Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.1 of 2)

Modern archaeologists are quick to point out that no evidence exists for a mass exodus of people from Egypt around the purported time of the biblical event (c. 1200 BCE). Although this has difficult consequences for a traditional reading of the bible, the evidence seems hard to argue with. If over 600,000 persons made an exit from Egypt around this period, surely we would have found traces of it.

An important consideration here is the Merneptah Stele, an archaeological artifact that dates to around the period of when the Exodus was to have occurred. It has the first mention of the name "Israel" in history. A linguistic study shows that this mention links them not as an independent nation, but as a people group already living in the land of Canaan. We will discuss the various theories of how Israel over time emerged in Canaan as a distinct culture. But it's important to note that they almost certainly did not enter from outside by conquest as the biblical narrative suggests.

In one ancient reference in the Armanah Letters (another important archeological artifact), there is a mention of some people called "apiru" who are causing problems for the leaders in Canaan. This same title is given to some people in the archaeological record in Egypt, where "apiru" apparently also existed concurrently. Because of the Egyptian mention of "apiru", some scholars have wanted to claim "apiru" are really the Hebrew people pre-Exodus (get it? "apiru" rhymes with Hebrew).
Scholars have concluded however that these "apiru" are only references to lower-class trouble makers, not specifically the Hebrew people. The "apiru" were simply rebels who were giving the Egyptian and Canaanite leaders a headache. However, some of these "apiru" in Egypt might have had a very small exodus, joined the Israelites already in the Canaanite central highlands, and brought their story of liberation from the Egyptian empire. Either way, the biblical story of a mass Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in the 13th century BCE is a later creation of Israelite writers. It is a myth to explain the origin of Israelite identity - YHWH delivered them from bondage, led them to the promised land in Canaan, and helped them wipe out the Canaanites. None of this happened in history as the bible narrates it, scholars now assert.

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