How does the Bible interact with history? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Gary Rendsburg joins Pete and Jared to discuss how history, epic, and theology are interwoven to create biblical narrative. Together, they explore the following questions:
- Did the events we read about in the Bible actually happen?
- What are some examples of stories in the Bible that contain a historic kernel but were given the epic treatment?
- Is giving a story epic treatment unique to the Bible or are there more modern examples?
- What was the purpose of the storytellers in the Bible if not to give an objective view of history?
- If a biblical story is given the epic treatment, does that automatically mean that none of it is true and we should consider it pure fiction?
- What are stylized numbers and how/why are they used in the Bible? Are stylized numbers found outside the Bible?
- Why are genealogies so important?
- What are we talking about when we talk about the historical exodus?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Gary Rendsburg you can share.
- “There is a historical kernel to all of this, but the biblical storytellers didn’t write ‘objective history.’” -Gary Rendsburg
- “There is no such thing as objective history. Full stop.” -Gary Rendsburg
- “The ancient Israelite historians took a different perspective on their writing of history. They overlaid it with an epic treatment.” -Gary Rendsburg
- “There were Israelites who had different stories, but they all amalgamate into a national epic tradition because the stories you tell are more important than the history as it actually happened.” -Gary Rendsburg
- “The epic nation building stories were created in ancient Israel to unify the people, a disparate group.” -Gary Rendsburg
- “The historian in me, when I wear my historian’s hat, wants to remove all of that epic treatment. The literary scholar in me never wants to rend the two apart.” -Gary Rendsburg
- “I want to keep the history and epic and the theological overlay all together, because that’s what the biblical story does. We need to keep it as one single whole, an incredible story that has now been told for 3000 years.” -Gary Rendsburg
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Today, our topic is “History and the Exodus.” One of the questions we get asked most is how the Bible interacts with history. Did the things we read about in the Bible actually happen? Of course, just as with so much when it comes to the Bible, if you’ve listened to almost any of our episodes, it’s complicated. Fortunately, we talked with Gary Rendsburg for today’s episode, Chair in Jewish History from Rutgers University, who helped us walk through some of these questions of history and the Bible. Rendsburg’s latest book from 2019 is How the Bible is Written, but today, we talk more about how scholars try to figure all this out, how they try to determine what happened historically. And specifically today, we aim that scholarship at the Exodus story. So, hope you enjoy!
Gary: The historian in me wants to remove all of that epic treatment to reveal the historical kernel. The literary scholar in me never wants to rend the two apart. So, it’s one thing as historians to attempt to do it, but as readers of the Bible to appreciate literature, we need to keep it as one single whole incredible story that has now been told for 3000 years.
Jared: Well, welcome to the podcast. Gary, it’s great to have you.
Gary: Thank you, Jared. And thank you, Pete. It’s really wonderful to be here.
Jared: So, one of the things we’d like to start with sometimes when we have interesting guests with interesting perspectives on the Bible is to just start with why did you get involved in this deep of a study of the Bible?
Pete: In this lucrative field.
Jared: Well, that’s the answer in itself.
Pete: That brings fame and fortune. Yes.
Jared: Besides the fame and fortune.
Pete: Yes, okay. What led you to the movie contracts?
Gary: All of the above, all of the above.
I was an English major as an undergraduate. And I have always loved literature. I’ve always loved the study of language, whichever languages I was learning, even in high school and as an undergraduate, and I actually had intended to go off and do a PhD in English. And my focus was mainly on Middle English and Renaissance English, which is to say the older periods. Not the oldest period Old English, but at least Middle English, Chaucer, Renaissance English, which includes Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and I thought I would do a PhD in that field. I always had these great academic interests. All along, I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, all along I was taking religion courses and Hebrew language courses. And in my senior year, at the beginning of my senior year, I realized this is really what I want to do.
