Is the Exodus a Myth?

Is the Exodus a Myth?


Is the Exodus a myth?

Millions of people believe that the Exodus we know of from Hebrew school or Sunday school and movies really happened in history. They say God led his chosen people, Israel, out of slavery in Egypt with astounding miraculous power to Canaan, where the Israelite swords reclaimed the land God promised them. Of course, many of us no longer believe in miracles or God, or at least not a god that picks favorites among the children of Earth. Stories like this sound like the fantasy world of Greek mythology. So is the Exodus a myth too? If it is, what were the real origins of the Israelite nation and Judaism? Does the Exodus have any grounding in reality at all? What does this mean for biblical religions today?

To answer these questions we first have to isolate what exactly we are talking about. What is our source for the Exodus story? Cecil B. DeMille and Ridley Scott didn’t invent it. The Exodus story comes to us from the sacred writings that make up the Old Testament, in particular the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. The individual books that make up the Old Testament reached their final form sometime after the return of Jews from Babylon and before the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. Our earliest complete copies are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls dated to around the first centuries BC /AD. The particular books that make up the Old Testament weren’t agreed upon on until several generations after beginning of Christianity!

Outside of those dedicated to defending religious dogmas, the spectacular Exodus story found in the Bible is considered by archeologists and historians to be impossible. A lot of them have suggested that there is a kernel of truth to the Exodus, but what that kernel might be is a matter of considerable debate. While most believe that there may be some historical reality behind the legend, many maintain it is only a myth and even the believers concede that we can’t know what happened, and the question no longer grabs the attention it once did with scholars.



From the film, The Ten Commandments


I am of the opinion that there is a likely historical event in behind the Exodus. I’m documenting my own theory for the date of the Exodus, and what that event was, in my current research. By way as an introduction, I want to explain some of the background to my research.

First, one of the most important keys to understanding the historical record of the Exodus is the understanding that the story is composed of various separate sources. Each tells its own story, and the composite story is ahistorical because it only comes into being with the combination of the sources. Those sources were written at different times and places by people with a diversity of views.

While Christians order the Bible from Genesis to the Minor Prophets and Jews from Genesis to the Writings, the actual chronology of the times when the books and their sources were written is different. The earliest parts of the Bible’s stories that were composed are a number of poems dated by most scholars to around the 12th-11th centuries.

The bible itself cites two works, the wars of Jehovah and the Book of the Righteous, which are now lost to us in their entirety, but seemed to have contained ancient songs celebrating God and Israel.

The next sources are called by scholars J and E, and they make up large chunks of the books from Exodus to Numbers. The dates of these two are hard to determine, but I think J can be confidently dated to between approximately 850-800 B.C. E is harder to date and may be later or earlier. It was probably combined with J shortly after the fall of Israel.

Following them is likely some of the Minor Prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. These books are supposedly records of the lives and prophecies of prophets, written down by disciples either during their lives or shortly afterward. The books, as we have them, were sometimes composed decades later and contain a lot of later material attributed to the old prophets, but there is a certain amount of material believed to date back to the prophets themselves, who were active between approximately 800 and 700 B.C.

The other sources, D and P, are later still. D was certainly written during the reign of Josiah, while P may be from anywhere between the time of king Hezekiah of Judah to the period under the Persians after the Jews were freed from Babylon. D is the book of Deuteronomy while P makes up most of the Bible from Genesis to Numbers that isn’t J or E.

Other biblical books were written even later, but I won’t dwell on these since they are composed too late to have a real historical perspective or are derived from the combinations of these earlier sources.

When you separate the various strands of sources, arrange them in time and read them separately you find the story changes, things that we associate with the Exodus are not found in all versions, nor are some elements and themes found in the earliest sources. Perspectives on the Exodus change as writers are influenced by more independent sources and combined text. Its story is shaped by the circumstances of the history when it was written. By examining the separate elements of the Exodus story in regard to its age, biases, reliability and so forth, we can trace the story of the Exodus back through time to its original form and then use that for comparison to the historical and archeological data to answer the question: what was the Exodus? In future posts, I will discuss how the different sources talked about the Exodus at different times.



Bibliography: If you want to look up the books where I get my information from, here you go…

The Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV 2006

Who Wrote the Bible? 1987

The Bible Unearthed 2001

The Oxford History of the Biblical World 1998

The Old Testament: A historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures 2006

Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry 1975

Click here for a brief summation of the theory that the fist five books of the Bible are a combination of different sources, called the Documentary hypothesis.


