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Moses and The Exodus

Modern archeaology, together biblical criticism, no longer accepts the major events described in the Pentateuch about Moses’ life as historical.

  • The story of Moses' birth is borrowed from another ancient semitic legend.

  • The mosaic laws are based on the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Even the story of Moses taking the stone tablets containing the ten commandments are derived from this Babylonian myth of Hammurabi.

  • Although in the past scholars had accepted that there could be a central kernal of history behind the story of the Exodus, the scholarly consensus today is very different. The current consensus is that the Exodus or anything closely resembling it, never happened.

The Birth of Moses

One such instance is the story of Moses’ birth, given in Exodus:

Exodus 2:2-6,10
The woman conceived and bore a son; and...she hid him for three months. And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes; and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river's brink. Now the daughter of the Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river; and her maiden walked beside the river; she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. When she opened it she saw the child...And the child grew...and he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said "Because I drew him out of water."

There is a legend of the founder of the Semitic dynasty of Akkad, King Sargon, which dates to the third millennium BC and is certainly earlier than the story in Exodus. This legend was found on Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablets dated to the first millennium BC. This is how the tablets sound like, in English:

Sargon, might King of Akkad, am I. My mother was of mixed blood; I never knew my father...My city is Azupiranu, on the banks of the Euphrates. My mother conceived and she secretly bore me. She put me into a basket of rushes, and sealed its lid with tar. She cast me into the river which did not drown me. The river swept me to Akiki, the drawer of water. Akiki, the drawer of water scooped me up in his pitcher. Akiki, the drawer of water raised me as his son. [1]

Here, like the stories of the flood, creation and paradise, the parallels are amazing:

  • The mother had a baby in secret.
  • Due to circumstances the baby had to be put away.
  • This was done by making a basket out of bulrushes and sealing it with tar.
  • The baby was put into the basket and left adrift on the river.
  • The baby was discovered by the person who became his foster parent.

Now, it should be obvious to all that the story of Moses' birth is based on the legend of Sargon. There can be no historical truth in stories which are used, repeatedly on different persons, by ancient cultures to glorify their heroes. As Werner Keller, the author of The Bible as History, admits:

The basket story is an old Semitic folk-tale. It was handed down by word of mouth for many centuries...It is nothing more than the frills with which posterity has always loved to adorn the lives of great men. [2]

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Mosaic Law and the Code of Hammurabi

This is not the only episode in the Moses chronicles that has been borrowed from Babylon. Everyone is familiar with Moses receiving the ten commandments in two stone tablets from God in Mount Sinai. However, this story is originally Babylonian.

One of the most well known ancient code of law was the Code of Hammurabi, so name after the Amorite king Hammurabi who lived around 1700 BC. On the great Babylonian stone monument, known as the stele of Hammurabi, a drawing inscribed on it shows the great Amorite King receiving the tablets of the law from the sun god, Shamash.

The similarity does not end here. On the stele too is inscribed the laws that made up the Code of Hammurabi. The general similarity between the code and The “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus chapters 21 to 23) and the legal codes of the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy cannot be denied. The Mosaic laws were obviously written under the influence of the Babylonian code. [3] In some cases even the wordings are uncannily close to one another. For example take this one from the code on the principle of an-eye-for-an-eye:

If a citizen shall put out the eye of another, then let his own eye be put out.
If a citizen shall knock out the teeth of another who is higher in rank, then let his own teeth be knocked out. [4]

This closely parallel’s one of the Lord’s commands in Exodus:

Exodus 21:23-24
And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

Here is another example, the code gives the following principle:

If a citizen steals the son of another citizen, he shall be put to death.

The principle and wording is closely followed in the verse below from Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 24:7
If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel...then that thief shall die...

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Exodus - The Evidence

Exodus chapters 1 through 12 tells the story of the miraculous escape of the Israelites under the leadership of Moses from Egypt. It is this story, together with Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (see next section), that provide the main anchor for Israelite identity as a people and as a religion. What does the textual and archeaological evidence tells us about the event describe in Exodus? Until recently most biblical scholar and “biblical archeaologists” took it for granted that, however much the story may have been overlaid by myths, there was a historical core to it. Until the late 1980’s even skeptical scholars accepted the idea that there may have been a “historical kernel” to the story of the Exodus. However since the last decade of the twentieth century, archeological evidence have begun to accumulate which have led most mainstream archaeologists to cast extreme doubt on the historicity of any type of mass Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

Before presenting the archaeological evidence on the historicity of the Exodus, we should point out that even a casual reading of the account in the Pentateuch would give one room to pause with respect to its general veracity.

