In the first chapter of this series, I dropped the bomb that there is no archeological evidence to support any of the major events described in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus.
And not just for the more mythical stuff like the global flood, or Joseph’s many-colored coat.
There’s no record or mention of Israelites ever being in Egypt, no mass slavery, no evidence of a mass exodus across the desert.
And no great battle of Jericho.
No seizure of Canaanite lands.
The archeological evidence suggests that the ancient people of that area lived and acted similarly and without disruption for centuries.
And part of those steady practices included the worship of Canaanite gods like Baal, El, and Asherah there.
Given the evidence, it seems that the Israelites essentially were the Canaanites, the very people their stories say that they had wiped off of the earth.
What gives? Did the people of Israel simply invent these grandiose tales out of whole cloth?
Perhaps to make their origin story more impressive? There are scholars out there who have concluded exactly that. This was the magic of storytelling, nothing more.
Yet such a conclusion fails to account for all of the available information. It’s based on archeological findings, but it doesn’t reconcile those findings with what can be gathered from linguistic and literary-historical evidence. Evidence from the Bible!
To wit, here is something to consider:
There are in fact some Israelite names that are Egyptian in origin:
Not to mention:
What’s especially interesting is that all of the Egyptian-derived names come from just one tribe of Israel: the tribe of Levi. As I mentioned last time, Levi is the priestly tribe, the one tribe of Israel that had no geographic territory of its own.
Now let’s consider one of the earliest passages found in the Bible (dated based on linguistic analysis):
The Song of Deborah in Judges 5.
This is a song of Israel’s war against the rival pagan peoples.
It names all of the tribes of Israel in its verses, all except for Levi.
On the flipside, another of the earliest passages is a song about the escape from Egypt and the conquering of the pagan lands (Song of Miriam, Exodus 15). This song might be relevant for Levites, as some lines seem to allude to the tabernacle, which the priests would oversee. Yet this passage never mentions “Israel.”
So an early song about Egypt doesn’t mention the people of Israel, and an early song from the land of Israel doesn’t mention the tribe of Levi. Interesting.
Added to this, linguistic scholars say that the name “Levi” itself means something like “attached outsider,” or “resident alien.”
Considering all of this, it’s not farfetched to presume that it was these resident aliens, and they alone, who had made an exodus from Egypt into Israel, rather than the great masses described in the Bible.
If so, then there definitely was some creative storytelling involved: somehow an entire host nation merged its identity and foundational myths with a group of foreign refugees, who served as priests and scribes for the rest. That is indeed some storytelling magic!
But it also means that there are elements of historical truth embedded in those fantastical stories.
Real Egyptian names.
Real congruence of Levite ritual designs (i.e., the ark of the covenant) with similar Egyptian designs.
And the idea of the exodus becomes much more plausible (and harder to capture with archeological evidence) if it’s on a much smaller scale.
What does all this mean for our understanding of the Bible and of history? How to understand the God (or gods) worshipped in ancient Israel?
And what about the written Torah as we know it? How did that come to be, given this complicated back story of merged identities?
We’ll explore these notions more in the future.
… to be continued…
Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” upvote!