The Exodus: Which Miracle is Greater?

The Exodus story contains numerous miracles. But one of the biggest miracles involved in taking the Exodus story literally is only likely to be noticed if you try to correlate the Exodus story in the Bible with external evidence from ancient Egypt, the history of which is well documented not only by royal and other formal inscriptions, but also in surviving correspondence, fiscal transaction records, and other textual as well as archaeological evidence.

To treat the Exodus story as literal, factual history, one would have to believe that at some point God devastated the agriculture, economy, and military of Egypt, and yet somehow not only no king but no other person saw fit to mention these events in a letter.

Which is the greater miracle? Believing that God sent plagues and drowned soldiers? Or believing that God ensured that no one in Egypt made any mention of these occurrences and that no shred of tangible archaeological evidence would be left?

It doesn’t seem to me that you can believe in the one without the other. And if believing the latter miracle seems too much for you, then a non-literal reading of the Exodus story, which doesn’t treat it as factual history, would seem the best path for you to take.

  • Paul Braterman

    It would be the best path to take anyway, unless you want to believe in a God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and then then slaughters every first born in Egypt as punishment when he acts accordingly. 

  • Revans

    Although I don’t necssarily agree with your full conclusion, Peter Enns had some interesting thoughts and wrote:

    “A perspective I find helpful, at least for some issues, and that both Hoffmeier and

    Kitchen refer to, is what may be called the “mythologizing of history”19 as opposed to the “historicizing of myth.” Both argue that Exodus, specifically that which concerns Israel’s departure from Egypt, is not a rehearsal of a mythic drama dressed in fictional historical garb, as is sometimes asserted. The opposite is the case: it is a historical event that is recounted in ANE mythic categories…”

  • Daniel

    I brought this problem and other archaeological/historical difficulties to the attention of an inerrantist I know. He told me he had a “perfect” explanation for the scarcity of evidence to validate a literal view of Exodus. He said the Egyptians were so utterly humiliated at their defeat by slaves and their foreign god that they destroyed all of the evidence. Essentially, it was a huge cover-up. To me, that seems extremely unlikely, given that the Egyptians couldn’t even cover up the reign of Akhenaten, despite their efforts to expunge him from history.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Daniel, the problem is even worse than your inerrantist friend acknowledges, since we have correspondence and other documents from the Ramesside and other periods in Egyptian history when some have tried to place the Exodus. A cover-up would have had to eliminate not merely official record but even letters indicating mutual mourning over firstborn sons, devastated crops, and dead soldier husbands. 

      Paul D., there is indeed the possibility that some historical events and reminiscences contributed to what turned into the Exodus story as we know it. The question of whether some historical experiences could be at the core of the tradition is a rather different one than the question of whether the story as it stands is a factual report of historical events much as they unfolded. The relationship of the expulsion of the Hyksos to the origins of a people who self-identified as Israel is a fascinating, difficult and complex one.

  • Paul D.

    Egyptian versions of the myth (e.g. Manetho), which portrayed Moses and the Canaanite invaders as a threat and a heresy that had to be driven from Egypt, are actually more accurate in their historical details (places, names of Pharaohs, etc.).

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  • Paul D.

    James, I agree with what you say (albeit with less knowledge on the subject than you). I was mainly addressing Revans and thinking back to a paper by P.R. Davies in *Did Moses Speak Attic*, which suggests (if I understand Davies correctly) that the story in Exodus is a combination of at least two Jewish versions of a common myth that was also known to the Egyptians — who in turn had their own versions that made the Egyptians out to be the good guys.

    Naturally, the stories are influenced by historical events and situations as perceived by their respective peoples, but it is in practice futile to seek out, or even claim the unprovable existence of, a historical kernel that will somehow validate the story as mythologized history. 

