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Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel in Egypt – Historical Fact or Later Fiction? Part 1

Israel in Egypt – Historical Fact or Later Fiction?
Part 1

After listening to the recent episode of the Imaginary Friends Show podcast that I was a guess on, I have received many comments from my friends here on facebook. Many of them have been very encouraging and appreciative of my comments on the show. Others have been challenging in their comments – both from Christians and Atheists. But one of the most common questions that people have been asking me is concerning the section on this history of Israel. I was surprised by many of the comments usually for one of two reasons. They either seemed blissfully unaware that any real problems existed in the dating of the composition of the Exodus narrative (let alone in the historicity of a proto-Israel outside of the Levant), or they thought it was such an open and shut case that the narratives were composed in the late First Millennium and that the Biblical accounts were total fabrications. Both extremes seem totally out of touch with the research on the issue.

In response to these questions/comments, I will be spending several sections dedicated to explaining why I believe in the historicity of the Egypt/Exodus narrative and hold to the traditional early dating of their compositions. This does not mean that I do not recognize that there are difficulties in adopting such a position. I simply think the weight of the evidence is in that direction.

Before I begin I want to also deal with one objection that I know will be raised against my overall method and then state one presupposition that I will be working off of. The objection is that because I believe the Bible already that I am simply arguing in a circle in order to affirm the Bible. I think that any commonsense reading of what I am about to present will refute that claim on its own, but I would also like to specifically state that I am giving arguments here for exactly WHY I believe the Biblical accounts. We Christians are commonly asked for “evidence” for why we believe what we believe. It is to that end that I wish to attempt to achieve in these next few notes. I will not be arguing that the Bible is true because it is inspired or anything of that nature – but rather that the accounts are historically reliable, composed at the traditional early dates and accord with everything we know about the Ancient Near East (ANE) during that time frame. I think this objection is more ideologically driven against anyone who attempts to defend the Bible in any manner and is not substantive in the slightest.

The presupposition that I will be working with is one that I think any historian or any student of history will have no problem conceding. That presupposition is merely that ancient writers are not modern writers. It seems somewhat redundant and unnecessary to make this point explicitly but let me hash it out a little bit. By this assumption I mean to imply several things. Firstly, the ancient writer should be understood to write within the confines of normal literary structures that were contemporaneous with their culture and should not be forced to keep a standard of modern historiography our journalistic exactitude (if we can even say that is accomplished today). This means that the ancient author should be read according to his original authorial intent within the structures of literature at the time – including factors such as genre, context (historical, cultural, political, etc), themes, polemics, rhetoric, etc. Secondly, is that ancient writers did not spend 4 years for an undergraduate degree, several years for a Masters, even countless more for a PhD or post doctorate work, all focused on the historical insights of centuries of historical study, archeology, epigraphy, onomasiology, etc. They would have been almost completely unaware of the cultural practices, linguistical structures, etymologies, rhetorical devices, etc. from generations past of their own culture, let alone centuries removed from another culture. This will come into play most dramatically when we realize that a late First Millennium Hebrew scribe would have known next to nothing about the finer nuances of Second Intermediate or Empire Age Egyptian culture, politics, rhetoric, polemical devices, culture, etc.

Let me also list my sources for the next few notes that I will be composing on this subject. I will primarily be relying on the following texts (though this list is not even close to being exhaustive)

ed. Block, Darrell. Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention (collection of essays)
Currid, John. Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament.   
Hoffmeier, James. Israel in Egypt.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. On The Reliability of the Old Testament.
ed. Long, Baker, and Wenham. Windows into Old Testament History.

None of these books are really “page turners” and are sometimes quite technical and dry – which may explain the endurance of the leftist extreme who rejects all arguments for the traditional dating as passé. Though this may also be due to the limited range of “evidence” allowed to be part of the discussion. Many of you who listened to the episode will undoubtedly remember Jake’s comments about the total lack of “shits” found in the Sinai desert. While the discussion was not nearly deep enough to evaluate Jake’s range of acceptable evidences, what I commonly find is that many skeptics will preclude many arguments that do not rely solely on empirically verifiable “evidences”. However, any trained in historical study knows that while these kinds of evidences are great, they are rarer than we think. Yet historical study moves on just fine due to the many other kinds of evidences are arguments available to us.

And now let us look at some of these evidences. Many of them will be of the kind that I call “dovetail” evidence. That is, that the cumulative evidence is better explained by one context than others. For much of this we will see that an earlier Second Intermediate Period or Empire Period Egyptian context fits the composition of the Egypt/Exodus narrative rather than a later post-exilic one.

