Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Would the Egyptians Have Recorded the Exodus, Either in Positive or Negative Terms?

This comment appeared on Dr. Enns' blog, where he argued that the exodus should be seen as a theological story, rather than a literal history.

"Based on how these things are normally handled in the ancient world, one would expect Egyptian sources not to ignore the departure of about 2,000,000 slaves and the crippling of the Egyptian power base (as in the plagues). They would need to explain it, i.e., they would have to spin it, as, say, an indication that their gods were angry with them for some failure. That is a common way that ancient cultures “explained” military defeat. The worse the defeat, the better an explanation was needed."

Of course, the Book of Exodus is a theology book, but that doesn't it make it less of a history book (nor is history to be seen as something literally described absent of forming the presentation theologically).

However, I do think this comment oversimplifies something important. The ancients had three ways of handling embarrassing events or people. The first is that they acknowledged these embarrassments, and spun them off as their own gods punishing them for some sort of impropriety, as Dr. Enns notes above.

However, they also handled them in other ways. One of which was to spin it as a victory in some way. But most importantly, in Egypt specifically, when something was well known by the people at the time, an event could not be spun. Hence, the embarrassment was blotted out from history for future generations.

We see this in the attempt, and successful practice, of blotting out Pharaohs when they were major embarrassments. In fact, many Egyptologists believe that there are missing Pharaoh's from history and that our chronologies based upon those we know of is likely off.

We know for a fact that this erasing of history occurred with Pharaohs like Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Smenkhkare, and Aya when many later kings and priests attempted to erase the entire Amarna period from Egypt's history, seeing it as a total embarrassment and abomination. This includes a female Pharaoh. Names and faces were scratched off, and more likely, whole works were destroyed in an effort to get rid of the evidence of what went on during this entire period.

This is the way the Egyptians handled what could not be spun. They just denied that it happened. They either didn't record it at all, or, as in the case where a Pharaoh was in charge of his own embarrassments, they erased it/him/them after he died.

This has an interesting connection to the Exodus account. In that account, the Pharaoh states that he does not know who YHWH is, and that he has never heard of Him. The irony of the book is that by its end, everyone knows who YHWH is but no one knows who the Pharaoh is. His name is never mentioned in the book, and it may be that YHWH has not only blotted him out from the book's memory, but from history, through the Egyptian people, as well. This would make for a grand irony, and it seems like something God would in fact do.

In any case, regardless of what one believes about the event, he or she needs to know that there may be no historical record of the exodus in Egyptian literature; (1) Because it never happened, or (2) Because it happened and the Egyptians consistently erased such embarrassments from their history or did not record them in the first place.

Hence, I think Dr. Hoffmeier's work still has good points to it that cannot be discounted by the claim that we should have something in Egyptian literature, even if its only an explaining away. That simply would not be true for such an embarrassing event in its history. And if it happened during the Amarna period, then it definitely would not have been recorded or preserved.

For Dr. Hoffmeier's work in the area, see these two books:


  1. Oh Ok. So this is what I can expect to hear apologists to say about the lack of Egyptian corroboration with the Old Testament: They were too embarrassed to record it!

  2. No, it's what you can expect scholars and people who understand the ancient mindset to say. You can expect arguments that include ignorant statements like, "if this happened, the Egyptians would have recorded it in some way," from people who don't know what they're talking about (i.e., atheist and liberal apologists).

  3. Oh right, only conservative apologists are able to understand the ancient mindset properly, and of course their theological motivations and biases would never cause them to do anything dishonest. Gimme a break dude. Liberal apologists often became liberal after looking into the evidence backing the biblical narrative, and finding it simply isn't there.

    I read apologist arguments all the time to see what tricks they're willing to use to make the case for the bible, and it's just amazing how shallow many of them are. But, I will look further into this argument for myself to see if holds up.

