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The Rediscovery of Ramses II's "Lost Tomb"

American Egyptologist Kent Weeks talks about his discovery of the largest tombs ever found in Egypt. It's called KV5 and is the burial ground for the sons of the Pharaoh Ramses the Second who many scholars believe ruled during the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Weeks and his team have discovered more than 150 corridors and chambers buried deep below the hills in the Valley of the Kings. He hopes it will be open to tourists in ten years. He has written about his 1995 discovery and the excavation in his new book "The Lost Tomb" (Morrow).


Other segments from the episode on October 22, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 22, 1998: Interview with Kent Weeks; Interview with Burton Visotzky.


Date: OCTOBER 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102201np.217
Head: Tombs of Egypt
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:00

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The largest and most complicated ancient Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Kings was discovered by my guest, archaeologist Kent Weeks. Buried in this tomb are the sons of the Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled from 1279-1213 B.C.

Many experts believe this was the Pharaoh referred to in the Book of Exodus, the story of how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt. The tomb is known as KV5; the KV is for The Valley of the Kings, the 48 acre area that was the burial ground for the kings of ancient Egypt.

KV5 has over 100 chambers and hallways and is perhaps the best-known archaeological site since discovery of King Tut's tomb. Kent Weeks has written a new book about excavating KV5, it's called "The Lost Tomb."

I asked him why this tomb is so large.

KENT WEEKS, EGYPTOLOGIST; AUTHOR, "THE LOST TOMB": With very very few exceptions, most tombs in the Valley of the Kings were intended for the burial of one person. KV5, on the other hand, seems to have been intended for the burial of many of the sons of Ramses II. We have four mummified remains in the tomb at the moment that probably represent four of those sons.

We have four names on the objects that we found on the floor. But we actually have more than 25 representations of sons on the tomb walls. And that could mean that there are as many as 25 sons of Ramses II buried here.

The question as to why? Well, I think that what may have happened is that because he lived for such a very long time Ramses II decided to have himself declared a deity. Not at the time of his death, but in the 30th year of his reign. He ruled Egypt for 67 years, so halfway through his career on the throne he declared himself to be a God.

Now this immediately meant that there were certain things he could not do. As a God he could not go out and cut the ribbons at irrigation canal openings or adjudicate court matters or the other things that most pharaohs were expected to do. And I think what he did was to anoint his eldest son as a sort of secular pharaoh - an assistant king.

But since Ramses II outlived many of his sons, several of those young men occupied that position of authority. And as they died, predeceasing their father, they had to be given a burial that was more spectacular than that intended for an ordinary garden variety prince. But at the same time, something a little farther down line than what would beginning to a full-fledged pharaoh.

GROSS: Well, you say here that Ramses lived to the age of 90 which is pretty extraordinary for the time.

WEEKS: The average life expectancy in ancient Egypt was probably no greater for men about 30 or 35. So, yes, it was astounding.

GROSS: What are some of the most exciting artifacts you've found so far in K5?

WEEKS: The single biggest and most exciting thing, of course, is the tomb itself because of its unusual size and its unusual plan. But we're finding literally hundreds of thousands of fragmentary pieces in the tomb. This is not a tomb like King Tut's tomb, don't misunderstand me. We're not pulling out gold and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.

The tomb, we know, was robbed 3,000 years ago. And in fact, we have a papyrus that gives us the name of one of the thieves who got caught red-handed and was put on trial. We have a transcript of the trial where he confesses to his deeds.

The tomb, extensively robbed in antiquity, left untouched for three thousand years by human hands was nonetheless seriously damaged by a series of floods. Torrential rains fall in the Valley of the Kings about once every hundred years or so and they wash hundreds of tons of debris down into the low-lying parts of the Valley of the Kings, and that of course is exactly where the tomb entrances lie.

So, our tomb was first plundered and then filled chuck-a-block full with limestone chips and silts and sand that conspired to do some serious damage to the objects in the tomb, the ones the thieves didn't take, and to the decorations on the wall.

What we're finding, though, are hundreds of thousands of pieces of pottery, lots and lots of pieces of jewelry, numerous fragments of alabaster canopic (ph) jars, the vessels in which mummified human remains were kept, fragmentary pieces of sarcophagi; of red granite; of serpentine; of alabaster; of basalt. And scores of other materials, too: statuettes, pieces of wooden -- apparently coffin fragments, and thousands upon thousands of very delicate pieces of decorated plaster that have fallen from the wall.

It's a terrifically difficult job trying to excavate this material because the debris that filled the tomb after these flash floods has dried to the consistency of concrete. And yet, the fragmentary objects we're finding in this matrix are extremely fragile and have to be excavated with dental picks and toothbrushes. It's an archaeological nightmare.

