The Exodus Didn’t Happen, and Why That Doesn’t Matter

Bible_UnearthedA lot of times, it seems progressive Christians get caught between two sides each screaming pronouncements at each other.

On the one hand, there are the conservatives, with their line drawing and their hard-and-fast pronouncements: The Bible is inerrant! Evolution is a lie! You’re probably going to hell!

On the other, there are the liberals, no less enamored with their own lines and declarations: The resurrection didn’t happen! Jesus wasn’t really divine!

Progressives share a lot in common with liberals – certainly more than conservatives – but are a little leery with the hollowing out of the faith that seems to occur over there, just as progressives are leery with the view of God that seems to govern the inflexible fundamentalism of the conservative camp.

So we sit in the middle, and when someone asks us a question, we tend to step aside.

“Well, that’s not the right question …” or, “It depends how you look at it,” or, “Each of us is going to have a different answer based on our own biases and experiences.”

I find myself doing this quite a bit. A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I thought Israel’s exodus from Egypt – not an unimportant part of the Bible, as you may know – actually happened. And my answer began with something like, “Well, you never know for sure,” or something like that. After all, anything can happen, right? Progressives may not be sure about miracles, but we’re not really comfortable ruling them out definitively. Maybe the exodus did happen. Maybe hundreds of thousands of men, women and children spent 40 years in the fairly small space of the Sinai Peninsula and didn’t leave a single archaeological trace of their presence. Who knows, right?

Here’s the problem, though: The exodus didn’t happen.

If any other purported event – i.e., one that wasn’t recorded in the Bible – was supported by exactly zero evidence, and in fact contradicted by whatever evidence did exist, we would say it didn’t happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive to the faith and feelings of those who might not be ready to handle the significant lack of historical accuracy in much, if not all, of the Old Testament, but if you’re here reading this, you’re probably OK with handling some hard things, so let’s talk about why the exodus didn’t happen – and why that’s not really a problem.

First, I cannot recommend highly enough The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (Free Press, 2001). Finkelstein is an archaeologist who heads up excavations at Megiddo, and Silberman is a scholar who has written several books about the intersection between faith and archaeology. So these guys know their stuff.

If you’re interested in history, and you’re interested in how archaeology fits with the Bible, you should read this book. It’s clear, cogent and easy to read, and it moves the discussion well beyond 1970, where conservative apologists like Josh McDowell seem intent to leave it – not coincidentally, I’m sure, because 1970 is when the scholarly consensus that archaeology generally supported the Bible’s historicity began to collapse. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a better book to provide not only an overview of where biblical archaeology stands presently, but how that differs from where it stood 40 years ago.

Chapter 2 is titled simply, “Did the Exodus Happen?” and this is what it says: “No.”

OK, it says a little more than that.

Finkelstein and Silberman certainly are not hostile to the biblical text, regardless of how they may feel about the notion of divine inspiration. They are not afraid to point out that the Old Testament does indeed contain many descriptions that seem to comport well with what we know of life in the Ancient Near East at the time.

The problem, they note, is that such descriptions apply to wide swaths of time. So just because the pastoral setting of the patriarchs seems accurate doesn’t mean the author had to have lived in 2000 B.C.E. Likewise, there is plenty of evidence for semitic tribes journeying from Canaan to Egypt, where some became rulers and others slaves – just as the Bible describes Jacob’s family doing, with Joseph becoming a ruler and his descendants becoming slaves. But, Finkelstein and Silberman argue, that’s because this happened all the time.

The basic situation described in the Exodus saga – the phenomenon of immigrants coming down to Egypt from Canaan and settling in the eastern border regions of the [Nile] delta – is abundantly verified in the archaeological finds and historical texts. From earliest recorded times throughout antiquity, Egypt beckoned as a place of shelter and security for the people of Canaan at times when drought, famine or warfare made life unbearable or even difficult (52).

