Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Joshua Berman's essay on the historicity of the exodus
The movie Exodus: Gods and Kings has sparked some discussions over whether was there an actual exodus. Liberal scholars readily came out and repeated their mantra that there is little, if any, historical value in the Book of Exodus.
There is a recent insightful essay written by Rabbi Joshua Berman (Senior Lecturer at the Zalman Shamir Bible Deparment of Bar-Ilan University) that challenges the liberal view (H/T: Gerald McDermott). Berman points out several phrases in the Book of Exodus that parallel Egyptian Pharaohs' imperial propaganda contained in the Kadesh poem. For instance:
In the Kadesh poem we read: Then when my troops and chariotry saw me, that I was like Montu , my arm strong, . . . then they presented themselves one by one, to approach the camp at evening time. They found all the foreign lands, among which I had gone, lying overthrown in their blood . . . . I had made white [with their corpses] the countryside of the land of Kadesh. Then my army came to praise me, their faces [amazed/averted] at seeing what I had done.

Exodus 14:30-31 is remarkably similar, and in two cases identical: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord.” As I noted earlier, “great hand” here and “great arm” in 15:16 are used exclusively in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the exodus, a trope found elsewhere only within Egyptian propaganda, especially during the late-second-millennium New Kingdom.
Evidence such as this suggests a relation between the Egyptian and Hebrew sources:
I’m fully aware that similarities between two ancient texts do not automatically imply that one was inspired by the other, and also that common terms and images were the intellectual property of many cultures simultaneously. [...] Thus, although few if any ancient battle accounts record an army on the march that is suddenly attacked by a massive chariot force and breaks ranks as a result, it could still be that Exodus and the Kadesh poem employ this motif independently.
What really suggests a relation between the two texts, however, is the totality of the parallels, plus the large number of highly distinctive motifs that appear in these two works alone. No other battle account known to us either from the Hebrew Bible or from the epigraphic remains of the ancient Near East provide even half the number of shared narrative motifs exhibited here. [...]

To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. [...]

But my own conclusion is [...]: the evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion, which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate. 
There are three responses to Berman's essay. Richard Hess and Benjamin Sommer agree with him, while Ronald Hendel remains unconvinced.

Here is a short video that summarizes Berman's argument:

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