Passover and Jewish Origins
Most years at Passover I write a diary focused on the origins of Jews based on my expertise both in genetics and history. Passover celebrates, supposedly, the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It is an origin myth and like most origin myths (Thanksgiving included) it has some clear BS and some threads that probably connect to real history. The escape from Egypt is considered one of the defining moments in Judaism, perhaps THE defining moment. Into this event is in some ways placed the entirety of the ancient Jewish identity, supposedly divided into "12 tribes," as well as the defining of Jewish religious law. That is a lot to put into one holiday! But there is a more general theme, that of the struggle for freedom that many cultures can relate to.
The problem is that the bible account is internally inconsistent and is clearly a mixture of several traditions and myths. That does not mean that there aren't kernels of truth in it, but it is not clear how many independent events are covered by the Exodus story and what times those various events took place, or if any of the characters involved were real people. What is clear is that the story was written long, LONG after the events it claims to describe took place, which is common for ancient legends (like the Iliad and Odyssey for example). The bible cannot be taken literally because it is often internally contradictory. That would be odd if it is the revealed word of God, but it is very understandable if it is the collected lore of a small group of semi-nomadic people (Hapiru? Shasu Bedouins?) who eventually established a small state or collection of tiny states and were desperately trying to define their identity in relation to their often much stronger and very aggressive neighbors.
Most of the bible was never written down anywhere close to the events that are described. Much of the Torah (the first five books of the bible) did not form a coherent text until centuries after the events it claimed to describe. The Torah may have first been compiled during the reigns of King Hezekiah and/or Josiah when the single Kingdom of Judah was trying to lay claim to the entirety of Jewish tradition at the expense of the then conquered and exiled Israel (which was probably the origin of the biblical and modern Samaritans). This is why the kings of the Kingdom of Israel fare so poorly in the bible compared with the Kings of Judah even though all archaeological and written evidence shows that Israel was by FAR the more successful successor state to Solomon than Judah...which is also probably why it was conquered first. Which the prophets of Judah would have smugly seen as proof of Judah's superiority...until it too was conquered almost as an afterthought.
So the bible has about as much historical merit as, say, the Iliad or the story of Jason and the Argonauts or the Hindu Bagavad Gita. It cannot be ignored because historical people, places and events are there in the background, but it must be taken with Lot's wife's weight in salt.
The bible account of Exodus is now thought to conflate at least two (and maybe several) separate stories: clearly one about an escape from Egypt (or, as I will mention later, maybe from Egyptian control rather than from the state of Egypt per se), and one about a forced expulsion from Egyptian territory. Neither of these events is recorded in Egyptian records since they were probably minor events from the view of Egypt, but the structure and narrative of the biblical story clearly involves BOTH an escape and a forced expulsion. This suggests that two groups of proto-Jews came from an Egyptian background of some sort.
I have read about a dozen books on the subject, but I find that the two most convincing are Jonathan N. Tubb's book Canaanites (1998) and Israel Finkelstein's book The Bible Unearthed. Both use primarily archaeological evidence and only occasionally try to fit biblical stories to the archaeological facts. Most other books start from the bible and try to smoosh in archaeology to make sense of the biblical chronology. Needless to say, as a scientist, I prefer an approach that gets facts on the ground first and only afterwards tries to fit in the bible. To these two main sources I also add a casual observation from the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky.
In the bible, the Hebrews are a coherent group of about 12 tribes (really the number and the names vary over time) who often look to a single leader (something that probably never happened until the Maccabees, if even then) and who migrated from Babylon to Canaan to Egypt then back to Canaan. Archaeologically, the Hebrews were a group that evolved in situ from the native Canaanite population just like the Phoenicians (Lebanese) and probably Philistines (Palestinians) did. There is almost no archaeological evidence for a Babylonian or Egyptian origin, yet it is interesting that these two empires played a powerful role in the early history of the Jews, so influences and even people from both of these empires clearly helped shape Judaism even if the bulk of the Jewish population were basically native Canaanites.
