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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Conclusion

A study of the Exodus narrative raises many questions about the historicity and historical setting of the Exodus events, but provides few definitive answers. The biblical text has its own inner logic and consistency, largely divorced from the concerns of secular history. Over time, various hands shaped and edited the biblical narrative, combining and blending different sources and literary categories according to theological truths rather than historical imperatives. Historiographic methods alone can never do full justice to the spiritually informed biblical material; conversely, the Bible, never intended to function primarily as a historical document, cannot meet modern canons of historical accuracy and reliability. There is, in fact, remarkably little of proven or provable historical worth or reliability in the biblical Exodus narrative, and no reliable independent witnesses attest to the historicity or date of the Exodus events.

To some, the lack of a secure historical grounding for the biblical Exodus narrative merely reflects its nonhistorical nature. According to this view, there was no historical Exodus and the story is to be interpreted as a legend or myth of origins. To others, still in the majority among scholars, the ultimate historicity of the Exodus narrative is indisputable. The details of the story may have become clouded or obscured through the transmission process, but a historical core is mandated by that major tenet of faith that permeates the Bible: God acts in history.

It is most likely that the Israelite settlement of Palestine occurred in the period beginning about 1200 BCE. Archaeologically, socially, politically, economically, and militarily, the twelfth century makes the most sense as the context of the conquest/settlement and of the judges, even if the historical and archaeological records do not match the biblical exactly. Granting the essential historicity of the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, and assuming that the conquest/settlement followed directly, then the Exodus itself must have occurred in the thirteenth century BCE, a date that accords with our knowledge of contemporary sociopolitical and settlement patterns in the broader region.

Another alternative may be suggested tentatively, since it involves dislocation of the biblical text. If one posits initially separate Exodus and conquest/settlement traditions, then no longer must the Exodus events occur immediately prior to the conquest/settlement. By this scenario, the descent, sojourn, and Exodus in the biblical narrative could reflect Hyksos occupation and rule over Egypt, the Exodus would date to the sixteenth century BCE, and the Exodus account would have a clear historical core. A fifteenth-century date is also possible, although one must discard adherence to the biblical narrative as the major criterion for evaluation, since separating the Exodus and conquest does violence to the narrative's theological design. If one assumes more generally that the Exodus reflects an encapsulation and telescoping of Egyptian imperial power, then the events could be dated at any time in the Late Bronze Age.

Some future historical or archaeological discovery may provide concrete, indisputable evidence for the historicity of the biblical Exodus. Until then, however, the details of the biblical Exodus narrative and even its ultimate historicity will continue to be debated. Admittedly, we cannot prove that the Exodus took place; but we also cannot prove that it did not. As with so much else in the Bible, belief or disbelief in the historicity of the Exodus narrative becomes a matter of faith.

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Oxford University Press

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