Fluid Identities: How Experiences with Water Shaped the Jews of Egypt

This paper examines how experiences with water shaped the Jews of Egypt in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. The hydric environment of Egypt was largely dependent on the Nile river and its annual flood for their primary source of freshwater. This dependence on a singular river is unparalleled in the Mediterranean basin. Most regions experienced heavy rainfall and were divided into rainy and dry seasons. Egypt’s calendar, in contrast, revolved around the Nile’s flood cycle. As a result, the unique environment of Egypt had a significant impact on its inhabitants. Through an analysis of four exodus narratives composed in Egypt, I will demonstrate in this paper how the examination of the physical environment—in addition to the cultural, political, or social environment—can illuminate new ways of thinking about Jewish identity and biblical interpretation in the diaspora. To consider how experiences with the hydric environment shaped Egyptian Judaism I will examine four narratives composed in Egypt that recount the exodus story: Artapanus’ On the Jews, Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagoge, the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo of Alexandria’s Life of Moses. Each of these narratives draws on common experiences with the hydric environment of Egypt to interpret the story. For example, the annual flood is mentioned repeatedly in these texts yet is not found in exodus narratives composed outside of Egypt. The ways in which these Egyptian Jewish texts refer to their fluvial context is indicative of the experiences of these Jewish authors in the land and demonstrates the importance placed on their physical surroundings. My methodological approach is two-fold. In The Meaning of the Body, Mark Johnson argues that every aspect of a human being is in some way grounded in the engagement of the body within an environment (5). This environment can be understood as cultural or social, but it can also refer to the physical surroundings. Building on Johnson’s work on the construction of meaning as formed through our bodily connections, I will argue how experiences with water in the physical environment (through mundane tasks such as drinking, bathing, and farming) contributed to identity, or more accurately, to the identities of the Jews of Egypt. In addition to Johnson’s views, theories of place and the relationship between people and place provides a wider lens through which we can understand how the Jews of Egypt were collectively shaped by their environment. In particular the term coined by Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia, which seeks to understand how people are shaped by their physical surroundings will be a useful way to conceptualize these ancient texts. Drawing on both theoretical approaches, this paper will demonstrate that by placing ancient Jews in their physical context we can gain a new perspective on the formation of Jewish identity outside of the land of Israel.