Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Plausibility and the Joseph story

Perhaps the most burdensome and loathed of all forms of taxation was the corvee, a tax paid through labor, on demand, by every able-bodied male in the land... From the earliest history of the Egyptian state, it was the corvee that provided the labor force for massive government projects, from quarrying of stone to the building of the pyramids and temples...   The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

It was standard to assign not only peasant farmers but peasant soldiers and mercenaries to construction of public works during the seasons when few were needed for their respective duties, Wilkinson writes. Conditions for the peasant workers were astonishingly harsh, similar in many ways to the North Korean prison labor camps.

It seems conceivable (though Wilkinson steers clear of this matter) that the people living in Goshen were mercenaries who had received special, favorable treatment from the Hyksos, a semitic people who seized power in Egypt. It is not implausible that the Hyksos pharaoh's grand vizier -- chief administrator -- came from among the allied mercenaries. One can imagine that the totalitarian state was imposed by the Hyksos administrator as a means of keeping Egyptians under control and submissive. Even so, they took over a corvee system that was already well-established.

Note that the Jewish scriptures say that, at the time of Moses's birth, the pharaoh was unsympathetic to Joseph (the grand vizier) and forced the people of Goshen into the corvee system, something to which they were evidently unaccustomed. The Egyptians had rebelled and forced out the Hyksos, leaving, it is conjectured, the "Israelites" without allies and protectors.

At the very least, we see that the Bible was accurate when calling Egypt a "land of hard bondage."

Wilkinson also relates that the position of vizier, or chief executive, arose when a particularly capable aide de camp of an early pharaoh "invented" the pyramid, having a number of such statements of royal power built around Egypt (though these pyramids were dwarfed by later efforts). After this, pharaohs sought such men from among a professionalized civil service, rather than from among members of the royal family.

By the time of the Hyksos pharaohs, this custom was well established.

If we estimate that Moses led his band from Egypt during the reign of one of the Ramses', the glory days of pyramid building would have already been long past. However, the custom of impressing the lower class (including soldiers and mercenaries) into brutal corvee labor, lasting months at a time, for public works was still standard.

So, again, we see that the Bible is at least accurate insofar as positing the post of chief executive under pharaoh. 

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