GROSS: What was the importance of a pharaoh's passing? Why did the pharaoh seem to require this huge tomb with statues representative of the gods of the afterlife and so on in the tomb with him and sacrificial animals and wall paintings, and all of this? What was the significance of all of that? Is a just like the pharaoh's big ego that he wants all of this to accompany him in his grave, or was there something more than that?

WEEKS: No, I don't think it was egomania that was governing the way in which these royal tombs were carved. There is a very significant need here, and a very significant concern. First of all, this is rather simplified, but I think it's relatively close to being on the mark: the communications that took place between man and gods existed only through the pharaoh. He was rather like the constriction in an hourglass with the gods in the upper half, humankind in the lower half.

If the pharaoh died or were taken ill, the line of communication between the gods and mankind was gone. And in consequence, the gods could not make known their wishes to us, nor could we make known our desires to them. It was extremely important that this line of communication be left open.

And that's one of the reasons that not only was there an almost immediate succession to the throne of the next in line, but a very, very concerted effort to make sure that the soul of the deceased King could travel into the afterlife, take his rightful place with the gods, and work on behalf of you and me in the afterlife to ensure that next year's grain harvests would be good, that the sun would continue to rise and set every day, that the Nile would flood every spring, summer, and so on.

GROSS: How did you discover the tomb known as K5?

WEEKS: Well, I wish I could say it was because we were really smart and did some good detective work and so on, but in actual fact it was fairly straightforward; we knew there was going to be a tomb lying near the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

And we knew that because the tomb entrance had been shown as a little black dot, nothing more, but had been shown on several 19th-century explorers' maps, most of them unpublished, but accessible in the British museum.

GROSS: How did you know you had discovered the tomb? What was the first sign?

WEEKS: The first sign was after we had dug through the debris we found a smoothness on the stone that indicated that this was the result of human work, not natural erosion. And that turned out to be the top of a doorway. When we exposed that doorway, we could not crawl into the tomb immediately because, as I say, the tomb is filled with debris all way to the ceiling.

But there was a small tunnel dug through the debris in 1825 by an English traveler named James Burton. And he went about 40 feet into the tomb. He couldn't see anything from his tunnel. He could see the ceiling, which was undecorated, over his head, but to his left and his right and below his knees, there was nothing, just limestone chips and debris. So, he, too, lost interest in the tomb and went away.

We wanted, however, to get some better handle on what this tomb might be. So we spent part of each of the next six seasons slowly carrying out the debris from the first small chamber of the tomb. Noting the stratigraphy, the layers of the soil, as we went, in hopes that we could reconstruct the history of flooding.

And what we found in the first room was a big surprise to us. We found that the walls were, in fact, very elegantly decorated with painted reliefs and had on them hieroglyphic texts, giving us the names of sons of Ramses II. When we got down to the floor level, we began finding hundreds, indeed thousands of fragmentary objects.

Clearly, this seemed to have been a tomb that had been used. It wasn't until 1995 that we had gone far enough into the tomb that we realized that this was not a small two or three chambered tomb, typical of many of those in the Valley of the Kings, but rather something more special.

And it was in February of '95 that we found a doorway in the back wall of one of the first chambers, and when we penetrated that doorway we looked -- shone our flashlights through the space between the debris and the ceiling and discovered a corridor extending more than a hundred feet ahead of us with chambers and corridors going off it in every which direction.

GROSS: And that part was not packed with flood debris?

WEEKS: That was not as fully packed with flood debris. There was flood debris in it, but there was -- instead of being an 18-inch crawlspace between it and the ceiling, there was a crawlspace that was almost three feet high.

GROSS: What's the most exciting find, so far, in the tomb that you've been excavating?

WEEKS: Well, I think the fact that we have found, now, evidence that clearly indicates that this was a tomb and it was used as the multiple burial place for sons of Ramses II. The fact that we not only have found decorated walls, sarcophagus fragments, canopic jar fragments.

All of those things, of course, helped indicate that this was definitely a tomb. But there was always the possibility that it could be what's known as a fake tomb or a memorial -- a senitaph (ph).

But now, as of last spring, we have found the remains of four adult male mummies in the tomb. We're hoping to do some DNA testing of them at some point in the not too distant future. But I suspect that these are, in fact, the actual bodies of sons of Ramses II.

They were all found jumbled together in a pit lying in the floor of the second small room inside -- just inside the entrance to the tomb. That's not where they originally came from. I suspect the tomb robbers had found them much farther inside the tomb, many hundreds of feet farther inside the tomb, and had dragged the bodies up near the front door of the tomb so they had better light while they ripped the bodies apart looking for the gold amulets and other things that they were pretty sure such mummies would contain.

GROSS: Now, you say in your book about K5 that, even if you are able to finish excavating the tomb in your lifetime, you wouldn't, you'd leave some unexcavated for future generations of archaeologists. Why?

WEEKS: The reason for leaving a good part of the tomb unexcavated now is -- well, it's a fairly simple reason but one that has only recently come to the attention of archaeologists. We know that every generation of Egyptologists, of archaeologists, come equipped to their project with new techniques.

We have new techniques today for excavation, for interpretation, that were not available to our predecessors even a generation or two ago. And it's, I think, a certain foregone conclusion that succeeding generations of Egyptologists -- 50, 75, 100 years from now will have new techniques of interpretation and analysis that we haven't even dreamed of.

The other thing is that every generation of historians of archaeologists asks new questions about the material. Just as one example, 30 years ago nobody had ever asked the question: what was the role of women in ancient Egyptian society?

Today, there are about 30 books and hundreds of articles on that very topic. Now, every generation has such questions that are almost specific to it that help define the field in a given generation. If we were to completely dig out KV5 now, it would mean that we could neither ask new questions of its data, nor could we bring to bear new analytical techniques for its analysis. I think that would be wrong, particularly since KV5 does seem to be a unique tomb.

And since it's unlike anything else ever found in Egypt, it may very well be the only one of its kind that exists. I would hope that we will dig enough of KV5 to get a good, thorough picture of its extent and of its function. But I also would hope that we can leave a very substantial amount of it, probably more than half of it, undug and left for future generations to work on.

GROSS: It's interesting that as you're excavating the past you're also thinking about the future.

WEEKS: Well, I think one has to. Not digging everything is as much a part of the conservation and protection of archaeological treasures as is the work of the chemist or the botanist to preserve things for posterity.

GROSS: Kent Weeks' new book, "The Lost Tomb," is about excavating the tomb in which the sons of the Pharaoh Ramses II are buried.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Kent Weeks, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb of the sons of the Pharaoh Ramses II.

You were working in the tomb during the terrorist attack in Egypt in November of 1987, and this is the attack that killed 58 Egyptians and tourists. How close was the terrorist attack to the tomb?

WEEKS: It was very close. We were separated from Derobahry (ph), the temple were the attack took place, by a narrow ridge that is about five or six hundred feet wide. We were in the Valley of the Kings. The attack took place on the other side of that Hill. We could hear everything; the screams and the gunshots, but fortunately we could not see anything.

Several of our workmen, however, recognized the gunshots and immediately knew what they were and they raced over and gave chase to a couple of the terrorists. A couple of them had members of their family killed in the process. One of our workmen's brother was shot as he was giving chase to one of the terrorists.

It was an extremely unpleasant experience, but the most amazing thing was we were in the valley, as I say. There were tourists coming in and out. The police didn't arrive for about two hours. People oblivious to what was going on, but our workmen told us, don't worry, you stay in the tomb, go ahead and do your work. My wife went down the steps, kept recording pottery, and I was helping our photographer set up some lights, I think.

And we continued to work, and our workmen stood outside and formed a defensive perimeter around the tomb entrance, saying that if anybody -- if anybody comes over and tries to do anything, they will go after them, they will kill them. I've never felt so safe in my life, I must admit. These guys were really absolutely willing to put their life on the line.

GROSS: They were unarmed, though, I mean, how much could they have done?

WEEKS: Unarmed, except for hoes and sticks and stones. And several of the terrorists who did get caught by local villagers, actually had been kicked and stoned to death before the police showed up.

GROSS: Have the tourists returned?

WEEKS: They are beginning to return. The day before the incident, I think that the hotel occupancy rate in Luxor (ph) was operating at about 97 percent. Two days later after the incident had occurred, it had dropped to about two percent. And I think now it's probably back up to the 30 or 40 percent level.

I hope that it will pick up over the next several months. The problem is not -- you know, the big tour operators, they can weather these storms, they can survive. But it's the people who depend upon selling postcards at the entrance of the Valley of the Kings to make even a few cents a day in order to help feed their families; these are the ones who really suffer. They've got no backup position, no fallback position at all.

GROSS: Kent Weeks is my guest, and he's the archaeologist who discovered K5 which is the largest tomb discovered yet in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. And he's written a new book about it called "The Lost Tomb."

I would love to get a sense from you what it feels like to be, you know, below the ground in an ancient Egyptian tomb of the pharaoh's sons.

WEEKS: It's one of the most amazing experiences that I think I have ever had. Fortunately, I am not claustrophobic. I had one attack of claustrophobia inside the tomb once when I was crawling over the debris and then had to go down into a small hole to go through a doorway, and I got stuck in the door. Bent, literally, like a paper clip in a U-shape, and could move neither forward or backward.

