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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Let my people go!

In looking at the fallacious reasoning known as the False Dilemma, it occurred to me how prevalent this type of reasoning has become vis-à-vis the Bible. Almost everything has been reduced to acceptance or rejection - there is rarely any room for a middle ground or a more nuanced attitude toward these writings. The story of Israel's exodus from Egypt is a case in point.

Looking over my notes from Dr. Jacob Wright's The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future, it is evident that the exodus narrative is not supported by the archeological evidence or contemporary Egyptian sources. So it didn't happen - right? That is the obvious and easy conclusion, but I believe a closer look at all of the available evidence may suggest something more profound about this story.

As most students of history know, myths and legends are often founded on some kernel of truth or are suggestive of an actual historical truth that has faded from the collective memory and has been enveloped by the foggy mists of an oral tradition. For instance, many historians have concluded that there may have actually been a great warrior chieftain who fought against the Anglo-Saxons at Mount Badon and inspired the legends about King Arthur.

How does this apply to the story of Israel's exodus from Egypt? Let's consider the historical and archeological evidence for just a moment. We know that Egypt dominated the Levant in the Second Millennium BCE. We know that the pharaohs of the New Kingdom Period taxed the produce and labor of the region and used governors and surrogates to protect their interests and exert administrative control over the region. We also know that Egypt was not as interested in the region known as the hill country (the area where the kingdoms of Israel and Judah would later form). Finally, we know that Egypt declined toward the end of this period due to climate change, civil unrest and the invasion of the sea peoples. This eventually led to the withdrawal of Egypt from the Levant and the collapse of their hegemony over the region (the very thing that permitted the formation of the two kingdoms).

What if the exodus story has its origins in some collective memory of this period of Egyptian domination? Could later generations have regarded this time of Egyptian domination as a time of slavery or servitude to pharaoh? Is it plausible to suggest that some leader or leaders arose after the collapse of Egyptian control who led the people out of this darkness? Scholars have not been able to pinpoint the Land of Goshen in Egypt (the place where the Israelites were said to live in the Scriptural accounts), but there is a mention of a Land of Goshen in the accounts of Joshua's conquest of the Promised Land. (Joshua 10:41, 11:16-17 and 15:51) Could the memory of wandering in the wilderness be the remnants of memories regarding the period of turmoil and tribal warfare that followed Egyptian withdrawal from the region? Is it possible that Egypt sent out an army or armies that failed to reestablish their hegemony over the region (Pharaoh and his army's pursuit of the children of Israel to bring them back to Egypt)?

Of course, this is all speculative; but I am not the only one who has engaged in such speculation. In Stephen C. Russell's Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature: Cisjordan-Israelite, Transjordan-Israelite and Judahite Portrayals, he argues from the collective work of the textual critics that there exists within these writings compelling evidence to suggest how the tradition of the exodus developed among these groups. This is not to suggest that these stories were not combined, modified and embellished by later writers - we know that they were. Nevertheless, it does make the case that this legend/myth/story was not created out of thin air - that it did have some basis in the reality of what the Israelites had actually experienced in their distant past - prior to the establishment and subsequent fall of the two kingdoms.

Hence, when we look a little closer at the available evidence, can we see how later generations of Israelites might have regarded themselves as having been delivered from slavery in Egypt in the distant past? Is it unreasonable to assume that these people would attribute their deliverance from the oppression of the Egyptians to YHWH? Was Moses wholly the creation of post exilic priests and scribes or was there some historical figure or figures (like the stories about Arthur) that inspired the character who became Moses? In short, does the story of the exodus point to a profound truth about the origins of Israel that the years and oral traditions have obscured and made fantastic? What do you think?


  1. Hi Miller, I also am inclined of a similar opinion for basically the same reasons, the problem I have with it though is, if its not to be understood as its written how can we believe any of it? besides, the "authors" of the other books build on these things as though they are real. David, Paul, Peter etc. Yet the evidence (even internally) shows that Genesis and Exodus can not possibly be taken literally.

  2. If the Bible was never intended to be a history or science textbook, just how much importance should we attach to the factual correctness of these stories relative to those disciplines? If Jesus Christ was who he claimed to be (and I believe he was), then why didn't he correct the Pharisees, Sadducees, Stephen, Peter and Paul about the details? Would such a correction have better served his purposes? What kind of impact would that have had on his mission and message? Would it have made the Jews more likely to accept what he was saying? Look at what he did correct/change (depending on you outlook) - the entire spiritual outlook/orientation of the "Mosaic" system. Maybe the Bible was meant to be a Spiritual book? I'm thinking out loud - What do you think?

  3. I also am a believer (about 50 yrs) but my faith has taken a few body blows in the last few years (thats what brought me to your blog post) you sound like someone in the same place I am, wanting to believe but finding it ever harder. One of my problems is that years ago I read the book of mormon and ended up rejecting it because the foundation was made of straw. Now years later I have discovered that the bible is no better. All I can conclude is that these things are to give some purpose of existence to the children of Jacob but another part of me thinks this is just clutching at more straws. As for jesus he is quoted to have said (mat 19:4) he that made them at the beginning made them male and female. (quoted from Genesis) at least suggesting that it is correct literally !!!?

  4. Thanks for your comments - they are very thought provoking. In fact, your latest comment has inspired another post (which I will commit to writing after I get off of work this afternoon).