This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The biblical depiction of Moses as an ancient leader par excellence, albeit a somewhat reluctant one, is wholly believable despite scholarly claims to the contrary. Some recent interpretations anachronistically analyze the historicity and leadership of Moses with little concern for comparative ancient data or context. One example compares him to George Washington, as a jack-of-all-trades leader, who is essentially “too good to be true.” For many scholars, Moses is a mythic figure whose life accounts are not historically reliable. They are quick to point out a perceived lack of substantiating archaeological evidence. As a result, they believe the search for the historical Moses to be futile. This demonstrates two larger problems regarding scholarly treatments of Moses: (1) the failure to seek external, independent data from the ancient Near East and (2) a misunderstanding of the capabilities of archaeological data. While the Hebrew Bible remains the primary source for Moses’s life, comparisons to relevant ancient texts reveal that Moses, while extraordinary in many ways, was in fact a typical ancient leader. Close examination of the biblical accounts of Moses’s life reveals parallels from both Egypt and the broader ancient Near East. Such ancient data provides the only suitable and useful comparisons.
From his allegedly legendary birth to his upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses was well suited to the role Yahweh assigned to him. The covenant Moses helped establish between his people and Yahweh has parallels from other ancient civilizations. He was an ancient leader through and through; attempts to reinvent him to fit modern conceptions reveal modern mentalities, not the historical Moses.
No person leaves a greater fingerprint on the pages of the Old Testament than Moses. As the human agent involved in Yahweh’s liberating his people from slavery, Moses was a prophet and leader par excellence. He was a lawgiver, an accomplished orator, a military general, and a worker of grand miracles. His legacy among the ancients is peerless. Yet because all of this appears to be “larger than life” and “too good to be true,” scholars from the era of Enlightenment down to the present day have questioned the historical value of the biblical accounts of Moses’s life. For minimalist scholars, the accounts of the Exodus and Moses’s life are a form of “mythological fiction” lacking historical value.1 Skeptics claim ancient Israelite authors living much later simply conjured Moses out of the ethereal mists of the past to lead the people of God in a fictitious origin story.
Most famously, Freud claimed in one of his final books, Moses and Monotheism, that Moses is a figure only of memory, the accounts of Moses amounting to a “pious myth.”2 Renowned Egyptologist Jan Assmann emulates Freud, consigning Moses and the Exodus to a type of mnemohistory (history viewed as cultural memory) that celebrates the timeless tale of redemption and deliverance captured in the Exodus, yet he considers Moses to be a mythical figure.3 Other likeminded scholars claim the historical Moses cannot be recovered, having been subjected to far too much exaggeration, his importance found in the appropriation of memory, not historicity.
One finds similar views in more mainstream sources as well. In an interview for NOVA, Carol Meyers, Duke University archaeologist and professor of religion, echoes Assmann by analyzing the Exodus as mnemohistory, which, she explains, elaborate and ritualize memory. Thus, the historicity of the people and events of the story are of minor significance. Despite adequately summarizing Moses’s various roles, she concludes, “No one individual could have possibly done all that.”4 She believes that the Exodus account is the product of a period of trauma, which she compares to the difficulties of the Revolutionary War. Like earlier biographies of George Washington, the hype surrounding Moses is an expression of confidence in his judgment during a time of crisis.
Meyers’s approach contains two significant flaws: (1) she fails to seek external, independent data from ancient sources, and (2) she adopts an overly modern, Western approach to ancient Near Eastern material. While the Hebrew Bible remains the primary source for Moses’s life, comparisons to relevant ancient Near Eastern data reveal that Moses, while extraordinary in many ways, was in fact a typical ancient leader, suitably prepared for his enormous task.
