The episode opens with the question of whether Moses really lived and when, along with the claim that Moses was “the most important person who ever lived.” The episode is artier than most, with cinematic reenactments, but Andrew Gough is still good for some pointless gasbagging. He talks about Moses’s importance for Islam and Christianity and completely forgets about Judaism. A summary of the Book of Exodus follows. I trust everyone reading this knows how to read and can read Exodus for themselves. I don’t feel the need to tell you what it says. The episode already does that. The talking heads, though, disagree with each other. We hear that Moses was a flawed individual beholden to God and also a superhero who went his own way no matter what others think.
Art historian Sheila K. Hoffman tells us that it is strange that there are no historical records of Moses. It isn’t really strange for fictional characters not to have records of their existence, but that’s OK. Even Gough seems to understand that Moses is probably not a historical figure exactly congruent with the literary character in Exodus.
The talking heads are very excited about the fact that Moses’s name seems to be derived from an Egyptian word. That’s not real evidence. The Jewish figure Mizraim, one of Noah’s descendants, also has an Egyptian name (it means “Egypt” in Egyptian), but that’s because the Jews borrowed it in creating a fictional character to be the first Egyptian after the Flood.
The show next brings in Ahmed Osman, whom you have seen on Ancient Aliens. He’s a crackpot who believes that Moses was actually Akhenaten and Jesus was King Tut. Following suggestions made by Sigmund Freud a century ago, they show compares Akhenaten’s worship of the Aten at the expense of all other gods to Jewish monotheism. Surprisingly, everyone on the show—including Lynn Picknett!—recognizes that Judaism didn’t develop monotheism until much later, so Akhenaten can’t be the originator of Judaism. Graham Phillips, another crackpot we’ve encountered more than once before, claims that Akhenaten’s brother Thutmose had the same life story as Moses, a claim that’s been circulating in fringe literature for a while. Not enough evidence for Thutmose’s life survives to draw any real parallels beyond Moses’s supposed childhood as a prince of Egypt.
Next up, the show asks if the Burning Bush was really a psychedelic vision while Moses was high on drugs. Rick Doblin, a professional advocate of psychedelics, says that it’s possible but admits that there is no evidence. He alleges that Moses interpreted the “energy” of the plant as fire while hopped up on the DMT released from burning acacia wood, which does a disservice to the Jewish notion of God. Strangely, to save Moses as a historical figure, the show is happy to get rid of God altogether. I’m not sure what benefit it gives religion to keep the literalism while removing the spirituality. It’s the same as the ancient astronaut theory. Historian Bob Bianchi reminds everyone that you can’t take the stories of the Bible as literally true and then throw out most of it to bring in your own imaginary drug binges. You can either take a story for what it is or reject it, but you can’t rewrite it and claim to have discovered a truth that isn’t there.
Obviously, the same problem occurs with the show’s efforts to rationalize the parting of the Red Sea. We hear some silly stories about how various natural phenomena could cause the water to part on either the Red Sea or the Reed Sea, including a supposed super-tide that drew all the water out. Allegedly, Moses would have observed the tides and timed his crossing for the tide so it would come back in when the Egyptians arrived. It’s silly and stupid, explaining a story that never happened and doesn’t need to be explained. We might as well try to explain how the Greeks landed on the Moon because Lucian wrote about it in his True History.
Afterward, the show goes on to discuss modern grimoires that passed under Moses’s name. One of the talking heads argues that we can’t prove Moses didn’t write them, even though there is no record of them before around 1800. There is no point in discussing such an obviously modern text.
Anyhow, the show starts to run out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. Consequently, they start to move away from Moses himself. A segment hunts for the “real” Mt. Sinai, traditionally associated with Jebel Musa but otherwise identified with half a dozen or more other mountains. The show prefers Serabit el-Khadim, a place where an Egyptian temple of Hathor stood near a mine. The argument, put forward by Linda Eckenstein in 1921, is that the cow-goddess Hathor was the golden calf, and Serabit el-Khadim was therefore where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Again, since the story almost certainly didn’t happen as given in the Bible, this is an explanation in search of a problem. However, I am disturbed that the show excised Eckenstein from her own work, replacing her with Flinders Petrie, a man, and presenting the claim as though it were Andew Gough’s, with him crowing about how mainstream academics refuse to accept the evidence. It’s been 99 years, and there is no actual proof of the claim beyond Eckenstein’s imaginative interpretation.
Phillips claims to be “flabbergasted” by his own “discovery” that Mt. Sinai was really Petra in Jordan. Gough and Tony McMahon enthuse about the idea, and McMahon says that the glorious Petra is more appropriate than the “dusty hole” of the Sinai Peninsula. If God were so picky about aesthetics, he probably wouldn’t have chosen an entire region of nothing but beige to tell the story of humanity. I don’t put much weight on that.
Phillips returns to tell us that he can find Moses’s magic staff. Apparently in the 1800s an Egyptian staff with hieroglyphics was found at Petra, and Phillips believes it was Moses’s. It is not in the Birmingham Museum in England. Phillips put forward this idea in 2002, and the staff of the Birmingham Museum disputed his claim at the time, noting that the staff was acquired in 1952, that its provenance was uncertain, and that Thutmose was one of the most common Egyptian names. Obviously, it would only be “Moses’s” staff if you agree that Akhenaten’s brother was secretly Moses.
As the show comes to an end, the show tries to argue that the Ten Commandments are “plagiarized” from the so-called “negative confessions” of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, though the narrator takes great liberties with the talking heads, who only say that they “resonate.” Gough about says it all when he quietly admits that Moses likely never existed and then loudly shouts that if he did, there was no better origin for him than Akhenaten. Nothing like admitting that you know the truth but prefer to speculate wildly anyway if it gets you on TV.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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