Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Min and Max of Digging

So, what type of archaeological evidence would a mass migration of escaping Jewish slaves leave behind to be discovered some three thousand plus years later?

For whatever reason, the year 2014 has turned out to be a year of Christian-themed cinema, with movies ranging from a creative re-interpretation of the Noah story to the dispensationalist Rapture event of the End Times, Left Behind. To end off the year, film director Ridley Scott promises a real blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings, with an all-star cast. Here is the theatre trailer:

The story is indeed a familiar one to students of the Bible. A Hebrew man grows up among the ancient Egyptian royalty, only to be called by God to lead his people out of slavery under the defiant eye of Pharaoh and across the Red Sea. But what will Ridley Scott’s epic deliver?

One of the main concerns of potential movie goers will be the historical accuracy of the film. A recent poll indicates that if the story is mostly consistent with the biblical account, over 70 percent of Americans surveyed will see the film, whereas if it is inaccurate, close to under 70 percent will forgo it. The problem is figuring out what is meant by “historical accuracy.” If you had a shovel over there in Egypt, what would you discover?

The Challenges of Digging Our Way Into the Biblical Past

Since the rise of modern archaeology a few hundred years ago, teams of researchers armed with shovels and trowels have dug all over the hot arid desert of the Sinai and throughout parts of Egypt, looking for evidence for a large band of people crossing out of Egypt and wandering the Sinai Peninsula for forty years, at a point in history several thousands of years ago. They have scoured the land looking for some type of empirical confirmation corroborating the story that begins in Exodus 1. The difficulty is that despite these many efforts over the years, there is yet no clear archaeological support for the biblical story of Moses and the Exodus.


I hope you were sitting down when you read that.

Some might find this news rather disheartening. Some might even be frustrated with such a bold statement. But hang in there folks! The full story is indeed more challenging and not completely a negative blow to biblical faith as some of the more strident critics might claim. So please read on….

The situation over the past several decades has led archaeologists to divide into two basic camps: the minimalists and the maximalists. In fairness, biblical archaeologists today, whether they be “believers” or “non-believers,” stand somewhere along a spectrum connecting the opposing camps. Furthermore, even the term “biblical archaeology” is unpalatable  for some, suggesting that the field should be called “Near Eastern” or “Syrio-Palestinian” archaeology. But for brief comparison purposes, the contrast between minimalist and maximalist biblical archaeology can a give those outside of the field a rough orientation to the issues at stake.

The minimalists are those who put most of their confidence in what can be dug out of the ground. As a result, they will minimize the contribution of the Bible as an historical record, and therefore many discount the story of Moses as being an example of pious fiction. In other words, it makes for a great story, and it looks awesome on the silver screen, but in historical space and time the Exodus as described in the first five books of the Bible never really happened.

On the opposing camp are the maximalists, who while acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge from archaeology, they nevertheless view the Bible as providing a basically reliable historical record. Aside from the Bible, we have no other written record that corroborates the narrative of Moses and the Exodus. The Bible that we have is pretty much “all that we’ve got” at the present time. But the Bible is an extremely significant ancient document, whether one is a “believer” or not. Therefore, the maximalists seek to maximize the contribution of Bible in building their archaeologically-based, historical narrative.

Skeptics have built upon the position of the minimalists to argue that much of what we find at least in the early Old Testament has been made up. In his 1939 controversial Moses and Monotheism, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud drew from the lack of archaeological evidence to infamously write that Moses was merely an invention of the Hebrew imagination hundreds of years after the Exodus events supposedly happened, being put in narrative form during or after the Babylonian Exile. Moses may have been based on an historical figure, but for Freud the story was modified greatly to provide a particular moral narrative.

Even the celebrated Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, in his book co-authored by Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, concludes his evaluation of early Hebrew history in the Bible as “not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination.” It appears that the confidence in the events of ancient Israel’s past like the Exodus has taken quite a beating.

When Archaeological Evidence is Difficult to Find, How Do Christians Respond?

In view of these challenges, some Christians have argued that the exact historical character of the Exodus in all of its particular details is not necessarily essential to the message of the Bible. Rather, it is the theological truths in the story of Moses that matters the most. So while biblical archaeology may produce interesting data, and while there surely could still be an historical basis to the biblical narratives, such research does not make a substantial difference to the fundamental teaching of these early parts of the Bible.

But as this posting from BibleArchaeology.org indicates, a site sponsored by the maximalist archaeologist Bryant Wood, the study of archaeology has a number of limits. The chief problem is that simply because we have an absence of evidence does not mean that it proves the evidence of absence. In other words, even though archaeology has not given us as much bountiful evidence as we would like, it does not mean that we should be too quick to dismiss the historicity of these early events as described in the Bible. The current state of biblical archaeology may frustratingly leave a lot of “stones unturned,” so to speak, but neither has it unalterably “disproven” the Bible by any means. There is still much archaeological work yet to be done!

