In my upcoming course on Finding Moses I will be discussing some of the most important features of the foundation of Judaism — in particular, the Exodus and the giving of the Jewish Law, both connected directly in the Hebrew Bible with Moses (8 lectures, given live with Q&A on Dec. 10 and 11: Finding Moses – Online Course Covering the Historicity of the Pentateuch – Bart D. Ehrman – New Testament Scholar, Speaker, and Consultant (bartehrman.com)
These are hugely important events for all of world history (without them, we wouldn’t have Judaism, Christianity, or Islam: so imagine what the world would be like otherwise!). And it is very much worth studying what we know about them, both as literary narratives of the Hebrew Bible and in relation to what actually happened historically.
I’m giving here just a taste of the sorts of things I’ll be covering in the course. One key question for historians, of course, is “what really happened”? (There are lots of other questions and issues too — we’ll be covering a lot of ground in the course)
As described in Exodus, the basic story is that the Israelites had become enslaved there, and after some 400 years God heard their prayers and sent a savior, Moses, to lead them out from their slavery in Egypt; Moses convinced the Pharaoh to release the people by bringing ten plagues against the country; the people are then told to leave; and a great miracle transpired at the parting of the Sea of Reeds (traditionally called the Red Sea), where the children of Israel were allowed to cross on dry land before the waters rushed back destroying Pharaoh’s entire army (as narrated in Exodus 14). It’s an absolutely amazing, terrific story.
But what actually happened? The event as described? Something like it, but much toned down? Nothing at all? Scholars have long debated the issues. Here is a bit of what I say about them in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford University Press).
Exodus from a Historical Perspective
It has proved difficult for biblical scholars to establish when these events are to have taken place. The most common dating of the exodus event places it around 1250 BCE, for three reasons.
First, the text indicates that the Israelites had been in Egypt for 430 years; that would coincide roughly with the narrative of Genesis, when Joseph would have gone to Egypt at the beginning of the 17th century BCE, according to the chronology that appears to be operative there (in Genesis). But even more important is a hint provided in Exod. 1:11, that the Hebrew slaves were forced to build the cities of Pi-Ramses and Pithon; both cities actually were rebuilt or reoccupied in the mid-13th century BCE.
The third is an archaeological discovery of a stele (a stone pillar) erected at the end of the 13th century by the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (who ruled 1213-1203 BCE). On this stele is an inscription in which the Pharaoh boasts that he has conquered various other nations, including the land of Israel: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” This is the earliest reference from outside the Bible to anything having to do with Israel or the Bible itself, and so is very valuable. What it shows beyond reasonable dispute is that Israel existed, as a recognizable people, in the land, sometime in the late 13th century. If the events celebrated in the book of Exodus happened sometime soon before this, then they are probably to be dated to the mid 13th century. If that is the case, then it was Menerptah’s grandfather, Pharaoh Seti I (1294-1279) who would have first enslaved the Israelites, and his son Seti’s son, Ramses II (1279-1213) who would have been the Pharaoh at the time of the exodus.
But you may well be wondering: if according to the book of Exodus Pharaoh and his the “entire army” (see 14:6, 9, 23) were destroyed in the Sea of Reeds, how is it that Egypt was still such a major military power afterwards and that Pharaoh Merneptah could have conquered so many lands, as attested on the Merneptah stele?
That is in fact a problem with this narrative. And it is not the only one. Biblical scholars have long identified a number of difficulties that the exodus account presents––making it hard to think that everything happened as it is described in the book. As was the case with the ancestral narratives of Genesis, we may be dealing with legends, not with objective historical facts. Consider the following issues:
According to Exod. 12:37, there were about 600,000 “men” among the Israelites who escaped from Egypt. Num. 1:46-47 gives a more precise count: 603,550 men who were 20 years or old and able to serve as soldiers, not counting the 23,000 Levites. But on the most basic level, how could this be? For one thing, a large army in antiquity could field 20,000 soldiers. Are we to believe that Israel had over 600,000?
Second: how do we explain this kind of population growth? If one counts all the women (surely as many as the men) and all the children (who would presumably be at least as many as the men and women combined), there must have been two and a half or three million people in Israel at this point. Now, according to Exod. 1:5 the clan of Jacob that started in Egypt consisted of 70 persons; and according to Exod. 6:16-20, Moses was in the fourth generation of the clan: his father was Amram, his grandfather was Kohath, and his great grandfather was Levi, one of the sons of Jacob. How could the great grandchildren of the twelve sons of Jacob number well over two million? In addition, even though demographic statistics for any place in antiquity are notoriously difficult to obtain, the best guesses indicate that the entire population of Egypt at the time was somewhere between two and four million people. Obviously they could not all have been Israelites who left.
Contradictions with the Known Facts of History
If two or three million slaves escaped from Egypt, and the entire Egyptian army was destroyed while in pursuit, this would obviously be a highly significant event, and we surely would find some mention of it, at least in one ancient writing or another. Possibly no Egyptian would have wanted to record the event. But some of the other nations of the region would have been ecstatic to learn that Egypt could no longer field an army; surely they would make note of it for the public record and then swoop down to the south to take over that fertile land for themselves. But we have no such record of the event and no other nation came in to take advantage of the situation. The reason is obvious. Pharaoh and his entire army were not destroyed at the Sea of Reeds.
Moreover, as it turns out, we still have the mummy of Ramses II (you can easily look it up online and see it yourself), and we know a good deal about his reign from other sources. He certainly never lost two million of his slaves and his entire army. His thirteenth son and successor, Merneptah, also had a successful reign, and, as we have seen, had a powerful army that overwhelmed other nations in the region. Egypt continued to be a dominant world force after the mid-thirteenth century BCE.
I might add that there is no archaeological evidence for anything like the exodus having occurred. Hundreds of chariots cannot be found at the bottom of any of the bodies of water that would be candidates for the Sea of Reeds; there are no Egyptian remains to indicate a massive exodus of two million or more people; and there are no archaeological traces in the wilderness area in any of the possible routes into and out of the Sinai.
As was the case with the stories of Genesis, then, here too we appear to be dealing with legend. The exodus tradition was hugely important, as it became a kind of “founding legend” for the nation of Israel. It does not appear to be actual history.
But is there SOMETHING behind the story? Some kind of historical event(s)? It turns out that there is some evidence that the answer is yes. I’ll be dealing with that issue as well in my course.