The Exodus Debunked: Moses’ Birth

I will continue my deconstruction of the Exodus accounts by concentrating on Moses.

The articles so far have been:

I want to compile them all into a series as I have done with the Nativity and Easter. To start the ball rolling, let’s look at Exodus 2:

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the Nile, with her maidens walking alongside the Nile; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid, and she brought it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for you?”Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go ahead.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 The child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”

This is one of those timeless stories that is part of our Christian and Jewish baggage. We just take claims like this because they have been fed to us from before we could reason appropriately.

The Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible, have traditionally been attributed to Moses as author, and were thus compiled in and around the dates mentioned in the previous piece – somewhere from 1250 BCE to 1550 BCE or thereabouts. However, critical scholars, for a whole host of reasons, claim that the Old Testament was actually compiled much later, in around 5-600 BCE when the Jews were in exile. The Exilic or post-Exilic periods were, it seems, a far more likely setting for the writing:

The Babylonian captivity or Babylonian exile is the period in Jewish history during which a number of people from the ancient Kingdom of Judah were captives in Babylonia. After the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem, resulting in tribute being paid by King Jehoiakim.[1] Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute in Nebuchadnezzar’s fourth year, which led to another siege in Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh year, culminating with the death of Jehoiakim and the exile of King Jeconiah, his court and many others; Jeconiah’s successor Zedekiah and others were exiled in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year; a later deportation occurred in Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-third year. The dates, numbers of deportations, and numbers of deportees given in the biblical accounts vary.[2] These deportations are dated to 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE respectively.[3]

After the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, exiled Judeans were permitted to return to Judah.[4][5]According to the biblical book of Ezra, construction of the second temple in Jerusalem began around 537 BCE. All these events are considered significant in Jewish history and culture, and had a far-reaching impact on the development of Judaism.

Archaeological studies have revealed that not all of the population of Judah was deported, and that, although Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, other parts of Judah continued to be inhabited during the period of the exile.[6] The return of the exiles was a gradual process rather than a single event, and many of the deportees or their descendants did not return.

There is a lot of evidence for this from many different areaws, but I will not get bogged down here in that debate. In exile, the Jews were somewhat short of a national identity and something to bind them together. Thus the Bible performed a real functional utility. The Assyrians and the Babylonians plagiarized the Sumerian accounts almost word for word, so why would we not assume that the Jews would do the same (other than to special plead the veracity of the Bible or Torah) with the surrounding Babylonians?

Something we see in every culture in the world, and every religion, is the assimilation of nearby tropes, ideas, stories and claims into any given religion and cultural milieu.Judaism and Christianity are no different. The problem is, ?J?ews and Christians beg to differ. They will look at other works of religion and culture, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, and understand the context within which they are set, and agree that they will have stolen ideas from surrounding cultures and religions. But when it comes to their own, no no. Pure as the driven snow.

Instead, traditionalists settle for Moses writing the first five books, and try to harmonise the multitude of problems, including writing about his own death.

Tim Callahan, in The Secret Origin of the Bible, talks about how Moses and his motifs are taken from the Akkadian king’s stories (p. 24-25):

Sargon I of Akkad (2371-2316 BCE) had a similar legendary origin. His mother, a priestess who became impregnated by an anonymous pilgrim—possibly she was a temple prostitute—knew that all children born to her were destined to be sacrificed. Therefore, she gave birth in secret, placed the infant in a tar-daubed basket woven of rushes, and put the basket in the Euphrates river were it floated into an irrigation canal and was discovered by Akki, the royal gardener. The story of the infant Moses hidden in just such a basket among the bulrushes so that he would likewise escape being killed is too close to Sargon’s story to be coincidence. Since Sargon’s tale dates anywhere from 800 to 1100 years before Moses is likely to have lived, assuming Moses to be a historical character, the story in Exodus was the copy. Therefore the story of Moses’ birth was a typological fiction rather than true history. As I shall point out in succeeding chapters, many of the stories of the Creation, the fall, and the patriarchs involve both typologies and common origins with other mythic systems.

We have a story that is remarkably similar. Too similar to not conclude that one stole from the other, or, like Noah’s Flood and the aforementioned Epic of Gilgamesh, both are based on an earlier account. In absolute years, his reign would correspond to ca. 2340–2284 BCE. As Wikipedia states:

A Neo-Assyrian text from the 7th century BC purporting to be Sargon’s autobiography asserts that the great king was the illegitimate son of a priestess. Only the beginning of the text (the first two columns) are known, from the fragments of three manuscripts. The first fragments were discovered as early as 1850.[46] 

Similarities between the Sargon Birth Legend and other infant birth exposures in ancient literature, including MosesKarna, and Oedipus, were noted by psychoanalyst Otto Rank in 1909.[47] The legend was also studied in detail by Brian Lewis, and compared with a number of different examples of the infant birth exposure motif found in European and Asian folk tales. He discusses a possible archetype form, giving particular attention to the Sargon legend and the account of the birth of Moses.[6]Joseph Campbell has also made such comparisons.[48]

Sargon is also one of the many suggestions for the identity or inspiration for the biblical Nimrod. Ewing William (1910) suggested Sargon based on his unification of the Babylonians and the Neo-Assyrian birth legend.[49] Yigal Levin (2002) suggested that Nimrod was a recollection of Sargon and of his grandson Naram-Sin, with the name “Nimrod” derived from the latter.[50]

As the Ancient History Encyclopedia states:

The inscription was discovered in the Assyrian city of Nineveh in 1867 CE by the archeologist Sir Henry Rawlinson who was excavating the site. Rawlinson is famous for many important discoveries throughout Mesopotamia but perhaps most for uncovering the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. The Legend of Sargon was part of that library and was a copy of a much earlier text. This, of course, indicates the story was still being read in the 7th century BCE, almost 2,000 years after Sargon’s reign.

