THE EXODUS FAIRY TALE

Laurie Eddie

(Investigator 181, 2018 July)

"All history, so far as it is not supported by contemporary evidence, is romance." Samuel Johnson

"The things that you're liable
To read in the Bible
It ain't necessarily so
Ain't Necessarily So." –  From Porgy and Bess, by George and Ira Gershwin


Many Jews and Christians believe the Pentateuch, (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), was not only written by Moses, but also, that it provides an accurate historical record of the origins of the Israelites. "

A major component of this anthology is the exodus, which Shanks (1981) claims is, "…an actual historical event that occurred in 1477 B.C." (p. 42) The exodus and the subsequent forty-years wandering in the wilderness, outlines many of the major developments in the Israelites evolving relationship with, and worship of, one particular deity, Yahweh, "the Lord." The objective of this essay is to briefly examine some of the claims made in the Exodus narrative with a view to examining their possible validity.

The foundations for this particular saga are to be found in Genesis; there we find the story of Jacob, and his family, which comprised either [a] seventy individuals, (Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22), or [b] sixty-six, "…not counting his sons' wives," (Genesis 46:26-27), who travelled to, and settled in the Delta region of the Nile,

"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, and he went down to Egypt and lived there as a foreigner with a household few in number…" (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Then, after either, [a] Ten generations, (430 years, Exodus 12:40), [b] Four hundred years, (Genesis 15:13), or, [c] Four generations, (Genesis 15:16), their numbers had increased greatly. Later an unnamed Egyptian "king," who believed that, in time of war, the Israelites might ally themselves with Egypt's enemies, sought to reduce their numbers by placing them in bondage, "Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens." (Exodus 1:11). Yet, despite this, the Israelite population continued to increase until finally, in an effort to drastically control their numbers, the king decreed that all new-born male Israelites should be killed.

Into this dysfunctional environment is born a great hero, Moses, who, after being hidden at home for three months, (Exodus 2:2), was placed in a waterproofed papyrus reed basket and left, "...among the reeds at the river's brink." (Exodus 2:3). There, he was found and adopted by an Egyptian princess. As Frazer (1923) observed, Moses is central to the Exodus saga, and, "…from the beginning to the end of his life is represented as set apart for a great mission…" (p. 264).

As with many ancient "hero-myths," Moses is depicted as a lowly-born individual, who, nevertheless, is destined to overcome many difficult challenges, then, as an adult, with the help of supernatural forces, to succeed in a great quest. In this instance, Moses is chosen by the Lord to lead the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage to the "promised land" of Canaan; so, is the Exodus saga fact or fiction?

With so many fantastic events featured as essential components, the entire saga reads more like a fairy-tale than an actual historical narrative. Indeed, like many fairy-tales, the Exodus saga relies heavily upon a plot device, known as deus ex machina, where some implausible solution appears to enable the hero to overcome difficult, almost impossible, challenges. Just as this device is a common feature of stories from primitive cultures, which accept miraculous events as "normal" reality, so too the Exodus narrative is based upon a naive assumption that arcane concepts, such as magic, the power of curses (e.g. Deuteronomy 27), and supernatural powers, exist and operate at both a human and divine level.

Belief in magic has long been a part of Jewish tradition; thus, the claim that Moses, "…was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," (Acts 7:22), meant not only that he possessed normal human "wisdom," but also that he was skilled in all the magical secrets of the Egyptians. As Josephus commented,

"…the Egyptians soon repented that the Hebrews were gone; and the King also was mightily concerned that this had been procured by the magick arts of Moses." (Josephus, 2014, Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 15:3).

In those times magical powers were believed to be real, and, just as Moses could turn his staff into a snake the Egyptian magicians could do the same thing, using their "secret arts," (Exodus 7:11). Traditionally, it was believed that Moses shepherd's staff (Exodus 4:17), was actually a magician's "magic wand" which possessed great powers, (See Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 12:3). The staffs of both Moses, (called the "staff of God" Exodus 4:20; 17:9), and that of Aaron, feature frequently as the source of miraculous events. Moses' staff turns into a snake, (Exodus 4:3), as did Aaron's, (Exodus 7:10), Aaron's staff turns the waters of the Nile to blood, (Exodus 7:19-20), and while he produces a plague of frogs (Exodus 8:6), the Egyptian magicians too, "…by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt." (Exodus 8:7). In an act of "Spontaneous Generation," Aaron creates a plague of gnats, (KJ version, "lice"), from the "dust of the ground" (Exodus 8:17). Moses staff opens a path through the waters of the "Red Sea," produces water from a rock, (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11), and, when held aloft, enables the Israelites to prevail over the Amelekites, (Exodus 17:11). Magically Aaron's rod, "…sprouted, blossomed, and produced almonds!" (Numbers 17:8); all of these implausible events provide examples of the generally fantastic tone of the exodus saga, some of which will now be examined in greater detail.


DATE OF THE "EXODUS"

Many attempts have been made to determine the date of the exodus as well as the name of the reigning king, (pharaoh), to date these facts still remain unknown. Dyer (1983), noted that current views on the actual date are divided between an "early date," (circa 1445 BCE), or a "late date," (circa 1290 BCE). (p. 225).

In, Antiquities of the Jews; (Book 8.3.1), Josephus dates the exodus at 592 years before the erection of Solomon's Temple; since the construction of the temple occurred, in or about the fourth year of Solomon's reign, (circa 966 BCE), this would place the exodus at circa 1,558 BCE. However, in Against Apion, Josephus claimed that Solomon's temple was built, "…six hundred and twelve years after the Jews came out of Egypt." (Book 2.2), which would date the exodus at circa 1,578 BCE. Both of these dates, fall within the Second Intermediate Period, (circa 1650-1550 BCE), when Egypt was divided between the Egyptian and Hyksos kings. From 1783 – 1550 BCE the Hyksos kings ruled the north-eastern part of the Nile Delta. Now, since the Israelites were said to reside in the Land of Goshen, which was located in the eastern region of the delta, then they would have been in bondage to the Hyksos kings, not, as Exodus 1 clearly indicates, to the ruler of Egypt!

Further confusing the issue, we are told in 1 Kings 6:1, that the fourth year of Solomon's reign, when construction of the temple commenced, was, "… four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt," If this figure is correct, this would clarify the issue and definitely date the exodus to circa 1446 BCE; however, it is not quite that simple. As both Humphreys (2003) and Farbridge (2000) indicated, the number forty appears frequently in the Bible, e.g. Genesis 25:20; 26:34; Moses visited his own people when he, "…was forty years old" (Acts 7:23); the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness, (also see 1 Samuel 17:16; Ezekiel 29:11-13, etc.),

 "…in particular forty years often means a generation. So a possible interpretation of 480 years is that this refers to twelve generations each of a nominal forty years instead of a literal 480 years." (Humphreys, 2003, p. 33)

So, nowhere within the text can we find either a specific date, or the name of the reigning Egyptian ruler. In particular, the omission of the pharaoh's name suggests that, whoever later wrote the saga down, did not know who the "actual" pharaoh was. This is quite bizarre for, if the events were actually historical, one would have expected the ruler's name to be known, and triumphantly proclaimed as the powerful Egyptian ruler who had been so decisively overcome by their god.

Nevertheless, Bible advocates persist in seeking an actual date for the Exodus; in 1654 Bishop Usher gave 1571 BCE as the birth date of Moses, and "established" that the exodus had taken place in April of 1491 BCE. (Keyes, 1962, p. 27) Others, such as Goedicke (1995), dated it at 1477 BCE, while by correlating regnal dates of Israelite kings with Egyptian and Assyrian sources, Finkelstein and Silberman, (2002), suggested 1440 BCE was the most likely date; (p. 56). However, there are some problems with locating the exodus in the 15th century BCE, since this was a time when Egypt was recovering from a decline in power.

During the 18th century BCE the diminishing power of the 13th Dynasty, (1803 – 1649 BCE), had enabled Canaanites, who had begun to settle in the Nile Delta circa 1800 BCE to establish an independent territory. Then, during a period of internal dysfunction within Egypt, lasting from 1786-1575 BCE, (Starr, 1991, p. 88, possibly due to famine and plague), another group of invaders, the Hyksos, (heqa khasut, "ruler(s) of the foreign countries"), possibly from Western Asia, either by invasion, or gradual infiltration, entered Egypt circa 1650 BCE and established their own independent kingdom ruling over much of the northern area of the Nile Delta. Still relatively weak, and lacking the power to dislodge them, the Egyptian rulers were grudgingly forced to make peaceful concessions with them.

However, as Egypt began to recover her former power her new rulers sought to recover the lost territories. Circa 1560 BCE King Seqenenre Tao waged war against the Hyksos, then  his son, King Kamose (1555-1550 BCE), gained several significant victories over them and they were finally defeated by his brother, King Ahmose I, (1549-1524 BCE), and, once again, the north and south were again reunited circa 1535 BCE, (Bryan, 2004, p. 207).

Some, like Finkelstein and Silberman, (2002), have suggested that the exodus narrative may actually have been a confabulation of distant memories of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, to which later Jewish authors added many anachronistic geographical and political data. One of the earliest to make this connection between the Hyksos and the Israelites was Josephus; quoting Manetho, (an Egyptian priest who lived at the time of the Ptolemies), he tells how the Hyksos, after concluding a treaty with Thoummosis,

"…no fewer than two hundred and forty thousand, entire households with their possessions, left Egypt and traversed the desert to Syria. … they built a city in the country now called Judaea, capable of accommodating their vast company, and gave it the name of Jerusalem." (Josephus, 1926, p. 199)

Ahmose I's reign ushered in the period known as the New Kingdom, (circa 1549-1069 BCE), when Egypt regained her prosperity and power, becoming, "...the dominant power in the world." (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002, p. 60) During the reigns of Thutmose I, (circa 1506-1493 BCE), and Thutmose III, (circa 1479-1425 BCE), Egypt achieved its greatest territorial expansion. Its large and powerful army controlled Canaan and Syria, as far north as the Euphrates and Cilicia, and as far south as Nubia. From 1550-1400 BCE Canaan, which Gardiner (1920) defined as, "…the maritime plain where the Philistines later settled," (p. 100), was actually an Egyptian vassal state, and remained essentially so until 1178 BCE, when Egyptian power in the Levant declined. As Propp (2006) pointed out,

By the Bible's own chronology, the year of the Exodus fell during Egypt's heyday under the Eighteenth Dynasty, indeed during the imperium of the puissant Thutmosis III (c. 1490-1436 B.C.E.) It is simply "impossible" — so many have said — that the Hebrew slaves attained liberation at the very apex of Egyptian power. (p. 738)

In contrast, those who favour the "late date" suggest the exodus occurred during the 13th century BCE, e.g. the Jewish Encyclopedia places the date at approximately 1200 BCE. Based upon this time-frame, attempts have been made to connect the exodus to the reign of Rameses II, (1279-1213 BCE), however, this creates some difficulties. During the fourth year of his reign, (1275 BCE), Rameses was campaigning in the Levant, battling a rebellious Canaanite prince as well as the Amurru and their Hittite allies. After his defeat at the Battle of Kadesh, (Qadesh) In 1274 BCE, the Hittites gained control of Syria, and left Egyptian control in the Levant concentrated in Canaan. Circa 1272 BCE Rameses returned and campaigned successfully in Syria, eventually conquering territory as far north as Tunip in western Syria. So, with ongoing warfare, and a powerful Egyptian army located in Canaan, it would hardly have been a suitable time for the Israelites to leave Egypt for Canaan.


THE ISRAELITES

Genesis and Exodus purport to outline the development of the Israelites as a nation, they tell how Jacob took his family to live in the Nile Delta, and how their population increased, "…the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky." (Deuteronomy 10:22), and how, after leaving Egypt en masse, they invaded and conquered Canaan; however, as Dever (2003) noted,

"We must confront the fact that the external material evidence supports almost nothing of the biblical account of a large-scale concerted Israel military invasion of Canaan." (p. 71).

A much more rational explanation is that, rather than coming out of Egypt, the Israelites were actually indigenous to the Levant, possibly originating as highland clans, who, over time, as their numbers increased, became powerful enough to invade Canaan. Indeed, Finkelstein and Silberman (2001), even suggested they were actually Canaanites who had, over time, evolved into a separate culture. (p. 118) Certainly, as Propp (2006) noted,

"…the new highland settlements of the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E. show little connection with Egyptian material culture … Competent archaeologists consider these villages to be natural outgrowths from Canaanite culture… Similarly, the Hebrew language is a purely Canaanite dialect …" (p. 739).

For eons the Levant had been a fertile region with large herds of animals grazing on large areas of grasslands, then, some 12,900 years ago, during the Younger Dryas, the climate suddenly cooled, resulting in reduced rainfall in the Levant. A century long drought followed which drastically reduced herd numbers, forcing many of the nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle permanently alongside rivers, and to adapt to a more sedentary life-style dependent upon cereal crops. One of the first to adapt were the Natufians, who would later found Jericho. Although they continued to hunt as they cleared and planted more land, they were soon able to grow more than enough food to feed them through the lean winter months, they became ever more dependant upon their agrarian life style. It also appears that they began to domesticate animals; Zeder (2008) suggests that circa 9,000-8,500 BCE, (or possibly earlier), they began to keep herds of sheep and goats in south-eastern Anatolia. The practice appears to have spread quickly throughout the Levant and Arabia, and, as the population increased, some individuals began to adopt a semi-nomadic life utilizing the large areas of semi-arid wilderness not suited for farming, but ideal for grazing herds of sheep and goats. Some of these nomadic herdsmen were probably the proto-Israelites, and the words, "We have been livestock breeders from our youth, as our ancestors have been for many generations" (Genesis 46:34) possibly reflects a distant memory of their indigenous nomadic predecessors. Indeed, as Redmount (1998) noted, the Merneptah stele, (circa 1213 - 1203 BCE), clearly indicated the Israelites were nomadic herdsmen;

"The hieroglyphs with which Israel was written include instead the determinative sign usually reserved for foreign peoples: a throw stick plus a man and a woman over the three vertical plural lines. This sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic groups or peoples without a fixed city-state home, thus implying a semi nomadic or rural status for "Israel" at that time." (p. 72)

The farmers of the Levant depended upon suitable weather conditions to sustain their crops, and when severe droughts occurred, many were forced to seek food elsewhere. Although not immune to famine, because the Nile normally provided Egypt with a regular bountiful harvests, it was often the favoured destination of those fleeing droughts in the Levant, and, as Ryholt (1997) indicated, from circa 1800 BCE, and for long afterwards, Canaanites, and other groups, regularly migrated to Egypt for this reason, e.g. "We have come to live here in Egypt, for there is no pasture for our flocks in Canaan …" (Genesis 47:4).

While there is archaeological and textual evidence of foreign immigrations into Egypt, there is none to support the claims in Exodus that the Israelite settlers comprised, "...a large nation, and they filled the land of Goshen." (Exodus 1:7). As Moore and Kelle (2011), noted, "…no clear extrabiblical evidence exists for any aspect of the Egyptian sojourn, exodus or wilderness wanderings." (p. 81). This lack of evidence is certainly not due to a lack of effort by archaeologists, for, as Meyers (2005) observed,

"After more than a century of research and the massive efforts of generations of archaeologists and Egyptologists, nothing has been recovered that relates directly to the account in Exodus of an Egyptian sojourn and escape of a large-scale migration through Sinai." (p. 5)

The most likely explanation for this complete lack of substantiating evidence is simply that the events claimed in the exodus saga never actually occurred. Although some, such as McNutt (1999), continue to believe, "...there might be a historical core, or some kind of vague historical memory, in the Moses traditions," (p. 42), most authorities now believe, like Propp (2006), that, "…the story of Israel's journeys from Canaan to Egypt and back again resembles a heroic fairy tale…"  (p. 736),

Certainly, the "heroic myth" of Moses, the fabulous tales of the exodus, and the forty-years wandering in the wilderness, appears to be more folklore than historical fact, part of an Israelite "foundation-myth" which, beginning with Abraham, "explained" their emergence as a nation, the origins of their religious rituals, and provided a justification for their "conquest" of Canaan.

Their humble origins lost in the mists of time, most ancient cultures created fantastic tales of glorious origins, and the Exodus saga is simply an example of this tradition. Rather than the reality of their very mundane ordinary origins as nomadic herdsmen, the Exodus myth depicts the Israelites as special people, and that, just as Yahweh had divinely guided the "creation" of the cosmos, so too, he had chosen, and divinely guided, the Israelites.  


ANACHRONISTIC LOCATIONS

"…virtually all of the toponyms (place names) mentioned in the exodus account, including the Land of Goshen, the store cities of Pithom and Rameses, the Red (or Reed) Sea, and even Sinai itself (for which as many as sixteen different possibilities been proposed) escape positive identification despite the best effort of generations of explorers." (Meyers, 2005, p. 6)

The Exodus saga refers to a number of places which did not exist at the claimed time(s); probably the most significant is, "…the land of Goshen," in the Nile Delta, where it is claimed, the Israelites originally settled. (Genesis 45:10; 46:28; 46:34; 47:1; 47:4; Exodus 8:22). "So the people of Israel settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt…" (Genesis 47:27); however, as Finkelstein and Silberman (2002) pointed out, the name "Goshen" was not applied to this area until much later, in the 6th-5th centuries BCE. (pp. 66-67), by an Arabic group, who dominated this area.