It is also clear that by the time the different strands of tradition were put in writing, many of the details have already been lost or corrupted. How else would we explain the following discrepancies?

The name of Moses father-in-law is no longer known; for we have two different names for him:

Exodus 3:1 (also 18:1)
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian...

Numbers 10:29 (also Judges 4:11)
And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Raguel the Midianite, Moses' father in law...

There are two different account of the burial of Moses’ brother-in-law, Aaron:

Numbers 33: 38 (Also Numbers 20:22-29)
And Aaron the priest went up into mount Hor at the commandment of the LORD, and died there...
Deuteronomy 10:6
And the children of Israel took their journey from Beeroth of the children of Jaakan to Mosera: there Aaron died, and there he was buried...

That Moserah and Mount Hor are not the same place can be seen from the fact that Numbers 33:30-37 placed the former six stages before Mount Hor. [5]

The Bible apparently gives a very exact date for the Exodus:

I Kings 6:1
It happened in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of Yahweh..

Correlating this with the other dates in the Bible (see the Biblical Chronology given in table 3.2 in the previous chapter) gives this as 1495 BCE. However the Bible also says that the Israelites were forced by the Egyptians to built the city of Ramses:

I Exodus 8:11
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it happen that when any war breaks out, they also join themselves to our enemies, and fight against us, and escape out of the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. They built storage cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.

Now the first Egyptian Pharoah named Rameses came to power only in 1320 BCE. It would be impossible to built a city of that name before that time. However there is evidence from Egyptian sources that a city called Pi-Raamses was built under Ramesses II who was Pharoah from 1279-1213 BCE. Thus the story of the forced labor to built the city could only happen during this time.

Furthermore there the testimony of a 7-1/2 foot stela made of black granite found in Merneptah’s Temple in Thebes in 1896. Dated to around 1208 BCE, the stela, erected to commemorate the military victory of Pharoah Merneptah, son and successor of Ramses II, tells of a violent Egyptian conquest of Canaan. This is the relevant part for our purposes:

The Canaan has been plundered with every sort of evil;
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yanoam is made non-existent;
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;

The stela says nothing about an Israelite escape from Egypt but merely that they were in Canaan before 1208. Bracketted by the dates of the Pi-Rameses and the Merneptah Stela, the Exodus, if it happened at all, had to happen around the end of the 13th century BCE. [6]

However the moment we start looking for sources outside the Bible for this event we come up empty handed. Now according to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years. Yet for all this time, there is simply no literary nor archeological evidence outside the Hebrew scriptures that records the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. As the archeaologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman noted:

[W]e have no clue, not even a single word, about the early Israelites in Egypt: neither in monumental inscriptions on the walls of temples, nor in tomb inscriptions, nor in papyri. Israel is absent - as a possible foe of Egypt, as a friend, or as an enslaved nation. [7]

It is amazing that four centuries of settlement left not a single trace. When we comes to the actual Exodus, things are even worse. According to the Pentateuch that more than a million people were involved in the Exodus:

Exodus 12:37 (Also Numbers 1:45-46)
The children of Israel traveled from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot who were men, besides children.

With six hundred thousand men, besides children and presumably women, we are talking about an Exodus of more than one million people. We are also told (Joshua 5:6) that this one million plus wandered for forty years in the wilderness in Sinai Now surely more than more than a million people wandering around for forty years would have left some traces for archeaologist to find. Yet not a single archeological evidence have been found. This is not for want of trying. Between 1967, when Israel captured the Sinai peninsula from Egypt, and 1982, when it was returned in the peace treaty, Israeli archaeologists made dozen of expeditions throughtout the peninsula. Yet, not a single shred of evidence for an ancient Isrealite presence was found. [8]

The case is not helped by arguing that the numbers stated in Exodus may have been exagerrated and that these people were mainly wandering in the desert without any permanent station.

