“Moses was our leader” — Part One

Robert E. Howard did not have over-much respect for organized, conventional religion. Or convention of any kind. That’s obvious from his stories and even more from his verses. Conan’s preference for his own god, Crom, because Crom doesn’t interfere in men’s lives and merely gives them courage and strength at birth, then leaves the rest up to them, is one example. Then – I forget which hero it was, but I believe it was a one-off character named Eithriall the Gaul, and I also forget which story – in an eastern city hears all the people in the streets howling, “Tammuz is dead!” He inquires of a passer-by, who’s yelling like the rest, what it’s all about. The bazaar-wallah roars, “Tammuz is dead, fool, Tammuz is dead! Who are you to interrupt my devotions?” Eithriall answers as Conan might have done. “Devotions? You are doing nothing but stand there bawling ‘Tammuz is dead!’ like a branded bull!”

The result is an instant mob chasing Eithriall to rip him to pieces. As he observes further on in the story, to a friend, “Later they will be shrieking, ‘Adonis is living!’, wild for joy.” The wry skepticism concerning the death and resurrection of Tammuz/Adonis is pretty clearly a comment on the death and resurrection of someone else. Other eastern gods who died and were restored to life include Osiris, of course, who then became judge of the dead in the afterlife and offered eternal life to the people, and even Baal. (Baal being nothing more or less than the Canaanite word for Lord.)

REH was likewise less than starry-eyed about the Crusades. His stories of Cormac FitzGeoffrey show that. So does “Red Blades of Black Cathay,” with its main character, Godric, bitter and disillusioned anent those holy conflicts, referring to his former leader, Montferrat, as “That devious-minded assassin.” By the conclusion he’s getting a fairer shake from Genghis Khan (!) than he ever did from any Christian warlord.

REH never wrote any actual stories set in the time and place of Moses, to the best of my knowledge. But he did pen at least one rollicking, disrespectful set of verses on the subject, though they haven’t been given a title.

Now it was Hell in Egypt, a fact that’s past denying.
         We labored by the river and we sweated at the skids;
With whips that drove us onward when our broken friends lay dying.
         Oh it was our blood and sinews built the cursed pyramids.

It wasn’t really. REH undoubtedly knew that, but “pyramids” rhymes and scans. According to the Bible, specifically Exodus, the Hebrews settled in Goshen were forced to labor at building “treasure cities, Pithom and Rameses.” Their time was long, long after the last pyramids were built, in the age of the New Kingdom.

It’d daunt a professional historian and archaeologist to try and straighten out the precise time and the precise Pharaoh’s reign in which this happened. I’m crazy to give it a shot. In fact I won’t. I can only repeat what’s well known already; that the Bible doesn’t really give any clues to that, and certainly isn’t consistent. There are massive contradictions.

No clues? Wait a minute. What about those store cities, Pithom and Rameses? Doesn’t that mean it was in the reign of a Pharaoh named Rameses, almost surely Rameses II, otherwise the Great, the person portrayed by Yul Brynner in de Mille’s movie The Ten Commandments?

Not necessarily. That account was written centuries after Moses and Rameses II were both dead. Myth and legend had done their distorting work. Actually, during the Twenty-First Dynasty of Egypt, in the reign of Psusennes I, the city of Per-Rameses was plundered for large amounts of building stone to enlarge and refashion the new capital of Tanis, which had been Per-Rameses’s harbor in former times. No doubt forced labor was used on that project too. It was around 1000 BCE, the time of Saul and David in Israel, thus long after Moses, but long before the books of the Old Testament were written. (Even the early version of Exodus is generally reckoned by scholars today to have been composed during the Babylonian Exile, 6th century BCE.) People were probably coming down into Egypt from dry rocky Judea in times of famine still, as they had been for centuries, and they may not have been too kindly treated by Egypt’s taskmasters. Large groups of brutalized workers most likely escaped from Egypt in times of disaster or social disintegration on a number of occasions.

