Alternative theories about the exodus (Exodus 16)

Illustration: Mount Sinai

The Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is a key focus in the Old Testament, as well as an early, vital component of Biblical salvation history. The significance of this historical event is confirmed again and again throughout the Biblical canon. Numerous passages, beginning with the Pentateuch, refer to this pivotal event in God’s dealings with His people. For example:

  • A prologue introducing both Old Testament recitations of the Tem Commandments (Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 5:6) reminded Israel of God’s faithful actions during the exodus.
  • The exodus provided the basis for demanding proper treatment of strangers and impoverished individuals living in Israel (Exodus 22:21, 23:9, Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
  • Israel’s annual cycle of feasts recalled events associated with the exodus (cf. Exodus 12:26-27, Leviticus 23:42-43, Deuteronomy 16:1).
  • The experience afforded the Israelites the confidence they needed to wage war (Deuteronomy 20:1).

In addition, Israel’s departure from Egypt for the promised land, along with the numerous miracles associated with that event, served as the basis for the nation’s call to holiness (Numbers 15:40-41) and for the evaluation of her actions (Deuteronomy 6:20-25), the principal theme of many psalms (e.g. Psalm 78, 80, 81, 105, 106, 236) and an inspiration underlying many of her deepest prophetic hopes (Isaiah 1:16, Jeremiah 11:3-5, 23:7-8). In profound ways this event provided the very foundation for Israel’s spiritual and national life.

Despite the importance of this occurrence, a number of problems remain. The exact date, as well as the precise location and route of the exodus, are disputed. The silence of Egyptian literary records concerning this momentous event, as well as of the circumstances leading up to it, is perplexing, yet undeniable. Because archaeological evidence for the xodus is fragmentary and limited and contains large gaps, some scholars go so far as to question the historicity of the exodus and suggest alternative theories concerning Israel’s origins. None of these hypothesis, however, can e demonstrated archaeologically or can boast the slightest Biblical basis. Theories that have been posited include the following:

  • A small group of “pro-Israelites” departed from Egypt, entered Canaan and attracted followers from the local population. This group eventually became the nation of Israel.
  • Nomads gradually emigrated from various places into Canaan and coalesced around a common (but mythical) story of an exodus, complete with accounts of miraculous elements.
  • The Israelites were Canaanite peasants who banded together, revolted against their overlords and created “Israel” out of a mythical history.
  • Indigenous tribal groups within Canaan formed a people during the decline of Egyptian supremacy in the region.

Despite all the conjecture, many solid facts do support the reality of the exodus account. The Biblical record accords unparalleled significance to the event, and numerous details conform well to the cultural and political situation in Egypt during the New Kingdom period. For example, the Bible accurately depicts known labour conditions, proper names, governmental structures, royal theology, geography, magical powers, craftmanship and artistic conventions of Egypt during the fourteenth and thirteenth century B.C. Although these facts cannot in and of themselves verify the reality of the exodus, they definitely support God’s own ancient Biblical testimony through His servant Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).

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