Easter is coming, so I have been blogging about Jesus. But Passover is also coming. It begins Friday evening April 3 this year. I have been blogging about Jesus attending the Passover celebration in Jerusalem just before his death. Jewish and Christian seasons are entwined.
I have been following a discussion at Mosaic magazine’s online site. The March essay is by Joshua Berman and is entitled “Was There an Exodus?” The link is here.
First, he makes the case that the lack of direct evidence in Egyptian records and archeology makes a flawed argument from silence. He offers explanations as to why we shouldn’t expect to find such direct evidence.
He says that distrust of the Bible is part of the culture wars. He makes this striking point:
Cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts that tell of divine revelations to royal figures are found everywhere: overt propaganda on behalf of the kings of yore and the gods they served. Nor can most of the events recorded in these ancient records be corroborated by cross-reference to sources from other cultures. Frequently, the events themselves are miraculous: a pharaoh defeats enemy legions single-handedly, for example, or the sculpted image of a serpent in the pharaoh’s diadem spews forth an all-consuming fire; troop figures are impossibly large. Often, the events occurred, if they occurred at all, centuries before the text’s date of composition.
Yet, to one degree or another, scholars routinely accept these texts as historically reliable.
But the most interesting proposal he makes is that the language of the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 is a direct challenge to the Rameside pharaohs. Ramses II had several inscriptions made of a poem celebrating his victory over the Hittites at Kadesh, one of ancient history’s most famous battles. This Kadesh poem would have been well known.
Berman analyzes the Kadesh poem and the Song of Moses showing that they are related. For instance Exodus 15:16 speaks of the power of God’s arm. Earlier verses 14:31 (Hebrew), 15:6 and 9 also contain similar expressions about God’s arm or hand. Ramses’ poem also used the idea of the Pharaoh’s right hand shattering his enemies. Berman says:
And note this: the Hebrew root for the right hand (ymn) is common to a variety of other ancient Near Eastern languages. Yet in those other cultures, the right hand is linked exclusively with holding or grasping. In Egyptian literature, however, we find depictions of the right hand that match those in the Song. Perhaps the most ubiquitous motif of Egyptian narrative art is the pharaoh raising his right hand to shatter the heads of enemy captives
He has pictures.
He also finds more parallels. But his interesting idea is that the Song of Moses directly scorns the power of the Pharaoh in his own language and thought world.
Berman’s argument is long and involved. It contains claims about Egyptian precedents for the Hebrew tabernacle that seem overly speculative to me. But his case about the Kadesh poem and the Song of Moses looks like a serious proposal.
Richard Hess has written an appreciative response.
One thing I have found frustrating in discussions about the Exodus is the all-or-nothing attitude of apologists. People on both sides take the tribal tallies in the first chapters of Numbers literally. So there would have been millions of people leaving Egypt.
Those numbers can’t be taken literally. The whole population of Egypt at the time may not have been that big. But biblical literalists imagine the Exodus that way. And skeptics think they have disproved the Exodus if they disprove that.
*To avoid confusion with Deuteronomy 32, this is sometimes called the Song of the Sea. I call it the Song of Moses to distinguish it from the little Song of Meriam in Exodus 15:21.