Firstly, modern archaeological techniques, as archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman point out, are capable of detecting even the smallest remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Secondly, in this case, even a relatively small group of escape slaves, would not have escaped detection by the Egyptians. Archeaologists have discovered a letter dated to 13th century BCE from an Egyptian border guard who reported the escape of two slaves from the city of Ramses into the desert. Thirdly, although the Pentateuch do describe wanderings in the desert, thirty eight out of the forty years was supposedly spent in one location: Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 13:26, 20:1, 20:14; Deuteronomy 1:46.). The location of Kadesh-Barnea has been safely identified. Yet after despite many expeditions and digs over the entire area not a single evidence of occupation earlier than the tenth century BCE - 300 years after the supposed Exodus - has surfaced. Ezion-Geber, which the ancient Israelites supposedly encamped (Numbers 33:35), is another site has been identified by archaeologist. Yet here too no artifacts dating to the time of the Exodus can be found. [9] Needless to say despite numerous digs on Mount Sinai, on the southern tip of Sinai peninsula, no evidence has been found of any ancient Israelite presence there. [10]

It is not that the archaeologists found nothing in Sinai dating to the 13th century. In fact much evidence about the situation in Sinai was discovered. What they found is further evidence that the Exodus story is myth. Elizier Oren, an Israeli archaeologist, led expeditions over a period of ten year studied more than 1,300 sites on northern coast of Sinai. What he found was ancient campsites, forts, cities, cemetaries and granaries for the Egyptian army. This infrastructure allowed the Egyptian army to cross the Sinai peninsula quickly and with ease. Contemporary Egyptian texts tell us that the Egyptian troops could reach Gaza from the eastern delta (some 250 kilometers) in only ten days. Excavations in Canaan also found Egyptian strongholds dating to the time of the Exodus and conquest. In short, the evidence shows us that in the 13th century Egypt was at the height of its powers and had complete control over not only Egypt but also Canaan. Throughout the period of the New Kingdom (c1569-1076 BCE), Egyptian armies have been known to march through Canaan as far north as the Euphrates in Syria. From the 15th to the 11th century BCE, Canaan was a province of Egypt!

It is important here to pause and let this evidence sink in and how it relates to the story of the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan (see below). If Canaan was under complete control of the Egyptians throughout this period, then the Israelites could not have escaped from Egyptian rule. They would be merely leaving one admistrative region and entering another - all under the administrative control of the empire of Rameses II! [11]

Even archaeologist, William Dever, normally associated with the more conservative section of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, have labelled the question of historicity of Exodus “dead.” [12] Israeli archeaologist Ze’ev Herzog, provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus:

The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction - made in the seventh century [BCE] - of a history that never happened. [13]

Of course, if the Exodus itself is unhistorical we can safely dismiss the stories of the miracles [the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21), the manna from heaven (Exodus 16:15-35) and the supply of water from the Rock in Horeb (Exodus 17:7)] as mythical addition to an already fictitious account.

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1.Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p27-28
Keller, The Bible As History: p122-123
2.ibid: p123
3.Barthel, What the Bible Really Says: p118-119
Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology:p147
Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p31
4.Barthel, What the Bible Really Says: p119
Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p34
5.Stiebing, Out of the Desert: p20
6.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p56-57
Marcus, The View from Nebo: p56
Laughlin, Archaeology and the Bible: p87,90
Sturgis, It Ain’t Necessarily So: p104
7.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p60
8.Marcus, The View from Nebo: p75
Laughlin, Archaeology and the Bible: p91
Sturgis, It Ain’t Necessarily So: p72
9.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p61-63
Marcus, The View from Nebo: p56
Laughlin, Archaeology and the Bible: p90-92
Sturgis, It Ain’t Necessarily So: p71-72
10. Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Appendix B: p326-328
11.Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: p60-61
Marcus, The View from Nebo: p76
Sturgis, It Ain’t Necessarily So: p69-70
12. Quoted in Laughlin, Archaeology and the Bible: p92
13.Quoted in Sturgis, It Ain’t Necessarily So: p74

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