Jeremy Bowen, former BBC Middle East correspondent, begins the BBC documentary, Moses and the Exodus by pointing out that the Bible contains a “fantastic story” with numerous special effects: the burning bush, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Because so much in the plague narrative smacks of the supranatural, Bowen declares, “A lot of people think that it is just a great work of fiction.” He then coyly asks a rhetorical question: Did Jewish scribes with vivid imaginations, writing in Jerusalem in about 600–300 B.C.E., make up a dramatic tale simply to give their people a history? BAR readers will recognize minimalist overtones in the question, but Brown continues by pointing out that, though modern scholars claim that the story is just a fantasy, new archaeological tools and the latest historical research have discovered stunning new evidence. He poses the production’s guiding question: Is there any basis in history for the story of Moses and the Exodus?
The show bows first to Biblical minimalists. The story of Moses in the basket is so similar to that of the legend about Sargon’s birth in Mesopotamia that it may have been borrowed by Israelites during the Babylonian Exile and dropped into the Bible’s narrative flow. Then it bows to traditionalists: James Hoffmeier, a well-known Egyptologist currently excavating in the Nile Delta, is interviewed. He points out that the words for basket, reeds, the name of the river [Hebrew Yeor, translated as river] and the very name Moses are Egyptian. Although Hoffmeier’s statement doesn’t establish the historicity of the story, it vouchsafes an authentic Egyptian setting.
The revelation at the burning bush is somehow granted a stamp of historical probability through an edited snippet: Clinton Bailey, a respected anthropologist who has written widely on the Sinai and Negev, reports that he has seen Sinai Bedouin praying alone, and suggests that the Sinai itself can be a place of intense religious experiences. What is quoted is so vague that it neither confirms nor contradicts Moses’ private experience at the burning bush.
The film then uses philological data to clarify that the Bible narrative about the number of Israelites who left Egypt—not 600,000 adult males and their families—but only 600. Then, contradictorily, archaeological data are said to indicate the sudden decamping of a hypothesized one million Semites from Avaris in Egypt. Archaeology also is said to provide evidence for a large Egyptian chariotry, indicating that Israel could have been chased by such a group.
About 30 percent of the program is dedicated to explaining the ten plagues (strangely and incorrectly characterized as a “pillar of Jewish faith”), the crossing of a marshy 061Reed Sea, the pillar of cloud with self-igniting fire in it, all in terms of one natural event, the 16th-century B.C.E. eruption of the volcano on ancient Thera, the Aegean island known in modern times as Santorini. It lies 570 miles northwest of Egypt.
First, however, we take detours to Mount St. Helens, in Washington, for a filmed review of the consequences of its eruption in 1980, and then to the Neuse River in North Carolina, where pig waste polluted the river, causing a rise in algae levels that reddened the river, that killed fish, that led to the multiplication of flying critters carrying infections that bit people. The Mount St. Helens eruption and concomitant disasters—the dark cloud of ash, the dry lightning, the unseasonable local precipitation and the sea of mud—are projected back to the Thera eruption, to which a tsunami (a tidal-like wave) is added. The show hypothesizes that as the huge wave built up in the Mediterranean, it siphoned water out of the Reed Sea marshes in the northeast Nile Delta, and the Israelites passed through. When the wave hit a few hours later, Egyptians, mired in mud, perished. The ash cloud gave rise to the story of the plague of darkness, while dry lightning in the cloud explains the pillar of fire that accompanies the Israelites; and atypical precipitation clarifies the plague of hail. Falling volcanic ash polluted Egyptian water, killing the fish and launched a Neuse River-like sequence of events.
In the show, Bowen admits that the naturalistic explanation doesn’t clear up everything, particularly the last plague, the death of first-born sons. He concludes that actual events underlie most of the Moses story, but that they became part of a collective memory and were worked into a religious story late in Israel’s history. Religious faith is required to believe everything that naturalistic explanations cannot clarify. In this way, he presents the composition, not just the compilation and final editing, of the Pentateuch as an Exilic (after the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E.) or post-Exilic (after 539 B.C.E.) event.
Aside from the Neuse River material, there is little new information in the show. Most of what it contains has been treated elsewhere with greater responsibility. The Thera hypothesis (a 16th-century B.C.E. event) renders irrelevant archaeological and topographical data from the Late Bronze Age (14th-early 12th centuries B.C.E.) presented early in the show as demonstrating authentic background. The Thera eruption is chronologically incompatible with the Late Bronze Age materials.1 Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the Thera cloud ever 062reached Egypt—given the counter-clockwise direction of winds around the Mediterranean—and that anyone in Egypt would have been able to see the ash cloud hundreds of miles away no matter how high (the earth is round).
The show leaves the incorrect impression that the Thera hypothesis is new, when in fact it is not. Few historians, if any, consider it viable nowadays. It remains the plaything of disasterist interpreters of history.
Naturalist explanations of these events have been advanced for years, all attempting to account for the sequencing of plagues in nature.2 The Biblical tradition itself assumes that the first nine plagues were natural events. What was unnatural about them was that they began and ended at announced times—demonstrating that they were all under the control of Israel’s God—and that they affected only the Egyptians (not the Israelites) adversely.
The show misses another point by floating the Thera hypothesis: The Exodus through the Reed Sea marshes would have been completed before Egypt suffered any consequences other than the loss of its chariotry. The ash cloud, the precipitating pollutants into Egyptian waters and the string of related calamities recited in the plagues would have reached Egypt only after the tidal wave that allowed the Israelites to cross through without drowning. Furthermore, according to the program’s reasoning, the first two plagues would have been flood and darkness. Finally, the Israelites would have been somewhere in Sinai during the plague phase of events, so that they could not have been bearers of any historical memory.
The show briefly entertains the possibility of many exoduses as a way of avoiding chronological glitches but does not clarify the significance of the suggestion. Its content vacuum is often filled with irrelevant visuals—contrived reenactments of the burning bush, trekking Israelites in a well-watered wadi or atop desert sand dunes, the Thera eruption and the sea dividing. Few of the places shown are identified by name so we do not know whether what is talked about and what is shown are the same.
The program neither tackles complex historical matters seriously nor presents them in a responsible way. It either does not take its viewers seriously or assumes that its viewers are not serious people. Brown’s British accent and pleasant persona do not succeed in raising the level of Moses and the Exodus beyond the mildly interesting.
Jeremy Bowen, former BBC Middle East correspondent, begins the BBC documentary, Moses and the Exodus by pointing out that the Bible contains a “fantastic story” with numerous special effects: the burning bush, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.