Recent issues of BAR have covered a wide range of views regarding the Israelites’ servitude in Egypt, the parting of the “Red Sea” (the “Reed Sea” in Hebrew), and the route of the Exodus.a The authors were, in the main, archaeologists, linguists and experts in Near Eastern studies. Perhaps it would be appropriate to allow a Bible scholar to attempt to illuminate some of the problems from his special perspective.
We all know about the paucity of archaeological evidence concerning the Exodus. As a result, this sparse evidence has little explanatory value. But something deeper is wrong with the analyses cited in the footnotes. These analyses commit a fundamental methodological error in the fields of literary criticism, in general, and Biblical exegesis, in particular. They analyze Biblical history (or, more accurately, the Biblical account of history) out of context; they focus on certain details and examine them, so to say, under a microscope and in isolation. They fail to consider the general tenor of the Biblical account and the overall purpose of Biblical historiography.
Until one first considers these general questions, one cannot understand the details. If one were to conclude that the purpose of Biblical historiography was to inform the reader in as accurate a way as possible of what happened in ancient times, perhaps it would then be legitimate to focus on details such as place names and times as indicative of what occurred. Then one could ask whether these details were confirmed or refuted by archaeology or by contemporaneous texts.
But, as is generally recognized on all sides, the aim of Biblical historiography was not to “tell history” as we moderns understand the telling of history. The Biblical authors were not historians in any modern sense of the term. They were not trying to write history—they were educators, trying to make a point and to inculcate their views.
The purpose of the Biblical authors, as they tell us again and again, was to promulgate certain specific religious, moral and social concepts. The Torah (or Pentateuch) never aspired to be an historical account—as is clearly reflected in its use of anachronisms (for example references to the Philistines in the time of the Patriarchs, several hundred years before the Philistines are assumed by modern research to have appeared on the historical stage), contradictions (where one passage conflicts with another) and doublets (repetitions in different places in the text).
A good example of a contradiction involves the city of Dan. Genesis 14:14 mentions a place in the north of Galilee called Dan in Abraham’s time; in Judges 18:29 a city in the very same region, and quite obviously the same one, was renamed Dan nearly as late as the establishment of King Saul’s kingdom.
An example of a doublet involves the founding of Beer-Sheba. Abraham founded and named Beer-Sheba according to Genesis 21:31. But the founding and naming of Beer Sheba is ascribed to Isaac in Genesis 26:33. It is hardly thinkable that the author (or editor) could have forgotten what he had related before—so he must have done this on purpose whatever that purpose may have been. These examples of a contradiction and a doublet are the more telling because they refer to toponyms (place names), the very sort of evidence upon which archaeologists rely when they attempt to trace the route of the tribes from Egypt to the land of Canaan.
We must therefore consider the details of a Biblical account in a general, not specific, way if we are to understand its true significance.
Although, admittedly, the Biblical authors made use of historical facts, they did so to convince the reader of the validity of the religious, moral and social concepts being urged, and they kneaded the raw material of historical facts into the message they were trying to convey In short, when historical facts fit into the message, the Biblical authors 069used them; when the historical facts did not support the message, the facts were molded by rearranging them or elaborating them until they did support the message. And if this proved impossible, the facts were suppressed altogether.
Almost everyone admits that an Exodus occurred. But the details of the journey are presented in such a way that relating them either chronologically or geographically to known historical data is indeed difficult.
Let me give a few examples to demonstrate this: In their desert wanderings, the Israelites subsisted on manna. We have two accounts of this miraculous food, one in Exodus 16:11–36 and another in Numbers 11:4–9. In part, the two narratives are repetitions; in part they are contradictory. In Exodus 16:31 the manna is said to have tasted like wafers made with honey; in addition, the Israelites were provided with meat which, according to the single verse alluding to it (Exodus 16:13), consisted of quails. In Numbers, the taste of manna is described very briefly as like that of oily cakes; on the other hand, the appearance, in the evenings, of hosts of quails extends over an entire chapter. This is surely not the proper way history is written, but is entirely in place in literature where the device is called distribution of elements. The two accounts are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Nor is it to be inferred from them that the events transmitted did not occur. All we can deduce is that they may well have happened and that the narrator was not a documentarian or chronicler, but was guided by considerations of didactics and literary excellence.
Biblical geography is often no more reliable as geography proper than Biblical history as history proper. Biblical geography is either hopelessly garbled or is plainly designed to serve other purposes. In Genesis 2:10–14 we are told that four rivers originate in the same source. Two, the Euphrates and the Tigris, in fact, flow together in a confluence. The third, Gihon, is a small rivulet near Jerusalem. The fourth, Pishon, is altogether obscure and cannot be identified. The story of the four rivers is senseless if conceived of, as is frequently done, as a piece of so-called primitive geography, yet it makes excellent sense if it is not taken at face value. Paradise in the Bible is not a place on earth, but a state of mind, a dramatized form of what Scripture believes happiness to be. This harmonious existential state can, as the Book proclaims, be reached by living according to the 613 commandments of Torah and must by no means be sought in an atlas. To emphasize this point, Torah defines Paradise—tongue in cheek—as located at the source of four rivers which have no common source at all, a fact plainly well-known to the ancient reader.