1.      Source criticism is being strongly reexamined and often abandoned in favor or more literary approaches to the text.
a.       When someone now tries to tout source criticism as if it is gospel truth and not what it really is these days (a theory in crisis) they reveal a reliance of quite outdated research and information. We can find good examples of this in the works of such scholars as Charles Isbell, Gordon Davies, G. Fischer, Thomas Thompson, etc.
                                                              i.      In fact speaking of source theory, Thompson says that it is “no longer sufficient to maintain such a radical interpretation of narrative, one which carries us so far from any immediate reading of the text.” (Thompson, Origin Tradition. p155)
b.      We have come to find that key words, themes, and whole narrative “units” OFTEN cross the boundaries set down by traditional source critics.

2.      There was a massive influx of Semites into Egypt during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2190BCE) to the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1786-1550 BCE).
a.       Epigraphic and archeological evidence all point to the fact this massive immigration to Egypt from the Levant was to seek relief from drought and famine in Canaan. (we will also see later that there was also some who were brought during this period as military captives).
b.      If a later date is assumed (commonly suggested to be post-exile during the mid to late First Millennium) there seems to be no corresponding period in which the narrative would dovetail with these historical conditions. After the expulsion of the Hyksos at the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty, there seems to be a drastic decline in Semetic presence with no other possible periods of massive migration to Egypt that would correspond to the Biblical events. These massive levels of Semitic presence in Egypt and the  common pattern of migration to escape drought and famine correspond nicely with the “Patriarchical period” of Israel’s history.

3.       Onomasiology (the study of names) reveals that the names used in the Joseph/Moses/Exodus cycles are clearly Egyptian in etymology (though their exact etymological roots are not always agreed upon) and some are only present in their forms during the Second Intermediate and Empire Periods.
a.       Examples are: 
                                                              i.      Potiphar
                                                            ii.      Asenath
                                                          iii.      Zaphenath-paneah
                                                          iv.      Hartummim (the “magicians”)

4.      Joseph’s title as ruler over Egypt had no known comparative during Israel’s monarchy – but was present during the Second Intermediate and Empire Periods in Egypt.

5.      The use of the city names “Rameses” and “Raameses” almost a Millennia after the delta capital was abandoned in 1100 BCE would make little to no sense.

6.      Joseph was bought as a slave for 20 shekels.
a.       The average slave price during the first half of the second millennium was 20 shekels. During the second half of the second millennium, due to inflation, the average price was 30 shekels. By the middle of the first millennium (when many critics want to place the composition of exodus) the average price was between 50 to 60 shekels. Should we expect that the author redacted his own narrative to account for inflation just to try and fool historians that he did not know would ever exist nearly 3000 years later?

These are just an introductory handful of examples. I will be going through my notes that I have made in the past in the sources I listed above and will be compiling a more comprehensive list as I go. But I hope this will be a good start for those who were interested in this topic. There is much more to come.

For Part 2:


  1. ‎"There was a massive influx of Semites into Egypt during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2190BCE) to the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1786-1550 BCE)"

    This influx also occurred during the time of the invasion of the Sea Peoples c. 1200 BCE. I don't understand why you limit the time period of the semitic influx to these years alone, as though the migration utterly ceased in later centuries--as though something so precise could be realistically or honestly gleaned from the available data--even though Egypt was overrun by outsiders during and down to a time period later than the reign of Merenptah, whose mention of proto-Israel is the subject of this original thread.

    "After the expulsion of the Hyksos at the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty, there seems to be a drastic decline in Semetic presence with no other possible periods of massive migration to Egypt that would correspond to the Biblical events."

    How is the Invasion of the Sea Peoples excluded outright as a possibility when we know that it precisely fits the bill for what we are looking for, namely, a period of massive migration, chaos, potential famine, military excursions and battles, etc. I'm not suggesting that Israel was specifically a member of what scholars or contemporaries in the ancient world classed as a member of the Sea Peoples--merely that such a time period of massive migration provides the historical setting that would have been necessary for members of Palestine to continue to enter into Egypt. This contrasts with your statement that it is impossible that tribes that had taken up residence in the Levant crossed into Egypt during this later time period and I disagree.

    In general, I don't find your statements here too objectionable. It is merely that you are phrasing your conclusions with a degree of certainty that I believe the paucity of available data does not warrant. You are pretending to know that it is impossible that peoples of semitic origin continued to migrate into Egypt after the middle of the 16th century BCE? Give me a break.