So, I still have all of that love for English literature. And I use a lot of analogies in my publications from Shakespeare in particular. But I changed course, and I applied for PhD programs in the field of Biblical studies or Hebrew studies, and was accepted in New York University, where I studied for five years at the feet of the master, and I’m referring to Cyrus Gordon, one of the greats if not the greatest scholars of the Bible in the Ancient Near East of the 20th century. He passed away in the year 2001, lived to the ripe old age of 93. And it was just remarkable to study with him. And he opened up the entire world of Israel and Egypt and Mesopotamia and Canaan, and Ugaritic studies and much, much more. And I have never looked back, as I always am fond of saying, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done—teaching in an academic setting. Now for more than 40 years doing what I love, it’s absolutely the best. And students continue to be great at Rutgers and my colleagues are wonderful. And the field always has new avenues to explore—new archaeological discoveries, new ways of synthesizing material, a new text to study in depth, whether it’s from the Bible or from ancient Egypt. So that’s how I got to be who I am, and I am still energized every time I tackle a new project, walk into the classroom, give a public lecture.
Pete: Well, I mean, we’re glad that you got into this field and have been so productive and written so many outstanding things to help a lot of people and I guess today, you know, the topic, it really has to do with history. And, you know, that’s an area you’ve done a tremendous, I mean, I would say that’s probably one of your focus is really history and what happened and how do we know what happened. And it’s sort of, you know, understanding what it means even to write history is difficult in any era, modern era or in the ancient era. And Jared and I, our experience is that a lot of people make certain assumptions about reading the Bible, that it’s just sort of giving you history straight. But it’s actually much more complicated than that, isn’t it?
Gary: Yes, let’s discuss the Bible and history and how we integrate the two. So, what I’m going to say now is not true of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. So, we bracket those chapters, creation and the flood, I call those chapters ahistorical, they lie outside the realm of history. But from Abraham onward, and we’re talking about the ancestral narratives in Genesis dealing with the patriarchs and the matriarchs, and then especially the book of Exodus, which we will focus on today. But even moving forward through the rest of the books of the Torah/Pentateuch into Joshua and Judges and the book of Samuel, especially the reign of King David into the reign of King Solomon. So, that’s the basic historical narrative that the Bible tells in its first half. Most listeners are well aware of that narrative.
So, my approach is that there is a historical kernel to all of this. There was an ancient Israel, there was an experience with Egypt, there was an emergence of Israel in the land of Canaan, there was an early monarchy, under David, and so on. But the biblical storytellers didn’t write “objective history.” Of course, people who studied the historians craft would say there is no such thing as objective history full stop. That even somebody today writing a history of 19th century America or 20th century America or whatever field of historical inquiry can never be truly objective, because the historian always brings his or her perspective and sometimes personal bias to the subject. But in the biblical account, but the modern historian at least is dealing solely with facts. That’s a charged loaded term, perhaps, but we can at least say they’re dealing with facts.
The ancient Israelite historians took a different perspective on their writing of history. I like to use the following formula. And when I teach, I actually write it on the board as a mathematical formula, biblical narrative, that is to say, basically, everything Genesis through kings, biblical narrative equals history plus epic, and I use an equal sign and I use a plus sign. Biblical narrative = history + epic. What does that mean? Well, there’s a historical tale there, as I just said, and we can corroborate a good part of everything that I just mentioned, not as much as we would like to. In the latter half of the Bible, once we get to the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. We have Assyrian records, we have Babylonian records, we can really confirm quite a bit about everything from the 9th century onward. We’re talking about from Israelite origins, up to the 10th century, where we do not have the wealth of Ancient Near Eastern documentation that we have for some of that other material.
So, we have this story, which is historical, but it’s not told like you and I would tell history or like any of us would pick up a modern history book about whatever subject we want to read or learn. They overlaid it with an epic treatment. And that’s the key here. So, there was an Israelite presence in Egypt. Did they all leave on the same day? 600,000 adult males, which would equate to, let’s say, 2 million+ people if each one was married and had one or two children? Did they all leave on the same day in such a mass number and did the sea split? And did all of that happen? No, that’s the epic treatment. Were they in Egypt for 400 years? No. That’s the epic treatment because the Bible likes to use these round, idealized, epic oriented numbers. And on and on, it goes right? Did the walls of Jericho come tumbling down as it’s described in the book of Joshua 6? No, these are all parts of the epic treatment.
