Galit Dayan, who teaches at IDC Herzliya in Israel, has a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a frequent writer and lecturer on anthropological proof that Israelite slaves lived and worked in ancient Egypt — a relevant topic with the approach of Passover. The Jewish Week interviewed her by email. This is an edited transcript.
Q: The biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt dates back some 3,300 years. What new archeological findings are still adding to our understanding?
A: Pete Windahl from [Minnesota-based] Mahoney Media and historian David Rohl have been working for more than 10 years to find archeological evidence for the story of Exodus. They took all the evidence and managed to arrange it in chronological order, which for the first time matches the biblical and Assyriology chronology. Their documentary, “Patterns of Evidence,” reveals new findings from Egypt, especially the Delta Area and the ancient city of Avaris (Tel El Dabba), a city that is being excavated by the scholar Manfred Bietak and has been identified as the [ancient Hebrew city] of Goshen.
Is there any proof that the events described in the Torah did or did not take place as described?
When you study the Egyptian texts and culture you can easily find correlation between the stories of the Bible and the ones that are written in Egyptian. As for the story of Exodus, you can locate the geographical places that are mentioned, Pitom and Ramesses, the Egyptian names of the king and Moses and the Yam Suf [Red Sea] area written in Egyptian. The 10 plagues are written in Egyptian in the same order as in our story — it’s all there. Unfortunately, for many years, scholars interested in looking for proof adapted a view … that in order to prove that the story is real, we need to find the same story written in Egyptian … in one text — an assumption that was and still is wrong.
Should archeology affect the theological lessons of the Exodus story?
Archeological evidence can support historical events but can’t deny them. In other words, if there is archeological evidence that matches an historical event, it can prove its occurrence, but lacking it can’t prove that it didn’t happen. The written material is the evidence that should lead our ability to decide which events are considered as historical.
Unfortunately, we live in times when the Jewish people are questioning their identity, their roots their role and status among the nations, and also their past.
You can’t explain your existence and your legitimization to live in Israel without accepting the fact that the Exodus story was an historical event. Without it you don’t have any strong reasoning as to why you have the right to live here.
Jewish leaders such as Rabbi David Wolpe (a Jewish Week columnist) question the historical veracity of the Passover story. Are a growing number of Jews skeptical of the story?
I have a lot of respect for Rabbi Wolpe, but I disagree with his conclusions. Wolpe, too, accepted the archaeological assumption that you should have archaeological findings to prove the story, which I explained earlier is wrong. I believe that when he sees the new documentary movie he will reconsider his statement.
You’ve said that Egyptian authorities have tried to prevent you from working there. Why?
The Egyptian authorities don’t let anyone from Israel or who was born there to participate in the excavations. Their biggest fear is that the Jewish people will be able to prove their roots, and though doing so will be considered the most ancient people on earth.
How does your knowledge of ancient Egypt affect your enjoyment of participation in your family’s seder?
At the seder, I always take the role of an ancient Egyptian who is invited to a seder and explain to the host his side of the story.
My favorite question is: What lesson do you think we can draw from this event? Usually we tend to focus on the victim aspect and the fact that everybody hates us, but I believe there is so much more. … It’s very important to understand that for many years Egypt was our home and that we were treated as Egyptians, and that some of us even reached royal positions.