Rethinking the Exodus

Last year I read and saved an article by Scott Alexander called Djoser Joseph Osiris where he explores the theory that the Pharaoh Djoser was the inspiration both for the Egyptian god Osiris and the Biblical figure of Joseph. I confess that’s a theory I’d not come across before and as Alexander himself says, it’s probably not a theory you should spend all that much time on.

The short summary is that the connection between Djoser and Osiris is probably meaningless, but there’s a very small chance there might be some tiny distant scrap of a connection to Joseph.

However along the way it proves interesting because of what it reveals about how academics and others view the Exodus. Which according to Randy Rosenthal in this article is, that it’s not history. It. Never. Happened.

For anyone familiar with the story of the Exodus, it’s rather disappointing to learn of the near consensus among scholars that there is no evidence of an Israelite presence in ancient Egypt. This means there was no 400 years of slavery, no Passover, and no exodus to the Promised Land. There wasn’t even a Moses. In other words, the foundational narrative of Judaism is bunk.

This is view is a problem for Jews & Christians. Joshua Berman explains,

…excising the exodus from Judaism undercuts Judaism itself. After all, the biblical rationale for Israel’s obligation to God is premised not on His identity as Creator, or on His supreme moral authority, but on the fact that the Israelite slaves in Egypt cried out to Him from their bondage and He saved them. This is the sole driving force behind the opening line of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

On this latter view, were there no exodus, nearly all of Judaism’s sacred texts over the centuries would have perpetuated a great lie.

The main reason for thinking it didn’t happen is a lack of evidence outside of the Bible. Now obviously there is an assumption at work here that the Bible itself is not reliable as a source of history which is a debate for another day. There may also be other assumptions at work that cloud the issue for example that a mass migration would have left archaeological evidence. In 2015 more than a million people arrived in Europe and around 500,000 of them came from one country Syria. The archaeological evidence for that event 40 years let alone 4,000 years from now will be precisely none.

All this to say that it’s quite a big deal when a respected scholar thinks he can demonstrate otherwise. Israel Knohl a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes he has found evidence showing that Moses and the exodus was real.

So, to nutshell, Knohl proposes that the Israelites (the Jacob-El tribe) came from Edom to Egypt during the great famine, which began at the end of Ramses II’s reign, around 1225 BCE. After Tausret’s death in 1188, they were led by Moses and his group of foreign mercenary armies, and tried to take over Egypt. Moses and his men lost, were expelled from Egypt, and retreated to Canaan. They left at the beginning of Setnakhte’s reign, in 1186 BCE. That’s a span of about 40 years, from Joseph to Moses.

Anyone familiar with the Biblical story of the Exodus will quickly spot one or two key differences here. So you should probably take a few minutes to read how Knohl came to his conclusion.

I don’t have the time here to delve into the arguments for and against the historicity of the exodus (you can read a brief summary here) and there are lots of tricky questions about the exodus that do need thinking about.

What is worth reflecting on is that it’s impossible to understand the Bible without understanding the Exodus. The theme of exodus which looks back as (at the very least) a cultural memory of an actual exodus appears all over the Bible. It is everywhere.

To help you get a hold of that Andrew Wilson & Alistair Roberts have written a book about that called Echoes of Exodus. Here are ten things you need to know about the Exodus. Read the whole thing but here’s the list.

  1. The deliverance from Egypt is not the first example of the exodus pattern in the Bible.
  2. The exodus is a pattern that can be broken down into many stages.
  3. It is an event in which God discloses his identity.
  4. The exodus is institutionalized and made foundational for the future self-understanding of the people of God.
  5. The exodus and the exodus pattern help us to understand the meaning of and connections between events.
  6. The exodus is a basis for prophetic expectation.
  7. The exodus provides us with a framework within which to understand the work of Christ.
  8. The exodus reveals the unity of Scripture and of the work of redemption to which it bears witness.
  9. Both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper draw upon an exodus pattern.
  10. The exodus gives us a sense of our place in God’s work of redemption.

That’s a lot of ways. As Alistair so helpfully says

We are to perceive the ways in which the story of Israel resonates with our own, to see ourselves as bound together in the greater drama of God’s redemption, and to act accordingly. We have been delivered from the dominion of the Pharaoh of this world, Satan. We are pilgrims in the wilderness of this present age, being led to the Promised Land of the new heavens and the new earth by the Spirit. We are being led by Christ, the prophet like Moses and the true Joshua. We face the temptation of returning to Egypt, and are tested in a great many ways, yet are called to follow our Master, who has overcome the ruler of this age.

So perhaps like me you should go and buy the book.

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