Let me give you an analogy. For the listeners who are very familiar with American history, the majority of our listeners, give you some examples to situate this in American history. I could tell the story of America, as we do, especially to grade school children about the Mayflower voyage and the arrival at Plymouth, and the first Thanksgiving, and then we can move onward and we can talk about the American Revolution. And we valorize Paul Revere through the eyes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote that poem in the middle of the 19th century, almost 100 years after it happened. But the midnight ride of Paul Revere in history is different from the midnight ride of Paul Revere in Longfellow’s poem. The reality is that Paul Revere did not make it to Concord and Lexington to warn the Patriots that the British were coming. In fact, he was captured by the British. But we ignore that history as it were, because we tell it through Longfellow’s poem, and it’s probable that he wouldn’t have been yelling, “the British are coming, the British are coming” because probably Paul Revere his compatriots all would have seen themselves as British in some way. He might have said the Redcoats are coming or something like that. And on and on it goes and George Washington did not Chuck down the cherry tree and never tell a lie about it. And he didn’t throw the silver dollar across the Potomac River and so on.
We get these stories from 19th century American writers, in the case of Washington’s biography, very early 19th century in the case of people like Longfellow, and his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote “Conquered Hymn” about the first shots fired and conquered. We are getting these 19th century remakings in this epic stylized treatment. And then they become part of the national heritage of the people of the United States. And so, if we go back to that first episode that I mentioned, we all sit down on Thanksgiving and celebrate the first Thanksgiving, as if we all were on the Mayflower, as if our ancestors were on the Mayflower. Obviously, when I say “we all” there are obviously other narratives, especially Native Americans, to some extent, African Americans. But I can tell you that my ancestors were not on the Mayflower, but we still sit down to the traditional Thanksgiving meal, because that’s what it means to be an American because that becomes the national holiday which unifies all Americans.
Of course, again, it took more than 200 years for that to become the national holiday, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as such during the dark days of the Civil War. Similarly, not all Israelites could claim ancestry from the people who were in Egypt, but the holiday of Passover marks the exodus from Egypt and all later Israelites, and in fact, Jews down to the present day will celebrate the festival of Passover, as if they all had come out of Egypt. Right?
So, these are the epic nation building stories that were created in ancient Israel, and I’ve given you some American analogies, to unify the people, a disparate group. Some of them, undoubtedly, had desert origins. We can talk about the Shasu Bedouin, which are referred to in Egyptian texts. I believe that that’s the core narrative of the Israelites based on all sorts of evidence from the Bible, and from ancient Egypt. But there were probably Israelites who were not part of that. We think we can prove this for the tribe of Dan and the tribe of Asher in particular, who had different stories and different routes. But they all amalgamate into a national epic tradition, because the stories you tell, are more important than the history as it actually happened.
Pete: I mean, you said something, Gary, about nation building. And I think that’s a really important thing for people to understand, who are maybe struggling with some of these things in the Bible, that any attempt to talk about your people and where you come where they come from, there’s sort of a propagandistic element to it. That’s not maybe the most pleasant word to use, but you’re trying to shape, you’re trying to bring people together, unify people, as you say, and you’re gonna tell a story that serves that purpose. That really is very different from what we think of in terms of history writing. It’s not that they’re writing history, it’s that they’re writing a story that has that historical kernel in it. Right, you used that word kernel before. I just I think that’s, personally, I think that’s a huge and very helpful distinction to make that these are storytellers, not in the sense of making up stories out of whole cloth, but they have a purpose for what they’re trying to say and it’s not let’s have an objective view of what happened a few 100 years ago.
Gary: Absolutely correct. And by the way, I very often, not often, I almost always, when I’m teaching this history + epic formula, after I’ve introduced it, then go back to the board and put (+ theology) because there’s this major theological overlay as well. Right. So that, of course, is a part of the story as well. But even if you didn’t have the theological imperative, which is obviously embedded into the biblical narratives, you would still have the history + epic, but then you get yet another overlay of the theological, the hand of God, and so on. Splitting the seas and things like that.
Pete: Alright, so I mean, let’s move towards the Exodus then and talk about that more in more depth. And what I’m already picking up and I think, I hope people listening have picked up already, you’re not about trying to prove the biblical story like this actually happened or that actually happened. There are things you mentioned that you feel didn’t happen as part of the epic, not part of the history. So, again, if you agree with this, let’s launch forward and I just want to make sure we’re on the same page for the benefit of the people listening. But what we’re after here, when we’re looking at historical evidence for the exodus, it’s not historical evidence to prove the biblical story. We’re more looking at indirect evidence for the time period. This is getting complicated. Indirect evidence for the time period that gave rise to these historical things that then were, epic was added to, and theology was added to. Can you say? Do you agree with that? Or do you want to put it differently or how does that work?
