Exodus: History or Mythic Tale?

A biblical scholar reviews the historical claims of the biblical book of Exodus.

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Explaining the Miracles

This single fact, however, does not resolve the enigma. Obviously, the orthodox tradition accepts the biblical account literally, despite all the miracles it describes. There are scholars who seek to explain the miraculous events in rational and natural terms. They refer to ancient disasters which befell Egypt--floods, drought, slave rebellions, and invasions. Could these not be the ten plagues of Egypt? And the drown­ing of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea--can it not be explained by the ebb ­and flow of the marshes between the Nile and the Sinai Desert?

Problems and Contradictions

Other scholars, however, totally reject the historical validity of Exodus. The story of Ipu‑wer, they say, describes the anarchy in Egypt at the end of the third millennium B.C.E. and has no bearing on the biblical story; and 600,000 men ("not counting dependents") means that approximately two million Hebrews left Egypt-- is it possible that such a vast emigration left no trace in Egyptian sources? The biblical narrative, they point out, is full contradictions concerning the topography and the sequence of events--a feature typical of folktales, not of historical texts.

Intermediate Theories

Between the two opposing views there are several intermediary theories. One hypothesis is that the Israelites left Egypt in two waves, and that by the time the second wave departed--in the middle of the thirteenth century--the first group had already settled in the land of Canaan, mostly around the town of Shechem in Samaria. Another possibility is that there was no organized mass emigration, but rather a constant flow of thousands of people from different Semitic tribes who left Egypt, roamed the desert, slowly infiltrating the land of Canaan where they eventually formed a single nation.

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Yair Hoffman

Yair Hoffman is a Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University.