    We should just appreciate the stories for what they are, and perhaps use them to see through the eyes of the storyteller and his audience. Unfortunately, this is very difficult for Christians to do if they have been raised (as many have) to simultaneously hold the Bible as authoritative and to believe that a mere story cannot be authoritative.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    James, the Egyptians did miss some large events. The eruption of Thera, judging from geologic surveys, would have been spectacular with tidal waves rivaling those that hit Japan recently, a column of smoke and fire, and explosions, all of which would be observable from Egypt, and there would have been meteorological effects as well.
    Some think it inspired the myth of Atlantis or other Greek myths (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thera_eruption ), but if so, it has been much distorted, though corroborations can be made between the geologic and traditional history. But there is no clear record of it in Egyptian text or any other. It has also been invoked in cases trying to demonstrate a historical Exodus, with the historic eruption being described in metaphor or somewhat distorted so that the miracles are all explained by natural events. This has has not gained wide acceptance among academic scholars, but is popular with the public. Would it have been part of the inspiration for the story of the 10 plagues in the Exodus story? Any tale of a divine punishment of a society, Atlantis, Sodom, Iram of many Pillars, are derived from the oral accounts of past disasters, but it’s only a creative reading of the text that that gives us this, and the scenario’s suggested often rely on such sheer coincidence that it seem that miracles is being suggested, but achieved though scientific means.  But that we don’t have an unambiguous reference to such a powerful event shows that are records of Egypt’s history are incomplete for this era, even regarding large scale prodigies.  
     ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagues_of_Egypt#Natural_explanations  )
    I think the better arguments against the Exodus being a historic event described by the bible are
    1.       The story as it is now known appears to have been adapted from three different versions of the same basic legend. The narrative now told was never the intention of the original sources.
    2.       The dates proposed by analyzing biblical clues have led to the exodus occurring during well-known historical periods or having the period of Judges during a time when Egypt tightly controlled Canaan. Only a small number of people could have gone unnoticed so long, not coalitions of tribes.  
    3.       The number of people given for the Exodus could not have been supported by the land except by miracles.
    There are a number of other arguments too. I would say your right James, but we have to narrow our focus on this period of history during the Ramesside period. The Exodus did not happen then in any capacity close to what is described (and keep in mind the Exodus and the stories of Joshua and Judges mention not Egyptian presence in Canaan even though Canaan was an Egyptian colony until 1150, so really, these tales don’t seem to describe the time prior to then at all.)

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  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    James:
    I think short, sweet, direct posts like this would do others a great favor if at the bottom of the post you listed 4 or 5 bulleted “further readings” or “suggested readings” titles with perhaps brief annotations and linked to a book seller.  Then we could link literalists back to this post as example of a Christianity with very different vision than their own and they could explore further.
    Just a thought.  Great post.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      It’s a good idea, Sabio – but it is much more challenging to link to the absence of evidence than to evidence! :-) But seriously, I would have liked to link to Lester Grabbe’s article called (after a Latin title) “If the Exodus from Egypt Really Happened.” It treats the text literally and highlights what the implications should have been if it happened that way.

      I also should have linked to something about the discovery of Ramses II’s eldest son’s remains. He died of a head trauma, rather than a plague or something of that sort. Of course, Ramses II’s reign is not the only place where some have tried to place the Exodus, but it was one of the more plausible, but as with all proposed dates, here some things don’t match up with the Biblical record.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I could have sworn that there are several books which discuss “The Exodus Myth” but I could not remember them.  But maybe linking to any “Mythicists” just comes hard for you!  (just kidding).
    But like many things, to really understand the issue, a reader would have to read a few history texts, a few archeology texts, and some Biblical criticism texts before being able to fully grasp the understanding of the Exodus as being myth.  Perhaps there is not one book making it simple for believers.
    I know there have been several attempts to explore the exaggeration, if not the total myth creating of a “King David”.Thanks for the loooooooong link.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think I have developed a tendency to link mostly to things which can be read online. I should indeed start including something more bibliographical, since I know this blog has readers that will hunt down books that are of interest.

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Anonymous

    When I was a youngster my dad brought up the problem of how many people Exodus said lived in Egypt and pointed out that it would be a geographic impossibility. My parent’s fundie church was really unsure how to answer, but since my dad wasn’t baptized and was therefore going to roast in hell, he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about :)

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  • Jo

    what kind of archaeological evidence are you looking for concerning drowned soldiers?  

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Jo, I would not expect archaeological evidence necessarily, but would expect there to be some evidence in some Egyptian text that Egyptian life was affected by the loss of its army. Wouldn’t you?

  • Gary

    This is one reason I like to read this blog. The Hyksos connection is great info. I read Josephus’s “Against Apion”, but never connected this to Exodus. This seems like a similar “two-sided” story, like 2 Kings 19:35, Hezekiah’s story, and the Assyrian account. One, God killed multitudes of Assyrians. Two, Hezekiah paid a bribe to save Jerusalem and his skin. History is in the eye of the ones who write it.

  • http://www.ajswoboda.com A.J. Swoboda

    Dr. McGrath,

    Thanks as always for your proding work. I have responded on my own blog. Feel free to respond if the time is available.

