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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Historicity

THE BOOK'S INATTENTION to historical details has left historians grasping at bits of incidental information, and at indirect evidence from ancient Egypt, that might permit dating of the exodus or assessment of its historicity. None of the biblical narratives in their current form is contemporary with the events they describe, though they have roots in earlier oral tradition. Nor is there reference to an exodus in contemporary Egyptian sources. Such a reference is not really to be expected, however: Egyptian royal inscriptions avoided mentioning setbacks unless they were followed by victories, and administrative records from the time and place of the exodus have mostly perished. Still, some data suggest that there is a plausible historical kernel to the story. Northwestern Semites of the same ethno‐linguistic stock as the Hebrews, from Canaan, Transjordan, and Syria, had for centuries migrated to Egypt, especially the eastern Nile delta, for food and water during times of famine, as the Bible reports of Abraham and later of Jacob and his family, who settled in the eastern delta ( 1.8 n.; 8.18 n. ). Others were brought there as slaves captured by the Egyptian army during raids. Egyptian documents refer to all of them as “Asiatics,” rather than the specific ethnic groups to which they belong (e.g., Hebrew/Israelite, Moabite, Phoenician; some mention people called H̆apiru, but they are probably notHebrews; see 1.15 n. ). Some Asiatics served as domestic or state slaves, the latter in royal building projects, like the Hebrews. According to the biblical account, the Hebrew slaves worked on the construction of the city of Rameses ( 1.11 ). If there is a historical kernel to the story, the Pharaoh who enslaved them was Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE), the greatest builder in ancient Egypt, who built the city named after himself as his new capital, in the eastern delta. Rameses also built a series of forts in the delta to secure Egypt's borders; this is perhaps reflected in the biblical Pharaoh's concern about foreign invasion ( 1.10 ). While we have no extrabiblical record of the ten plagues or of a mass escape of slaves from Egypt, natural disasters did take place periodically (though so many in rapid succession is implausible), and mass escapes of slaves are known from elsewhere in the ancient world, such as the revolt of 100,000 slaves in Italy led by Spartacus. The fact that “Moses” is an Egyptian name (a common element in such Egyptian names as Thutmosis and Rameses) is consistent with the Israelites having spent time in Egypt. If the Pharaoh of the enslavement was Rameses II, the Pharaoh under whom the Israelites left Egypt may have been his son, Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE), one of whose inscriptions claims a victory over “Israel,” described as a nonsedentary people somewhere in the vicinity of Canaan, an encounter that would have taken place after the exodus. This makes sense chronologically since archeological evidence probably suggests that the Israelites appeared in Canaan around the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 BCE). None of this proves that the exodus happened, but it does indicate that the outline of the story, of Hebrews migrating to Egypt during a famine and being enslaved there under Rameses II, and later leaving under Moses, during or by the time of Merneptah, is not inherently implausible. Moreover, if the Israelites had invented their history, it seems more likely that they would have portrayed themselves as the original inhabitants of their land rather than as interlopers with a humiliating background as slaves.

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