Versions of Passover

In 419 BCE, the Persian king Darius issued a decree concerning the Jewish garrison at Elephantine on the Nile Delta (near the cataracts of what is now called Aswan). It was directed towards the governor, Arsames, and instructed him to make sure that the Egyptian priests of Khnum did not attack the Jews or try to stop the Passover celebrations at the Jewish temple there. You may well wonder both at a Jewish military garrison in Egypt two-and-a-half thousand years ago and at a Jewish temple where they sacrificed outside of Jerusalem. But that’s for another time.

Tension between the Egyptian priests and Jews was exacerbated by the Jewish tradition of slaughtering sheep, something the Egyptian religion forbade; this Egyptian antipathy is explicitly stated in the Torah (Genesis 46 and Exodus 8:22). Sadly nine years later, Arsames no longer there, the priests of Elephantine destroyed the Jewish temple and its population.

Alternative versions of the Exodus have existed for a long time. Just as alternative narratives about the Middle East proliferate nowadays. Each has its own agenda, some constructive and some destructive. Hecataeus, an Egyptian historian who lived around 320 BCE, talks about bands of exiles coming to Egypt, being driven out and then taking over an uninhabited Judea. They were led by a man called Moses who founded a new religion that Hecataeus described as unsocial and intolerant!

Manetho was an Egyptian priest who lived in Heliopolis in the middle of second century BCE. He is mentioned by Josephus. Manetho gave two versions of the Exodus. The first was about shepherds who invaded Egypt and took it over. This conforms to the archaeological evidence we have of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt roughly three thousand five hundred years ago. But then according to Manetho they were driven out and settled in Judea where they founded Jerusalem and built the Temple. This is not entirely dissimilar to, although different than, the Bible.

Manetho gives another version, which seems to be a basis of the virulent anti-Jewish sentiment of the Alexandrian Greek world. After the invasion of the shepherds, the Egyptian King Amenophis was told that he would see the gods if he purified his land of lepers and the diseased. So he gathered 80,000 diseased and unclean and set them to work in quarries. But the diseased ones formed a society of their own under a renegade Egyptian priest called Osarseph. Osarseph made new laws and commanded them not to associate with ordinary Egyptians. This new diseased people set fire to cities, attacked and destroyed temples and holy images, desecrated holy places, and sacrificed animals that hitherto had been forbidden. Finally, the leader changed his name to Moses and led them out of the land.

There were lots of upheavals, external and internal, in Egypt. One of the most famous was when Akhenaten overthrew the old system for the sun god Aten. Indeed Freud used this association in his “Moses and Monotheism” when he suggested that Moses was a follower of Akhenaten, and when his boss was defeated he looked around for another job. Manetho makes it very clear that the characteristics of these followers of Osarseph/Moses were an alien, dangerous, degraded, sick people, rigid and xenophobic. The visceral hatred of Jews as “others” and “enemies” had begun. Josephus uses much of this material in his book “Against Apion” a defense of Judaism against the Alexandrian Jew hater.

This association has come to be the dominant narrative of Jew hatred from Haman, to Greeks, and then medieval and not so medieval Christianity and Islam. Jews are rootless nomads who invade other people’s territories and live a life diametrically opposed to the host societies’ values and religion, while taking advantage of them and undermining them. They are misanthropes who are a threat to ordinary peace-loving peoples. Thus most Europeans nowadays see Jews as the biggest threat to world peace.

If you are interested in how this narrative is developed from its earliest stages to this very day, it is worth reading David Nirenberg’s brilliant book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. But I warn you, it is depressing reading for any Jew. There is no question that we have often added fuel to the fire, and often been the authors of our own fate, and made some terrible decisions. But the pathology of an irrational hatred is documented in Nirenberg’s book with even more impressive literary and historical sources than Anthony Julius’s great contribution in “Trials of the Diaspora.”

We will sit around the Seder table next week once again, surrounded by our children, and tell them tales of our past, enact innocent rituals, drink wine and eat and be merry. We may wonder what we are doing, bringing children into such a hostile world in which the hatred persists, and even grows in many places like dry rot. Yet this has been our narrative for thousands of years. Some argue (not I) that I has made us stronger and helped us survive. Yet for all that, I would not willingly impose this on anyone unless I strongly believed that the Jewish way of life is dedicated to making this world a better and more spiritual place, and that it adds so much quality and depth to one’s life; to one’s range of experiences, and to one’s intellectual development. All this despite the persistence of those within who make a mockery of it.

Perhaps it’s just envy that motivates our enemies. Pesach reminds us to rise above the hatred, which is to be really free!