Biblical Criticism Hasn't Negated the Exodus

The extent to which biblical criticism challenges believers has been vastly exaggerated; there is no reason to doubt the core of the Bible’s presentation of Israel’s history.

From The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634, by Nicholas Poussin. Wikipedia.

From The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634, by Nicholas Poussin. Wikipedia.

March 16 2015
About the author

Benjamin D. Sommer is professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge), which received awards from the American Academy of Religion and the Association for Jewish Studies, and of the forthcoming Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Anchor/Yale).

In “Was There an Exodus?,” Joshua Berman renders a great service: he shows that many pronouncements concerning the non-historicity of biblical narratives are animated by a reflexive hyper-skepticism. This attitude shows up not only among journalists (who have an understandable interest in stirring up controversy) but also among occasional members of the clergy and, most disappointingly, among academic scholars who are supposed to adjudicate historical evidence consistently and relatively dispassionately. In some academic writing on the ancient Near East, as Berman writes, one detects a double standard at work: biblical sources that make historical claims are regarded as untrue unless backed by airtight confirmation from archaeology, while non-biblical sources, even in the absence of archaeological authentication, are taken as containing a good deal of factual information.

This tendency by otherwise well-trained scholars also occurs on the other end—that is, the believing end—of the spectrum. A relevant instance is James Hoffmeier’s superb study, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford, 1997). Masterfully weaving together archaeological, linguistic, and historical data, Hoffmeier devastatingly rebuts scholars who insist that the exodus narrative must be entirely fictional. But his rebuttal fails to demonstrate the claim he goes on to make, namely, that the biblical account is accurate not only in its broad sweep but even in its particulars.

For instance, in following the Pentateuch’s stipulation that the exodus preceded the beginning of the conquest of the land by 40 years, Hoffmeier runs up against severe difficulties in the dating of both events. Had he conceded that historical texts in the Bible invoke numbers in typological and symbolic ways that differ from the way modern historians use numbers, his job would have been easier—and easier still had he acknowledged that, for narrative purposes, ancient historians sometimes boiled down complex processes to what they regarded as their essentials. In this light, the possibility emerges that both the exodus and the conquest may have been sequences of related events that stretched out over a century or more, rather than episodes that took place, as the Bible has it, in a single night or over a single generation. Hoffmeier asks whether the biblical account as it stands is accurate. A more productive question would be whether and how the narratives reflect real events.

I cite Hoffmeier precisely because he is a top-notch archaeologist and Egyptologist. Yet even he, when he moves from carefully analyzed evidence to a broad conclusion, lurches toward an extreme—if not so extreme as the lurch of many other biblical scholars in the opposite direction. I am not as sure as is Berman that, as he colorfully puts it, “tell me a scholar’s view on the historicity of the exodus, and I will likely be able to tell you how he voted in the last presidential election.” But he is correct that social and cultural factors cloud the way many evaluate evidence.


Happily, Berman himself has no fear of the gray areas where historically valid conclusions are most likely to be found. He does not insist that all the details of the biblical account be taken literally. He seems ready to acknowledge that sometimes biblical texts contradict themselves. Thus, although the Pentateuch informs us several times that 603,550 adult males were present at Mount Sinai a few months after the exodus, Berman points to many other passages indicating that the number of Israelites who left Egypt was much, much smaller. At least one of these claims must be false or symbolic; in this particular case, there is every reason to dismiss the wildly high figure.

But rejecting one detail or even many details in an ancient source does not mean rejecting the broad sweep of its narrative. The question, then, is whether that broad sweep might be based on older traditions going back to an actual event or series of events. Here some background may be helpful. Pretty much all modern biblical scholars agree that the texts found in the Pentateuch were written in the Iron Age, during the time of the Israelite and Judean monarchies between about the 8th and 6th centuries BCE and perhaps in the exilic and post-exilic periods of the late-6th and 5th centuries. For several linguistic and historical reasons, it is clear that these texts do not date back to the 13th or 12th centuries when the exodus is supposed to have occurred.

Thus one can justly wonder: is it possible that the Pentateuch’s authors really knew about events that occurred a half-millennium earlier? If the texts include references to details of late Bronze Age Egypt that were unlikely to be known in Iron Age Canaan, then these texts probably do preserve real historical memories. Multiple examples of such details appear in the books of Exodus and Numbers. Take the fact that the Israelites feared taking a direct northern route to Canaan “lest they see war” (Exodus 13:17). As Berman mentions, this accords well with the fact that there were Egyptian forts along that direct route. I would add that Hoffmeier has demonstrated that by the time of the Israelite and Judean monarchies, these forts had been abandoned and were covered with sand. A Hebrew writer of that time, even one interested in adding historical verisimilitude to his narrative, could not have known that the northern route was the more militarily daunting. The presence of this verse, then, seems based on historical traditions much older than the written Iron Age sources found in the Pentateuch.

Similarly, the presence among the tribe of Levi of many Egyptian names points to older traditions preserved in later Israelite writings. It does not seem likely that an Iron Age writer added these names to render his story more plausible, since that writer wants us to believe that the whole nation Israel was present in Egypt, while the Egyptian names occur almost exclusively in the tribe of Levi. (More on this below.) In addition, some of those Egyptian names are known to us from later texts, like 1 Samuel and Jeremiah, that are not concerned with the exodus at all. In keeping with well-known custom, later Levites would have continued to favor names long established in their tribe, probably without any awareness of the hoary Egyptian origin of the names in question.

