Is “Exodus” historically accurate? That is a question I will need to address on Sunday morning. I lead an adult Bible study at my church and we are beginning a study of the book of Exodus. When we begin to study a new book of the Bible, I start with one class on the book itself- its historical context, what scholars have to say about its origins, the organization of the book, its literary aspects, themes to be aware of, and so on.
So, did it happen? Are the stories recounted in Exodus historically accurate? My answer?
My sense is that Exodus is based in history. But I also know that ancient peoples’ sense of what constitutes a good telling of history is different from ours. Modern readers are interested in facts, facts without “spin”, facts untainted by the author’s biases and preconceptions. Just the facts, no editorializing.
But ancient writers and their audience didn’t worry about such things. “Spin” was expected. The winners wrote history. They told their story in all it’s glory, not the unbiased truth about the losers. So too with Biblical history.
It’s a mistake to assume Exodus ( or any other historical book in the Bible) is a neutral recitation of events. Exodus is history with a spin- Israel’s spin, God’s spin. Biblical writers, for the most part, are interested in showing God at work through the events of history. That’s not a bad thing, it simply is. Biblical history is history told to make a point.
We also need to remember that these are old, old stories. Lots of people have had, shall we say, input into their telling. Christians tend to forget that the Bible didn’t drop out of the sky in its present form. Yes the Holy Spirit is involved in the writing of Scripture but it was a collaborative effort, rather than dictation. People who study ancient texts have methods to uncover the ways ancient texts were edited,and where things were added, or rearranged. This isn’t an exact science and scholars debate the fine points, but to say that a particular Biblical text has been reworked by subsequent generations isn’t really a controversial claim.
Exodus was of course first spoken rather than written. Scholars think it came to its final written form during, or perhaps after the Exile. The Exile was an event with profound religious and political and cultural results. The book of Exodus that we have today was affected by the events of the Exile. Israel’s understanding of the ancient events of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and the giving of Torah and life in the desert were influenced by the events of the Exile. New, rich and deep meanings were found in the ancient stories.
Am I saying that Exodus’ ancient editors simply made stuff up to suit their agenda? No. Let me repeat that, no. But ones’ experiences certainly influence what one “sees”. Ask a trial attorney about the reliability of eyewitness accounts. Compare stories with your siblings about a family event that happened a decade ago. Memory and experience are funny things.
Facts can be difficult to find. Take George Washington for example. He, relatively speaking, didn’t live all that long ago and he lived in a literate society. There are still people who think he chopped down a cherry tree, despite historians telling us otherwise. Consider Washington’s personal faith. People draw all sorts of conclusions about that. Some say he was a Christian in the modern sense of the word. Others claim he was a deist. Both sides have their arguments and supporting facts. Scholars disagree about the role of religion in his life and Washington only lived a couple of hundred years ago. The stories in Exodus are originally from the 13th century BCE.
Fortunately Scripture is more trustworthy than my faulty memory or our knowledge of George Washington. I think that part of what the Holy Spirit does in the process of forming Scripture is to keep Truth in the text. Not necessarily the facts, but the Truth.
Was there a plague of frogs as Exodus tells us? Or flies? Or gnats? Who knows? How would we ever know? We can have ideas, our favorite hypothesis about what happened. We can work hard to figure out ways it could have happened. Or we can insist, as the bumper sticker says, “God said it, I believe it.”
My faith doesn’t rest on archeologists and historians verifying every incident in Scripture. My faith rests on a relationship with the living God who reveals himself, in a variety of ways, in Scripture. History, parable, poem, letter, story, and song. God is much more than mere “facts” can express.
For me, it is much more helpful to consider the “why” of a story. Why has our tradition kept this story? Why is it important? What does this story tell us about God? What does this story tell us about the relationship between God and humankind? These questions are, to me, more important. These are the questions that invite me into a deeper relationship with God, through the Scripture.
I’d like to know, what do you think?
If you would like a nice example of how ancient Israel reinterpreted and retold its story, see this article at Biologos.