Multiple Exoduses from Egypt?

Last week I linked to Bryant Wood’s article on new evidence for Israel’s existence in 1400 BC.

According to three European scholars, an inscription mentions Israel several hundred years earlier than the Merneptah Stele.

There are several ways to respond to this proposal. James Hoffmeier, an advocate of the late-date exodus (1230 BC), says that the inscription should not be read as Israel and thus is irrelevant to the question of the exodus.

In an article published in the January/February 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (HT: G. M. Grena and Shmuel Browns), Hershel Shanks summarizes the recent studies and concludes with a discussion about multiple departures from Egypt by Israelite tribes at different times. Earlier advocates of such include Albrecht Alt, Yohanan Aharoni, and Abraham Malamat.

Such an approach is wrong-headed, I believe. In the first place, it can only be reconciled with the biblical account by considering the latter to be only an elaborate and glorious myth created hundreds of years later (and peppered liberally with shameful acts of those who devised the myth). Second, such an approach replaces one exodus for which there is no record in Egyptian sources with many exoduses for which there are no record in Egyptian sources.

A better approach is to take a step back and reconsider the issue afresh. The reason why scholars argued for a 13th century BC date for the exodus/conquest in the first place was because of an apparent lack of evidence for Israel in Canaan at an earlier time. The Merneptah Stele, paired with the appearance of hundreds of agricultural villages in the 12th century, has been considered to provide evidence for the earliest Israelites. This evidence does not, however, tell us anything about Israel’s entrance into the land. It tells us only when Israel was already in the land (and defeated by Egypt).

Last year I showed how the Merneptah Stele gives evidence for Israel’s invisible (to archaeologists) presence in the land of Canaan for some time before they settled down in the hill country villages.

The recently published inscription, if the reading of Israel is accurate, provides even earlier evidence for the nation’s existence. As with the Merneptah Stele it does not tell us anything about the exodus or the conquest. To theorize that there were multiple exoduses when these inscriptions provide evidence for none is the wrong course indeed.

The best historical reconstruction takes into account all of the evidence. Israel fled from Egypt in about 1450 BC. They arrived in Israel in about 1400 BC. They continued their pastoral way of life that they were used to from the time of the patriarchs, their time in Egypt, and their time in the wilderness. This lifestyle left relatively little discernible and distinctive archaeological evidence from 1400-1200 BC. Some factors (weather?, political turmoil?, invasions?) forced the Israelite tribes to settle down at the beginning of what archaeologists call the Iron Age. This corresponds well with the record in the book of Judges in which the first indication of a settled existence is mentioned in the time of Gideon, who led the nation in about 1200.

Merneptah Stele, tb110900398

Merneptah Stele

9 thoughts on “Multiple Exoduses from Egypt?

  1. I do think some creative thinking needs be done regarding the Exodus. I realize that God is able to do whatever God wants, but the idea of two million people, their animals, and their possessions traveling together anywhere for 40 years is pretty hard to make work. That’s like having twice the population of the city of Dallas on the road, living off the land, camping at the base of a mountain.

    I think many Biblical scholars assume that there were people in Canaan who assimilated into Hebrew society after the conquest. It’s not hard to imagine that some Hebrews left Egypt during the expulsion of the Hyksos and may have established towns in Canaan. These people would easily assimilate with the Israelites from the main Exodus event.

    If at the end of the conquest and settlement someone added up all the people who were now Israelites in Canaan and projected that number back to the main Exodus event, it’s a lot easier to understand how that number would make sense

  2. Al,

    We can't look at the 2 million people traveling and living off of the land through today's eyes. We are too pampered, they were used to a difficult life. Even though it was difficult it's not unreasonable to see them living that way for 40 years. Besides, they did lose alot of people through the process but God kept those alive that fulfilled His plan.

  3. I don't know how the ABR article & your blog article last week didn't register in my brain, but it's a very interesting subject.

    When I saw the BAR article, the first thing I thought was, "Oh great, another unprovenanced artifact where the key word is fragmented & open to speculation…"

  4. To tag onto Al's post, Dr. Goldingay (OT prof at Fuller) has mentioned that maybe our understanding of early Hebrew numbers is a little off and that there was probably not 2 million. Why does 2 million matter?

  5. Mike – exactly.

    Al – creative thinking is what has gotten us into so much trouble. Biblical scholarship today is "every man doing what is right in his own eyes." You choose which parts of the text you like, and I'll choose what I like.

    Nate – because the large numbers recorded in the Bible don't fit our expectations, scholars have tried many different ways to understand them. The bottom line is that nothing works (that everyone agrees on). For instance, one view is that the number for thousand really means a clan. One problem with that is the numbers are totaled, making it clear that the number means a thousand. Why does 2 million matter? Simply because that's what the texts say (600,000 men of military age, actually, plus women and children). The number doesn't matter if you are not bound by the text. Some Bible-believing scholars surrender on "small" matters like these, only to find that there's really no logical reason not to surrender on the next thing, and the next. I'm quite content to recognize that there is SO MUCH we really don't understand about the ancient world, and that nothing is really gained by trusting my own thinking over God's Word.

  6. My two cents on ancient numbers: Simply put, we do not understand fully the method by which ancient people used numbers. For instance, note the Sumerian Kings list with rulers living thousands of years, Herodotus ascribing millions of men to the Persian army, etc… Thus, when we come to the Bible a bit of humility is in order as we admit that we do not fully comprehend all the ways of the ancients. Some suggested solutions in addition to the "clan" idea already noted include (1) there may be something in the textual transmission that has been messed up (with the switch from Paleo Hebrew to Massoritic being one suggested area of confusion), or (2) the use of large numbers may be for rhetorical effect (something we do as well, e.g. “millions of people were at that party”), or (3)the number of Israelites may have simply been in the millions, or(3) some other reason. The Archaeological Study Bible has a good article, as do other sources. In any case, it is important to remember that the Bible is not the issue, it is inerrant, the issue lies in our lack of a full understanding of this area.

    Thus I concur with Todd, namely, "there is SO MUCH we really don't understand about the ancient world."

    In addition, I concur with Mark Twain, roughly, "it is not the parts of the Bible that I do not fully understand that concern me, it is the parts that I do!"

  7. Dear Sir
    There is a new video (Dec. 29, 2011) on Exodus and Red Sea/Yam Suf crossing. "The Bible, Sphinx and Great Pyramid" It is not sensationalism or wild speculation. This video is 30 min. long, it shows that the Sphinx and Great Pyramid are in the Bible, and they are found at the Red Sea crossing.
    The Bible, Sphinx and Great Pyramid = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJS_WVnfkG0
    Thank you in advance for you consideration!

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