Passover celebrates a man named Moses leading "his people" out of Egypt against the wishes of the very powerful king of Egypt followed by the reception of "THE LAW" and the entry into the "promised land." This "Moses" story is the foundation myth of Judaism. So just who was this "Moses" dude?
There is no evidence that any such person as "Moses" ever existed. But the name is very intriguing. It is absolutely NOT a Jewish, or even a Canaanite, name and it is not likely that people who were writing a Jewish foundation myth would have invented "Moses" out of the blue. In fact "Moses" is half a name at all and it is very clearly Egyptian. The nature of the name may give a hint at the origin of the Jewish religion.
There is no question that "Moses" is the same as the Egyptian "Mose" which means "born of" as in the names of the Pharaohs "Ahmose" (born of the moon) or "Tuthmose" (born of Thoth). This term "Mose" was almost always used in conjunction with the name of a god. So "Moses" probably had been named in honor of an Egyptian god.
The entire story of Moses, including his partially recorded name, suggests Moses was an Egyptian or an acculturated foreigner, fully integrated not just into Egyptian society, but possibly into the Egyptian royal family. He was buddies with a royal prince (of which there often were very many often with similar names!) and may well have been brought up educated within the royal sphere (as many Egyptian nobles AND foreign princes were). Moses may or may not have had foreign origins (a minor Canaanite prince perhaps?), but he was culturally Egyptian and had an Egyptian name. So when we look into his beliefs, we have to look to Egypt and the situation in Egypt to understand him. Judaism looks to an Egyptian polytheist for its origins!
What was his full name? The most common names based on "Mose" were Ahmose and Tuthmose, neither of which would fit with Jewish ideas of who their leaders should be since both imply Polytheism. Either one is a possible real name for Moses, though I favor another somewhat more far-fetched possibility. Maybe something like "Atmose," (born of Aten) a name I essentially make up based on what had recently happened in Egypt where the Egyptian royal family toyed with a version of monotheism. His name probably was NOT Atmose, but it MIGHT have been and it would really explain a great deal about Jewish origins. But more on that later.
Let's start with three solid facts, really about the ONLY solid facts there are regarding the Jews at this early stage where the Passover myth was supposed to have happened. These three things are the ONLY things we can be sure of:
1. Genetic studies show that almost all modern Jews are descended from a population that lived in the area of ancient Canaan, quite closely related to modern Palestinians. Jews and Palestinians (as well as Lebanese, most likely) are modern day Canaanites and are PROBABLY descended from the earliest inhabitants of the region. There certainly were groups who came from Babylon or Egypt (among other places) who mixed with the Canaanite natives to form the Hebrew culture. And there probably were Greeks who mixed with the Canaanite natives to form the Palestinian culture (and maybe some of the Israelite tribes like the tribe of Dan?). Y-chromosomal studies indicate that modern Jews, including Sephardim, Ashkinazim and Sabra, and to a much lesser degree even Ethiopian Jews and the South African Lemba, are a genetically related group that originated in the area of Israel and Palestine. Modern Jews and modern Palestinians show remarkable genetic relatedness, indicating both populations derive from the same ancient stock in the Levant (probably Canaanites). The genetic evidence puts Jewish origins precisely where the bible puts it at about the time the bible puts the formative years of Israel (the same time Phillistines/Palestinians are becoming an ethnicity as well). As a side note I should mention some recent evidence that shows that links between Jews and other populations can go two ways. A recent study shows that about 20% of the modern populations of Spain and Portugal also are genetic descendents of ancient Jews. This shows either that there was considerable intermarriage between the Sephardic Jews and the Iberians prior to the expulsion of the Jews or, more likely, that the Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spanish became a significant part of the population of Spain.