    ‎"Onomasiology (the study of names) reveals that the names used in the Joseph/Moses/Exodus cycles are clearly Egyptian in etymology (though their exact etymological roots are not always agreed upon) and some are only present in their forms during the Second Intermediate and Empire Periods."

    Just again as a reader of your blog giving you feedback on the substance and form of your article, I do not find it helpful at all to be given the names of these eras rather than specific dates. I think you should stick exclusively to dates and avoid giving the time periods, unless you specifically lay out all the dates with your time periods in a table at the beginning, which you have not done as far as I can see. It is annoying and obfuscating. It would be much more helpful also specifically regarding this passage if you gave the specific forms that were only present in the SIE and not simply say "some" so that a reader interested in further elaboration can do his own research in a more thorough manner. You do give four examples, but it is not clear to me if you are listing these as examples of names of specifically Egyptian etymology or as four examples of names that are only present in the forms that they had in the SIE. It's not clear; your treatment of the topic is too cursory to draw any conclusions. You note that the exact etymological origins are not always agreed upon. Even in this brief treatment you give it, I am glad you put in a disclaimer regarding the lack of reliability of this tenuous method for constructing chronologies of ancient history.

  2. ‎"Joseph’s title as ruler over Egypt had no known comparative during Israel’s monarchy – but was present during the Second Intermediate and Empire Periods in Egypt."

    I fail to see how this renders an earlier date more probable precisely because, in fleshing out a picture of our authors of the Exodus tale, we are dealing with the members of a presumably well-traveled and knowledgable priestly class that would be well acquainted with the titles of high status members of their neighboring empires--indeed, their lives depended upon paying deference to the men who held such titles so any members of the upper caste of any of the tribes that inhabited Palestine back then should have been hyper-sensitively aware of the history and breath of such titles. Why could a priestly class familiar with a neighboring Egyptian state and its government not have included such a title into their stories, even supposing a later date of composition? Israel was not living in an isolated bubble. You provide no rationale why an author writing in the middle of the first millennium BCE and composing the story of Joseph must necessarily have only sought to model his title after that of the Israeli monarch, especially considering the fact that it is the projection of a *foreign* event we are talking about and we would presume that any set of authors would inform themselves about the people they are writing about prior to writing, and this includes a title that existed down to the time that the documentary hypothesis concludes such texts were actually written.

    A successful forger, in the sense of someone writing a tale that did not occur, would not look to an exclusively *domestic* title when he was dealing with an explicitly *foreign* one in his fabrication, yet that is what you presume to be the case in this brief passage.

    Overall, this is really weak reasoning--the weakest of your blogpost. Besides, we are investigating the date of the composition of these tales, not when these events occurred themselves. On supposing that we are dealing with a real event--and since it deals merely with a mundane event like a title and not something that involves unprovable, supernatural assertions, there is no reason to be excessively skeptical--I don't see how what you have said here renders it more plausible or probable that a second millennium BCE composition is any more likely than one in the first.

    ‎"The use of the city names “Rameses” and “Raameses” almost a Millennia after the delta capital was abandoned in 1100 BCE would make little to no sense."

    "A" is an indefinite article used of a singular noun, while "millennia" is a plural noun--they don't make any sense together. You should change your blog post to say "a millennium." Second, we just agreed--laughingly--with each other that any date of composition around the first century BCE is way too late, yet that is precisely what you are attributing to the "liberal" scholars here. You are pretending that they are saying it was a millennium after 1100 BCE, or about 100 BCE that such events were composed yet this is a straw man, since it is not even what they are proposing.

  3. "Should we expect that the author redacted his own narrative to account for inflation just to try and fool historians that he did not know would ever exist nearly 3000 years later?"

    Tyler, inflation would have increased the prices of everything within the lifetime of any single Israelite of the ancient world. There were laws in the Tanakh specifically regarding debt jubilees and the releasing of slaves who had fallen into debt servitude. There are laws about money to be paid for all manner of events and all manner of punishments. Money and inflation is something any ancient reader would be aware of, and painfully so since it increased their burdens in community life with the passage of time (that's why there are riots all over the modern world as well--it's what inflation is and does on an essential level in any time period of history, so it would have been widely known in the ancient world as well). So, given what we must logically suppose was a widespread ancient knowledge of money and inflation in Israeli society, I see no reason to suppose that such ancient authors were merely composing for critics in the year 2011.

    So, the ancient Israelites, the progenitors of the modern Jews, a people reputed to be hyper-sensitive about money and the handling of it, would neglect to take inflation into account in a story they were writing about in the past when they no doubt knew prices would have been cheaper, since inflation would have increased steadily throughout all of their lifetimes and they would be aware of it on an intimate basis, yet they would just carelessly compose a tale concerning events about what was for them hundreds of years in the past using the prices that had grown to that level only in their later lifetimes? You asked a question and didn't answer it, and so did I.

    Overall, your blogpost is extremely skeletal--to its great detriment--and might I suggest an improvement? You could lay out in extreme detail the two scenarios given by the two camps--the late date of composition with the earlier one. I think it would be extremely helpful to any reader and a great step forward in clarity and the quality of your blog if you did this. If you fleshed out even the late-date composition scenario and offered to quote the authors in their own words, then it would show you were taking it into account their arguments not just from a straw man standpoint and any reader even were he to disagree with you would at least get the advantage of seeing both sides.

  4. Simon,

    As you I’m sure you know by now, I normally like to work sequentially through comments when I respond. While I will try and do that here, there is something that you said at the very end of your comments that I am “concerned with establishing the truth or falsity of the biblical account” and that you are “primarily concerned with whether the composition was early or late”. This is why I wanted to address this at the beginning. I think you have that exactly reversed. If we notice in your very first comment you say

    “if one is merely looking at the texts alone. The point is that they are pointing to historical events and places and the texts must be cross referenced with a vast amount of chronological data generated from astronomy, archaeology, pottery sequences, thermoluminescence techniques, dendrochronology, radiocarbon dating, fission track dating, chemical methods of dating bone, in addition to any kind of inscription-based or textual information as you are proposing.”

    It is clear from that statement that you are actually concerned not with when the TEXT was composed, but with whether the Biblical account contained in the text is historically true or not where as my entire article is simply attempting to show that an earlier date of composition is a much better fit for the text as we find it. And I stated this explicitly in the first article where I said,

    “I will not be arguing that the Bible is true because it is inspired or anything of that nature – but rather that the accounts are historically reliable, composed at the traditional early dates and accord with everything we know about the Ancient Near East (ANE) during that time frame.”

    Again while I believe the Biblical narrative is wholly accurate, that is not what I am arguing for in the article. Wholly accurate is much different than just saying that it is historically reliable and that the text adheres better with an earlier date. So it is entirely possible to think that the Exodus narrative for example was composed early, and that Israel did exist as a slave class in Israel but that the miracle claims or theological interpolations could be utterly false.

    This is all to say that I am actually ONLY trying to address the composition date of the text and what affect that has on when/where we place the existence of the Hebrews so any argument that you place in your comments against the TRUTH of say miracles in the narratives is entirely outside the scope of my articles.

    With all that said, I can now move on to your comments proper. As I have hinted at, but now can say explicitly, pottery sequences, astronomy, archeology are actually SECONDARY when we are dating the composition of a text and really only come into play when we have direct reference to them. For example, if we find the mention of a city that we know is not built until say 500 BCE mentioned we know that the text cannot have been written prior to 500 BCE (or at least the last redaction could have not been previous to that date). However, we cannot operate, when dating ancient documents, that the lack of evidence is an evidence of lack. This has been falsified over and over again. For centuries people rejected the Hittites because we had a lack of evidence for them. Then lo and behold, we now have a ton of evidence for them. We have the same kind of thing happening with the gospel of Luke-Acts. Not to mention that none of those methods are as compelling as the ones that I have mentioned as prime TEXTUAL considerations for dating a text. I have heard these called the “furniture” of the text. That is, they are socio-rhetorical byproducts of the author that are indicators of when they wrote.

  5. As I stated in the article, but you seem to miss, is that the concept of historiography or historical fiction was just literally non-existent as a literary genre. They did not have any conception of historical analysis, onomosology, socio-rhetorical analysis, etc. To think that a post-exilic scribe writing in 500 BC or so would have constructed a document intending to be read as a product of 1400-1200 BCE in a different culture, with completely different class structure, economy, lexicography, names, root words, social structures, political structures, etc. is just total nonsense. A Hebrew scribe of the 5th century would have absolutely ZERO understanding of any of these facets of 1400-1200 BCE Egyptian culture. Most of your comments rely on that very absurd assumption.