Another entry includes:

The story of the baby set forth in a basket on the river, who is found by nobility and grows up to be a great leader of his people, was used to great effect by the Hebrew scribe who borrowed it to write the biblical Book of Exodus and the story of the hero Moses. Sargon’s story is the tale of the hero who rises from obscure beginnings to save his people. Whether he was seen as this kind of savior by those who lived under his reign is doubtful considering the number of rebellions he had to put down but to those who came after him, those who lived under the occupation of the Gutians (described by scholar Samuel Noah Kramer as demoralizing, destructive, and “a ruthless, barbaric hoarde”), he and his dynasty represented the glorious age of hero-kings which was now gone. The tales of Sargon are thought to have inspired the Sumerians to rise up and throw off the oppressive Gutian rule in c. 2046 BCE.

The similarities are pretty remarkable. As Rebecca Bradley, in her chapter “The Credibility of the Exodus” in John Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science (in which I also contribute a chapter on free will) [p. 271-2], states:

Baby Sargon floated downstream for a bit, until a palace gardener found the little boat and brought the foundling up in humble circumstances to be a palace gardener himself. He was not destined to stay in lowly circumstances. the King of Kish saw him and, struck with his fine qualities, appointed the lad to be his cup-bearer; but once he became part of the king’s court, Sargon was troubled with prophetic dreams, which in turn troubled the King of Kish,m because the dreams, which in turn troubled the King of Kish, because the dreams were about him (the king) drowning. To avert this doom, the king of Sargon to another city to deliver a message, which boiled down to “kill the messenger.” Fortunately, with the help of the love-smitten goddess Ishtar, Sargon was able to navigate the hazardous shoals of royal Kish and end supplanting the king….

We see similar details in the story of Romulus and Remus, the scandalous bastard offspring of Mars and a vestal virgin, cast adrift on the Tiber in a basket; or Karna if the Mahabharata, whose little ark is drawn out of the Ganges. these, as other baby-in-a-basket stories, are part of a more general “Hidden Child” folkloric motif, where the birth of a hero is accompanied by dire prophecies – often, that the child will cause the downfall of the city or the reigning king. The king orders the child to be killed as a precaution, often by exposure, but the child survives. The underling entrusted with the murder may take pity on the child, as in Oedipus all the fine folkloric example of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The prophetic element is not clear in the Biblical version of Moses’s backstory but is made explicit in the later rabbinical literature: Pharaoh’s soothsayers warn him that Hebrew child will be his downfall, which leads to the order to drown all male Hebrew babies at birth. The rabbinical literature even throws in a touch of marital irregularity in the relations between Moses’s parents. In all cases mentioned, the future here row/liberator grows up in obscurity, hidden behind a false identity until his true exceptional nature is revealed. Moses, in a neat reversal, is presented as a son of slaves raised by a princess, but the story arc is unmistakably part of the same tradition.… The Judaean composers of the Pentateuch may or may not have drawn directly on the Sargon a legend, but the character of Moses draws on the same widespread archetypal memes.

One reason we know that the direction of appropriation goes from Sumerian to biblical, Sargon to Moses, is the mention of pitch. Rather like camels, this is an anachronism in the Exodus story. This source elucidates further:

In Moses own account in Exodus 2:1-3 it compares as, “But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.”  Notice the account of Sargon and the Bibles account of Moses are exactly the same, even the the use of bitumen on the reed basket is the same, with the only difference being the river Euphrates being exchanged for Nile.

Was Moses to quick to transcribe Sargon’s birth account without fully aware that bitumen does not exist in the Nile delta? The lower Sumer valley, today known as Kuwait, has a large supply of bitumen that seeps through the ground, from Kuwait’s large oil deposits. The ancients used this heat source to smelter copper, gold and their most sought after metal, bismuth, which they mined in the neighbouring regions. Ancient people in the area also used bitumen as mortar in their temple construction.

Contrary to Moses account, bitumen does not exist in the Nile river or the Nile delta. In Moses haste to plagiarize Sargon’s birth account he failed to realize that the Nile and the Euphrates have a different geology. A simple mistake, but with huge ramifications.

Therefore, it seems highly probable that the Moses account was based on the earlier life of King Sargon of Akkad. Whilst this does not invalidate the Exodus as a whole (rather like the nativity accounts for Jesus don’t necessarily invalidate the life of Jesus as a whole), it does add further fuel to the cumulative case that there is no historical basis for the Exodus accounts.


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