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This week’s guest is Kent Sparks, professor of biblical studies and provost at Eastern University. Our discussion is all about the mystery of Israel’s origins. And it is a mystery. The exodus and conquest of Canaan (Exodus through Joshua) are central to Israel’s identity, and are certainly informed by old traditions and authentic historical memory—but they not historical accounts in the modern sense. How and when, historically speaking, Israel stepped out onto the world stage is a huge mystery, though we have some clues to piece together a compelling picture.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

32 Comments

  • Don Bryant says:

    As an Evangelical conservative I have to say that accounting for the Exodus story and the Canaan entrance have always been a challenge to me. I have always been surprised to see how little press this gets in my circles. “Nothing to see here, folks. Just move along.”

    • Pete E. says:

      I hear you Don. The thing is, within evangelicalism, James Hoffmeier calls it “mythicized history.” That’s a pretty mainstream view, though the issue will be “how much myth?”

      • noel says:

        What are your thoughts on Israel Finkelstein’s book The Bible Unearthed where he states that the Exodus and Conquest did not happen. Were the Egyptians in charge in Palestine. Forty years at Kadesh-barnea? Surely there would be evidence from remains there. He states “not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees” p.63.

  • Trevor Stoute says:

    I appreciated this discussion. However, for those of us over say 40 indoctrinated in American evangelicalism (especially it’s fundamentalist version), talk of ‘Isra-El’ and the possibility of coopting a pagan god’s name is .. potentially unsettling, if not blasphemous.
    Are you (and/or Sparks) intimating that the people of the Older Testament constructed their god ?
    I ask in peace.
    I think the last several minutes in the audio, where Sparks’ gives more generalized comments about engaging the scriptures and God, were worth the price of admission.
    I’m enjoying your podcast.
    peace to you
    and love
    in Jesus’ name

    • Fred Fauth says:

      This is going to sound a little flippant, and I don’t mean it that way at all. But I think everyone constructs their own God. God is not a being we can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. He completely evades our senses and we are left primarily to other people’s accounts (which in the case of the Bible are very old and culturally different from our own). Interpreting who God is through that lens is actually really, really hard, despite how simple American Evangelicalism tries to make it.

      I was part of traditional Evangelical thinking for a long time. What you don’t realize when you are in the tradition is that you are, in fact, applying a lens that makes things that are subjective *seem* objective. In other words, you are used to reading the text in a certain way, with a certain understanding, and you are sure that is the right way to read the text.

      My view: of course the Israelites were “constructing their own God.” Everyone always is. We see through a glass dimly who the creator and sustainer of everything is.

      • Trevor Stoute says:

        Thanks, mate.
        I don’t agree with your use of ‘evades’ ..
        That aside, while there may be subjectivity in my interpretation of the texts concerning Jesus, and while our understanding is incomplete (your dirty glass), I go to Jesus for my definition of God. I consider my ‘construction’ of God to be virtual idolatry. Jesus is the perfect disclosure of who God is.
        Of course Israel’s understanding of God was much more ‘primitive’, more limited.
        in any event, where does ‘inspiration’ come on in all of this??

        • Reuben Anderson says:

          Hasn’t your understanding of Jesus grown and deepened with time?

          Yes Jesus IS the centre and the exact representation of God… but we still have to build a real, meaningful, experienced understanding of what that means and how it applies to our day to day.

  • Desmond Smith says:

    When you guys came out of the gate with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr as episodes 1 and 2, I told some friends that there was no way you could match it…. I’m an idiot. These last few episodes (Sparks & Levine in particular) have been amazing. To the point made near the end, I would say that most of the people in my circles have rarely heard anything like the information Sparks shared about Exodus or the interpretation of the Prodigal Son from Levine.

    Amazing.

    • Reuben Anderson says:

      I agree. I got VERY excited last week by the Megan DeFranza episode. And by Enns’ monologue on Monolatry.
      Wonderful

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    Love these types of discussions.

  • James Walker says:

    Kent had mentioned that the Israelites number would have nearly matched that of the Egyptians as a reason the Exodus account could not have been accurate. Coincidentally, I’m reading Exodus 1 right now, and it points out that the people of Israel were “too many and too mighty” for the Egyptians. Other pieces of evidence discussed aside, wouldn’t that claim support the Exodus account rather than debunk it? Thanks for your work!

    • LorenHaas says:

      I think his point was that a disruption of that scale would have produced some kind of record from the Egyptians.

    • Scott Coulter says:

      My understanding of what Prof Sparks said in that part of the interview is that if the Israelite population was so large, it is incredible that they would not appear in extant Egyptian historical records. I don’t think he was necessarily saying that having that many Israelites living in Egypt is in and of itself impossible, just that if they were there we should expect an extrabiblical record of some kind.

  • LorenHaas says:

    We have s dear friend that was starting seminary just as we were escaping an conservative evangelical church. She would visit us on the weekends and repeat what she was learning, a lot like we heard on this podcast. I had some trouble wrapping my head around it untill I started reading her texts and some of Dr. Enns books. This put me on a path to a fuller, grown-up faith that is based on the record we have instead of wish fulfillment.

  • nicholascapri says:

    I recently took a course called Myths of the Jews at a large State University, and my professor argued that the Exodus story is really a creation myth for the nation of Israel. It has many similarities to ANE myths, such as Moses parting the Red Sea and Marduk splitting the watery dragon Tiamat. I find this assessment compelling, yet my question is this: If the Exodus story is myth, written by Jewish scribes in the post-exilic period, why would the Israelites choose their national history to be descendants of slaves?

    • Pete E. says:

      It is a compelling question. To call Exodus a creation myth does not mean it is fabricated out of whole cloth. Most every critical biblical scholar I know acknowledges an authentic “historical memory” which is told in mythic categories.

  • Trevor Stoute says:

    how does ‘inspiration’ play into these views?

    • Pete E. says:

      What do you mean?

      • Trevor Stoute says:

        Well, if what is recorded is either mythical or fanciful, if Israel is constructing their god, how does the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture come into play? Was God directing them in their myths and their manipulation of ‘facts’ in creating their history? Or is my understanding of inspiration antiquated?

        • Pete E. says:

          Gotcha. That’s what my book Inspiration and Incarnation is about, which might be too hard to summarize in a comment, but in a nutshell–this type of thing is precisely what one would expoect of an “inspired” text.

  • Jez Bayes says:

    I enjoyed the dialogue here about the evolution of the Hebrew names for God.
    It reminded me of one of the sayings of St Paul (*) in regard to the name Yah/Yhwh,
    “You can call me El.”

    (* Or it might have been Simon?)

  • Scott Johnson says:

    Excellent dialogue.

  • Scott Johnson says:

    Excellent discussion. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Keep up the great podcasts.

  • Tyler Martin says:

    I understand that the discussion has likely moved onto more recent episodes, but I’m catching up and am filled with thoughts about Sparks’ thoughts. I’ll share one of them.

    Towards the end Sparks starts talking about how Christians messed up the Bible when they started seeing it as a way ensure their salvation. He seems to blame the Reformers with introducing this “sotieriological anxiety” into understanding the Bible. I had never heard someone cast the Reformers in such a light, and I would like to understand his perspective more. If this was in some way a new way of thinking about the Bible, why did it come up? What drove Luther to all of a sudden become fixated on assurance of salvation?

    Also, sis setting up and tearing down of the Evangelical Gospel, or “Good News” is still haunting me. I’m assuming he was setting up a straw man and doesn’t actually believe the Gospel to be as he described it?

    Appreciate any thoughtful responses as I continue to seek truth!

    • Pete E. says:

      Tyler, I recommend you read a couple of his books: SACRED WORD, BROKEN WORD and GOD’S WORD IN HUMAN WORDS. Maybe also his contribution to the Zondervan 3 Views book on Genesis 1-11.