    Grace.

    http://ajswoboda.com/blog/text/13452096

  • jo

    oh, i guess i was just reading what you said literally–’no shred of tangible archaeological evidence would be left.’    
    not having a comprehensive compendium of ancient egyptian letters and historical resources at my disposal…but no, the absence of confirmation does not mean something did not happen.   your logic seems flawed.  you posit you know it did not happen because you cannot verify it from an outside source, so therefore it did not happen.   and then since you KNOW it did not happen, you must view the account as a myth so that you can interpret it.   if it didn’t happen, then why bother?   the logical conclusion to these stories having been inventions of fiction is that they are irrelevant.   why do biblical archaeologists seem to work so hard to disprove the Bible, and then still continue to study it?    

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      When a major event is supposed to have taken place according to a text, and it is the sort of event that ought to have left a trace in texts and the archaeological record, then absence of evidence raises doubts about historicity. It doesn’t disprove historicity (history doesn’t really work in terms of “proof” anyway), but it makes it significantly less likely.

      Most archaeologists are happy to find the Bible’s information confirmed, as it certainly is in places. Very many would be delighted if the evidence confirmed their belief in the traditional account of the Exodus. That it does not and they acknowledge this honestly is to their credit. They are not working to disprove the Bible (a few may be, but most are not – quite the contrary), they are simply being honest about where the evidence points.

      As always, new evidence could change things. But that the Exodus did not occur as described in the Bible is the best conclusion a historian can draw based on the evidence we have.

  • jo

    sounds like believing in biblical archaeology is inconsistent with believing the Bible.    i haven’t read any of the ‘most archaeologists’ who are so giddy in finding the Bible’s information confirmed, most of the writing on this i see seems quite consistent on this same logic line.  archaeologists haven’t discoverd six hundred egyptian battle helmets at the bottom of the red sea, so therefore the egyptian army was not drowned.   Josephus didn’t report on something so therefore the Bible facts are wrong.     josephus in the metaphorical sense.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Archaeology is a component of historical investigation, and historical investigation looks at evidence and follows it where it leads. It cannot simply “believe the Bible” nor should it. 

      Christians shouldn’t either, since doing so has often led us to defend slavery, geocentrism, and other things of which we are now embarrassed. The appropriate object of Christian faith is God, not the Bible.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        james,

        you should do a post called “When I stopped believing”
        that would be about disbelieving biblical ineffancy, biblical literalism, exclusivism and other doctrines of conservatives. for i imagine you believed some of these to some degree once. you confession and testimony may be helpful several types of folks.

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          That’s a good idea. I might call it “When (and What) I Stopped Believing” to avoid potential confusion and misunderstanding.  :-)
          The problem, of course, is that it was a gradual process. I’m not sure that there is a moment that can be pinpointed. But I know that among the most crucial things that allowed me to leave behind Biblical inerrancy, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and so on, and to do so without jettisoning my Christian faith in the process, was that there were relatively conservative Evangelicals who pointed to the evidence in the Bible itself against these views. That made a big difference. 

          After that, a key moment was reading Keith Ward’s What the Bible Really Teaches which helped me stop apologizing for not taking the Bible literally, and to realize more fully that those who claim to be doing so aren’t and should not be allowed to define what it means to be a Christian. It was not so much that I didn’t have all the information needed to realize that on my own, but that book helped it all click into place.

  • jo

    believing the Bible hasn’t ‘led’ anyone to indulge in evil.   people who want to work evil make their own arguments and take bits from the Bible to bolster their agenda.   the historical investigation you are referring to utilizes remnants of complex ancient texts that are given a great deal of credence, though they may be subjective, tainted, incomplete, writen to appease a monarch, or may be just plain poorly translated.    the ancient texts seem to be given more authenticity than the Bible.   i would think the appropriate object of Christian faith is not ‘God’, but following God, serving Him and subjugating our will to His.   where do we learn of that?   well, we could try the Bible.   
    it is disingenous to say one should not ‘believe the Bible,’ while giving credence to other ancient writings; that seems no less an act of faith, just a different faith.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You are mistaken. No historian worth their salt simply gives credence to any ancient source. Nothing is taken on faith. Investigation, evidence, and deductive reasoning are involved, not faith.

