Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Historicity of the Enslavement of Israel

Posted by NT Wrong on May 21, 2008

I wondered about a comment by John J. Collins in his Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Collins notes that the Exodus story is legendary and folkloristic, but he still believes that it contains some historical memory. Collins’ reason is that it:

“is unlikely that a people would claim that it had experienced the shameful condition of slavery if there were no historical basis for it.” (p. 58, according to this review)

I was sure I had read something very similar in John Bright’s biblical paraphrase, which masquerades as a “history”, A History of Israel. And sure enough:

“Although there is no direct witness in Egyptian records to Israel’s presence in Egypt, the Biblical tradition a priori demands belief: it is not the sort of tradition any people would invent! Here is no heroic epic of migration, but the recollection of shameful servitude from which only the power of God brought deliverance.” (p. 121)

Bright’s reasoning is especially interesting. He begins with the argument that it would be too shameful to mention past Israelite slavery if it were not true. Then he attempts to bolster his argument by mirroring the ideology of Exodus itself – Israelite enslavement was only able to be overcome by ” the power of God”. But this argument actually undermines his earlier argument from the shame and stigma of slavery. For if Israelite slavery and subsequent freedom is presented in Exodus as being dependent on divine intervention, doesn’t this suggest that the ideological/theological rationale itself provides sufficient justification for presenting Israel as enslaved? Doesn’t the presentation of Israel as having been utterly dominated by Egypt fit squarely into the theological rationale of the biblical story? The so-called “likelihood” of Israelite enslavement starts to look much less certain than Bright and Collins represent.

Also, I ask on what grounds do Bright and Collins judge the ‘likeliness’ of their argument from shame? If anything, it must involve a consideration of other nationalistic ancient histories. But this is the strange thing. Is it not in the very genre of such stories to present a people as overcoming adversity and insignificance to emerge as a powerful nation able to compete with other nations? Isn’t it instead ‘likely’ that an ancient national history will involve a rags-to-riches account of its remote origins?

But let’s see how the argument stands up for one of these other nationalistic ancient histories … ‘Of course there is some historical kernal behind the story of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. It is unlikely that a people would claim such lowly origins if there were no historical basis for it!’

Ah – no.

2 Responses to “Historicity of the Enslavement of Israel”

  1. steph said

    And also same logic: would the Christians have claimed something as unbelieveable as a bodily resurrection and tale about zombies if they weren’t true? The Wright answer is no but it is probably wrong.

  2. ntwrong said

    That’s very much the same logic, Steph.

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