THE GIST: If people have evolved by natural selection, such that gods are inventions of people instead of people being inventions of gods, it follows that gods are subject to being designed to help us achieve both our highest and our lowest aspirations … by both our most moral and our most immoral means. At the low end, deception, usury, theft, enslavement, rape, murder and genocide are promoted by the god of The Bible as modus operandi of Zionism. The Passover story and its lopsided reception are instructive in this regard because they show how an existential foundation of moral behavior among people who worship one god can obligate immoral behavior toward people who worship a different god. That kind of in-group morality festers at the crux of the most deplorable aspects of Israeli and American foreign policy. A better existential foundation is proffered.1
SAMUEL CLEMENS, better known as Mark Twain, wrote Concerning the Jews during an era when almost all literate Christians and Jews read every word of their respective Bibles. So Clemens should not be held to account for his opening assertion in the passage below, that “We have all thoughtfully—or unthoughtfully—read” the Passover story. That issue notwithstanding, and understanding that Clemens used the word ‘corner’ to mean ‘corner’ a market or create a monopoly, the following introduction to his 1899 Harper’s Magazine article warrants more thoughtful consideration than a knee-jerk judgment that Clemens was anti-Semitic.
“We have all thoughtfully—or unthoughtfully—read the pathetic story of the years of plenty and the years of famine in Egypt, and how Joseph, with that opportunity, made a corner in broken hearts, and the crusts of the poor, and human liberty—a corner whereby he took a nation’s money all away, to the last penny; took a nation’s livestock all away, to the last hoof; took a nation’s land away, to the last acre; then took the nation itself, buying it for bread, man by man, woman by woman, child by child, till all were slaves; a corner which took everything, left nothing; a corner so stupendous that, by comparison with it, the most gigantic corners in subsequent history are but baby things, for it dealt in hundreds of millions of bushels, and its profits were reckonable by hundreds of millions of dollars, and it was a disaster so crushing that its effects have not wholly disappeared from Egypt today, more than three thousand years after the event.”2
A hundred years of intense archeological investigation have failed to find credible evidence that the story of Joseph enslaving Egyptians is based, even loosely, on events that actually occurred. That absence of evidence is so conspicuous that it justifies the conclusion of every dispassionate pre-historian: the story was a whole-cloth fabrication. Few 21st Century Jews and Christians object to that conclusion.
In distinction, when the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz publishes an article based on the work of Israel’s most authoritative archaeologists, from Ze’ev Herzog to Israel Finkelstein, explaining that the story of Israelite enslavement by Egyptians is equally mythological, a torrent of outrage is unleashed. Some commenters even draw analogies to Holocaust denial. Why such heartfelt anguish? Because even though both enslavement stories come from the same source and are part of the same story within that source, unlike the myth of Egyptian enslavement by Joseph, the myth of Jewish enslavement by a Pharaoh still serves cherished self-identity purposes for many Jews, and although by a smaller percentage, for a much larger number of Christians. Given the vicissitudes of credibility granted to stories based on how they make us feel about ourselves, Samuel Clemens should also be forgiven for not having known that both enslavement stories are as fictional as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Nevertheless, fiction can reveal truth about human nature. And no matter how fanciful, foundation myths serve a purpose. They give each believer a piece of self-image that can be recognized by compatriots. National creation myths make compatriots feel related, as though they came from the same place, even if they have never met and none of them came from that place. By making family out of strangers, national myths grease the wheels of cooperation in pursuit of national objectives and they foster in-group morality.3 So we can gain insight into contemporary cultures by examining their retained myths, especially ancient whole-cloth myths. The purpose of this essay is to examine the original Passover story in order to understand its inventors’ and its believers’ purposes.
THE PROPHECY of financial success in Jewish Diaspora host nations began with Joseph. According to The Bible, in exchange for a climate change forecast and some important advice (Genesis 41:25-36), this son of Jacob (aka Israel) was given control of Egypt (Genesis 41:40-41):
“You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”4
The job came with substantial benefits and considerable status (Genesis 41:42-44):
Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus Pharaoh set Joseph over all the land of Egypt. Moreover Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no man shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”
So Joseph was made the executor of his own recommendation to enforce a double tithe: “take the fifth part of the produce of the land” (Genesis 41:34). Harvests were so good during the first seven years of Joseph’s rule that he was able to stockpile “grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured” (Genesis 41:49). Then came seven years of drought, and (Genesis 41:55-56):
When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt.
