September 5, 2017

Their History Matters to Them

Sculpture: "The Last Voyage"

I recently came across an online discussion about whether or not the Israelites were ever really slaves in Egypt. There's a lot of scholarship on this subject, and it's fascinating to read about the archeological evidence (or lack thereof) for the Hebrew Bible. But I find it even more interesting to think about how the history of this small ethnic group is now known the world over.

I don't find it at all surprising that the Egyptians didn't corroborate a lot of the stories from the Hebrew Bible in their own writings. After all, why would they? They were large and powerful monarchies, and with the effort and expense required to actually write things down 4,000 years ago, why would they waste any of that on stories about a fragment of the slave or migrant population? There were thousands of people who migrated through Egypt's kingdoms back then.

The history of the Israelites (or people who eventually became the Israelites) just didn't matter to the Egyptian ruling class. But it mattered to the Israelites. They carefully preserved the stories of their ancestors, passing them down orally and eventually in written form. As a migrant people, history and shared culture was all they had.

Now, one of the great ironies of history, in my mind, is that many people the world over who have no Hebrew ancestry can list the rulers of Israel and recite stories from their histories; while few beyond scholars can name more than a couple of Egyptian pharoahs. In fact, a lot of people only know Egyptian history through the lens of the Hebrew Bible.

Millennia later, the unimportant migrants, the slaves, are known worldwide. Their histories are just as important as those of the great kingdoms where they toiled anonymously. I wonder, who are the Israelites among us now? Which ignored, marginalized people are carefully recording their own stories from their own perspective - stories those in power aren't even aware of.

A thousand years from now, the people in power now might either be forgotten or else known primarily through the stories of the ones they enslaved and mistreated. It's a good reminder not to discount people's points of view just because they aren't the ones in charge.

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