the jews return to egypt -- 4/14/14

Today's selection -- from The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama. The story of Moses leading the Jews on an escape from Egypt and the Nile Valley is well-known. But a generations later, having been been attacked by Assyrians and Babylonians, many Jews returned to Egypt and there became agents of the Persian rulers of Egypt in defending borders and suppressing local uprisings:

"The exodus from the flood valley of the Nile, the end of foreign enslavement, was presented by the Bible writers as the condition of becoming fully Israelite. They imagined the journey as an ascent, both topographical and moral. It was on the stony high places, way stations to heaven, that YHWH -- as Yahweh is written -- had revealed Himself (or at least His back), making Moses' face hot and shiny with reflected radiance. From the beginning (whether in the biblical or archaeological version), Jews were made in hill country. In Hebrew, emigrating to Israel is still aliyah, a going up. Jerusalem was unimaginable on the low fluvial plain. Rivers were murky with temptation; the sea was even worse, brimming with scaly monsters. Those who dwelled by its shores or shipped around upon its waves (like the Phoenicians or the Greeks) were to be detested as shifty, idolatrous and unclean. To go back to Egypt then, in the eyes of those for whom the exodus was the proper start of everything Jewish, was a fall, a descent to brazen idolatry. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah -- the latter even when he had gone to Egypt himself -- had warned against this relapse, this un-Jewing. Those who fully succumbed, Jeremiah warned, would become 'an execration and an astonishment, a curse and a reproach'.

The Crossing The Red Sea by Nicolas Poussin

"Heedless, the Israelites not for the first or last time disobeyed, trotting back to Egypt in droves. Why not, when the northern kingdom of Israel had been smashed by the Assyrians in 72I BCE, and a century later the kingdom of Judah was likewise pulverised by the Babylonians? All these misfortunes could, and were, interpreted by the writers of the Bible narratives as YHWH's chastisement of backsliding. But those on the receiving end could be forgiven for thinking: much good He has done us. Some 30,000 rams and ewes sacrificed for Passover in the Temple by King Josiah; a mass rending of raiment in contrite penitence for flirting with false gods; no help at all in fending off whichever hellish conquerors came out of Mesopotamia with their ringlets and their panthers and their numberless ranks of archers and javelin-men.

"So the Israelites went down from their lion-coloured Judaean hills to the flood country of Egypt, to Tahpanhes on the delta, and Memphis halfway south, and especially to Pathros, the south country. When the Persians arrived in 525 BCE, they treated the Israelites not as slaves but often as slave owners, and above all as tough professional soldiers who could be depended on, as much as Arameans, Caspians or Carian Greeks from the western Anatolian littoral, to suppress Egyptian uprisings against Persia. They would also police the turbulent southern frontier where Nubian Africa began."


Simon Schama


Story of the Jews, The: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD


Ecco an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2013 by Simon Schama


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