Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Exodus in Biblical Memory. By Ronald Hendel.

The Exodus in Biblical Memory. By Ronald Hendel. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 120, No. 4 (Winter 2001). Also here.

Exodus: A Book of Memories. By Ronald S. Hendel. Bible Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 (August 2002). Also here.


The Exodus from Egypt is a focal point of ancient Israelite religion. Virtually every kind of religious literature in the Hebrew Bible-prose narrative, liturgical poetry, didactic prose and prophecy—celebrates the Exodus as a foundational event. Israelite ritual, law and ethics are often grounded in the precedent and memory of the Exodus. In the Ten Commandments, Yahweh identifies himself as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2 = Deuteronomy 5:6). The deliverance from Egypt is the main historical warrant for the covenanted religious bond between Yahweh and his people Israel. In some texts (and featured prominently in the Haggadah, the traditional retelling of the Exodus story at the Passover Seder), the historically distant event is drawn into the present by the elastic quality of genealogical time: “You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what Yahweh did for me when he brought me out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8; see also Deuteronomy 6:20–25). In its existential actuality, the Exodus, more than any other event of the Hebrew Bible, embodies William Faulkner’s adage: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But is it true? Well, yes and no.
Does the story contain real history? Very probably yes, although it’s not easy to pinpoint.
The biblical account is a conflation of history and memory—a mixture of historical truth and fiction, composed of “authentic” historical details, folklore motifs, ethnic self-fashioning, ideological claims and narrative imagination. It was communicated orally and then in written texts and circulated in a wide discursive network. We may plausibly assume that the Bible (including its constituent documentary sources) depends in various ways on earlier discourses, both oral and written. The collective memory of the Exodus is, in this sense, situated in a history of discourses. It is the remembered past that we have in our Bibles. The past and the present are interrelated in collective memory.

The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality? By Baruch Halpern. The Rise of Ancient Israel. By Hershel Shanks, William G. Dever, Baruch Halpern, and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992.


Under what circumstances did Romulus and Remus found Rome? What was the role of Hercules, or Jason and the Argonauts, in creating a unified Mycenaean consciousness? If you can answer those questions, you are ready to tackle the issue of the Exodus. For our accounts of the Exodus reflect the prehistory of the Israelite nation, or, perhaps, of some part of it.
The closest parallel to the Book of Exodus in the ancient West is Homer’s Odyssey. Both are stories of migration—of identity suspended until the protagonist—Odysseus or Israel—reaches a home. Neither account records events of the sort that are likely to have left marks in the archaeological record, or even in contemporaneous monuments. At both ends of the journey, though, in Egypt and Israel or at Troy and Ithaca, the narrative can be said to reflect local conditions. In both cases, our sources reflect long-term oral transmission, followed by authoritative codification in writing. In both cases, there is evidence of that peculiar process of oral transmission in which the story is renegotiated with each separate audience each time it is told. Each story reflects a healthy admixture of fancy with whatever is being recalled.
The Odyssey is the story of an individual at odds with sorceresses, one-eyed cannibals and sirens—very much like a metaphor for the journey of a social welfare bill through the legislature. The implausibility of the story occasions no great difficulty: Augustine tells us that the Odyssey was taught as gospel in the Greek world of his day; it is basically a piece of children’s literature. So, in its way, is the story of the Exodus.
But the Exodus is not the story of an individual; it is the story of a nation. It is the historical myth of an entire people, a focal point for national identity. The Exodus story was to the ancient Israelite what the stories of the Pilgrims and the Revolutionary War are to Americans. At a deep level, in fact, our American fathers modeled their notions of identity and history on the Exodus.
The Exodus coded certain common values into the culture. All Israel shared the background of the ancestors—all Israel had been slaves in Egypt. Whatever one’s biological ancestry, to be an Israelite meant that one’s ancestors—spiritual or emotive or collective ancestors—had risen from Egypt to conquer Canaan. YHWH liberated the Israelites from Egypt and executed a covenant with them. The covenant stipulated that, in return for their emancipation and for the gift of the land of Canaan, Israel would worship YHWH and obey his law. In Near Eastern culture, a sovereign who saved his subjects from ruin and gave them land merited loyalty. This nexus furnished the myth of the Passover, celebrated every spring as the green wheat broke ground. This was the story of how Israel came to be, and how it came into possession of Canaan. For without the conquest of Canaan, the Exodus would have been without a point.
The earliest Israelite Passover ritual already incorporated the pretense that the participants were in transition from Egypt to Israel, from bondage to freedom: The unleavened bread they ate was (and is) the “bread of affliction,” the unleavened bread that their ancestors ate on leaving Egypt. And the roasted lamb they ate was the stuff of rugged campfires; it reflected the absence of basic amenities—since in civilized settings, meat was always boiled. The ritual of the Passover, in sum, always presupposed the threshold location of the celebrant, between bondage and freedom, between Egypt and Canaan, in the realm of the uncivilized.
The difference between the early Israelite celebration and the Jewish festival is this: The Jewish celebrant in the Diaspora expresses hopes for national reintegration; the ancient Israelites knew, from the bleatings of the flocks and from the greening of the landscape all around them, that the festival would leave them in possession of the land of Canaan.
Yet modern scholarship divorces the Exodus from its completion in the conquest. For the relation of the Exodus to Israel’s settlement of Canaan is no longer as clear as it was to the Israelites of the Iron Age. Neither the date of the Exodus nor the duration of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt can now be ascertained with any confidence. Consequently, we cannot accurately gauge the interval between the Exodus and the emergence of Israel in Canaan. More the pity: to the Israelite of the Iron Age, the events were all but simultaneous; this is the reason that the Book of Joshua locates Israel’s entry into Canaan at the time of the Passover (Joshua 4:19, 5:10–11).
The historical uncertainty arises from the nature of our sources, and of the events reported. Endless generations of oral recital have made themselves felt in shaping the literature. The accounts—of J, E, P, D, and other sources—differ in detail. And the story of the Exodus is so central to Israelite identity that changes in that identity almost unconsciously registered in the evolution of the story. Nevertheless, behind the Exodus story events can be discerned that, unlike those of the patriarchal narratives, can be termed historical in scale.

How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite. By William G. Dever. The Rise of Ancient Israel. By Hershel Shanks, William G. Dever, Baruch Halpern, and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992.

Ceramics, Ethnicity, and the Question of Israel’s Origins. By William G. Dever. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 58, No. 4 (December 1995).


The thirteenth/twelfth century BCE “Proto-Israelite” entity or polity that I have tried here to characterize archaeologically as an ethnic group was not, of course, homogenous in the beginning, because its members were of diverse origins. We must probably think of most of the highland colonists as “displaced Canaanites” (both geographically and ideologically), including an assortment of urban refugees, social dropouts and malcontents, migrant farmers, resedentarized pastoralists, perhaps some Shasu-like bedouin and other immigrants from Transjordan, and even some newcomers from Syria and Anatolia. All these peoples were among those displaced by the radical socio-economic and cultural upheavals at the end of the Bronze Age toward the late thirteenth century BCE. But the new alignments that followed soon produced, among the other coalitions, our “Proto-Israelites,” emerging as an agrarian socio-economic movement on the highland frontier, and thus with sufficient solidarity to constitute an “ethnic group.” This group certainly possessed an ideology as part of its self-awareness (although this is difficult to discern archaeologically) and perhaps pronounced "reformed" tendencies, as such dissident groups have often had.
The foregoing seems to me to be the most likely scenario at the moment for the origins and early development of ancient Israel. Yet it must be confessed that it is in sharp contrast to the biblical tradition of the Exodus and Conquest—a theological dilemma that few archaeologists, those who precipitated the current crises about “Israelite origins”—are willing to face. I can only suggest that we must presuppose a complex, multi-faceted process for the formation of the later literary tradition of the “origin stories.” Thus we are dealing here with literature, which does not reflect “real” life directly or even necessarily accurately—especially ancient literature, which never claims to be historical in the modern sense. Literature reflects life imaginatively. The biblical writers and editors are therefore interpreting events; seeing the past through “the eyes of faith”; looking at monarchical Israel after its history is finished, trying to make sense of it all. When the authors of the Bible do look back, the fact that a small and obscure people from the fringes of the desert became, even briefly, a great nation; that despite their fecklessness, Yahweh revealed himself to them through prophets and priests; and that even a remnant survived the Assyrian and Babylonian onslaught and kept their faith intact-all this seemed miraculous. It must have been God’s doing all along! Such a conclusion may be somewhat skewed historically; it may seem to us naive theologically; and it certainly cannot be confirmed archaeologically. But the Bible’s “explanation” of Israel’s birth may be in some ways as good as our own, for much about ancient Israel still remains a mystery, if not a miracle.
The “Exodus-Conquest” story is perhaps really about only a small group, the central unrepresentative group, the southern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were sometimes called the “House of Joseph,” because of the obvious Egyptian connection in one strand of the early tradition. If we ask then how the story of the “House of Joseph” became in time the story of “all Israel,” the answer may be deceptively simple. It was they who in the end told the story; and quite naturally, they included all those who later reckoned themselves part of biblical Israel. In time most people no doubt believed that they had been in Egypt.
A simple analogy may help us to understand this phenomenon. In mainstream American tradition, we all celebrate Thanksgiving as though we ourselves had come to these shores on the Mayflower. That is the myth; yet in fact, most of us got here some other way. My ancestors came from County Donegal in the potato famine 150 years ago. Yours may have come as slaves from Africa or from the ghettos of Europe, or as farm workers from Mexico. But spiritually (yes!), we are all Pilgrims: that is what makes us “Americans.” So are the myths of Israel’s origins, or ours, true? Of course they are—in the deepest sense. That we can put off our religious or cultural hat, and temporarily don the hat of the modern skeptical historian or archaeologist, does not necessarily alter or diminish the value of the tradition. We are what we believe we are, just as ancient Israel was.