Fortunately, one of our workmen was there and grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me out, but that's the only time I've ever had that kind of a panic attack. The tomb itself is uncomfortable as all get out. First of all, you're crawling over limestone chips that are extremely sharp. When limestone fractures it makes razor sharp edges and you're tearing your clothes or you often cut your hands or your knee or your feet.

The tomb is hot. Going into the tomb chambers it will be in the 90s, sometimes even close to 100 inside the tomb, and it is humid. Extremely uncomfortable. Your glasses will fog up and if you go in to do some photography we have to take the cameras in and leave them for about two hours before the temperatures stabilize and the lenses unfog.

It's dark. I have never experienced such total darkness as one can find in this tomb, or such total silence. It's really quite eerie. Going into the tomb on a couple of occasions our flashlights, because of the humidity and the heat, the flashlight batteries don't last very long. And we have gone down into some deep recess, several hundred feet from the entrance and suddenly the flashlight batteries have failed. It's really an amazing experience, rather scary.

GROSS: I would imagine there are times that you thought about what it would be like if you were accidentally buried alive in the tomb?

WEEKS: Yeah, on a couple of occasions the thought crossed our minds. When we went for the first time into one of the interior portions of the tomb we had to weave our away in and amongst some columns, and some two and three ton blocks of stone that had fallen from the ceiling.

And again, it was totally dark. We had two flashlights between the three of us, which was silly, but that's all we had, and we got in there and I suddenly turned to our workmen Mohammed, and I said, do you remember where the entrance is? And he said, no.

And neither did the graduate student that was with me, and here we were in a pitch black environment, and we were not quite sure which way was out. It took us about 10 minutes to find the doorway, and was not a very pleasant time, I can assure you.

GROSS: I know there's a lot of dust in the tomb. What is tomb dust like?

WEEKS: It's like breathing in fine silts. If you were to take a sieve and take dirt from your garden or, perhaps, something like moss and so forth from the garden, and sift it, it would be that sort of fine material.

And it covers everything, it -- when you're in the tomb, of course, you're sweating, so it begins to adhere to your clothes and you come out looking like you're covered with a chocolate mass.

It sticks to your hands and your face and gets in your lungs, and so you spend a good deal of your time hacking and coughing. And on a couple of occasions some of us have come down with minor respiratory problems from breathing in too much of it. We usually wear face masks when we are in the tomb because of that.

But by and large, the place is just unpleasant except for one thing: it is archaeologically one of the most exciting places I can imagine being, and I'm more than willing to put up with the discomfort because of the excitement of finding something more in this tomb that will tell us about, well, what arguably is one of the greatest periods in Egyptian history.

GROSS: Well, Kent Weeks, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WEEKS: Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Kent Weeks' new book, "The Lost Tomb," is about excavating the tomb of the sons of the Pharaoh Ramses II.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington
Guest: Kent Weeks
High: American Egyptologist KENT WEEKS talks about his discovery of the largest tombs ever found in Egypt. It's called KV5 and is the burial ground for the sons of the Pharaoh Ramses the Second who many scholars believed ruled during the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Weeks and his team have discovered more than 150 corridors and chambers buried deep below the hills in the Valley of the Kings. He hopes it will be open to tourists in ten years. He has written about his 1995 discovery in his new book "The Lost Tomb" (Morrow). Weeks is an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo. He splits his time between Egypt and Washington State.
Spec: Africa; Royalty; Tourism; Egypt

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tombs of Egypt

Date: OCTOBER 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102202NP.217
Head: Interview with Rabbi Burton Visotzky
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Earlier, we heard about excavating the tomb of the sons of Ramses II, a pharaoh many experts believe ruled during the period described in the Book of Exodus; the story of how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt and slavery.

My guest, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, has written a new book interpreting Exodus. It's called "The Road to Redemption." Rabbi Visotzky leads the Bible interpretation seminars that inspired Bill Moyers' PBS series on the Book of Genesis. Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and he's a consultant for the forthcoming DreamWorks animated film about Moses, "The Prince of Egypt."

Rabbi Visotzky says he thinks Exodus speaks to our late 20th century condition.

RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY, SCHOLAR; AUTHOR "THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION": Well, I think one of the things we struggle for which is, in essence, the Israelites' struggle in the Book of Exodus, is a sense of community -- an enduring sense of where we are headed.

In America, our country seems like we're scattered; like we have no sense of purpose; like we don't exactly know where we're going. And disparate parts of our community are often at one another's throats. You're black, you're white, you're Republican, you're Democrat, you're gay, you're straight, you're man, you're woman, etcetera, etcetera.

And I think that the Jews in Exodus coming out of Egypt, part of their enslavement is that they were enslaved to those kind of divisions. They were tribal rather than national. And Moses' struggle as leader is to find a common ground with all of them, and to find a way to unify them even as they maintain their individual identities and their tribal identities. They had to become one people, and they had to learn to have this covenant that bound them together and gave them a sense of purpose.