REASONS FOR SKEPTICISM AND MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Before making a case for the plausibility of the accounts of Moses in the Pentateuch, it is important to offer a brief rebuttal of the main reasons for skepticism concerning the biblical accounts of Moses and the Exodus, which are as follows:5
Concerning the first point, the absence of corroborating evidence from Egypt and Sinai leads skeptics to claim that the Exodus never took place and that Moses never existed. This claim, however, is highly exaggerated. As Richard Elliot Friedman notes, skeptics “assert we’ve combed the Sinai and not found any evidence….That assertion is just not true. There have not been any major excavations in the Sinai.”7 Moreover, scholars and laypeople alike are at times guilty of having unrealistic expectations of archaeological evidence.8 What exactly would constitute “proof” of Moses’s existence short of a sensational inscription reading something like, “Moses was here”? Even then, skeptics might dismiss such a find as merely a man sharing Moses’s name or a later graffiti!
More general questions present themselves as problems for skeptics. What sort of material culture would the Israelites leave in the Delta in Egypt? How would their material culture differ from other Semites living in Egypt at this time?9 Without clear answers to such questions, data from the remains of material culture is essentially mute. Furthermore, archaeology in the Delta is notoriously difficult due to environmental factors and given the fact that millions still live in the region. Based on satellite imagery showing that less than 1 percent of Egypt has been excavated,10 much material in the Delta awaits discovery or is forever lost. Claiming that Moses is ahistorical or that the Exodus did not occur based on a lack of archaeological evidence is a classic case of arguing from silence.11 Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Egyptologists agree that those Delta sites that have been excavated reveal that Semites clearly lived there during the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1100 BC). For example, archaeologists have found Canaanite goods in several burials in the Delta region.12 Furthermore, the textual record echoes this. Papyrus Anatasi 6, which dates to the reign of Merneptah (1213–1203 BC), reports on the presence of Semites who were permitted to pass through Egyptian border forts to water their flocks.13 Such Egyptian texts refer to these foreigners with generic terms “Asiatic” and not specific ones such as “Hebrew” or the like.
Nor should one expect pharaohs to celebrate the escape of their slaves. Monumental reliefs celebrate the pharaoh’s might in battle, glorifying the king. For example, in the aftermath of the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), Ramesses II (1279–1213 BC) celebrated as if he had won great victory, despite nearly losing his life and conquering no new territory. Ancient rulers simply do not memorialize defeat.
As for the claim the Exodus accounts are mnemohistory or the invention of Hebrews living centuries after the event, even if a group of priests living much later compiled the text, it does not ipso facto make the account ahistorical. Finally, if the Exodus is merely an origin story, then it is unprecedented. The Israelites began as slaves of a more powerful people, escape dramatically, but immediately fail to keep the covenant inaugurated by God, and continually whine about His provisions before ultimately being forced to wait to enter the Promised Land until an entire generation died out. This is hardly the heroic, glorious past that societies like to imagine for themselves.
GROWING UP IN THE COURT OF PHARAOH
Making a positive case for the historical Moses begins, naturally enough, with his birth and upbringing. As the Israelites increased in number, the pharaoh of the Exodus ordered Hebrew midwives to kill all male babies. On moral grounds, the midwives disobeyed this harsh command, so a directive to cast all male infants into the Nile followed (Exod. 1:15–22). Such were the circumstances of Moses’s birth. After three months in hiding, Moses’s mother placed him in the Nile in a basket made of rushes and bitumen. An Egyptian princess then discovered him and adopted him as her own (Exod. 2:5–10).
Scholars have spilled much ink on the plausibility of this story, often comparing it to the so-called “Legend of Sargon,” an Akkadian text written during the sixth or seventh century BC.14 Like Moses, Sargon of Akkad (ruled 2334–2279 BC) was placed by his mother in a waterproof basket shortly after birth, set adrift in a river, and miraculously saved. Both accounts usually are dismissed as legendary. But this need not be the case. As well–known Egyptolgist Kenneth Kitchen observes, “Legendary infancy or not, Sargon of Akkad was a real king…so a ‘birth legend’ does not automatically confer mythical status.”15 Additionally, if the story of Moses’s birth is merely a copy of the “Legend of Sargon,” then one wonders why Hoffmeier is able to find six Egyptian loan words in the few short verses that constitute the birth of Moses.16 A copy of an Akkadian text should have Akkadian loan words, not Egyptian ones, especially if written in Babylon. Finally, the “exposed child” motif was common in the ancient Near East, reflecting the ancient practice of committing the fate of a baby to providence. In short, the historicity of Moses does not suffer just because of the remarkable story of his birth and miraculous voyage.