Gary: No, that’s an excellent way of wording it. The challenge is, and this is where scholars divide… Well, first of all, we should, of course, mentioned that there were certain scholars who would throw out the baby with the bathwater, and say, well, since plagues like this can’t happen, and seas can’t split, and you can’t possibly have 2 million humans traversing the barren desert for 40 years, therefore, nothing happened. Therefore, it’s all invented, they would remove the history component altogether and just say the whole thing is epic to the point of what we would call today, fiction. So that’s one group of scholars.
But the other group of scholars who are more in line with the position that I am taking, would agree, I think, with what I have said, and then the key challenge is, which century, where in ancient history, can we place whatever happened into which historical context and this is where scholars begin to divide.
So, there are essentially three positions that scholars take. And I can speak to all of those, the oldest time slot for the experience of the Israelites in Egypt at the exodus would be the 15th century BCE, which is in the heart of what’s called the 18th dynasty of Egypt. And those scholars who take that position, take the basin, essentially on one data point which appears in the Bible. And that is that Solomon built the temple in the 10th century. This is in 1 Kings 6, Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem 480 years after the exodus from Egypt. So, you would think, well, there you have it. You’ve got a perfectly good data point from the Bible, itself. If we can date Solomon, then we can date the Exodus. Well, Solomon is dateable, to the middle of the 10th century BCE. Call it 960 as a rough number for the building of the temple. And so, you add 480 to that, it takes you back to 1440 BCE. And there you have it, that must be the date of the exodus. The 15th century during the 18th dynasty. But of course, it’s not that simple. 480 is one of those stylized numbers.
Remember that things happen in the Bible in units of 40. The flood is 40 days, right? 40 days and 40 nights. You have Moses atop Mount Sinai for 40 days, you have the wandering in the desert for 40 years, and when you get to the book of Judges, you have all sorts of components of 40 year time period, or half that amount, 20 year periods, or twice that amount, 80 year periods. These cannot be taken literally. They all have to be sort of stylized, internal chronology of an indeterminate length of time.
Pete: And Gary, is that 40 also found outside of the Bible?
Gary: The 40 is more or less found outside of the Bible. There’s something, without going into the details about the Egyptian number system, which suggests that 40 must have been some component. I can I said without going into the details, but we can go into the details. In Egyptian language. In the ancient hieroglyphics system. The numbers for 20, 30, and 40 are not based on the words for two, three, and four like they are in English and in most languages. So, 40 seems to be a sum and then only with 50 do you get that number based on five and 60 based on six. I hope the linguistics here is not that complicated. And then you also have a 400-year inscription from ancient Egypt where something happened 400 years prior.
We have from Babylonia, from the other end, Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the 6th century BCE, refers to one of his predecessors Naram-Sin who lived 3200 years earlier, right? That’s another multiple of 400. In reality, we know that Naram-Sin was actually about half that time earlier than Nabonidus, but in his inscription he says 3200 years. So, you’ll have this tendency to use multiples of 40, 400, and so on to grossly inflate the number of years that have passed between event A and event B. And that 480 figure in 1 King 6 just doesn’t hold up. In fact, it doesn’t hold up in the Bible’s own internal chronology. It’s 12 times 40. We didn’t mention that yet, but let’s point that out. 12 again, being one of the whole numbers the Bible uses over and over again, obviously based on the months of the year and the 12 tribes and all sorts of other issues derived from that system, and 12 x 40 = 480. When I say the Bible’s own chronology doesn’t allow you to do a 480-year timespan from the exodus, we have one genealogy in the Bible that links the time period of David and Solomon, with the people of the exodus, the generation of the exodus, and that happens to be David’s own genealogy, which appears at the end of the book of Ruth and then in the book of Chronicles. And David is only five generations away from a man named Nahshon, who was part of the exodus and wandering generation because his name is mentioned in several places in the Torah.
So, if David is five generations later, then you can start debating how many years is a generation, but if it’s, you know, 25 years per generation, or 30 years per generation, we’re only 150 years from, let’s say, the exodus down to King David, which is part of the evidence I use.
Pete: So, for you, just to clarify, that genealogy is one of several points that leads you to pick one of those centuries, the 12th century.
Gary: Right. And we’re coming to that, obviously, in our conversation. And let me explain why the genealogies are so important. In traditional Near Eastern culture, which is rapidly disappearing because of modern nation states, and so on. But in traditional Near Eastern culture, you know, very remote villages in Kurdistan or Yemen or some of these places. The average individual cannot tell you how old he or she is. And fortunately, we have anthropologists and ethnographers who studied these communities 100 years ago, even 150 years ago, and learned Arabic and lived amongst these people. And they noticed that people don’t know how old they are, but they can recite their genealogies back multiple generations with accuracy.
So, I think the Bible is part of that same culture. Now there’s a 3000-year time span between the biblical authors and 19th, 20th century Middle Eastern village culture or Bedouin culture, but I think a big lesson can be learned there. The genealogies are accurate, but the time spans are not. And by the way, speaking of 40, this is a great story, which I’ll tell because if we have a moment to tell it.
Cyrus Gordon, my teacher, I remember in class, and we were reading the book of Genesis, and Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born. And I asked him, somewhat naively, if he had a way to explain this. And he said, “Oh, yes, absolutely.” Now, Professor Gordon had lived in Kurdistan in the 1930s. He was in Iraq, especially in northern Iraq for several years, spoke fluent Iraqi Arabic and learned a little Kurdish as well. And he spoke to these people and there was a young man on the excavation, who was, you know, a very good worker, part of a father and son team. And one day Professor Gordon asked the father, complimented the father on how good of a worker his son was from the local village and the father thanked him. And of course, as an American, the next thing Cyrus Gordon asked this father, making conversation, was, “How old is your son?” And the response stuck with Gordon for the rest of his life, including when I was his student. The man said, “By Allah, I do not know. He may be 20, he may be 30, he may be 40. By Allah, I do not know.” There’s that 40 again, right? He had no sense of how old his son was because the passage of time is not counted like we have with our, you know, fill out any form and you have to put down your birthdate. But then he said to Gordon, “but you’re a smart man, you can figure out how old he is. He was born one year after the British occupied Iraq.”
Well, that was near the end of WWI in 1917. So, the boy, the lad was born in 1918. Gordon said this took place in 1931. He was 13 years old, which Gordon said is what he looked like. A young teenager. But you know, the father, prompted for his age, exaggeration, going up to 40. Right?
So, you just cannot use these figures in the later biblical books or the middle and later biblical books. Yes, of course, when you get to the book of Kings after Solomon, you get very accurate years of the reign of every single king, because those were recorded according to the book of Kings itself, in the annals of the kings of Israel and the annals of the kings of Judah. And those have all been corroborated by the Assyrian and Babylonian evidence I referred to earlier. We have a very good chronology from 930 BCE onwards, but we don’t for those early years because you don’t get good record keeping, you’ve got this epic treatment, which includes the passage of time.
Pete: Numbers just don’t work the way we think they work.
Gary: Right. So, I say no to the 15th century.
Pete: Yeah, okay.
Jared: Yeah, that makes sense from you know, even just thinking about how, just something that clicked for me was, of course, for us the numbers, this objectivity kind of comes back to even when you’re talking about history, it sort of, we’re interested in these abstract ideas of the correct numbering. But from an ancient perspective, the genealogy is a relational thing. It’s understanding our relationships and our kinship and that feels more part of that culture. So, it just clicked to me that yeah, that totally makes sense that we can’t necessarily trust this abstract concept that we’ve put a lot of faith in. But perhaps the ancient world didn’t.
Gary: Jared, excuse me, let me just say that you just use the keyword, which I did not use, and that keyword is kinship. You’re absolutely right. That is the keyword here. Kinship relations are much more important than the accuracy of any years. And of course, I when I teach this, you know, to my students at Rutgers, I’ll even tell them, I mean, most of you can’t recite your genealogy back five or six or seven generations. But you know, these traditional Middle Easterners could. So, it’s a question of where you place an emphasis, where’s your cultural markers for these kinds of things?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Right, right. All right. Well, so let’s move on to, you know, you talked about why maybe one century over another, and you had a few different ones. So, let’s move on to the next one.