Then there’s the specific assertion made in the First Book of Kings, 6:1, that “the” Exodus took place 480 years before Solomon built his glorious temple, in the fourth year of his reign. That would push the date back to 1450 BCE, long before any Pharaoh named Rameses ruled Egypt. In fact the Pharaoh reigning at that time was Tuthmoses III, the nephew of the famous “female Pharaoh”, Hatshepsut, who claimed to have been divinely fathered by the god Amun-Ra. Tuthmoses III was a mighty ruler and warrior who would have been just as formidable for Moses to tangle with as Rameses II, but there are no Egyptian records from the time of either monarch that describe those terrible ten plagues that Moses invoked through the power of Yahweh – or a large group of absconding forced workers lighting out through the wilderness after going on a looting spree!

REH refers to that gleeful burglar-party in his verses, too.

Moses was our leader and Moses knew his Hebrews;
         We stole the Gyppies ragged before we hit the trail.
We all had plenty plunder but Aaron’s dice were tricky
         Before we rated Canaan, he’d lifted all the kale.

Talking of Moses, who was he, did he even really live, and what was he like? Did he do even half of what’s attributed to him? When, if ever, was he born and when did he die? Can anybody even begin to figure it out at this date?

Not me. Maybe some things can be eliminated from the story, though. A lot of elements look like distortions to bolster Israelite pride or belief in their deity. For openers, the statement early in Exodus that the Hebrews had grown so numerous and strong that Egypt was frightened of them, and the king ordered all male Hebrew babies drowned in the river. The entire population of Egypt proper (for pretty much the whole time between 1500 and 1200 BCE) was about three million. Even granting the unlikely proposition that there were a quarter of a million Hebrews in Goshen (the eastern Delta region) the Egyptians still outnumbered them twelve to one. If they hadn’t wanted them in Egypt they could simply have driven them out. The story that they were afraid the Hebrews would join forces with Egypt’s enemies doesn’t hold water, either. This was the New Kingdom, the height of Egypt’s power, when it had no enemies worth fearing to the east. That idea only came to seem plausible centuries after, when Egypt’s power had greatly declined and Assyria and Babylon were great military powers feeling their oats.That would indicate that Moses was never cast adrift in a pitch-covered basket on the Nile to save him. There would have been no intended slaughter of infants to save him from. Besides, the much older story about Sargon of Akkad says precisely the same of him; that he was set adrift on the river in a basket as an infant, found, and adopted. It’s a characteristic hero-myth. Essentially the same story was told about Romulus and Remus, Perseus, King Arthur, and others. Besides, to the Israelites, it would have served the important purpose of giving Moses an acceptable – that is, purely Hebrew – ancestry. It allowed them to gloss over the uncomfortable fact that their greatest prophet and law-giver, the deliverer from bondage, had in fact been as Egyptian as the pyramids in every way but his ancestry, and most of that too.

His name, and the explanation for it, gives a clue. The princess of Egypt who adopts him (in the Bible account) declares, “I shall name him Moses, for I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:10.)

Moses, I believe, sounds like a Hebrew word for “drawn out of,” but in Egypt it was often a component of personal names, because there too it meant “drawn out of”, “derived from” or “the child of.” Usually it was combined with the name of a god – an Egyptian god, that is. At least three Pharaohs were named Tuthmoses, “derived from Thoth” or “child of Thoth.” Others were named Rameses, or Ra-moses, “child of the sun god Ra.” There was also the name Amunmoses, “child of the god Amun.” For that matter my own fictional character Kamose the sorcerer, or Ka-moses, “child of the spirit” has a name in the same pattern. One of the princes of Thebes who led the war against the Hyksos invaders was called that too, and his brother was Ahmose (Ahmoses). If the full name of the prophet meant “derived from the water” or “drawn out of the river”, then it was probably Hapimoses – “child of the Nile god.” As averred above, it’s improbable that he was ever set adrift on the river, but the later Israelites – if they knew it – would not have made a pagan god’s name part of their hero’s. If he came to worship and serve an unseen god whose name was too sacred to pronounce, after leaving Egypt, then Moses may well have dropped the “Hapi” from his name himself.

