Moses and Exodus: an Ancient Jewish Counter-History

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by Neil Godfrey

Artapanus of Alexandria was a Jewish historian living in Egypt in the late third or second century B.C.E. We read the relevant excerpts of his work On/Concerning the Jews in another work by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (= Preparation of the Gospel). Artapanus gives a new twist to the narratives we have read so far by making Moses a Jew but also the founder of the Egyptian religion and civilization. (He is even identified with Hermes, the inventor of the sacred hieroglyphic script.) As Jans Assmann comments,

[Artapanus’s] picture of Moses is pure counterhistory . . . : it is the exact inversion of Hecataeus’ and Manetho’s Moses, written in contradiction to their texts and with very little reference to the Bible or other Jewish traditions. (Moses the Egyptian, p. 36)

Enjoy the Jewish counter-history! From Book 9, chapter 27 of Praeparatio:

AND Artapanus says, in his book Concerning the Jews, that after the death of Abraham, and of his son Mempsasthenoth, and likewise of the king of Egypt, his son Palmanothes succeeded to the sovereignty.

‘This king behaved badly to the Jews; and first he built Kessa, and founded the temple therein, and then built the temple in Heliopolis.

‘He begat a daughter Merris, whom he betrothed to a certain Chenephres, king of the regions above Memphis (for there were at that time many kings in Egypt); and she being barren took a supposititious child from one of the Jews, and called him Mouses (Moses): but by the Greeks he was called, when grown to manhood, Musaeus.

And this Moses, they said, was the teacher of Orpheus; and when grown up he taught mankind many useful things. For

  • he was the inventor of ships,
  • and machines for laying stones,
  • and Egyptian arms,
  • and engines for drawing water and for war,
  • and invented philosophy.
  • Further he divided the State into thirty-six Nomes,
  • and appointed the god to be worshipped by each Nome,
  • and the sacred writing for the priests,
  • and their gods were cats, and dogs, and ibises:
  • he also apportioned an especial district for the priests.

‘All these things he did for the sake of keeping the sovereignty firm and safe for Chenepbres. For previously the multitudes, being under no order, now expelled and now set up kings, often the same persons, but sometimes others.

‘For these reasons then Moses was beloved by the multitudes, and being deemed by the priests worthy to be honoured like a god, was named Hermes, because of his interpretation of the Hieroglyphics.

But when Chenephres perceived the excellence of Moses he envied him, and sought to slay him on some plausible pretext. And so when the Aethiopians invaded Egypt, Chenephres supposed that he had found a convenient opportunity, and sent Moses in command of a force against them, and enrolled the body of husbandmen for him, supposing that through the weakness of his troops he would easily be destroyed by the enemy.

‘But Moses with about a hundred thousand of the husbandmen came to the so-called Nome of Hermopolis, and there encamped; and sent generals to pre-occupy the country, who gained remarkable successes in their battles. He adds that the people of Heliopolis say that this war went on for ten years.

‘So Moses, because of the greatness of his army, built a city in this place, and therein consecrated the ibis, because this bird kills the animals that are noxious to man. And he called it Hermes’ city.

‘Thus then the Aethiopians, though they were enemies, became so fond of Moses, that they even learned from him the custom of circumcision: and not they only, but also all the priests.

‘But when the war was ended, Chenephres pretended to welcome him, while in reality continuing to plot against him. So he took his troops from him, and sent some to the frontiers of Aethiopia for an advanced guard; and ordered others to demolish the temple in Diospolis which had been built of baked brick, and build another of stone from the quarries of the neighbouring mountain, and appointed Nacheros superintendent of the building.

‘And when he was come with Moses to Memphis, he asked him whether there was anything else useful for mankind, and he said the breed of oxen, because by means of them the land is ploughed: and Chenephres having given the name Apis to a bull, commanded the troops to found a temple for him, and bade them bring and bury there the animals which had been consecrated by Moses, because he wished to bury the inventions of Moses in oblivion.

‘But when the Egyptians were alienated from him, he bound his friends by an oath not to report to Moses the plot which was being contrived against him, and he appointed the men who were to kill him.

‘When however no one would obey him, Chenephres reproached Chanethothes, whom he had especially addressed; and he, on being thus reproached, promised to make the attempt when he found an opportunity.

‘And Merris having died about this time, Chenephres professed to give the body to Moses and Chanethothes to carry it over into regions beyond Egypt and bury it, supposing that Moses would be slain by Chanethothes.

‘But while they were on the way, one of those who were cognizant of the plot reported it to Moses; and he being on his guard buried Merris himself, and called the river and the city thereby Meroe. And this Merris is honoured by the people of the country not less highly than Isis.

‘Then Aaron the brother of Moses, having learned about the plot, advised his brother to flee into Arabia; and he took the advice, and sailed across the Nile from Memphis, intending to escape into Arabia.

‘But when Chanethothes was informed of the flight of Moses, he lay in ambush intending to kill him; and when he saw him coming, he drew his sword against him, but Moses was too quick for him, and seized his hand, and drew his sword and slew Chanethothes.

