As for whether the stories were divinely inspired, once again I think we have good reason to doubt.
Israelites in Egypt
According to the biblical story, the Israelites lived in Egypt for roughly 430 years during the Bronze Age (Exodus 12:40). The story claims that the patriarch Jacob and his large extended family, numbering 70 people in total, moved to Egypt and were subsequently made slaves there when a new Pharaoh took the throne (Exodus 1:1-11).
But according to historians, there is no evidence that the nation of Israel has ever been enslaved in Egypt.
However, most histories of ancient Israel no longer consider information about the Exodus recoverable or even relevant to the story of Israel's emergence due to the complete lack of direct evidence for its historicity. Historically, there were no Jews in Bronze Age Egypt (the setting of Exodus and, long before that, of the pyramids' erection), because there were no Jews at all until the rise of the kingdom of Judah in the Iron Age. Israelites first appear in the archeological record on the Merneptah Stele from between 1208-3 BCE; right at the end of the Bronze Age.The Hyksos
Source (see footnotes within)
Manetho, a historian who lived in the 3rd century BCE, mentions a group of Semites known as the Hyksos who immigrated into Egypt around the 18th century BCE.
Hyksos, group of mixed Semitic-Asiatics who immigrated into Egypt’s delta region and gradually settled there during the 18th century bce. Beginning about 1630, a series of Hyksos kings ruled northern Egypt as the 15th dynasty (c. 1630–1523 bce; see ancient Egypt: The Second Intermediate period). The name Hyksos was used by the Egyptian historian Manetho (fl. 300 bce), who, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (fl. 1st century ce), translated the word as “king-shepherds” or “captive shepherds.” Josephus himself wished to demonstrate the great antiquity of the Jews and thus identified the Hyksos with the Hebrews of the Bible.Note the part about Josephus (not Manetho) identifying the Hyksos as the ancient Israelites. Most modern historians reject this view, and in any case it disagrees with the biblical account in many aspects. For example, the Hyksos actually ruled over parts of Egypt for over 100 years, and were not slaves.
Although vilified in some Egyptian texts, the Hyksos had ruled as pharaohs and were listed as legitimate kings in the Turin Papyrus. At least superficially they were Egyptianized, and they did not interfere with Egyptian culture beyond the political sphere.Also, the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt too early for the traditional dates of the exodus. They were driven out by Ahmose 1, who reigned around 1570-1546 BCE. I will expand on the problems with these dates for the exodus in the next section.
It is extremely unlikely that the Hyksos were the biblical Israelites. Further, the existence of the Hyksos in Egypt may throw a spoke in the works when trying to fit the biblical story into the same time period. The Hyksos are said to have occupied the Nile Delta, the very same region apparently occupied by the Hebrew slaves. The details just don't mesh.
Perhaps it is possible that stories from this time were passed around by travellers and eventually influenced the story told by the writers of the Bible.
Dating the Exodus
Dating the exodus is extremely problematic due to various conflicting details between the biblical text and other sources, including archaeology.
Another issue is that Exodus 1:11 claims the Israelite slaves built the cities Pithom and Ramses.
Understandably, this Ramesses was identified by an early generation of biblical archaeologists with the Pi-Ramesses of Ramesses II. When the 21st Dynasty moved the capital to Tanis, Pi-Ramesses was largely abandoned and the old capital became a quarry for ready-made monuments, but it was not forgotten: its name appears in a list of 21st Dynasty cities, and it had a revival under Shoshenq I (the biblical Shishak) of the 22nd Dynasty (10th century BCE), who tried to emulate the achievements of Ramesses. The existence of the city as Egypt's capital as late as the 10th century makes problematic the reference to Ramesses in the Exodus story as a memory of the era of Ramesses II; and indeed, the shortened form "Ramesses", in place of the original Pi-Ramesses, is first found in 1st millennium texts.
The Bible describes Ramesses as a "store-city". The exact meaning of the Hebrew phrase is not certain, but some have suggested that it refers to supply depots on or near the frontier. This would be an appropriate description for Pithom (Tel al-Maskhuta) in the 6th century BCE, but not for the royal capital in the time of Ramesses, when the nearest frontier was far off in the north of Syria. Only after the original royal function of Pi-Ramesses had been forgotten could the ruins have been re-interpreted as a fortress on Egypt's frontier.
Source (see footnotes within)
The most common dates put forward for the Exodus are around 1440BCE and around 1250BCE. There are issues with both of these.
The 1440BCE date suffers the above issue relating to the cities of Pithom and Ramses (these cities were not built until hundreds of years later), as well as being unlikely due to Egyptian military presence throughout the land of Canaan.
