*Materialist Approaches to the Bible, p. 24
In the spirit of Passover, and the fact that Christian holidays such as Easter "borrowed" many of the elements of their beliefs from others, in this post I will argue that the best explanation for the Exodus, via Ockham's razor, is that it did not occur as depicted in the Old Testament, but is instead a story which was cobbled together from the stories of different groups, and was used to elevate the status of the Jewish kings, and to serve their political, economic, and social interests.
I will be looking at the Exodus from a historical materialist perspective, and will use historical and archeological evidence to support my arguments--unlike the traditional idealistic Christian perspective, which views the bible as the "words of God," in the strict and literal sense. Instead, I will be looking at the "conditions of production" of the Exodus story that explains why it was written.
Considering the Israelites were at one point in time, nomads and slaves, it makes logical sense that their kings (namely Solomon and Josiah) employed hyperbole to create scenarios that elevated their status. In fact, some of the earliest known written works in the bible are from 1 Kings 1 and 2, and 2 Sam 9:20--the narration of the succession of David. Scribes of kings are known to exaggerate claims of the rulers who employ them, and this too can be said for the writers of the bible in their efforts to elevate their status in the world. This is how the story of the Exodus evolved.
David and Solomon were part of the house of Judah,(the southern tribe) and were the descendants of Semitic tribes chased out of Egypt. After a time at the oasis of Kadesh, they then entered Canaan from the south. Their political problem was the autonomist tendency of the tribes of the north. These northern tribes were the people who had left Egypt with Moses, and instead of fleeing northward and entering Canaan from the south, came via the Sinai Desert, where, under the leadership of Joshua, formed a confederation known as the Shechem Covenant. The northern tribes were fiercely independent, and only accepted king Saul under military pressure from the Philistines. When Saul was defeated, the Davidic-Solomonic state then imposed taxes and forced labor upon them, creating resentment and resistance among the northern tribes, which then prompted the Davidic-Solomonic state to establish a united kingdom with the assistance of the royal scribes, who performed a rather complex interweaving of the traditions in order to create a single history.*
The southern tribes were not present at the Assembly of Shechem (Joshua 24) which sealed the confederation of northern tribes' faith in Yahweh. There are clues in the writing of the southern scribes which illustrate the southern tribes overtaking the northern traditions as they envisaged Moses in their writing as royalty who decrees laws, and is surrounded by notables; similar to the royal offices of David and Solomon.*The tribes of the north, who were said to be led by Moses out of Egypt, and the tribes of the south, who left Egypt at a different time,using a different route, became united through the interweaving of their histories. In fact the first four books of the bible--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers--are now viewed as a skillful interweaving of the J, E, and P sources.(See the Wellhausen hypothesis)
I told a Christian that I was having a discussion with, that the Jews are known to have embellished their text--they have admitted this. He said, "The practice of making up a fake story about "contemporary" events and recording it in the form of actual history -- essentially writing a novel -- was, as far as I know, unheard of in the ancient world." Even if the Jews had not admitted to embellishing their texts, it is already becoming apparent that the story of the Exodus is not true as it is depicted in the bible, and there were "made up" stories. But even if we assumed what my Christian friend said is true, then the Bhagavad Gita is true, the Iliad is true, and so on. There is as much historicity in Hindu texts, and other ancient religious texts as there is in the bible, so certainly then, according to what my Christian friend said, there is more than one god, and goddesses too, as the various religious stories from the different traditions tell us! But I digress. This post concerns the origin of, and the historicity of the story of the Exodus, so I shall continue.
To confirm the historicity of the Exodus, there must be evidence from outside sources. In this case, from the Egyptians, or anyone else. But there is none, and there is no archeological evidence to support it, and therefore there is no historicity to the claim of the Exodus taking place as stated in the Bible.
Some Christian scholars claim that Ramses II was pharaoh at the time of the biblical Exodus, but this cannot be the case however, as the Egyptians controlled the entire area, and any group that attempted escape would have easily been tracked down by the Egyptian army. Sites mentioned in the Exodus story are real, a few are well known and were apparently occupied in earlier and LATER periods than the supposed time of the Exodus. That is, AFTER the kingdom of Judah was established and the texts were put into writing. But that confirms no event such as the Exodus--only that these particular places existed. Unfortunately for those seeking evidence of the Exodus, these places were unoccupied PRECISELY at the time they reportedly played a role in the supposed wanderings of the Jews in the Exodus. The scribes therefore, wove the story together using places they knew existed. The vagueness, of the story, and the failure to mention the names of pharaohs was for a reason--the story was actually written centuries later, as the Exodus story contains geographic details consistent with the seventh century BCE--just one of many reasons why the Exodus story did not occur as depicted in the Old Testament. **
In fact, a Christian scholar, Doug Petrovich, wrote an article (part II, sec. 1) in an attempt to show the story of the Exodus as being "true to its word," unintentionally (at least I believe it was unintentionally!) admitted that the writers of the story are unknown. This is an excerpt from that article, when first he says Moses wrote, and then he admits the authors were HEBREW WRITERS:
"Every time MOSES wrote the dynastic title of the exodus-pharaoh, it was devoid of the pharaoh’s throne-name (e.g. Sesostris, Amenhotep, etc.), which is known in Egyptology as the praenomen. This, however, was not the practice of later Biblical writers—especially writers of the historical books, who routinely transliterated each pharaoh’s praenomen—
The absence of pharaoh’s praenomen in the biblical history of the second millennium BC is often used either to support the assertion of the legendary nature of the exodus narrative, or to demonstrate that THE HEBREW WRITERS were not truly interested in history."