Ultimately, I think they found it when they got to Mount Sinai. So, we here, now in the 20th century, I guess are looking for our Mount Sinai.

GROSS: I'm sure this is one of the reasons why you chose Moses as the book sequel to your Genesis book. Are there other reasons why you chose the Exodus story?

VISOTZKY: Well, I had -- I had been struggling with Genesis for a long time. You may recall when you interviewed me two years ago that what I wrote in "Genesis of Ethics" is that, essentially, the Book of Genesis is a book about sex and violence. It's -- it was almost too easy for me to write that book about sex and violence and make it very racy.

And it became very clear to me that the writers of the Bible knew very well even as they were writing Genesis that there are was also a sequel; that there would be Exodus. And what happens I think is that you have to confront Exodus because it's there that you put behind some of the immaturity of the growth stages, you put behind a lot of the family dysfunction, any you move outward towards community. Once you resolve a lot of the family issues, you grow.

And as you grow you look towards your community, towards nation, towards what commits you and your family to greater things. And that's exactly what happened in Exodus. What, in Genesis, was a family story, that family in Exodus becomes a nation. So, Exodus, for me, kind of was a necessary sequel and in some very profound way was a necessary sequel in my personal growth.

It was all too easy when I was younger to kind of wallow in the dysfunction of Genesis, and I just had my 47th birthday and I'm now married for the second time and very happily married. I have two kids and I just feel much more settled in my life and much more a member of the greater community.

I worry about what goes on in the Jewish community, I worry about New York City, where I live, and I worry about the nation. And I think that just comes with growing up. And the Genesis-Exodus flow seems to me, in some way, to mirror all of our lives.

GROSS: In the Exodus story, Moses is born right after the pharaoh has decreed that all newborn Jewish sons must be killed. So, to save the baby, he's put by his mother and her daughter in a, you know, like a little basket can they float the basket in the bulrushes where it's discovered by one of the pharaoh's daughters who rescues Moses, and brings him up as her own.

This raises a lot of confusing questions which you go into in your book. For instance, wouldn't Moses have been circumcised, and wouldn't that have been a giveaway in that he's Jewish?

VISOTZKY: I think it's pretty clear that Exodus kind of revels, delights in this conspiracy of women. The mother and sister of Moses save him. They set him afloat and they set him afloat very much in the same way that Noah is set afloat. He's going to be the survivor; he's going to be the one to raise a new nation and start a new world. So, the women do this -- the Jewish women do this with faith in God.

Because God is God of the universe there are also complicit actors on the Egyptian side. Pharaoh's daughter, of all things, she who grows up in Pharaoh's household, she serves God's purpose by raising Moses. I think you're right, it's absolutely clear, they must know this is a Jewish baby.

When Pharaoh's daughter pulls Moses out of the river and seeks a wet nurse to suckle the baby, Moses' sister Miriam steps forward at that propitious moment and says: "Gee, I could suggest somebody." And lo and behold, Moses goes back into, literally, into the bosom of this family so that he can be suckled by his own mother.

Ultimately, of course, mother and sister have to give the boy back to Pharaoh's household where he is raised by this wonderful woman who takes a risk. She, essentially, defies her father. And in defying her father, brings this Jewish baby into the Pharaoh's court and now they're in Pharaoh's palace. All of a sudden Pharaoh's a grandpa. And, you know, he has the sweet little Jewish boy.

It's bizarre irony because this is the same guy, who of course is doing Jewish babies. But it shows us, I think, a moment that the miracle may be of what a baby can do.

That someone who is so clearly played as the heavy, as even Pharaoh has to reckon with the fact that you have a grandchild in the house: "Well, all right, that kid is going to be your boy." And so, Moses is able to grow, and God takes advantage of the fact that human beings are, in the end, human and can't resist small children.

GROSS: So, you think that the Pharaoh also realizes that this baby is Jewish?

VISOTZKY: Well, a great deal has been said about the circumcised baby Moses. Some people who are Bible scholars suggest that the Egyptians also were circumcised, so it may not be a giveaway. But frankly, circumcised or uncircumcised, even if you leave the baby's diaper on, you got a baby floating in the river in a little basket when all the other Jewish babies are being killed.

Well, odds are good that that's a Jewish baby who somebody is trying to save. Pharaoh has to grapple with it somehow. Maybe Pharaoh's daughter will keep it secret; maybe not. I wonder in "The Road to Redemption" about much that's unsaid in Exodus.