This isn’t surprising. Canaan receives rain only at specific times of the year, and if it fails to fall, as often happens, famine becomes a big problem. By contrast, Egypt was watered by the constant flow of one of the world’s biggest rivers and was therefore a little more stable in its ability to provide food. As immigrants moved there, some became powerful and others less so, even being conscripted into forced labor for the ruling class. “The demographic patterns along the eastern delta,” Finkelstein and Silberman write, “of Asiatic people immigrating to Egypt to be conscripted to forced work in the delta … reflect the age-old rhythms in the region, including later centuries,” long after the Exodus is supposed to have occurred, but perhaps closer to when the story would have been written (54).

So many of those who argue for archaeological support of the exodus point to the Hyksos, a group of Canaanites who emigrated to Egypt, rose to prominence then were driven away by the Egyptians around 1570 B.C.E. The problem is that date doesn’t work with biblical chronology, based on 1 Kings 6:1, which places construction of the temple at 480 years after the exodus and requires a date somewhere around 1440, 130 years after the Hyksos were expelled. Further, the biblical description of the Israelites building the city of Raamses requires an even later date because the first Raamses did not become pharaoh until 1320. If we metaphorize the biblical timeline, that problem goes away, and Finkelstein and Silberman argue most scholars see the Raamses reference as the more reliable date. But that puts the exodus even further away from the Hyksos – 250 years later.

No problem though, because archaeology backs up this timing in several respects: The city of Pi-Ramesses was built around 1250, and  the first mention of ancient Israel comes from a stele dated to around 1200, describing the conquest of Canaan by Pharaoh Merneptah. That’s also around the time archaeology finds the first Israelite settlements in Canaan, so an exodus sometime in the mid to late 13th century B.C.E. seems to work out.

Except it doesn’t. Because no Egyptian source mentions the Israelites at all before the Merneptah stele – certainly no reference to an Israelite governor like Joseph. Further, after the expulsion of the Hyksos, Egypt stopped letting so many Canaanites across their borders and built a series of forts along the eastern frontier. “The border between Canaan and Egypt was thus closely controlled,” the scholars write. “If a great mass of fleeing Israelites had passed through the border fortifications of the pharaonic regime, a record should exist (59).” It doesn’t, despite “abundant Egyptian sources” from the period in question.

But Finkelstein and Silberman do more than argue from the silence of the archaeological record. There’s the problem of geography: At the time of the exodus, Egypt was so powerful its empire extended much farther east than simply the Nile delta. Although the Bible gives the impression that once the Israelites had safely crossed the Sea of Reeds, they were beyond the reach of the anonymous pharaoh’s decimated armies, this isn’t true. Egypt controlled the Sinai Peninsula – and patrolled Canaan itself, as far north and east as the Euphrates River in Syria.

In other words, the exodus wouldn’t have been from Egypt into Canaan, it would have been from Egypt into Egypt, and the Israelites would have crossed the Jordan to find themselves battling Egyptian, not Canaanite, armies stationed in the eastern reaches of the massive empire.

Archaeology also poses problem for the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. Again, there’s the silence of the record; could so many people have wandered 40 years without leaving a trace? “Not even a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment.”

One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archaeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium B.C.E. and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the thirteenth century B.C.E. (63)

Then there’s this kicker: In the specific places where the Bible discusses Israelite encampments – Kadesh-barnea, where Israel stayed for 38 years, according to Numbers 34, and Ezion-geber on the Gulf of Aqaba – there is not only no evidence from the 13th century, there is evidence from a different time period: the seventh century. “All the major places that play a role in the wandering of the Israelites were inhabited in the seventh century; in some cases they were occupied only at that time” (67).

That includes Edom, Ammon and Moab. The exodus story describes these nations as trying to stop Israel from getting to Canaan. Yet these areas were essentially uninhabited in the 13th century. They were full-fledged nation-states – and enemies of Israel, at that – in the seventh.

What happened in the seventh century, the 600s, B.C.E.? King Josiah was on the throne, the “Book of the Law” had been discovered in the temple and the kingdom of Judah was undergoing a religious revival that included the establishment of monotheistic worship to Yahweh for the first time. At the same time, Egypt was resurgent with the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, and the nations were in conflict (Pharaoh Necho eventually kills Josiah, as 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles record).

No doubt, the notion of a great flight from Egypt did not spring from nowhere during the reign of King Josiah. Either the Hyksos expulsion or some other event carried down through the memories of Canaanite clans who perhaps included descendants of those semites who had escaped Egypt. Finkelstein and Silberman point out clear biblical references to the exodus in works that predate the seventh century, such as Amos and Hosea.

These stories of Canaanite colonists established in Egypt, reaching dominance in the delta and then being forced to return to their homeland could have served as a focus of solidarity and resistance as the Egyptian control over Canaan grew tighter in the Late Bronze Age. (69)

As the Canaanite tribes evolved into the nation of Israel, constantly besieged by great empires seeking their land, the notion of divine deliverance from powerful enemies would have become vitally important to their sense of national identity.

The great saga of a new beginning and a second chance must have resonated in the consciousness of the seventh century’s readers, reminding them of their own difficulties and giving them hope for the future. (70)

So what are we to make of this story, which is by any objective standard not historically accurate? Throw it out?

No. The point of the exodus story was never to simply recite historical facts. Its power has never existed in its reality, but in what it reveals about the nature of God – the single Yahweh who the seventh-century authors and editors were discovering and rediscovering.

The God of the Exodus is the defender of the powerless who acts to rescue his people from the chains of slavery and deliver them to a restored paradise in communion with him forever. That is no less true – and never has been. But I think it’s easier to forget that when we become focused on defending the story’s historicity rather than paying attention to what it’s actually saying.

The saga of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is neither historical truth nor literary fiction. It is a powerful expression of memory and hope born in a world in the midst of change. … To pin this biblical image down to a single date is to betray the story’s deepest meaning. Passover proves to be not a single event but a continuing experience of national resistance against the powers that be. (70-71)

And a reaffirmation every year that in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, God is not neutral. He cares deeply about all of his children and in the end will rescue all of them from the powerful forces that hold this world in chains.

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5 comments on “The Exodus Didn’t Happen, and Why That Doesn’t Matter

  1. I am generally in agreement with your perspective here, and I think you explain it well.

    However, for the sake of argument, I wonder whether there are values of $BiblicalNarrative in this statement:

    The point of the $BiblicalNarrative story was never to simply recite historical facts. Its power has never existed in its reality, but in what it reveals about the nature of God

    which you would reject, particularly in the New Testament.

    Do the key events of the Paschal Mystery get a pass simply because they are not the sort of events that would have left archaeological evidence?

    • Paul says:

      To an extent, yes. They are in fact events designed NOT to leave archaeological evidence, thus requiring a measure of faith to believe them. In the end, we each have to choose whether to believe not only in the resurrection, but whether that was a physical, literal resurrection of the dead Jesus. I choose to believe that, in part because of the argument Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15, and in part because I see the resurrection as a deposit God makes on the promise of the eschatological restoration.

      That said, not all purported miracles are created equal. The resurrection is not only overtly miraculous, it is unanimously attested to across a wide range of biblical texts, appears to be described in a historically authentic way, and is considered to be a crucial event of the Christian faith (along with the incarnation, ministry and crucifixion) – unlike, say, the virgin birth, which is also overtly miraculous, yet is attested to sporadically and inconsistently, is done so in a way that calls the historicity of the narratives into question, and is not a necessary part of having Christian faith.

  2. William Burns says:

    Although, as Edward Said pointed out, the Exodus story isn’t such a story of hope and God defending the powerless if you look at it from the Caananite point of view.

  3. […] On a related note about biblical study and the study of history, Paul at Disoriented. Reoriented has a nice overview of the very weak case for a historical interpretation of the story of Exodus (or, if you like, an […]

  4. Arkenaten says:

    You write an excellent review and then state it doesn’t matter? Odd.
    I would beg to differ. It does matter and matters a lot as many are taught this account is the literal truth and no matter what terms you wish to couch this is, to suggest there is a deity involved in any fashion is somewhat disingenuous.
    Furthermore, the implications for Christianity and Islam are staggering.
    If I have misunderstood you I apologize, but I feel that the sooner this is brought fully out into the open the sooner these ridiculous religions can be begun to be dismantled, and that can only be a good thing…for everyone.

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