As often happens, control of wealth led to control of more wealth (Genesis 47:14-17):
And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, for the grain which they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt, all the Egyptians came to Joseph, and said, “Give us food; why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” And Joseph answered, “Give your cattle, and I will give you food in exchange for your cattle, if your money is gone.” So they brought their cattle to Joseph; and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the asses: and he supplied them with food in exchange for all their cattle that year.
Now Joseph had cornered, to borrow Clemens’ term, all of the money, all of the cattle, and all of the grain. What was left? Only the people, so Joseph “made slaves of them” (Genesis 47:18-21):
They said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s; there is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh” . . . So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them. The land became Pharaoh’s; and as for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.
After arranging the enslavement of the Pharaoh’s subjects, Joseph invited his family to join him. The Pharaoh was most obliging (Genesis 45:18; 47:6):
“Take your father and your households, and come to me, and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat the fat of the land … The land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land.”
As discussed in the balance of Clemens’ essay, so began a sequence of events that presaged developments in the real history of several Diaspora host nations.5 And as if foretelling two thousand years of reactive racism, the Passover story developed a new Pharaoh who realized that he was in danger of becoming the tool of his predecessor’s tool (Genesis 47:27; Exodus 1:7-10):
Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful … and grew exceedingly strong; Now there arose a new Pharaoh over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war befall us, they join our enemies and fight against us.”
Here the story becomes more familiar. The Pharaoh subjugated the Jews and oppressed them even more than his Egyptian subjects. And when the Jews’ new leader, Moses, tried to trick the Pharaoh into letting his people take a three day leave of absence with most of the nation’s wealth in tow (Exodus 3:18-22; 5:3), the Pharaoh said No! Then the god of the story, the god of Israel, sent horrible plagues to torture the Egyptians and the Pharaoh himself.
At several junctures the Pharaoh tried to make an accommodation with Moses, asking him to leave some wealth behind, but each time Moses refused (Exodus 8:25-28; 10:7-11, 24-26). And each time the god of the story “hardened” the Pharaoh’s otherwise amenable heart so that he, the god of Moses, would be able to show more of his power (Exodus 10:1-2):
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs and wonders of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made sport of the Egyptians and what signs and wonders I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord.”
Finally, we come to the coup de grace that had been devised by Moses and his god (Exodus 3:21-22 & 4:21-23) from the beginning (Exodus 12:29-33, 35, 36):
At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon . . . And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead. And he summoned Moses and Aaron by night, and said, “Rise up, go forth from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone.” … And the Egyptians were urgent with the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said, “We are all dead men.” … The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked of the Egyptians jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing; and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they despoiled the Egyptians.
According to the myth, just as his forefather Abraham left Babylon-cum-Iraq to find greener pastures in Canaan-cum-Palestine, Jacob-cum-Israel’s family left Canaan to escape a famine and join their estranged son and brother, Joseph. They arrived in Egypt as impoverished and bedraggled guests of a Pharaoh (Genesis 47:26-27). Several generations later they left Egypt with a standing army of 603,550 men, “every man able to go forth to war” (Numbers 1:45-46).6 Logistical support included “very many cattle, both flocks and herds” (Exodus 12:38), and having gained the trust and respect of their Egyptian neighbors, financing included several thousand kilograms of “borrowed” gold and silver (Exodus 38:24-25).7 The Israelites were able to leave Egypt with so much wealth and power because their god “passed over” his people’s houses when he killed all firstborn Egyptian children (Exodus 12:27). To this day, as instructed (Exodus 12:11-14), Judaism celebrates these fabled events as Passover, and Christianity tips its hat in respect and recognition.
It is easy to imagine the outrage that would be rightfully felt today by people who revere the god that Jesus prayed to,8 by Christians and Jews, if some other group of people celebrated a story that entailed the killing of all firstborn Jewish or Christian children as a “sport” of their god.