Thursday, July 7, 2016

Should the Exodus be re-dated?

Last week I got to attend the premiere of a new film, “Patterns of Evidence – Exodus.” I can safely say it was the exact opposite of the last movie I reviewed, “Noah.”
After the Noah experience, I was skeptical. I knew it was nothing like that, but I’ve seen other documentaries about biblical subjects that seemed to be bending the evidence to suit their preconceptions. One that comes immediately to mind is the James Cameron film, The Exodus Decoded.

So I went into Patterns of Evidence warily, half expecting to be bombarded with someone’s religious claptrap, hoping nevertheless that I could find a few nuggets among all the dross. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a calm, well-reasoned discussion of the subject by filmmaker Timothy Mahoney.

Mahoney’s premise was laid out early. We are treated to interviews with people like famed “biblical” archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, a professor with Tel Aviv University, saying flatly:
“Exodus did not happen in the way it is described in the biblical text on the background of the 13th century B.C.”
Norma Franklin, “biblical” archaeologist with the University of Haifa:
“I don’t believe there was a single event that we can call the exodus.”
And rabbi David Wolpe telling interviewer Michael Medved:
“The exodus certainly didn’t happen the way the bible depicted it….Scientifically it is virtually indefensible to make the Bible’s case.”
When Medved pushes him on how someone can base their faith on something incorrect, he comes up with this winner:
“Things that aren’t ‘facts’ can be ‘truths'.”
Excuse me? Way to go, rabbi. Really helpful.

On that foundation, Mahoney poses this fundamental problem:
“If the leading scholars are siding with the leading atheists and agnostics, that there is no evidence that the exodus ever happened, what are the rest of us supposed to think?”
The Bible account says this:

  • Abraham, a descendant of Shem, left the city of Ur and lived among his fellow Semites in Canaan.
  • His great-grandson Joseph, wearing a multi-colored robe, was sold into slavery in Egypt. By predicting and helping the unnamed Pharaoh prepare for a famine, he rose to the position of prime minister, making the Pharaoh wealthy and powerful in the process.
  • Joseph moved his family to Egypt and, since they were shepherds, gave them the best grazing land, an area called Goshen.
  • The family multiplied and prospered.
  • Things took a turn for the worse and they became slaves of the Egyptians.
  • They were ordered to kill off their male children.
  • When God, using Moses, freed his people, Egyptian society took a horrific downturn: they suffered horrendous plagues, the loss of their wealth, health, crops, firstborn, and army.
  • After the Exodus, the Israelites returned to the land of Canaan. There they brought down the walled cities of Jericho, Hazor and Shechem among others, and burned them.
  • What does the archaeology show? 
  • More than 20 Semitic sites have been found in the Goshen region in Egypt. The largest so far excavated is a city called Avaris, under the remains of a defunct city that was called Ramses. The residents of Avaris, while Semites, seem to have had – originally at least – the approval and help of the Pharaoh.
  • The finds include many sheep and goat bones, indicating the inhabitants were shepherds.
  • A large house was found built in the style of houses in Ur. It was later modified into an Egyptian-style palace. 
  • Associated with the house is a tomb in the shape of a small pyramid – normally associated only with kings, but this one containing a statue of someone Semitic, wearing a multi-colored robe. 
  • Significantly, no bones were found in this tomb.
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Doesn’t all this back up the Genesis account of Joseph’s family living in Egypt? Could this be the remains of a palace and tomb built for Joseph? Could the absence of bones in the tomb, of no value to grave robbers, be an indication of the Israelites taking Joseph’s bones with them when they left Egypt? No, says the chief Egyptologist on the site, James Hoffmeier. Why not? “It is simply too early in history.”
  • Excavations at Avaris show a severe change in lifestyle: wear and fractures in skeletons indicate extreme physical labor. The lifespan drops precipitously, people dying at about 32 years of age. Also, there is a 60/40 ratio of female skeletons to male. Could this reinforce the Bible’s account of the enslavement of the Israelites and the murder of male babies? No, says the same Egyptologist – “Too early.”
  • A couple pharaohs named Amenemhat were involved in building a canal and lake which, at different points in history, have borne the name “bahr Yusef” (waterway of Joseph). This waterwork is credited with enormous grain production and prosperity for these pharaohs. Could this be related to the account of Joseph averting a famine? No, say archaeologists. Why not? “Too early.”
  • An ancient Egyptian document called The Brooklyn Papyrus recounts the efforts of an Egyptian noblewoman of the Thirteenth Dynasty (1809-1743 B.C.E.) to establish her legal ownership of 94 slaves. 45 of the slave names are from Canaan. Could this be proof that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt at that time? No, say “biblical” archaeologists. Why not? “Too early.”
  • The Ipuwer papyrus, housed in the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands, sounds like an eyewitness account of the plagues on Egypt. It is a copy of the original, whose date is somewhere between 1850 B.C.E. and the late 13th century B.C.E. It talks about the rich becoming poor and the poor rich, slaves leaving their masters, the Nile becoming blood, mourning in every household, grain crops being lost, and the light becoming darkness. Could this be a parallel to the 10 plagues recorded in the Bible? No, says museum curator Martin Raven. “It pretends to be an eyewitness account, but in fact it isn’t.” Why not? Among other things… too early.
  • Archaeology at Jericho, Hazor, and Shechem have all shown clear signs their walls were destroyed and the cities burned by an enemy. In particular, excavators at Jericho found, in nearly every house, jars nearly full of grain, burned. Their being full indicates two things: Jericho’s destruction happened soon after the harvest (spring in that part of the world) and that the siege that conquered the city didn’t last long enough for the occupants to be scraping the bottom of the barrel. The account in Joshua describes a 7-day siege, in the spring. Could the Jericho archaeology prove the Bible account true? No, claimed "biblical" archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. Why not? You guessed it: too early. She placed the destruction of Jericho’s walls somewhere in the 16th century B.C.E.
Why are they all claiming these events happened too early? Because the GAD, the Generally Accepted Date, of the Exodus, is 1250 B.C. Why that date? As Mahoney shows in his film, the evidence for that date is scanty: 1. The Bible says the Israelites lived in a part of Egypt called Goshen and Rameses (Genesis 47:6, 11). 2. There was a Pharaoh named Ramses II who names a city after himself, and died about 1203 B.C.E.

So, the “biblical” archaeologists don’t believe there ever was an Exodus. But their reason for not believing it is based on a chronology they created using their own misunderstanding of a coincidence of a name in the Bible. I guess the idea that a "land of Rameses" could have existed before there was a Pharaoh with a similar name never occurred to them. Another possibility is that the land was called Goshen when Joseph settled his family there, but had been renamed Rameses by the time Moses wrote Exodus.

Obviously, then, Mahoney’s suggestion is: Why not throw away the tenuous association to Pharaoh Ramses, and re-date the Exodus to line up with the archaeological and historical realities? Unfortunately, like a scientist espousing Intelligent Design, these archaeologists and Egyptologists would be bucking a huge, complex, and most importantly, a closed system if they suggested any re-dating. Israel Finkelstein said outright, ‘The chronology is locked. You might see a correction of a decade here or there, but on the whole it is not open to adjustment.’
Sad but true. And they call Bible students fanatics.

You can learn more about the movie and the book here.
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