First Things First in the Bible (Part 1): Deborah, Miriam, and Genesis



Part 1

For this post I’d like to talk about the beginning of the Bible, both chronologically and sequentially. Sequentially the Bible starts with chapter one of the book of Genesis, but chronologically the earliest texts written are the poems called the Song of Deborah,” and The Song of Miriam.”

In reading the Bible sequentially, from cover to cover, one is introduced to a history of the Biblical world starting with creation and leading to the Roman occupation. However, reading the bible chronologically shows a very different development of the ideas and myths of the Bible. A new perspective is acquired from understanding the relationship in regard to time that the various books of the Bible have with each other.

Genesis chapter one is a cosmology, a genealogy of the universe. It comes from a source called P by biblical scholars. The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, are a formed by harmonizing several parallel versions of Israel’s beginnings, much in the same way some have tried to make a single account of the Gospels of the New Testament. For example, when you see a pageant play or movie about Jesus, often you are seeing a harmonization of the Bible’s four Gospels.

Over the century a lot of work has been done identifying and analyzing these sources, though many doubts remain in both academic and non-academic circles. However, I’m convinced that the hypothesis of multiple sources, called the Documentary Hypothesis, is the correct hypothesis. Of course, until a edition of one of the original sources is found, it remains unprovable.

According to most proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis, P, named for the priestly caste who are thought to have been responsible for creating P, is one of the latest of the sources. Most scholars argue in favor of a time after Babylon conquered Judah, with notable exceptions arguing in favor of an earlier time.

Genesis 1 is later than the following chapter, which traditionally was viewed as a more detailed account of the creation of humanity and its early history. But in reality, the second chapter of Genesis is an older account independent of chapter one, reflecting a different theology and cosmology.

Both are steeped in the myths of their Semitic neighbors, but the writers of Genesis 1, who intended their origin tale to replace, not supplement Genesis chapter 2, have far different perspective on the nature of the god they worship, and how he is worshiped. The priests who wrote P were very much interested in focusing all aspects of the worship of their god, Yahweh or Jehovah, translated LORD in many English translations of the Bible, on them and their temple cult.

In the source for Genesis 2, called J , in reference to Judah, the kingdom in which it’s to believed to have been composed, God (Yahweh) frequently sends angels and talking animals to communicate with humans. That is not so in P. Why? It is believed that this is because the priests wanted to establish that God only communicates through them and their institutions.

The writers of P also call the god of creation Elohim, a word meaning god/gods, or Yahweh-Elohim, translated frequently as LORD God. The second chapter simply uses Yahweh. This is thought to be because the writers of J thought Yahweh had always been the name of Israel’s god, while the priests knew of another tradition from outside Judah—that the Israelites used to worship God under the name of Elohim. This distinction was one of the first clues that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (from the Greek “five books”), was composed of multiple source texts.

The earliest parts of the Bible, those first composed, are thought by most scholars to be a collection of poems embedded in the Pentateuch and the later work, Judges (and thus from a still earlier source). This is based on comparisons of the language and style of the poems with those elsewhere in biblical text and those known archeologically from the Ancient Middle East.

The writers of the Pentatuach some times refer to sources called  the Scrolls of the Upright and the Scrolls of the Wars of Yahweh. These are thought to be collections of ancient poems telling the tales of heroes and the history of the tribes of Israel. The earliest are believed to be the “The Song of Deborah” found in the book of  Judges and the “Song of Miriam” found in the book of Exodus—thought to be the same as the more complete “Song of Moses.”

The reason for calling this work the song of Miriam is the assumption that it’s more likely that a work attributed to a minor figure of the Exodus would be claimed by a more prominent figure than vice versa. These poems are at least 400 years earlier than Genesis 1 and are of a wholly different nature. They are not cosmologies, but victory songs. They extol a god named Yahweh who aids the warrior’s of Israel by way of his behind the scenes control of nature and spirits. The early Israelites that composed them were preliterate, and the songs were passed from generation to generation providing an oral history of Israel and communicating the nature of the Israelite god Yahweh. The historical beginning of biblical religion is found in these battle hymns, composed and performed by women of semi-nomadic tribes and clans.

The opening line of the Song of Miriam, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea!” is the one of the earliest documentation of a historical event in the Bible. Ancient Middle Eastern victory hymns celebrated contemporary events. This is thus the earliest account of the famous parting of the Red Sea tradition.

