Monday, August 31, 2015

Exodus: A Great Salvation -- History and the Exodus

This past summer I had the pleasure of preaching a series on the first twelve chapters of the book of Exodus--i.e. the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. I have not had a chance to post my devotions and sermons for this series yet, so since the series is now over, I am really behind, but better late than never. Now, since there is a lot of historical debate surrounding this event, I think it might be helpful to talk briefly about some of those issues and explain why the exodus is a historical event.

First, I must confess, I have not yet see the latest movie about the Exodus--Exodus: God and Kings--so I cannot necessarily speak to its accuracy one way or another. However, since the two main characters are Moses and Ramses, and the movie seems to claim that Moses and Ramses were raised as brothers, it is probably not much more accurate than The 10 Commandments. Such a character cast shows that they assume a very late date for the exodus event (in the 13th century BC), which does not fit with or take seriously the biblical evidence. But, hopefully you do not expect much from Hollywood when it comes to historical accuracy of movies made about biblical events. :) So, that being said, what I talk about here is not meant to correct anything in those movies, at least not intentionally. What we need to talk about is some prevailing opinions among scholars surrounding the historicity of this biblical event.

Exodus is much more than a story, for it presents itself as history, so we should interpret as history. Yet, there are many scholars who look at Scripture and Egyptian history and claim, as Baruch Halpern uncharitably stated, "the actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn." Now, certainly not all scholars agree with that sentiment, but many do, so it would be helpful for us to overview why the exodus story should be viewed as history and how it fits with exra-biblical evidence.

Much of the claim that the exodus is closer to fiction and that it is history comes from the fact that there is little historical evidence to corroborate what Scripture tells us. Now, hidden in this objection is the idea that Scripture is not history and therefore cannot be taken as historical evidence in its own right. That is a dubious assumption, to say the least, and many great books have been written on the historical veracity of Scripture and particularly the Old Testament (e.g. Kingdom of Priests is a good one), so I will not take that up here. It is too broad of a subject to address in this email, but keep in mind that since Scripture presents itself as history, when someone makes such a claim, the burden of proof is on them to show that Scripture contradicts established, historical facts. It is not enough to say, "Well, there is no corroborating evidence," for that is an argument from silence or assumes that historians are in possession of every bit of ancient historical evidence, which, of course, we know they are not. There is still much discovery to be done when it comes to ancient history, so saying that there is no corroborating evidence to date is not a sufficient objection. The objector must prove that there is well-established, irrefutable evidence that contradicts the Bible before they can say, "Yes, the Bible presents itself as history, but we should not take it that way."

That being said, we do need to address the objection that there is no corroborating evidence. Even though the burden of proof is on the critic, we need to be able to give reasons for why this might appear to be case. So, is it true that there isno corroborating evidence for the Scripture's account of the exodus? It is true that there is little corroborating, extra-biblical evidence for the exodus, but that does not mean there is no evidence. That is overstating the matter. To explain this further, we will look at it in two ways: the Egyptian worldview and why they did not record the events of the exodus; and how the exodus fits the historical data that we do have from ancient Egypt.

First, the Egyptian worldview: Some have claimed that if the exodus was a real, historical event, we would see it in the annals of Egyptian history. That claim is not nearly as strong as it sounds initially for two reasons:
  • First, the events of the exodus show the God of the Jews battling against the gods of the Egyptians, and, to put it bluntly, the gods of the Egyptians were decisively defeated. Furthermore, the events of the exodus show a shepherd--Moses--going up against the most powerful man in the world--Pharaoh--and, again to put it bluntly, Pharaoh was decisively defeated. Now, let me ask you: If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh, would you have your historians record that? Perhaps today we in our modern times attempt to be more "dispassionate" about events that occur, but ancient peoples generally did not do that, particularly the Egyptians (the Bible being one of the previous few exceptions). Embarrassing history was generally left out of the records. So, when the God of a rag-tag group of slaves successfully defeats the most powerful nation in the world of the time, common sense tells us that we should not expect that nation to keep that record for all posterity to see.
  • Second, the Egyptian worldview in particular would have demanded they not record such a devastating defeat. G. Wheeler has argued quite convincingly that the ancient Egyptian worldview would have found it almost impossible to record for succeeding generations anything about the exodus, the plagues, or any other events that showed the weakness of Egypt and particularly its Pharaoh. The reason for this is that Egyptians believed that writing was an act of the actual creation of reality--that written words actually brought into being the things they recorded. So, from the Egyptian worldview, writing had the power to control the forces of the cosmos, making things become what they recorded. In their worldview, to put the absolutely domination of the God of the Jews over the gods of Egypt into writing, not to mention the killing of the firstborn as well as other plagues, would cement those events into reality and give them power to harm future Egypt. Therefore, we, again, should not expect an Egyptian Pharaoh or his historians to have recorded such devastating events.
Given the events of the Exodus and the Egyptian worldview, it is simply unreasonable to demand that there be large amounts of explicit corroborating evidence in the annals of Egyptian history and to make that the judge of veracity of Scripture's record. Instead, we need to look at how well the Bible's history fits with what is available from Egyptian history.