  • jo

    sorry james, i guess i hit a nerve.   yes, it is faith, though obviously that is a bad word in this community.    whatever rigor you might attach to the study, you are still dealing with a lot of assumption.   biblical archaeologists accept extant writings on faith and use them to discredit biblical accounts, and they give these materials greater authority than the Bible.   ‘deductive reasoning’ is another word for pure conjecture and subjectivity, and from what i’ve read on these blogs, it usually comes down on the side of declaring the Bible accounts to be historically impossible.    based upon, what?   the fact that it cannot be verified by an outside source.   that’s hardly a reason to call something impossible.  

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Jo, you seem not to grasp how history works. It doesn’t declare things impossible and it doesn’t take things on faith. Its assumptions are that it is appropriate to look for evidence and to use that evidence as a guide to reconstructing what happened. This is, I might add, a Biblical principle as well: it took the testimony of two or three to demonstrate a claim about someone’s guilt. Lack of evidence and/or testimony was considered important, as it is today – the appropriate course of action is to declare the claim of the one source “not proven” (not “impossible).

      I know that opponents of history and science like to claim that everything is subjective and conjecture. But anyone who knows anything about these areas of scholarly activity will know that such claims are simply false. And I suspect that you know it too, and would not reject the attempts of criminal investigations to figure out what happened based on evidence as mere “conjecture.” They can be wrong, but no one denies that, in history, science, or criminology. They involve drawing the best conclusions we can based on the evidence we have.

  • jo

    this is not about how ‘history works,’ but what we were talking about is the line of reasoning is see regularly in this and other blogs.   do you assert that you (not ‘history,’ this is your blog here) are not making a declarative statement, that one must choose either to believe the miracles cited in the Bible account, or, wait, ‘an even bigger miracle,’ that these accounts were not recorded in other historical writings.   you really don’t see the pompous sarcasm in that?   you really think that is unprejudiced and objective?   or is it just meant to be provocative and objectionable?    i don’t know all the opponents of history or science, nor would i count myself as one (is there a club or something, did i miss a meeting, or am i being classified by some presupposition of yours?), i make my own observations of your blog.  you have cited ‘deductive reasoning’ as a route to your conclusions.  that is subjective, and your conjecture in this issue is that if there were the death of an army it would have been recorded.   well, it may have been, but if you want to explore conjecture that can lead you to reasons why maybe it was not; you tell me, you’re the scholar–would the pharoah have wanted to broadcast this event, or keep it quiet?   lack of external evidence does not disprove the event.   the fact is you just don’t know from your extrabiblical sources whether or not this happened, so you really have no place in saying it did not.   the Biblical reference you cite above refers to testimony in a criminal court of law.   the Israelites didn’t ask for witnesses in helping them believe their bible.   

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You are trying to change the subject. This is a blog about the historical and other scholarly study of the Bible, written by someone who works professionally in that field. You are free to dismiss any conclusions you disagree with as mere conjecture, but you will not be very effective in persuading anyone who does not already agree with you and share your presuppositions – who, of course, then do not need persuading by you anyway. 

      My point in the blog post was not about what Pharaoh would or would not have recorded. It is about the failure of any personal correspondence, fiscal records, or any other kind of text to reflect the sorts of devastation the Book of Exodus says Egypt experienced. If the United States were devastated by plagues and its army destroyed, one could well imagine official records being destroyed at some later point. But would such a catastrophe be mentioned nowhere? Really? Honestly?

      As for your claim about what Israelites did or did not need with respect to the Bible or believe regarding it, that is a good example of mere conjecture on your part. What evidence we have regarding what people have thought down the ages does not entirely support your claim.

  • jo

    you have said that this event was not recorded in extrabiblical literature.  but that is certainly not all you say.   re-read your post.  you clearly denigrate the idea that it happened at all.  the first assertion can be respected as scholarly observation.  the second is theological interpretation that is not objectively supported by the first.    as for the Bible being full of unbelievers, Hebrews 11 would seem to refute that.   

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The Bible being full of unbelievers? What on earth are you talking about? Which of the individuals mentioned in Hebrews 11 is praised for “believing the Bible”?

  • jo

    there is a big wide space between ‘inerrancy,’ and interpreting Biblical accounts as pure fiction.   meanwhile, i have real work to do, i don’t have a chair.   must be nice, but kind of lonely and lacking perspective.   

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I have real work to do too (I don’t know what you think my chair has to do with that), but since I consider these issues important and my work in the classroom is impacted by the circulation of misinformation and simplistic perspectives online, I make time to address matters like this one on my blog.