When Pharaoh -- excuse me, when Moses grows up in Pharaoh's court, who knows that he's adopted? Who knows that he's Egyptian? Who knows the real secret that he is an Israelite? What do they do about it? How do they treat him? Is he treated differently?

In any case, we learn from the Bible story that Moses is a child who grows up with some kind of a speech impediment, so something is setting him apart from beginning to end. And when that fateful day comes, and we don't know what precipitates it, Moses comes out of the closet. He joins his Israelite slave brother and leaves behind forever his a patrimony of growing up in Pharaoh's palace.

GROSS: When God calls Moses to deliver the Jews from their slavery in Egypt, Moses is reluctant to follow God's will. Moses says, please send someone else. And he explains, "I'm not a man of words for I am heavy mouthed and heavy tonged."

You've gone through a lot of the interpretations, modern and ancient interpretations of the Exodus story. What are some of the most interesting interpretations you've found of Moses' reluctance to follow God's will?

VISOTZKY: Well, this is one of the places that I think Exodus departs radically from our modern culture. Exodus is very much at peace with the rest of the Bible. When God calls prophets, it's a standard motif in the Bible for them to refuse, for them to feel humble, for them to say, "I can't do it. I can't speak. I don't do this well, please send someone else."

So, Moses is the first in a long line of people who demure when the call comes, very unlike our national leaders who spend their lives from childhood aggressively pursuing what it is they want. And I think, perhaps, that may account for some of the differences in leadership between the biblical models we have and be very harsh reality models we sometimes face today.

GROSS: Is Moses already a believer when God speaks to him in the Exodus story?

VISOTZKY: I think Moses is as much a believer as any of us are. That is to say, it's a hard business, this believing in God. Our rational self, I think, struggles with the issue because we can't prove God's existence. And yet, something deep in our soul yearns for there to be purpose in the universe and yearns for there to be a God who is fair, who is good, who will redeem us.

So, Moses I think faces all of those issues. This is a guy who, again, grew up in Pharaoh's court. He grew up in the polytheistic world of Egyptian religion. He grew up believing that Pharaoh was an incarnate God.

And yet one day as a shepherd, a bush took flame. And as it took flame he was reminded that his ancestors believed something different. That they had a very different view of the universe. That he was a creature, not a creator.

So, I can't imagine that from beginning to end it wasn't always struggle with Moses. That he, almost unique -- well, unique among human beings faced the reality of God, as the Bible says he saw God face to face and lived.

I think even so he struggled with what God is, what God demands of us, and how to confront your anger towards God; whether God is fair, whether God makes us do things we don't want to do. These are all issues, I think, that all of us confront. And Moses is, as the rabbis say, our teacher on those issues.

GROSS: My guest is Rabbi Burton Visotzky. His new book about interpreting Exodus is called, "The Road to Redemption." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Rabbi Burton Visotzky, and his new book "The Road to Redemption" is an analysis of the Exodus story. And it's a follow-up to his book, "The Genesis of Ethics."

When God calls Moses to deliver the Jews and Moses expresses his reluctance; Moses says, "Well, the Egyptians aren't really going to believe me when I say that you've called me, and they're going to ask me for your name. So, what is your name?" And God says, "I will be what I will be."

What are some of the interpretations of what that means?

VISOTZKY: Well, we have to revel in God's coyness. There's a wonderful rabbinic midrush (ph) from, I don't know, the third, fourth century where the rabbis point out that Moses was actually quite presumptuous at this moment.

In the ancient world, knowing the name of almost anything gives you power. For instance, in the Genesis story Adam is given the right to name all the animals, and that is the way that the Bible expresses his hegemony over the animals. He is the crown of creation and he rules these animals because he has named them.

So, for Moses to ask God's name is to say, "Look, I need this power. I need to know that I am really your representative because I'm nervous." But when the rabbis critique Moses they say: you know Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had these lifetime relationships with God, and never asked their personal name. And you, as it were, asked on the first date.

So, the rabbis actually chide Moses for his presumption, and I think they kind of revel in the fact that God's answer is so ambiguous. You know, I'll be what I'll be. You can almost hear the Yiddish accent when God says that to Moses. He's really coy.

God doesn't give a straight answer, even though that may, in fact, be the only answer any of us can ever have. That when we need God, God will be there. And what we need God to be, so God will be. And that's how the Exodus story turns out.

So, it's a descriptive phrase. And yet, at the same time that series of verbs is a play on the four letter Hebrew name, the tetragrammaton -- that unpronounceable name of the ineffable God. So, I think throughout the Torah teaches us that knowing God is an almost impossible task. I kind of, as a theologian, think of myself as holding a Groucho Marx theology.

