The Exodus and Wilderness in Tradition and History

I am starting a new series of articles, in which I will be presenting gems in the Qur’anic account of the Exodus and Wilderness traditions that come to light when it is studied against the background of history and archaeology, particularly in biblical studies and Egyptology.

By the “Exodus,” I am referring to the story of the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites (or Hebrews) from slavery in ancient Egypt under the leadership of Moses.  This story forms the basis for the Israelites’ obligation to adhere to the Torah in Judaism (Exod. 20:2-3), and as we will see, serves as a model for the nascent Muslim community in the Qur’an.

By the “Wilderness” (a.k.a. “Wandering” or “Sinai”) tradition, I am referring to the story of the Israelites’ sojourn in the deserts of the Sinai peninsula (and to a lesser extent, northwestern Arabia and Jordan) for forty years following the Exodus.  It is in this setting that the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and many famous incidents occurred such as the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf, the divine provision of the quail and manna, the springs of water from the rocks, and so on.  In the title of this series, I am using the term “Exodus” more broadly to allude to the Wilderness tradition as well.

Before I present these gems in specific terms, I will first talk about whether the Exodus tradition has any historical basis.  It is often claimed that the Exodus has been discredited by archaeology, and that it is nothing more than a myth or legend invented during the period of the Israelite monarchy, lacking any historical basis.  In fact, I have seen very few scholars make such a sweeping claim; most are more reserved than this and feel that the tradition does have a historical core but has been significantly embellished with sacred legends.  However, studies by Egyptologists Kenneth Kitchen[1] (one of the world’s most renowned experts of ancient Egypt) and James Hoffmeier[2] have shown there to be a great deal in the Exodus tradition that can be verified against the background of ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology.  As far as I am aware, the evidence they have collected has not been met with any successful refutation.

While a few of the gems I will be presenting in this series are my own thoughts or findings, I have learned most of them from other writers.  In particular, I am indebted to the exhaustive scholarship of Kitchen and Hoffmeier and, on the Qur’anic account in particular, the insightful study of Louay Fatoohi and Shetha Al-Dargazelli.[3]  Any other sources will be cited in the footnotes.

The majority of these gems apply equally to the texts of the Hebrew Bible (in particular, the Books of Exodus and Numbers) and the Qur’an.  A good number of them, however, apply only to the Qur’an, and therefore challenge the assumption that the Qur’an is merely derivative of biblical tradition.

These gems are also of various degrees of historical strength.  Some of them are conjectures—suggestive possibilities that arise from studying the Qur’anic stories against the background of history.  Many others are particularly strong, however, and quite striking.  All of them will in shā’a ’llāh give the interested reader food for thought.

[1] Kitchen, Kenneth A.  On the Reliability of the Old Testament.  Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003.  All references to “Kitchen” will be to this book, unless otherwise noted.

[2] Hoffmeier, James K.  Israel in Egypt: Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition.  Oxford University Press, 1997.  All references to “Hoffmeier” will be to this book, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Al-Dargazelli, Shetha and Fatoohi, Louay.  The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt: The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Old Testament, Archaeological Finds, and Historical Sources.  Birmingham, UK: Luna Plena Publishing, 2011.

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