Note: This is the second in a series of three posts where I’ll be examining the doubts surrouding the historicity of the Exodus narrative.
In the first part of this series, I noted that the historical evidence for the events of Genesis happening is nonexistent. While this may not present a problem for many believers, it is something that everyone should be aware of — and, indeed, as I’ll look at today, many have been aware of it for a long time. But the doubts about the historicity of the Exodus account have never quite seemed to make a chip in mainstream thought about the Bible.
The historian Josephus, one of our best sources of the history of the ancient western world (excluding the Greeks and Romans), was himself very skeptical of the account in Exodus. He expressed surprise mostly at the parting of the Red Sea, even going so far as to say “each person may decide on his own concerning such matters.” (Jewish Antiquities, 2:348). Much of the general ancient Jewish incredulity, historian James Kugel has noted, was also due to the sheer logistics of the supposed trip: some six hundred thousand male slaves, plus wives, children, goats, flocks, herds, etc. were all wandering the desert for 40 years. It’s like the city of Omaha just wandering around western Nebraska. History, of course, records no such nomadic tribe that large; it was simply impossible to survive, because no natural environment could sustain that many people without agriculture.
So there you have it: some doubt at the beginning, both because of the Red Sea and because of the sheer logical issues inherent in the account. Importantly, I should note, these doubts/issues don’t go to the heart of the story — they don’t, at least, indicate that there was no grain of truth to the story — but they strongly indicate that some details were perhaps inaccurate, and that, even long ago, ancient Jews were not convinced that the story was historical.
Here’s the catch to those statements, though: there is a significant lack of evidence that the Israelites ever made the journey into Canaan as stated in Exodus. In other words, there’s reason to doubt that the account ever happened whatsoever. That, however, we will see in Part III.