Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Religion of Israel II: Archaeology and the Exodus and Conquest

(A lost of abbreviations for consulted works is appended.)

As we have seen, historical and archaeological study confirms that Israel, while a new development in the history of Canaan, had indigenous origins within Canaan. This is not to suggest, as we will later see, that these indigenous origins were exclusive--that no elements within Israel came from outside Canaan.  Nevertheless,  it is clear that the dominant cultural factors that gave birth to Israel as an ethnic identity were developments of and reactions to Canaanite culture and socio-political factors that were peculiar to Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age. How, then, does this square with the Biblical account of an Exodus from Egypt and a violent conquest of Canaan?

It is now universally recognized by all but fundamentalists that the Exodus and Conquest narratives in the Bible are not historical in the modern sense, although these narratives may contain nuggets of otherwise useful information regarding Israelite history and culture. The time frame for the Exodus is now definitively established as the late 13th century B.C., coinciding with the rise of Israelite culture in Canaan and the reign of Rameses II as pharaoh in Egypt. However, very little of the overall narrative can be confirmed and, of what can be confirmed, much is anachronistic.

Other elements are, to say the least, morally troubling, e.g., the Divine killing of all firstborn Egyptians. Of the many sites mentioned in the Biblical narrative, few have been identified. One that has been identified is "Migdol," a fortress near the border of Egypt and the Sinai. "But Israeli excavations have shown that Migdol was an Egyptian fortress on the border of the Eastern Nile Delta, and it was occupied only in the Saite period" (7th - 6th centuries B.C.). (Who, Where, 19) The obvious implication is that the authors, writing in the very late stages of the Judahite monarchy or during the Exile in Babylon, knew of an actual “Migdol” and simply assumed, incorrectly, that Migdol had a prehistory. To put it bluntly, the name was inserted to lend verisimilitude to the story.

Perhaps more telling is the fact that, while Moses is a prominent figure in the Exodus story, there is very little trace of him in historical Israel before the composition of the Pentateuchal books, which is to say, in the very late stages of the monarchy or even as late as the Exile. And, as Dever (What, When, 235) recognizes, there are significant additional problems with the entire Moses narrative, including the fact that the account of the rise of a revolutionary new religion is “contradicted by the reality of later Israelite belief and practice” and by everything that is known of Israelite history--this is an issue that we will examine later. As for the Biblical evidence, Dever points out a number of seeming anomalies that are difficult to explain unless it is recognized that the Mosaic narrative, as written, is a later composition not to be taken as history. Not only is Moses absent from such relatively early texts as the "Song of the Sea" (Exodus 15) and the Magnalia Dei (Deuteronomy 26), but there is only one unambiguous reference to Moses in the entire pre-exilic prophetic literature (Jeremiah 15; Micah 6 is likely a later addition to the original collection of prophecies). Moreover, Jeremiah 15, while mentioning Moses, contains no reference to the Exodus and appears to place Moses on the same plane with Samuel. The "Song of the Sea" itself appears to be a complex adaptation of mythic Canaanite themes to a later Yahwistic tradition, while these same themes appear in less redacted forms in several psalms and later writings, such as those known as Deutero-Isaiah. In its basic description the Song of the Sea differs significantly from the prose narratives in Exodus (Cf. Frank Moore Cross' classic study in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic - CMHE). In fact, the Song's basic theme of Yahweh as a warrior (the Canaanite god Ba'al's traditional role) fighting for his chosen nation and causing all other nations to quail in fear connects it to writings from the late monarchy, when Israel faced national annihilation at the hands of Mesopotamian empires.

Additional anachronisms relating to the Exodus include references to the Philistines at a time when the Philistines had yet to make an appearance in Canaan and the residence of as many as 3 million Israelites (the figures vary) for 38 years at the tiny oasis of Kadesh-barnea--leaving no archaeological trace. Such a sojourn would have required daily miraculous intervention on a scale that boggles the imagination. But the most significant anachronism is the portrayal of Israel as departing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness at a time when, based on the archaeological evidence and the evidence of Merneptah's victory stele, Israel was already in the process of development in Canaaan and was known to the Egyptians to be a factor in Canaanite society.

On the other hand, Mark Smith (MG 19-20) points out, in common with Dever, that there are elements in the Exodus narratives that, while not establishing these narratives as historical per se, nevertheless point to memories of historical realities that may be significant for Israel's history and self understanding. Smith focuses on three factors: First, as we have noted, the names of Moses, Aaron, and Phinehas are Egyptian. While this fact does little if anything to enlighten our understanding of the nature of these Egyptian associations (trade ties through related Semitic tribes in the Sinai, such as the Midianite grouping with which Moses is closely associated in the Bible?), it nevertheless stands as a marker.

Second, Smith focuses, as do many Jewish apologetical writers, on the notion that the presentation of a group's ancestors as slaves seems an unlikely foundation for a founding tradition or myth, unless it were based in reality. On the other hand, history is full of examples in which such less than glorious realities have been changed; therefore, from that standpoint it may make sense that this metaphor would be used as an expression of the foundational self understanding of Israel as an escape from near servitude in the Canaanite lowlands to the highlands. It may also be that smaller, but culturally influential, elements of the Israelite population did in fact have recollections of a temporary residence in Egypt and a withdrawal from Egypt to the freedom of the desert. Such a metaphor would be particularly congenial to groups with close ties to Israel, such as the Midianites (a possibility that we will explore further at a later stage).

