Notes from Limmud 2008
New Archaeological Insights on the Exodus and Mount Sinai
Rabbi Dr Richard Freund
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
Did the Exodus happen? It is as logical, reasonable, scientific to say that the Exodus happened just as depicted in the Book of Exodus as not.
There are five lines of evidence:
- The Literary Arguments
- The Historical Arguments
- The Archaeological (small finds) Arguments
- The Artifactual (monumental finds) Arguments
- The Geographical Arguments
The Literary Arguments
There are literary arguments we can apply to any text. How does the Exodus text differ from any other ancient Middle-Eastern declaration of independence? All the other texts start off with a huge epic heroic story of how their god is great, and all other things they have done are great and heroic and beautiful and shiny. But here in the Book of Exodus we have a people claiming to have been slaves for over two hundred years before they emerged into their own. And on top of that, once they come out of Egypt, they're continually complaining! It's not heroic at all!
The weirdness of this text is a sign of its authenticity; this is called the principle of dissimilarity. Compare, for example, in the NT, when Jesus heals a blind person (Mark 8):
They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, "Do you see anything?" He looked up and said, "I see people; they look like trees walking around." Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
This is strange, because it's real: he's doing a real medical procedure.
The Hebrew language shows us in its development that the first Hebrew writers are only from the tenth century BCE. Before that, it was all oral. They started writing it down for the same reasons the Mishna was written down: Starting with the Assyrian near-conquest of the land of the eighth century, they were afraid it would all be lost. Also, the rise of the Davidic dynasty needed documents—movable documents—to support it.
Many different versions and words and pieces were taken together and merged into the Bible we have today.
When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, they settled in the Land of Rameses. Rameses was supposedly the pharaoh of the Exodus. How could Rameses, 400 years beforehand, be a place if he doesn't exist yet? One of the biggest problems you face is that the Bible was written at a time when the events in it had passed long ago. It's full of anachronisms.
Sometimes words in the Bible don't mean what they seem to mean. For example, the biggest problem with the Exodus is the numbers involved. Egypt at the time had a population of four million people; there's no way two and a half million people could have left—particularly without leaving any trace in the Sinai. The text does not really talk about 603,550 people; it talks about 603 אֶלֶף. This has two meanings in the Bible: one is as "thousand", but the majority of citations in the Bible are for "clan". Normally this means eight to ten people! [*boggle*—the Etz Chayim says fifty.] So really we're talking about six odd thousand people here.
The Historical Arguments
There's no evidence for the Israelites in Egypt. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Though in Egypt we have 0.1% of all the things that were ever written in Egypt. Consider how systematically the record ofwas erased after his death, or the attempt to erase the record of , or the : once they had been expelled, every single reference to their ever being there was erased from Egyptian history. So the Egyptians would never have written the history of one of their minorities getting up and leaving!
(Some people think the Hyksos were the Israelites: they also went out with a mixed multitude.)
Since archaeologists were looking for a multitude of two and a half million, this affected their view of what they did find.
Further, where were they looking? They were looking at Jebel Musa, which was an identification of Mt Sinai created by the Byzantines! There's not one shard of pottery there that goes back to the Bronze Age, when the Exodus happened.
Not only this, but there are people who say that Rameses was the pharaoh of the Exodus—the evidence for which was because the Bible says the Israelites built the storehouses of Pithom and Rameses (though possibly that was the only great pharaoh the writers of the Torah knew of)—if they were forty years in the desert (which is actually just a round number for a long period of time), they arrived at the time at which Jericho was abandoned! It was actually destroyed two centuries beforehand.
In the bowels of the Cairo Museum (for which bring torches), there is the Israel stele, made by Merneptah in 1206 BCE, who writes on it "Ysiraal is destroyed, its seed is no more." But if Israel were in the land then, they must have been there beforehand! [Well, Hertz points out that it's debatable whether "Ysiraal" refers to Isrā'ēl (Israel) or Izrə`el (Jezreel).]
There have been connections made between the eruption of Thera in the sixteenth century and the Ten Plagues. When Krakatoa erupted, for weeks hundred and hundreds of miles away the skies were darkened. **** If for a moment we accept two pieces of evidence: first the Ahmose stele, saying "the land was turned into blood, cattle died," etc. This is at the same time he's kicking out the Hyksos. But there is also a papyrus from the same century listing similar plagues hitting the land.
