I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been invited to take part in a conference on the Exodus and its relation with ancient Egypt, entitled Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination, and held at the University of California San Diego. Well I’ve just returned, and am still reflecting on a lot of what was said. It was an excellent opportunity to take stock corporately on a very active field of research which is still split by fundamental disagreements. Partly, the disagreements arose because of the wide range of disciplines represented, each with very different aims and objectives (Egyptologists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and earth scientists. I fell into the latter category, but was also slightly unusual in being a theologian). This was a major strength though, and I wonder if there has ever been a gathering of such breadth to consider the many questions involved in this pre-eminent story in Jewish and Christian religious history.
The main question, which came up again and again, was – did it really happen? And if so, how? While there were many who wanted to affirm the Exodus as an historical event to some degree (even if it only meant the minimal affirmation of acknowledging a handful of slaves escaping over the Sinai), there were many who felt that even this was going way beyond what it is possible to claim from the text. The latter felt it more appropriate to speak of the Exodus as a mythic tradition in the consciousness of Israel as a young nation.
I spoke in the ‘Science’ session, where various earth scientists presented their ideas on the possibility that the events described in the book of Exodus (especially the sea crossing) were influenced or caused by geological phenomena such as volcanoes and tsunamis. I spoke about the legendary Bronze Age volcano Thera, and the many explanations that have been constructed from it for the Exodus, the destruction of Atlantis, and many other cataclysms of the ancient world. As one of the few theologians present, I was less interested in trying to say ‘what really happened’ than in drawing out the sub texts of some of the protagonists, and trying to point out that the way we approach the historicity of the Exodus is driven by methodological and theological presuppositions.
The many lectures will be available on the internet, and the proceedings will be published online before long, and I will post details when they become available.
It was an excellent conference, and thanks are due to Tom Levy, Brad Sparks, and everyone else involved in organising and supporting it.