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by Jared Byas

Exodus for Blog

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article (by Joshua Berman) suggesting the biblical exodus might have its root in an historical event. This isn’t exactly new, but what interested me was the primary reason given— the biblical text seems to be appropriating some Ramesses II propaganda (discovered early in the 20th century) to make a theological point.

Berman writes, “Both written accounts, hieroglpyhic in the case of the Kadesh inscriptions, Hebrew in the case of Exous chapters 14-15, follow a similar plot, sometimes line for line, and feature a sequence of motifs seen nowhere else in battle accounts of the ancient Near East.”

He then gives the following examples:

1. Ramesses’s frightened troops break ranks at the sight of the Hittite chariot force, explained in the same way Exodus describes how Israel cowers at the sight of the Egyptian chariots.

2. Ramesses pleas for divine help and is encouraged to proceed with victory assured, as does Moses.

3. After the victory, the troops return to survey the enemy corpses and offer up a hymn of praise. Both of these hymns use similar motifs, like “invoking his strong arm, and extolling him as the source of their strength and their salvation.”

As encouraging as these examples may or may not be, they cause apredicament for Evangelicals who insist on the historical accuracy, or at least the historical plausibility, of the exodus story.

On the one hand, co-opting Ramesside propaganda does provide evidence for something historical happening between the Israelites and Egyptians. Otherwise, Berman argues, how, or more importantly why, would the Israelites feel the need to co-opt it in the first place?

However, for the biblical author to co-opt Egyptian propaganda would mean that the exodus probably didn’t happen in the way the story is told in the book of Exodus, since it was more concerned to borrow Ramesside propaganda than document history. (And I’m leaving out the whole issue of just how much historicity the biblical account would contain.)

An analogous situation occurs concerning Canaanite extermination. The biblical rhetoric of complete annihilation matches the rhetoric of extrabiblical sources, namely the Mesha inscription, where Israel is utterly annihilated. (The same word herem–put to the ban, devote completely to the deityis used as in the biblical accounts). Yet Israel was clearly not annihilated, which suggests that both the biblical account and Mesha’s account are exaggerations and propagandistic. So again, the parallel suggests “something” happened but not what the Bible says happened.

This of course points up the larger question of how it’s too easy to allow historical or cultural evidence that supports your current conclusion about the Bible but dismiss the same type of evidence when it doesn’t. What do you do when it does both?


Photo | Exodus by Dennis Jarvis
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License

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.


  • James says:

    It’s a little like Darwinian evolution–something happened but we aren’t 100% sure in great detail exactly what at this point in time. There is now a scientific consensus that a Homo sapiens branch budded. The stories of Abraham, the patriarchs, Moses and the monarchy also spring from the Near Eastern (or African) soil of antiquity. We are mostly agreed on that. Hopefully more archeological detail like this will emerge–not to prove or disprove inerrancy per se but to help us discern the grand purposes of God in the world and our participation in them.

    • The Rambam and Saadia Geon have a principle that where the simple explanation of a verse does not make sense we have to go with allegory.

    • Jonathan Bernier says:

      I have long been impressed by the general resonances between the Genesis and Exodus accounts and what we can know about ancient Israel on other grounds. For instance, Genesis tells us that the ancestors of the Israelites moved back and forth between Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt; we know that such transhumant movements were not uncommon at various times in the Bronze Age. The Israelites are presented as having a special connection to the region of Canaanite; not surprisingly their language is a form of Northwest Semitic, like those of the Canaanite peoples, and their religion has at least a family resemblance with those of Canaan. Genesis has the Israelites moving from Canaan and settling the eastern delta region; we know that there was a substantial Canaanite population in that area. Exodus presents them as having some influence when first arriving but later becoming slaves; Canaanite influence over the eastern delta likewise waxed and waned over the centuries. Exodus has the Israelites fleeing slavery and moving back towards Canaan; it was not unknown for slaves to escape and flee. I see very little reason to think that early Israel could not in part be descended from slaves who undertook such flight back to Canaan.

      Now, whether this happened in the single dramatic event envisioned by Exodus, that’s a different question. My pet theory is that the polity that came to be called Israel started in part as the end-point of a sort of Late Bronze underground railroad that ran from the land of Goshen up to the Canaanite highlands, where they also mingled with various persons fleeing taxation, corvée, etc., under
      the city-states that dominated the region at that time. This might also help
      account for their suspicion of kingship: if they fled to this region specifically
      to evade state rule then they might have been less-than-inclined to institute
      states of their own. But as I said, this is just a pet theory, and not one that
      I’d push particularly far.

      • PNG says:

        This is quite similar to the account presented in a recent PBS show on the Torah. The archaeology suggests that the Canaanite city state vassals of Egypt were in decline in that period and that they may have been overthrown by their own slaves. It was suggested that those slaves may have been joined (or led) by escaped slaves from Egypt who came to Canaan by way of Midian. The recent book, 1177 B.C., which I am part way through, looks at the general collapse of civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, the HIttites, the Mycenaens, etc) at about that time. Whatever weakened all of them at the time may have made the Canaanite states susceptible to being overthrown.

        • I’m “late to this party” so will be brief. Your suggestions make complete sense. Tho I’ve focused a lot more on the NT than Heb. Bible, the use of story-vis-a-vis-history seems basically continuous, similar: Take something either recent or distant past and USE it, with embellishment, exaggeration and various “spin”, to make the point that supports your cause or a contemporary need. The Exodus probably did happen, but on a scale of maybe one-hundredth or so of the biblical story, and almost certainly without 10 plagues (maybe some related conditions however), the miracle of the Red Sea parting, etc.

          If well over a million people wandered the Sinai for 40 years (or even less), I think it’s quite reasonable to expect SOME archaeological evidence and apparently we have none. Can anyone point out any?

          • R Vogel says:

            Do you have any opinion on Richard Elliot Friedman’s hypothesis that the ‘Israelites’ referred to in the Exodus story may have just been the Levites? I have no basis for evaluating his claims, but they sounded somewhat compelling.

            Sidebar: Just got and began reading TBTMS. Enjoying it so far….

        • Jonathan Bernier says:

          This goes back to Norman Gottwald, whom I will admit has influenced my thinking to a large extent, although it requires some major corrections in a lot of ways. I am sympathetic to the view that the Bronze Age Collapse is related in some way to Israelite origins. Ultimately though I’m a NT scholar by training so I’m a bit of a dilettante in these discussions, but it is really quite fascinating.

  • DeWarrior says:

    I’m genuinely curious – how does one decide that the Jewish version is co-opted from the Egyptian version rather than vice versa?

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