The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their travel to the Promised Land is one of the key events in Jewish religious history, and, therefore, in christian belief as well.
But did it actually happen? Did something like 2 million people cross the Red Sea and through the Sinai, aided and guided by miraculous interventions by God?
Scholars from various disciplines have argued about the facts for years now, but perhaps there is some sort of consensus emerging. Perhaps.
History and belief
Historical study isn’t like science – most historical events can’t be repeated like a science experiment. So when dealing with an event like the exodus, historians have to depend on the often meagre evidence available – archaeological remains, artefacts, ancient texts, often written a long time after the event, names, etc.
Miraculous events generally leave no miraculous trace. Even if they occurred, the evidence for the miraculous is likely to be close to non-existent. Perhaps something unusual occurred, but was it an intervention by God, or was it a coincidence; has it been exaggerated?
Take the crossing of the Red Sea as an example. Perhaps the whole story is a legend. Or perhaps God did part the Red Sea miraculously. The event left such a lasting memory in Jewish lore that maybe something did occur. But what can historians investigate? There is the evidence of the scriptural text, but historians want substantiation from some other source. So some look for a natural explanation for the parting of the Red Sea, and some argue that a geological event such as a volcano or earthquake, or a tsunami or wind storm might have had that result, and computer models apparently show this may have been possible.
But whatever the outcome of such investigations, they will always fall short of demonstrating the full range of supernatural events associated with the exodus.
So each of us will be left to form our beliefs, or disbelief, based on the evidence we have. It is that evidence, not belief or disbelief, that I am discussing here.
Maximalists and minimalists
Up until the twentieth century, most Old Testament history and archeology was based on a belief that the Old Testament was a true historical record, and the historical and archaeological evidence would support this. But gradually scholars began to have doubts – archaeological evidence was missing, dates didn’t add up, it was hard to fit some parts of Old Testament history with other historical records, and some anachronisms were found in the Old Testament.
In the last few decades, the scholars tended to separate into maximalists, who thought the Old Testament text contained good historical evidence, and the minimalists, who wouldn’t accept the text unless it was supported by other, preferably hard archaeological, evidence. Many other scholars, perhaps the majority, took a middle position.
The historical doubts about the exodus
Apart from the Biblical text, there is little evidence for the exodus, and some against it.
Archaeologists have found no evidence of a large group living for 40 years in the Sinai desert or the area just south of Palestine. Normally the lack of archaeological evidence means little – very little of ancient remains are still intact and discoverable – but in this case, experts believe that something should remain at locations like Kadesh Barnea, where 2 million Israelites are recorded to have camped for many years.
The biggest difficulty is the sheer number of people. If 2 million really travelled to Canaan, and they walked 2 metres apart and 100 abreast, the column would be 40 km long. Walking at 4 km/hour would mean the last of the group would leave 10 hours after the first. Addressing a crowd of 2 million would be impossible. Whatever else, it is hard not to conclude that the numbers are greatly overstated.
It is also hard to fit in the beginning and end of the story. It isn’t clear when this could have occurred and who could have been the Pharoah, and the loss of 2 million Hebrew slaves from a nation of barely that number would surely have been notable enough to be recorded somewhere. Likewise, the dates of the conquest of Canaan don’t seem to work, and the account in Joshua of the supposed conquest is not much confirmed by archaeology, and even contested in other parts of the Bible.
Reading the text more thoughtfully
But while minimalists may be right in rejecting the full story told in the text, this doesn’t mean there is no useful information in it. And so some recent work has taken a closer look at the non-archaeological evidence.
A conference on the exodus, held at the University of California in 2013, and the subsequent book published in 2015, contained papers by many leading scholars, minimalists, maximalists, and centrists, from a wide range of disciplines. The books editor, anthropology professor Thomas Levy, wrote:
“There was also considerable agreement that an Exodus event or series of events took place on a much smaller scale than the one depicted in the Hebrew Bible.”
Now Professor Richard Friedman is about to publish The Exodus, which outlines the evidence for the historical exodus. Like Levy, Friedman has concluded that a smaller group of “Hebrews” did indeed leave Egypt and travel to Canaan.
