Exodus VI: A Beginning Examination of the Historicity of Exodus

Why would be concerned with the historicity of Exodus?  It’s a great story, isn’t it?  Isn’t this enough?

If Exodus is not a historical event, then the foundation, upon which Judaism is built, crumbles.  Judaism, like Christianity, is a religion based upon the belief that God works through history to demonstrate his existence, which God works through historical people to carry out his work.  What would Judaism be without Moses?  So, if Moses did not lead the Israelites out of Egypt, if the Israelites were not enslaved, then is Judaism a valid religion?  What does this also say of the religions which have grown out of Judaism that is Christianity and Islam?

While the process of comparing the Kadesh Poem to Exodus Chapters 14 and 15 does not in itself prove the historicity of the events related in Exodus, it helps to set the stage for a further and c more complete analysis of the issue.  It is for that reason that thus blog chapter will explore the criticism leveled at the thesis that the Kadesh Poem was appropriated by the author of Exodus.

The most important critic of the view that the Kadesh Poem inspired the book of Exodus is Ronald Hendel, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the book, The Book of “Genesis”: A Biography, and Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible, among other works.

Hendel dismisses the extended parallels identified between the “Kadesh Poem”, which was inscribed on at least ten monuments to the 1274 BCE victory of the pharaoh Ramesses II over his Hittite rivals and the account of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and the encounter at the sea in chapters 14 and 15 of Exodus.  Hendel claims that most of the motifs cited are instead “formulaic and widely distributed” in ancient Egyptian literature, and thus are not unique to the Kadesh Poem.

Let’s examine Hendel’s thesis and how it impacts the historicity of the event of Exodus.

Hendel writes, “…that biblical literature sometimes draws on old Egyptian motifs—in the Joseph story, in Egyptian influences in the books of Psalms and Proverbs, and elsewhere—is a well-established fact.”

Hendel offers an alternative account for the origins of the Exodus story. Egyptian hegemony had extended over Canaan for centuries. The inhabitants, including the Israelites, of this region were, thus, servants (slaves?) of the pharaoh. For Hendel, then, the Israelites made their oppression in Canaan the equivalent of being in bondage as slaves in Egypt.

For his theory to be valid, there ought to be proof that the Israelites were present in Canaan during the relevant time period.  Hendel does not come forward with any documentation that the Israelites were in Canaan during this time period.  He also does not refute the numerous Scriptural references that the Israelites were in Egypt.  On the other hand, Hendel does document the abundant evidence that the Israelites were in Egypt.

Dr. Richard Hess, the Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary, notes that several Egyptian names found in the book of Exodus are only known from Egyptian sources from the mid-second millennium BC. Thus for Hendel to be right, it would appear, we would have to accept that the authors of the Exodus, not only knew the Egyptian sources from the mid-second millennium BC, but also inserted into the story names that were period-appropriate to give greater validity to the story.  This seems unlikely in light of the other evidence and in light of the fact that in antiquity it was extremely unusual for scholars and authors to think in the light of modern sensibilities of truth and accurate reporting.

Another feature which strains credulity is the fact that for Hendel to be right, one must accept that fact that the Israelites converted their oppression in Canaan to being under bondage in Egypt.  This again seems unlikely that a people could change the nature of their political oppression and the geography of their oppression to then create a story of overcoming that oppression.  I think Joshua Berman’s response is persuasive: “Across the Bible, starting with the expulsion from Eden until the expulsion from Jerusalem, exile looms as the ultimate punishment—of an altogether different magnitude from subjugation at the hands of an oppressor in one’s own land. Exile and exile alone means cultural annihilation, rupture of continuity with the past, and a bleak future as a landless minority stripped of every shred of autonomy. Many biblical narratives recount Israel’s sufferings within its own land at the hands of external powers; never is that oppression confused with the memory of exile.”

While, we have not resolved the historicity of the Exodus events in this article, I believe that we have advanced the issue by analyzing the strongest criticism to it.

We will continue our examination in the next blog.