O! ROT! Part IV: The Exodus

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This is the fourth part in the series on Kenneth Kitchen's On the Reliability of the Old Testament.  For some introductory remarks on the Exodus, see Part III of this series.

Now on to the exodus itself.  First off, from the 18th century (BC) onwards, there were several attempts (some successful, some failed) by people groups to move out of their rulers' land.  This provides some precedence for the exodus of the Israelites.  So, the criticism that the exodus itself is a ridiculous idea because no one could possibly escape the iron grip of Egypt is off-base.

Looking at the text of the book of Exodus, it is worth trying to surmise the Israelites' likely path based on topography, conditions, and logistics.  For example,  the "sea" - yam suph in Hebrew - plays an important role in the Israelites' journey .  The translation "Red Sea" is based upon the Latin Vulgate which itself follows the Septuagint; however, the original Hebrew, suph never meant "red".  The translation should be "reeds/rushes, marsh (plants)", as it is in Exodus 2:3-5 (reed basket to conceal Moses) and Isa. 19:6-7.  The term yam suph is also applied to the Gulf of Suez (Num. 33:10-11) and the Gulf of Aqaba (Num. 21:4 and others), which both extend from the "Red Sea".  This also solves the problem of how the Israelites crossed a yam suph but passed others later; if it were simply a single "Red Sea", it would not make sense; as it is, the term yam suph could have been applied to several bodies of water.

We now have to determine where the Israelites crossed the yam suph.  North seems unlikely; first, Exodus 13:17-18 tells us the Lord led them elsewhere.  Further, in that direction lay about ten Egyptian forts.  It was a heavily militarized area.  The middle route features the broad limestone shield of Et-Tih; it is extremely dry, and historians believe it is unlikely a large people group could have crossed due to the lack of water.  And the details we have of the route from Exodus make this direction unlikely.  So the only possibility is south - "down Sinai's west coastlands, then east through the mountains and wadis to a southern Mount Sinai, then back up northeastward by Sinai's east coast and desert to Qadesh-Barnea."1  The Israelites' likely path can be further narrowed down by looking the ancient locations described in the biblical account and their corresponding location today.  Given the description of the journey (cities mentioned, encounters with yam suph, etc.), a map with a rough outline of the Israelites' journey can made.

Figure 27, p. 627

We now move from the question of "where" to "how many".  Kitchen has this to say: "For the last century or more, commentators have fought shy of the statement that 'about 600,000 went out on foot, plus women and children' (Ex. 12:37), with its seeming implication of an exodus of two million people or so."2  This reluctance is not simply because of the historical and logistical difficulties; there is also the issue of translation.  The words for "ten(s)" and "hundred(s)" is not ambiguous in Hebrew.  However, "thousand" is a new ballgame.  As in English, a word can be confused with another without context; an example is the word "bark" - skin of a tree, sound of a dog, or an ancient ceremonial boat.  There are three words 'lp in Hebrew.  One 'eleph means "thousand", one 'eleph means "group" as in a clan/family or squad, and finally 'alluph, which means leader, chief, or officer.  "So the question has been asked by many: Are not the 'six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty people' in such passages as Num. 2:32 actually 603 families/squads/clans, or leaders with 550 members or squads commanded?  Or some such analogous interpretation of the text?"3

Apparently, it is clear that other passages have 'eleph where it should not be rendered "thousand," but makes sense if rendered as "leader" or the like.  At any rate, there have been several attempts to tackle the problem, each building on the other or criticizing those before.  Once everything is taken into account, Kitchen settles on the number of 20,000, and this number accords well with the population estimate of Canaan in 1150 BC.

There are a couple more interesting things to mention.  The account of Moses striking rocks to produce water in the Horeb and Qadesh-Barnea regions reflects local geology.  In the 1920s, an army NCO (British) accidentally hit a rock face with a spade, resulting in a good flow of water, to which his companions teased him with "What-ho the prophet Moses!"  Further, twice the Israelites ran into quail.  And in fact, quail migrate via Sinai twice a year.  And their migration patterns lend further credence to a southern exodus.

Let's summarize what we've learned about the Exodus.  First, the argument that the lack of archaeological evidence proves the Israelite's never lived on the Nile delta carries no weight. It would only be a good argument if we had reasons to believe we should find archaeological evidence, which isn't the case.  The Nile delta holds little archaeological evidence for anything, even that Egyptians lived there.  The reason is because it is a giant pile of mud; any settlements, Israeli, Egyptian, or otherwise have been washed away by the Nile.  Second, the Egyptians did in fact use foreign workers during the time period of the Israelites' stay in Egypt, so there is at least precedent.  Third, many of the plagues set upon the Egyptians have their basis in real, naturally occurring events.  Even if they are on a scale that is miraculous or - in the case of the tenth plague - are in and of themselves miraculous, that is no reason to throw out the story in its entirety.  Fourth, the descriptions of the Exodus and the geographic formations encountered are corroborated by actual geography.  There is no reason to doubt the description of the path of the exodus.  Finally, while many translations put the number of Israelites taking part in the Exodus around 2 million, there is reason to believe, based on the original Hebrew, that the number may have been around twenty thousand.  This is more in line with population estimates and logistical issues.

Kitchen concludes, "Thus a southern exodus cannot be held to be proven, but it is both a viable and a realistic proposition; the narratives show a practical knowledge of Sinai conditions not readily to be gained by late romance writers in exilic Babylon or an impoverished Persian-Hellenistic Judea, hundreds of miles from the places and phenomena in question."4

In the next post in the series we will move on to external assessment of Sinai and the Covenant.

1.  Kitchen, p. 268
2.  Ibid., p. 264
3.  "
4.  Ibid., p. 274
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