2. The very first historical mention of "Israel" was during the Egyptian 19th dynasty, in the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (the son of Ramesses II and hence soon after the Exodus supposedly took place). This inscription refers to the complete destruction of a group of people (not an organized nation or city) called "Israel." Coming so close to when the Passover story is supposed to have happened, the fact that Merneptah claims to have kicked Israeli ass seems significant. Could this relate to the Passover myth itself (though perhaps with a different outcome than is celebrated) or an aftermath of the events that sparked the myth? This earliest written mention of "Israel" gives us an almost unique fixed point in which to place ancient Jewish history. Whatever the origins of the Jews, a unique people--the Egyptian word defines them as a disorganized people and NOT a nation--who were the genetic ancestors of modern Jews existed in Canaan by the reign of Merneptah (a single generation after the Passover myth is supposed to have occurred) and got their collective ass kicked by Merneptah's armies. Again, they were a group of people or ethnicity, not a nation, at this time, based on the grammar used in the inscription. I should also note that the first mentions of Philistines (and/or related groups, collectively called "Sea Peoples") occurs at about the same time.
3. The archaeological evidence for this period (as outlined in Israel Finkelstein's book The Bible Unearthed) is also interesting. In the region that became the earliest core of the Israelites, what is now the highlands of Israel and the West Bank, archaeology shows us there was a very typical, if somewhat impoverished, Canaanite population. This population has typical Canaanite pottery, typical Canaanite religion, with many deities including El (same as Elohim), Yahweh (a separate deity from EL at the time) and Astarte (a spouse to the Jewish god early on)...names seen in the bible being worshiped by the early Jews over the objections of prophets who probably were later intercalations of beliefs from centuries later. The only real differences between the highland Canaanites and the wider world of Canaan were relative poverty and a more limited diet. This Canaanite archaeology is not interrupted by any invasions. There is no obvious large scale new influence from either Babylon or Egypt. But there is one, and only one, change in the archaeology of this region during this period: pig bones disappear from their garbage dumps. At the point when Israel is supposed to first be forming according to the bible and the Passover myth, and just before Merneptah kicked some proto-Jewish ass in the written record, the future Jews still worshiped many gods and were in every way Canaanites, but they gave up eating pork. For a long time I found this fascinating, but not a critical aspect of the search for the origin of Jewish beliefs. It is evidence that confirms the genetic evidence that modern Jews are descended from Canaanites, but I never realized that it could also help determine the origin of Jewish beliefs. But later I will show why this really is a key bit of evidence, along with the name "Moses" pointing to an Egyptian origin of Jewish beliefs even if most proto-Jews were native Canaanites. Jewish Monotheism and pork aversion may really come from Egypt as the Passover myth suggests while the bulk of Jewish genes come from lowly Canaanites.
So we have an ethnic group called "Israel" that gave up eating pork in the exact place and time that the Israelites were forming an ethnic identity according to the bible. And this population seems to be the true genetic ancestors of most modern Jews. And they were definitely Canaanites. THose are the facts.
The bible story from Joseph to the Exodus, whatever truth there is in it, took place during one of the most interesting periods of Egyptian history, spanning the so-called 15th through 19th dynasties of Pharaohs. Written evidence from Egypt has to be taken into account when interpreting the bible because THAT is the primary context in which ALL major Jewish events took place in the Torah.
The 15th dynasty of Egypt was considered a huge disaster and embarrassment by the proud Egyptians, because it was a dynasty of foreigners. In fact, this dynasty, the so-called Hyksos, were actually primarily Canaanites (probably with some non-Canaanite, maybe even Indo-European, elements). So Canaanite presence in Northern Egypt predates the Exodus by a long time and somewhat corresponds with the period that Joseph was supposed to be entering Egypt. This Canaanite dynasty was ousted by the native Egyptian 17th dynasty, which then became the famous 18th dynasty once it reconquered all Egypt. Actually the early 18th dynasty was probably seen at the time as an exact continuation of the 17th, while the later 18th was an offshoot of the 17th when the early line died out.
Also predating the Exodus, during the late 18th dynasty, was a brief and controversial period of official monotheism in Egypt, the period many people know because it was founded by the Pharaoh Akhnaten and ended during the reign of Tutankhamen, the Pharaoh perhaps best known by the world because his rather hastily and shoddily assembled tomb goods were discovered almost intact and displayed around the world. The Exodus, whatever it was, is thought to have taken place during the early 19th dynasty, during the long and glorious reign of Ramesses II JUST before the first EVER written reference to "Israel" during the 19th dynasty reign of Ramesses II's son, Merneptah. This is the general historical outline. Now lets look at details.