    There is indeed a big wide space between inerrancy and treating the Biblical accounts as pure fiction. As you’ll see, my post was about the former, not the latter nor the space in between. It was about what we would expect if there were plagues and an exodus of precisely the sort described in the Bible, in all its details.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Jo just offered us a very good example, under James’ able guidance, of the style of thinking that Bible worshipers have to offer.

    You see James, a “Suggested Readings” tab with books in categories with very brief annotations would be most useful.  For example: “Books to Educate Conservative Christians” would be nice.

    PS: Boy I hate Patheos pop-ups sales windows.  This is such a cheap site — I hope it is financially benefitting you James.  It is a pain.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I consider it a pain too, but there is some small financial benefit, which doesn’t quite counterbalance the nuisance of such ads, but it does provide a tiny bit of comfort while complaining about them. :-)

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Yes, there is joy is suffering together.  That is why I figure liberal Christians still sit on hard pews on hot summer days. :-)

  • Thin-ice

    I really dislike biblical literalists like Jo interrupting the intelligent, and thoughtful discussion going on in these comments. It’s such a diversion to try to explain basic concepts like evidence and archaeology, and that the Bible is not exempt from the basic forensic activity required, even demanded, to verify it’s stories, like ANY stories from the historical writings of ANY culture. Jo, these people don’t have an agenda to disprove the Bible. It’s no great triumph or goal of theirs, to prove that a particular story is a myth. Their job is to follow the evidence, pure and simple. If any evidence could be found to verify the O.T. version of the Exodus, they and others would have gladly admitted that. But there is none.

    I’m no scholar, but simple common sense and knowledge of logistics makes it absurd to believe that 2.5 million people could survive wandering in the desert (especially THAT desert!) for 40 years, and leave virtually NO trace behind for archaeologists to discover. (Or did God remove the evidence afterwards, to test our faith? Hmmm . . . )

    And it’s not just that one aspect of the story that causes us to doubt it’s reality, it is ALL the facets of the story which fail the evidence and examination test. James (and others) has mentioned most of them in his comments, and you seem to stick your fingers in your ears and loudly sing “la, la, la”, not wanting to hear or read the evidence that is plainly in front of you.

    Oh, and Sabio, conservative inerrantists won’t read anything from a bibliography that they think undermines their belief in their sacred book, even if the content is impeccably accurate and up-to-date. “Everything in the Bible is literally true, damn it, and nothing will change my mind!”

    • Garry Matheny

      We are told it would have been very difficult for such a multitude wandering
      around out on the desert to have lived for more than a short time. Yes, and the same could be said about one person out on the desert. They are forgetting God, Who supplied water, meat (quail) and daily bread (Nehemiah 9:20). They believe that encampments of such a multitude would have left some sort of “trash” for them to follow, but they are still trying to figure out which route the children of Israel were on. “Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not.” (Nehemiah 9:21) There was no thrown away, worn-out clothing, no piles of leftover manna as it melted (Exodus 16:21), and they left no “soda bottles or gum wrappers” for them to follow. As others have brought out, the Israelites the critics are looking for never existed, because they do not believe God provided for them, but the truth is Israel “lacked nothing”! Their inability to find something is what they offer as proof! They only recently found (2002) the “workers’ village” for the pyramids of the Giza Plateau. It is estimated this town housed 20,000 people and was built out of bricks, whereas the children of Israel lived in tents. And this discovery only came after they had searched every inch of the Giza Plateau for the last two hundred years of archaeology. See this site with new info on the Exodus = http://www.sinai-horeb.com/

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Your comment and the web site you linked to are missing the point. It is not simply a matter of not finding stuff dropped in the Sinai peninsula or elsewhere by wandering Hebrews, or an acknowledgment of the power of their God on an Egyptian stele. We have substantial textual records from Egypt and in none of them do we see mention or evidence of the impact that the plagues, the en masse departure of slaves, or the drowning of the army would have had on the nation and on individuals.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Thin-ice,
    Many ex-Christians and Progressive Christians came out of their old Conservative Christianity via writings by fellow Christians who no longer drink the Kool-Aid.  Heck, some Progressive Christians have benefited by the writings of non-Christian Biblical scholars.  And those Conservatives who don’t read this stuff, may sometime hear a friend speak well of this material or read James’ site and decide years later to take a look.  We all change in subtle, often slow and odd ways.

    So I think a list on this site would help those sitting on the fence, for sure.

  • Gmmatheny

    There is a new location for the Red Sea/Yam Suf crossing, Exodus
    route and God’s mountain. Please see web site = http://www.Sinai-Horeb.com


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