A few years back, I attended a doctoral defense wherein one of the examiner's asked the candidate if a particular distinction that she had made in her thesis was academic. I remember being struck by the remarkable impropriety of the question, if taken literally: an academic, employed by and sitting in the the academy, was critiquing an aspiring academic for being academic. But such a query raises a subsequent one: what questions matter, and why? It's with that in mind that I want to think about historical doubts regarding the existence of Moses and the occurrence of an Israelite exodus from Egypt. The reason that that should matter now should be obvious: given the current struggles over the legacy of slavery in our time, it is a question of some material relevance whether or not the single most defining event of the biblical tradition common to both Judaism and Christianity, and to a lesser extent Islam, was in fact the successful escape of thousands of slaves from captive labour. If the Israelites were never enslaved in Egypt nor escaped that slavery, that has potentially significant impact for the many persons who hang their hopes for freedom and a better life for themselves and their descendants upon this event. Given the significance of the matter, this will be a three-part post: here, I will address the ancient data, in a subsequent post the grounds for negative judgment regarding the existence of Moses and occurrence of the exodus, and in a third the cultural import of this entire discussion.
It is often stated today that there is "no evidence" for the exodus, by which is usually meant "no extra-biblical evidence." And certainly there is a degree of truth in that: there is no clear, direct data outside the biblical tradition for the exodus. But that argument seems hardly sufficient to merit the conclusion that the exodus did not occur. This is an argument from silence, and arguments from silence tend to be among the weakest that one will find in historical thought. The question with any such argument is always "Should we expect such data?" In this case, "Should we expect extra-biblical evidence of the exodus?" Precisely to the extent that we cannot answer "Yes" with confidence, to that extent the argument from silence is unsound. In this case, confidence does not seem high. Israel was hardly a particularly significant actor in the ancient Near East. Why its departure from Egypt should be noted is not clear. It is equally unclear why the Egyptians themselves should be expected to have recorded what, if we take the biblical literature at face value, would have constituted such an ignominious moment in their history. It is noted that no archaeological remains of the exodus have been found, but that forces us to consider what we should expect to find in the archaeological record. This tends to be left under-addressed in such discussions. We do, after all, know that persons with southern Canaanite connections were present in the southern Sinai--the route of the exodus, as described in the biblical account--during the Late Bronze Age. Yes, many of these persons seem to have been employed in mining operations, but their presence raises possibilities that a group of southern Canaanite slaves escaped from Egypt might well have had access to networks of support in the southern Sinai (indeed, the biblical text intimates that this group had such access throughout the Sinai and the Negev, perhaps not surprising given the transhumant heritage of the Canaanite peoples, the early Israelites included).
It is sometimes argued that the fact that the early Israelites were of Canaanite extraction furnishes evidence against the exodus. If they were Canaanites, the argument goes, they must have always lived in Canaan. This is highly dubious. As noted above, we know that ancient Canaanites existed outside of Canaan. We have abundant evidence of significant Canaanite populations in the eastern delta region of Egypt during the mid-second millennium, exactly where and when the biblical tradition locates the Israelites. And the interaction between the eastern delta region and Canaan raises a fascinating set of questions, because although we do not have Egyptian accounts of a figure named Moses or of something that looks particularly close to the exodus, we do have Egyptian accounts of peoples (whom they named the "Hyksos") who likely 1) came from Canaan; 2) dwelt in the eastern delta; 3) rose to great power in this region, so much so that they were responsible for bringing the Middle Kingdom to an end; 4) were defeated by Egyptian kings; and 5) left the region in significant numbers to return to Canaan. Compare this with the Joseph and exodus cycle, where we have a people who 1) came from Canaan; 2) dwelt in the eastern delta region; 3) rose to great influence in this region; 4) were enslaved by Egyptian kings; and 5) left the region in significant numbers to return to Canaan. Moreover, Pi-Ramesses, one of the cities in which the Israelites are said to have laboured, very likely sat at the site of Avaris, the Hyksos' capital. I am not suggesting that the Israelites should be identified with the Hyksos, certainly not in a hard sense (although I do not think it inconceivable to consider that the Israelites entered Egypt among the peoples known as the Hyksos, which appears to have been largely a covering term to describe a variety of groups and are often conceived in modern scholarship as having slowly infiltrated rather than invaded the delta). I am suggesting that the fact that both Egypt and Israel preserve memories regarding the rise and fall of southern Canaanite influence in the eastern delta, followed by a flight back to southern Canaan, seems to defy the likelihood of mere coincidence, and perhaps undercuts the argument that we have no extra-biblical evidence relevant to the exodus.
Thus far the relevant data. In my next post, I will consider more fully the grounds for negative judgment regarding the existence of Moses and occurrence of the exodus.