Third, Smith finds possible historical significance in the fact that some of what are considered to be older Hebrew poems in the Exodus narrative in Numbers 23-24 (which Smith dates to the 11th century or the early monarchy) prefer El (the Canaanite high god) as the name for the god who delivered Israel from Egypt (of course, the name Israel itself contains the name El). By contrast, Exodus 15, the "Song of the Sea," prefers the name Yahweh, which may have been adopted from other Semitic tribes. If Yahweh had been foundationally experienced by Israel as the God who saved Israel from servitude, the name El would not likely have been preserved in these older poems. This phenomenon, then, would point to the reality that the widespread identification of Yahweh as the God of Israel (replacing El as the God of Isra-El) came at a later date, and would be a further strong indication that Israel was an indigenous development from Canaanite culture.

The pattern of later historical periods being read back anachronistically into the supposed period in question continues with the Conquest narratives. We have seen that in the Exodus narrative there are references to the Philistines before the Philistines were actually present in Canaan. The same is true with regard to Edom and Moab, which are referred to in the narratives as organized states--kingdoms--even though Edom and Moab never attained that degree of political organization until the much later period of the Israelite and Judahite monarchies. More importantly, at the supposed time of the Exodus the cities referred to in these territories (Edom and Moab) either did not yet exist or show no signs of violent conquest. Ironically, Dever notes, the one city in the area that does show signs of violent destruction (on the outskirts of modern Amman) is not mentioned in the Bible at all!

And the same holds true for the areas of actual Israelite settlement, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. After a lengthy review of the archaeological data (Who, Where, 37-71) Dever concludes:

We must confront the fact that the external material evidence supports almost nothing of the biblical account of a large-scale, concerted Israelite military invasion of Canaan, either ... east of the Jordan [Moab] or ... west of the Jordan. 

In general, it is well to bear in mind Smith's caution (MG 13) that the Deuteronomist History (of which Joshua and Judges, as they have come down to us, are parts) preserves not so much "history" per se as it reflects the foundational identity of Israel as it had come to be perceived in Deuteronomist circles. In other words, Torah (i.e., "teaching") preserves not historical accounts but rather the concerns of the monarchic and exilic periods which are expressed in narrative form: why Israel has, or had, the land; why Israel needed and came to have a monarchy; why the monarchy failed and why Israel fell into a state of captivity.

The "biblical history" constructed in the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History represents Israel's national foundational story hostage to the conditions of the people's present and their hopes for the future.


William Dever:

What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (What, When)
Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From (Who, Where)

Mark S. Smith:

The Early History of God (EHG)
The Memoirs of God (MG)


  1. I haven't read any of these books, but I think you'll likely tread with caution here. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

    As I understand it, Dever is considered a biblical "minimalist".


    ps: others from the forum would like to see this blog, but they are not able to find the url through google. Do you want me to give them this url or would you prefer the status quo?

  2. KFB, "minimalist" is a bit of a relative term. Dever himself refers to people such as Davies, Thompson, Lemche and Whitelam--true radicals who call themselves revisionists and by others are sometimes called "minimalists"--as "nihilists." In fact, Dever's attacks on them have been so outspoken as to occasion embarrassment among some more timid scholars. (See Dever's Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From? for a discussion and critique of their views, as well as What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?) So, no, Dever is not a "minimalist," except perhaps to fundamentalists. Actually, his background is somewhat interesting. His father was a fundamentalist preacher and he himself was a student of Albright and G. E. Wright, whom he still holds in high regard, although their views have diverged.

    These posts are very much a work in progress. This series may extend to as many as five, but by the end I think you'll have a clearer picture of where I'm going. Right now it probably looks a bit "nihilist," as Dever says, but it won't end up that way. You might want to refer to some of my previous posts on revelation.

    BTW, Benedict XVI recently gave a little talk on the Bible and scholarship, God Really Speaks to Men and Women in a Human Way which is worth reading and pondering. While some of his remarks are not without their own problems, the title of the talk itself and his observation that "Sacred Scripture is one by virtue of the unity of God's plan" does, properly understood, point in the right direction. But you have to be able to answer: what is God's plan and where do we learn it. If you can do that you have a real theory of revelation.

  3. In a pretty good 'popular' book, _Secret Origins of the Bible_, it's said that the Levites are the only tribe where Egyptian names were common.

    So the historical source of these stories might be the escape, from Egyptian-ruled areas of Palestine, by the ancestors of the Levites -- whose legends were included in the national traditions when they joined an alliance of independent hill-country farmers against oppressive city slickers downhill...

    The place names of the Biblical 'exodus' were supposed to be current settlements at the time they were actually written down. What we've got looks analogous to an LA school-kid's account of George Washington fighting the Brits in Hollywood. Not entirely fiction, nor solid documentary history either. How many people really know what the US did in Vietnam, even in our supposedly literate and well-documented times...?