  • Reuben Anderson says:

    I’ve been looking to understand for a while what it is that makes so certain (if indeed they are), of their categories for “Israelite” against “Canaanite”.

    When I read the bible, I see a Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Laban…a small clan of Semitic herdsmen… travelling, intermingling, and trading in a large region of similar tribes.

    Through the exodus – they bring not just Hebrews but anyone who wants to come.

    When they invade Canaan, they never stop worshipping other Gods…not until Ezra after the return from exile.

    Why don’t we simply expect the “Israelites” to look barely distinguishable from Canaanites? Sharing a worldview, language, culture, worship…. ? The key distinction would be not much beyond just familial genealogies…

    I reckon I need to get this book!

  • Christin says:

    I’ve been trying to find information on Kent Sparks’ upcoming book, The Mystery of Israel’s Origins, but I can’t find anything about it anywhere. Does Kent have a website or something with updates? Who is publishing the book? My husband really wants it when it comes out, but I have no idea where to find info on it. Thank you!

  • Clarke Morledge says:

    I am just getting around to listening to the Sparks interview… and, well, I don’t know about all of this. Sparks maintains that the Egyptians knew nothing of the Passover event, or of some 1 million Hebrews fleeing out of the country. In other words, we would expect at least some mention of these extraordinary events, but we don’t see that in the record; therefore, the traditional reading is suspect.

    Two things here: (a) What if the scale of these events is smaller than what the traditional interpretation tells us? For example, what if the “thousands” in the Numbers’ census passages should be treated differently (see Wenham, on the Problem of Large Numbers), such that the size of the Exodus movement is roughly 1/10 of the million Sparks is talking about. Perhaps, we should not expect a lot of evidence for smaller scale events.

    (b) Would we necessarily expect an Egyptian report for such events, if they were highly embarrassing? Sparks mentions the invasion of the Hyksos and the Sea Peoples, but do these events parallel the type of embarrassment experienced with the Hebrews?

    Also, Sparks would expect Hebrew slaves to have spoken Egyptian, after being in Egypt for so long, and not Hebrew. But I thought the Hebrew language was a later development? (Can you reference any good work on the history of Hebrew language development?)

    My point is that Sparks has some thoughtful arguments to make, as there are real problems here. However, it seems like there are other reasonable arguments to make that would preserve the essential historical character of the Exodus event. I do not want to rule out “mythic” elements of the Exodus story, but neither do I feel it responsible to dismiss the historicity of the Exodus prematurely. Am I missing something here?

    • Pete E. says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Clarke. I think, though, that you’ll find Sparks (and me, and many others) disagreeing with handling the numbers the way you suggest. That is more of an apologetic move. The numbers are simply exaggerated, which happens elsewhere in the OT (e.g., Solomon’s wives and concubines). But more problematic than the numbers is the annihilation of the Egyptian army. The ANE tendency is not to ignore defeats but to spin them (their god is angered, etc.). They would have to, for the sake of retaining honor in an honor/shame world. The defeat of the Egyptian army could not have been kept a secret, with regular commerce with Egypt. Biblical Hebrew is a late Iron Age phenomenon, but earlier Hebrew is pre-Davidic. I think Spark’s point here is that a couple of generations in Babylon and the Judahites had picked up Aramaic and Hebrew began to be more of a second language, not the language of the people. Nehemiah hints at this. Ezra is half Aramaic. So is Daniel. But in the biblical story, the Hebrew slaves simply preserved their tongue in tact without missing a beat. How likely is it after several centuries that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt would have preserved Hebrew as their main spoken and written language? I know immigrant families (I’m born to one) where within 2 generations the mother tongue is lost. When the Greeks took control of Judea in the late 4th century BC, it didn’t take long before their Scriptures had to be translated into Greek. By the time we get to the late 1st century, Jewish philosopher Philo didn’t know Hebrew at all. That doesn’t mean no one did (of course) but it doesn’t take much for language to shift, morph, or become endangered.

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