Exodus 2:10 notes Moses’s adoption by a pharaoh’s daughter, implying that Moses grew up a privileged youth in the Egyptian educational system. If so, this is in keeping with Egyptian foreign policy during the New Kingdom. Thutmose III (reigned 1457–1425 BC) inaugurated a clever strategy by capturing the sons of foreign rulers, bringing them to Egypt to be trained in Egyptian governing practices, and returning them to rule their homelands as loyal vassals. Some local rulers, no doubt familiar with this Egyptian policy, even sent their sons to be raised in Egypt in order to show their loyalty. Consider the words of Aziru of Amurru: “I herewith give [my] sons as 2 attendants and they are to do what the king [my lord] orders.”17 One Semite named Abdiel (or Aper-El, “servant of God”) referred to himself as a “child of the nursery” in his recently published tomb.18 Abdiel managed to rise all the way to the rank of “vizier,” second in command to Pharaoh, despite being a foreigner. He is not alone in parlaying his upbringing into a lucrative position. In a study of the children of the nursery in the Egyptian court, Betsy Bryan summarizes that many of the children bear foreign names, which is consistent with the policy initiated by Thutmose III, and that many of them became court officials, often of high rank.19 Thus, Moses’s upbringing is part and parcel of New Kingdom policy, and the royal nursery was apparently an effective place to train for future leadership roles. His upbringing is not “too good to be true,” but highly plausible during the New Kingdom with the effect that he was uniquely suited to the task for which God called him.
MOSES ON THE RUN
Despite his Egyptian training, Moses clearly still considered himself a Hebrew. When he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses retaliated by killing the Egyptian. After Pharaoh found out, Moses feared retribution, and fled to Midian where he married Zipporah (Exod. 2:11–16). He was living as a pastoralist, keeping the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, when Yahweh famously called a reluctant Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt (Exod. 3).
In the ancient Egyptian bestseller “The Tale of Sinuhe,” an Egyptian courtier named Sinuhe flees Egypt, fearing for his life after Pharaoh’s death, lives as a pastoralist in Syria-Palestine, marries a foreigner, and is eventually summoned back to Egypt by the new king.20 Though differences exist, the key point of comparison is that both Sinuhe and Moses eventually are reconciled to their people; both accounts are exemplary of what J. Robin King calls the genre of “divine politics and reconciliation.”21 Her analysis also highlights other examples, and in each case the theme was applied to well–known historical figures (Hattusili III, Nabonidus, etc.). Thus, Moses’s reconciliation to the Hebrews after being a fugitive conforms to ancient practice regarding important historical figures and leaders.
MOSES’S LEADERSHIP IN ANCIENT PERSPECTIVE
As quoted above, Carol Meyers believes that no one leader could achieve all that the Bible claims Moses did. Attentive readers of her interview with NOVA will note her failure to cite ancient sources to demonstrate her point. Essentially, Moses’s leadership is implausible because she says so. But why should anyone assume that great individuals cannot accomplish great feats? Even recent history is replete with examples of “too good to be true” leaders who delivered their people or achieved victory against seemingly overwhelming odds: consider the accomplishments of Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Even if legendary stories eventually circulate about great individuals, ancient or modern, it does not follow that such great individuals are ahistorical.