The new historical arguments for the exodus
There were Semites in Egypt at that time
It is known that different peoples from the area of Canaan and nearby were living in Egypt, and travelling to and from Egypt, in the middle and later second millennium BCE. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if a coherent group left Egypt, perhaps fleeing oppression.
The Levites were one such group
This to me is the most interesting aspect of Friedman’s argument.
The Levites in Israel were the group associated with temple worship, and the one tribe that didn’t have its own territory. Friedman points out that it is the Levites who commonly have Egyptian names (Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Phinehas and others), and Levites who are associated with circumcision, the tabernacle and the Ark, all of which have parallels in Egyptian religious practices.
So there seems to be a definite association between the Levites and Egypt.
Levitical sections of the Old Testament contain the stories
Many scholars, including Friedman, believe that the Old Testament is composed of four main sources, commonly labelled J, E, D & P. (The first two are named Jahwist and Elohist after the names for God found in those sources and are the earliest; Deuteronomic is named after that book, and Priestly is based on the view that it was written by a priest.)
Friedman says that the E, D & P sources are related to the Levites, and it is they that tell the stories of the plagues and the exodus, which include episodes also found in Egyptian lore: “the hidden divine name, turning an inanimate object into a reptile, the conversion of water to blood, a spell of three days of darkness, death of the firstborn, parting of waters, death by drowning, and stories of quotas for brickmaking and the use of straw in mudbrick”.
These sources also give commands about slaves and aliens
The Levitical sources give all the Old Testament commands about slaves and aliens, and more than 50 times say that aliens are to be treated the same as Israelites “because you were aliens in Egypt”. No such statement is to be found in the J source or anywhere else in ancient Near Eastern law.
DNA studies show that most Jews have similar DNA to other modern day people of Canaanite descent (e.g. Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze). However, while “there is no clear Levite-specific genetic signature”, studies show that the Kohanim (Levites who descend directly from Aaron through their male line) have a distinctive DNA that “represents a unique founding lineage of the ancient Hebrews” (Hammer et al, 2009).
Friedman argues that this lends support to the hypothesis that Levites, especially the Kohanim, originated elsewhere than in Canaan.
So what happened …. perhaps?
The idea is that Israel in the last few centuries BCE was composed of tribes that originated in Canaan, plus Levites who travelled from Egypt and, though they may have conquered a few small settlements, generally assimilated into the existing population. This may explain why they were not recorded as having any land of their own, while the other tribes had clearly defined territories.
These Levites appear to have brought some religious ideas with them from Egypt, and these seem to have formed a significant basis of the monotheistic priestly sacrificial religion of the later Israelites and also some of their ethical beliefs related to caring for aliens and loving one’s neighbour.
On this hypothesis, the exodus story we have in the Tanakh and the Bible is ‘fictionalised history’ – an historical event that has been handed down and embellished as a foundational legend that provides a sense of identity for the Israelites, who were, after all, just minor players in the history of those times. We cannot know for sure how much of the story is historical and how much is legendary.
This interpretation of the evidence is not a consensus among scholars, but it may be moving towards one. The extremes of minimalism and maximalism are perhaps less accepted these days.
Is this a threat to christian belief?
If the exodus is a foundational belief for christianity, and yet many of the elements of the story are legendary, doesn’t this threaten the truth of christian belief?
I don’t see why. More than half a century ago, CS Lewis (who wasn’t a Biblical scholar, but was trained in ancient history and literature and expert in myth) said that the Hebrew Old Testament began with myth and something close to pagan religion. This was gradually purged and deepened, especially by the prophets, and slowly became more historical, until it more closely reflected the character of God and prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.
I think that broad picture is still reasonably accurate. It doesn’t actually matter how historical the early Old Testament is. History or myth/legend, or a combination of the two, can equally well prepare the ground for the coming of Jesus, which is well-based in history.
Christians who are uncomfortable with this approach can still hold to the historical accuracy of the exodus story in scripture. It will be based on faith rather than historical evidence, but that isn’t unreasonable if they don’t claim historical evidence that isn’t there.
But I think it would be better to put the historical question completely to one side once we are aware of the facts. The exodus is a foundational story for our faith, and it can teach truth whether it is seen as a legend or a fact, or a mixture. We don’t really need to decide or define. And we certainly don’t need to argue.
Graphic: Free Bible Images