Did the Exodus Happen? How “Historical Evidence” Might or Might Not Help

Did the Exodus Happen? How “Historical Evidence” Might or Might Not Help April 10, 2015

by Jared Byas

Exodus for Blog

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article (by Joshua Berman) suggesting the biblical exodus might have its root in an historical event. This isn’t exactly new, but what interested me was the primary reason given— the biblical text seems to be appropriating some Ramesses II propaganda (discovered early in the 20th century) to make a theological point.

Berman writes, “Both written accounts, hieroglpyhic in the case of the Kadesh inscriptions, Hebrew in the case of Exous chapters 14-15, follow a similar plot, sometimes line for line, and feature a sequence of motifs seen nowhere else in battle accounts of the ancient Near East.”

He then gives the following examples:

1. Ramesses’s frightened troops break ranks at the sight of the Hittite chariot force, explained in the same way Exodus describes how Israel cowers at the sight of the Egyptian chariots.

2. Ramesses pleas for divine help and is encouraged to proceed with victory assured, as does Moses.

3. After the victory, the troops return to survey the enemy corpses and offer up a hymn of praise. Both of these hymns use similar motifs, like “invoking his strong arm, and extolling him as the source of their strength and their salvation.”

As encouraging as these examples may or may not be, they cause apredicament for Evangelicals who insist on the historical accuracy, or at least the historical plausibility, of the exodus story.

On the one hand, co-opting Ramesside propaganda does provide evidence for something historical happening between the Israelites and Egyptians. Otherwise, Berman argues, how, or more importantly why, would the Israelites feel the need to co-opt it in the first place?

However, for the biblical author to co-opt Egyptian propaganda would mean that the exodus probably didn’t happen in the way the story is told in the book of Exodus, since it was more concerned to borrow Ramesside propaganda than document history. (And I’m leaving out the whole issue of just how much historicity the biblical account would contain.)

An analogous situation occurs concerning Canaanite extermination. The biblical rhetoric of complete annihilation matches the rhetoric of extrabiblical sources, namely the Mesha inscription, where Israel is utterly annihilated. (The same word herem–put to the ban, devote completely to the deityis used as in the biblical accounts). Yet Israel was clearly not annihilated, which suggests that both the biblical account and Mesha’s account are exaggerations and propagandistic. So again, the parallel suggests “something” happened but not what the Bible says happened.

This of course points up the larger question of how it’s too easy to allow historical or cultural evidence that supports your current conclusion about the Bible but dismiss the same type of evidence when it doesn’t. What do you do when it does both?


Photo | Exodus by Dennis Jarvis
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  • However, for the biblical author to co-opt Egyptian propaganda would mean that the exodus probably didn’t happen in the way the story is told in the book of Exodus, since it was more concerned to borrow Ramesside propaganda than document history.

    It’s important to note that if God is going to condescend to human ways of thinking and language, that means he cannot present a radically different way of thinking about reality all at once, BAM. Instead, he would have to somehow adapt to extant ways of thinking. I suspect that Donald Davidson’s 1973 On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme (1916 ‘citations’) is relevant, here. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method may also be relevant, in talking about “fusing horizons”. Charles Taylor is also big on this concept; The Malaise of Modernity is an easy-to-read instance of this. To add a theologian, Vincent Brümmer’s Speaking of a Personal God: An Essay in Philosophical Theology seems relevant.

  • James

    It’s a little like Darwinian evolution–something happened but we aren’t 100% sure in great detail exactly what at this point in time. There is now a scientific consensus that a Homo sapiens branch budded. The stories of Abraham, the patriarchs, Moses and the monarchy also spring from the Near Eastern (or African) soil of antiquity. We are mostly agreed on that. Hopefully more archeological detail like this will emerge–not to prove or disprove inerrancy per se but to help us discern the grand purposes of God in the world and our participation in them.

