Today I will talk a little about Psalm 78 and the Exodus. I want to give expression to my sense that we have some very early and historically valuable material in this Psalm. I know there are those for whom it is a matter of faith that Moses wrote the whole Torah. But I write this for those who may worry about modern scholarship, which more and more assigns very late dates to the final versions of those books.
First of all, I believe that the exodus of Israel from Egypt happened. It was an event, or maybe more than one event, in history. We know from Egyptian records of times when Semitic people left Egypt. In about 1550 BCE the Hyksos, who had ruled lower Egypt, were overthrown. Many of these foreign people left Egypt. From the Egyptian point of view, they didn’t leave; they were expelled. Then shortly after 1200 BCE Pharaoh Setnacht records in his Elephantine Stele how a large group of such people left Egypt, but he congratulates himself for recovering treasures they had taken from the temples. The priest, Manetho, seems to have chronicled a confused account that may combine these two things. Or maybe it is about a different event altogether. It is an account of what he calls “lepers”, who had been in forced labor, leaving Egypt.
Anyway, in all these accounts, the Egyptian point of view is that the Semitic people were expelled. We have accounts from the enemies of Israel in other cases. The king of Moab records the same war that the Bible talks about in 2 Kings 3. But the Moabite Stone gives us a different point of view. The same is true of the Assyrian king Sennacherib and his own account of the war against Hezekiah of Judah. It is the same war recounted in the 2 Kings 18 and 19, but the Assyrian point of view is quite different. It says nothing about their army dropping dead due to a plague from God. I would expect the same thing in Egypt. From their point of view the exodus would not have been a miraculous deliverance of Israel by God. It would have been interpreted as a successful expulsion of troublemakers.
So, although I have often read that there is no Egyptian record of the exodus, I am not so sure. I don’t think the epic stories in the Bible are precise in historical detail. For instance, everything makes a lot more sense if only some of the tribes were in Egypt and a people called Israel already existed in the Levant at the time of the exodus. The Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 is a very old poem and probably brings us close to the actual event of a remarkable escape involving the drowning of some Egyptian chariot cavalry.
The mention of the Song of the Sea brings us back the Psalm 78. Compare these two verses:
“With the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up.
The flowing waters reared up as a heap
The deep waters were thickened in the heart of the sea.”
“He ripped open the sea, and caused them to pass through;
He made the waters rear up as a heap.”
Joshua 3:13 and 16 also use the word ned,– heap. Joshua uses it of the waters of the Jordan, when Israel crossed on dry land. It looks like Psalm 78 and Joshua 3 both depend on Exodus 15. But we shouldn’t think of the psalmist as having a copy of Exodus. Rather, we should think of him being familiar with an old song used many times at sacred gatherings.
My own thinking is that at the time when Psalm 78 was originally composed, the Book of Exodus may not have been in existence yet. The Song of the Sea existed from the generation after the actual exodus, and was sung, perhaps at the early festivals of Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles (compare the custom reflected in the dancing in Exodus 15:20 with setting for the crazy way of getting a wife at Shiloh in Judges 21:19-21).
The epic traditions that eventually came together in the Torah already existed, maybe more in oral than written form. The psalmist says that he intends to pass on things that “we have heard and known (not read) and that our fathers have told (not written) us” (78:3).
The language of Psalm 78 seems to have points of contact with the Song of the Sea, but not much with our Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It looks like an independent and old account of the exodus. We have to reckon with most of the Hebrew Bible still being revised and elaborated at least up to the time of Ezra after the exile in Babylon. But some of the poetry, by its language, structure and content points, I think, to much more ancient times.