About 3,350 years ago, an epidemic swept through pharaonic Egypt. From southern Syria, the outbreak spread rapidly southward into the land of Canaan, ravaging Megiddo and other towns in the land. At the same time, it pushed eastward and northward from Syria. It was probably tularemia (rabbit fever), a contagious disease that can cause skin ulcers, deformities, high fever and, ultimately, in some cases, deadly pneumonia.
For a few years, the Kingdom of Egypt, the most powerful empire in the region in the 14th century B.C.E., protected itself against the epidemic by closing its borders.Testimony to this is found in a missive sent by the governor of an Egyptian city: “The people of Sumur cannot come into my city; there is a plague in Sumur.”
Trade between Egypt and the kingdoms to the north was halted for more than two decades. Because the epidemic arrived from the north, the Egyptians called it the “Canaanite disease,” or the “Asian disease.” It decimated the Hittite Empire and claimed the lives of two of its kings, in succession. But finally it penetrated Egypt as well and wrought havoc in the kingdom.
The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann believes that the epidemic – the most devastating one, he says, to hit the ancient world – constituted an unprecedented trauma for the Egyptians. In their collective memory, the shock it caused fused with political and religious developments of the period and spawned legends that have persisted for millennia. At the center of one of those legends was a story that’s familiar to us: the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
The connection between Jews and plagues has continuously preoccupied European culture, through the Middle Ages and into modernity. Even now, as Israel’s Foreign Ministry warned recently, there is concern about a possible wave of anti-Semitism arising in the United States, in which Jews will be accused of being responsible for the outbreak of the coronavirus. It emerges, however, that the roots of that association likely date to the dawn of history.
Assmann, in his 1998 book “Moses the Egyptian,” theorizes that ancient Egypt had its own version of the Exodus story. It is difficult to reconstruct, but has left an imprint on certain Egyptian traditions. Moreover, it may also be instructive regarding the emergence of the biblical narrative.
The earliest known account of the Egyptian Exodus from a nonbiblical source was recorded by the historian Hecataeus of Abdera, who lived in Egypt in the fourth century B.C.E. His version of the story contains elements that recall the biblical account, which dates to several hundred years before that, but also some that are not familiar to us. One of them is the fact – in his version – that the whole narrative begins with a plague.
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According to Hecataeus, in ancient times, a lethal plague struck Egypt, and the ordinary folk blamed it on foreigners living in their midst, who had ostensibly angered the local gods. Accordingly, they decided that the foreigners must be expelled from Egypt. One group of foreigners ended up in Greece, while a larger number arrived in a land then known as Judah. That group was led by a person named Moses, who, after he and his people seized control of the land, founded a number of cities – among them Jerusalem.
Hectaeus is not alone in associating the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt with a plague. Other evidence, more hostile to the Hebrews, appears in the writings of the Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived in the third century B.C.E. It is his account of the Exodus that is cited by Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Manetho tells of Pharaoh Amenhotep, who, under the influence of a peculiar prophet, decided to purify Egypt of lepers and individuals with deformities.
Amenhotep sent the lepers to the stone quarries in eastern Egypt, where he brutally enslaved them. The lepers decided to rise up against the pharaoh and chose as their leader a leprous Egyptian priest named Osarsiph from the city of Heliopolis. Osarsiph gave them laws that required them to desist from idol worship and ordered them to burn down the Egyptian temples and slaughter their sacred animals. Finally, Manetho notes that Osarsiph changed his name when he became the lepers’ leader – choosing for himself the moniker of Moses.
Few modern historians accept Manetho’s account at face value. However, the recurrence of the plague motif is noteworthy, and it appears that he did not totally invent it. For one, Assmann points out that the biblical account of the 10 Plagues inflicted on Egypt include a medical affliction, and also an apparent physical separation of the Israelites and the Egyptians at the time of the plague, which is the source of the name “Pesah” (“Passover”). In both narratives there is a component of separation of the pure from the sick. According to Assmann, the Hebrews’ story might be a different version of these events as remembered in the tradition of Canaan – namely a mirror image of the Egyptian tale.
Can we infer from this that a connection exists between the historical epidemic and a certain event in antiquity that morphed into the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Hecataeus and Manetho, it should be noted, lived about 1,000 years after the actual tularemia epidemic and in a completely different political reality. Nevertheless, Assmann observes, it can be surmised that they were drawing upon an ancient Egyptian tradition originating in an epidemic and related events. For the fact is that a religious revolution did take place around the same time as the epidemic raged.
Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled in the 14th century B.C.E., banned idol worship and introduced something akin to monotheistic worship. Akhenaten is credited with fomenting the first monotheistic revolution in history, but what is less well known is that this occurred against the background of an epidemic. Akhenaten is known to have moved the capital of Egypt, from Thebes to Amarna, in the western desert, but Egyptologist Hans Goedicke suggests that the reason for this was not religious ideology, but simply an attempt to create a quarantine zone that would offer protection from infection.
From the dawn of history to the present day, plagues have been perceived as divine punishment for human sins. Some Egyptologists think that the phenomenon was interpreted in ancient Egypt as punishment imposed by the gods because Akhenaten closed the temples and prohibited the worship of those gods. In Assmann’s view, the Israelites were associated after the fact in the Egyptian collective memory with the banning of the traditional religion. The repressed memory of the disorder that occurred in Akhenaten’s time was linked to the Hebrews.
Unlike Assmann, other historians are skeptical about the possibility that the events of Akhenaten’s revolution were preserved in the collective memory for such a lengthy period and then reemerged. Historian David Nirenberg maintains, in his book “Anti-Judaism,” that Manetho the priest mixed together different motifs from Egyptian history and fused them into a single narrative about the origins of the Israelites. In any event, this was the origin of a potentially dangerous connection: between Jews, monotheism and the spread of diseases.
The concept of the Jews carrying plagues gained currency across the ancient world. In the Roman world, for example, they were depicted as enemies of the gods, haters of humanity and carriers of diseases. So effective did these allegations turn out to be, according to Nirenberg, that they continue to underlie anti-Jewish ideologies until today.