Once again, ancient practice proves informative. Various details in the Pentateuch demonstrate the plausibility of Moses’s leadership, even concerning mundane matters. For example, Moses’s request for time off for the Israelites to offer sacrifices to Yahweh in the wilderness was not unprecedented (Exod. 5:3). The Louvre Leather Roll, an administrative document written by Ramesses II’s stablemaster, reports that men from Deir el-Medina, a New Kingdom workmen’s village, were granted time off from work “to offer to their god.”22 Doubtless, a person raised and taught in the Egyptian royal nursery is more likely to be familiar with such policies than Israelite priests living centuries later in an entirely different place. If, as many skeptics claim, these priests wrote the accounts of Moses’s life found in the Bible, one wonders how such authentically Egyptian details made their way into the text.
Most importantly, the covenant that Moses mediates between Yahweh and the Hebrews is a highly technical, legal document with parallels of varying significance found in ancient Near Eastern sovereign-vassal treaties and legal codes that date specifically to the second millennium BC. The amount of legislation in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy sums to about 150 civil laws (not including the host of laws relating to religion, ritual, the Tabernacle, and so on).23 This total pales in comparison to the 282 civil laws found in the Law Code of Hammurabi. The existing, and by no means complete, corpus of Hittite legal codes amounts to approximately 200 laws. There is nothing in the biblical account that could not be compiled in Sinai or the plains of Moab by a suitably trained individual. The collection of laws found in the Pentateuch is not beyond the capabilities of someone, like Moses, who was educated in the Egyptian court.
Furthermore, the structure of the covenant echoes documents from the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC based on an analysis of approximately ninety documents covering over two thousand years.24 In short, the covenant recorded in the Pentateuch likely was written by someone living in the fourteenth/thirteenth century BC who was well trained in ancient legal and political practice and had familiarity with ancient treaties and legal codes. One of the few places one could receive such training was in the Egyptian nursery, as Moses likely did. Kitchen accurately observes:
Even a runaway rabble inevitably needs a leader. To exploit such concepts and formats (of the covenant) for his people’s use at that time, the Hebrews’ leader would necessarily had to have been in a position to know of such documents at first hand….In short to explain what exists in our Hebrew documents we need a Hebrew leader who had had experience in life at the Egyptian court…someone distressingly like that old “hero” of biblical tradition, Moses, is badly needed at this point.25
Like the people he leads, Moses was not perfect. The inclusion of details such as his murder of an Egyptian and his disobedience to Yahweh’s command (Num. 20) lend credibility to the biblical narratives. If the Exodus account amounts to little more than mnemohistory, one wonders why its greatest hero has such shortcomings. Yet, his is also a tale of redemption, as time and time again his virtues are on display, and he ultimately succeeds despite significant failings.
Moses belongs to a world of emperors, pharaohs, and even god-kings who believed their right to rule was divinely commissioned and whose governing prerogatives covered nearly every aspect of society — military, juridical, and economic. Compared to such towering figures, the picture painted of Moses in the Pentateuch is wholly reasonable. Claims that no one person could have fulfilled all the roles ascribed to Moses neglect the ancient context, to say nothing of the simple fact that the biblical narratives admit Moses had help (e.g., Jethro, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua).
One need not worry about the claims of some that the biblical accounts of Moses are implausible, fictitious, or legendary. The lack of archaeological evidence in the Egyptian Delta or Sinai is explained by the simple fact that much data is forever lost or has not been excavated. Nor should one expect the ancient Egyptian to memorialize the departure of a large number of slaves. Arguments from silence demonstrate precisely nothing about Moses’s historicity. Finally, when set in their proper ancient context, the details of Moses’s life as recorded in the Pentateuch provide many details that fit with what we generally know about ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian history and practice, particularly during the second millennium BC, thereby lending credibility to the biblical account. Christians have good reasons to affirm that Moses was a historical figure.
Mark D. Janzen (PhD in History, emphasis ancient Egypt, University of Memphis) is an assistant professor of history and archaeology at Scarborough College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a deputy codirector on the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project, which you can learn more about at https://www.memphis.edu/hypostyle/about_hall/.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith