Note: This is the first in a series of three posts where I’ll be examining the doubts surrouding the historicity of the Exodus narrative.
Of all the figures in the Pentateuch, perhaps the most iconic/important/interesting is that of Moses. After all, tradition holds — wrongly — that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. But aside from that, it is Moses’ leadership that leads the Hebrews out from under the tyrannical Pharaoh and out of Egypt. It’s iconic, one of history’s all-time most interesting stories.
So why is there no evidence of it?
Egypt, one of history’s greatest empires (and one of the oldest), has long been a subject of fascination for generations — heck, even the Greeks revered the Egyptians for their civilization and wisdom. But the Egyptians’ system of writing — what we call hieroglyphics — was, for many, many years, indecipherable. That all changed with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone during Napolean’s reign, and the resulting mysteries of Egypt — slowly unfurling through archeology, translation, and discovery — shed much light on what the ancient civilization was like. They found out the names and dates of the reigns of Egypt’s kings, its religion and religious practices, its politics, how its social organizations functioned, daily life, wars, conquests, reports in Egypt about the rest of the world; and they uncovered tombs, cities, temples and palaces. The entire world of Egypt was opened up to them.
There was one significant blank spot, though.
You guessed it: there was no historical or archeological evidence of the Exodus. Nothing showed a mass uprising of Jewish slaves who eventually escaped with a charismatic leader.
So why nothing? As scholar James Kugel notes, “It may be that no evidence has been found because these events were not deemed particularly flattering from an Egyptian standpoint; still, this total silence is troubling for those who wish to see in the Bible a report of actual, historical events” (How to Read the Bible, p. 204). In other words, the whole thing could have been fairly embarrassing for the Pharaoh, and so it went unreported in the annals and other texts; sort of like how someone will leave out the embarrassing parts of his/her life in an autobiography (or, currently, in a Facebook status update). Logically, of course, there are a multitude of other reasons why there would be no hard evidence to support the Biblical account — the information may have just gotten lost, or disappeared somehow. But the simplest, and, I would argue, most rational explanation, is that the account as it exists in Exodus didn’t actually happen in any way resembling the Biblical narrative.
In the next post, I’ll examine how doubting the historical accuracy of the Exodus story isn’t just a late, post-enlightenment/rationalist/skeptic idea — but actually goes back thousands of years.