How Did Israel Become a People? The Genesis of Israelite Identity. By Avraham Faust. Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 35, No. 6 (November/December 2009).

Migrations, Ethnogenesis, and Settlement Dynamics: Israelites in Iron Age Canaan and Shuwa-Arabs in the Chad Basin. By Thomas E. Levy and Augustin F. C. Holl. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol. 21, No. 1, (March 2002).

Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel, 1300-1100 B.C.E. By Ann E. Killebrew. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.

Exploring Exodus: The Oppression. By Nahum M. Sarna. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 49 No. 2 (June 1986).

The Exodus and the Settlement in Canaan. By H. H. Rowley. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 85 (February 1942).

The Egyptian Empire in Palestine: A Reassessment. By James M. Weinstein. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 241 (Winter 1981).

Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt? By S. David Sperling. NJBR, June 20, 2013. With related articles.

Was King Saul Impaled on the Wall of Beth Shean? By Amihai Mazar. NJBR, June 8, 2013. With related articles.

The Exodus and Cultural Memory. By Ronald Hendel. Video. Biblical Archaeology Society. (BAS Membership required.)

Ancient Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, rather than being a single, momentous event that can be confirmed through archaeology, should be viewed as a deep-seated cultural memory that allowed disparate groups of highland villagers and escaped Canaanite slaves to coalesce into a single people. How this story arose and why the early Israelites adopted this memory are key questions, which find coherent answers in the relationship between Canaan and the Egyptian empire of the Late Bronze Age. By fusing historical and fictional memories, the story created the necessary social context for the birth of Israel as a people.

Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination. By Noah Wiener. Bible History Daily, February 6, 2014. With links to videos from the Qualcomm Institute conference to be added.

Exodus: Out of Egypt: Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Archaeology, Text and Memory. Qualcomm Institute. Calit2. University of California at San Diego.

Website introduction by Thomas E. Levy:

This website does not advocate any solutions to the story of ancient Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, known from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Rather, it highlights new transdisciplinary perspectives on this ancient puzzle based on an international conference held May 31 to June 3, 2013 in Calit2’s Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. The conference – Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination – brought together more than 40 of the world’s leading archaeologists, Biblical scholars, Egyptologists, historians and geo-scientists. In tandem, the Qualcomm Institute staged an exhibition, EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future, through June 9, as an experiment in trans-disciplinary research, team science, and scholarly communication using technologies developed for the museum of the future. Archaeologists and Biblical scholars teamed with computer scientists, engineers, geo-scientists and sonic artists to show how 21st century collaboration in these fields can provide new ways of looking at ancient historical problems. Nearly four dozen scientists contributed their unique expertise and worked “out of the (disciplinary) box” in search of potential answers to historical questions. They explored cyber-archaeology data collection, analyses and dissemination, and the exhibition featured new 3D and large-scale visualization platforms developed by the Qualcomm Institute as prototype display systems for the museum of the future. At right is a collection of images from the conference and exhibition. Below, this portal features streaming video, including an overview of the exhibition, as well as on-demand video of all conference proceedings. At bottom, click on the links to view panels from the exhibition on the significance of the Exodus from an ecumenical perspective in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
Thomas E. Levy, Distinguished Professor, Conference Host, Qualcomm Institute - UC San Diego.

Keynote Lecture: The Exodus as Cultural Memory: Poetics, Politics, and the Past. By Ronald Hendel. UCSD Exodus Conference, May 31-June 1, 2013. Video. Calit2ube, June 11, 2013. YouTube.

The Exodus and the Bible: What Was Known, What Was Remembered, What Was Forgotten. By William Dever. UCSD Exodus Conference. Video. Calit2ube, June 11, 2013. YouTube.

The Emergence of Iron Age Israel: The Question of “Origins.” By Avraham Faust. UCSD Exodus Conference. Video. Calit2ube, June 7, 2013. YouTube.