‘So he made his escape into Arabia, and lived with Raguel the ruler of the district, having married his daughter. And Raguel wished to make an expedition against the Egyptians in order to restore Moses, and procure the government for his daughter and son-in- law; but Moses prevented it, out of regard for his own nation: and Raguel forbidding him to march against the Arabs, ordered him to plunder Egypt.

‘About the same time Chenephres died, having been the very first person attacked by elephantiasis; and he is said to have incurred this misfortune because he ordered the Jews to wear linen garments and not to wear woollen clothing, in order that they might be conspicuous, and be punished by him.

‘But Moses prayed to God now at last to put an end to the sufferings of the tribes. And God being propitiated, fire, it is said, suddenly blazed up out of the earth, and went on burning though there was no wood nor any other fuel in the place. And Moses was frightened at the occurrence and took to flight; but a divine voice spake to him, to march against Egypt, and rescue the Jews and lead them into their old country.

So he took courage and determined to lead a hostile force against the Egyptians: but first he came to his brother Aaron. And when the king of Egypt heard of the arrival of Moses, he called him before him, and asked what he had come for: and he said, Because the Lord of the world commanded him to deliver the Jews.

‘And when the king heard this, he shut him up in prison. But when it was night, all the doors of the prison-house opened of their own accord, and of the guards some died, and some were sunk in sleep, and their weapons broken in pieces.

‘So Moses passed out and came to the palace; and finding the doors opened he went in, and the guards here also being sunk in sleep he woke up the king. And he being dismayed at what had happened bade Moses tell him the name of the God who sent him, scoffing at him: but Moses bent down and whispered in his ear, and when the king heard it he fell speechless, but was held fast by Moses and came to life again.

‘And he wrote the name in a tablet and sealed it up; and one of the priests who made light of what was written in the tablet was seized with a convulsion and died.

‘Also the king told him to work some sign for him, and Moses threw down the rod which he held and turned it into a serpent; and when they were all frightened, he seized it by the tail and took it up, and made it a rod again.

‘Then he went forth a little, and smote the Nile with the rod, and the river became flooded and deluged the whole of Egypt, and it was from that time its inundation began: and the water became stagnant, and stank, and killed all living things in the river, and the people were perishing of thirst.

‘But when these wonders had been wrought, the king said that after a month he would let the people go, if Moses would restore the river to its proper state; and he smote the water again with his rod, and checked the stream.

‘When this was done, the king summoned the priests from above Memphis, and said that he would kill them all, and demolish the temples, unless they also would work some wonder. And then they by some witchcraft and incantations made a serpent, and changed the colour of the river.

‘And the king, being puffed up with pride at what was done, began to maltreat the Jews with every kind of vengeance and punishment. Then Moses, seeing this, both wrought other signs, and also smote the earth with his rod, and brought up a kind of winged animal to harass the Egyptians, and all their bodies broke out in boils. And as the physicians were unable to heal the sufferers, the Jews thus again gained relief.

‘Again Moses by his rod brought up frogs, and besides them locusts and lice. And for this reason the Egyptians dedicate the rod in every temple, and to Isis likewise, because the earth is Isis, and sent up these wonders when smitten by the rod.

‘But as the king still persisted in his folly, Moses caused hail and earthquakes by night, so that those who fled from the earthquake were killed by the hail, and those who sought shelter from the hail were destroyed by the earthquakes. And at that time all the houses fell in, and most of the temples.

‘At last after having incurred such calamities the king let the Jews go: and they, after borrowing from the Egyptians many drinking-vessels, and no little raiment, and very much other treasure, crossed the rivers on the Arabian side, and after traversing a wide space came on the third day to the Red Sea.

‘Now the people of Memphis say, that Moses being acquainted with the country waited for the ebb, and took the people across the sea when dry. But the people of Heliopolis say, that the king hastened after them with a great force, having also with him the consecrated animals, because the Jews were carrying off the property which they had borrowed from the Egyptians.

‘There came, however, to Moses a divine voice bidding him to smite the sea with the rod [and that it should divide]: and when Moses heard it, he touched the water with the rod, and so the stream divided, and the force passed over by a dry path.

‘But when the Egyptians went in with them and were pursuing them, a fire, it is said, shone out upon them from the front, and the sea overflowed the path again, and the Egyptians were all destroyed by the fire and the flood: but the Jews having escaped this danger spent forty years in the wilderness, God raining down meal for them like millet, similar in colour to snow. And Moses they say was tall and ruddy, with long white hair, and dignified: and he performed these deeds when he was about eighty-nine years old.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Moses and Exodus: an Ancient Jewish Counter-History”

  1. I disagree with Assmann that the narrative of Artapanus is pure counterhistory. Artapanus certainly exaggerated the influence of the patriarchs on the ancient Egyptian culture. However, “Palmanothers” and “Cenephres” [xai nfrw] can be identified with Amenhotep I and his successor, Thutmose I, who used the epithet “xai nfrw” in his nomen cartouche. This last was certainly connected to Memphis, as he built a palace there that was used by his successors down to Tutankhamen. For further information, see my book, “Manetho Demystified” [Second Edition].

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