  4. Once again, you fail to actually read what I said. The evidence indicates that nothing would have been recorded about it. That's clear from anything else that is considered embarrassing being erased or not recorded in the first place. That's the actual evidence we have. What evidence do you have that they would have recorded it, given this mindset? Oh right, I forgot, you don't. Your worldview is assumed and sets the probabilities, not the evidence. But you fail to get that.

    1. Look, I said I would look into this argument. Did I declare it was false? No, I didn't. You want to paint me as a person to decides what the facts are before they're even established. I'm not. I'm perfectly willing to look into this argument. But I've read enough apologist literature to know that they are perfectly willing to lie and distort the facts to support their theologically motivated agendas.

      There's still no evidence that a population of 1-2 million Jews wandered Sinai for 40 years, or took over Canaan. In fact, in ~1400 BC Canaan was controlled by the Egyptian Kingdom. So this fits into the narrative that the enslavement of the Jews was largely fictional, since it isn't corroborated anywhere else at all. It's you who must deny evidence to make your worldview work, not me.

  5. You'll look into it after decrying it as something that "apologists" would argue.

    That has become a pejorative term in liberal and atheist circles these days. It is supposed to delineate false scholarship from true scholarship. But if we use it that way, then what I am doing isn't apologetics.

    I actually read Egyptian literature in Egyptian. I study archaeology and its methods. I study historiography and its presuppositions. I study the science of interpretation and what it assumes. I read Mesopotamian literature in Sumerian and Akkadian. Do you? I read Canaanite literature in Ugaritic and in the various languages of the inscriptions. Do you? I read their literature to understand their mindsets. Think of Asian culture, one that is like WWII Japan or North Korea or ancient Chinese culture, and its emphasis on honor. It isn't concerned about presenting things as they are, but as they give honor to the nation and the leaders of that nation. Leaders are concerned about having the legitimate claim to the throne as either a superior class of man chosen by the gods, or as in the case of the Egyptians, that the man is a manifestation of the supreme deity himself. You're not going to acknowledge that some other people, with a foreign deity no one has ever heard of before, kicked his butt.

    Apologists, of either belief or unbelief, are people who take information from areas in which they have no specialization, and use it for their ideological purposes. This information is often taken out of context or misunderstood.

    Apologists are not people who use solid information and arguments in their contexts to support their positions. Otherwise, everyone is an apologist, because we all do that. Hence, your skepticism is unfounded. Deal with my arguments with an open mind, and leave out the ad hominems.

  6. No I am not a biblical scholar. So when I evaluate these things I listen to people who are biblical scholars debate it out, and then I assess the arguments for and against whatever it is they're debating and I make my decision from there. Often in the ancient world, when a group of people lost a battle or war, they would worship the other group's gods as they were seen as superior. That was probably not be the case in Egypt, but my disbelief in the enslavement and exodus of the Jews is not founded entirely on the fact that there are no Egyptian recordings of it, there is simply no historical or archaeological evidence for it anywhere outside the bible. And the story doesn't fit into the larger historical context of the kingdoms that existed at that time.

    Now I don't think the entire bible is myth, I'm sure there are bits and pieces of truth here and there, but many of its tales appear to be legendary or embellished truths.

  7. How would you evaluate what scholars say without being a scholar? Doesn't it just default to whatever accords with what you believe about something already?

    I know of very few people groups who just worshiped the gods of their conquerors. People usually incorporated the activities of foreign gods into the activities of their own, but what the Canaanites still worshiped Baal and not Marduk or Ashur. The Egyptians don't worship Zeus when Alexander takes over. Likewise, the ancient Israelites don't worship Ashur, Marduk, or Amun-Re when those groups take over. They just argue that it is due to some sin or weakness of their leaders or people that their gods turned against them and did not prevent other foreign gods from conquering them. But, in Egypt, the leaders must be seen as deity, and since it is those leaders in charge of the records, they aren't going to record it one way or the other, because they aren't going to admit sin, weakness, or defeat. Hence, they just don't record it at all unless it covers such a huge span of time that they have to.

    What you should see instead is some sort of animosity toward those foreigners, which you see all over Egyptian literature. It may be that this is solely an animosity gained from the Hyksos takeover, or it could be due to numerous unfavorable encounters with "Asiatics."


  8. I'm not saying that this means the exodus happened. I'm simply saying that arguing that it would be recorded in some way is incorrect. It is possible, but improbable that it would be, especially when we're talking about post-Amarna Egyptian historiography.

    The other factors mentioned need to take into consideration that we don't know as much about the Second Millennium as we would like. Chronology is extremely difficult to nail down during this period. There are likely Pharaoh's missing in our timeline.

    We also don't know the date the exodus was supposed to occur. The biblical numbers are problematic because they don't necessarily exist to date it (one is said by Jephthah whose time frame cannot be nailed down, and who is painted in the narrative as being wrong about numerous things, and one is said by Solomon who may be using the number symbolically).

    This isn't even to get into the fact that we don't have a settled chronology for when Solomon said what he did.

    Then one needs to consider what he is looking for in the Sinai desert. "Sinai" refers to a mountain range. We don't know where it is. Have excavations adequately searched? No. Do we know where they should search? Not really. And what would they find? Bones? Most of the Israelites, especially due to the promises of God, would have carried the bones of their dead loved ones into the land with them (as they did with the bones of Jacob and Joseph), rather than leave them buried there. What else would they find? Maybe dead animals bones, but that all turns to dust after awhile. They didn't mummify animals as the Egyptians do later on. They would have carried their metals in or reused them. Their wood would have been used for fire when no longer reusable. What exactly would be found? It's not like they're discarding coke cans and plastic wrappers. Nor do they have any permanent structures. Look at what we do find when there are permanent structures. They barely have anything left to them, and they're usually made of stone.

    This isn't to even mention that the tradition that the Israelites came out in the millions, or even hundreds of thousands, is from a particular reading of the Hebrew that may refer to the heads of groups rather than refer to thousands of people.

    That's not even to mention that the text is highly symbolic and utilizes tons of mythology to communicate the point that God has overcome evil, increased their numbers, and set them free from bondage.

    I'm just saying that there are a lot of factors that need to be considered. Maybe nothing is there because it didn't happen. Most scholars believe something happened because they tradition is made into something quite important and large throughout the Bible. But there are factors to consider as to whether we have traditionally read it right, whether what we're looking for stems from legitimate questions, or even whether it is possible to support a conclusion definitively one way or another. As you know, to me, it simply comes down to faith on either side, as most historical judgments often do.

  9. Hey Hodge look. I would agree that it is certainly plausible that the Egyptians might not have wanted to record a humiliating defeat. But that's just one part in a larger overall discussion and doesn't amount to anything like a knock down argument. And I'm not saying that you intended it to be that either. I'm just saying.

    When it comes to dating historical events, we usually use archaeology, which of course we don't have for the biblical stories. I'm just amazed when I hear conservatives boldly proclaiming that we have good evidence that the O.T.'s stories are historically reliable. And I kindly remind them, that it pretty much all comes down to the O.T., that's it. And then we usually start to argue. Now I'm not saying you do this, but I occasionally run into these types from time to time.

    When it comes to Sinai, it isn't that big of a place. It's about the size of New Jersey. And it's arid, open desert. There is a mountain range in the southern center of the peninsula which is supposedly where Moses received the 10 Commandments, but no one is sure of the exact location. I think a population of 1-2 million Jews wandering a relatively small area for 40 years would yield us some archaeological evidence of it.

    But look, if I were a Christian I wouldn't be too concerned over the historicity of every story the bible tells. It's only fundamentalists who feel the need for everything to have actually happened. I would look at the meaning of the stories and assess them in context with the overall doctrine. Millions of Jews and Christians see the O.T.'s stories as mostly symbolism. You might pejoratively accuse them of being "liberals" but many of them came to their position through an honest look at the lack of good supporting evidence for those stories and the superiority of alternative explanations.