- Contrary to what some scholars might say, there is abundant evidence for the conquest of the Promised Land. Once again, issues of chronology are important here: many scholars have assumed a relatively late date for the exodus, and when looking in that time-range, they dismiss the abundant evidence earlier in the chronology.
- Jericho, like many of the other Caananite cities of the period, experienced a dramatic and catastrophic destruction during the period of Joshua, as evidenced by their archaeological remains. Jericho provides many intriguing clues as to what happened in its destruction: the city's walls appear to have fallen outward, tumbling down the embankment to the lower wall; the granaries remained filled (indicating a very short siege); one small portion of the inhabited wall remained standing (as in Joshua, at the site of Rahab's house); and a massive burn layer stretches across most of the city.
- Further, there is a clear archaeological record of a new settlement pattern in the area over the following three centuries: the appearance of a people group who built villages in the hill country, used a new style of house (thus they were not Caananites), who built altars of uncut stones, and did not leave any pig bones in their food refuse. All of these things are exactly what one would expect to find in a new population influx of biblical Israelites.
The Genocide Question:
- First, it's useful to remember the context of the conquest of Canaan. The Caananite city-states were violent and aggressive, themselves practicing genocidal warfare on their opponents. (It would not be a stretch, in terms of the moral character of their civilization, to equate them with modern analogs like Nazi Germany.) Their rituals included truly horrendous practices, like child sacrifice. Further, the Bible makes clear that God had not simply destroyed them outright; rather, he had given them four centuries to repent and reform their ways while Israel was in Egypt; yet they had not.
- Second, the war has an important theological context: it is God's war of judgment, and he is portrayed as the primary actor, not Israel. God, as creator, has it as his prerogative to bring judgment on such civilizations (as he will later do to his own people in the Assyrian and Babylonian periods). This context of divine war cannot be equated to any set of circumstances in our present experience, and so a claim of genocide (by modern definitions) against the conquest of Canaan rather misses the point.
- Third, while some aspects of Joshua's recounting sound like a genocidal war, the whole witness of the Bible makes it clear that Joshua only gives one angle on the events and that it doesn't show the whole picture. Joshua is a conquest narrative, dealing with the capture of a few cities, but even within itself it shows the ability of repentant Canaanites to escape judgment (Rahab) and of others escaping judgment by making truces with Israel. Further, other books of the Bible--like Judges--show that the conquest of Canaan was not a genocide, because many, many Canaanites persisted and held positions of great strength in the land.
- Fourth, one of the ironies of history is that we now know that not only did many Canaanites survive, but many of their descendants later became followers of God in the first wave of Christian expansion during the apostolic age. DNA evidence shows high Canaanite ancestry in Lebanon, which still today has one of the largest Christian populations in the entire Middle East. This would seem to show that God's ultimate plan for the Canaanite people was not wholesale eradication, but redemption.
- Skeptical historians will claim that there's really no record of an event of the exodus's magnitude in Egyptian history. It should at least be discernible in the record, they say, considering what a catastrophe it would have been for the Egyptian state.
- Several points can be made as possible rebuttals: first, as explained in last week's post, there are serious chronological issues in the way that many mainstream scholars assess possible evidence for the exodus. It may be the case that they don't see evidence because they're looking in the wrong place in the timeline.
- Second, while the plagues on Egypt sound dramatic, you wouldn't expect much in the way of an archaeological record from this sort of event: just a wave of burials, which would look very much like any other common plague in the ancient world.
- Third, the one event that might offer archaeological evidence--chariot remains on the sea floor--is problematic because the materials used for chariots might not have been well-preserved in that environment, the site of the crossing is disputed (meaning there are multiple possible locations to be searched), and some of the plausible crossing-sites have active restrictions against archaeological testing.
- Fourth, you wouldn't expect to find monumentary evidence of the exodus, as the Egyptian monumentary records tended to be propaganda pieces for the pharaohs, so they would be unlikely to record their most humiliating defeat in that medium.
- Fifth, while scholars claim that there are no textual records of these events beyond the Bible, as you would expect to find, this claim is not precisely true. There are two major existing sources beyond the Bible. One is from Manetho, the Egyptian historian upon whose work most of Egyptian chronology is based. We no longer have his texts except where they are cited by other writers, but what remains in that form has proven valuable to historians. The content of Manetho's text relayed by Josephus makes reference to the exodus events, and Josephus has proven a fairly reliable source in many instances. The second source is the Ipuwar text (also mentioned last week), which is usually dismissed as being too early to relate to the exodus, but if possible chronological adjustments are taken into consideration, then its content should be studied with relation to the plagues. It contains references like "the river is blood," and mentions crops and livestock dying, Egypt filled with mourning, a God smiting Egypt, and slaves and poor people wearing riches--all details which match the biblical account with startling precision.
- Sixth, there is textual evidence within the Bible itself which points strongly to an authentic second-millennium BC experience, including proper names (like Moses's own name, apparently of Egyptian derivation) and relevant cultural details which would not have been known had the story been fabricated in a later Judean context.
- Seventh, as relayed last week, there is massive evidence of Semitic populations in Egypt in the mid-second millennium BC, which thereafter disappear quite suddenly from the Egyptian record.
Evidence from Typology:
- If the exodus story were true, a Christian would also expect there to be significant features of the story which point forward to God's plan in Christ. This is precisely the case with the exodus:
- The passing over of God's judgment through the blood of the lamb
- "The Angel [literally, Messenger] of the Lord," a personal representation of God's own divine presence, sent save his people from bondage.
- Deliverance through the waters (the Red Sea in the story, and baptism in the Christian experience), leading to entrance into God's covenant-community.