Thus, one may well conclude that on this and other occasions the geographical confusion is intentional. Consider for example Mount Sinai, where the Torah was supposedly revealed and which may be seen as the birthplace of the Israelite nation. One would expect the location of this mountain to be clearly identified geographically. But the contrary is the case. More than a dozen different locations have been suggested by scholars as the mountain where the revelation took place. Each of these sites conforms to some specifications but fails to fulfill all. If they were writing factual geography the Biblical authors could at the very least have called the Mount of Revelation by the same name throughout the text. Instead, confusion is created again, this time by calling it sometimes Sinai (e.g. Exodus 19) and sometimes Horeb (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:10–15, etc. This and similar occurrences seem to suggest that the Biblical authors did not want future generations to know where God revealed himself to his people. In short, the Biblical account of the Exodus is not intended as a tourist’s Blue Guide to the Holy Places, but as a guide for living what the authors believe to be the good life.
Biblical numbers are no more chronologically reliable than Biblical story telling or geography. The Biblical use of numbers is an excellent illustration of the non-scientific and at the same time highly sophisticated literary technique of the Bible. The Bible states that it took the Israelites 40 years to reach the Land of Canaan. But this period of time was chosen in order to conform to the symbolism of numbers used in Scripture. The numbers 7, 10, 12 and 40 recur again and again in the Bible and particularly in the Pentateuch. They are not “holy” numbers; that is, none of them holds magical powers, as is often suggested. Indeed, that would transgress the uncompromising idea of Biblical monotheism for which magic is anathema. Yet each of these numbers suggests a deeper meaning, just as colors are meaningful in modern civilization, where, for example, in some cultures black is a sign of mourning; red, a sign of danger; and green, a sign of hope.
In the Bible, seven, the number of planets known in antiquity, stands for divine intervention and instructs the reader, so to say, to look to Heaven. If God created the universe, He must have done so in seven days, and a contract concluded under God demanded the sacrifice of seven sheep (Genesis 21:21–31). Since the whole life cycle of humans should be permeated by awareness of God’s will, the entire Hebrew calendar is governed by the number seven: The Sabbath is the seventh day; seven weeks separate the festival of Pesach from that of Shavuot; the so-called High Holidays fall in the seventh month (Tishri). In the seventh year an Israelite’s field has to remain fallow, and after seven times seven years the jubilee is proclaimed throughout the land.
Ten signifies the human being in its frailty, perhaps because nowhere in nature does this number appear except on human hands. Thus, there must be Ten Plagues (the 070minimum that is needed to teach Pharaoh a lesson) and Ten Commandments (the minimum required of a person). Ten generations elapsed after Adam before God “found” Noah, another ten after Noah before he “found” Abraham. When Abraham interceded before God to save Sodom, he was finally granted God’s pity to spare the city if ten righteous people could be found there (Genesis 18:32). When Moses sent 12 spies to survey the land of Canaan, ten of them came back with false reports (Numbers 13–14). Based on the latter chapter, ten adult males are required to make up an edah or minyan, the quorum required for public worship.
The full cycle of the lunar year consists of 12 months. Hence, 12 symbolizes perfection. There simply must have been 12 tribes, although various lists in various Biblical books tell us of other traditions. Even Torah, while still speaking of the ideal number of 12, actually knows of 13 since the tribe of Joseph split into two, Ephraim and Manasseh. Names of additional tribes appear elsewhere in the Bible: for instance, Gilead and Machir in Judges 5, and Jerachmeel in 1 Samuel 30.
Multiples of these numbers must be interpreted in the same manner. The maximum age allowed for the perfect human being is 120 (12 times 10) (Genesis 6:3) to prevent man from turning into superman. Consequently, Moses must die at 120 years although others, less worthy, lived longer.
Forty stands for purity effected through isolation and gradual growth.b The Flood took 40 days to sweep away evil from the face of the earth. Moses spent 40 lonely days and nights on Mount Sinai before he returned with the two Tablets of the Law. And the Israelites had to remain in the wilderness 40 years before they were mature enough to enter Canaan. The suggestion frequently put forward that 40 years stands for one generation is certainly mistaken. If today a generation lasts 25 years, how much shorter it must have been in antiquity when people married at a much earlier age.
These considerations must be taken into account when the trek of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan is discussed since toponyms and numbers play a prominent role. Most hypotheses published in BAR regarding this route overlook both Biblical numerology and the problem of place names. Concerning the latter, the names listed in Numbers 33 are not the same as those listed in Deuteronomy 1, 2. Each list contains names not in the other. Taken together, the number of places where the Israelites camped amounts to more than 50, of which 46 are enumerated in Numbers 33. However six of these are situated within Egypt so that exactly 40 remain for the 40 years in the wilderness. This can hardly be a coincidence. On the contrary: it tallies in full with what has been claimed above regarding the suggestive value of the number 40, signifying reaching maturity and purity through isolation.
