Friday, April 03, 2015

History of the Exodus

It's Easter and Passover season, so the media features more than its usual share of Bible stories and specials this time of year.

I came across this story from a month ago about historical evidence for the Exodus: Joshua Berman, Was There an Exodus? Mosaic 03/02/2015. It's a bit defensive in tone, though I tend to favor the perspective the author takes. Berman doesn't use the term "Biblical minimalism" to describe the position he's criticizing, but that's what it is, the notion that the text of the Bible has no secular historical value unless it's directly supported by physical archaeological evidence from the period it describes. Bible History Daily has a description of some of the scholarly issues involved here, The Great Minimalist Debate 06/19/2012.

The Exodus itself, the trip of the Hebrews from Egypt around the later part of the second millennium BCE wouldn't have been expected to leave a lot of physical evidence. It was a nomadic journey across a desert in which the Hebrews didn't build cities but lived in mobile camps. And despite the impressively large number of Hebrews mentioned in the Bible as part of the Exodus, the actual numbers of such a trip would have almost surely been far smaller.

There are also no known Egyptian records of specifically Hebrew slaves in Egypt from that period.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from Die Bibel in Bildern (Wikimedia Commons):

Berman gives an accessible survey of the historical issues involved, along with his own explanation of his reading of the evidence. He makes this important point about the Egyptian records:

It is true enough that these records do not contain clear and unambiguous reference to “Hebrews” or “Israelites.” But that is hardly surprising. The Egyptians referred to all of their West-Semitic slaves simply as “Asiatics,” with no distinction among groups—just as slave-holders in the New World never identified their black slaves by their specific provenance in Africa.

More generally, there is a limit to what we can expect from the written record of ancient Egypt. Ninety-nine percent of the papyri produced there during the period in question have been lost, and none whatsoever has survived from the eastern Nile delta, the region where the Torah claims the Hebrew slaves resided. Instead, we have to rely on monumental inscriptions, which, being mainly reports to the gods about royal achievements, are far from complete or reliable as historical records. They are more akin to modern-day résumés, and just as conspicuous for their failure to note setbacks of any kind.
But he cites various indications in the Hebrew Bible's accounts of the Exodus that indicate elements of the story stem from Egyptian sources at the presumed time of the event. Much of his article is devoted to parallels between the Egyptian story of the battle of Kadesh and the Biblical story of the Exodus. He summarizes them this way:

The protagonist army breaks ranks at the sight of the enemy chariot force; a plea for divine help is answered with encouragement to move forward, with victory assured; the enemy chariotry, recognizing by name the divine force that attacks it, seeks to flee; many meet their death in water, and there are no survivors; the king’s troops return to survey the enemy corpses; amazed at the king’s accomplishment, the troops offer a victory hymn that includes praise of his name, references to his strong arm, tribute to him as the source of their strength and their salvation; the enemy is compared to chaff, while the king is deemed without peer in battle; the king leads his troops peacefully home, intimidating foreign lands along the way; the king arrives at his palace, and is granted eternal rule.
And he argues that the parallels in these stories are particularly strong:

Just how distinctive are these parallels? I’m fully aware that similarities between two ancient texts do not automatically imply that one was inspired by the other, and also that common terms and images were the intellectual property of many cultures simultaneously. Some of the motifs identified here, including the dread and awe of the enemy in the face of the king, are ubiquitous across battle accounts of the ancient Near East. Other elements, such as the king building or residing in his palace and gaining eternal rule, are typological tropes known to us from other ancient works. Still others, though peculiar to these two works, can arguably be seen as reflecting similar circumstances, or authorial needs, with no necessary connection between them. Thus, although few if any ancient battle accounts record an army on the march that is suddenly attacked by a massive chariot force and breaks ranks as a result, it could still be that Exodus and the Kadesh poem employ this motif independently.

What really suggests a relation between the two texts, however, is the totality of the parallels, plus the large number of highly distinctive motifs that appear in these two works alone. No other battle account known to us either from the Hebrew Bible or from the epigraphic remains of the ancient Near East provide even half the number of shared narrative motifs exhibited here. [italics in original]
He also gives a description of parallels between the Hebrew Bible's description of the desert Tabernacle and the battle compound of Pharaoh Ramses II, who reigned 1279–13 BCE.