Some time before the Exodus, during Egypt's so-called Middle Kingdom in the Middle Bronze Age, Egypt saw a large influx of Canaanites into it's Northern area (the Delta). Entire villages are defined as ethnically Canaanite, rather than Egyptian, in character. At some point either this foreign element destabilized Egypt, or took advantage of existing instability due to other causes, and the Egyptian Delta was taken over by a group of people known as the Hyksos. The meaning of Hyksos is debated, but may mean "foreign kings." Archaeologically, the Hyksos are VERY clearly Canaanites with just a hint of other non-Semitic influences. But in essence, the Hyskos rule over Egypt was a Canaanite dynasty and Canaan and Egypt became far more closely linked than ever before. Some think that this might be the time that Joseph entered Egypt, if there ever was such a single event and a single person named "Joseph" who defined Jewish identity. It does fit the timing suggested by the bible for when Joseph lived and it was a time when Canaanite advisers would certainly have risen to great power. At some point, though, the southern, native Egyptians expelled the Hyksos and re-established not only native control over Egypt, but Egyptian control over Canaan.
One possible theory, though not well accepted, is that the expulsion story represented in the Passover myth contained just possibly be an echo of the expulsion of the Canaanite Hyksos rulers out of Egypt. Maybe. This would have made a HUGE impression on the Canaanites. But I tend to see this as unlikely just because the timing seems off. However, Canaanite domination of the Superpower Egypt would certainly have made a lasting impression on all Canaanites, including the people who became the Hebrews, and could easily have influenced later myths. If Haiti took over the United States for brief awhile and then was expelled, you can be sure that Haitians would remember that period of dominance for centuries to come! It would become legendary. So a Hyksos/Hebrew link to Passover as a muddled memory of bands of Canaanites becoming rulers of Egypt then kicked out, though tenuous, may have some validity and just might form the basis for the expulsion story within Exodus.
At all times of Egyptian history the population was diverse and there was room for advancement even for prisoners of war. Three different groups were always part of the Egyptian melting pot (with other groups appearing more sporadically): Native Egyptians (probably related to the Berbers), Nubians/Kushites from what is now the Sudan, and "Asiatics," who were essentially Canaanites of various sorts. The life of a man named Urhiya and his son Yupa illustrate how "Asiatics" (in their case maybe Hurrians, not Canaanites, though both groups mixed during the Hyksos period) could attain the highest ranks of Egyptian society (described in Lives of the Ancient Egyptians by Toby Wilkinson). Urhiya was a first generation immigrant to Egypt with a foreign name, yet he rose to the rank of Army General and High Steward to Ramesses II, the Pharaoh most often thought to be the one reigning during the Exodus. Urhiya's son, Yupa, rose to even greater rank, in the full confidence of the Pharaoh.
The story of Joseph can be considered in the context of two known aspects of Egyptian history: the ability of foreigners to rise to the top ranks of Egyptian society, and the period of Canaanite rule in the Egyptian delta, the 15th "Hyksos" dynasty. At about the right time according to the bible for Joseph to have lived you had the Canaanite rulers of Egypt. And you have the fact that even when native Egyptians ruled you had ample chances for Canaanites to reach the highest ranks of Egyptian society, you have very real precedents for people like Joseph. I think it is very likely that a group of Canaanites linked to a major advisor to pharaohs (Hyksos or native or both) may have been part of Jewish origins.