Furthermore, at least half of the places enumerated in Numbers 33 carry such fanciful names that it would be a waste of time to search for them in the Sinai peninsula. Consider for example Dophka (“Spur”), Rephidim (“Weak Hands”), Rithma (“Restraint”), Kehillata (“Rebellious Riot”).
One would easily be led to think that, given 40 places and 40 years, the Israelites spent one year in each place. Far from it. They did not “wander” in the wilderness for 40 years going from one place to another. They reached Kadesh-Barnea as early as the 13th month after leaving Egypt (Deuteronomy 2:14). From there, they dispatched the scouts to Canaan. When, upon their return, the spies discouraged the tribes from entering the Promised Land, the Israelites, as the Book has it, were punished by their God by having to spend 38 years at or around Kadesh-Barnea. There is thus little value in searching for these stations on the map. One may as well try to find Somewhere Over-The-Rainbow.
What is the true significance of the Forty Years? These were the honeymoon years—sit venia verbo—when God and Israel as a couple spent time getting used to each other, undisturbed by outsiders. For this reason, and despite the fact that the region was anything but void, the Torah makes no mention of any encounters between the 12 tribes and other settlers or even nomads, with the exception of Moses’s well-meaning father-in-law (Exodus 18), on the one hand, and the embodiment of evil, Amalek (Exodus 17), on the other. This honeymoon concept is made quite explicit in Jeremiah 2:2: “I remember the unfailing devotion of your youth, the love of your bridal days, when you followed me in the wilderness.”
As it is senseless to search for the stations of the Exodus journey by scrutinizing a few extant Arabic place names in the hope that they have preserved the Biblical names, so it is foolish to attempt to account for the Ten Plagues by recourse to Egyptian inscriptions. The account of the plagues follows a literary pattern: they occurred in ascending order of severity from mere nuisances, like frogs, to the death of cattle, and finally, to the slaying of the first-born of Egypt. Explaining the plagues by quite possible natural events does not explain much. An invasion of frogs or infection by vermin are natural occurrences that do indeed happen here and there. What does not happen anywhere, though, is that plagues like these follow each other in a given sequence. Scripture is not interested in telling us that ancient Egypt was—as she is today—infested by all sorts of 071diseases, but that these were heavenly ordained so that all tyrants on earth, from Pharaoh on, would be taught that God will not permit despotism. Whether history has borne this out is another question, and one that is beyond the scope of this article.
Thus when reading the story of the Exodus and the route from Egypt to Canaan, we must constantly remember that the Biblical account deals with historiosophyc and not with scientifically provable history.
Archaeology can neither sustain nor refute the Bible. If it tries to do either, it will soon reach a dead end. What is worse, it is bound to obscure the true intention of the Bible. To draw an analogy, it would be as if the science of acoustics were used to obtain a better appreciation of music. Whether God exists at all, whether He exists as He is conceived of in the Torah—that is, as interested in what happens on earth—whether He has a special prediliction for the Israelites of old or today, whether history is governed by a hidden plan, whether Providence interferes in earthly events by means of angels (messengers, in Hebrew), whether the messengers may even be frogs and lice, whether the crimes of potentates receive retribution, whether evil should be rejected, and whether man lives not by bread alone but by fulfilling his duties as prescribed by Divine Law—all these questions lie outside the realm of archaeology and cannot therefore be decided even by the most eminent expert in the field.
All this must by no means be understood as an attempt to disparage archaeology. This science, of unquestioned and immense value, has its own right to exist as does any other branch of scholarship. And there is no reason why it should not concern itself with the realia of Biblical times quite as much as with Sumerian civilization. A civilization, however, is one thing and a book of abstract ideas in theology, ethics, and social justice is another. Little can be learned from Greek archaeology about Plato’s Republic; or by studying Plato, about daily Greek life. The contribution of archaeology to Biblical studies is beyond any doubt; suffice it to recall what was gained through the decipherment of Ugaritic texts. Nothing, though, would be gained if the tombstone on Abraham’s grave were discovered because the principle question is not whether Abraham lived, but whether his life must be viewed as exemplary. This question would remain as open-ended as it has remained through the millennia, a view to which, I am sure, any true archaeologist would subscribe.
Recent issues of BAR have covered a wide range of views regarding the Israelites’ servitude in Egypt, the parting of the “Red Sea” (the “Reed Sea” in Hebrew), and the route of the Exodus.a The authors were, in the main, archaeologists, linguists and experts in Near Eastern studies. Perhaps it would be appropriate to allow a Bible scholar to attempt to illuminate some of the problems from his special perspective. We all know about the paucity of archaeological evidence concerning the Exodus. As a result, this sparse evidence has little explanatory value. But something deeper is wrong with the […]