Friday, June 10, 2005

How Many Jews Left Egypt?

Some kid asked on Frumteens:

We all no that Yetziat Mitzraim is a core foundation in Judiasm. So how is that scientists have found no reminants from the Jews leaving Egypt or traveling in the sinai desert? A mass exodus of at least 600,000 people would have greatly effected Egypt. Why are there no remenants or proofs that this happened? The desert is the best place to find such things b/c of the dry air, why have no archeological artifacts been discovered from the jews?
What this says to me is that this person found an article or a website that points to the dearth of any evidence whatsoever of the multi-million exodus from Egypt and 40-year stay in the desert.

To this question, the Moderator responded:
There is actually tons of archeological and historical evidence of Yetzias Mitzrayim. Rabbi Kelleman's book is a good place to start - he lists much archeological evidence ofthigns like the 10 makos which were written down by Egyptians lamenting their fate at the time, as well as the exodus itself. But there is also history - the fact that Egypt suddenly "disappeared" off the historical map as a superpower for a few centuries has bothered secular historians for a very long time. Check out a book called Ages in Chaos by Immanuel Velikovsky, where he demonstrates that the sudden and inexplicable disappearance fo Egypt as superpower coincides perfectly with the Biblical account of Egypt getitng their country decimated by the Makos and their entire army wiped out at the Yam Suf.
Then he later posts:
Its not as if they went looking in the desert for these bones - maybe they will find them.

But more likely, I would imagine that the remains of those people who miraculaously died were swept up by the ananei hakavod and buried miraculously, or somethgin to that effect. Their deaths were of course a miracle, so their burials could very well have been also. Who knows.
Anyone familiar with such esoteric websites like Google will quickly discover that this is a terribly inadequate answer that can only distance inquisitive Jews from Judaism. The Moderator quotes Lawrence Kelemen's Permission to Receive. While there is much to praise about this book, the author's discussion of archaeology is significantly lacking. While he might simply be outdated in his knowledge, he relies almost entirely on the state of the field thirty years ago and totally ignores the strong Minimalist challenge to the historicity of the Torah. Anyone with even a remote knowledge of archaeology, such as someone who once took an introductory course on the subject or has read one of the many websites on the subject, can only wonder how he can make such sweeping statements and totally ignore the evidence to the contrary.

Here's the simple truth: The single largest question about the historicity of the Torah is how so many people could leave Egypt and stay in the desert for so long without leaving any trace.

It is not an unsolvable problem. However, denying it just makes us look foolish. The Minimalists are arguing in the media that the Exodus never happened (remember David Wolpe's Passover sermon in LA a few years ago?). Our response cannot be: "There's plenty of evidence that it happened. Just read Velikovsky and Kelemen." Velikovsky was a crackpot (not to mention a kofer -- see Google Hador's post on this). Kelemen is outdated.

Most experts currently believe either that the Exodus never happened or that it happened on a much smaller scale than we believe. I emphasize "currently" because one new discovery can change that completely. But, please, let's not deny a reality that can be easily checked with a Google search or a simple e-mail (a few years ago I e-mailed a prominent archaeologist and he responded within a day -- and told me to ask my rabbi! Not all archaeologists are that religiously sensitive.).

Representing the Minimalist position, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman write (The Bible Unearthed [NY: The Free Press, 2001], p. 63):
The conclusion -- that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible -- seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication -- if present -- would almost certainly be found.
It is not sufficient to respond to this with a quote from Albright or the like from the 1970s. The field has developed far beyond that.

James K. Hoffmeier, in his 1996 book defending the historicity of the Exodus Israel in Egypt (pp. 3-4), writes:
For centuries the Israelite exodus from Egypt has been considered to be a historical event central to the formation of ancient Israel as a nation and its faith... [H]owever, the tide has shifted toward historical minimalism and led to the questioning or denial of the historicity of the events of Exodus...
Note that 1996 was also the year in which Lawrence Kelemen's Permission to Receive was published, which contains the following quote (p. 108):
Even Dr. William Stiebing, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, confesses, "Most biblical scholars, archaeologists, and historians -- even one like myself... who are generally skeptical about the accuracy of biblical traditions concerning Israel -- usually agree that an exodus took place.
Regardless of the accuracy of this quote at the time of the writing of Kelemen's book, it certainly is no longer accurate. There are currently plenty of scholars, and very vocal ones at that, who deny that the Exodus ever occurred.

Furthermore, and this is the critical part, to my knowledge there are no historians who believe that millions of Jews left Egypt. None. Kelemen and the Frumteens Moderator glossed over this. The scholars who "usually agree that an exodus took place" do not concede that it was anywhere near as large as described in the Torah.

Kenneth Kitchen, who is one of the biggest opponents of the Minimalists (see here), writes (On the Reliability of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003], p. 266):
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" (Exod. 12:37), with its seeming implication of an exodus of two million people or so, along with parallel census figures in Num. 1-2, 3-5, and 26...
Kitchen goes on to suggest that eleph, thousand, really means "families of," so that instead of 600,000 men there were 598 familes totalling 5,500 men. This is not acceptable to me on a number of levels. However, the problem remains. How did so many Jews leave Egypt?

No historian accepts that figure and I don't have an answer to the question. But we don't die from a question. Much worse is pretending that the question doesn't exist.

When someone asks how 2+ million Jews could leave Egypt, the answer is not "There is actually tons of archeological and historical evidence of Yetzias Mitzrayim." At best, this is technically somewhat accurate but totally misleading. There is possibly evidence of a small exodus from Egypt. The real answer is "That's a good question. The current state of history does not accept a large exodus but perhaps that will change as we learn more about the ancient world. The field is constantly changing and this might change someday too."

(Note that Aish HaTorah's two articles on the subject -- I & II -- dance around this topic also)
PS Let me make it clear that I believe (with perfect faith) that 600,000 men and their families left Egypt. But since I can't prove it, perhaps some would consider that faith to be meaningless.

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