"The highest glory of the creature is in being a vessel, to receive and enjoy and show forth the glory of God. It can do this only as it is willing to be nothing in itself, that God may be all. Water always fills first the lowest places. The lower, the emptier a man lies before God, the speedier and the fuller will be the inflow of the diving glory."
- It is commonly assumed in scholarly circles in archaeology and Egyptology that there is no significant evidence of Israel's sojourn in Egypt, at least nothing of the scope of what is described in Genesis and Exodus.
- Part of this assumption, however, is based on a particular model of ancient chronology, and that model is disputed. Most secular scholars believe that biblical texts place the exodus events in the 13th century BC, based on place-names like "Rameses." However, the traditional Christian position has usually pointed toward the 15th century BC instead, based on the overall balance of what the biblical texts indicate (and explain the late place-names as being updated by biblical redactors for later readers).
- Currently, there are three models of understanding the relation between biblical and Egyptian chronologies relating to the exodus events: (1) situating them in the 13th century--the most common scholarly position, which offers almost no archaeological evidence of exodus events; (2) situating them in the 15th century, which appears to offer at least some evidence pointing to the plausibility of the exodus; and (3) a recently-proposed revisionist position, which notes that there is widespread and significant historical evidence that points toward exodus events in what is considered the 17th century on the traditional timescale (usually judged far too early to be the biblical event)--but these scholars believe the timescale itself is incorrect, and when adjusted to a proper form, those events would fall in the 15th century, just as the Bible suggests.
- Thus, the resistance among secular scholars against suggesting that archaeology confirms the biblical record is due mostly to the chronological model they are using; whereas a study including other possible models reveals a great deal of potential evidence.
- There is conclusive evidence that Semitic populations (like Israelites) settled in the northeastern Nile delta (the Goshen region).
- In the city of Avaris, this Semitic group started as a small community (70-100 people), then grew in subsequent centuries to be one of the largest settlements anywhere in the ancient world, eventually with multiple towns across the region--exactly the picture of Israelite settlement suggested by the biblical story.
- The archaeological evidence in Avaris, the chief Semitic city, shows that one such Semite became a vizier of Egypt, with the remains of his Palestine-style house being converted to an Egyptian palace, complete with twelve tombs, one of which appears to show the vizier arrayed in Joseph-like clothes.
- There is evidence that the prosperity of these early Semitic settlements was drastically curtailed at some point, and the Semites became one of the lowest classes in Egypt.
- These Semitic populations are described as Apiru (linguistically associated with "Hebrew") in Egyptian texts.
- A list of household slaves from the period shows them to be mostly Semitic, and a few of the names are recognizably Israelite.
- This Semitic population suddenly vanishes from the archaeological record in Egypt, as if they all got up and left the country together.
- An Egyptian text (conventionally dated to the 17th century, but possibly falling in the 15th if the revised chronology is accepted) relates terrifying events that sound directly reminiscent of the plagues in Exodus.
- Place names and customs relayed in the biblical text reflect authentic Egyptian second-millennium BC experiences (i.e., they couldn't have been made up by Israelite scribes trying to create a national legend in the first millennium BC).
- Further, the story itself carries none of the normal hallmarks of a legendary founding epic, being striking for its humility and self-abasement.
(This piece was originally written for publication as a devotional column in my hometown newspaper.)
The past week fell within part of the traditional Jewish calendar called “the Days of Awe.” They follow Rosh Hashanah, which the Bible refers to as the Feast of Trumpets, and which marks the turning of the new year in the Jewish civil calendar. Right now we’re doing a series of studies in my church focusing on the roots of our Christian faith in its Jewish context, and specifically on the ways that the feasts of Israel inform our faith. The Days of Awe, which run from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), are a time for reflection, confession, and reconciliation. It offers a chance to turn the page on the old year, celebrate the goodness of life, and to focus on living according to the good, beautiful, and true principles that flow from our relationship with God.
Most of the practices encouraged for the Days of Awe strike people as normal parts of the life of prayer: spending time in contemplation, confessing our sins, and trying to prepare our hearts for the symbols of atonement that stand at the center of Yom Kippur. But there’s one facet that sometimes takes people by surprise. The Days of Awe are also a time for reconciliation—for going to your friends, family, and neighbors (and perhaps even your enemies) to resolve old conflicts, let go of grudges, heal rifts, and bury the hatchet.
This is a difficult calling, awkward and sometimes painful. It would be so much easier just to focus on my own prayers, on my private relationship with God. But the Bible does not permit one’s faith to be limited to just a personal spiritual experience; it includes all of one’s life, including our relationships with others. The great command to “Love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5) is paired with the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), and Jesus holds these two commands inextricably together (Matt. 22:37-39). You cannot truly love God if you are not also seeking to love your neighbor. Faith in Christ is far more than just a personal spiritual experience; it is an entire way of living, touching and transforming every single part of life.
Jesus advises a practice very similar to the Jewish custom on the Days of Awe: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Reconciliation with our brother comes first; and only then we can enter the presence of God knowing that our heart is ready to connect to him in worship and prayer. Why is it so important to show love and consideration to our brothers and sisters and neighbors? Because God loves them. Whatever their faults, God loves them with all the immense, indescribable depths of his love. We cannot claim to know the heart of God if we don’t seek to love them too. So as we enter this season of fall, as our hearts lift in wonder to watch the world around us brighten with the beauty of God’s workmanship, let’s remember that to truly draw near to God, we must learn to love one another.
"Prayer is self-discipline. The effort to realize the presence and power of God stretches the sinews of the soul and hardens its muscles. To pray is to grow in grace. To tarry in the presence of the King leads to new loyalty and devotion on the part of the faithful subjects. Christian character grows in the secret-place of prayer."