Nathalie LaCoste, Waters of the Exodus: Jewish Experiences with Water in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (University of Toronto, 2016).
Jewish narratives are products of their physical environments. It is not only the social, cultural, and political contexts that shape biblical narratives, but the natural world in which they inhibit. In this dissertation I explore the role that the physical land of Egypt played in the transmission of the exodus narrative under Ptolemaic and Roman rule. Focusing on the writings by Egyptian Jews—Artapanus, Ezekiel the Tragedian, Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo of Alexandria—this dissertation explores how living in the hydric environment of Egypt, specifically along the Nile river, shaped the exodus story.
This study is divided into five chapters. The first chapter sets out a regional approach to the study of Jews and the physical environment in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. It begins with a historical overview of the waves of Jewish migration to Egypt and proposes different methodological lenses for understanding the Jews in the land of Egypt. By studying these communities within their environmental context, and not apart from or acting upon it, this chapter brings the physical world into the discussion of Jewish life in Egypt.
After establishing the historical and geographical setting of Egyptian Jews in chapter one, chapter two examines several shared features of the exodus narratives composed in Egypt that stem from their experiences living in the land. The chapter begins with an accounting of all versions of the exodus narrative known in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This allows for the texts from Egypt to be situated in the wider literary context of Second Temple Judaism and lays the groundwork for thinking about the distinctive features of the texts. The second section traces the history of the exodus story in Egypt, including references in the Elephantine documents and the legend of the LXX in the Letter of Aristeas. The third section focuses on three shared characteristics found in the four exodus narratives from Egypt: (1) a greater emphasis on the experiences within Egypt, (2) the primary characterization of Moses as a leader (and not necessarily as a lawgiver), and (3) the descriptions of the physical environment. These features, I argue, stem from their Egyptian provenance and demonstrate how the particular context of Egypt informed the developments of the accounts.
The following three chapters each explore different ways in which we can see the influence of the fluvial environment upon the exodus narratives from Egypt. Chapter three looks at how ideas about Egypt as a place shaped attitudes about the environment through an exploration of the shifting perspectives towards Egypt in the exodus narratives. In the Hebrew Bible, there is a tendency to negatively associate the Nile with the Egyptians (e.g. Deut 11:10–11). However, in the compositions from Egypt, we see the adoption of a positive attitude towards the Nile and the environment of Egypt. This is seen most clearly in how the Nile and the fluvial environment are woven into the exodus narratives. The Egyptian people continue to be described negatively (especially in the writings of Philo and in the Wisdom of Solomon), which shows the emergence of a distinction between the Egyptians and the land of Egypt, unique to Jewish narratives from Egypt. The distinction illuminates how Jewish authors were able to embrace their life in Egypt while maintaining their distinctiveness as Jews.
Chapter four examines the socio-cultural and environmental influences through descriptions of the annual inundation of the Nile in the Jewish exodus narratives. In the Ptolemaic and Roman period, both the Egyptians and the Greeks developed many theories about the inundation. Jewish authors drew upon contemporary popular theories but adapted them so that they became distinctly Jewish. The presence of such references reflects an increased awareness and interest in the fluvial landscape. Furthermore it shows how the Jews were informed by Egyptian, Greek, and Roman concepts about the flood. This chapter therefore shows how the Nile and its flood became an important part of the lives of the Jews of Egypt.
The final chapter takes a broader look at the hydric terminology employed in the exodus narratives. Building on the idea that there is a connection between texts and experiences, I explore the language used to identify and describe aspects of the fluvial world, such as the Nile, canals, and the Red Sea. While each of the exodus narratives from Egypt engage with the LXX, they use different terminology to describe the physical context. The terms, I argue, are more of a reflection of their contemporary setting than their reading of the LXX. While the LXX was an important source for the narrative, the everyday experiences of the Jews of Egypt also shaped the construction of their narratives.
The study of the Jews and their relationship with the hydric environment of Egypt offers a different approach to understanding Jewish life in the Second Temple period. The Jews of Egypt did not only live in a strictly social, cultural, political, or economic context; they were also, and most importantly, intimately engaged with their physical surroundings. Water was not simply part of the background of Jewish experiences in Egypt; rather, it was central to their lives as they developed new perspectives towards the land. The unique fluvial characteristics of the environment of Egypt shaped one of the most popular foundational narratives of Judaism. The exodus narratives of Egypt, therefore, is an essential corpus for understanding the Jews and their experiences living in the diaspora of Egypt.