Read independently of the other accounts in the Book of Exodus, it doesn’t have a lot of information on what occurred here. Only that some chariots sank into the “Red Sea” a location of considerable debate. Never-the-less, the event—however it occurs, is not only one of the first biblical events recorded, but also forms the “genesis” of the Israelite people.

When looking for that which is most fundamental to the story found in the Pentatuach, one comes to this victory over Egypt, imagined to be miraculous by the poetess’ of early Israel.

In part two I will discuss how it is that Genesis 1 starts the Bible now, and what significance that might have.

For further reading, I recommend the following books:

Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry

Who Wrote The Bible?

Current thoughts on the  Documentary Hypothesis by Dr. Richard Friedman





The Historical Diaries Blog posted a great article on the ancient Middle Eastern legend of Gilgamesh, a sort of forerunner to heroes like Samson and Hercules. It provides links to the story, which is a must read for anyone interested in mythology or the Bible. Many themes found in Gilgamesh are also found in the Bible owing to the fact that both Gilgamesh and the Bible draw on the mythologies and customs of ancient Semitic peoples and their neighbors.


Movie Time! My Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings


Well, after a month and three viewings, I’ve made it through Riddley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. It was a chore, a dull and lifeless, action, blockbuster take on the Exodus myth. Scott definitely had Cecile DeMille on his mind when he made this, and in terms of spectacle, lush orientalist set and costume design, and CGI miracles, Riddley Scott’s Exodus is a worthy tribute. It is unfortunately ponderous and stiff. The attempt at social commentary is uninspired, consisting of Moses having doubts about the miraculous, and his early attempt and people’s war or guerrilla war to free the Hebrews. There is a nice moment when Moses tosses his sword to the sea as a symbol of his forgoing using his own force to fight Egypt and finally trusting in God.

The controversy around the casting is definitely understandable now that we live in a day-and-age where we are all familiar with what people from Israel and Egypt look like. Sure there are a lot of swarthy extras, but nearly all the principal characters are some sort of northern European. While I understand the business side, it definitely detracts from the artistry and it’s sad to see the Exodus reduced to a 3D popcorn muncher. Really, I have had my fill of Bible movies full of Anglo-Saxons. Can we have a peak at what this world really looked like?

And speaking of historical inaccuracy, while I understand that the Exodus is a fantasy in the vein of Hercules, Rameses the Great was a pharaoh of the bronze age, yet iron abounds. Would you make Excalibur with rifles instead of lances? I would love to see the bronze age tell its own stories and be brought to life on the big screen.

Regarding the presentation of the Exodus, the movie diverges quit a bit from the source- mostly for entertainment value, and I’m fine with that. The Bile account itself consists of a couple of divergent stories, so the ancient Hebrews had no problem changing the tale to suit the audience. I have researched the historical Exodus extensively, and maybe later will go into depth on how the movie compares with the source and the history. One of the main changes from the old Cecil DeMille version is how the miraculous is treated. While before, bizarre events spring out of the air like magic, Scott takes cues from fringe literature on the Exodus (much as he does ancient aliens in Prometheus), and naturalistic explanations for the plagues. The theories used to explain the miracles are often ingenious and plausible, but not likely to have been the case. While some critics thought the naturalistic explanations demonstrated an agnosticism about God, I think it is clear that here, as well as in the pop archeology Scott follows, the coincidence of the events is a sign of divine origin. And really, if God did intervene in history, I would expect it to occur in a perfectly natural way. The Crossing of the Red Sea, linked to an asteroid impact and resulting tsunami, is visually striking and a clever interpretation.

The Forgotton Judean King that Reunited Israel in the Time of Elija

The Forgotton Judean King that Reunited Israel in the Time of Elija

There is a period in the Deuteronomistic history, that is Judges through Kings in the Bible, that has caused some confusion and controversy. It involves two kings named Joram. Many Bible translations differentiate them by calling the one of Judah Jehoram and the one from Israel Joram, but in fact the names are identical in the original text. One is said to be the son of the infamous King Ahab and Jezebel, the other, the son of the good King Jehoshaphat. Now what is confusing is they both reigned for the same amount of time in their respective kingdoms, approximately 849-842 BCE. The period is one of great interest to the author of the Deuteronomistic history. This is the period during the Elijah and Elisha prophecy in Israel. Much of this portion of the Book of Kings consists of fantastic folktales about these prophets and the mission to remove the cult of Baal from Israel.

