Almost 4 month ago, at the time of Hanuka, I wrote an article about archeology, religion and ideology and promised to write soon a follow up about the events of the Exodus.
Time has passed and I did not find the time to write it as it demands some real work and research. But since we celebrated Pessah (« Passover ») recently, I will try and wrap this up. This post won’t be as long, academic, sourced and developed as I intended, but I guess I will never find the time to do it properly.
As I explained very basically, Biblical archeologists divide themselves between Minimalists that believe that the Bible is mostly myth and not a primary source and Maximalists who believe the contrary. One of the main issues they split over about is the reality of the Exodus.
Everybody knows the story of the Exodus as told in the Bible – how Moshe, following God’s orders, freed the Children of Israel from Egypt and how they wandered 40 years in the desert before reaching the Land of Israel.
This story is the core of the Bible, Judaism, and Jewish identity and world vision. Everything is based on it. Until a few decades ago, nobody would have challenged its basic reality – no matter what really happened, the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt and did leave to reach the land of Israel. Of course, historians and rationalists always had a problem with the 10 plagues or the crossing of the Red Sea. It seems also difficult to imagine a group of over 2 million people wandering 40 years in the desert – it’s even difficult today so a few thousand years ago, when all of Egypt population was apparently around 3 million and technology was very basic. But the fact that the exodus itself happened seemed evident. First, because if it did not happen, where does the story come from ? How would the Israelites have accepted this story if it was not based on a long and real tradition passed from fathers to sons ? Furthermore, there is no example in history of a people crafting an origin myth describing its ancestors as weak slaves. The founders are always kings and princes and heroes. Nobody could have invented such a story and force a whole people to believe it. And of course there is, as already stated, the simple centrality of the story in the Bible and Jewish tradition. Everything points to the fact that indeed a profound and traumatic event did occur.
The problem is, the minimalists explain, that we did not find any archeological evidence about it. As I explained, the minimalists tend to see the absence of proof as a proof of absence. Of course after over 3,000 years, nobody expects to find a lot of evidences, but indeed nothing was found supporting the story at the time that it was supposed to happen.
But when was it supposed to happen ? Here we touch maybe the core issue.
The traditional rabbinical dating of the Exodus is 1311 BCE, but as I explained in my Purim post, using rabbinical dating in the context of historical dating is problematic because of the « 100 years gap » issue. If we use the rabbinical dating we have to also use it for all the other dates and it is impossible to do.
The dating of the Exodus by older generations of historians and some Christian traditions used to be around 1450 BCE (which in fact is consistent with the rabbinical dating when you take the « 100 years gap » into account). The problem, among others, is that at this time, Canaan was firmly in the hand of Egypt and there is no possibility that a group of slaves could have left Egypt and establish itself there.
But later, in the 13th century BCE, the power of Egypt recessed and Canaan was autonomous. Furthermore, the Egyptian Merneptah Stele of 1213 BCE speaks about victories in Canaan and strikingly states that « Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more ». This is the oldest archeological testimony about Israel and in the context it speaks about a people in Canaan and not a place. It means that the Israelites were in Canaan already in 1213 BCE and the Exodus had to happen before. In consequence, most historians started dating the Exodus around 1250 BCE.
Here is the problem: archeologists did not find anything of the period supporting the existence of the Exodus. But they did find signs of the appearance of an Israelite civilization in the upper hills of Canaan at the same time and so started to imagine that in fact the Israelites were a Canaanite sub-culture that started to evolve differently. And the story of the Exodus was invented a few centuries later. Some are less extreme and think maybe the Israelites were a composite of different group including one that did indeed leave Egypt (for example, some Egyptian priest and his followers after the fall of Akhenaton’s religious reform).
I must admit I always thought that the Merneptah story was weird. The Stele claims that Israel was wiped out, but 3225 years later, here we are. Of course, these official steles and victory monuments were not perfectly objective depictions of the truth and the kings and leaders had a tendency to overblow their real achievements, sometimes even claiming victory in battle that never happened. But this campaign in Canaan cannot be a complete invention, and something happened with the Israelites there. The strange thing is: the Bible does not say a word about it. You should expect that such a traumatic event would have be imprinted in the collective memory of Israel.
So what can we make of all that ? First we must remind that archeology is a very very limited science. Few things remain of the past and the more we go back in time, the less we know for sure what happened. Most facts and dates used by historians about over 2500 years ago and more are no more than guesses based on very few elements. The dates and facts we read in history books are not scientific truths but the latest consensus reached according to the evidence we have. We must never forget that historians and archeologists know much less than what they claim. How many times did we see that the discovery of a new artifact changed many things we thought we knew about old history.
If the Exodus did not happen in 1250 BCE but earlier, indeed, archeologists will never find any proof of its existence looking at this time frame.
It can be that the entire dating system is wrong. I already wrote about the rabbinical dates that contradict the historical ones and you can make a good case (but not yet 100% solid) that the rabbis are right and the historians wrong – I once read such a very convincing essay. But some academics do also contest the validity of the mainstream dating and propose some alternatives like David Rohl and his new chronology – a very academic, serious and radical revision of the mainstream chronology that, of course, has been respectfully rejected by most historians. Its minority status is not in itself a proof of being wrong, just that it proposes such a paradigm shift that it can’t be accepted, even if it was 100% true. Anyway this new Chronology would solve most of the problems between the Bible and archeology, one of them Exodus and the conquest by Joshua.
Because, if you indeed look farther in the past and move the Exodus to the 15th or 16th century, many findings do correspond to the biblical narrative. For example, there are indeed signs of violent conquest in Canaan in the 15th century BCE. And of course there are two famous historical events that have a very strong Biblical feeling about them and cannot not be linked to the Biblical story.
One I already alluded to: the Akhenaten religious reform in the 14th century BCE. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and introduced a new monotheistic-like religion to Egypt. Freud and some historians (and even more pseudo-historians) imagined that Moses was a priest of this new religion that fled Egypt with some followers after the old religion was reinstated by the new rulers. Some people think that, on the contrary, Akhenaten was influenced by the events of the Exodus that led him to believe in the Hebrew One God – even if his religion was not the strict Hebrew monotheism.
Another famous historical fact that seems connected to the Bible narrative is the Hyksos occupation of Egypt. This is not exactly a new idea as it has been expressed since Antiquity. The Hyksos were a coalition of Middle-East people, mainly Canaanites it seems, that conquered and ruled Lower Egypt during the 17th and 16th centuries BCE. They were finally expelled in the 16th century BCE by Higher Egypt kings that reunified Egypt. Some have proposed that the Hyksos were in fact the Hebrews. Others that the Hebrews were a group inside the Hyksos. More commonly the idea was that the Hebrew came in Egypt when the culturally close Hyksos ruled – and that may explain the story of the Pharaoh that did not know Josef – he was the Egyptian King that had expelled the Hyksos and in consequence saw the Hebrews as dangerous allies of the former ruling class.
So did the Exodus happened ? I believe that it did, that’s the most logical and fitting possibility, but we can’t prove it yet scientifically. Does it really matter ? Some will say that the Exodus story is not to be understood as history but as a spiritual journey and its importance lies in the religious messages it gave the world. Maybe. But let’s be serious, if we had 100% proof that it never happened, I guess that it will change the way we perceive the story, Bible itself and ourselves. But that’s another discussion.