Another bit of evidence that he was wholly Egyptian by culture, at least, is found in his protest when he is told from the burning bush to return to Egypt and liberate the Hebrews. He declares that he is not eloquent or a good speaker. The burning bush tells him, “Then get an interpreter!” (More or less.) It’s been inferred from this by many theorists that he lacked confidence and even stuttered. This blogger calls that an effort to evade the obvious. Moses (or Hapimoses) may have been a fluent and confident speaker – in Egyptian! The chances are he didn’t know a word of Hebrew as a young man, only learned a related language in Midian as an exile, and was never comfortable in it.

Next question. Why was he exiled? Or have to go on the run? Exodus tells us he discovered his Hebrew origins, went out to see his people’s sufferings, and killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew. If he didn’t even have Hebrew origins, that idea can’t be sustained. (I’ve an idea for a story or two which, if I ever write it, will suggest it was someone else who committed that little murder.)

Well, if he lived at all, Moses could have belonged to a time shortly after the fall of the “heretic Pharoah” Akhenaten, as easily as at any other. In fact the Pharaoh Horemheb, who came after Akhenaten and did a lot to restore the traditional gods, has often been suggested as the “real” Pharaoh of the oppression. If Moses was a die-hard adherent to the worship of the “Aten” that the heretic Pharaoh promoted, and it was discovered, that could have been the reason. Not that Akenaten was really the “first monotheist” that he’s often been cracked up to be. He was actually an unrealistic and quite incredible reactionary who harked back to the times when Ra, not Amun, was the chief god of Egypt, and cared only about the Pharaoh and a few highly placed hangers-on, not the ordinary people. As for the more “democratic” religion of Osiris and Isis, which offered resurrection and a share in the after-life to everybody, if they lived an upright and honorable life – for Akhenaten it hardly existed and didn’t impress him.

Moses, I assume, wasn’t as isolated and unreal as Akhenaten. He’d never have become the leader and lawgiver of an essentially alien people if he had been. But maybe some things about the religion of the Aten did impress him. Let’s suppose that he was an adherent in his idealistic youth, and that he detested Horemheb. I picture Horemheb as a hard-nosed military man and die-hard conservative, even fanatic, in matters of religion. The Oliver Cromwell of ancient Egypt, you might say. Perhaps Moses had to flee Egypt in his reign for religious and political reasons, and fled with the slaves who looted the Delta, that being his only chance.

Okay. Granting that, what about the ten plagues?

Well, realistically, if Moses had brought the plagues on Egypt, and confronted the Pharaoh with the insolent demands the Bible has him making, he’d have lived about five minutes – or considerably longer, depending on the method of execution. Most of all if he told a man like Horemheb, “Free the slaves or my God will make you, Jack.”

Horemheb – or Tuthmoses III, or Rameses II, take your pick – would have responded, “No kidding? Let’s see if your God can lift you off a sharpened stake.”

Exodus tells us that Moses confronted Pharaoh’s court magicians and outdid them. But it also says that they were able to match his feats, up to a point anyhow. Bear in mind that Moses’s upbringing had been Egyptian, even if he wasn’t the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and he would have been the son of a noble family. Thus he would have an education and some priestly training, which included magic. We all know the story of his turning his staff into a serpent, from Sunday School and de Mille’s The Ten Commandments. What we were discreetly not told was that the burning bush gave Moses the power to perform three different tricks to impress the Hebrew masses, not just one. The first was changing his staff into a serpent. The second was putting his hand inside his robe, bringing it out diseased and leprous, then putting his hand back inside his robe and bringing it out perfectly healthy again. The third was taking a jug of water, and making it turn to blood as he poured it out. (Exodus Chapter 4, 1-9.)

Today, those “miracles” sound like precisely what Yul Brynner, as Rameses, calls the staff-into-serpent bit in The Ten Commandments – “cheap magician’s tricks.” Today, we’ve all seen David Copperfield do better, and none of us think he works miracles.

Getting specific about the ten plagues, neither locust swarms, lice, nor a murrain of the cattle in ancient Egypt need any explanation at all. And that’s three. The first plague, the river turned to blood, is more impressive. It sounds much like the “red tides” known in sea-water that turn the waves a reddish colour due to pigments released by massive blooms of toxic algae. They too kill fish in great multitudes. Dinoflagellate blooms of that sort are much less common in fresh water – but they do happen. The specific dinoflagellate type that causes red tides in fresh water is called Pfiesteria. With the Nile poisoned (a more awful disaster to Egypt is hard to imagine), the frogs would have left it in hordes and swarmed all over the land on either bank, looking for untainted ground water. Then they would have died in heaps as the Book of Exodus says they did. Dead rotting frogs and fish in masses would have given rise to a plague of flies.

We needn’t believe that all ten plagues happened in Moses’ lifetime, or that they happened as and when he called for them in the name of his God. The three above, possibly, but to repeat the obvious, he couldn’t have confronted Pharaoh and threatened Egypt with them, or he’d have been executed out of hand. The disasters gave the forced labor levies their opportunity to loot the demoralized towns of the Delta and scramble into the desert. Moses decided to go with them.

The locusts, the cattle disease and the lice would have struck with exceptional severity from time to time, all down the centuries, in a wholly natural way. It would have been just as natural for the myth-makers to add them to the list later. Other disasters, far less routine, could have occurred in the past, long before Moses’ time, and been grafted onto his story afterwards. Its standard for events widely separated in time to be telescoped together for the sake of a good story. Shakespeare did it often in his “historical” plays.

I’m thinking particularly of the “hail mingled with fire,” the fine dust that gave rise to boils and open sores on people’s skin, the three days of thick darkness, and the pillars of fire and cloud. They, very likely, had been remembered from centuries before, caused by the eruption of Thera just north of Crete, circa 1600 BCE. Wikipedia describes it as “one of the largest volcanic events … in recorded history.” That terrible cataclysm wrecked the Minoan culture of the time, spewed immense amounts of ash and dust into the air, and obscured the sun for days as far away as the Nile Delta. For that matter, small scoriac pebbles might have rained on the region, whitish in color and still hot – the “hail mingled with fire.” Then the fine dust and ash would have settled over the same region, irritating the skin of the people and raising boils. The gigantic eruption, seen from great distances, would have begun the legend of a pillar of fire and cloud. Egypt in the New Kingdom was in close, friendly contact with Crete. The effects they didn’t actually experience, they would have heard described by Minoan refugees.

The Thera (or Santorin) eruption was formerly reckoned to have happened around 1500 BCE. Today the dating has been revised to 1630-1600 BCE, which if right would place the disaster at the time the Hyksos (foreign chiefs), an Asiatic people, were ruling the eastern Delta. Later they were beaten by the Theban princes and expelled from Egypt – but that blanket term “expulsion” most likely refers to the rulers and military leaders, the Hyksos elite. The conquered common folk would have remained in Egypt, been harshly exploited and subject to prejudice. Standard practice in the ancient world. The hot “hail”, the darkness, the outbreak of boils and the fiery, cloudy pillars, would have been remembered in their folklore and grafted onto the Moses legend much later.

This isn’t a new idea at all. Ian Wilson put it forward in his book, Exodus: The True Story, published by Harper and Row in 1985. (The original title was The Exodus Enigma.) Nor was he the only one. I believe where he went wrong was in assuming that because the consequences of the Thera eruption were remembered. and made part of the Moses story, it follows that Moses was actually there at the time – which for Wilson was around the reigns of Hatshepsut and her nephew, Tuthmoses III. It doesn’t follow at all. Besides, the Thera/Santorini cataclysm, even before certain refinements of dating, was dated to about 1500 BCE – before Hatshepsut and Tuthmoses.

The parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s entire army can be taken as exaggeration. The escaping labor force under Moses was a bunch of desperate slaves numbering two or three thousand at most. They struggled through the lagoons and lakes of the coast with chariot squadrons in hot pursuit. When a freak wind and tide swept in, to halt the rushing chariots and drown some of the crews, it would have been an escape so narrow that to the fugitives it would have seemed miraculous. It would’ve seemed like that to me, too. No doubt I’ve have told my grandchildren afterwards that the whole Egyptian army had been chasing us. In fact a couple of dozen charioteers drowned, most likely, while others struggled back to dry land, drenched and scared, their vehicles bogged down, and the rest halted frustrated on the shore.

REH’s verses are more in accord with the Bible version.

You bet I still remember the Red Sea’s low tide levels.
         We took the channel flying and splashed our way across
For at our heels a-roaring came Pharoah’s bloody devils
         But before they reached the middle – say, they were a total loss!

The waves came down like mountains and carried all before ‘em.
         The tides came down the channel in a sudden fearful rise.
The chariots went under – God knows the hate I bore ‘em,
         Yet it turned my blood to water to see ‘em die like flies.

Well, Moses and the gang were out, free. For the time being. They were in the Sinai Desert, though, an inhospitable place, and no matter what the Pentateuch implies, they couldn’t stay there for forty years. Not even for one. Sinai was firmly under Egyptian control at the time – whether “the time” be taken as the reign of Tuthmoses I, Tuthmoses III, Rameses II, or Horemheb. It was fortified and patrolled and garrisoned. Egypt even had copper and turquoise mines operating there. Their only chance was to get out of Egyptian territory entirely. They headed for Midian as other escaped slaves and oppressed folk had doubtless done before them. Midian was the closest area free of Egypt’s control. (We can suppose that in the highly mixed group there were Midianite tribesmen who made canny guides.)

It wasn’t easy going. The Bible is emphatic about the moaning, griping and loudly expressed resentment Moses and the other leaders had to handle. Hard labor as third-class citizens or not, the people had lived in the eastern Delta, fertile, well-watered, with abundant food. The cry went up, “I long for the fleshpots of Egypt!”

Those long years in the desert with never a free lunch counter;
         The desert wind a-blowing over sand dunes bare and drear.
I used to think and wonder – was freedom worth the effort?
         I’d have built a hundred sphinxes for a stein of Cairo beer.

Life in Midian wouldn’t have been half as hard as the trek through Sinai – which must have been done quickly, as I say, forced marching all the way, or they’d have been caught. But it didn’t take any forty years. The main Midianite guide seems to have been a fellow named Hobab, of the Kenite tribe. Numbers 10: 29-32, mentions him specifically. “And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Raguel (or Reuel or Jethro) the Midianite, Moses’ father in law, we are journeying unto the place of which the Lord said, I will give it you: come thou with us, and we will do thee good: for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel. And he said unto him, I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred. And he said, Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what goodness the Lord shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.”

That sounds as though, one, Hobab was planning to leave and travel lightly, in order to get home, and two, that he changed his mind when Moses offered to make it worthwhile for him. I’m supposing this was the first time Moses had left Egypt, that he hadn’t actually lived in Midian before the Exodus, and that he needed Hobab’s knowledge of desert travel. The description of Hobab’s relationships is a little unclear. Jethro, or Reuel, the priest of Midian who became Moses’ father-in-law (the Bible calls him by both names in different sources) was evidently Hobab’s father, which means that Hobab became Moses’ brother-in-law. Or in this passage, “Hobab the son of Raguel the Midianite, Moses’ father in law” could mean that it was Hobab who became Moses’ father in law.

I’m taking it to mean that Hobab was Moses’ brother-in-law. I suspect that as a Kenite he was a pretty fierce character, too. The Kenites had their name as the eponymous descendants of Cain, and they took the custom of feud and blood revenge that was the only deterrent to murder in their world, to an extreme. “Cain shall be avenged sevenfold” it says in Genesis 4:24. The infamous “mark of Cain” set upon him to deter people from killing him as he wandered upon the Earth, was in reality, I’d think, a tribal tattoo. “Watch it, fool! Don’t murder that fellow! Can’t you see what tribe he belongs to? His kinsmen will follow you past the sunset for vengeance, and they’ll get your brothers too!”

More about Moses and Hobab, and what possibly happened after their time, next post.

Read Part Two