Categorized | Jewish History

Can any parts of ‘Exodus’ be verified?

By Noah Hadas

Noah Hadas

Noah Hadas

SAN DIEGO — As a teacher of Jewish history, I’ve often been asked about the historical veracity of the Exodus (the biblical account not the movie with Paul Newman.) In preparation for Passover, I’d like to summarize the opposing views and provide my own insight.

Those who claim the story is mythical point to a number of issues. Leaving aside the miracles of the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, etc. (all of which have defenders who posit natural causes for each), the main arguments against the historicity of the Exodus are (1) the lack of any archaeological evidence, and (2) the impossibility of nearly 2 million people camping out in the wilderness for 40 years.

To counter these points, one can argue that the first is an argument from silence, and the absence of evidence doesn’t prove a thing. The second is more of an issue. If you assume that people walked 8 abreast and that each row was separated by 4 feet, the column of people walking across the Sinai would have stretched nearly 180 miles long. In other words, as the first row was reaching Israel, the last rows would still be in Egypt! There are two primary ways to overcome this difficulty, only one of which I will mention here. The second is too complicated since it requires an understanding of the compositional history of the Bible, i.e. how the Torah was stitched together over time.

So, how does one overcome the problem of the huge number of people marching through the desert? The number of 2 million is based on the Bible asserting that there were over 600,000 men of military age. That number, however, is based on the understanding that the word “eleph” means “thousand” as it does in modern Hebrew. There is the distinct possibility however that in biblical times it denoted a military “unit”. So instead of 600 “thousand” men, there might have been 600 “units”. If a military unit was 10 men, then there would now be only 6000 of military age, and a total population more like 18,000. That is still a large number, but much more manageable. Also, if there are fewer people involved, the lack of archaeological evidence would be easier to understand.

So is there any evidence for an Exodus? Yes! The most interesting for me is the fact that a number of people mentioned in the Bible from that period have Egyptian names, like Moses, Pinchas, Hur, and others. Also, all of these people come from the tribe of Levi. This is important since the Levites did not possess any territory in the land of Canaan.

The hypothesis then is that the Exodus did occur, but not for all 12 tribes. Rather, the Levites (or a group of Levites) came from Egypt and entered Canaan where the other tribes already existed and had defined territories. They brought with them a philosophy and a history. Circumcision, for example, was originally an Egyptian practice. A form of monotheism was first practiced in Egypt. Eventually, of course, the history and philosophy were adopted by all who called themselves “Israelites” and much later, “Jews.”

How did this happen? In just the same way as we in California accept that the Revolutionary war is part of our history. Even though most of us have Eastern European ancestors who arrived to America from 1880-1920, we have no trouble identifying with George Washington as “our” first president.

In the final analysis, however, as we sit at the Seder table we are told that we should consider ourselves as having taken part in the Exodus and having been at Mount Sinai. In other words, the historical reality of the Exodus is less important than the “experience” of the Exodus. Much of Judaism’s moral code is based on the idea that “we were slaves in Egypt.” We are to care for the underprivileged, fight oppression, and generally be guided by the principle that we must not perpetrate upon others that which was perpetrated upon us. That is a whole lot more important than any historical uncertainty.

Noah Hadas is director of adult education for the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture


May you have a peaceful and meaningful Passover.

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