There is then a gap in the biblical story that spans exactly the period between the Hyksos and the 19th dynasty. From Joseph to Moses, there is nothing much mentioned. And this is supposed to cover precisely (almost too precisely!) the period that separates the Hyksos from Ramesses II. We have no idea from any source what might have happened in this period. To me this suggests that Joseph had nothing to do with the Hyksos, but rather was a 19th dynasty Canaanite who, like Urhiya, made it big in Egypt among a group of Canaanites who later left under an Egyptian or Egyptianized Canaanite named SomethingMose (Moses). If so, Joseph probably SHOULD be among Egyptian records and so could be part of Urhiya's family...maybe. If Joseph was a real person and really was powerful in Egypt, his tomb should be out there. On the other hand, there currently is no existing evidence for a high ranking Canaanite named Joseph and that suggests he may well have been rememberd from Hyksos times, a period that later Egyptians preferred to forget and expunge from the records. OR...and here is a key thing, maybe he was a Canaanite who made it big during the 18th dynasty reign of Akhnaten who was caught up in Egyptian monotheism and spread it to his Canaanite relatives and followers. Such a person would DEFINITELY be wiped from the Egyptian records. There is no evidence for this, but it would explain the lack of evidence for someone who SHOULD be attested in the archaeological and historical records (which were well kept) and WOULD have stood out. So Joseph might have been a high ranking Canaanite during the Hyksos dynasty (the lack of reference to him and the bibilical time scale support this...weak evidence), or he was an 18th dynasty Canaanite close to the Akhnaten monotheism (no evidence, other than the lack of reference to a Joseph who should be referred to, and the possible influence of Akhnaten's monotheism on Judaism) or he was a 19th dynasty Canaanite, just possibly in the family of Urhiya, who made it big just before someone named SomethingMose (Moses) led an Exodus.
There seems no direct connection between Joseph and Moses. So the Joseph line may be one thread of Canaanite/Egyptian history that contributed to the origin of the Jews, and the Moses line might be a separate thread. And both might be peripheral to the main thread of Jewish history which, according to archaeology and genetics, is almost exclusively Canaanite.
After the expulsion of the Hyksos, Egypt reached the pinnacle of its power under the 18th and 19th dynasties, and even into the more troubled 20th dynasty. These three dynasties are the most important for Jewish identity because it is in this period that entities that were Hebrew and/or Israeli began to take form. Again, the very first reference to both Israel and to groups related to the Philistines (ancient Palestinians?) come in a single 19th dynasty Egyptian text that mentions the destruction of both. In this text, both Israel and the "Sea People" (among whom the Philistines were later included; the name "Sea People" could mean either people from across the sea or people from the coast or people from the islands...all of which points to Greek and Anatolian origins) are groups of people, not nations, and are clearly bit players, simply ruffians to be beaten up by the Egyptian military power or, in the case of some "Sea People" (specifically the Sherden) they were also mercenaries in the Egyptian Army. Specific reference to the Philistine branch of the "Sea People" came about 75 years later. These very first references to Philistines and Israelis clearly come after any Exodus.
Turning back to the 18th dynasty, this is the Egypt most people know something about because it included Akhenaten and Tutankhamen. Akhenaten is interesting because he is the first person in recorded history to be monotheistic. He tried to reform all Egyptian religion to focus on a single god, the visible sun disk, the Aten. If the theory that Jews had already entered Egypt by this point is true, and if they had not yet left, then they would have experienced the tumultuous time of Akhenaten's religious reforms. Many people think that Akhenaten may have been the inspiration for Jewish monotheism. I have problems with this. Akhenaten's religion was not a widespread religion. It was rather HIS religion with HIMSELF as the ONLY link between the one god and humans. It was not very much like later Jewish monotheism, though there are definitely some common themes. Furthermore, there is no evidence at all for Jewish monotheism at this time or for centuries afterwards. And yet, some see close parallels between some of Akhenaten's own writings and later biblical passages (particularly certain psalms). Could some small group of Canaanites have taken to Akhenaten's religion and preserved a memory of his writings that later got incorporated into the bible? Maybe, but as with the Hyksos/Hebrew connection, this is very tenuous. However, one new piece of information I recently came across strongly suggests that some of the earliest uniquely Jewish beliefs may well have come from Egypt, not evolving in situ in Canaan.
Remember that I said above that the very first archaeological difference in what is now the highlands of the West Bank and Israel that shows a new group was evolving in what became the core of ancient Israel and Judah was the disappearance of pig bones from their garbage dumps, indicating that a ban on pork was the first defining feature of what became Judaism. This change is unique among the Canaanites and unique in the whole region. To many it seems so distinctive as to be difficult to explain. Some, including myself, have envisioned a local strongman who got sick after eating pork or a whole group that got sick after eating pork, leading to a prohibition on pork. I should note that the claim that this aversion to pork grew out of an avoidance of parasites doesn't hold up because the effects of such parasites would happen well after consuming the meat, so wouldn't be obviously linked to the meat. Furthermore, cows, sheep and goats are also subject to parasites. Others have hypothesized that the fact that all Canaanites ate pork might mean that the proto-Jews were specifically distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by abandoning pork. To me this would only make sense if a Canaanite religious ceremony of considerable importance involved pork, and emerging monotheists rejecting that ceremony threw the pork baby out with the polytheist bathwater.
But all of this speculation ignores one basic fact. Rejection of pork, though unique among the Canaanites, was NOT unique at that time, but was actually a characteristic of one of the region's major Empires...Egypt. This is something I picked up re-reading the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky. In this book there is an offhand reference to the fact that ham would have probably been invented by a culture as into the salt-curing as the ancient Egyptians had they not been averse to eating pork. The religious leadership of ancient Egypt considered pigs carriers of leprosy and considered pig farmers social outcasts. This is a critical piece of evidence in considering the origin of Jewish beliefs! The very first archaeologically attested characteristics of the proto-Jews was the adoption of an Egyptian aversion to pork shortly after the Exodus was supposed to have happened.
Getting back to the Egyptian historical contex, Akhenaten, busy with religious turmoil, neglected his empire in Canaan. This period is extremely well documented because we have extensive archives of diplomatic correspondence from this time. Canaan was a mess, with small cities fighting it out and with groups of semi-tribal/semi-bandit groups roaming the countryside and occasionally even taking over cities. These semi-tribal group were of mixed origins, but the term used for them, Hapiru, is thought by some to be the earliest form of the word "Hebrew." The Hapiru/Hebrew link was once thought to be exact. More recently, it has been largely rejected. However, it is hard for me to ignore since it appears at just the right time for early Jewish origins, and it seems to be coming back into vogue (as evidenced by the book Ramses II by Christiane Desroches Noblecourt published in 2007). The word is similar (particularly taking into account the lack of written vowels in Semetic languages), it refers to a group that seems very much like the bands of roving Hebrews under Joshua, and they occur before and at the time of the Egyptian reference to a people (not a nation) called "Israel". The current theory can be summed up as: Not all Hapiru were Hebrews, but all Hebrews were Hapiru. The group of Canaanites (perhaps fresh from Egypt?) that became Hebrews and Israel, may have just been one band of bandit Hapiru, and that rather derogatory name may have stuck...or even been proudly adopted the way many Australians are proud of their convict ancestry. It should be noted, though, that the name "Hebrew" was applied much later than the name "Israel." "Hapiru" predates both. It would be odd if the earlier Hapiru came back into vogue after a period of being called "Israel," but not unheard of.
After Akhenaten, a series of warrior Pharaohs ruled Egypt, and retook Canaan. Various groups of Hapiru were subdued, others served as mercenaries under Egyptian rule, and some served as laborers. It is quite possible that the group that became Hebrews were a group of Hapiru that served as mercenaries and/or laborers under the Pharaohs Seti I, Ramesses II and Merneptah. This was a period of Egyptian domination, but there were Canaanite rebellions as well. In fact, this was also a period of uncertainty within Canaan as the Egyptians and their main rivals, the Hittites from what is now Turkey, fought it out for domination of the region. Some, including Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, believe that the Exodus occurred in the context of Ramesses II's military expiditions into Canaan and the Hittite control of various regions in Canaan in opposition to Egypt. Hittite control of parts of Canaan would give an opportunity for dissident groups like the Hapiru to escape Egyptian domination.
Did one group of Hapiru, possibly including some people influenced by Akhenaten's religious reforms (now being suppressed by the reestablished Egyptian priestly authorities) and serving as mercenaries and laborers in Egypt, suddenly make a bid for freedom and escape into the wilderness east of Canaan, perhaps aided by the newly established Hittite control of part of the region? This is a perfectly plausible scenario that fits reasonably both the archaeology and the bible, but it is just a story and is supported by little more than circumstantial evidence. But that text I mention that is the first reference to Israel and to Philistines was written during the reign of Merneptah. Based on place names and general events, many place the biblical Exodus story as referring to the reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II, or of Ramesses II and Merneptah.