To this line of evidence, Berman has added a very important new set of data in his examination of the similarities between the Kadesh Poem—the inscriptions on the monuments ereceted by the pharaoh Ramesses II celebrating his 1274 BCE victory over the Hittite empire—and the account in Exodus 13-15 of the encounter between the pursuing Egyptian forces and the Israelites on their flight into the wilderness. Any one of these similarities might be dismissed as coincidence. The assemblage of similarities, however, suggests that the exodus narrative, and especially the Song at the Sea in Exodus 15, draw on a text from precisely the era to which the exodus is usually dated. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that many of the links between the two texts do not appear in other ancient Near Eastern poems, historical narratives, and myths.

An additional datum, unstressed by Berman, clinches his argument: the shared elements appear in the two texts in precisely the same order. Ancient traditions often invoked stock phrases and motifs, shared in any two texts that drew on those traditions. But the order of the elements is flexible. When two texts share a large number of elements in the same order, as they do in the case Berman brings to our attention, the likelihood is much higher that one is borrowing from the other.

All of this, taken together, comes as close as we can get in the study of ancient literature to proving that chapters 13-15 of Exodus, though composed in the middle of the first millennium, are based on traditions going back to the time of Ramesses II in the late second millennium. The exodus story is not a fiction invented by Israelites in the Iron Age.

This conclusion remains valid, moreover, even when we recognize that the biblical texts include the occasional anachronism (referring, for example, to camels and Philistines in the setting of the book of Genesis, though neither was present in Canaan then) as well as some telescoping. By the latter term, I mean a tendency to take complex processes and reduce them to neater narratives that are easier to tell. Thus, it is altogether possible, as a number of scholars have suggested, that the exodus was a series of events; Israelites, or proto-Israelites, may have been escaping from Egyptian bondage in small groups over generations. One group may have been led by a Levite named Moses, another by a Levite named Aaron; I am not sure that the two of them ever met. Furthermore, given the prominence of Levite tribesmen in the story of the exodus and their tendency to bear Egyptian names, I wonder whether it was specifically they who escaped Egyptian bondage. Their historical memory may then have been adopted by other Israelites who never left Canaan, and its commemoration may have become an essential element of pan-Israelite identity.

On Thanksgiving, millions of Americans participate enthusiastically in the central ritual meal of the United States, though the ancestors of only a fraction of them were on the Mayflower. It is entirely possible something similar happened in ancient Israel: as exodus-group Israelites linked up with Israelites who had always remained in the land of Canaan, the latter came in time to see themselves as if they, too, had left Egypt. By the time the accounts found in the book of Exodus were written down, the distinction between the two groups was moot, and was forgotten.

The ability of Israelites from clans that had not participated in an escape from Egypt to assimilate the memories of those who had may have been bolstered by their own ancestors’ memories of being forced to serve Egyptian imperial overlords in Canaan. Throughout much of the New Kingdom period, Canaanite city states were vassals to the Egyptians, and Canaanite peasants were forced into corvée labor on behalf of Egyptian projects there. Several scholars, including Ronald Hendel (Berkeley) and Nadav Na’aman (Tel Aviv), have argued that this experience of impressed labor was the basis for the historical memories underlying the exodus story; that is, according to Hendel and Na’aman, Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh of Egypt but not in Egypt.

Theories of servitude in Egypt and in Canaan are not mutually incompatible. An average Israelite in the Iron Age may have had ancestors who served Egyptians in each locale. In the end, biblical references to the exodus probably take a tangled complex of genuine historical memories and render them more manageable. Some details are surely fictional, but given the number that are authentic and could not have been invented by Iron Age storytellers, it seems clear that the overall thrust of the story—Israelites in the distant past were liberated from enslavement to the greatest empire of its time and place—is accurate.


Some Jews and Christians have been unnerved by the doubt cast by modern biblical criticism on the historical reliability of biblical texts. But the extent to which biblical criticism challenges believers who are not overly concerned with minutiae has been vastly exaggerated. To put it bluntly, there are no archaeological or historical reasons to doubt the core elements of the Bible’s presentation of Israel’s history. These are: that the ancestors of the Israelites included an important group who came from Mesopotamia; that at least some Israelites were enslaved to Egyptians and were surprisingly rescued from Egyptian bondage; that they experienced a revelation that played a crucial role in the formation of their national, religious, and ethnic identity; that they settled in the hill country of the land of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1300 or 1200 BCE; that they formed kingdoms there a few centuries later, around 1000 BCE; and that these kingdoms were eventually destroyed by Assyrian and Babylonian armies.

It is important to recognize the specious nature of claims that any of these elements is contradicted or even undermined by what archaeologists have or have not found. Those who put forward such claims seem to be unaware of the evidence actually available; even more importantly, they are unschooled in the nature of the evidence—that is, in what the evidence can and cannot prove. They seem similarly unaware that careful studies of the text of the book of Exodus, like that of Joshua Berman, have themselves uncovered patterns of details that render the core elements of the exodus narrative likely indeed.

Not only at Passover but also in Judaism’s daily liturgy and its weekly sanctification of the Sabbath, Jews proclaim that their identity is based on something that happened in history. They do not state that Judaism is based on an inspiring fiction or a metaphor (even if the story is inspiring and serves in important ways as a symbol). Details regarding what happened remain murky, but Jews reciting the benediction before the Shema each day or the kiddush on Friday night can, with a clear conscience, mean what they say.

More about: Biblical criticism, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays