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The Exodus Debated

An Exchange over The Exodus Decoded

August 17, 2006, Responses Updated October 13, 2006

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici recently sent BAR editor Hershel Shanks a preview copy of his newest documentary, The Exodus Decoded (which aired on the History Channel on Sunday August 20, 2006 at 8 pm Eastern Time) and asked for his reaction. The almost 2-hour program lays out the case for the Exodus having occurred in about 1500 B.C. and identifies Ahmose as the pharaoh who at first refused to let the Israelites go, only to watch helplessly as God inflicted the Ten Plagues on Egypt. The program also claims that the Ten Plagues were a series of highly unusual but natural calamities triggered by the volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Santorini (ancient Thera). Jacobovici traces a series of events that took place in Camaroon in the 1980s that has some uncanny resemblances to some of the Biblical plagues: a seepage of natural gas that turned a lake red, caused people to break out in boils and then killed people who were sleeping near the lake but not those who were at higher elevations. The Exodus Decoded also claims to locate Mt. Sinai and to identify how the Ark of the Covenant looked.

Shanks’s reaction to the program led to the following exchange with Jacobivici. We thought their discussion of faith and historical analysis, the nature of miracles and numerous other fascinating topics would be of interest to visitors to our site.

If you would like to comment on this exchange, send your email to exodus@bib-arch.org. We have posted, and will continue to post, some of the most interesting ones here.


From: Hershel Shanks
July 30, 2006

Dear Simcha,

This is a private communication.

Sue Laden [publisher], Steve Feldman [Web editor] and I went out to Rob Sugar’s [design director] to see “The Exodus Decoded” on his huge television screen in their “entertainment room.”

I loved it. I was engrossed the entire time. It was brilliant. Extremely creative. The special effects were wonderful—Simcha Jacobovici all the way through. You were a star—as an actor, not simply as a director. It was also very honest—how you couldn’t get permission to see the stela from the Egyptian museum (so you made your own beautiful copy!), how you couldn’t get into a military zone, how you couldn’t get any scholars to agree with you, etc. It was a real tour de force.

Did you convince me? Unfortunately, no. Of course, I am ignorant of many of the things you take up, so I am not in a position to express any judgment. But on the things I have some familiarity with, I see problems.

I start from the very fact that you cannot get any scholars to say they agree. That is a handicap. These are very complex and difficult subjects, about which scholars have had long discussions and brought much complicated evidence to bear. Of course, it is impossible for a TV production to consider all this. But the fact that you cannot get major scholars to express agreement creates some doubt. Then, too, I get suspicious when you rely too much on a guy identified as an “author”—Charles Pella-something. The same goes for your reliance on John Bimson—a scholar who has very little support (if any) in academia and is generally considered outside the mainstream. In other words, you are going against the trend of responsible scholarship—not once, but time after time.

On the things I know a little about, I tend to disagree with you. Beginning with the Hyksos. This is an old idea. It’s hard to find a scholar today who subscribes to it. Among its many problems: Where were the Israelites for 300 years [from 1500 to 1200 BCE] after the Egyptian expulsion of the Hyksos/Israelites? (Incidentally, you’re not really changing Egyptian chronology, despite what you say. What you are doing is simply dating the Exodus to 1500 BCE.)

Or take the Semitic inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadem. You use a conjectural translation [“God, save me”] of [William Foxwell] Albright. This decipherment is really not secure. Kyle McCarter thinks he has accurately deciphered this writing. He has not yet published it. But everyone knows that Albright’s efforts are uncertain. But even if correct, “El” is not necessarily the Israelite God. It is the generic word for “God.” Many Semites used it. Everyone accepts the idea that Semites were worker/slaves(?) at Serabit. But you jump to the conclusion that they were Israelites—in the 16th century BCE.

Or take your identification of “Jacob.” This name appears fairly frequently at this time. But that doesn’t mean it refers to the Biblical Jacob. The appearance of the name is appropriately used to give a plausibility to the story, but not to say this is Joseph’s father.

You certainly had the world’s relevant experts on the screen. They testified to certain facts, but not to your conclusion. And you may have chosen quotes from them that you could use. That is why I stated at the beginning of this email that this is a private communication. If you wanted to quote me, you could validly use the quote, “I loved it.” That quote alone gives the wrong impression. To someone who is somewhat familiar with the academic discourse on these issues, I get the impression that this is the way you may have used some of your quotes.

You certainly spared no effort. The result is brilliant. You obviously feel strongly and passionately about what you have done. On the other hand, you purport to solve a fistful of problems that scholars have analyzed and argued about without solving them. It comes across as a little chutzpahdik [Yiddish for nervy] to think that a layperson could come in and solve not one, but a dozen of these scholarly conundrums—especially when you don’t consider the opposing scholars’ views. For example, could the Hyksos experience have inspired the story of the Israelites centuries later without their being the people of the Exodus? Same for the Santorini volcano—When the Israelite author was drawing his picture, did he know of these kinds of natural events? Or take Mt. Sinai—Scholars have been trying for years to locate Mt. Sinai. I think the best argument is for the site in Saudi Arabia, supported by Frank Cross [emeritus Harvard professor]. But you don’t even consider that one. Yet, in one fell swoop, you solve that mystery—and no one before even thought of your site.

Bottom line: I admire you tremendously. And I was tremendously impressed with the production. But did it convince me? I’m afraid not.

Love,
Hershel


From: Simcha Jacobovici
July 31, 2006

Dear Hershel,

It makes me very happy that you saw it and I’ve already put “I loved it” on the internet. Just kidding. I’ll respect the privacy of the communication.

You make a lot of valid points, but they’re not deal breakers. For example, I don’t really buy—and I say this in the spirit of great joy of debating this with you—the “you’re not a scholar” argument. Something is either right or it’s not right, on its merits. Heinrich Schliemann wasn’t an archaeologist when he found Troy.

Dr. Charles Pellegrino is not teaching at any institute right now but he’s a respected scholar who makes his living writing books. He’s a generalist, even though his Ph.D. is in paleontology. That’s what makes him so useful in the film. He’s willing to compare geology to history. Most archaeologists wouldn’t know what he’s talking about. As Prof. Amos Nur (Stanford) told me “I tell my archaeologist colleagues that many of the destruction layers that they equate with barbarian invasions, any first year geologist student would identify with earthquakes...and they still never call in an earthquake specialist.”

As for Bimson, he’s in the minority, but who says minority opinions are not right? His date by the way is echoed by the recently revised Seder Olam date. Seder Olam [an Orthodox Jewish text] is the Rabbinic chronology. It’s also the date that most scholars used until Albright.

As for me misquoting people, that’s not nice, Hershel. I’m a responsible journalist, and I wouldn’t quote anybody in such a way that it twists what they said. I explicitly say in the film that no one buys into the entire picture, but when it comes to the individual dots, they say what they say even though they might regret it later.

So [prominent Egyptologist] Donald Redford connects the Ahmose stele to the Biblical plagues. That’s a fact, not a misquote. Donald Redford connects the Exodus to the Hyksos Expulsion. That’s a fact, not a misquote. Dr. Uzi Avner, who is probably the biggest expert on open air sanctuaries in the Sinai and in the Negev, is our guide on Hashem el Tarif. He, too, is not 100% convinced that his mountain is Mt. Sinai but he is getting closer. The fact is that this mountain has the highest concentration of open-air cult sites in the Sinai desert.The fact is that this is the only mountain that conforms to all the Biblical criteria, e.g., 11 days from Kadesh Barnea. With due respect to Frank Moore Cross, whom I admire and like, and to you and to the other proponents of Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia, I don’t even deal with this in the film because the Torah [Pentateuch] doesn’t deal with it.

The Torah explicitly puts the drama of the Exodus in the Sinai peninsula, not Saudi Arabia, and I can’t move the entire drama outside of the Torah. My task was simple: Does the archaeology conform to the Biblical story, not can I make up my own story. No mountain in Saudi Arabia is 11 days from Kadesh Barnea. That’s it. That’s the end of that theory. (By the way, the part that I like best about the Saudi theory is that for the Israelites to get to Saudi Arabia in the requisite 2 weeks, they would all have had to be Olympic athletes. I kind of like the idea of 80-year-old-Jewish grandmas sprinting across the desert. But it doesn’t fit the Biblical criteria).

At the Jerusalem screening, Uzi [Avner] came up to me and said “I hate to say it, but I have one more thing that you can use for your argument. The extension of Hashem el Tarif is identified as Jabel Seira on every map.” As you know, Mt. Sinai has always been related to Mount Seir.

You’re right that I haven’t really changed Egyptian chronology. That’s a good thing. I’m a conservative. But to get Ahmose and the Hyksos expulsion into 1500 or the 1490’s, you have to trim some 25-50 years. [Leading hieroglyph expert professor Kenneth] Kitchen [of the University of Liverpool], when I spoke to him, was not willing to bring Ahmose any later than 1525 BCE, so in my book (I’m chutzpahdik enough to write one) I have to propose some overlapping reigns in order to synchronize Ahmose, the Hyksos expulsion, and the Exodus. Again, I’m not smart enough or educated enough to get confused about these matters, but the fact is that there is only one Egyptian pharaoh—not two, not three—only one Egyptian Pharaoh in whose reign a mass of Semites leave lower Egypt and cataclysms occur, including darkness and inundations. Also, many, many Classical writers identify him with the Biblical pharaoh.

As for the inscriptions at Serabit, sure the miners can be other guys [rather than Israelites]. After all, the Bible says that the Israelites during the Exodus were attacked from behind by Amalekites. The only time this could have happened was during the Hyksos expulsion. That’s the only time that Semites would have attacked from the back of the Israelites, not the front. So maybe the guys at Serabit were Amalekites. But why go there? The Bible states explicitly that the Israelites cried out to God and the Serabit inscriptions testify to a slave crying out to God. In the same cluster, there is an Israelite name, there is a work quota, and there is “El”. Maybe it’s an Amalekite who worshiped El, and he wasn’t a slave but a worker. Maybe he suffered from heat stroke. Who knows? My point is that the Bible states something and that we find a perfect mirror of that statement in those inscriptions, and in the inscriptions, by the way, recently found in Egypt.

As for the name Jacob, I’m not sure how common it was but even if it was, it was not common on Egyptian royal scarabs. Again, given that we know that there was a Hyksos (as you know, Hyksos means prince from foreign land) named Joseph, son of Jacob that was grand vizier of Egypt, and given that the Bible explicitly makes reference to his royal scarab, why look for alternate explanations? Again, we’re dealing with a cluster of evidence.

What did you think of the way the plagues were explained when lined up with Santorini? What did you think of the gas leak in Lake Nyos [that produced water the color of blood]? It turned the water blood red in 1986 in Cameroon and then it brought on boils, and it killed people and animals. Those academics by the way, e.g., Prof. Nur and Prof. Kling, are simply the top people in their fields.

What did you think of the connection with Mycenae? Especially, the grave stele? I animated the carvings but I did not change a thing. See, sometimes being an expert in graphics may be more important than being one in archaeology.

Anyway, I’m delighted you watched it and you took the time to comment on it. I’ll continue plugging away.

Thanks, Hershel.

Your friend,
Simcha


From: Hershel Shanks
August 1, 2006

Dear Simcha,

The Exodus narrative bristles with uncertainties. You admit none of them. When you mention Kadesh Barnea, you raise another one. That is the key point from which you do your measurement [to Mt. Sinai]. Yet there is nothing at the site from the time of the Exodus, whether it occurred in the 12th century BCE or the 15th century BCE. True, scholars don’t have a better site. It is just a problem. But for you there are no problems. You don’t even admit that the number of the Israelites on the Exodus must be a gross exaggeration—600,000 men, plus women and children and the mixed multitude—2 or 3 million people marching through the desert!!?? If the number and the place (Kadesh Barnea) are in the story but were put there inaccurately from a later time, we must ask whether there are other elements in the story of this nature. I think responsible scholarship concludes that there is a historic core to the story, but that not all details are historic—another kind of argument you don’t consider.

Then, too, miracles are a matter of faith, not rational, natural causes. If you believe in the plagues, it is a matter of faith, not rational argument. It does no good to say that God may have used the effects of the volcanic eruption of Thera [Santorini] to cause the plagues; God doesn’t need Thera. He can do it because he’s God. That’s what a miracle means.

And of course even here you skip over problems. You do find some cockamamie reason how, because there is a natural cause behind the 10th plague, only the first-born son was killed (how does this work with the animals?), but you don’t even try to explain the darkness where the Israelite homes in the midst of the [plague of] darkness had light. Did God somehow supply the Israelites with electricity and deny it to the Egyptians?

To my mind, trying to find natural explanations for miracles degrades them. They have a meaning. The meaning is not how clever God was in using natural means to create what seem to be miracles—and that is eventually your point. The meaning is much deeper than that.

You quote Uzi Avner, whom I know well. He gave you a bit of evidence that supports your theory as to the identification of Mt. Sinai. This leaves the impression that Uzi thinks this may well be Mt. Sinai. I don’t believe he does. And what about Har Karkom, which also has (even more) evidence that it was a holy mountain? If you consider your site, I think you also have to consider the comparative validity of other sites. You say you can’t do this in a two-hour film; but that is why the opinion of scholars who have studied the problem becomes important. Yes, you can reason, and, yes, you don’t have to be a scholar to reason, but then you have to present the whole picture, not just a tiny segment of it. The only way out of this dilemma is to ask what the scholars say who have studied the problem.

Well, enough of this. Horrible things are happening in Israel. I am scared and worried. I hope and pray that everyone in Israel can soon get back to archaeological concerns.

In warm friendship,
Hershel


From: Simcha Jacobovici
August 1, 2006

Dear Hershel,

Before I answer some of the things you raise, I should point out that some of the chutzpah that I’ve acquired is a result of following the career of this lawyer [Hershel] who dove into the archaeological world and really shook it up.

With respect to the Exodus narrative bristling with uncertainties, we’re now out of the realm of archaeology and into the realm of logic. Something I taught at university. You always have to be careful that “uncertainties” are not of your own making. It’s dangerous to imagine uncertainties where there are none, and then build theories around uncertainties that are merely gaps in one’s own knowledge. The danger is that you might distort the text and then build theories to account for the distortions, which then lead to further so-called uncertainties.

When Galileo proposed that the sun was at the center of our universe, one of the objections was that this was too simple a theory. Ptolemaic astronomy was very sophisticated. It had to be because it had to explain all kinds of uncertainties in the movement of planets that resulted from sticking the earth in the middle of the universe. Copernicus and Galileo were much less sophisticated because they had less uncertainties to account for, also they were less interested in scholarly opinion and more interested in what actually happens.

Logically, before we imagine uncertainties, gross exaggerations, inaccuracies, etc. we have to subject the text—as it is—to an investigation. Is the story of the Exodus consistent with the archaeological, geological and historical record? That’s it. If it is, it is. If it’s not, we have to prove that it’s not, not simply assume that it’s not, and we have to make sure that inconsistencies are not figments of our own imagination or holes in our knowledge. In any respect, the logical first step is to look at the Exodus text as it is, not as secondary sources imagine it to be.

By the way, in the study of philosophy, you should look at the work of Leo Strauss, who forced a generation of scholars to go back to original texts. For decades, scholars were studying each other instead of the text they were supposedly analyzing.

Now let’s deal with Kadesh Barnea. The Biblical text explicitly states that during the sojourn in the desert, the Israelites built nothing, planted nothing, settled nowhere, etc. It repeatedly states that God provided manna from heaven and that they didn’t even change the clothes that they were wearing or the sandals on their feet. Biblically speaking, finding archaeological remains in the Sinai would create a problem. I’m just asking: Is the Biblical text consistent with the archaeology? I’m not asking: Is the archaeology consistent with what we think the Biblical text should state?

The fact is that the Biblical text says that the Israelites left no trace of themselves for future generations to find during the 40 years in the desert. And we find no trace.

That’s not so hard to believe, by the way, since I can take you to places that I know Bedouin were camped at, or even Israeli soldiers served in, a mere 30 years ago, and you will find no trace of either the Bedouins or the Israelis.

You’re right. I don’t get into the so called “gross exaggeration” of the numbers. But I don’t assume that there is one. First of all, the numbers cited in the Torah are consistent with numbers cited in ancient texts including Egyptian, Assyrian, etc. Maybe they are all exaggerating; maybe they all went to the same school of exaggeration so that they are consistent with each other; maybe “Elef” meant something other than one thousand [a poor effort to solve the numbers problem is to say the text means 600 families instead of 600,000.—HS]—I don’t know. But I don’t need to know. All I need to know is that the Torah states that there was a mass exodus of Semites out of lower Egypt, into the Sinai that ended up in Canaan. The Torah doesn’t talk about 20 slaves running away. It talks about a mass exodus. And the simple fact is that all scholars agree that there was a mass exodus of Semites out of lower Egypt, into the Sinai that ended up in Canaan. They call it the Hyksos expulsion. There weren’t two such events, or three, or four—just one. If we change the mass exodus into tiny little exoduses then every runaway slave becomes a candidate for the exodus. But that’s not what the Torah says. It makes a claim of a mass exodus. And history records a mass exodus. In British common law there is a concept that you must be familiar with—the “reasonable man.” The reasonable man can assume that these two mass exoduses are one and the same unless there’s a reason not to.

BTW, there was no “Hyksos expulsion.” The term Hyksos is in Manetho [an Egyptian priest of the third century BCE] as quoted in Josephus [a first-century CE Jewish historian]. It refers specifically to the elite among the foreign Semitic rulers of lower Egypt. The mass of Semites are referred to in all Egyptian records as “Amu.” This term is lost in translation because it’s always translated as “Asiatics.” It’s too bad because as any scholar will tell you the Canaanite “u” became the Hebrew “o.” Amu and Amo [“his people” in Hebrew] are one and the same word-–spelled Eyin, Mem, Vav. It appears hundreds of times in the Torah. Sometimes as Amo, sometimes as “Amo Israel.” Again, it’s bizarre that the Torah talks about an “Amo Israel” exodus, and the Egyptians talk about the expulsion of the “Amo,” and the whole thing is hiding in plain sight under the skirts of the Asiatics.

Speaking about archaeological evidence of Israelites in the Sinai, again, as you well know, the Shasu mysteriously appear in the Sinai at some point in the Egyptian records. Nobody actually looks as to when that happens, but it happens at the beginning of the 18th dynasty, right after the expulsion of the Amo. Suddenly, the desert is inhabited by Shasu who are circumcised, wear side curls in their hair, fringes on their garments and the kinds of head gear described in detail in the Bible with respect to Levites and Cohens [Hebrew priests].

So ... I’m afraid that before I start searching for “historical cores” and assume that it’s all bristling with uncertainties, those uncertainties have to be logically demonstrated. Until then Kadesh Barnea, is 11 days from Mt. Sinai.

BTW, I interviewed [Emmanuel] Anati [who favors his site of Har Karkom as Mt. Sinai]. I climbed Har Karkom. In fact, I included it in an episode of my “Naked Archaeologist” [television series]. I didn’t include it in my “Exodus Decoded” for two reasons. One, it’s a long way to go in the film just to say that it’s the wrong mountain. I don’t doubt that it’s an interesting mountain or even a holy mountain, but to make it Mt. Sinai, Anati has to have the Israelites jogging to Kadesh Barnea and he has to relocate Midianites, Amalekites, and several other ancient peoples, something that your scholar friends have all rejected.

Again, logically speaking, I don’t have to go to every holy mountain in the Middle East and ask myself, ”Is this Mt. Sinai?” My task was to ask myself is there a mountain that conforms to all the Biblical criteria before we imagine that those criteria make no sense. And the fact is that there is such a mountain—Jabel Hashem el Tarif.

Uzi [Avner] doesn’t have a different mountain. No one has another mountain that fits the Biblical criteria. Another legal principle that I’m sure you’re familiar with is that if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck—it’s a duck.

With respect to “degrading the miracles,” now you’re in the realm of theology. And with due respect, I can believe Shanks or I can follow the Rambam [a leading, highly respected medieval Jewish commentator]. Please don’t take this personally, but I’ll go with Rambam. Not only does he not say that finding a scientific explanation for the Biblical miracles is degrading, he explicitly states that one ought to be able to find the science behind the miracles.

Personally, I find miracles that stand outside of nature theologically unsatisfying. Why? Because the whole point of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is to demonstrate to Pharaoh that God rules nature. Not that God can step outside of nature. Pharaoh is not impressed with magicians whot can seemingly step outside of nature. The Torah is explicit on this point. In fact, the first few miracles are replicated by Pharaoh’s magicians step by step. OK, so Moses’ snake swallows up Pharaoh’s snake, but Pharaoh is singularly unimpressed. In the narrative, he is not impressed by cheap party tricks. Once the cataclysms become overwhelming, he asks himself the question, a question that we have to ask ourselves every time a missile misses a population center in Israel; is this mindless nature, pure chance, or the will of God?

Pharaoh is thoroughly modern. It takes a lot of plagues to convince him, and even then he changes his mind. The Talmud even breaks the plagues into categories so as to explicitly state that God wants to demonstrate his mastery over earth, air and water. In fact, in the Book of Exodus, the Torah goes out of its way to state that prior to the miracle of the parting of the sea, “an east wind blew all night.” If I was writing this story, and if I wanted God to be a super magician in the sky, I would state that the day the sea parted was so windless that not a leaf moved on any branch. But the Torah invites us to investigate the wind that blew all night and forces us to struggle with the question: Was it the wind, or was it God manipulating the wind?

BTW, it now seems—archaeologically speaking—that the Minoans were involved in child sacrifice. If that’s true, this also enhances the miracle. By blowing up Thera, God brought to an end a child-sacrificing society in the Aegean, and liberated a people from Egypt who would end child sacrifice in Canaan.

With respect to the darkness, one second you are talking about “a historic core to the story,” the next second you are talking about electricity for the Hebrews. Don’t confuse Midrash with Torah. In the Torah it doesn’t say that the Israelites had lit homes inside the darkness. What it says is that the miracle consisted in the fact that the Egyptians were enveloped in darkness and the Israelites had light.

An ash cloud did reach Egypt. That’s a fact. You like scholars—and Jean-Daniel Stanley from the Smithsonian has proved—once and for all—that a Theran ash cloud enveloped lower Egypt. But not all of lower Egypt. So, if the ash cloud was concentrated over the Egyptian areas, not the Israelite, the Israelites would have seen this as God’s miracle, and Pharaoh would have seen this as a natural fluke. That’s the drama. No electricity needed.

I grant you that my explanation of the death of the firstborn is not totally satisfying. You see: There is uncertainty in my life. But maybe not for the reasons that you think. Egyptians define themselves by the manner in which they slept when referring to their youth. Kind of “when I was knee high to a grasshopper.” In the tomb of admiral Ahmose, he refers to himself in his youth “when I was a hammock sleeper.” The exact reference is in The Sacred Bridge [a recent Biblical atlas by Israeli scholar Anson Rainey]. So if the firstborn slept in beds and the rest of the kids slept in hammocks, on rooftops, etc. it is not so “cockamamie” to imagine that they were disproportionably killed. Ah, you say but only firstborn died. Not so. You must be reading the Reformed [a liberal wing of Judaism] Hagadah [the story read at the Passover seder].

The Torah explicitly states that every house was affected. And the Rabbis in the Talmud ask, “How could every house be affected? Surely, there must have been some houses with no firstborn”? The answer that the Talmud gives in order to reconcile the two statements in the Torah is that wherever there were no firstborn, the oldest in the house died. The Talmud then states that in some houses everyone died. So how can that be if only the firstborn died? The Rabbis state that Egyptian women were promiscuous and that in some houses many kids died, but they were all firstborns by different men.

My point is that the Torah, the Oral Torah, the Talmud, etc. all state that not only firstborn died, but primarily firstborn died. This is consistent with the Ipuwer papyrus, that [John] Van Seters and [Hans] Goedicke date to the Hyksos period. Also, maybe my low Egyptian beds don’t explain everything, but how do you explain [Manfred] Bietak’s mass male grave [found in his excavation at the Delta site of ancient Avaris]? He believes they all died of an epidemic. He thinks they are all male because they must have been soldiers. This is not consistent with their ages, or the fact that there is absolutely no military paraphernalia in the graves. So, again, the geology and the archaeology are consistent with a gas leak. (In fact, the Talmud itself says that 80% of the Israelites died prior to the Exodus. The miracle was that they died during the plague of darkness, so the Egyptians didn’t see it.)

So the fact is that if we imagine a Bible that’s not there, and we mythologize the miracles, the natural explanations seem cockamamie. But if we match the text that is actually there with the other sources in our tradition, they are perfectly consistent with gas leaks and volcanic eruptions resulting from earthquake storms. But why focus on the beds? Why not focus on the fact that the water turned red, the people got boils and then they died. In 1986 in Lake Nyos, Cameroon the water turned red, the people got boils and then they died. If it waddles like a duck ...

Ah yes, the animals. The Torah relates a curious fact about the night the Israelites left Egypt. The dogs didn’t bark! Of course they didn’t bark, they were all dead.

Finally, you’re right. Horrible things are happening [in Israel]. But tomorrow night is the 9th of Av [in the Jewish calendar—the date of the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans]. Things should get better on the 10th. Besides, reclaiming our history is a holy endeavor. If we were more familiar with it, maybe we’d be having less problems. You should be worried, but not scared. He who rules nature has promised us victory.

Yours,
Simcha


From: Simcha Jacobovici
August 2, 2006

Hi Hershel,

I’ve been thinking about our correspondence all morning, and I just want to add one thought.

I think lots of us fall into a certain secular scholarly trap. It goes like this: We mythologize the Exodus—God doesn’t need nature, God doesn’t need archaeology—and then we ignore it as history, at least we ignore the story as it’s told in the Book of Exodus. This way we sound strangely religious in the first instance—after all, God doesn’t need proof—and atheistic in the second—after all, we’re scientists. [Tel Aviv University professor] Israel Finkelstein gave me this line. He’s perfectly happy to put on a kippa [skullcap] at Pesach [Passover] time and sit down to a Seder. He doesn’t need proof. He’s a bigger Tzadik [righteous person] than the Rambam. The Haggadah can say that aliens landed from outer space and they took the Jews out of Egypt with flying saucers: Finkelstein would be happy. He would eat the gefilte fish anyway, with lots of chrein [horseradish]. No problem. But the very next day, Finkelstein wouldn’t take the story seriously as a scholar. As far as he’s concerned, the Book of Exodus might as well be talking about flying saucers.

This is a schizophrenic approach: Where as Jews we need no proof because we are blindly following the tradition that has nothing—or very little—to do with actual history. As scholars, we acknowledge that the entire story—more or less, depending on your view—is a fairytale. This is a dangerous trap. The Torah demands that we approach it seriously on Pesach and every other day of the year. We mention the Exodus as historical fact during every prayer service, and every time we bench [recite blessings] after a meal. One of the twelve expressions of faith after the morning service is that we believe it happened as the Torah says it happened. That’s not to say that as thinking people we can’t question the Torah and look for the evidence. But, at the very least, we have to understand what the story is and how it demands to be understood, before we line it up with the evidence. We have to play the game—at least at the outset—by the Torah’s rules. And then we can agree or disagree. But the Finkelstein approach is to create new rules and then a tautology. We set up a scenario where the exercise of faith or tradition has nothing to do with history, and then we create our own narrative that has nothing to do with the Torah. Dangerous and illogical.

Love,
Simcha


From: Hershel Shanks
August 3, 2006

Dear Simcha,

I think we have reached the end of the road: Our differences are theological. You are a believer; I am not. There is nothing wrong with that. But, by definition, theological issues are not subject to rational argument or proof. They are matters of faith.

That’s OK, but you don’t stop there. You want to support these matters of faith with rational argument.

You start out with the assumption that the text is historically accurate. If you find that it is consistent with historically attested fact, then the text must be historically accurate. But you don’t consider other explanations; it’s all very simple.

The worst thing about this procedure is when you apply it to miracles. By definition, miracles are outside the natural order. You assume that there are natural explanations for all miracles; that is, God doesn’t go outside the natural order; to perform his miracles, he utilizes natural forces: God the Magician. Or better yet: God as Houdini. You want to learn his tricks.

An example: The first plague—water to blood. This is one of your triumphs; you have found wonderful (literally) new evidence of how water can appear blood-red. You tell us how the Nile could appear blood-red. You have learned God’s trick. Very nice!

Well, the text says that ALL the water in Egypt turned into blood, not just the Nile. All right, you will say, all water in Egypt comes from the Nile, even that “in vessels of wood and stone” [Exodus 7:19].That is the kind of discussion you pursue. But the unalterable fact is that the text doesn’t say the water was blood-red. It says the water was BLOOD. Your Houdini/God is exposed: “Hey, this isn’t really blood; it’s just red water—what’s more, I know how you performed the trick.”

To me, this diminishes God—even though I don’t believe in him, at least not as described in the Bible. But I do think the text is rich both historically (but you must know how to look for the history; no one else of repute does it your—dare I say, simplistic—way) and as a vehicle to plumb life’s mysteries. I have some beliefs that I cannot explain or defend. They are matters of faith. I cannot begin to defend them rationally. For you, it seems, there are rational explanations to your faith; you can defend them, if not prove them.

I am not sure I am right, however. That’s why I have these kinds of discussions with people like you. And that’s why, despite my views of your efforts, I can shep nachis [take enjoyment] from the notoriety and plaudits my friend gets from the reviews you tell me are coming out. And that’s why I can thoroughly enjoy watching the show.

All the best from your friend,
A Rebellious Jew

P.S. Simcha, I forgot to wish you an easy fast (on the 9th of Av). And forgive me for writing on this day. But I did hear Aicha [The Book of Lamentations, chanted in the synagogue on the 9th of Av] last night. Hershel


From: Simcha Jacobovici
August 3, 2006

Dear Hershel,

The rebellious Jew who listens to Aicha is my kind of Jew.

I want to understand your reasoning. You say that the matter is theological and you don’t want to diminish God and you don’t want to expose his tricks. But, putting aside my faith, one of the alternatives that is surely possible is that in ancient times a group of people was faced with natural calamities and gave them a religious interpretation. As people interested in history, the fact that the Nile Delta is an area rich in gas that could have turned the water red and then killed a lot of people is a compelling fact. Why would you be worried about whether this diminishes God or not? From a historical point of view, shouldn’t the question we should be asking ourselves be, is the Biblical story true? Not, will an accurate understanding of the facts diminish the Almighty? Does the explanation given in the film, for example, provide a comprehensive view of the plagues that cannot be coincidental? Meaning, shouldn’t you be interested in the historical truth as opposed to the theological consequences? Why are you so worried about whether God turns out to be the Wizard of Oz? I know why I would be worried, but I’m trying to understand why you’re so worried and why this seems to take precedence over whether my account is an accurate description of historical events. Just trying to figure you out.

Love,
Simcha

P.S. FYI—if the Nile turned red because gas went through iron, then it did turn into blood because what makes the blood in your veins red is iron. No trick. In fact, a miraculously accurate description. How would the ancients have known that it was iron that turned both the water and our blood red?


From: Hershel Shanks
August 4, 2006

Dear Simcha,

So let me understand: The same thing (iron) that gives the red color to the water also gives the red color to blood, so that really makes the water blood. Wow! Who would have thought of that.

But I will leave the last word to you. We are off to the beach for a week.

All best.
Hershel


From: Simcha Jacobovici
August 7, 2006

Dear Hershel:

A few more words:

I’m surprised that you let me get away with not answering one of your original objections. Specifically, if the Exodus happened earlier, where were the Israelites all of that time? The answer was read in Shul [synagogue] this past Shabbat. “...when God your Lord brings you to the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He will give you large and good cities that you did not build and homes filled with all that is good, that you did not fill, cisterns that you did not quarry and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10). The point is that what the Torah explicitly states is that—save for a few exceptional cities—the first stage of the Israelite conquest was occupation, not destruction. It was only after the Israelites became firmly entrenched in the cities that they branched out into the outlying areas. Over and over, we are told that the Israelites took over cities that they didn’t build, orchards that they didn’t plant. Archaeologically speaking, to be consistent with the Bible, the material evidence should be silent for the first couple of hundred years—except in places like Jericho and Hazor—and only later should Israelite “markers” suddenly appear.

Archaeologists set up an expectation, i.e., if they conquered, where’s the evidence, and then they state that there’s a problem when the material evidence doesn’t match their expectation. But in Biblical archaeology, the question is: does the archaeology match the Bible? Not: Does the archaeology match the doctoral dissertations?

From a Biblical perspective, there should be no markers for the first few hundred years. The Torah is explicit in this regard, i.e., that the Israelites got the benefit of the Canaanite labor. And the archaeology reflects the Biblical narrative perfectly. An Exodus around 1490 BCE matches the Egyptian record, the Rabbinic record and the material evidence. What we see is destruction levels at Jericho and Hazor (we would see destruction at Ai if we ever really located it) and no destruction elsewhere. The Merneptah stele provides the terminus ad quem. In 1207 BCE, you have a pharaoh bragging about destroying Israel’s “seed,” i.e., crops. No self-respecting pharaoh would be bragging about kicking Israel’s butt in 1207 if the Exodus happened in 1270. Allowing for 40 years in the desert, this would mean that the pharaoh in question is bragging about defeating a people who was less than 23 years in Canaan. Hardly time for nation building. An earlier Exodus explains the period of occupation—which is silent in the material culture—explains Jericho, Hazor and the Merneptah stele. Everything else doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.

With respect to the water turning to blood, here’s the way it goes. In Biblical language, color doesn’t exist simply as “color.” It is essence. We are what we are made of, e.g., the first man is Adam because he comes from Adama [earth]. If we accept that the evidence from lakes Minoun and Nyos, both in Cameroon, is too compelling to ignore, i.e., that gas making its way through iron-rich lakes turned the water blood red, we are forced to go back to the Torah and see how the facts match up with the text. It is then that we note an interesting synchronicity, namely, that the scientific explanation is consistent with the Biblical description only if the author is aware that what turned the water red (if indeed it was iron) is the same substance that makes blood red. That’s not a proof, that’s an eyebrow raiser. I just brought it up because you raised this particular example as an instance of how a miracle gets diminished by understanding the science. Quite the contrary. Understanding the science makes the text appear all the more miraculous.

I was wondering over the weekend why so many secular Jews are upset with what they perceive as my film’s “theological problems,” and I realized that it’s because when they think about the God that they don’t believe in, they want Him to be outside of nature. They want Him to perform tricks that cannot be deciphered. This way, once a year, at Passover time—OK, maybe we throw in Yom Kippur as well—they can sit with a borrowed kippa [skullcap] balanced precariously on their heads, and tell a story that they don’t really believe in. This gives them a kind of theological fix. Then they can go back to not believing in Him. On the other hand, a God that works through nature, that redeems us and yet allows many of us to fall, that’s a far more difficult God to deal with ... because that’s a God that we have to confront in our day-to-day lives.

They say religion is a crutch. But it’s much easier to not believe 99% of the time and then have a religious experience for 1% of the time. I expected secular people to react to the archaeology in the film, and religious people to the theology. But it’s been the other way around!

Believers have no problem dealing with a God who works through nature and through everyday life. Most of the missiles miss their mark (it’s a miracle!), but a few get through (they died for Kiddush haShem [sanctification of His name]). Believers see the miracles all around us, and they struggle with why some of us don’t get to go to the Promised Land. They wrestle with God all the time. After all, we are called the People of Israel, i.e., the people who wrestle with God.

Many secular people, on the other hand, want a God that they can remove from nature and from everyday life. They want a God who can inhabit the synagogue and the Passover meal. He comes out, tells a story that nobody believes and then goes back to where He came from. Aloof, above history, above nature, above archaeology, above evidence, above truth, above everyday victories and defeats.

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’m glad that by making a coherent argument for why the Biblical Exodus is fact not fiction, my film is forcing people to confront themselves and their relationship with the God of Israel. It’s never been an easy relationship.

[Simcha]


From: Hershel Shanks
August 15, 2006

Dear Simcha,

Your last email confirms my feeling that basically our differences are theological.

Many great scholars whom I know are also men of faith. But in their scholarly work they treat the Biblical text just the way they would any other ancient text, subjecting it to exactly the same kinds of questions they would pose to a non-Biblical text and applying the same kinds of tests as to the Bible’s historicity. There are still matters of faith, but these are recognized as not being subject to rational proof or disproof.

You, on the other hand, start out with the assumption that your Bible is historically accurate, including the miracles, unless you can find some archaeological problem with doing so; and also accepting as proof anything archaeological that seems to confirm the historicity of the text, including the miracles.

You may deny this, but you do do it. As a kind of test, let me ask you if you would apply the same presumption of historicity to other ancient texts, such as Homer and Gilgamesh? Would you accept all the details in Homer as historically accurate, even the miracles and the acts of the gods? Do you accept as a historical fact that the wildman Gilgamesh was acculturated by a prostitute? How about his refusal of a marriage proposal by Ishtar, the goddess of Uruk? Do you believe that Utnapishtim is immortal (as the text says), perhaps still living in disguise somewhere in war-torn Baghdad?

And of course the next question is about the New Testament. Did Jesus turn water into wine? Or was the rain grape-colored that day? And how did he walk on water? Some have suggested that the northern part of the Sea of Galilee is shallow with a lot of marshes and that it might appear that someone walking in the marshes was walking on water. Does that explanation appeal to you?

The hallmark of modern religion is tolerance and respect for other religions. This requires an acceptance that we cannot rationally prove or disprove the truth of someone’s else’s faith. And if this is true, it must apply to our own. It is an acceptance of the fact that faith is beyond rational proof—just as miracles are, and, by extension, details of history recounted in books considered by various communities (but not by others) as sacred. In short, I may believe in my God, but I cannot say that if you believe otherwise you are wrong—as long as your religion does not want to destroy me.

The corollary of all this is that, except on matters of faith (that are not subject to ordinary tests of historicity), we must treat the Bible just as we treat any other ancient text. We cannot affirm our own sacred texts with any more of a presumption of historicity than we would give to Homer or Gilgamesh.

Kol tuv [all the best]. It’s been fun.

Hershel


From: Simcha Jacobovici
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hi Hershel,

The key question underlying your statements is whether I start off assuming that the text is historically accurate when it comes to all ancient texts, or just the Torah. I’ll answer your question in two ways:

First of all, not all texts are created equal when it comes to transmission. The fact is that you can enter any synagogue today, take out the Torah and it is for all intents and purposes identical to the 2,000-year-old-plus-Dead Sea Scrolls. Furthermore, if you throw the “priestly blessing” uncovered by Gaby Barkay on a silver amulet into the equation, then you have a 2,700 year old text that is identical with the “priestly blessing” that you find in any Torah in any synagogue anywhere on this planet. This speaks to the credibility of the chain of transmission. As you also know, if during Sabbath Torah reading one finds a single letter smudged or missing in the Torah, the Torah is immediately declared un-Kosher and removed until fixed. Again, this speaks to a disciplined chain of transmission, and I can find no parallel to any other text. Certainly not Gilgamesh! The above does not reflect my theological preferences. The above reflects contemporary and ancient fact. The fact is that not all texts are created equal when it comes to historicity or transmission. I don’t believe in arbitrary equivalence in politics or history.

Having said all this, I’m going to surprise you and tell you that I do approach Homer from a presumption of historical accuracy. Meaning, when I read that the god Zeus turned himself into a bull and took by force a Phoenician princess named Europa, I don’t immediately fall back on a Jungian explanation of this story. I first ask myself: can this be a historically accurate account in a language that I don’t understand? Meaning, can it be that the god Zeus is an ancient king raised to the level of a deity? The fact is that even today we see that the Catholic Church believes that when a Cardinal is elected Pope he is fundamentally altered. His name is changed, and he becomes the infallible representative of God on earth. He does not become a mythological figure. So, back to Zeus, can it be that ancient warlords in the Aegean were also involved in bull cults (as has been amply documented) and that some of these warlords also served as priests in their cults? Can it also be that these Aegean warlords raided the Phoenician coast and took Semitic princesses as part of the spoils of war? My point is that before I resort to all kinds of mythological explanations, if I read that Zeus changed himself into a bull and took by force a Semitic princess from the Phoenician coast bringing her back to the Aegean, I ask myself can this be an accurate reflection of Bronze Age practices by priest-kings in the Aegean raiding the Phoenician coast?

So, this might surprise you, but I actually do assume historicity before I go flying into flights of fancy, even with ancient non-Biblical texts that, by definition, are less reliable than the Hebrew Bible.

In conclusion, I agree that we should approach every text with the same criteria. Having said this, I don’t subscribe to some kind of vague political correctness which believes that after subjecting these texts to the same rigorous criteria, they’re all bound to come out the same in terms of historicity. As a lawyer, you understand that there has to be a presumption of innocence and that has to be extended to all individuals under the law. But that doesn’t mean that after due process they will all come out equally innocent or equally guilty. Similarly, by all means, subject all texts to the same rigorous scientific inspection but don’t assume a priori that at the end of the day they’ll all turn out the same. It’s not my faith that’s the problem—because I’m actually willing to use the same rules for all texts—it’s your liberal faith that’s the issue. You’ve allowed touchy-feely political correctness to infringe on what should be an objective process. Approach all texts equally, but don’t assume the outcome at the outset.

Your friend, Simcha


From: Hershel Shanks
August 16, 2006

Dear, dear Simcha,

Since I have nothing new or additional to respond with, I graciously concede the last word to you. Besides, that’s only fair since I started this correspondence. I therefore hereby declare this particular interchange between us at an end, but I look forward to many more in-person discussions and interchanges with you in the future.

Your friend Hershel


From: Simcha Jacobivichi
August 16, 2006

Dear Hershel,

Amen.

[Simcha]


Responses

I’ve read with interest and some amusement the exchange between Hershel Shanks (BAR) and Simcha Jacobovici (The Exodus Decoded), and I have a few comments.

I have watched Jacobovici’s film twice, and I’m very impressed with the production and attempts to incorporate logic rather than merely “following the party line” when it comes to the Exodus events. I most appreciated his analysis of location of Mt. Sinai. The “Arabian theory” is sheer nonsense if one takes the biblical text seriously. Is Jacobovici right on this point? Perhaps so, perhaps not, but at least he’s triangulating from the text. There are historical and logical flaws galore in the film. Speaking as an expert on the subject (my own monograph on the Pharaoh of the Exodus is probably the most detailed analysis of the issue available), the biggest problem with Jacobovici’s thesis is the fact that during the reign of Ahmosis Egypt was re-unified and on the rebound from the “Hyksos debacle,” and suffered no ill effects from all these alleged “disasters.” Ahmosis’ reign brought about a vigorous re-organization, refurbishing of Egyptian infrastructure, and the re-building of Egypt’s military might. As I’ve stated in detail elsewhere, if the “Exodus core events” really happened as the Bible describes, then Egypt would have plunged into a period of decline, likely bringing about the collapse of that particular dynasty. In complete contrast to what one would predict if the biblical Exodus events actually occurred, Egypt was on a jubilant upswing during the reign of Ahmosis, which continued to increase dramatically through the reign of Tuthmosis IV. In other words, if you want to find the Pharaoh of the Exodus, you must find an Egyptian king during or after whose reign Egypt suffered a serious loss of power and prestige in the Near East. Thus, the theory of Ahmosis being the Exodus pharaoh is dead from the start. Period. Indeed, how could a scene of victorious Egyptians driving out a hated foreign occupier of Lower Egypt and launching a now-unified Egypt toward its golden age (the Tuthmosid Empire) possibly be construed as the Exodus? However, I do agree that Joseph served during the Hyksos Period, after which Ahmosis’ Egypt became “The Great House” (Pharaoh) who knew not Joseph. The 18th Dynasty does contain the Pharaoh of the Exodus, but Ahmosis isn’t, in the least, a candidate for that dubious honor. Look to the reigns of Amenhotep II or Tuthmosis IV for the right historical synchronisms to satisfy the biblical story.

On the part of Hershel Shanks, I see a pattern emerging that I’ve experienced in my own interactions with the BAR editor. He counters Jacobovici with traditional liberal rhetoric that tries to sound scientific but, in fact, is the new “traditional” view that (a) doesn’t take the biblical text seriously enough to perform accurate exegesis, and (b) ignores empirical reasoning and rigorous logic in the comparison of biblical and archaeological data. Let’s face it, liberal thinkers often don’t bother to perform adequate textual analysis simply because they doubt the historical authenticity of the Hexateuch. It isn’t a matter of faith vs. facts. It is a matter of facing the reality of reasonable synchronisms between the Bible and archaeology when they occur serially.

Do I agree with Jacobovici’s conclusions? Generally, no. But I do appreciate his attempts at unlocking this mystery? Yes, I do.

Steven Collins, Ph.D.
Director, The Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project, Jordan
Dean, College of Archaeology & Biblical History
Trinity Southwest University
Albuquerque, New Mexico
October 13, 2006


In the debate between editor Hershel Shanks and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici over various issues raised by The Exodus Decoded, I have read all with interest and see that Jacobovici has acquitted himself well, keeping pace intellectually with an increasingly prickly Shanks (I’ve always liked that in the BAR editor!). I see the Israelite/Hyksos identification as possible but find most intriguing the Cameroon parallel. I do wonder where Mt. Sinai is and am not convinced as yet by almost anything I’ve seen or read that anyone has found IT. Has anyone consulted a geo-climatologist regarding weather and ground conditions in 1500 BCE? In his site selection, Jacobovici’s failure to consider the climatic conditions of the Sinai in 1500 BCE seemed a scientific misstep when otherwise he so carefully factored in other aspects of science. As for the rest, I found it easy to conclude—as I have before—that scientific phenomena ARE miracles, God in action—a logic and a belief, simultaneously, that does not degrade but enhances God’s power: Knowing how God does something doesn’t make the process and outcome less miraculous. In the end, I found the exchange between Shanks and Jacobovici more entertaining and informative than The Exodus Decoded itself.

Elaine Kromhout
Professor of English
Indian River Community College
Vero Beach, Florida
October 10, 2006


I am not really sure who to support in the Shanks-Jacobvi debate. But I am very happy to see a (rare) civil debate being conducted. Biblical archaeology is not for the faint hearted.

Bill Zukoski
Chicago
October 3, 2006


From time to time, I teach Freshman English, part of which is learning and practicing principles of writing argumentation. Key to this, as I'm sure most realize, is debate that is balanced, where both sides of an issue are presented with support for each point, without manipulation or bias. Then, finally, the writer chooses which side appears to be the most "solid" from his/her point of view. There can be no derision, sarcasm, or pretension. There must be mutual respect, even, and especially, when an opposing view seems utterly "beneath" comment.

Sadly, basic and universally understood principles of argumentation do not seem apparent in this debate regarding Simcha Jacobovici's "Exodus Decoded." I would rate the debaters as follows:

Hershel Shanks: "B+" Will debate point-for-point, but hides behind definitions of terms, such as "faith," and cuts off discussion

Simcha Jacobovici: "B" He will debate point-for-point but could provide better support for his points

Ronald Hendel: "F" No balance; derision, sarcasm, disrespect; needs to retake ENGL101

Sincerely,
Clive McClelland
September 9, 2006


Attempts to explain the formation of Israel in the ancient world run from the peaceful immigration theory (Alt, Noth, Finkelstein), to the peasant revolt model (Mendenhall, Gottwald, et al.), and then to the two stage conquest theory (Burney, Meek, Rowley, Aharoni, et al.). However, these theories are so wildly out of accordance with the Bible's narrative of events that they are of little use for those who do not accept the arbitrary and useless higher critical theories which are invoked to support them. The whole procedure of tossing out large segments of the blical text to make it fit with one's chronological presuppositions is an example of what Karl Popper called an "immunizing strategy"-- way of removing one's theory from scientific critique, thus placing it into the realm of pseudo-science. (For a brief overview of these higher uncritical views, see B. K. Waltke, "The Date of the Conquest," Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2, 1990.)

It is somewhat disconcerting to see the lengths some historians and archaeologists will go in order to reconcile biblical history with the conventional chronology of the ancient world. The latest such attempt is by Simcha Jacobovici, whose documentary on the Exodus appeared on the History Channel as the "Exodus Decoded." His theory is that 18th dynasty king Ahmose I was the pharaoh of the Exodus and that all of the miracles and plagues meted out to Egypt have a perfectly natural explanation. Following Josephus' old theory, the Israelites of the Exodus are correlated with the Hyksos, who where driven out of Egypt at the end of the Middle Bronze Age by the king of the "New Kingdom" dynasty of the Late Bronze Age.

Jacobovici's theory, like conventional chronology and some of the alternative chronological models, simply does not make sense in light of the archaeology of the Negev in general and of Kadesh-barnea in particular.

There is simply no archaeological material in these areas from either the Middle or the Late Bronze Ages. Jacobovici does not use the excuse of the "kernel" theorists--that the Bible contains a "kernel" of truth, but that its narratives of the Exodus have been exaggerated. He accepts the biblical narratives to a great extent. However, given the lack of archaeological evidence of Middle and Late Bronze material in the Negev, plus the desire to maintain the conventional chronology for this period, as well as biblical truthfulness, Jacobovici adopts the convenient theory that the Bible doesn't really teach that the Israelites would leave any trace of themselves for the 40 years they were in the wilderness. In this view, the Israelite Conquest of Canaan was not an invasion, but only an occupation. Appeal is made to anecdotal evidence, that of "Bedouin" and Israeli campsites of 30 years ago.

These are said to prove that such Bedouins can live in such areas and "you will find no trace of either the Bedouins or the Israelis" (Jacobovici letter to Hershel Shanks, Aug. 2006, online discussion, "The Exodus Debated"). The lack of any evidence of the destruction of Ai during this period is not seen as a falsification of the theory but as evidence that the city has not been correctly located. (This was also Bimson's gratuitous theory.)

We are sympathetic with Jacobovici's respect for the biblical narrative, as well as his attack on Shanks' relativistic "equivalency" theory of ancient texts (similar to moral equivalency), nor do we reject completely his naturalized miracles concept (though all ten?)--and his presumption of historical accuracy in Homer certainly warms our hearts. Nevertheless, Jacobovici's attempt to fit the biblical Exodus within the conventional chronology leads him to minimize the archaeological impact of the Exodus and Conquest, while leading him into the temptation of appealing to volcanic eruptions and speculative Mycenaean connections in order to support his implausible placement of the Exodus within Egyptian history.

Vern Crisler
September 6, 2006


The exchange between Hershel Shanks and Simcha Jacobovici was civil and exciting to read - an example of "agreeing to disagree" because of fundamental differences of belief and approach. It was also done in a tone of mutual respect and friendship that is sadly lacking in many other such exchanges.

That being said, there was an error in the note posted by a reader. Lee Gaffrey supports a Saudi Arabian location for Mt. Sinai because of volcanic activity as a source of the "pillars of fire and smoke"—but the Bible states that these began after the crossing of the Reed Sea, quite a distance away and not related specifically to Mt. Sinai.

Allan J. Scher
Morristown, N.J.


Walter Mattfeld, of Millbury, Massachusetts, has contributed a lengthy letter on the Biblical dates for the Exodus, which can be found by clicking here.

August 31, 2006


What a charming discussion between two scholars and researchers with differing points of view. I had just seen the production in question and immediately went onto the internet to search for more information and points of view. It was delightful reading this exchange, and I thank whoever is responsible for making it available (and certainly to the two esteemed gentlemen as well).

The Exodus Decoded, is certainly done with some panache. Knowing a good deal about the historical and archaeological aspects for an amateur and a layperson, I could immediately see aspects of the remarkable show that elicited questions and some skepticism. However, as a unified theory, if you will, it was extremely thought-provoking.

Having spent considerable time in both Egypt and Israel, I must say that it hasn't been my experience to find discussions on such sensitive topics to be common or civil. So beyond the compelling story that brought me to your discussion, I must say that I'm immensely encouraged to find that dialogue of this sort can still take place between you two of quite different approaches and yet be laced with such grace and affection.

Greg Lamberson
Mount Vernon, IL
August 29, 2006


In his July 31st letter, Simcha Jacobovici says, "The Bible explicitly makes reference to [Joseph's] royal scarab." I appreciate his passion, but this is a classic example of going overboard. I'm not aware of any such reference; maybe he confused Joseph with Judah in Genesis 38--both were sons of Jacob. Also see Aharon Kempinski's "Jacob in History" (Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1988), which discusses scaraboid seals with variations of the name "Jacob." They were common at that time in that place, but there are certainly no explicit references to them in the Bible as "royal" or "scarab"--just seal/signet, of which there were many varieties.

G.M. Grena
Redondo Beach, CA
August 27, 2006


Brilliant use of logic, Simcha! I wish I could shake your hand! It took great courage for you to come forth with this presentation, I imagine. I am what you would call a self-made scholar who has been studying biblical archaeology, ancient history, and theology for over 20 years. In all the theories I have seen, your case for the Exodus is the most logical and commonsensical.

In my opinion, you are absolutely right. God IS the the God of nature, too. Why not use nature to bring about his purposes? The Egyptians worshipped nature, and what better demonstration of the ultimate authority of God than to use their own gods against them?

Then there is the problem with "dating" events. Why do we paint ourselves into corners with dates? Every time we do this, we miss the evidence! I can accept fully the "blindness" of some archaeologists to miss evidence when it is staring them right in the eyes. "Oh, this can't be evidence, it doesn't fall into the right time period." We need desperately to open our eyes and understand dates are subject to discretion. Dating is not an exact science.

My thought regarding the crossing and parting of the Reed Sea is, "What happens right before a tsunami comes to shore?" The waters recede for awhile, then the wave hits.

As witnessed in Cameroon, we have actually seen this demonstration with our own eyes regarding the waters turning to blood, the boils and sores, and the carbon dioxide poisoning. Hershel wants to believe it was real blood. That is his right.

But what is blood made of? Is is not "iron" that makes its color red? And is it not iron oxides and gases seeping to the surface that turn the water blood red?

Recently, there has been much presented on television regarding Mt. Nyiragongo in the Congo, Africa, and the carbon dioxide poisoning among the children who happen to venture into areas where the gas is expelled through vents in earth. The adults are not affected when they walk into these areas because they are tall enough to avoid the gases that remain close to the ground. In my opinion, you have brilliantly answered the mystery of the 10th Plague.

Thanks again for a great presentation and a brilliant debate.

Kimberly Boldt
Byron Center, Michigan
August 24, 2006


Thank you for a wonderfully rational discussion of the contested issues that "Exodus Decoded" glossed over. Doubt is never the enemy of faith, but always its handmaiden and sometimes its goad. Unfortunately, too many non-specialists today are unwilling to listen carefully to those who have given their intellect and lives to carefully studying some facet of our world. This is as true in the scientific studies as in the archaeological. It is nice to read the words of a genuine expert gently prodding a journalist to be a good journalist and listen to those who truly do know.

Carl Oscar
Lindsborg, KS
August 20, 2006


I enjoyed the give and take regarding the program, "Exodus Decoded." For myself, I believe the book, "The Miracles of Exodus," by Colin J. Humphreys, provides more cogent explanations of the events, times, and locations of the Exodus. Professor Humphreys covers all of the bases in his treatment, and his research and findings make sense to me. Regarding the location of Mr. Sinai, Professor Humphreys sites a specific mountain in Saudi Arabia, which during volcanic activity provided the "pillar of cloud by day" and the "pillar of fire by night" that guided the Israelites. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, Chapter 4 verse 25, locates Mt. Sinai in Arabia. He may have actually visited this location during his travels after escaping from Damascus.

I enjoy BAR very much and look forward to attending Bible Fest X next year in San Diego.

Lee Gaffrey
Encinitas, CA
August 20, 2006


Without having yet seen his production, I'll go with Jacob's Sons' (if I'm interpreting the producer's Hebraic/Slavic/Italic name correctly) side of the debate. For some years now, I've concluded that an early Exodus makes more sense in toto than a late Exodus and fits more of the established historical and archaeological facts. One that wasn't mentioned in the exchange of letters include Pharaoh Akhenaten's (heretical peacenik that he was) pulling the Egyptian garrisons from the Caananite cities just in time to facilitate a break-in of the Habiru (aka Hebrews or Israelites). This event would therefore seem to be firmly placed in the late fifteenth century BC.

A convenient series of earthquakes apparently allowed the crossing of the Jordan and the destruction of Jericho pretty much as related in Joshua's heroic tale. Because of its fortifications and water works they were not able to capture Salem of the Jebusites—yet. Because they eventually had to disperse to occupy and till the central highlands, they were not able to retain most of the urban conquests they had made during their initial blitzkrieg, allowing the Caananites to re-occupy their cities for the twilight of the late Bronze Age.

I should point out that I'm not a total biblical literalist. Four trips up the mountain by Moses to meet God seems a bit much, as does a million Israelites surviving in a wilderness with their flocks for over half a century. Nor do I doubt that Deuteronomy is a later didactic re-compilation of the main lines of the story, probably in the seventh century BC.

Jack Shea
Houston, TX
August 20, 2006

 

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