I think it was Groucho Marx who once said he didn't want to be a member of any country club that would have the likes of him as a member. And my theology is kind of something like that. I don't want to believe in a God or worship a God who I can, as a human being, so easily and readily understand. I want God to be ineffable, I want God to be with a "w" -- wholly other, as well as with an "h"-- holy. So, that difference, that unapproachability is an important aspect to my concept of God. And I think that Exodus plays that out very clearly.

GROSS: In Exodus, in a way, God plays a tit-for-tat game. You know, the Pharaoh had decreed the newborn Jewish sons should be executed so God brings the plagues on the Egyptians, and one of those plagues is the death of first born Egyptian sons. Isn't God killing innocents here? I mean the sons are -- they're boys, they're still innocents.

VISOTZKY: There's a great deal of difficulty with that, and it's a problem that rabbis of old grappled with as well. They very much believe that the Bible works on a measure for measure principle. And so that when Pharaoh sinned against God that sin will be returned upon him.

And to that extent, the rabbinic interpreters who, I guess, in this instance would be apologists; want to find all kind of reasons that the Egyptians really deserved this. But in the end, I think you're reading is a keen one, that Egyptian innocents to suffer God's wrath.

And I think sometimes that's a real problem of how we grapple with the fairness of God because God doesn't seem to be, at least the God of the Hebrew Bible, doesn't always seem to be fair, at least in accordance with 20th century notions of what fairness is.

GROSS: Now, you've said that you think Exodus has a lot of messages for us now at the late 20th century. There is a part I want to ask you what you think it says to us now.

After God performs miracles, parts the Red Sea to free the Jews, and the Jews still don't get it, you know, they've kind of crossed over from Egypt. But while Moses is on Mount Sinai getting the Ten Commandments the Jews are impatient; they start behaving badly and sinning and worshipping a golden calf. God is so angry with them he considers destroying them. What does their behavior say to you, and what does it say to you, you know, now at the end of the 20th century?

VISOTZKY: Well, we human beings are a rough a lot of people. We have our free will and we will exercise it even at great cost to ourselves. I think our national drama these days teaches us that lesson -- that however great your program may be, our personal peccadillos those can often bring us down.

In Egypt, as they came out and they -- there they were at the foot of Mount Sinai. God is saying to them: "I am the lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt." And they, in turn, are saying: "What happened to Moses? Where is he? How come he's not here with this? Why is he on that mountain? And why hasn't he come down?"

God says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." And the Israelites say, "This calf is our new god." At the moment that should be the most profound moments in our life, that's the moment I think that we lose faith most readily. Because they are frightening moments. And that's the moment that we fail, that we back off, that we, instead of stepping forward, step backward. And that is what the Israelites do, much to God's fury.

GROSS: If God doesn't allow Moses to enter the Promised Land himself, and I'm wondering what, you know, what you and what scholars of the past make of that?

VISOTZKY: Well, I've actually struggled with this for a long time, and in some ways the struggle came to me in a very profound sense. A couple of summers ago when I was in Jordan with my wife, we were on vacation. And we went to Mount Nebo, which is the mountain that Moses climbed from which he saw the Promised Land knowing that he would never enter.

And according to the Book of Deuteronomy, it's on that mountain that Moses died. And I stood at the top of this mountain looking, and you really can see from Mount Nebo, if you look west you can see the Promised Land. You can see the Dead Sea; you can see the Jordan River; and you can see Canaan, or modern Israel stretched out before you.

And at the time I thought, what could be a more sad place? What could be a more pathetic place in the universe than Mount Nebo, where Moses, who worked his whole life to get to the Promised Land, looked and realized that he would never get there?

In the two years that have passed, I've come back to that moment again and again and again because it's so caught me up in the nostalgia of the place. And I should have been suspicious already, because I think nostalgia is a dangerous phenomenon. It is a trick of memory that allows us to remember things as we wish they were and not as they had been.

And slowly, I've come to realize that for Moses, standing on Nebo, seeing the Promised Land was the culmination of his life. He wasn't so much looking forward as looking back and realizing what he had accomplished. He was a baby boy who should have been killed, and in fact was saved. He should have been a slave, and in fact was raised in Pharaoh's court. He brought his people out, he was the savior of the people, he gave them law, he gave them community, and he saw God face to face.

For him then, after all that, to go and conquer the land and get down to the dirty work -- and it is dirty work of conquering and building and bickering in some ways he was blessed to do without it. So, he had an idealized life, and maybe at Nebo, instead of the pathos of, "Oh, I'm not going to get to go," Moses, again, taught us a lesson that sometimes you have to see where you are on the road. Know that maybe you've come a long way and that you should celebrate your accomplishment, rather than regret the fact that there's one more hurdle you haven't jumped.

GROSS: Rabbi Burton Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His new book interpreting Exodus is called, "The Road to Redemption."

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rabbi Burton Visotzky. His new book about the Book of Exodus is called "The Road to Redemption." And Rabbi Visotzky worked with Bill Moyers on the Genesis series on PBS a couple of years ago. And that series was based on a series of seminars that Rabbi Visotzky holds in New York.

I think one of the biggest and most troubling questions for people over the centuries about the Book of Exodus is this: If God could free the Jews from their long bondage, well why didn't he do it sooner? Or why did he let it happen in the first place? Has that always been a troubling question for scholars, even in ancient interpretations of the Bible?

VISOTZKY: In some ancient interpretations the rabbis of old, and, I guess to some extent also, the church fathers raise an eyebrow that God could have intervened. I think one of the prevailing counterpoints to all of that is -- is the question of how much God does intervene. Because every time God intervenes, essentially God takes away free will. And since we humans all value free will very highly, it's always a trade-off.

In the last 50 years I think in particular, it's become a much more acute question when look back at Exodus because, of course, we think about the Holocaust and a lot of us wonder, "Well, where was God then? Why didn't God intervene? Why did God let six million die?"

So, it's the same kind of thing. And I think reading about the enslavement of the Jews in Exodus in our post-Holocaust world inevitably makes us read with a much sharper critique, and a much more personal stake in the narrative.

GROSS: Is that a troubling question for you?

VISOTZKY: Yes and no. I think that when God intervenes in history it's an extraordinary moment, and because it's extraordinary -- extra ordinary -- we are faced with the fact that we are obligated to get on with ordinary moments. And the ordinary moments are hard enough, frankly. Just getting through today sometimes or dealing with children's problems, family problems. Those issues are issues where I think also we wonder, "Well, I need God a little more."

And our anger because ordinary moments are often flawed with difficulty or difficulties just growing up and getting on with the day sometimes make our relationships with God iffy. So, if we add to that, you know, the earthquakes and the floods, to say the least of the Holocausts and the enslavement of the Exodus or the enslavement of Afro-Americans or any other tragedy, we have a very large set of baggage we carry with us anytime we confront God and think about God.

GROSS: You know, some people believe that life is filled with things that are arbitrary and absurd. And that it's people who are desperate to find order or create order and to create some rational explanation where none really exist; these are the people who do turn to God. And I'm wondering what your reaction is to that kind of response?

VISOTZKY: Well, life often does give a very convincing imitation of being arbitrary and absurd. And, if I may, if this rabbi may, I would like to quote a second century church father. A church father of North Africa by the name of Tortullion (ph) succinctly said, "Credo quia absurdum est" (ph) -- that I believe precisely because it is absurd.

When faced with the chaos of daily life, Tortullion said: this just can't be all there is, and there must be God, and I must believe that there is some order. So, you're on the mark as always, Terry, that it is this facing the chaos of daily life and the apparent absurdity that makes us search. Now, if we were truly, truly only rational beings, we would say that absurdity is there and so be it, and, you know, we'll all go back to reading Albert Camus and that's that.

But the fact is, is it's precisely that rational part of us that makes us search for order, and thus, beginning to search turns us inward to the spirit and makes us want to believe in something greater. You know, it's Albert Einstein saying: "I don't believe that God plays -- throws dice with the universe."

Now the physicist may tell you that God really does, but they're still invoking God, and frankly, I don't think that their physics and their cosmology is all that terribly different than rabbinic cosmology or platonic cosmology. We're all looking for order in the universe because we like order and we don't like chaos.

That's why I'm unhappy when I go into my children's bedroom, I like order and not chaos. And so I crack the whip and make them clean up and they're good kids and they do. And we feel better for ordered existence. And I think that when we face chaos in our personal lives or when we face it as a nation we get nervous, and we turn to God.

It's when everything is running smoothly that we are most likely to just get smug and rely on ourselves and forget that maybe there is a force that brings order to the universe.

GROSS: Rabbi Visotzky, thank you very much for talking with us.

VISOTZKY: Oh, thank you, it's a pleasure to be with you, Terry.

GROSS: Rabbi Burton Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His new book about exit is this called, "The Road to Redemption."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington
Guest: Rabbi Burton Visotzky
High: Rabbi Burton Visotzky who last examined The Bible's Book of Genesis, now interprets Exodus. His new book is "The Road to Redemption: Lessons from Exodus on Leadership and Community." (Crown) Visotzky's work on Genesis, led a cover story in Time Magazine and PBS' Genesis series. His work on Exodus caught the attention of DreamWorks. The film studio hired him to be a consultant of the animated feature on Exodus, "The Prince of Egypt." Visotzky is chairman of Inter-religious studies at the Jewish Theology Seminary in America. He lives in New York City and Kent, Connecticut.
Spec: Religion; Movie Industry; Bible

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Rabbi Burton Visotzky
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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