Here is an approach from a more maximalist perspective that you might find helpful, from evangelical apologist Ted Wright. Note that Wright’s argument hinges upon the exact dating of the Exodus event:

Unfortunately, there are some in the maximalist camp who push what little evidence we have a bit too far in an attempt to support the Bible. Critics claim that such maximalists are reading too much into their trowels and shovels. In some cases, a few of these tales have evolved into becoming popular hoaxes floating around the Internet; such as the embarrassing Ron Wyatt tale about chariot wheels being found at the bottom of the Red Sea.

What then do we know for sure that corroborates the stories of the early period of the Bible? Well, throughout the whole of Old Testament history, the firmest archaeological evidence agreed upon by both minimalists and maximalists extends only back to about a few hundred years prior to the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E. Once you go back a little further, say to the time of King David near the 10 century B.C.E., the debate between the maximalists and minimalists begins to really heat up. However, attempts to go back even further another 400 years (or so) to the time of Moses and the Exodus may yield, at best, only a few hints here and there, and so the maximalists and minimalists find themselves very much opposed to one another (This interactive timeline from PBS gives you a feel for the challenges in doing biblical archaeology).

The Role of Presuppositions in Doing Biblical Archaeology

The big question, then, at the end of the day, has to do with how the archaeologist and the historian handles the Old Testament itself as an historical source. Frankly, much of this has to deal with the theological or philosophical presuppositions one has. If someone has an axe to grind against the Bible, or at best a complete aversion to the supernatural, the chances are very high that such a person will dismiss the Old Testament in any way as history. Conversely, if someone has some measure of confidence in the grand sweep of the Bible’s message, then that person will probably be more open to the possibility of the Old Testament’s general historical reliability. Someone who is not sure either way may go back and forth as they think through the various issues.

Unfortunately, a very popular idea today is that the Bible should be treated in some special category that requires us to be more skeptical of it, than say, other texts from antiquity.  But why should that be the case? Even if someone is not a “believer” in the Bible as God’s Word, this does not mean that the Bible needs to be dismissed for its historical value any more than you would for Hittite vassal treaties or Egyptian inscriptions in burial tombs. The challenge then in evaluating the evidence is in learning how to keep an open mind.

If one accepts the traditional view that Moses was indeed the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), or even if one allows for the possibility of later editors in the period of the Babylonian Exile, or shortly thereafter, who reworked the Moses tradition (a more acceptable position in view of contemporary scholarship that still honors the essential authority of Holy Scripture), we are still dealing with a substantial body of historical material derived from actual eyewitness reports (see this post from my blogging colleague, John Paine). Granted, the material in the book of Genesis fits in a bit differently since none of characters in the first book were contemporaries of the Exodus generation eyewitnesses. But everything else involving the life of Moses, the encounter with Pharaoh, and the escape of the people into the Wilderness can not be easily dismissed out of hand simply because the Bible is our only source.

Feeling a Bit Over-Crowded?

Nevertheless, there are difficulties to face. The main part of these difficulties, even for those who accept the general historical framework of the Exodus narrative and the God-inspired authority of the Holy Scriptures, involves the interpretation of some of the details of the Bible. For example, I have always been scratching my head over the incredibly large numbers of Hebrews involved in the escape from Egypt across the Red Sea. If you take the census of Israelite fighting men in Numbers 1 and Numbers 26 simply at face value, you end up with about 600,000 men. A conservative estimate of additional women and children puts the total figure according to traditional interpretations of the number of Hebrews crossing the dry land at the parting of the Red Sea at about 2 million. The number could have been up to 4 million.

I can not help but to think of the logistical challenges of moving some 2 to perhaps 4 million people en masse across the Red Sea and into the Sinai desert for forty years. Was Moses able to use some type of Egyptian sound amplification system to project his voice across the masses of people when he spoke? It has been recently demonstrated that the 18th century evangelist, George Whitefield, was able to preach to crowds measuring in the tens of thousands without a public address system. But could Moses have spoken to 2 million and be adequately heard?

Sure, the Bible tells us that they had water and manna (was it gluten free??), but I am also thinking about sanitation here. I mean, did Moses have a fleet of porta-potties, or what? Does the Bible really require that the Exodus involve such a phenomenally large number of people?

