Last time we talked a bit about the question: “how historical are the narratives of the Bible.” The short version of that post is that it depends on the narrative (some are more like parables, others refer to actual events), and it depends by what you mean by history.
Ancient people didn’t make the sharp distinction between facts and meaning the way modern try to people do. Every ancient historical document blends what we would call ‘the facts’ with the interpretation and meaning of those facts. Some writers stick closely to the facts, while others use them more freely to bring across their meaning, and the message they want to give to the present.
I finished by saying that I believe that the basic story of the Exodus is historical – that it really happened. I also said that knowing how close the story is to actual events is really hard to tell.
Why I Think the Exodus Happened
First off, let me say that the majority view among archaeologists and modern historians of ancient Egypt and the Near East is that the Exodus did not happen. There are a few reasons for this: nothing like it is mentioned in any contemporary ancient source outside the Bible; there is no clear archaeological evidence of a mass movement of people through the Sinai Peninsula during the period in which the Exodus is usually placed; and there is no archaeological evidence of an Israelite invasion of Canaan of the kind described in the book of Joshua (in the period following the usual date for the Exodus).
The majority interpretation of this apparent absence of hard evidence is to say that there was no Exodus, that the Israelites were never in Egypt, but rather developed as a new culture and religion from the existing population of the Canaanites and made up the Exodus story at a later date. The trouble with this interpretation is that it is just as hard to believe as the admittedly strange and hard to believe Exodus story. For one thing there is no documentary evidence for it, it is just a hypothesis based on the current archaeology of the period when the majority of scholars believe the Exodus story is set.
A second reason for believing that the Exodus is based in history, is that though the origin stories of most ancient people are often fantastical and symbolic, they are usually grounded in some actual events. It’s rare for one to be completely made up, especially one that doesn’t exactly bring glory on the ancestors of Israel. It’s a story that says the first Israelites were slaves, who did not gain freedom by their own courage or ingenuity, but were rescued entirely by their God. It also shows them as reluctant followers, ungrateful, and ready to abandon this God at a moment’s notice. It’s a pretty odd story to make up if you want to give your nation a great founding legend.
But as a Christian, the most important reason I believe the Exodus happened is that one of the central claims of the Bible is that God is a god who acts in the world. I believe this most firmly because I believe that God was acting in the person of Jesus. I believe that Jesus taught, healed, performed signs, suffered, died and was raised to new life.
The case for believing that the gospels are essentially historical is much stronger than for the Exodus (for one thing they come from a more recent and better documented period), but if we believe that God acted in this world through Jesus, then we should be open to the stories from the Old Testament about God’s earlier work in the world. This is especially true of the Exodus, which is the central saving act of God in the Old Testament, that is referenced not only in the Torah (the five books of Moses), and referred to repeatedly throughout the historical, poetic and prophetic books that follow.
So, how do we make sense of the apparent contradiction to the archaeological record? Well as this post is already long enough, I’ll tackle that next time.