Second, how the exodus fits in history: While there is little, direct historical evidence outside of Scripture for the exodus, that does not mean there is no evidence or that Scripture is not valid historical evidence in itself. K. Kitchen, a renowned Egyptologist, makes a good historical argument in On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Kitchen argues at length for the historical reasonableness of the biblical stories of how the Israelites got into Egypt, how they lasted there for four centuries, and how they left. His argument is too extensive to reproduce here, so I will just show how the exodus fits what is known of ancient Egypt.

In the Bible's chronology, it is fairly easy to pinpoint the probable date of the exodus. A solid reference point in biblical history comes from 1 Kings 6:1, “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt…” This is how Solomon’s building of the Temple begins, and it is almost universally agreed that this occurred in the year 966 BC. Working backwards, that puts the date of the exodus at 1446 BC, which places it during the reign of Amenhotep II of the 18th dynasty of Egypt. Many things during this period fit quite well with the biblical account:
  • If we take this 15th century date for the exodus, the Jews would have serving as slaves under Amenhotep I or Thutmose I (the former died and the latter arose in 1526 BC) when Moses was born (1526 BC), and Egyptian history shows both of them (and later pharaohs during Moses' life) engaging in major building projects in the Nile Delta, which would have required a massive slave-labor force and fits the work commanded by the Pharoah of Ex. 1.
  • The daughter of Thutmose I was named Hatshepsut, and she may have been the princess who pulled Moses out of the water. History shows her to be the one princess on record bold enough to defy her father's edict, and it would have taken such a bold princess to adopt Moses.
  • Later in Egyptian history, Hatshepsut married Thutmose II (her half brother) whose son was Thutmose III. Since Hatshepsut had no natural sons, if she was the princess who adopted Moses, he would have been a threat to Thutmose III and his right to the throne of Egypt. Furthermore, for some time, Thutmose III and Hatshepsut served as co-regents/co-Pharaohs over Egypt, which would have only heighten the tension between Thutmose III and the threat to his throne--Moses. Such tension fits well with Moses' need to flee Ex. 2:11-15. Since Moses was a member of the royal court, a murder of a random Egyptian would not have been an issue, unless Pharaoh (i.e. Thutmose III) was looking for an excuse to get rid of a threat like Moses. This also fits the timing in Egyptian history because Moses would have fled in 1486 BC, after Egyptian records show that Thutmose III had sole rule and while Hatshepsut was very old and close to death, i.e. without much influence anymore and not able to protect her adopted son.
  • Moses was exiled for 40 years which was about the time Thutmose III ruled (dying in 1450 BC, just four years before Moses returned for God). Had Moses even wanted to return, he would not have been able to until after Thutmose III died. And, of all of the Pharaohs on record, his reign is the only one long enough for Moses to have had to stay away for 40 years. So, this also fits well with biblical history.
  • Next, as stated above, Amenhotep II was probably the Pharaoh ruling when God freed His people from Egypt, and there is strong evidence Egyptian records for great military decline under Amenhotep II. He had been making aggressive military campaigns into Canaan for years, and then in 1446 BC he abruptly stopped before his conquering of Canaan was complete. The Egyptians records do not record the reason he stopped, but since 1446 BC is the date of the exodus, this fits quite well with the drowning of much of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (Ex. 14). After such an event, Pharaoh would not have had the manpower to continue any forays into enemy territory.
  • And, finally, Amenhotep II did not pass his reign to oldest son but to his second son. This would have only occurred in an Egyptian dynasty if the oldest son had suffered an untimely death. Could this have been the aftermath of the tenth plague? Amenhotep II was likely the Pharaoh ruling during the plagues, and therefore he would have lost his oldest son to the angel of death. So, this also fits quite well with biblical history.
Now, granted, all the the above is a series of circumstantial events, yet it does show that if we take the biblical evidence seriously and compare it to Egyptian history, they fit together quite well. And, given that, as I have argued above, we should not expect direct evidence in the Egyptian records, this is the kind of case that must be made.

So, while biblical historians cannot muster huge amounts of corroborating evidence for the exodus, the evidence that does exist does not contradict biblical history and, in fact, fits quite well with everything that is known about Egyptian history of the 15th century BC. Exodus is history, and as we study it we will see the amazing things that God has done in the history of the Israelites, which is also our history as Christians.

By His Grace,

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