One thing that strikes me is that around this time Egypt controlled most of Canaan, in fierce competition with the Hittites, another empire I love to read about and I have visited the ruins of their capital city. In fact this is the period where the famous battle of Kadesh took place, claimed by Ramesses II as a great victory, but in reality an embarrassing stalemate for both empires. This battle eventually led to the world's first documented peace treaty, but there was a considerable gap between the battle and the treaty during which things were very much in flux in Canaan.
One of my pet theories is that the Exodus is not at all about Jews leaving Egypt proper. Maybe it is about Jews throwing off Egyptian imperial control at one of the periods of declining Egyptian rule. That would place the Exodus story either right after Kadesh, or at a later date than I suggest above and would turn the story on its head somewhat. But Canaanites did gain independence from Egypt at a slightly later date that is traditionally thought for the Exodus, and certainly the Jews would have been one of the communities that would have gained and celebrated freedom from Egyptian control. It all could have happened right in Canaan rather than in Egypt. But that is just one of my pet theories. I am not aware of any archaeologists or biblical scholars who see it that way. But it would simplify the story a great deal.
So we see Canaanites entering Egypt and even ruling before the 18th dynasty expelled them. We have a period of Canaanites being split between urban, pro-Egypt but squabbling and sometimes rebellious city-states (the hated Canaanites of the bible would fit this description), and non-urban troublemakers called Hapiru, a name similar to Hebrew. During the 19th dynasty we even have an outright reference to Israel. Then, during the 20th dynasty, there was a sharp decline of Egyptian control, and there were cataclysmic events that included either invasions and/or native uprisings and/or uprisings by former mercenaries that brought down several Empires (e.g. the Hittite and Mycenaean nations) and weakened others (Egypt). The Iliad may date to these events since the same wave of unrest and instability engulfed the Greek world and was a time when Troy itself (another city I have visited) was destroyed. In this period of massive unrest (around 1200-1140 BC range) the Philistine city states developed. It is at this time that the bible places the rise of a unified Kingdom of Israel that then split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The biblical story of the rise of Israel is not well supported at this point. It is only during the period of the divided kingdom that we get historical references to kings like Omri, Ahab, Jehoram and others. So there is about a 200-year gap in the written references from the first mention of "Israel" during Merneptah's reign, to Moabite references to king Omri (of Israel, then only one of two Jewish kingdoms). And archaeology does not support any great united Kingdom of David and Solomon but rather suggests the Hebrews were little more than bandit groups akin to Hapiru. However, there is little question that the Hebrews/Israelis did indeed exist at this time, eschewing pork, just like Egyptians, but not otherwise different from other Canaanites, who emerged in the Hill Country (a backwater) of Canaan and eventually, in the times of Omri and Ahab, became a major local force. Judah, though it is more important in the bible, was the minor partner with only Israel (the denegrated partner in the bible) ever fielding a large army and conquering neighboring lands. In fact the second historical reference to Israel is a Moabite reference to king Omri of Israel kicking Moabite ass! After that, though, most references are Assyrian and Egyptian references of tribute from Israel and Judah, or conquest of various cities in Israel and Judah. Of course eventually Assyria destroyed Israel and Babylon destroyed Judah, though there always was a population that remained in Canaan, eventually forming the Jewish people that exist today.
So there it is. The echoes of the Passover myth that exist in historical and archaeological evidence are few. But they are there. To me the name "Moses" is so un-Jewish that it must reflect a real Egyptian name that got modified later and so reflects a real person. The Pharaohs are real and the cities the Jews were supposed to have labored on were real and did involve Hapiru labor. And soon after, Merneptah defeated a tiny group of people called "Israel." Somewhere in that thin evidence is a real Passover story. But we may never know what it is. Yet that story still resonates even beyond the Jewish community to become something of a human story of freedom.
So to all, a Gut Pesach.