A date of 1446 BCE places us square in the reign of the great Egyptian king Menkheperre Tuthmosis (1479-1424 BCE), otherwise known as Tuthmosis III. Some fringe writers have in fact tried to paint Tuthmosis III as the pharaoh of Exodus, but the real problem here is, Tuthmosis III was the greatest warrior pharaoh of Egyptian history and in his time cemented Egypt as the single-greatest power of the entire Near East. Tuthmosis III led 40 years of sweeping military campaigns that brought under Egyptian control practically everyone and everything between Lower Nubia and northern Syria. This means that part of Egypt’s sphere of influence was the Levant and Canaan, where the Hebrews were supposed to have conquered cities left and right after fleeing Egypt to establish the Promised Land as their own. Obviously a great conquerer like Tuthmosis III was not going to allow a bunch of escaped slaves to upset his hegemony. Egypt ruled the entire region with an iron fist. Simply put, Tuthmosis III could not have been the pharaoh of Exodus. As it is, almost no self-respecting, gainfully employed, professional historian would try to argue otherwise.Ok, so what about the later date of 1250BCE?
William F. Albright, the leading biblical archaeologist of the mid-20th century, proposed an alternative 13th century date of around 1250–1200 BCE for the Exodus event and the entry into Canaan described in the Book of Joshua. (The Merneptah Stele indicated that a people called "Israel" were already known in Canaan by the reign of Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE), so a date later than this was impossible). His argument was based on many strands of evidence, including archaeologically attested destruction at Beitel (Bethel) and some other cities at around that period and the occurrence of distinctive house-types and round-collared jars which, in his opinion, were "Israelite". Albright's theory enjoyed popularity at the time, but has now been generally abandoned in scholarship: the so-called "Israelite" house-type, the collar-rimmed jars, and other items which Albright thought distinctive and new have now been recognised as continuations of indigenous Canaanite types, and while some "Joshua" cities, including Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo and others, have destruction and transition layers around 1250–1145 BCE, others, including Jericho, have none or were uninhabited during this period.As far as I am aware, there is no time period in which the exodus story fits. So how should we account for the story?
Source (see footnotes within)
Details in the story hint that a complex and multilayered editing process has been at work: the Exodus cities of Pithom and Rameses, for example, were not inhabited during most of the New Kingdom period, and the forty years of wilderness wanderings are also full of inconsistencies and anachronisms. It is therefore best to treat the Exodus story not as the record of a single historical event but as a "powerful collective memory of the Egyptian occupation of Canaan and the enslavement of its population" during the 13th and 12th centuries (Ann Killebrew, 2005).Numerical problems
The Bible essentially claims that the entire nation of Israel descended from just 70 people, who apparently reproduced so rapidly that Exodus 12 says that, just 400-430 years later, about 600,000 men left Egypt, along with their dependants and their livestock! This puts the total population at about 2 million people, which would have required an annual growth rate of about 2.5%, more than double the world's annual population growth rate today! I think we have good reason to doubt these figures.
According to the estimates of historians, the population of Egypt in the Late Bronze Age was only about 3-4 million people, which makes this aspect of the story quite unbelievable. There is no hint of any economic collapse in Egyptian records, such as would have surely occurred if the population suddenly reduced by half.
To demonstrate the point further, it has been estimated that if the Israelites left Egypt walking 10 abreast, they would have stretched about 240km (150 miles)! And that's not factoring in their livestock. If we're generous and allow a constant average walking pace of 5km/h, it would have taken more than 48 hours for them all just to cross the Red Sea, and when the first travellers arrived at Mt Sinai, the last of them would have just crossed the Red Sea! That's if they travelled non-stop, but according to the story they stopped and camped every so often, which actually just means their pace was a lot slower than 5km/h, so the story collapses no matter which way you look at it.
The solution proposed by many apologists is that the population numbers given in the Bible are incorrect, and that the number of people who left Egypt was much, much lower. This, they say, also accounts for the lack of any evidence for a large group of people wandering in the Sinai desert. This seems plausible, although I would lean towards the idea of maybe only a small group of slaves who escaped from Egypt, whose stories were later embellished or perhaps even merged with stories about the Hyksos.
In any case, reducing the numbers does not avoid any of the other problems mentioned in this article.
The birth of Moses
My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.Sound familiar? The above quotation comes directly from a translation of an ancient text known as the Legend of Sargon. It contains the birth story of Sargon of Akkad, who reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed
She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me,
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the
drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his
Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son
(and) reared me.
The similarities with the story of Moses' birth in Exodus 2 are obvious. While it is easy to construct hypothetical "how-it-might-have-been" scenarios involving Moses' mother getting ideas from the earlier legend, a more likely explanation is probably that the birth story appears in Genesis to denote the birth of a hero, following the ancient near east motif of "infant exposure".