Pete: Yeah. What’s attractive about the 13th century?
Gary: Well, the attraction to the…
Pete: Which is, which is a century that a lot of evangelical scholars will pick, I mean, that’s, that seems to be a favorite go to place. So, what might be attracted to that, and then let’s get into the 12th century, because that’s really, really important for you.
Gary: Now, people listening to this may laugh, and I’ll actually say something about it in just a minute. The truth is that the difference between the 13th century view and my 12th century view, are just a few decades, but I’ll say something about that in just a moment.
The attraction to the 13th century view is the following: The only place Israel is mentioned in all of ancient Egyptian documentation is in the famous Merneptah stele. Merneptah was the son of Ramesses II. So, you’re Ramesses II, who has a very long 67-year reign, taking up almost the entirety of the 13th century BCE. And Ramesses is actually mentioned both in Genesis and Exodus, not the king. But the city of Ramesses is mentioned in the end of the book of Genesis when Jacob and family emigrate to Egypt. It’s mentioned there and then it’s mentioned again in Exodus 1, one of the two store cities that the Israelites built, Ramesses and Pithom. We know where these are, they’re in the eastern Delta. These have all been well excavated.
So, there’s already a city named Ramesses mentioned at this time period. So that’s a marker and that points to the 13th century especially because Ramesses II is the one who built that city, named either for himself or perhaps for his grandfather Ramesses I.
Now, his son and successor is Merneptah, coming to the throne approximately 1224 BCE. So, around 1220 or 1215 BCE, there’s the famous Merneptah inscription. And there he mentions the defeat of Canaan, specific cities: Gezer, Ashkelon, and Yanoam. We know where Gezer and Ashkelon are located in Israel, but we don’t know where Yanoam is. And then he mentions Israel as well. It’s the only place where Israel is mentioned, spelled out in hieroglyphic writing. Clearly, Israel, the people of Israel-
Pete: Like 200 years before David?
Gary: 200 years before David Israel is laid waste. And in fact, it is almost undoubtedly not the only time that Israel is mentioned in the Egyptian documentation and the earliest, well, if it’s the only it’s also the earliest. It’s the only of Ancient Egypt.
It’s the earliest mention of Israel in any Ancient Near Eastern source, much earlier than anything from Assyria, and it is probably even earlier than the earliest biblical material because the earliest biblical material is probably 12th century such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, early archaic Israelite poetry and this Merneptah mention of Israel probably antedates that by perhaps even a century.
So, that’s why the 13th century is so attractive to so many people. The idea is that if you’re reading the Merneptah inscription, and Israel is already in Canaan, geographically in that grouping with Canaan, Gezer, Ashkelon, etc., Israel’s already there in the late 1200s. They must have left Egypt sometime prior, let’s put a date on the inscription, 1220 BCE. Therefore, the exodus must have occurred late in the reign of Ramesses II or early in the reign of Merneptah, or something like that. So, that’s, those are the key arguments that mentioned the city of Ramesses in Exodus 1, and the reference to Israel in the Merneptah stele, located in the land of Canaan. That’s the 13th century argument, and I understand it, but I take a different position and move to the 12th century, the early 20th century, which is why I said it’s only a question of a few decades for the following reason.
I believe that there’s no way the Israelites, whatever historical kernel is behind this story, I don’t see it possible for the Israelites to leave Egypt during the reign of Ramesses II. His power was so great, and they ruled during this time period, not only Egypt, but the entire land of Canaan was under Egyptian rule as well. It was part of the New Kingdom empire of the 18th, 19th dynasties where Egypt had fortifications and garrisons in Gaza and Jaffa and Bayt Dajan. These have all been well excavated with Egyptian inscriptions and so on. We know the Egyptian army is all over the place there in the 13th century,
Pete: That also argues against the 15th century date. Not that you need more arguments, because you can’t have Egyptians running the place 200 years after these…
Gary: Right, right. Good point. And we’ll come back. We’ll circle back to that in a minute.
So, this is what happens. The 19th dynasty fizzles out almost exactly at the year 1200. After Merneptah, there are a few minor rulers and the 19th dynasty descends into chaos. And right around the year 1200, a new dynasty arises, the 20th dynasty. There is a founding pharaoh to that dynasty who doesn’t live very long and rule very long. And he’s succeeded by Ramesses III, no relation to Ramesses II because it’s a new dynasty, but he took the name, Ramesses. And Ramesses III becomes the most powerful pharaoh of the 20th dynasty, which puts us now into the 12th century.
So, what do we know from Egyptian texts? There is chaos around the year 1200 in the transition between the 19th and 20th dynasties. That is Option A, for a propitious moment for the Israelites to leave Egypt, because Egypt is having some sort of internal chaos. This would be a great time for whatever historical kernel lies behind the exodus account for the Israelites to leave. That’s option one. Possible.
Option two, which I think is more probable, is the following. During the reign of Ramesses III, we have an invasion of Egypt, by the sea peoples, led by a group called the Philistines. Obviously, well known from the Bible. The sea peoples originate in the Mediterranean, most likely the Aegean, the island of Crete, that region. And they are actually being pushed out by the expansion of the Mycenaean Greeks, and the sea peoples get in their boats and they come to the coastline of the Mediterranean stretching from northern Syria through what is today northern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Sinai and Egypt. And they attack the entire eastern Mediterranean coastline, including Egypt. And we have great portrayals of this both in writing what’s known as the Great Harris papyrus at the British Museum, and in temple walls, built by Ramesses III, showing how the Egyptian army repelled the invasion of the sea peoples. And you see ships and battles and it’s absolutely wonderful artwork there.
If you read Exodus 13:17, when the Israelites leave Egypt, the Bible says, and here’s your epic and theological overlays, the Bible says that God did not lead them by the way of the Philistines, that is the coastal route, the easiest way across the northern Sinai. God did not lead them by way of the Philistines less they see war, but rather led them on a very circuitous route through the Sinai desert. And of course, that’s what happens for Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and so on until they come into the land under Joshua.
So, what’s going on that would prevent them from taking the shortest, easiest journey to Canaan via the way of the Philistines lest they see war. I look at that passage and I say, there you have it. That’s the sea peoples invasion of Egypt. This becomes the other propitious time for the Israelites to leave Egypt during the early 12th century, early part of the 20th dynasty. Now, here’s my little quip that I anticipated a few moments ago.
So those who hold to the 13th century date, are looking at something like 1230 or 1225 BCE. And those of us who were looking at the 12th century dates such as myself, are looking at the 1190s or the 1180s BCE, we’re only a few decades off. And as I like to say to my students, at a distance of 3200 years, if we can be arguing over a couple of decades, we’re really in the ballpark. And then I say, well, we have to argue about something when we go to the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.
Pete & Jared: [Light laughter]
Gary: So, this is what we do when we go to these academic conferences. I say all that with a smile, smiling now, as I say it. So, that’s the key. I don’t see how it’s possible in the 13th century, during the powerful pharaohs of the 19th dynasty for the Israelites to leave.
And one thing is clear about the Israelites about the biblical account, once they leave the Egyptians behind them on the other side of the Sea of Reeds, the Bible never mentions the Egyptians again, the Israelites encounter the Amalekites, and the Midianites, and the Edomites, and the Moabites. And eventually, of course, when they come into the land of Canaan, the Canaanites and the Philistines and so on, but they never account Egyptian troops. If the Israelites left Egypt, and we’re in Egypt, by the, in the 13th century, we know the Egyptian fortifications are all over the place there still, and the Bible silent about that. So, I don’t think the Israelites get there till the 12th century. I think the archaeological evidence for the excavations in Canaan would sustain that as well.
So, I’m a firm believer in this 12th century, early 20th century exodus, whatever we mean by that, we’ve talked about that a little bit, too, and an arrival in the land of Canaan, in the middle of the 12th century, which is when we begin to see early Israelite settlements with a material culture that is quite different from that of the Canaanites.
Jared: Okay, so as we wrap up our time here. We want to maybe make a shift to go back to, because you’ve used words like historical kernel, and you said, exodus, whatever we mean by that. Let’s just jump into that for a few minutes here. As we wrap our minds around, what are we talking about when we talk about the exodus?
Gary: Great question, Jared. Right, the exodus. So, we all know what the biblical account is, let’s talk about it from the perspective of history. I suspect that there was a core group of people called Israel in Egypt, part of a larger movement, called the Shasu or Bedouin movement. We know that these people were settled in Egypt in the eastern Delta, we have evidence of this from Egyptian texts. And at some point, they were able to leave Egypt—13th, 12th century—take your pick. But it may not have been a single leaving, like the Bible describes. Tt could have been a series of multiple journeys out of Egypt. The Mayflower which came in 1620, that wasn’t the only journey. It’s the one we celebrate, but there was a second Mayflower ship actually, and obviously, people from England kept coming in the 1620s, 1630s, and so on. And we’re not even talking about other early English settlers here, such as the Jamestown Colony, or the Lost Roanoke colony. And people keep coming throughout the 1600s until you get, mainly from England, until you get a core proto-American story. And I am, I have no problem imagining a series of such peoples who made their way down to Egypt and now it was time to leave and start leaving Egypt.
As my late colleague, Abraham Alima, to the Hebrew University was fond of saying, accordingly, it should be “Let my people go and go and go and go,” because he’s the one who really championed the idea of multiple “exoduses.” Nobody quite knows what the plural of exodus is, apparently multiple exodi or multiple exoduses, and he’s absolutely right. He said it in a very popular fashion, quoting that passage, but it’s the way history operates. People just, you know, move in different journeys, and they all eventually crossed the Sinai and meet up with other groups. The Bible refers to the mixed rabble that left Egypt to the mixed multitude. And eventually, they come into the land of Israel, and they meet up with other Israelite elements. Remember, I mentioned Dan and Asher and perhaps the tribe of Gad for which we have some evidence as well, and they create the people of Israel in a 12 tribe system, no different than takes a century and a half, we create a 13 state system. Obviously, it’s expanded greatly since the 1700s. So that’s the way I understand the exodus.
Pete: Yeah, it’s like these epics. And maybe, especially if you put a theological layer on it, but these epics, like simplicity, and not the complexities of history. That’s not even accessible, really, for people writing the ancient stories. But what is accessible is who are they? And where do we come from? And where do we go from here? And you’re going to just collapse things sort of like having one Mayflower.
Gary: Absolutely correct, Pete. And you know, there’s also the focus, which we haven’t mentioned yet, is the focus on an individual. There was more in the Trojan War, there must have been more than just Achilles and a few others. And, you know, when they all tried to go home, there must have been more than just Odysseus who, you know, had a hard time getting home. But those Homeric epics focus on individuals. There were lots of battles along the North Sea coast. But the oldest English epic poem, Beowulf focuses on a single individual, and of course, has epic treatments with dragons, and so on as well. And the biblical story actually does focus more on the nation of Israel. But there still is a focus on the single individual of Moses or his family, Aaron and Miriam. So yes, there’s all of that involved in these in these epic stories.
I want to say one thing before we close, which is the following, because we are talking as historians. And that’s important, but it’s important to also say the following too. The historian in me, when I wear my historian’s hat, wants to remove all of that epic treatment to reveal the historical kernel that I keep on mentioning. The literary scholar in me, the one who loves literature, I started, as I said, as an English major, the one who can’t get enough of reading a good story, never wants to rend the two apart. I want to keep the history and epic and the theological overlay all together, because that’s what the biblical story does. So, it’s one thing as historians to attempt to do it, but as readers of the Bible, as readers who appreciate literature, we need to keep it as one single whole, an incredible story that has now been told for 3000 years.
Pete: Yeah, not to collapse it all into one of those categories, but respect all of them and read it that way.
Gary: 100% agreed.
Pete: All right. Well, listen, Gary, thank you so much for being with us. We could, really, I’m nerding out here. We can go on like this for hours, but maybe another time. But just thanks for your time, and we really appreciate it, and best of luck to you at Rutgers at that school where I spent an entire year when I think 18 years old or something. So, anyway.
Jared: You were 18 once.
Pete: I was 18 once.
Gary: We all were. Jared, Pete, thank you. It’s been so great. Excellent.
Stephanie: Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
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