Saturday, April 16, 2016

The historicity of the Exodus story

PASSOVER IS COMING: Were Hebrews Ever Slaves in Ancient Egypt? Yes. Ancient Egypt had intimate relations with Canaan, and most of the Semitic peoples migrating there would have been Canaanite. But not all. (Philippe Bohstrom, Haaretz). At best the main headline is misleading and at worst it is simply wrong. I don't hold the author responsible for that: he has a quite nuanced discussion of the evidence. But this is a not unusual example of a headline asserting something rather different than the article it heads, with the full knowledge that a lot more people will see the headline than click on it, let alone read the full article carefully.

This sums up the situation pretty well, although that indirect evidence is pretty indirect:
There is no direct evidence that people worshipping Yahweh sojourned in ancient Egypt, let alone during the time the Exodus is believed to have happened. There is indirect evidence that at least some did. What's for sure is that thousands of years ago, Egypt was crawling with Semitic-speaking peoples.
From there we move on to the usual suspects: Amorites (speakers of early Northwest Semitic dialects) in Egypt, the Hyksos, Josephus and Manetho, Akhenaten, some questionable exegesis of Egyptian texts such as the Admonitions of Ipuwer, the argument from silence (the ancient Egyptians suppressed unflattering stories), and so on. None of it adds up to an Israelite sojourn in Egypt or an Exodus with ten plagues, or anything like. That said, it is not implausible that some vague memory of the Hyksos is behind the Exodus story, but if so, it is very vague. The conclusion is pretty reasonable:
At the end of the day it the story of the Exodus is all matter of faith. This article does not aspire to prove the historicity of the Passover Haggadah, or that the Land of Israel was promised to slaves coming out of Egypt. It just proves that there were historical figures and events that could have inspired the Exodus account. So as we lift our cups and recite the “The coming out of Egypt,” let us think about the story that has captured the imagination for millennia and remember that sometimes, truth is stranger then fiction; and think back on Aper-el, a Hebrew slave who did not disappear in the mud along with the Yahweh-worshiping nomads who settled in Egypt.
If you want to read the whole article, do it now before it goes behind the subscription wall. Also, a free registration with Haaretz will allow you to read a limited number of premium articles each month.