  • Stuart Blessman

    10 years ago the idea that the biblical exodus didn’t happen exactly verbatim as described in scripture would have terrified me. Now…yeah, more than likely it didn’t happen. That, and so many other things, I’m ok with.

  • copyrightman

    I saw that article too, and I really didn’t get it. No one doubts that ancient Hebrew culture interacted with Egyptian culture, as there are plenty of direct references to Egypt in the Biblical texts, as well as other more obvious textual borrowings and allusions. So why would some vague and tendentious structural similarities between Egyptian propaganda and the Biblical text say anything about the “historicity” of otherwise unrelated events? The claims seems to be that Ramses’ propaganda was really a “cover up” for the Exodus, which is the kind of claim you might see on the Discovery Channel rather than in scholarship.

    Even more fascinating was the locus of this article in the WSJ editorial pages. I read the WSJ almost every day. Lately, it seems to be granting editorial space to right wingish religious figures (at least Christian and Jewish ones). I suspect this piece has more to do with modern politics regarding the political state of Israel than with Biblical studies.

    • Andrew Dowling

      The WSJ editorial pages have long given space to right wing quacks . . Particularly on environmental issues.

      • This is actually true. I read a think tank report on the political views of Op-Eds in major newspapers, and WSJ actually scored as the most right wing. Go figure.

    • PNG

      I haven’t read the article (don’t subscribe) but I wouldn’t doubt that political cover ups have been going on for that long. No doubt a lot longer.

  • The Rambam and Saadia Geon have a principle that where the simple explanation of a verse does not make sense we have to go with allegory.

  • Ross

    Once again, probably nothing to do with the post, but….;

    The wrestling point for me, I suppose, at the moment, is surety in God. I’ve never quite got to the point that “scripture” is so damned sure and reliable that its God must be damned sure. Which I think is a bit of a poor generalisation for where Evanglicalinerrantamundelism is. In many ways this is really the wrong way round.

    I am fairly happy that “scripture” is neither inerrant (depending on the semantic foundation re this word) nor particularly accurate.

    So I do have to wonder about the whole principle of revelation and how this gets us to God. There are flaws in “scripture” from a modern historical understanding. There are also “competitors” in the “religion” market.

    So if we can’t discover God from base principles from ourselves (which I personally think is the best/only way of doing it). We have to look outward to the “market” to find the best fit.

    I can’t put up an effort for elsewhere, due to lack of knowledge, but can start for Judeo/Jesusology.

    1, Genesis the beginning. There is a World which may or may not have come from nothing and has some level of complexity, including plants and animals and people (who seem a bit different from plants/rocks/animals). The people recognise that they have shame, or at least are a bit guilty about something. I recognise this on a daily basis. Now the World seems a bit cocked up and not right. Maybe something to do with why the people are shameful.

    2, Exodus. Slavery seems bad, there is not a lot good for it and God wants his people to escape it. Having worked for the civil service, state education and other organisations, I can see that escape from slavery is a good thing. I am ever so lucky to have never been an actual slave, but so much in society seems to try and enslave us, whether or not “slavery” is institutional or hidden.

    3, The Law, Sinai. For some reason, eating prawns etc which is bad and some good things were directed to us from God. Somehow God seems to enter into our godless world and say that we need his help to live our lives otherwise we’re gonna **** up bad time. So to some extent we’re not very good at sorting things out.

    4, Other stuff. Having decided to give a certain group of people a perfect physical land to live in, this never actually happened. God eventually decided a bunch of foreigners would pop over and kick most people who were living in the “promised land” out. They would then eventually return, but find that “His Glorious Spirit” no longer dwelt with them, even though they built the best temple ever. There is reason to believe that this was due to his “chosen people” being naughty.

    5, The Jesus people. Having realised that shouting from afar wasn’t always effective, God decided to pop down and talk to people face to face. In doing so, he created massive problems as to what the “trinity” might be and got nailed to a tree for his efforts. Possibly because a lot of powerful people really didn’t want to know what God thinks. To some extent he said that people ought to recognise him and be nice to each other. This seems to be an unpopular method of making friends.

    Is any of the above plausible or should I try another religion?

    If only God would make it a bit easier! Such as printing the instructions on each of us when we’re born, or writing it in the sky.

  • Jonathan Bernier

    I have long been impressed by the general resonances between the Genesis and Exodus accounts and what we can know about ancient Israel on other grounds. For instance, Genesis tells us that the ancestors of the Israelites moved back and forth between Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt; we know that such transhumant movements were not uncommon at various times in the Bronze Age. The Israelites are presented as having a special connection to the region of Canaanite; not surprisingly their language is a form of Northwest Semitic, like those of the Canaanite peoples, and their religion has at least a family resemblance with those of Canaan. Genesis has the Israelites moving from Canaan and settling the eastern delta region; we know that there was a substantial Canaanite population in that area. Exodus presents them as having some influence when first arriving but later becoming slaves; Canaanite influence over the eastern delta likewise waxed and waned over the centuries. Exodus has the Israelites fleeing slavery and moving back towards Canaan; it was not unknown for slaves to escape and flee. I see very little reason to think that early Israel could not in part be descended from slaves who undertook such flight back to Canaan.

    Now, whether this happened in the single dramatic event envisioned by Exodus, that’s a different question. My pet theory is that the polity that came to be called Israel started in part as the end-point of a sort of Late Bronze underground railroad that ran from the land of Goshen up to the Canaanite highlands, where they also mingled with various persons fleeing taxation, corvée, etc., under
    the city-states that dominated the region at that time. This might also help
    account for their suspicion of kingship: if they fled to this region specifically
    to evade state rule then they might have been less-than-inclined to institute
    states of their own. But as I said, this is just a pet theory, and not one that
    I’d push particularly far.

    • PNG

      This is quite similar to the account presented in a recent PBS show on the Torah. The archaeology suggests that the Canaanite city state vassals of Egypt were in decline in that period and that they may have been overthrown by their own slaves. It was suggested that those slaves may have been joined (or led) by escaped slaves from Egypt who came to Canaan by way of Midian. The recent book, 1177 B.C., which I am part way through, looks at the general collapse of civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, the HIttites, the Mycenaens, etc) at about that time. Whatever weakened all of them at the time may have made the Canaanite states susceptible to being overthrown.

      • Jonathan Bernier

        This goes back to Norman Gottwald, whom I will admit has influenced my thinking to a large extent, although it requires some major corrections in a lot of ways. I am sympathetic to the view that the Bronze Age Collapse is related in some way to Israelite origins. Ultimately though I’m a NT scholar by training so I’m a bit of a dilettante in these discussions, but it is really quite fascinating.

  • I’m “late to this party” so will be brief. Your suggestions make complete sense. Tho I’ve focused a lot more on the NT than Heb. Bible, the use of story-vis-a-vis-history seems basically continuous, similar: Take something either recent or distant past and USE it, with embellishment, exaggeration and various “spin”, to make the point that supports your cause or a contemporary need. The Exodus probably did happen, but on a scale of maybe one-hundredth or so of the biblical story, and almost certainly without 10 plagues (maybe some related conditions however), the miracle of the Red Sea parting, etc.

    If well over a million people wandered the Sinai for 40 years (or even less), I think it’s quite reasonable to expect SOME archaeological evidence and apparently we have none. Can anyone point out any?

  • R Vogel

    Do you have any opinion on Richard Elliot Friedman’s hypothesis that the ‘Israelites’ referred to in the Exodus story may have just been the Levites? I have no basis for evaluating his claims, but they sounded somewhat compelling.

    Sidebar: Just got and began reading TBTMS. Enjoying it so far….

  • DeWarrior

    I’m genuinely curious – how does one decide that the Jewish version is co-opted from the Egyptian version rather than vice versa?