History and Historicity: A Discussion Regarding the Authenticity of the Exodus Narrative

Israel’s history is enigmatic, in that we can never truly know which historical accounts from ancient peoples are reliable and which are not. From Sumerian kings lists to flood narratives, ancient historical accounts of any sort are bathed in the ancient mythical style, which often portrays events and ideas in ways completely foreign to the modern mind. In any case, determining the historicity of an ancient historical event should never supersede our respect for the historical and modern cultures that ancient literature and tradition have spawned. Whether the Israelites were or were not actually enslaved in Egypt, what matters to Jewish people of today, and should matter to their contemporaries, is the meaning and value that tradition and religious literature bring to individuals and communities; these are the defining narratives of a group, and as such, they should never be discounted simply due to their questionable historicity. Everything we know about ancient peoples comes from surviving inscriptions, writings, drawings etc. If we are so ready to argue the historicity of non-Israelite/Jewish historical documents, then we should be applying similar hermeneutics to the Bible and its related literature.

While the composition of Exodus as we now have it was likely not completed until around the Babylonian exile (which definitely happened, by the way), there is reason to believe that the narrative stems from a long history of proto-Israelite Semitic oral history. That’s a long term, which essentially means that while the Israelite people may not have been fully realized at the time of the narrative’s inception, the history of Israel had certainly already begun through the generational telling of stories and myths. Modern peoples cannot properly understand the concept of one’s cultural history being developed prior to the actual existence of that culture, but during ancient periods, kingdoms and nations formed out of communities which branched off from one-another, and generational history was preserved in oral narrative, rather than in written documents. “Judaism” itself was not a fully realized religion until the Persian/Hellenistic periods, and when scholars refer to the religion of the Old Testament, it is usually described as “Israelite Religion.”

So were there “Jews” in Egypt around the time of Ramesses II? Technically, no, or at least, we have no clear evidence to argue this definitively. But the Egyptian scholar, Manetho, writing in the third century BCE did write concerning a Semitic group, the Hyksos, who were led out of Egypt by a man who later gave them a law code and changed his name to Moses (an Egyptian name). There is a stone plaque from Egypt dating to around 1200 BCE which was erected in honor of Ramesses II’s war victories, reading at one point “ysri’r (the earliest historical mention of Israel) is waste, but its seed is not.” It is not ridiculous to assume that this means “Israel” (or at least a group of Canaanites who referred to themselves as such) may have been brought into exile in Egypt. There is still no “clear archaeological” evidence that the group of Semites who would later refer to themselves as “Israel” actually fled Egypt or was enslaved there, although there have been remains found in Egypt near ancient temple construction and demolition sites of homes with distinctly Israelite layouts, suggesting that proto-Israelites may have been laborers on these sites.

Whatever the case, we cannot just say that because no archaeological evidence exists, the event certainly never happened. Most of what we know about ancient peoples is based on their historical writings, which will always be accompanied with myth of some sort. You can believe that the ancestors of the early Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and escaped, without believing that Moses actually parted the Red Sea or turned his staff into a snake. More important than the historicity of the event is the meaning that the Exodus narrative has carried with it; a narrative of YHWH’s remembrance of his people, and his commitment to preserving them and protecting them throughout the perils of life and history, despite their tendency to fall into idolatry and immorality. To simply dismiss the history of Judaism by saying “the Exodus never happened, and there were no Jews in Egypt,” is to completely miss the point. This perspective lacks both nuance and respect. We must acknowledge that the Exodus is an important narrative for people who are still with us today, a narrative which has outlasted the religions of ancient Canaan and ancient Egypt and continues to unite Jews and Christians. While we may never know the true historicity of the Exodus, there is no question why centuries of Jewish people have resonated and connected with its typological narrative.

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