Exodus 1:11 claims, "…the Egyptians…forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses," Described in some texts as "treasure cities," (Exodus 1:11), as Blacklock (1963) pointed out, "The 'treasure cities' of Exodus 1:11 were arsenals and depots for provisions …" (p. 868). Normally army supply depots were located near the frontier of the empire, however as Van Seters (2001) pointed out, at that time, the actual frontier was far to the north in Syria, a long way from the Nile Delta. An additional problem with this is that, as Finkelstein and Silberman (2002) pointed out, archaeological evidence dates Pithom to the XXVI Dynasty, (664 - 525 BCE), far too late for the exodus." Pithom in fact, as MacDonald (1980) indicated, was actually established by Necho II, (610-595 BCE) as the administrative centre of a project to construct a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

Furthermore, the name Rameses was, according to Propp (2006), "… a royal name only in the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E." (p. 738, [1,299 - 1,100 BCE]) This actually refers to the city of Pi-Rameses, (House of Rameses) which was built by Rameses II, (1279-1213 BCE), near the ancient Hyksos location of Avaris; rather than being a supply depot it was the location of summer palace for Seti I, (1290-1279 BCE), and served as the capital of Egypt until the 10th century BCE. As Van Setters (2001) notes only long after its original role as a royal city had been forgotten could it have been described as a fortress.

Ezion-Geber, (Numbers 33:15), a place where the Israelites are said to have stopped during their forty year sojourn, did not exist at the claimed time. As Pratico (1985) pointed out, excavations at what is now Tell el-Kheleifeh, date the existence of Ezion-Geber to between the 8th – 6th centuries BCE, placing it far outside the time-frame of the claimed exodus.

There is also problems with the claim that, "…God did not lead them through the land of the Philistines." (Exodus 13:17), for, as Grabbe, (2008) indicated, the Philistines first settled in the Levant in around Year 8 of the reign of Rameses III, (1186-1155 BCE, p. 47), so, before that time, there was no "land of the Philistines."


ISRAELITE "SLAVERY"

Exodus 1:11 claims that, "…the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves…" however, as Tyldesley (2000) pointed out, it has been known since 1888, when the villages of the actual Egyptian builders were discovered, that the various Egyptian cities and great structures were not built by Hebrew slaves. One such village was Set Maat, ("the place of truth," now Deir el-Medina) in western Thebes which, "…was built early in the 18th Dynasty to house the craftsmen who would build and decorate the royal tombs." (Bryan, 2004, p. 213) The workers were a mixture of Egyptian, Nubians and Asiatics, (Edwards, Gadd, Hammond and Sollberger, pp. 379-380); further evidence that these workers were not Israelite slaves comes from the fact that Amenhotep I, and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari, were the patron-deities of the village and many of the worker's homes contained shrines dedicated to them. (Bryan, 2004, p. 213)

Further contradicting the claims that the Israelites were slaves is the claim that Aaron was able to leave Goshen, to travel to Mount Horeb, meet with Moses and then return with him to Egypt, (Exodus 4:27). Although the actual location of Mount Horeb is unknown, Exodus 3:1, suggests it was in the land of Midian, on the Arabian peninsula east of the Gulf of Aqaba, some 500 km. (310 miles) from Goshen. This would suggest a return journey of at least twenty days, so, one must ask, what sort of bondage allowed slaves to take a leave of absence, and to come and go with such ease?

Exodus 10:24 claims the pharaoh requested that Moses, "…let your flocks and herds stay here." However, because the animals were required for sacrifices, Moses argues, "Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind" (Exodus 10:26). There are a number of references in Genesis, e.g. 45:10, which indicate that when the Israelites first settled in Egypt they owned "flocks and herds," while Exodus 12:38, tells us they left Egypt with, "...many flocks and herds." In ancient times ownership of large herds of animals were usually restricted to the wealthy, or to individual clans, so, again, one must ask, what type of slaves would be permitted to own large herds of cattle and accumulate personal wealth? Perhaps that, just as the Egyptians surrendered their jewellery, (Exodus 12:36), they also meekly handed over their herds to the Israelites?

Part II is scheduled for Investigator Magazine #182



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