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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Literary and Historical Character of the Exodus Narrative

This seemingly straightforward, historical account of Israel's escape from Egypt and sojourn in the Sinai wilderness is in fact a multilayered document, the culmination of a complicated, centuries-long process of composition, compilation, and transmission. A variety of sophisticated analytical methods have been brought to bear on the Exodus narrative since the advent of modern biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century CE. Initially, and until recently, critical methodologies concentrated on tracing the origins and historical development of the biblical narrative and stressed the predominantly historical character of the Bible. Textual criticism has sought to establish an original biblical text by comparing and contrasting all relevant documents surviving into the modern world. Thus, based on a gloss in the ancient Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint), one scholar equates the place called Pithom in Exodus 1.11 with Heliopolis, an ancient city whose remains are now covered by a modern suburb of Cairo, rather than with a site in the eastern Egyptian delta.

Literary or source criticism has pursued underlying sources, arranged these in historical order, and identified points where different sources were redacted, or edited together, to form larger units. This method of analysis produced the “Documentary Hypothesis” that, with variations, remains widely followed today. The Documentary Hypothesis posits for the Pentateuch four primary literary sources (J, E, P, and D), dated to different periods in the first half of the first millennium BCE, which were woven together by a series of mid-first-millennium redactors. Among those who accept this approach, however, major areas of dispute persist, including disagreements over the Exodus account. Scholars have differed about which passages belong to which hypothesized source, about whether the Exodus and Sinai traditions were originally separate, and, if so, to which, if either, the Moses story belonged. But there are also areas of substantial agreement, such as the dating of the D (Deuteronomic) source to the seventh century BCE and the placement of the Deuteronomic History (the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) at the end of the present Exodus narrative, where it preempted an earlier conclusion to the saga. Thematically, the Exodus chronicle culminates with the conquest of Canaan, but in the canon we now possess this climactic event is postponed until Joshua, a book not part of the Pentateuch.

In recent years, challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis have increased steadily. The content, the date, and even the existence of some of the sources have been questioned, and the validity of the approach itself impugned. A few authorities have concluded that the core events of the Exodus saga are entirely literary fabrications. But most biblical scholars still subscribe to some variation of the Documentary Hypothesis, and support the basic historicity of the biblical narrative.

Form criticism endeavors to recover older stages of biblical traditions by identifying primary literary or oral genres, or “forms,” and by establishing, as far as possible, the Sitz-im-Leben, or life setting, of these forms in order to understand how they functioned within their social contexts. There is general agreement that the Exodus account synthesizes a variety of primary forms, including narrative, folk tradition, etiological legend, myth, ritual instruction, covenant formulary, and hymn. Many of these forms are not, and should not be considered, historically based; Moses' birth narrative, for example, is built on folkloric motifs found throughout the ancient world.

Tradition or redaction criticism concentrates on later levels of textual development, where editorial activity becomes apparent. The redactors often functioned not merely as editors who integrated various preexisting materials into a smoothly flowing whole, but also as creative theologians who stamped their own beliefs on what they considered to be a definitive interpretation of the biblical text. Thus considerable literary effort has been expended to link, at one end, the Egyptian portion of the Exodus account with the prior ancestral narratives of Genesis and, at the other end, to join the wilderness sojourn of the Exodus narrative with the subsequent conquest of Canaan. Even more broadly, the biblical books of Genesis through 2 Kings have been placed purposely in sequence to create a continuous history running from creation to exile.

More recently, partly as a result of diminishing returns from and perceived limitations of the more traditional, historically based techniques, some scholars have taken a broader, holistic approach to the biblical texts. Canonical criticism, born in the 1960s, has aimed at comprehending the Bible as an integral part of a holy scripture that belongs to a believing and worshiping community. The final version of this canon of scripture has its own validity, meaning, and artistry, independent of the development of the parts. It is this overall unity that provides access to theological truth and religious experience, not the analysis of origins, sources, and layers of tradition, even though these may exist.

Finally, especially since the 1970s, some scholars have focused on the Bible predominantly as literature. In this newest form of inquiry, called synchronic or final form interpretation, the biblical text is treated as an organic whole with its own intrinsic artistic integrity. As with canonical criticism, the interpretive focus falls not on the historical background or development of the document, but on the completed text itself as a literary creation. In general, those espousing canonical or final form interpretations are less interested in historical approaches and less concerned with issues of historicity. Adherents of both these methods stress that the present canonical text of Exodus comprises a carefully organized document with a deliberately calculated literary structure and a compelling theological message.

Except for those conservatives who insist on Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (thereby giving Moses the unique privilege of recording his own death in Deut. 34.5–8 ), scholars of all critical schools agree that the Exodus account as it stands today is a composite, a literary construct, carefully composed and edited to achieve historical and theological coherence, and that this composite is made up of smaller units that have been transmitted and redacted over centuries. Ironically, despite—or possibly because of—our expanded analytical base and broader understanding, there is less agreement than ever as to the history, development, and character of the Exodus account, and biblical scholarship in general is in ferment.

Innumerable analyses, undertaken from many perspectives during the past century and a half, underscore that the original Exodus account, whatever its content and its time and place of composition, was something vastly different from the complex Exodus saga we know today. But this original version lies beyond our reach. The growing dissonance of scholarly opinion underscores the impossibility of tracing the details of the Exodus narrative's intricate evolution. Occasionally, however, partial outlines of the saga's long development can be sketched.

Most of the Exodus material was composed or collected long after the events narrated. In some cases additions were retrojected in time for placement within the legitimizing framework of Mosaic law—especially later ritual, legal, and regulatory matters. In other cases alterations or augmentations were introduced to bring events closer to an audience increasingly separated by time and circumstance from the original experiences. Such procedures introduced historical material into the narrative—but material that dated from long after the original happenings. Where detected, such later accretions or substitutions can be identified as anachronistic. Recent research indicates that even more of the extant Exodus account than previously thought comes from periods during or after the Israelite monarchy or even the exile. Presumably an original Exodus story lies hidden somewhere inside all the later revisions and alterations, but centuries of transmission have long since obscured its presence, and its substance, accuracy, and date are now difficult to determine.

The historicity of the Exodus narrative is thus a complex issue. Clearly, significant portions are not and were never intended to be historiographic. Yet the overall intent of the narrative was historical, despite nonhistorical elements in its compilation. In this context it is important to remember that the biblical writers' conception of history, particularly within what was primarily a theological document, differed from our own. The dominant historical concern of the Exodus account is to demonstrate that God acts in history: that Israelite bondage and salvation took place in history; that God's covenant with Moses and the Israelites was made in history; and that the fulfillment of that covenant also took place in history. All other historical concerns are secondary, but this underlying, elemental historicity suffices to make the account historical, and this dominating concern made it permissible to shift historical particulars in order to make the Exodus chronicle more accessible to successive generations. A similar process can be seen at work in European Renaissance art, where biblical figures are anachronistically dressed in contemporary clothing and biblical locations transformed into contemporary surroundings so that the material might speak more directly to its intended audience. Mythic events, too, were incorporated into the Exodus epic to enhance, rather than detract from, the basic historical foundation of the account. It was the enduring reality—expressed in the core historicity of the central events of the Exodus—not transient specific historical detail, which was important and eternal. Ultimately it is this compelling historical grounding of the narrative that sustains most scholars' belief in an actual historical origin for the Exodus events.

The biblical Exodus account was never intended to function or to be understood as history in the present-day sense of the word. Traditional history, with its stress on objectivity and verifiable, detailed facts as the building blocks of historical understanding, is a modern obsession. Not that the ancients were incapable of bald, factual rendering if they deemed it appropriate—they, too, had accurate tax records. But for most occasions, and especially for documents that expressed deeper truths and fundamental values, facts as such were not always valued, consistency was not always a virtue, and specific historical particulars were often irrelevant and therefore variable. In the end, it was necessary that the theologically informed events of the Exodus epic relate to history, in the sense that a true historical heart to the narrative exist, but not that these events be bound by history. Particular, individual historical details were superfluous.

Thus, there is an inherent tension between an ancient and a modern understanding of the historicity of the Exodus. Mythical and historical categories of thought were not mutually exclusive in antiquity; on the contrary, the very miracles that make modern readers uncomfortable intensified the drama and significance of the historical base for the ancient. We do the Exodus narrative a profound disservice by uncritically seeking natural interpretations for the clearly miraculous, and it is misguided to supply scientific explanations for such nonhistorical events as the ten plagues of Egypt, the burning bush that spoke to Moses, or the pillars of cloud and fire that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness.

In the end, the Exodus saga is neither pure history nor pure literature, but an inseparable amalgam of both, closest in form to what we would call a docudrama. For the Israelites, the Exodus events were anchored in history, but at the same time rose above it. The Exodus saga incorporated and reflected an original historical reality, and this reflection was all that was necessary to make the account historical in ancient eyes. The Egyptian captivity and deliverance were seen through a lens of communal faith, in which history provided the skeletal framework for structuring the actions of God. This skeleton was fleshed out by a variety of predominantly literary and religious forms.

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