Why the Exodus, as commonly understood, probably never happened

Exodus Gods and Kings posterAt the urging of one of my relatives, I watched Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings‘.  This relative, knowing my skeptical nature, thought I might enjoy Scott’s naturalistic (mostly) take on the events in the story.  I’m sorry to say that I didn’t really enjoy the movie, which is unusual for me because I usually do enjoy Scott’s films.  It wasn’t exactly terrible, but it didn’t entertain me much.  I can’t say exactly why, but I never felt much connection with the movie’s characters.

Not that my dislike had anything to do with it being a religious movie.  I enjoy lots of fantasy movies, and for me, Biblical movies, particularly ones that focus on the Old Testament, fall into that genre.  I watch them in the same spirit that I watch movies about Greek mythology.  That’s probably why Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments‘ remains one of my favorite movies.  If it comes on TV, there’s a good chance that I’ll watch it.

But, my dislike of Scott’s movie aside, something that my relative didn’t quite grasp is that, I’m not skeptical of the Exodus story because of the supernatural events (although I am definitely skeptical of the supernatural events themselves), but because I’ve found that trying to find naturalistic explanations for the events gives far too much credence to the overall narrative.  Exodus as commonly understood, probably never happened, not even a supernatural free version of it.

To understand why, we need to start with the fact that most Biblical scholars date the writing of the Biblical books that deal with Moses and the Exodus (the Torah or Pentateuch), in stages, during the period between the 9th and 5th centuries BC.  In other words, the stories that we now have were written several centuries after the events they describe.  It’s commonly accepted that these stories were oral traditions before they were committed to writing.  And oral traditions evolve substantially over centuries.

Of course, many will insist that the Biblical traditions are an exception.  But there are other issues.  No archaeological evidence has been found for hundreds of thousands of Hebrews wandering around in the desert during the relevant periods.  It’s natural to wonder what evidence might still be around after thirty centuries, but for a population that size, based on the evidence left for other historical events, most archaeologists feel that there should be some, and there isn’t any.

Maybe the host wasn’t as large as the Bible describes.  A smaller population might not have left as much evidence.  Perhaps, but the problems don’t stop there.  Not only does archaeology not back up the Biblical narrative, it flat out contradicts it.  Israel Finkelstein, an Israeli archaeologist, has noted that Genesis, Exodus, and other early Bible books are more reflective of the political situation in the 8th century BC, rather than the one in the 15-13th centuries BC, the period when the Exodus would have taken place.

Image credit: Wikipedia

A big issue is that Egyptian territory in the period between 1500-1200 BC didn’t end at the Sinai peninsula.   It included Canaan as a collection of vassal city states.  If Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and to the promised land, he led them right back into Egyptian territory, an important detail that the Bible never mentions.  During the period when Joshua was supposedly conquering the promised land, he would have been fighting Egypt over it.

And the Joshua conquests represent another problem.  There’s virtually no archaeological evidence of a violent invasion, as described in the Book of Joshua, during the historical period when it was supposed to have happened.  This has led most archaeologists to conclude that the Israeli people arose peacefully in the highlands, gradually swelling their ranks from the Canaanite cities after they fell into decline during the Bronze Age Collapse.

Of course, there are people who claim they’ve found evidence for the Biblical narratives, but the majority of archaeologists don’t appear to be convinced.  There’s always an industry to tell people what they want to hear, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are TV shows and books claiming to have found evidence, sometimes with negative remarks about how blighted the archaeological profession is for not accepting it.

(Note that it would be wrong to think of this as a dispute between religious archaeologists and non-religious ones.  Many professional archaeologists are devout believers, but most don’t let their faith cloud their professional assessment of the evidence, or lack thereof.)

Now, it does remain possible that the Exodus is ultimately based on some kind of historical event.  Moses’s name is Egyptian, a common suffix meaning “son of”.  Moses might have been an exiled Egyptian who simply dropped the family part of his name.  And he might have led a group of, say, Shasu nomads from Midian or Edom north into Canaan, perhaps bringing the cult of Yahweh with them.  This group might have formed the nucleus of what would eventually become Israel.  But until someone finds an ancient inscription pertaining to these events, it’s all speculation.

Right now, the earliest historical reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian monument reciting the exploits of their military.  It includes the line, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”  Not much to go on, but enough to tell us that there was a people called “Israel” in Canaan at the time of this stele’s creation, sometime in the period 1213-1203 BC, and that these people had conflict with Egypt.  Maybe the tales from that conflict eventually evolved into the Exodus narrative.  But again, that’s speculation.

So, for me, finding naturalistic explanations for the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, as Scott’s movie attempts to do, is simply messing up a thrilling founding myth.  I suspect devout Jews or Christians probably weren’t satisfied by it, and neither were skeptics like me.  I think if you’re going to make a Bible movie, you should go all in and at least make it fun.

Along with numerous archaeological and historical articles, my views on this subject were informed by the following books: ‘Who Wrote the Bible‘ by Richard Friedman, and especially ‘The Bible Unearthed‘ by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein.  If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend them.