In his marvelous Tyndale commentary on the Book of Numbers, Gordon J. Wenham proposes that evidence within the Bible itself suggests that the 600,000+ fighting men in the census does not necessarily correspond with the actual numbers of people who crossed the Red Sea with Moses. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:1-7, the text tells us that the total Hebrew population was actually smaller than that of any of the surrounding nations, which were probably within the thousands and not the millions. The current size of the modern day state of Israel is about 8 million, but much of today’s Israel is heavily urbanized.  However, during the Exodus period, the land was mostly agricultural, so it is difficult to conceive how the seven nations that Israel is being compared with could have occupied such a confined space given these large numbers (2 million x 7 = 14 million at a minimum, in an area the size of the state of New Jersey? … it gets even more fantastic if you double that to 28 million!!). How does one reconcile this difficulty?

Wenham discusses a number of different possible solutions, such as (a) the possibility that the census figures in Numbers 1 and 26 were actually from a later time in Jewish history, or (b) a textual problem over the centuries resulting in an incorrect inflation of each census, or (c) the idea that the numbers were intentionally meant to be symbolic and not literal, principally that the Hebrew word eleph, which though generally translated into English as “thousand,” could be interpreted as being a military “unit”of a not necessarily definitive size (see this discussion by Bryant Wood). While Wenham admits that each solution still has its problems, if any one of these solutions is correct, it would put the Hebrew population at the time of the Exodus in the tens of thousands and not the millions. This is more consistent with the available archaeological data, thus actually helping to confirm the historicity of the Exodus narrative. That is still a lot of people, but it probably involves a more reasonable number of those Egyptian-exported porta-potties (see this essay for more discussion on this topic). Furthermore, a band of tens of thousands of escaping slaves would more likely leave less archaeological evidence behind than would several million.

Granted, there are some students of Holy Scripture who find no difficulty in imagining 2 to 3 million people marching around in the desert together, while others insist that the 2 to 3 million count be defended without flinching. You just have to examine the evidence yourself and come to your own conclusion.

I bring up this example because it is important to consider that the study of the Old Testament and its relation to history is an ongoing process. Attempts to ridicule the historical reliability of the Old Testament can be effectively countered by considering other thoughtful approaches to biblical interpretation that may resolve some difficulties. One can still hold to a high view of biblical authority without demanding adherence to one and only one interpretative theory.

Furthermore, the discipline of archaeology is far from being an exact science. Questions of interpretation of the data in the ground preoccupy those with their shovels and trowels with vigorous debate. When it comes to such ancient history, the final verdict is not yet ready to be given. In the end, an examination of “historical accuracy,” whether it be of a movie portraying a biblical theme, an examination of the archaeological data, or even the Scriptures themselves requires a bit of humility.

I do not know how Ridley Scott will portray the numbers of Hebrew slaves scampering across the parting of the Red Sea. Maybe he will get it right, and maybe not. What I do know is that hopefully the movie will inspire people to actually read the original God-inspired story within the Bible for themselves, keeping an open mind. The story of the Exodus ultimately teaches us that God not only sought to rescue the Hebrews from slavery, but that God also seeks to rescue from their sin today all of those who believe and put their trust in Jesus. In many ways, the story of Jesus is the story of the “new” Moses who comes to set the people free from their own lusts, wants, and desires that imprison them. Just as the Hebrews passed through the parting of the Red Sea, so is the believer baptized through the death of Jesus and then brought to new life in Him. Have you experienced that in your life?

Additional Resources:

A point of clarification is necessary: The idea that the farther you go back in time the less confidence there is in the Old Testament historical narrative among critical scholars is not entirely true. There are some who would argue that the current state of biblical archaeology has a more favorable view of the historical Exodus relatively compared to the historicity of  Joshua’s military conquest of Canaan…. see particularly the exchange in comments between Ted Wright and Peter Enns.

G. W. Wenham’s classic 1967 study of the “large numbers” problem in the Old Testament in general (PDF download) is also a helpful reference.

As mentioned above, one of biggest issues among evangelical archaeologists, who accept the biblical narrative of the Exodus as being rooted in an historical event, is the exact dating of the event. The controversy among these scholars revolves around the interpretation of 1 Kings 6:1.  Is the dating of the Exodus in this text meant to be literal or symbolic? Ted Wright, in the One Minute Apologist video above, follows the view of biblical archaeologist Bryant Wood, a speaker at the recent 2014 National Conference in Christian Apologetics in Charlotte, North Carolina. Wood adheres to a 1446 B.C.E. date for the Exodus (a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1).

James K. Hoffmeier, an Egyptologist teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, leans towards a different date for the Exodus at about 1250 B.C.E. (a more symbolic reading of 1 Kings 6:1; see this PDF for a detailed explanation). Below is a lecture given by Hoffmeier at Lubbock Christian University, following an interesting introduction, where Hoffmeier gives his point of view on the relationship between the biblical story of Exodus and archaeology.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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