Some have proposed that these two kings named Joram are in fact the same individual. The theory that both of these Jorams are in fact the same Joram is explained like this. Jehoshaphat and Ahab are depicted as being very chummy. They make peace after years of war, fight enemies together and Ahab gives Jehoshaphat’s son, Joram, one of his daughter’s to marry. Joram seemed like a fairly ambitious fellow, and began his reign while his father was still king. During the course of his reign, he had his brothers executed to ensure no other claimants to his throne.

Meanwhile, in Israel, king Ahab died and was succeeded by his son Ahaziah. But only two years into his reign Ahaziah dies from complications of a freak accident. Joram seizes this opportunity to assert himself as king of Israel by way of his own sons by Athaliah, who are Ahab’s grandsons. He established himself as the king of all Israel while his father served as a ceremonial king of Judah until his death. At some point later, Joram appoints one of his sons, also named Ahaziah, possibly assumed as homage to the departed son of Ahab, to the throne of Judah while he reigns from Samaria. These two are either killed by Jehu or the Arameans.

Now it may be coincidence that these two kings who reigned at nearly the exact same time. If these were the same people, why did the writer of the Deuteronomistic history make the mistake of believing that they were two separate kings? This can be explained by the author’s purpose in writing this work and the politics of his time. For a detailed study of the Deuteronomistic history’s author, I suggest Richard Elliot Friedman’s indispensible book, Who Wrote the Bible. What we discover about the author is that he is writing during the reign of Josiah and his history is intended to promote Josiah as the successor to the great legacy of David, a refounder of a pure united Israel headed from Jerusalem. The writer of the Deuteronomistic history is a priest from a Northern Israelite line like Elijah, and this explains his great interest in the Israelite prophet. Like Elijah, he is champion of the supremacy of Yahweh to the exclusion of all other cults. Further he rejects bull idol sanctuaries established by the Israelite king Jeroboam in Dan and Bethel because they did not employ priest from his own lineage.

Now if Joram, who is condemned for supporting these detested Israelite sanctuaries, led a unified Israel/Judah, this would really undercut the Deuteronomist’s thesis that Josiah is a unique restorer of Israel under the auspices of proper Yahwhist cult practice. Given the confusing circumstance, it seems plausible that the Deuteronomist made some edits and presented these two as separate kings so that it would be Josiah that unifies Israel.

The consideration that Joram of Israel was also Joram of Judah sets some episodes recorded in the history in new light. For example, while Joram of Judah is condemned for following the ways of the kings of Israel, Joram of Israel is commended for removing the pillar of Baal Ahab. He is only condemned for maintaining the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel.

My theory is that Joram, as a Judean king supported the cult of Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple. Because of the popularity of the Dan-Bethel sanctuaries he nevertheless acknowledges their sanctity, but of the pillar of Baal he removes, as it is mythological, and Baal inhabited practically the same spot as Yahweh. He was a direct competitor, the supreme son of El that provides the prosperity of the land. Joram seems to be trying to find compromise with the various priestly caste in Israel and Judah.

I suspect that the biblical source called J was composed at some time between the reign of Jehoshaphat and the death of his grandson Ahaziah. One of the things I have noted from reading the Mosaic books divided into sources is that there seems to be considerable harmony between the eponymous ancestors of the Israelite tribes and the Judahite tribes. I was a little perplexed by this since, if the J source was written after the time of Solomon, and most do place it later than that legendary king, why does it portray the Israelite tribes in such favorable light? Edom, which had left the sphere of Judean control before the composition of J is portrayed as a wayward brother of Israel, but the tribes of Israel are all sons of Jacob/Israel and the J and E accounts of Jacob’s sons harmonize very well. No attempt is made in J to diminish the northern tribes contention that  Rachel was the most beloved wife of Jacob. It appears that the account in J and E were substantially similar, and while the  JE redactor uses E for the material related to the northern tribes, it does not contradict J. Now this can be explained by the fact that the list of tribes of Israel seems to have been set earlier, judging from the ancient poem called the “Blessings of Jacob.” So in the popular imagination, the Judean tribes and Israelite tribes were one nation despite the separate kings. However, if J were written while the two states were at war, one might expect that the writer might have created a less flattering depiction of Rachel and her kin. Further, J has Isaac predict that Esau/Edom will serve his brother Jacob but eventually break Jacobs yoke from his neck (see Genesis 25-26 and 29-30). Edom was incorporated into the Judean/Israelite kingdom by David and it is in fact stated that during the reign of Joram of Judah(Second Kings 8.16) Edom rebelled and was never reconquered before the Deuteronomic history was written. This establishes that J was written during or after the time of Joram.

Along with the links provided above, I also recommend Richard Friedman’s “The Bible With Sources Revealed”