    I also am surprised that you baulk so much at standard divisions of eras… It would be like asking me to be more specific when referencing the modern or medieval eras. They are well established historical time frames. But if you need me to be MORE explicit, then the Second Intermediate Era is commonly defined as the period ranging from 1674-1549 BCE and the New Kingdom Era ranges from 1549-1069 BCE.

    As for the influx of Semites into Egypt. Those two eras are the most prominent periods of migration into the Egpyt delta region. As you yourself admit, it is unlikely that the Hebrews were part of the Sea People, and it is also not likely that the Sea People were even Semitic at all. So I was not referring to immigration in general, but to Semitic immigration in particular. I don’t know how pointing to the Sea People really even helps the discussion at all.

    I can appreciate your statement about the statement of these as certainties. I don’t mean to present any single item as a certainty. In fact I think you are uncharitably reading my article at this point. I am not trying to draw definitive proof. I am simply arguing that this is a cumulative case that when we look at all of this evidence, an earlier date of composition is the best and most natural fit and to try and read this as a later scribal invention after the exile actually takes some massive imagination and ignoring of basic historical methods we use to date all other ancient texts.

    You then don’t actually deal with the evidence that the names in the accounts are almost entirely exclusive to the Intermediate and Empire (also called the New Kingdom Era) Eras. Rather you just moan that I don’t continually state the dates. I listed them above. If I were writing an article on the medieval era and I defined that time frame once, would you continually complain that I kept using the title instead of listing out the dates every single time? Not to mention that if someone is really concerned about it they can just google it. It’s pretty common faire in Egyptology…

    But besides that, nothing was actually said about the names that you are used. The only thing that approaches as substantive remark is just the appreciation that I stated that the exact etymologies are not always agreed upon. But here I think you are still missing the boat. We can know that something is only found in a certain form during a certain time frame and still not be completely sure of the original origin of the word. Even if we don’t know the precise and final etymology of the root of Potiphar for example, it does not mean that we do not know that certain FORM was used exclusively during a certain period. And that is the point of the argument. We know that the forms of many of the titles and names in the Joseph, Moses, and Exodus cycles were only used during the Second Intermediate and Empire/New Kingdom Eras. They were simply not in use by the time we arrive at the middle of the 1st millennium.

  6. As for the Joseph title. Again, you are assuming something like the modern historical method and knowledge of the fineries of lexicography and onomosology would have been present in the post-exilic Israel. This is just nonsense. In fact none of this really started existing or being fine tuned until the past several decades. To think that the ancient world had these tools is just an anachronism of the worst kind. But beyond that, you also assume that the priestly class (besides the fact that by the liberal conception it is hard to even imagine HOW there would have been a priestly class steeped in tradition and vested with the authority AS Israelites would have even come about without the long history described in the Biblical accounts) would be “presumably well-traveled and knowledgable” and “that would be well acquainted with the titles of high status members of their neighboring empires.” Well you forget that according to the liberal dating, this priestly class would have only existed for possibly a VERY brief time prior to the exile and at this time would have been likely almost entirely engrossed with their main concerns (Babylon and Assyria) and would have had little to now knowledge of the fineries of the Egyptian sociological, grammatical, economic structures from 700-1000+ years previous.

    In fact, what makes your statement so interesting is that for so long this was precisely the argument used to say that it was precisely the MESOPOTAMIAN culture that was the backdrop of the Joseph and Exodus narratives. This was the liberal reading of the text for decades. It is actually only recently with the development of the textual methods listed above (loosely all encompassed by the term “socio-rhetorical method”) and the work of people like Kenneth Kitchen, James Hoffmeier, John Currid, and others that Egypt is increasingly being seen as a better historically contextual backdrop for the composition of these narratives.

    As for the inflation argument, I just find your reasoning entirely nonsensical. I’m sorry, but we have no evidence that ancient people were aware of inflationary rates from foreign cultures 700-1000+ years previous. To say that just to make the story “authentic” (which again we know that such a literary genre was non-existent in the ANE) the author accounted for the inflation of the slave price differential from the 1400ish Egyptian economy to the 500ish post exilic but still captive Judeo-Assyrian economy just strains at any rational credulity.

    I’m also not going to touch your potentially quite racist and anti-Semitic jab about money…

    I am also quite surprised by the lack of interaction. I posted this numerous times in the facebook threads and elsewhere, and almost all of the atheistic/skeptic community remarks were of the fashion, “you’re just a Christian and therefore are totally delusional and so I don’t believe any of this.” None of it interacted with any of the evidence or arguments. It was rather shocking.

  7. Thank you Tyler. Further helpful material.