(The Preface of my novel mentioned that the Exodus is now in serious doubt. Here is a fuller presentation of the arguments.)
Nothing is known about the historical Moses, and even his existence is now seriously doubted. The stories about him found in Philo, Jospehus and the Midrash and Talmud have long been recognized as secondary and unhistorical, and our sole “primary” source for the leader of the Exodus is the Old Testament, which is itself derivative. The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch or Torah, are manifestly not historical documents, but rather the final version of a tradition that constantly revised stories handed down through perhaps thirty generations. Like Homer’s Iliad, most of the Old Testament is oral history that was subsequently written down, though unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, whose texts were thus frozen, the books of the Bible continued to be revised and edited.
Biblical scholars have discerned four major “authors” or strands interwoven in the text of the Pentateuch: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist; and these sources were themselves assembled and edited into the finished product by a group of compilers, collectively known as the Redactor. The oldest of these sources, the Yahwist, is dated to the tenth century BC, already two to three centuries after the putative date of the Exodus, and the editing of the texts continued into the sixth and fifth centuries BC and later; even as late as the time of Jesus there still existed no accepted canon for the Hebrew texts that made up the Biblical tradition. And to this day the tiny Jewish community of Samaritans, the survivors of the northern Jewish state of Israel, possesses a Torah different from that of mainstream Judaism, the product of the southern state of Judah.
The books of the Pentateuch, once ascribed to Moses himself, almost certainly contain no real history. They comprise instead collections of folk tales, wisdom and cultural information gradually assembled over the centuries into the often incoherent and inconsistent narrative that has come to be accepted as the early history of Israel. Oral tradition is notoriously unreliable as a mechanism for preserving an historical narrative, since whatever the accuracy of the original account that account will inevitably be modified with each subsequent telling, as old material is forgotten or reshaped by the bard’s own environment. As such, the facts and history were very malleable. All the major figures of the Patriarchal period, such as Abraham, were most probably local heroes or cult figures, whose stories were modified and woven into the developing tapestry of a Hebrew national history as those localities came under the control of the west Semitic tribes that had accepted Yahweh. A few, like Joseph, might be vague reflections of actual historical characters, but none of the exploits attributed to these figures can be accepted as historical fact. Further, these stories were constantly revised by later editors, who reworked them according to the ideas, institutions and events contemporary to their own environments. The figure of Moses’ brother, Aaron, for example, was added to the Exodus story much later by the Priestly source to emphasize the dignity and importance of the priesthood, which was frequently at odds with the prophets, who traced their line back to Moses.
A prominent problem with oral history is that the fish will always get bigger with each retelling. Exodus and Numbers, for example, record that there were 600,000 men following Moses; that would make the Hebrew force more than half the estimated population of New Kingdom Egypt. But the exaggerations and physical impossibilities recorded in the Biblical narrative are, ironically, not that serious a problem. The supernatural will naturally and obviously permeate an account of an ancient people redefining their relationship with their deity, and the Bible is after all considered by believers to be divinely inspired. This has led many to examine the miracles, such as the plagues sent by Yahweh, in terms of natural phenomenon that have been exaggerated and distorted by oral transmission. This approach has worked well in many instances – the Nile did occasionally turn red and did produce plagues of frogs – and not so well in others – the death of the Egyptian first born can hardly be explained in rational terms. But this can all be discarded by the non-believer, who need not buy into the alleged miracles.
Obvious mythic stories may also be identified without undermining the basic fact of the flight from Egypt. For example, the tale of the important infant being set adrift in a basket on a river and then rescued to fulfill his destiny was a common one in antiquity: Romulus and Remus were floated on the Tiber and Sargon of Akkad on the Euphrates. The same may be said of passages that conflict with the nature of Egyptian society. The Pharaoh, as an example, was a god incarnate, and even the more humanized god king of the New Kingdom was not about to give audiences to the unimportant, especially not despised Bedouins. The foreigners erecting Pharaoh’s buildings is the Delta were for the most part not chattel slaves but conscript labor, and there is little reason to believe that the Egyptians, who built border forts in the east to keep not just invading armies but also Canaanite migrants out of the Delta, would dispatch an army after a clutch of them leaving Egypt. And it is even harder to understand – without divine intervention – how they were able to escape Pharaoh’s professional troops.
None of these contradictions and exaggerations, typical of oral tradition, need injure the historicity of some sort of Exodus, any more than the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid negate the fact that Troy actually was sacked by Greeks. That there is an Exodus story in fact suggests a real event, since such epic tales were rarely, if ever, made from whole cloth, and partly for this reason Biblical scholars who have otherwise dismissed the Torah as ahistorical accept the Exodus, despite a complete lack of non-Biblical evidence. (There is the victory stele of Merneptah, erected in 1207 BC, which in a list of enemies smashed in Canaan names “Israel,” using glyphs that generally indicate a nomadic people rather than a place. This is the earliest appearance of the term Israel in an historical context, but exactly who these people are is completely unclear, and in any case nothing is said of their origins.)
The lack of any mention of the Exodus by one of the most serious record-keeping societies in pre-modern history might of course be attributed to the vagaries of time and destruction or to its insignificance in the affairs of Egypt. But the archaeological record – or the lack of it – is more difficult to explain away, especially when the remains support an alternate history. For the Exodus itself there are two archaeological difficulties. First, while there are indeed royal granaries in Tjeku, almost universally accepted as the site of the Biblical Pithom, they date to a period later than the thirteenth century BC. This problem might be dealt with, though unconvincingly, by pushing the date of the Exodus forward or assuming another location for Pithom, but the second difficulty admits to no apparent solution. According to the Bible, before moving into Canaan the Hebrews sojourned at Kadesh (or Kadesh-barnea or Enmishpat), which is now identified with Ain el-Qudeirat, a substantial oasis in northern Sinai, on the Egyptian side of the frontier with modern Israel. There are pottery remains from the Middle Bronze Age, far too early for dating the Exodus, and there are a series of forts, erected by the united Monarchy and Judah and dating from the tenth to the sixth centuries BC. There are no remains from the centuries in which the Exodus might be dated and no signs of a substantial group of people settling in the oasis.
The real Moses?
More compelling, however, are the results of four decades of excavation in the West Bank, the heart of ancient Judah and Samaria. Scholars have long considered the Biblical account of the Conquest inadequate: how could a ragged group of refugees with their families in tow so easily conquer central Palestine and establish a strong and viable state and the dominance of Yahwism in less than a generation? There were also already suspicions about the towns allegedly conquered by Joshua and company, and it is now accepted that most of them were later insertions in the narrative. Many, like Jericho, simply did not exist at the time of the Conquest, and many places supposedly destroyed by the newcomers in fact fell during the Catastrophe, which changed the face of the eastern Mediterranean a century later. More ominous, the towns given to the tribe of Judah by Joshua are identical to the frontier towns of seventh century BC Judah, and indeed, the campaigns of Joshua make more sense in the later environment, specifically the reign of King Josiah (639-609 BC) of Judah, than five hundred years earlier.
What the modern archaeological surveys have revealed is the essential lack of any evidence for the historical narrative presented in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and the earlier parts of Kings. Instead, the pattern of the settlements in the highlands of Judea and Samaria show three successive waves of settlement from the east: first in the period 3500-2200 BC, then 2000-1550 BC and finally 1150-900 BC. The intervals between these periods witnessed dramatic collapses of population with most of the settlement sites being deserted. The material cultures of these settlements are roughly similar and, hardly surprising, on a much smaller and cruder scale than depicted in the Bible or actually found in the Canaanite towns in the western lowlands. Even the largest villages contained only a few hundred people and had no public buildings of any sort and virtually no luxury items. Little evidence of serious record keeping and even cult activities has been found and certainly no evidence of Yahwism.
The most likely understanding of this archaeological landscape makes the Hebrews indigenous to the region, a conclusion that dovetails with the absence of any evidence for the Exodus account. The settlers appear to be primarily pastoralists from the Jordan valley and beyond, and in fact the earliest remains of each incursion are in the eastern fringes of the highlands and reveal dwellings arranged in oval patterns, certainly reflections of the oval arrangement of tents in a Bedouin encampment. While local climate change during these two and half millennia may have played some small role, the real impetus behind the changes in population was the condition of the cities and villages in the coastal plain. Pure animal husbandry requires some contact with farming villages in order to acquire certain goods, such as metal tools, and grain to supplement the meat and dairy diet. If this is not available from traditional farmers, the pastoralists themselves must become more seriously involved in agriculture, which will ultimately lead to more sedentary communities and permanent settlements. Once the grain surpluses and trading networks revive, old nomadic traditions and the agriculturally unrewarding nature of the highlands drive the populations back to pastoralism, and settlements begin to vanish. This sort of relationship between farmer and Bedouin has been documented from antiquity to the present.
The settlement and de-settlement patterns in Judea and Samaria do indeed appear to match the history of the higher cultures to the west. The second interval of settled population collapse (1550-1150 BC) occurred during the period of Egyptian rule, when agriculture flourished and the surpluses allowed highland settlements to be abandoned in favor of pastoralism. When that stability and security, and consequently the trading network, vanished in the Catastrophe of the twelfth century BC, a final wave of settlement building resulted, producing some 250 sites. Because the Catastrophe had vaporized the Hittite Empire to the north and turned Egypt into a weakling, until the approach of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century BC there was no imperial power looming over Palestine, and tiny communities in the central highlands were able to develop and coalesce into an actual state – Israel. Or perhaps two states – Israel and Judah – since the Biblical account of a single state fracturing into two cannot be trusted.
Thus, the people who became the Hebrews were indigenous to Palestine; they were in fact Canaanites. So, from where comes the story of the Exodus and the Conquest? Given the identity between the towns associated with Joshua and those with King Josiah and the recognition that Judges is part of what is called the Deuteronomist History, compiled in the time of Josiah, one can surmise that the epic tales of early Israel were fabricated in the late seventh century BC to support and in a sense sanctify the policies of Josiah, who might be identified as a latter day Joshua. This was also the time of the Twenty-sixth (Saite) Dynasty, the last gasp of Egyptian power, when for a final time the Pharaohs nosed into Palestine. This resurgent Egypt, a reminder of the glorious days of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, put the Two Lands back into the big picture being assembled in Jerusalem, allowing old tales of desert wanderings, forgotten conflicts and migrations in and out of the Delta to be woven into a new narrative of Hebrew origins useful to Josiah and his associates in their plans to “recreate” a unified and purified Israel.
King Josiah gets the first reviews.
Details found in the Torah in fact fit the seventh century BC far better than the thirteenth. The kings of the Saite Dynasty were indeed erecting new buildings in the Delta, including Pithom, the Egyptian names in the Joseph story were more popular at this time and in Exodus the unnamed (!) Pharaoh seems to see Palestine as a threat rather than part of the Egyptian empire. To the east, Kadesh, so prominent in the Exodus, is now the site of a Judean fort, and Edom, whose king refuses the Hebrews passage, only became a state in the seventh century. It may be that these late details cover an ancient story of departure from Egypt, but they certainly show that the material was being rewritten and do add to the evidence for a seventh century origin for the Exodus and Conquest.
That the Old Testament is a sacred text for millions of Hebrews, Christians and Muslims ought not to obscure this historical reality of its composition and nature. The early books of the Bible are clearly not history, and the details in them simply cannot bear the weight of the conclusions that have been laid upon them. Trying, for example, to locate Mt. Sinai is an utterly futile exercise, since all the textual clues date from a later age that itself had not the vaguest idea where Sinai was, and the very existence of the mountain is now doubted by most scholars. Most important, the god portrayed in the Pentateuch is a historical mishmash, revealing elements of the primitive henotheistic tribal deity of the age of Moses, the institutionalized national god of the states of Israel and Judah and the more perfectly monotheistic universal lord of the later prophets. From this hodgepodge of stories and images of god the believers, ancient and modern, (and Hollywood) have taken what they will, inevitably creating a Moses and an Exodus that reflect the society and values of the interpreter, rather than what might conceivably have actually existed some three thousand years ago. Moses and his god are a work in progress, constantly being reinvented, from the time of King Josiah to that of Cecil B. De Mille.