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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 Bible and Primary Historical Sources

The biblical account makes an exceptionally poor primary historical source for the Exodus events. Possible historical data are mostly inconsistent, ambiguous, or vague. No Egyptian pharaoh associated with the Exodus events is named. When the king of Arad fights the Israelites in Numbers 21.1 , he is merely called “the Canaanite, the king of Arad.” In those few places where the Exodus narrative is meticulous about detail, the particulars are either unhelpful—such as the stages in the trek out of Egypt, or the names of the three Transjordanian rulers (King Sihon of the Amorites in Num. 21.21 ; King Og of Bashan in Num. 21.33 ; Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab, in Num. 22.4 ) who are completely unknown outside the Bible—or inappropriate. In the latter case, biblical precision generally stems from concerns other than historical: standardized generation formulas grounded in symbolic numbers are applied backward to calculate the year of the Exodus; or historically impossible numbers are given for participants in the departure from Egypt to stress the event's significance.

The surviving biblical account of the Exodus has thus been shaped by later creative hands responding to overarching theological agendas and differing historical and cultural circumstances. Many of the preserved details are anachronistic, reflecting conditions during the first millennium BCE when the narrative was written down and repeatedly revised. As a consequence the final Exodus account should not be accepted at face value, nor can it function as an independent historical variable against which other sources of historical information are judged. Rather, it is a dependent variable whose historical value is judged by and against other, more reliable sources of historical information.

Over the past two centuries, scholars have learned an enormous amount about the ancient world. Vast quantities of raw data, both textual and archaeological, have been collected and processed; innumerable synthetic works have been produced; and anthologies of primary and secondary sources have proliferated. Granted, our knowledge is not perfect; a number of variously sized holes in our understanding remain to be filled, and individual historical sources can be problematic. Collectively, however, the weight of accumulated historical knowledge is both impressive and indisputable—and almost without exception decisive for larger issues of historical understanding.

Synchronisms among the ancient Mediterranean, Egyptian, and Near Eastern cultures have been worked out slowly and carefully by scholars in a variety of related fields. There is some quibbling in the decorative details of this structure, particularly for more poorly known eras, but the framework as a whole is solid. Absolute dates are disputed within a limited chronological range, but this does not mean that separate parts of the whole can be treated individually without regard to the broader implications for the entire structure. All parts are interrelated, and shifting one or more segments of the framework requires a concomitant movement of all other associated elements. Any substantive modification must be warranted on cogent historical grounds. The biblical narrative in particular, with its inherent inconsistencies, contradictions, and clearly problematic historical base, is not an appropriate venue for arbitrarily challenging fastidiously constructed and well-established chronologies and cross-cultural synchronisms.

Any search for a historical core to the Exodus saga must thus work within the network of established and interdependent chronologies for Egypt and the ancient Near East. The first step is to seek mention of Exodus events in nonbiblical ancient sources. Unfortunately, there are none: no texts from Egypt or anywhere else in the ancient Near East provide such an independent witness. Years of the most intensive scrutiny have failed to produce a single unequivocal, or even generally accepted, nonbiblical historical reference to any event or person involved in the Exodus saga. The first reasonably secure date in all of biblical history is Solomon's death around 928 BCE; and with one exception, no extrabiblical reference to Israel or Israelites by name occurs in historical sources earlier than the ninth century.

The exception occurs on the “Merneptah Stela,” also known as the “Israel Stela.” This black granite stela, over 3 meters (10 feet) high, was found in the ruins of Merneptah's funerary temple in western Thebes. A fragmentary copy also turned up at Karnak, the powerful state temple of the New Kingdom pharaohs (Dynasties 18–20; ca. 1550–1069 BCE) located in eastern Thebes. The stela tells us that it was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah (whose name is also rendered Merenptah), a pharaoh of Dynasty 19 who ruled approximately 1213–1203. The long text of the stela primarily glorifies Merneptah's military victory over Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its last two lines refer to a prior military campaign into Canaan, in which Merneptah says that he defeated, among others, Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel. The hieroglyphs employed for Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam include the determinative sign regularly used to refer to city-states: a throw stick plus three mountains designating a foreign country. The hieroglyphs with which Israel was written include instead the determinative sign usually reserved for foreign peoples: a throw stick plus a man and a woman over the three vertical plural lines. This sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic groups or peoples without a fixed city-state home, thus implying a seminomadic or rural status for “Israel” at that time.

Recently some scholars have suggested that reliefs in the Karnak temple once attributed to Rameses II were carved during Merneptah's reign and provide a parallel account to the Canaanite campaign referred to on the Israel Stela, specifically illustrating the battles in which Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel were defeated. If so, these reliefs would be the first known depictions of Israelites. Only Ashkelon, however, is named specifically; the identification of Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel must be inferred. This interpretation, as well as the dating of the reliefs, remains controversial. Ironically, the encounter with Egypt immortalized in the Merneptah Stela, the only indisputable extrabiblical mention of Israel prior to the ninth century BCE, is not recorded in the Bible, at least not in recognizable form.

Earlier in this century, a great deal of excitement arose with the discovery in Egypt of the Amarna tablets. These texts, dating to the fourteenth century BCE, mention a troublesome group of people found in ancient Syria-Palestine called the ‘Apiru/‘Abiru, or Hapiru/Habiru. Scholars eagerly equated these Apiru with biblical ‘ibrî, or “Hebrew,” and at first thought they had found confirming, independent evidence of the invading Hebrews under Joshua. As more texts were uncovered throughout the Near East, however, it became clear that these Apiru were found throughout most of the Fertile Crescent (that well-watered arc of urban civilizations extending from the Tigris-Euphrates river basins over to the Mediterranean littoral and down through the Nile Valley) during the second millennium. They had no common ethnic or national affiliations; they spoke no common language; and they normally led a marginal and sometimes lawless existence on the fringes of settled society. The Apiru constituted, in effect, a loosely defined, inferior social class composed of shifting and shifty population elements without secure ties to settled communities. Apiru are frequently encountered in texts as outlaws, mercenaries, and slaves. Scholarly opinion remains divided as to whether there is an etymological relationship between Apiru and ‘ibrî, though many scholars think that the Apiru were a component of proto-Israel.

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