Patterns of Evidence: Review

Did the Exodus really happen? The new documentary, Patterns of Evidence, presents findings that contradicts the prevailing scholarly opinion that the Exodus never occurred.

Well, I saw the documentary and I recommend it unreservedly. Indeed, when it’s available, I intend to purchase the DVD and host a viewing and discussion with friends and other interested people.  However, I still remain unconvinced of the historicity of the Exodus. This should in no way argue that you should not see the film. Quite the opposite, in fact. What I found really useful – and why you need to see this film – is that the documentary does a really excellent job of presenting an alternative theory with enough solid evidence to raise doubts about the current consensus that the Exodus never occurred. But, raising doubts is not sufficient to convince.

The thesis of the documentary rests on the uncertainty of ancient Egyptian history, i.e., what scholars call “the Egyptian Chronology”. The film acknowledges the main objection to the historicity of the Exodus, i.e., the Exodus does not line up with the known archeological findings. Instead, claims the film, the events of the Exodus line up almost perfectly with the Egyptian Chronology if the date of the Exodus is pushed back to the end of the Egyptian middle kingdom. The evidence the film advances in support of this claim is fascinating and surely deserves scholarly attention.

However, this is where the film falls short. You wouldn’t know it from the film but the majority of scholars in this field do, in fact, recognize the problems with Egyptian chronology. This is not a “new” issue and has, in fact, been the subject of intense scrutiny for years. In fact, during the one scene in which scholars on both sides were debating the chronology, we heard nothing from the those who opposed the view that the Exodus occurred earlier than previously supposed. An interview or two with opposing researchers who could have spoke directly to the evidence marshaled by the film would have proved invaluable to me.

Finally (and this is really important), the film did not address the lack of evidence for a mass migration of people (some 2 million by some account) across and in the Sinai for forty years. Not a single campfire from a population that would have stretched 150 miles long if they marched 10-abreast.

I am from the Rabbi David Wolpe school on this question. In brief, Wolpe argues (convincingly to me, at least) that the story is likely of a literary genre designed to teach a fundamental truth about the nature of freedom and its dependence on God (i.e., the idea that true liberty cannot come from mankind, but instead requires a higher, transcendent authority). To this end, the Exodus serves as a metaphor of sorts — not unlike the 480 years between the beginning of the Exodus and the establishment of the Temple of Solomon[1]. But, argue scholars familiar with the literary devices of the Bible, this number should not be taken literally. They point out that this number (480) corresponds to the 12 tribes of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years (among other symbology). Numerology is a common (and powerful) literary device in the literature of the ANE and this particular instance is just one illustration of a common practice.

One final note to my friends who think that the truth of historicity matters. The panelists who were interviewed following the film agreed that if not historically true then the pillars of Judaism and Christianity would fall. Poppycock! Great truths, whether from God or human, do not have to be rooted in historical fact, as many of the panelists claimed. For example, to reject the truths of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” because pigs don’t talk is just plain silly.

Go see the film. Please. It’s a superb documentary in both style and substance and though it fails to rise high enough to convince the experts but certainly high enough to trigger additional research.

  1. [1]See 1 Kings 6:1. The time frame referenced in this verse is used to support the film’s thesis that the Exodus happened toward the end of the Egyptian middle kingdom
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