Recently, pieces of pumice from the Thera eruption have been discovered in the Goshen area of Egypt. This is good archaeology—looking for other pieces of evidence.
The Geographical Arguments
The biggest problem of all is Mt Sinai, geographically: Why is it that the tradition of where Mt Sinai was was not maintained by the Israelites? The last historical reference to it in the Bible is when Elijah goes to Horeb in the ninth century [BCE]. It takes him forty days and forty nights to get there. But surely it's closer to Israel. Maybe we've been looking in the wrong place.
The Bible says it took forty-five days for the Israelites to get from Egypt to Mt Sinai. (Forty-five is not a round number; it's a genuine detail.) How many miles per day could a large number of people go? There are dissertations on this! Answer: six to eight. Getting to Jebel Musa would have required going much faster. It has to be within a sphere of 250 miles.
The Archaeological Arguments
Now, there is a mountain, Mt Karkom, 250 miles from [the non-desert part of] Egypt, on the border of Egypt and Israel, where an archaeologist, Prof. Emmanuel Anati, discovered hundreds of thousands of pieces of pottery from the Bronze Age; and 40,000 pieces of rock art, including of menorahs, but also of inscriptions in unknown alphabets, ringing the whole mountain. The evidence runs from the fifteenth century BCE down to the ninth, when it stops. [Anati, however, places the Exodus at the peak of activity at Mt Karkom, in the period 2350-2000 BCE, which is considerably earlier than the Exodus is normally dated.] Nothing like this can be said of the other eight contenders for Mt Sinai Dr Freund has looked into.
One of many sets of standing stones surrounding the mountain.
Anati thinks this is Mt Sinai not just because it fits the evidence, but also because of what happened elsewhen in the Bible. In the ninth century, a new huge massive technological advance in transport came: the domesticated camel arrived in the Middle East. And this meant people no longer needed to stop at Mt Sinai on their way across the desert: the tade routes changed.
There's also the fact that at that time, a new mountain became important for the Jews: Jerusalem. King David was already facing people trying to promote Mt Gerizim as an alternate holy mountain; he was not going to encourage the promotion of Mt Sinai!
Aerial photograph of a geoglyph of a
quadruped, more than 30 meters long.
The other piece of evidence is from the mountain itself. The mountain is ringed with sacrificial altars, carbon-dated to the Middle Bronze Age. When all those altars were lit, the mountain would have looked like it was on fire. There are also twelve standing stones at the bottom of the mountain.
On top of the mount there is a huge temple with standing stones, and a small cave. There are also zoomorphic and anthropomorphic features (like the Nazca lines) [example shown at the right].
[All of these are documented in Anati's book, which is available (on paper and) online (though the site seems a bit broken to me). See also figs. 130ff for an example of some rock art, 153 for an intriguing engraving dubbed "the Tablets of the Law". I didn't see any menorahs, but have personally seen ancient menorah rock art (though considerably less old—I'd estimate only two thousand years by the script) elsewhere in the Sinai.]
About the altar with twelve stones:
Exodus 24:3-24:7 שמות כד ג-כד ז Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD has said we will do. Moses wrote all the words of the LORD; he rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, along with twelve pillars, for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent Israelite youths, who offered up elevation offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read in in the ears of the people: and they said, All that the LORD has said we will do and hear. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל־דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה וְאֵת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל־הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה׃ וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל־דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה וַיַּשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ תַּחַת הָהָר וּשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה מַצֵּבָה לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ וַיִּשְׁלַח אֶת־נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים לַה׳ פָּרִים׃ וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה חֲצִי הַדָּם וַיָּשֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹת וַחֲצִי הַדָּם זָרַק עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ׃ וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע׃
Anati said: Nu?
[The remainder of the talk was anecdotal or consisted of photographs, and I did not take notes on it. As an example of the former, it transpires that the area is in a military training zone—the army has been shelling the mountain for years—and access for the archaeologists is limited to just one week a year. Which happens to be Pesach. So there the archaeologists were, celebrating Pesach at the foot of Mt Sinai!
If you want to know more, read Anati's book, I suppose.