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The Bible & History: Exodus (Part 5)

The Exodus in Myth and History

The Exodus, although supposedly taking place near the beginning of Israel’s history as a nation (13th century BCE), is largely consistent with the world in the 7th century BCE. This is the time when the kingdom of Judah was highly prosperous, coming off of the heels of the Northern Kingdom’s destruction in the 8th century by the Assyrians. This time frame also includes Egypt’s last period of imperial power, known as the 26th dynasty. The kings of this dynasty initiated many large building projects like their more ancient ancestor’s did in an attempt to glorify Egypt once again. These projects are much like those mentioned in Exodus. There were even immigrants from Judah living in the Nile delta region during this time.

Pithom, which is mentioned as a store-city in Exodus, was actually a famous city built during the 7th century. Migdol, from Exdus 14:2, was a title for a fort during the alleged time of the Exodus, but an important Migdol is known from the 7th century BCE. “A 7th century BCE background is also evident in some of the peculiar Egyptian names mentioned in the Josepth story” (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, pg. 67). These names, it seems, weren’t actually very popular until the 7th century BCE. In addition, the Exodus story portrays Egypt as fearing an invasion from the East. This is evident when Joseph accuses his brothers, coming from Canaan, of being spies (Genesis 43:9Open Link in New Window) and when the Pharaoh fears that the Israelites will cooperate with an Eastern enemy after they leave. Egypt had no reason to fear an invasion from the East until the Assyrians attacked in the 7th century.

Finally, the sites mentioned in the Israelite’s wanderings that we know any detail about were not occupied until the 7th century BCE (or were also occupied before the time of the Exodus, but not during). This includes Kadesh-barnea, where a large fort shows up only in the 7th century and Ezion-geber. Also, as stated previously, the Bible says that Moses and his followers met resistance from the kingdom of Edom, but Edom did not become a full nation until the 7th century BCE and was destroyed in the 6th.

Prophet AmosThus, it is clear that the Exodus received most of its final written form sometime during the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 6th century BCE. The basic tradition, however, stretches back further than this and pieces of its slow development can be traced through a few of the prophets. The prophet Amos, for example, wrote during the first half of the 8th century during the reign of Jeroboam II and makes a couple of references to an exodus out of Egypt. “I brought you up out of Egypt, and I led you forty years in the desert to give you the land of the Amorites” (Amos 2:10Open Link in New Window). Here, a tradition about forty wandering years in the desert is already present. Amos 9:7Open Link in New Window also states, “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” This passage, interestingly enough, suggests that God as led other exoduses and that Israel stands in judgment alongside these other nations. Aside from the forty wandering years in the desert and an emergence from Egypt, the references are void of any other specific details relating to the Exodus.

The prophet Hosea wrote during the final years and days leading up to the conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, slightly later than Amos. Hosea also makes a couple references to Israel’s emergence from Egypt, such as, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of your appointed feasts” (Hosea 12:9Open Link in New Window). The reference to tents is symbolic of the wilderness period, and thus shows that Hosea was also familiar with this tradition. Hosea 12:13Open Link in New Window makes reference to a detail that Amos does not—that a prophet led Israel out of Egypt—“The LORD used a prophet to bring Israel up from Egypt, by a prophet he cared for him.” Clearly, this prophet would soon be identified as Moses, but Hosea curiously does not give him a name. Lastly, we have Micah, writing sometime during the final quarter of the 8th century BCE, who references Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Aaron’s sister) by name. “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4Open Link in New Window). Notice that Micah also makes a reference to slavery in Egypt, a detail not mentioned by Amos or Hosea. Even in these small references we can get a feel that Exodus as a tradition was slowly developing during the 8th century. Does this mean that the 7th century authors were working from memories of Israel actually occupying and subsequently being forced out of Egypt?

No, it does not. As previously argued, there is no evidence of Israelite occupation or expulsion in the manner described in Exodus. The Oxford History of the Biblical World reiterates this point on page 87, stating that “There is, in fact, remarkably little of proven or provable historical worth or reliability in the biblical Exodus narrative, and no reliable independent witnesses to attest to the historicity or date of the Exodus events.” So what are we left with?

Well, as previously mentioned, a Canaanite group called the Hyskos occupied Egypt for 100 years until they were forcibly expelled from the region. The basic history of this group matches the basic plot of the Exodus. It’s likely that the Exodus is simply based off of preserved memories of the Hyskos or of smaller Semitic groups moving in and out of Egypt. Such a story could have also resurfaced in Canaan during the 7th century when Egypt’s 26th dynasty was attempting to reassert its control in the world that it had lost during Assyrian times and would have served some importance to Canaanites resisting Egypt’s expansion into Canaan As The Bible Unearthed notes, “the fully elaborated story of conflict with Egypt—of the great power of the God of Israel and his miraculous rescue of his people—served an even more immediate political and military end” (pg. 70). As Egypt was knocking on Canaan’s doors once again, this tale would have given its inhabitants some hope for the future by means of looking back on the past.

Of course, this basic plot that was followed by the Hyksos was injected with much myth and legend over the course of composing the Bible’s Exodus story. It focused around Israel because Israelites wrote it for Israel. It was made to link with the Patriarchal narratives and subsequently was likely attached to the beginning of what came to be known as the Conquest narratives (found in the book of Joshua). Is the Exodus historical? Yes and no. It is neither historical nor pure fiction. The basic plot is plausible. Yet Exodus is also a theological work explaining the origins of Yahweh’s covenant with His people. Together, it is an expression of hope and memory during what may have been seen as troubled times.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:17 pm


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