He did not say, "some believe that PERHAPS it was written by Hebrew writers," he said "THE Hebrew writers"--and we know this to be true. We know that Moses did not write the Exodus story, and it is doubtful he wrote the Pentateuch, as he writes about his own death in Deuteronomy, and the styles of writing are very much different between the books. (See the Wellhausen hypothesis) It was in fact, HEBREW WRITERS, i.e. scribes of kings of different and opposing social groups, who wrote the various books, in an ideological manner, to serve a particular function. Here are some of the archeological findings of the authors of "The Bible Unearthed" which indicate the Exodus, as depicted in the bible, is unlikely to have taken place:
--Archeological excavations in the eastern Nile delta have confirmed that conclusion and indicate that the Hyskos "invasion" was a gradual process in immigration from Canaan to Egypt, rather than a lightning military campaign.
--Based on Egyptian records, the expulsion took place around 1570 BCE;1Kings 6:1 tells us the start of the construction of the temple in the fourth year of Solomon's reign--480 years after the supposed exodus, and according to a correlation of the regnal dates of Israelite kings with outside Egyptian and Assyrian sources, this would roughly place the exodus in 1440 BCE--more than 100 years AFTER the date of the expulsion of the Hyskos.
--The first pharaoh named Rameses came to the throne 1320 BCE--more than a century after the biblical date.
--NO MENTION of the name Israel has been found in any of inscriptions or documents connected with the Hyskos period. Nor is it mention in later Egyptian inscriptions or in an extensive fourteenth century BCE cuniform archive found at Tell el Amarnain Egypt, whose nearly four hundred letters describe in detail the social, political and demographic conditions in Canaan at the time. The Merneptah stele refers to Israel as a group of people ALREADY LIVING IN CANAAN.
--After expulsion of the Hyskos, Egypt established a system of manned forts in the delta and a late 13th century BCE papyrus records how closely they monitored the movements of foreigners. This record mentions places connected to the exodus such as Succoth and Pithom--but there are no records of any great mass of fleeing Israelites.
--In the 13th century BCE, Egypt was at the peak of its power--the dominant power of the world. To say there was an Exodus out of Egypt at this time would be akin to saying there was a mass exodus outside of the US from New York to LA--it does not follow. The entire area, including Canaan, was administered by Egypt at that time, and the road known as the Ways of Horus, had forts, and wells and granaries a days march in between along the entire stretch. It is unlikely such a large group of Israelites could have gone unnoticed in an area which was heavily fortified with Egyptian military forces. Even if they avoided the road, their sojourn into the desert is also contradicted by archeology. (See the Bible Unearthed for details)
Why do many scholars believe the Exodus story was constructed in the the seventh century, and did not happen in in the 15th or the 13th century BCE ?
Because, as the authors of the "The Bible Unearthed" tell us:
"There is a timeless rhythm of migrations to Egypt in antiquity. There is the specific incident of the Hyskos domination of the delta in the Middle Bronze Age, There are the suggestive parallels to elements of the Ramesside era relating to Egypt--together with the first mention of Israel (Shihor in the eastern delta and the Israelites stopping place at Pi-ha-hiroth, seem to have Egyptian etymologies. They are all related to the geography of the Exodus, but they give no clear indication that they belong to a specific period in Egyptian history."
Archeological evidence is provided in "the Bible Unearthed" for this claim. Below is an excerpt from the conclusion of this chapter:
But, "the seventh century was a time of great revival of both Egypt and Judah. In Egypt after a long period of decline and difficult years of subjection to the Assyrian empire, King Psammetichus I seized power and transformed Egypt into a major international power again. As the rule of the Assyrian empire began to crumble, Egypt moved in to fill the political vacuum, occupying former Assyrian territories and establishing permanent Egyptian rule.
In Judah, this was the time of King Josiah. The idea that YHWH would ultimately fulfill the promises given to the patriarchs, to Moses, and to King David--of a vast and unified people of Israel living on their own land. It was a time when Josiah embarked on an ambitious attempt to take advantage of the Assyrian collapse and unite all Israelites under his rule. His program was to expand to the north of Judah, to the territories where Israelites were still living a century after the fall of the kingdom of Israel, and to realize the dream of a glorious united monarchy: a large and powerful state of all Israelites worshiping one God in one temple in one capital--Jerusalem--and ruled by one king of Davidic lineage.
The ambitions of mighty Egypt to expand its empire, and of tiny Judah to annex territories of the former kingdom of Israel and establish its independence were therefore in direct conflict. Egypt of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, with its imperial aspirations, stood in the way of the fulfillment of Josiah's dreams. Images and memories from the past now became the ammunition in a national test of will between the children of Israel and the pharaoh and his charioteers.
We can thus see the composition of the Exodus narrative from a striking new perspective. Just as the written form of the patriarchal narratives wove together the scattered traditions of origins in the service of a seventh century national revival in Judah, 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. 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.
Attitudes towards Egypt in the late monarchic Judah were always a mixture of awe and revulsion. On one hand, Egypt had always provided a safe haven in time of famine and an asylum for runaways, and was perceived as a potential ally against invasions from the north. At the same time there had always been suspicion and animosity towards the great southern neighbor, whose ambitions from the earliest times were to control the vital overland passage through the land of Israel northward to Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. Now a young leader of Judah was prepared to confront the great pharaoh, and ancient traditions from many different sources were crafted into a single sweeping epic that bolstered Josiah's political aims.
New layers would be added to the Exodus story in subsequent centuries--during the exile in Babylonia and beyond. But we can now see how the astonishing composition came together under the pressure of a growing conflict with Egypt in the seventh century BCE."***
Therefore, the best explanation for the story of the Exodus, via Ockham's razor, is that it did not occur as depicted in the Old Testament, but instead, was an ideological story written to elevate the status of the Jewish kings, and to serve their political, economic, and social interests.
**The Bible Unearthed, p. 64
***The Bible Unearthed, p. 69-70