici’s imaginative 3D extrusion of the Mycenaen pendant

Having transformed Homer’s Danaoi into biblical Danites, Jacobovici then goes looking among Mycenaean artwork for a representation of the ark. To no one’s surprise (despite his use of the word “incredibly”), he claims to have found just such a “piece of priestly jewelry.” Note the verbal sleight-of-hand: the Bible doesn’t describe the Danites as priests, and previously Jacobovici has cast the Danites as artisans (far overgeneralizing from the one Danite mentioned in the biblical story). In any event, Jacobovici starts from the real object and then works more of his CGI magic to transform this fine little sculpture into a 3D diorama.

Jacobovici wants viewers to picture the little Mycenaean sculpture (at least three copies were found in the Grave Circle A shaft graves) as a representation of what a Danite might see as he looked at the ark of the covenant, and past it, up the ramp to the top of the horned altar of burnt offering. What’s more, Jacobovici claims that this is how the objects would “appear when seen from the Holy of Holies, looking out. Until now, the only person who would have seen these objects from this perspective is Moses.” If that latter sentence is true (and it can’t be, from a biblical perspective, since Aaron, not Moses, served as high priest in the wilderness), one wonders how the Danites—a non-priestly tribe to which Moses (a Levite) did not belong—could have sculpted so fine a representation thereof! Leaving that aside, there is one huge problem with Jacobovici’s assumption that this lineup goes from the inside of the Most Holy Place, looking out. Specifically, the only text to describe a staircase (there are no such descriptions of ramps) leading up to an Israelite altar is in Ezekiel 43, where it is specified that the steps face east; the opening of the temple is also supposed to face east, which would put the ark of the covenant at the far western end of the temple, in the Most Holy Place—so what is Jacobovici’s ark of the covenant doing sitting at the base of the ramp in his diorama? The Bible nowhere justifies this arrangement; according to Ezekiel 43—which pertains to an idealized, visionary temple (no Hebrew Bible texts say anything about a ramp or staircase in Solomon’s actual temple, much less the tabernacle)—the ramp should be on the far side of the altar from the ark of the covenant, completely concealed behind it from the perspective of the Most Holy Place, looking outward. And in all of this talk about ramps, please don’t forget that the book of Exodus says nothing about a ramp, and with good reason: in Exodus, the altar of burnt offering only stands 4.5 feet tall!

“At last, we know what the ark of the covenant looked like,” Jacobovici claims as The Exodus Decoded ends. Balderdash. In order to make his case, then, Jacobovici must (a) substitute birds for cherubim on the ark of the covenant and in the tabernacle decorations; (b) speciously connect the biblical Danites with Homer’s Danaoi, reversing the proper direction of migration if any such connection actually obtained in antiquity; (c) misread or misrepresent the Bible’s description of the tabernacle’s altar of burnt offering, tripling its size; (d) add an otherwise unmentioned ramp to his now-oversized altar; (e) rearrange and/or reorient the tabernacle’s furnishings; and (f) ascribe to the Danites not only a memory of, but a special love for, a view that only a Levite should have ever seen. Yet he has the audacity to claim that his “documentary” presents the case “exactly as the Bible says.”