Despite the Bible's internal dating of the Exodus to the 2nd millennium BCE, details point to a 1st millennium date for the composition of the Book of Exodus: Ezion-Geber, (one of the Stations of the Exodus), for example, dates to a period between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE with possible further occupation into the 4th century BCE, and those place-names on the Exodus route which have been identified – Goshen, Pithom, Succoth, Ramesses and Kadesh Barnea – point to the geography of the 1st millennium rather than the 2nd. Similarly, Pharaoh's fear that the Israelites might ally themselves with foreign invaders seems unlikely in the context of the late 2nd millennium, when Canaan was part of an Egyptian empire and Egypt faced no enemies in that direction, but does make sense in a 1st millennium context, when Egypt was considerably weaker and faced invasion first from the Persians and later from Seleucid Syria.Summary of Archaeological evidence
Source (see footnotes within)
A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness, and most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit". A number of theories have been put forward to account for the origins of the Israelites, and despite differing details they agree on Israel's Canaanite origins. The culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult-objects are those of the Canaanite god El, the pottery remains in the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet used is early Canaanite, and almost the sole marker distinguishing the "Israelite" villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether even this is an ethnic marker or is due to other factors remains a matter of dispute.The comments about the Canaanite god El are particularly interesting. The clay tablets uncovered at Ugarit in the 20th century provide many details about ancient Canaanite religion. One such detail is the names of their gods, one of which is El, the same title used to refer to the biblical god. I have looked into the Ugaritic texts before and I highly recommend it. There are many interesting parallels between Canaanite religion and the Bible.
Source (see footnotes within)
Scholars have found much extra-biblical evidence of Canaanite worship of El as the supreme deity, creator of heaven and earth, the father of humankind, the husband of the goddess Asherah, and the parent of many other gods. Canaanite mythology about El may have directly influenced the development of the later Greco-Roman stories of the gods.
The theological position of Jews and Christians is that Ēl and Ĕlōhîm, when used to mean the supreme God, refer to the same being as Yahweh—the one supreme deity who is the Creator of the universe and the God of Israel. Whether or not this was the original belief of the earliest Biblical writers is a subject of much debate. Some form of monotheism probably existed among the Israelites from an early date, but scholars debate the extent to which they borrowed or inherited numerous polytheistic ideas from their Canaanite neighbors and forebears.
The name Yahweh may have originated among desert tribes. The Bible indicates that the early Israelites identified Yahweh with the older god El, who was widely worshipped in Canaan.Wikipedia
It's worth pointing out that my use of Wikipedia in articles such as these should not be taken to mean that I think Wikipedia is an authoritative source. It isn't. However, I find it useful as a starting point to give an overview of the relevant information available, and from there I generally branch outwards with more specific queries. I quote from it mainly because it often provides an excellent, easily accessible summary of material I have previously researched. That said, Wikipedia does list its sources and I do consider those to be authoritative (to some degree) in most cases.
One of the more striking aspects of the exodus story is the subsequent conquest by Joshua into the land of Canaan. The brute fact is that archaeology just doesn't provide any of the corroborating evidence we should expect to find if the biblical account is historically accurate. Some people claim this is an argument from silence, but the point is that we shouldn't expect silence. In some cases, and especially in this one, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.
There are no references in any other ancient source to a massive destruction of the cities of Canaan. Archaeologists have discovered that few of the places mentioned were walled towns at the time. Many of the specific cities cited as places of conquest apparently did not even exist as cities at the time. This includes, most notably, Jericho, which was not inhabited in the late 13th century BCE, as archaeologists have decisively shown (see box 4.2). The same thing applies to Ai and Heshbon. These cities were neither occupied, nor conquered, nor re-inhabited in the days of Joshua. Moreover, there is no evidence of major shifts in cultural patterns taking place at the end of the 13th century in Canaan. There are, to be sure, some indications that some towns in Canaan were destroyed at about that time (two of the twenty places mentioned as being destroyed by Joshua were wiped out at about the right time: Hazor and Bethel) But that is true of virtually every time in antiquity: occasionally towns were destroyed by other towns or burned or otherwise abandoned.Conclusion
I don't think anything I've mentioned in this article would be considered controversial in scholarly circles or among archaeologists. There may still be some debate over various details, but as far as I can tell, I have stayed pretty close to what one could call the "mainstream view". It is certainly not the view of conservative biblical scholars or fundamentalist believers, but in my opinion that says more about them than the view I have presented. Such people tend to believe first, and then look for evidence second (if at all).
I think it's safe to say that based on the material I have outlined in this article, the Sunday School version of the exodus is far from historically accurate. There are still many websites out there and other sources of information attempting to rescue the biblical stories but from what I can tell they are really just trying to pretend they can resurrect an entire cake from a few tiny crumbs.
One last quote, which I think sums it up quite well:
William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus “dead.” Israeli archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus: “The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction—made in the seventh century [BCE]—of a history that never happened.None of this is at all surprising if the Bible is merely a product of fallible humans. It contains exactly what we would expect. Some events may have a historical core behind them, while others may be reconstructions based on various earlier sources and stories. I am personally at a loss as to how one might explain why a god would inspire people to write down a history of their people that never actually happened, at least not as described. To me that would amount to lying, unless it was clearly stated that this was not intended as a historical account, and I don't see that stated anywhere in the biblical text.
Source (see footnote within)
Next Article: Kings and Prophets