The Nile rose and fell and the seasons shifted until eight months had passed. The period was inconsiderable, but its events had never been equaled in a like space, or a generation, or a whole dynasty, or in all the history of Egypt.
When the ancient Hebrew shepherd from Midian first demanded audience with Meneptah, Egypt was autocrat of the earth and mistress of the seas. Her name was Glory and Perpetual Life and her substance was all the fullness of the earth and the treasures thereof. But eight months after the Hebrew shepherd had gone forth from that first audience, how had the mighty fallen! She was stripped of her groves and desolated in her wheat-fields; her gardens were naked, her vineyards were barren, and the vultures grew fat on the dead in her pastures. About the thrice-fortified walls of her cities her gaunt husbandmen were camped, pensioners upon the granaries of the king. Her commerce had stagnated because she had no goods to barter; her society ceased to revel, for her people were called upon to preserve themselves. Her arts were forgotten; only religion held its own and that from very fear. Egypt was on her knees, but the gods were aghast and helpless in the face of the hideous power of the unsubstantial, unimaged God of Israel.
Never had a monarch been forced to meet such conditions, but in all the mighty line of Pharaohs no feebler king than Meneptah could have faced them. In treating with the issue he had fretted and fumed, promised and retracted, temporized with the Hebrew mystic or stormed at him, hesitated and resolved, and reconsidered and deferred while his realm descended into the depths of ruin and despair.
It would seem that the dire misfortunes would have pressed the timid monarch into immediate submission. But a glance at conditions may explain the cause of his obduracy.
At this period in theological chronology, human attributes for the first time were eliminated from the character of a god. Moses depicted the first purely divine deity. Omnipotence was ascribed to the gods, but Pantheism being full of paradoxes, the gods were not omnipotent. Loud as were the panegyrics of the devout, the devout recognized the limitations of their divinities. None had ever dreamed of a deity that was actually omnipotent, actually infinite. Meneptah measured the God of Israel by his own gods. Furthermore, the miracles did not amaze him as they appalled Egypt. He was exceedingly superstitious; in his eye the most ordinary natural phenomenon was a demonstration of the occult. No matter that the advanced science of his time explained rainfall, unusual heat or cold, over-fruitful or unproductive years, pestilence and sudden death, eclipses, comets and meteors, -- he believed them to be the direct results of sorcery. Calamitous as the effects may have been upon other people, he had ever escaped harm from these sources. It was not strange that in time he ceased to fear miracles, and the demonstrations of Moses were not so terrifying, inasmuch as they did not greatly affect him.
His horses died, but Arabia was near to replenish his stables; the pests annoyed him, but his servants fended them from him; the blains troubled him, but his court physicians were able and gave him relief; the thunders frightened him, but his fright passed with the storm. Whenever the sendings became unendurable he had but to yield to gain a respite, and then he forgot the experience in a day. Meanwhile he ate, slept and walked in the same luxury he had known in happier years.
Therefore, Meneptah neither realized his peril nor was personally much aggrieved by the troublous times.
It did not occur to him that all the people of his realm were not sheltered against the plagues by wealth and many servants. He could not understand why Egypt should be restive under the same afflictions that he had borne with fortitude. Summoning all evidence from his point of view, he was able to present to himself a case of personal persecution and ill-use. The Hebrews belonged to him, and because he held them their God afflicted Egypt. Egypt complained and would have him sacrifice his private property, his slaves, for its sake. To the peevish king the demand was unreasonable. Yet he was not extraordinary in his behavior. Unselfishness was not an attribute of ancient kings.
Meneptah was a man that wished to be swayed. He craved approbation and was helpless without an abettor. His puny ideas had to be championed by another before they became fixed convictions. After the plague of locusts, the Hebrew question reached serious proportions. Har-hat had estranged most of the ministers, and in his strait Meneptah felt vaguely and for the first time that he needed the acquiescence of others in addition to the fan-bearer's ready concord.
One early morning, in a corridor leading from the entrance, he met Hotep. A sudden impulse urged him to consult his scribe.
|Where hast thou been?| he asked, noticing Hotep's street dress.
|To the temple, O Son of Ptah.|
|What hast thou to ask of the gods that thy king can not give thee?|
Hotep hesitated, and the color rushed into his cheeks. The Hathors tortured him with an opportunity he dared not seize. How could he ask for Masanath?
|I went to pray for that which all Egyptians crave at this hour -- the succor of Egypt,| he said, instead.
Meneptah signed his scribe to follow him to a seat near by.
|Why may I not require of thee the services of a higher minister?| he began, after he had seated himself. |Never hast thou failed me, and I can not say so much of the great nobles above thee. Serve me well in this, Hotep, and thou mayest take the place of some one of these.|
|Let me but serve thee,| the scribe returned placidly; |that is reward in itself.|
|Thou knowest,| the king began, plunging into the heart of the question, |that I yielded to these ravening wolves, Mesu and Aaron. I have consented to release the Israelites. But other thought hath come to me in the night. Thou knowest that no evil hath befallen the land of Goshen. Har-hat explaineth this strange thing by the location of the strip. The Nile toucheth it not and rains fall there. Furthermore the winds blow differently in that district, and withal the hand of Rannu of the harvests hath sheltered it. It may be, but to me it seemeth that the Hebrew sorcerer hath cast a protecting spell over the spot. But whatever the cause, the race of churls and their riches have escaped misfortune. Thinkest thou not, good Hotep, that, if they must go, we may by right require their flocks of them to replenish the pastures of Egypt?|
Surely the Hathors were exploiting themselves this day. Another opportunity for good and what would come of it? Hotep knew the man with whom he dealt. Still it were a sin to slight even an unprofitable chance that seemed to offer alleviation for Egypt. He would proceed cautiously and do his best.
