Rebecca Kohn lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with her husband and daughter. The Gilded Chamber is is her first novel.
Seven Days to the Sea: The Research Behind the Story
When I began Seven Days to the Sea, I decided that I wanted to make the novel as historically accurate as possible, even (or perhaps especially!) if that meant dispelling certain notions that we might already have about the biblical story of the Exodus. While many facets of human existence are surely universal across time and place, probably no aspect of our lives is untouched by our cultural, political, economic, and physical circumstances. And so I believed that to breathe life into Miryam and Tzipporah I would need a good understanding of the religion, society, politics, and geography of their time.
The task I set myself — to recreate the world of ancient Egypt and Midyan — turned out to be an enormous challenge. After all, how can we really know what life was like in the year 1200 BCE? For some aspects of the story, material proved to be abundant. For others, I had to be a little more creative!
Though I did not set out to write a literalist interpretation of The Bible, I did begin with the assumption that somewhere behind the text lay at least a thin level of deep historical truth. Of course scholars have spent lifetimes debating this point and surely no science will ever prove or disprove it. But this seemed like a reasonable working assumption — a place to begin. So first I read the biblical text very closely for clues. I looked at commentaries by scholars and theologians. After that I read books and articles about the science behind some of the miraculous phenomena in the story including the plagues, the burning bush, and the parting of the Red Sea. One book in particular, The Miracles of Exodus, by Professor Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University, was extremely influential in my thinking. And while the characters in my book all accept the miracles simply as coming from God — no further explanation necessary — understanding some of the possible scientific phenomena behind these events allowed me to write about them in a more authentic way.
The details of everyday living in ancient Egypt were not hard to find. Through tomb art, religious writing, government records, and archaeological remains, we know quite a lot about agriculture, life on the Nile, architecture, religious life, and the material stuff that interests me so much — pottery, cookware, food, cosmetics, medicine, textiles, furniture, jewelry, and so on. I incorporated all these details into my description of the Pharaoh’s palace and the princess as well as in the lives of the Israelites who most likely farmed the fertile land of Goshen, east of Rameses’ capital. Scholars have also been able to identify the main trade routes and various outposts of the Egyptian army which also became very important to the part of my story that involves the flight from Egypt into Midyan.
Determining a specific historical context for my story required a little more digging. When I turned to scholarly work on ancient Egypt, I became persuaded that the pharaoh in the first part of the Exodus is Rameses II. This pharaoh built a new capital in the Nile Delta, which matches the geography and political circumstances of the biblical text. He had an ambitious son who most likely murdered at least several of his thirteen older brothers in order to inherit the throne. This, in turn, provided me with a good context to explain why Moses left Egypt. The biblical explanation for his flight — that he murdered an overseer who was beating an Israelite — always struck me as unrealistic. After all, this was a world that did not value human life. If Moses was a favorite at court, wouldn’t he be able to get away with murder? But once I began to imagine the character of Meremptah as a jealous prince who perceives Moses as a threat to his position at court, everything fell into place — the murder became a pretext for the Meremptah to rid himself of a political rival.
Much of what I learned about ancient Egypt found its way into the first part of the book. But perhaps the most startling and important discovery I made was about slavery. Under Rameses slave labor was a standard practice imposed on all foreigners. Instead of being conscripted into the army, all non-Egyptian men — not just the Israelites — were required to spend a certain period of the year working on the pharaoh’s building projects. So every family living in Egypt was forced to serve the state in one way or another. From my point of view this made the Israelites’ escape from oppression all that much more dramatic and important. It was not just physical slavery that they fled but a system that accepted political tyranny of a whole population as a given. In my book, Miryam soon realizes that the main task of her people is not simply to run away but to build a just society.
Finding information about Midyan — Tzipporah’s home — proved much more difficult. This is an area on the west coast of Arabia where there has been little archeological exploration. Also, the Midyanites, being much less sophisticated culturally than the Egyptians, did not have writing. We know from The Bible that they were a semi-nomadic shepherding people. We do have some remains of pottery and metalworking. Rock art and several sacred sites have been helpful to scholars in determining something about the religion in the area. Also, I found several very helpful books about flora and fauna. But I had to be a little more creative in my research for this part of the book.
I began by supposing that until the nineteenth century, when modernization came to Midyan, life among the Midyanite tribes probably had not changed much for thousands of years. Then I found books written by a number of authors, including Sir Richard F Burton, T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Alois Musil, all of whom spent time living among the Midyanites and exploring the terrain. Musil in particular drew detailed maps and wrote much about clan relations, magical beliefs, and customs. All of this rich information helped me draw a picture of the primitive and brutal world of Tzipporah’s home. The contrast between Tzipporah as a country girl and Miryam as a city girl also helped me explain and explore some of the tensions between them, only hinted at in The Bible.
I spent about six months doing research for Seven Days to the Sea. In the process I purchased many books, I utilized at least four different university libraries, and found material via the internet from as far away as Bahrain. Sometimes I felt more like a detective than an author! Perhaps my favorite piece of research involved learning about sheep obstetrics. Because Tzipporah is a shepherdess and her relationship to animals plays an important part in her story, I needed to know something about the subject. But the closest I had ever been to a live sheep was the zoo. I discovered a series of educational tapes made by two veterinarians for people studying animal husbandry. Unfortunately, no library was willing to lend them to me so I had to purchase them myself from a livestock supply catalogue. To this day I am still on their mailing list!