And he summarizes some of the other historical evidence that is also reflected in the Biblical account as follows:

  • There is rich evidence that West-Semitic populations lived in the eastern Nile delta—what the Bible calls Goshen—for most of the second millennium. Some were slaves, some were raised in Pharaoh’s court, and some, like Moses, bore Egyptian names.
  • We know today that the great pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE, built a huge administrative center out of mudbrick in an area where large Semitic populations had lived for centuries. It was called Pi-Ramesses. Exodus (1:11) specifies that the Hebrew slaves built the cities of Pithom and Ramesses, a possible reference to Pi-Ramesses. The site was abandoned by the pharaohs two centuries later.
  • In the exodus account, pharaohs are simply called “Pharaoh,” whereas in later biblical passages, Egyptian monarchs are referred to by their proper name, as in “Pharaoh Necho” (2 Kings 23:29). This, too, echoes usage in Egypt itself, where, from the middle of the second millennium until the tenth century BCE, the title “Pharaoh” was used alone.
  • The names of various national entities mentioned in the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18)—Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, et al.— are all found in Egyptian sources shortly before 1200 BCE; about this, the book of Exodus is again correct for the period.
  • The stories of the exodus and the Israelites’ subsequent wanderings in the wilderness reflect sound acquaintance with the geography and natural conditions of the eastern Nile delta, the Sinai peninsula, the Negev, and Transjordan.
  • The book of Exodus (13:17) notes that the Israelites chose not to traverse the Sinai peninsula along the northern, coastal route toward modern-day Gaza because that would have entailed military engagement. The discovery of extensive Egyptian fortifications all along that route from the period in question confirms the accuracy of this observation.
  • Archaeologists have documented hundreds of new settlements in the land of Israel from the late-13th and 12th centuries BCE, congruent with the biblically attested arrival there of the liberated slaves; strikingly, these settlements feature an absence of the pig bones normally found in such places. Major destruction is found at Bethel, Yokne’am, and Hatzor—cities taken by Israel according to the book of Joshua. At Hatzor, archaeologists found mutilated cultic statues, suggesting that they were repugnant to the invaders.
  • The earliest written mention of an entity called “Israel” is found in the victory inscription of the pharaoh Merneptah from 1206 BCE. In it the pharaoh lists the nations defeated by him in the course of a campaign to the southern Levant; among them, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more.” “Israel” is written in such a way as to connote a group of people, not an established city or region, the implication being that it was not yet a fully settled entity with contiguous control over an entire region. This jibes with the Bible’s description in Joshua and Judges of a gradual conquest of the land.
[my emphasis]
Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg describe the Merneptah Stela this way in The Bible and the Ancient Near East (4th edition; 1997):

This inscription commemorates the military conquests of Pharaoh Merneptah (1224-1214), first boasting of his victory over Libya and then ending with several lines about Canaan. The text mentions Israel; in fact this is the only reference to Israel in all of Egyptian literature. Earlier we discussed the Egyptian writing system, which not only spelled out words phonologically, but also included determinatives to allow the reader easier comprehension. When the Merneptah Stela refers to other conquered peoples and places, it uses the foreign land determinative to mark them. Such is the case, for example, with larger entities such as Canaan and Hurru and with individual cities such as Gezer and Ashkelon. But when Israel is mentioned, the people determinative is used (i.e., a man, a woman, and the plural marker). We interpret this orthography to refer to the Israelites as a people without a land, a situation that matches their condition as slaves in the land of Egypt. The scribe knew they originated in Canaan, and thus he included them in his listing of Merneptah's enemies from that region, but he distinguished the Israelites by marking them as a people, not a foreign land. If this interpretation is correct, then the Israelites still were slaves under Merneptah, that is, late in the thirteenth century B.C.E.
Mosaic also has several responses to Berman's article in its March 2015 essays section.

No comments: