The Case for a Historical Exodus


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #1

I’m primarily going to be focusing on the Exodus as presenting in the Second Chapter of Richard E Friedman’s excellent book The Exodus. I don’t agree with everything Friedman was to say, though his second chapter (on the arguments for a historical Exodus) are mostly convincing.

Friedman argues for an Exodus only of the Levites. Certainly, the Song of Miriam implies that in the earliest versions of the Exodus story, only the Levites were led out of Egypt, since it nowhere mentions Israel, and mentions the 'am moving towards God’s holy place. Now this narrative very well could be based on truth, since the Levites, unique amongst Israelite tribes had a particularly strong connection to Egypt.

  1. Only Levites ever have Egyptian names.
  2. Levite sources of the Pentateuch have a special emphasis on circumcision, a ritual of Egyptian origin.
  3. The Tabernacle only ever appears in Levite sources, it bears a striking resemblance to the Battle Tent of Ramesses II.
  4. The Ark of the Covenant, catered for by Levite priests, resembles Egyptian barks.
  5. Levite sources were concerned about correct treatment of slaves, which is not shared by the J source.

All things considered then, it is likely that the Levites were originally Asiatic slaves in Egypt, of mixed origins (according to Genetic studies), who migrated to Canaan and become absorbed into the Israelite population.

Thoughts?

Some of you may not like reference to the JEDP hypothesis, yet most of these people probably accept a historical Exodus to begin with.


(John Dalton) #2

I’ve been meaning to get to this book and I will. The question in my mind is, could these factors be equally or better explained if the Levites were some type of remnant of the Egyptian occupation of Canaan up until around 1200 BC? That wouldn’t explain the Exodus story, but a minor migration doesn’t really dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s either. Also, becoming absorbed into the population doesn’t square with achieving priestly status.


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #3

Where did the emphasis on slaves come from?


(John Dalton) #4

I don’t think they would actually have to have been slaves to adopt the limited notions I’m aware of. They seem to be more measures adopted for the sake of some kind of reasoned management. Also, given that slavery seems to have been common for the Egyptians, wouldn’t they be likely to have come up with some such ideas?


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #5

According to genetic studies the Levites are heterogeneous in origins, they do have roots in the ANE, but not in a common group. I think it’s unlikely that they were descended from Egyptians, it’s more likely that they were descended from an amalgam of Afroasiatics brought together by the Egyptians, likely slaves.


#6

I’ll also throw in the 2016 edited volume Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt? Really good stuff in there.


(Matthew Pevarnik) #7

Based upon this book review, it appears the authors take a more maximalist approach to the Exodus in this volume. This is obviously in contrast to Friedman as well as the minimalist position summarized on this Patheos (non religious section) blog.

Note: I am trying to summarize these various positions and certainly empathize with historians in archaeologists that deal with problems I never ever have to face in physics :slight_smile:


(John Dalton) #8

Looks exceedingly minimalist at first glance but very interesting, thanks.


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #9

To be clear, since Pharoah’s never mentioned their defeats, there is no reason why a large Exodus couldn’t have taken place. Eric H. Cline (whose book 1177 BC is an excellent read for anyone interested in the ANE and how it is still relevant today) agrees:

We do not have a single shred of evidence to date. There is nothing [available] archaeologically to attest to anything from the biblical story. No plagues, no parting of the Red Sea, no manna from heaven, no wandering for 40 years. However, I should add that there is also no archaeological evidence that proves it did not take place. So at this point in time, the archaeological record can neither be used to confirm nor deny the existence of the Exodus.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Exodus (p. 20). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Still, I think there is good textual evidence for an Exodus of Levites only.


#10

Oh yes, definitely maximalist — a position that hasn’t had its fair share of representation in academia in recent years. This volume is therefore quite refreshing and introduces a lot more new evidence into the field. I read the review you posted and was happy to see it was quite positive.

I own Friedman’s book and found it quite interesting, I certainly enjoy its discussion on monotheism and biblical ideas of foreigners. Not quite sure I agree with the Levite interpretation, though. We’ll see what further research in the field brings.


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #11

I think his case for a Levite Exodus was very strong, probably the strongest case he makes in the book. It sure seems like no coincidence that only Levites have Egyptian names, that the Levites placed special emphasis on Circumcision, a ritual of Egyptian origin, that the Tabernacle resembles the battle tent of Ramesses and only appears in Levite sources, and finally, that the Levite sources show the most familiartiy with Egyptian traditions. Compare the role of humans in Genesis 1 (Levite) and Genesis 2 (Non-Levite). In Genesis 1, humans are made in the Image of God, also shared by an Egyptian text called the instruction of Merikare, in Genesis 2 humans are made to serve God, as in Mesopotamia.


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #12

Two reasons (aside from the evidence for the Levite exodus, and archaeology) why I reject a maximalist exodus:

  1. The story of the Exodus developed over time, from only a small group to all of Israel.
  2. The Biblical story of the Exodus appears to contain Semitic mythological elements, where the opponents of the creator god are destroyed, and his dwelling/temple is established.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #13

How do you know this exactly or at least why do you argue for this position?


#14

I think his case for a Levite Exodus was very strong, probably the strongest case he makes in the book. It sure seems like no coincidence that only Levites have Egyptian names, that the Levites placed special emphasis on Circumcision, a ritual of Egyptian origin, that the Tabernacle resembles the battle tent of Ramesses and only appears in Levite sources, and finally, that the Levite sources show the most familiartiy with Egyptian traditions. Compare the role of humans in Genesis 1 (Levite) and Genesis 2 (Non-Levite). In Genesis 1, humans are made in the Image of God, also shared by an Egyptian text called the instruction of Merikare, in Genesis 2 humans are made to serve God, as in Mesopotamia.

I’m not saying there’s no evidence for a Levite interpretation. The explicit narrative which Friedman draws from claims that all Israelite’s came for Egypt. I’m simply saying Friedman’s case isn’t demonstrated, and I’d need to see a maximalist response to Friedman’s arguments.

Like @pevaquark, I’d like to see why you claim it was originally intended to be a small group and developed into a larger group. I’m wondering if you’re not presupposing the Levite interpretation when saying this. I agree that the Exodus is described in terms of a cosmic battle – it seems that the gods of all the nations, pagan or otherwise, were understood as lesser divine beings which YHWH presided over and could render judgement upon as He wishes – as is demonstrated in Psalm 82 (if I’m not mistaken), the psalm of the death of the gods. But using near eastern motifs is a long way from establishing mythology – the Tabernacle also has near eastern affinities, and yet it is considered historical by scholars – perhaps moreso because of some of these affinities (I’m not arguing that the use of cosmic battle terminology establishes the cosmic battle, though, simply that God rendering judgement on the Egyptian gods could be more of what we see in Psalm 82, which is something Friedman himself notes).

My conclusion is basically: case not proven, more evidence and discussion needed.


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #15

The song of miriam only mentions the Levites


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #16

You don’t get it, I meant to say it uses a ‘narrative structure’ which is mythological, and seems to be related to the Baal Cycle and the Enuma Elish, rather than reality, in all three narratives the forces of chaos/other gods are defeated (God judges the gods of Egypt and splits the sea, associated with defeating Chaos in Psalm 74) and a cosmic dwelling is established. It seems highly unlikely to me that a narrative so similar to narratives which are obviously mythological would have anything to do with reality.

As it happens I do believe in a historical Exodus, and a historical Moses (given the Midianite features which would not have been made up), I just don’t believe in the mythological elements we find in the Bible,


#17

Well, I don’t see how I can refute this. Just some questions, though.

  1. Pete Enns talks about how the plagues relate to specific Egyptian deities. Is there an Egyptian counterpart to each of the ten plagues, or just the three that Pete mentions? Are there any books you know which discuss this?
  2. Is there any scholarly work you know comparing the stories of the Baal Cycle/Enuma Elish to the Exodus ‘cosmic battle’? The connection isn’t outright obvious, since the Baal Cycle and Enuma Elish are wholely mythological in genre and narrative, whereas Exodus takes place in a historical setting and, we agree on the very least, is historical in its skeletal frame (that is to say something like there was an exodus of Hebrews out of Egypt lead by Moses).

#18

One hint that the Exodus story developed over time is found in Exodus 15: Unlike the rest of Exodus, the Song of Moses is written in archaic Hebrew. It really stands out if you’re a scholar who knows Hebrew. (I do not know Hebrew!) Also, in ancient times, the title of a poem was its first line. So Exodus 15:21 is really telling is that Miriam sang the whole Song of Moses. So it seems that the poem was already quite old and in liturgical use by the time Exodus took its final form.

(And besides, who would think to pack timbrels in their suitcase when you have to leave Egypt in haste? Seriously.)


(system) #19

This topic was automatically closed 6 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.