OK, seeing as we’re heading into Semana Santa (or Holy Week, but it sounds better in Spanish) and are already into Passover, a bit of Biblical fiction. The Bible contains more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera’s ever done, so Biblical fiction can be very entertaining. I was once explaining a Bible story to my little cousin whilst I was babysitting him and he had some religious studies homework to do, and he said that I made it sound like EastEnders – and that’s because a lot of it does! This one’s the story of the Book of Exodus, told from the viewpoints of Pharoah’s daughter (identified here with Merytamon, one of the daughters and, later, wives of Ramesses II), Miriam (the sister of Moses) and Zipporah (the wife of Moses).
Angela Hunt gets a bit bogged down in practicalities at times. How Moses managed to speak to the Hebrew slaves when, having grown up in Pharoah’s palace, he wouldn’t have spoken a word of their language, is admittedly a very good question, but I’m not entirely sure that the reader needed to see him, on arriving in the Land of Goshen, asking Miriam where the toilets were.
Incidentally, it’s weirdly relevant to today. No panic-buying (OK, panic-gathering) of manna allowed – you can only take enough for one day at a time (or two, if it’s the Sabbath). When Miriam’s got an illness feared to be contagious, she has to go outside the camp and quarantine herself for seven days. And Zipporah first meets Moses whilst she and her sisters are being hassled by some Edomite men, when all they’re trying to do is get water from the well.
Anyway, to get back to the point, whilst I could have done without the bit about toilets, Angela Hunt’s obviously done a vast amount of research into the history of Ancient Egypt, and then tried to tie it into the story in the Bible. Trying to tie up Bible stories and real history is a historian’s nightmare, because we’ve got no real idea what’s legend, what’s based on fact, and what’s a bit of both, so all credit to her for trying. And, in some ways, she’s tried very hard to follow the Bible story, even whilst tying it into documented Egyptian history. Obviously everyone knows that Moses looked like Charlton Heston and was only in his 30s at the time of the Exodus, but the Bible does actually say that he was 80, and that’s what this book says too. Some bits of the story have been conveniently altered or ignored, but, to be fair, she does explain that in an afterword.
I’ve got mixed feelings about her interpretation of the three women, though. The story of Pharoah’s daughter finding a baby, in what we still call a “Moses basket”, in the bulrushes, and, even though she knew he was the child of slaves and condemned by her father to die, taking him in and bringing him up as her own, is one of the most heartwarming stories in the Bible … but Angela Hunt’s turned her into some kind of child-snatcher, who was desperate to steal a baby to pass off as her own for fear of being set aside as a barren wife, and deliberately went out looking for one! And Miriam’s given her proper role as a leader, but, on a personal basis, is shown as being rather bitter and grumpy most of the time. Zipporah’s the one who comes out with the most credit. But they all get given a voice here, which they don’t in the Bible.
Merytamon does generally come across fairly well, apart from the baby-snatching bit, to be fair. The historical figure of Merytamon, the daughter of Ramesses II and Nefertari, and later one of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II, did exist. In Islamic tradition, Pharoah’s daughter was Pharoah’s wife, and daughters of the pharaoh did often end up as wives of either their father or one of their brothers. The idea in this book is that she actually passed Moses off as the natural son of Pharoah and somehow got away with it for years, which I’ve never heard anyone else suggest, though.
The book’s got her dying long before Moses came back from Egypt, but she’s the main figure in the early part of it, although some of the early part’s also told by Miriam – who’s given a back story here, with the reader being told that she had a stillborn child and that her husband died as a result of mistreatment by the Egyptians. I’d like to have seen a bit more sympathy shown towards Miriam, especially with that sad back story. Angela Hunt’s made her very stroppy!
As for Pharoah, people have tied themselves in knots trying to work out who the “Pharoah of the Exodus” was. Other people claim that the whole thing’s just a story, because there’s no evidence that the Ancient Egyptians used slave labour. We just don’t know. I think I must have been told as a kid that “Pharoah” was Ramesses II, because I’ve always thought that, for no obvious historical reason. And the Yul Brynner Pharoah who’s challenged by Charlton Heston is Ramesses II ! However, even though Ramesses is supposed to have lived into his 90s, if Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus then it’s pretty unlikely that the Pharoah at the start of the story and the Pharoah at the time of the plagues could have been the same person, so Angela Hunt’s got Ramesses II at the start and Seti at the end.
She does seem to take the story very literally. Some people do. Some people don’t. No-one really knows, so you can’t criticise anyone for what they think. And a lot of it’s not very clear in the Book of Exodus. Was the Cushite woman Zipporah? Or was the Cushite woman someone else? And what exactly was Miriam upset about? In this book, the Cushite woman is someone else, a maid called Femi. Zipporah is unwell and thinks she might not have long to live, so she urges Moses to take Femi as a second wife, which he does, and Miriam gets narky about it all, but doesn’t get on with Zipporah either. But then they all kiss and make up.
Another thing that’s not clear is what Zipporah’s dad was called. There are a lot of Bible-isms, with people’s names changing. In this book, he starts off as Reuel, then changes his name to Jethro. There’s an interesting suggestion that he was the one who told Moses all the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If you’re someone who takes it all literally and believes that Moses wrote the Old Testament, then he must have got the stories from someone, and it can’t have been any of the Hebrew slaves because they were supposed to have forgotten everything. So that idea does work.
All in all, you can drive yourself mad trying to make it make sense from a historical point of view, and probably won’t get very far, but a lot of the stories in the Bible really are entertaining. The horrible Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre is not at all impressed that Jane thinks the best bits of the Bible are the bits with good stories, but Jane is surely right 🙂 . As I said, more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera!