The Historicity of the Exodus image

The Historicity of the Exodus

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Recently I came across a superb essay by Kenneth Kitchen, the world-renowned Egyptologist, on the historical reliability of the Exodus story. Given that the challenges to the accuracy of Scripture these days are, as often as not, coming to the Exodus and Conquest stories and not just the Genesis stories, I thought it would be worth summarising his conclusion here. In brief, Kitchen argues that the Exodus and Sinai stories have a definite historical basis, whether or not one accepts Scripture as divine revelation. He divides his argument for this position into three sections: negative evidence, neutral evidence and positive evidence.

Negatives (that is, reasons to suspect the Exodus did not happen as described):
1. No Egyptian records mention specifically Israelites working in the East Delta (or anywhere else), or a Moses who spoke for such a group, or an exodus by a group of this name (Israel).
2. Nowhere in Sinai has a body of Late Bronze Age people passing through who left explicit traces, still less traces that are labelled as Israelite.
3. The same is true for Qadesh-Barnea, and so on.

Neutrals (factors that need to be considered when assessing the evidence we have available, including reasons why the evidence is so sparse):
1. The Egyptians, quite obviously, would not have kept a record of such a humiliation in any literary or archaeological records.

It is no use asking the pharaohs to blazon their defeat and loss of a top chariot squadron high on temple walls for all to see. Egyptian gods gave only victories to kings – and defeats indicated divine disapproval, not applause!

2. We would not expect to find any administrative records of the Hebrew exodus, since 99% of all New Kingdom papyri have been irrevocably lost.
3. The few surviving documents we have from the period are clustered in the dry sands of Saqqara and Upper Egypt, a long way from the brickfields of Pi-Ramesse, not the muddy Nile Delta, for obvious reasons.
4. No buildings at Pi-Ramesse – temples, palaces, or anything – are above ground level. Mud and reed slave dwellings, consequently, would not be expected to remain.
5. We should not expect Egyptian artifacts in the Sinai desert, either.

A group of people travelling through Sinai’s landscapes would not be burdened with tonloads of clumsy pottery specially to delight archaeologists when they themselves expected to go from Sinai within a year to Canaan.

Positives (factors that support the historicity of the biblical Exodus story):
1. Exoduses happened in the second millennium BC, and the Israelite one is widely attested and strongly emphasised in the Hebrew Bible.
2. Israel, Edom and Moab are all mentioned in Egyptian sources shortly before 1200. We know that they existed, and were known to Egypt, at that time.
3. Semites and others are known to have been present in the cosmopolitan Ramesside Nineteenth Dynasty, from the court of the Pharaoh down to slaves.
4. The biblical narratives contain all sorts of realistic details that could not have been invented in Jerusalem or Babylon centuries later: salt-tolerant reeds, water from rock, habits of quails, kewirs, and so on.
5. The instruction not to go north to Canaan fits perfectly with Egyptian presence in the area in the thirteenth century BC.
6. “The tabernacle is an ancient Semitic concept, here with Egyptian technology involved, all from pre-1000, even centuries earlier.”
7. The content and shape of the Sinai covenant fit the late second millennium BC, as a comparison with firsthand sources shows, rather than covenants many centuries later.
8. Slaves who made bricks would not have shaped a covenant or treaty like the Sinai one; the story demands an educated, court-level diplomat to have put the whole thing together. Thus “we would be obliged to invent a Moses if one were not already available.”

Kitchen happily admits that none of this proves that the Exodus actually occurred as described in the biblical texts; historical reconstruction, particularly in very ancient eras, simply does not work like that. But, he concludes,

their correspondence not just with attested realities (not Sargon-style fantasy) but with known usage of the late second millennium BC and earlier does favour acceptance of their having had a definite historical basis.

Indeed.

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