|Be the little lamp trimmed never so brightly, O Son of Ptah, it may not help the sun. Thou art monarch, I am thy slave. How can I mold thee, my King?|
|Others have swayed me, thou modest man.|
|In that hour when thou wast swayed, O Meneptah, another than thyself ruled over Egypt.|
Meneptah looked in amazement at his scribe. He had never considered the influence of Har-hat in that light, but, by the gods, it seemed strangely correct. He straightened himself.
|Be thou assured, Hotep, that I weigh right well whatever counsel mine advisers offer me before I indorse it.|
Hotep bowed. |That I know. And for that reason do I hesitate to give thee my little thoughts. It would hurt the man in me to see them thrust aside.|
|Thou evadest,| Meneptah contended smiling.
|Because, O King, I should advise against thine inclinations.|
|Wherefore?| Meneptah demanded again, this time with some asperity.
|We hold the Hebrews,| was the undisturbed reply; |through destruction and plague we have held them. They boast the calamities as sendings from their God. Egypt's afflictions multiply; every resort hath failed us. One is left -- to free the slaves and test their boast.|
Meneptah's face had grown deprecatory.
|Dost thou espouse the cause of thy nation's enemy?| he asked.
|I espouse the cause of the oppressed, and which, now, is more oppressed -- Egypt or the Hebrew?|
This was different sort of persuasion from that which the king had heard since Har-hat took up the fan. The scribe was compelling him by reason; the man's personality was not entering at all into the argument. Meneptah's high brows knitted. He felt his feeble resolution filter away; his inclination to hold the Hebrews stayed with him, but the power to withstand Hotep's strong argument was not in him.
|What wouldst thou have me do?| he asked querulously.
|I am but a mouthpiece for thy realm; I counsel not for myself. The strait of Egypt demands that thou set the Hebrew free, yield his goods and his children to him, and be rid of him and his plagues for ever.|
Hotep spoke as if he were reciting a law from the books of the great God Toth. His tone did not invite further contention. He had read the king his duty, and it behooved the king to obey. A silence ensued, and by the signs growing on Meneptah's face, Hotep predicted acquiescence. It can not be said, however, that he noted them hopefully. Much time would elapse in which much contrary persuasion was possible before Israel could depart from Egypt.
Rameses came out of the dusk at the end of the corridor. The king raised himself eagerly and summoned his son.
|Hither, my Rameses!|
With suspense in his soul, Hotep saw the prince approach. Rameses had never expressed himself upon the Hebrew question, and the scribe knew full well that neither himself nor Har-hat, nor all the ministers, nor heaven and earth could militate against the counsel of that grim young tyrant. Meneptah spoke with much appeal in his voice.
|Rameses, I need thee. Awake out of thy dream and help me. What shall I do with the Hebrews?|
|I have trusted to my father's sufficient wisdom to help him in his strait, without advice of mine,| was the indifferent reply.
|Aye; but I crave thy counsel, now, my son.|
|Then, neither god nor devil could make me loose my grasp did I wish to hold the Hebrews!|
Hotep sighed, inaudibly, and was moved to depart, had not lack of the king's permission made him stay.
|But consider the losses to my realm,| Meneptah made perfunctory protest. The prince's full lip curled.
|This is but a new method of warfare,| he answered. |Instead of going forth with thy foot-soldiers and thy chariots, thy javelins and thy shields, thou sufferest siege within thy borders. Wilt thou fling up thy hands and open thy gates to thine enemy, while yet there is plenty within the realm and men to post its walls? Let it not be written down against thee, O my father, that thou didst so. Losses to Egypt!| the phrase was bitter with scorn. |Dost thou remember how many dead the Incomparable Pharaoh left in Asia? How many perished of thirst in the deserts and of cold in the mountains, and of pestilence in the marshes? Ran not the rivers of the Orient with Egyptian blood, and where shall the souls of those empty bodies dwell which rotted under the sun on the great plains of the East? The Incomparable Pharaoh cast out the word 'surrender' from his tongue. Wilt thou restore it and use it first in this short-lived conflict with a mongrel race of shepherds? Nay, if thou dost give over now, it shall not be an injustice to thee if it come to pass that thou shalt bow to a brickmaker as thy sovereign, sacrifice to the Immaterial God and swear by the beard of Abraham!|
Meneptah winced under the acrid reproach of his son.
|It hath ever been mine intent to keep the Hebrews, but I would not act unadvised,| he explained apologetically.
|Wherefore, then, these frequent consultations with the wolf from Midian?| was the quick retort. |Thou art unskilled in the ways of war, my father. The king who would conquer treats not with his enemy. Thou dost risk the respect of thy realm for thee. Strengthen thy fortifications and exhaust the cunning of thy besieger. And if he invade thy lines again with insolence and threats, treat him to the sword or the halter. If thou art a warrior, prove thy deserts to the name. And if Egypt backs thee not in thy stand against the Hebrew, then it is not the same Egypt that followed Rameses the Great to glory!|
The king put up his hand.
|Enough! They shall not go; they shall not go!|