Hoffmeier’s Argument from Silence?

I’m continuing my way through James Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai.

Perhaps Hoffmeier’s strongest argument so far occurs on pages 56-57.  Hoffmeier argues that the occurrence of the city-name of Ramesses in Exodus 1:11, 12:37, and Numbers 33:3 indicates that the texts are either preserving a memory from 1270-1120 B.C.E., or they are that old, for the city of Pi-Ramesses only flourished during those years.  Hoffmeier seems to go with the view that they are old—as in, dating to the second millennium B.C.E. (which is the date of the Exodus, placing the documents close to the time of the event that they discuss).

Hoffmeier doesn’t agree with Egyptologist Donald Redford that the authors of those passages were drawing from their knowledge of first millennium B.C.E. Ramesside cults, which (for Redford) would place the date of these stories in the first millennium B.C.E.  For one, Hoffmeier argues, these passages do not reflect knowledge of first millennium B.C.E. Egypt, for they do not refer to the prominent city of that time, Zoan, or Tanis, whereas Psalm 78, a first millennium text, actually does mention Zoan.  For Hoffmeier, had the authors of Exodus 1:11, 12:37, and Numbers 33:3 drawn from something in first millennium Egypt, they would have mentioned Tanis, or Zoan.

Second, Hoffmeier states that, “if we assume that seventh- and sixth-century Judean travelers brought the name Rameses back to Judah, [a problem is] that these foreigners would not have been permitted to enter Egyptian temple precincts, where they would have seen these old relics.”

Hoffmeier also disputes Egyptologist Donald Redford’s claim that Pi-Ramesses was an early term for the city, whereas the Pi was dropped later, which, indicates for Redford that the Exodus story was late.  Hoffmeier presents counter-examples, in which the names of cities occur without a Pi in early sources, while late sources have a Pi.

This is a fairly decent argument—not that I know much about Egypt.  But what’s ironic is that Hoffmeier uses an argument from silence—the Exodus story and the wilderness itinerary do not refer to Zoan or Tanis, and therefore they most likely don’t date to the first millennium B.C.E.  But, on pages 19-20, Hoffmeier excoriates historical-critics who argue from silence:

“Furthermore, von Rad’s reason for late-dating the Sinai episodes because of their absence in the creed of Deuteronomy 26 is an argument from silence.  The absence of evidence proves little.  It is, in fact, negative evidence.  Historian David Hackett Fischer observes that in writing history, ‘evidence must always be affirmative.  Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms—it is not evidence at all.'”

One thing I came to appreciate in my reading of Julius Wellhausen was that the argument from silence looms large in higher criticism of the Bible.  Why don’t we see the Tabernacle that much in the biblical historiographic narratives?  Wellhausen’s answer is that the authors of these stories didn’t know about the Tabernacle, for it hadn’t been invented yet.  Why doesn’t Ezekiel appeal to the laws in the Pentateuch to justify the superiority of the Aaronides over other Levites?  For Wellhausen, the reason was that the priest had not yet written down those laws, and so Ezekiel was unaware of them.  The idea is that, had the authors known about these concepts, they would have certainly included them.

Even though Hoffmeier lambastes historical critics for using arguments from silence, he himself uses that sort of approach when he says that the Exodus story and the wilderness itinerary must be early because they don’t mention Tanis or Zoan—which implies that, had the authors lived in the first millennium B.C.E., they would certainly have mentioned those cities.  But who says?  Maybe they chose not to, for whatever reason.  Why do authors have to conform to our expectations?

That’s not to say that the argument from silence never works.  I think Wellhausen raises some good questions about the absence of the Tabernacle in so much of the biblical historiographic narrative.  Why was the ark separated from the Tabernacle for so long?  It never seems to dawn on the characters in these stories to put the ark in the Tabernacle!  If they had known about the Tabernacle, would that be the case?

I want to cite something else in Hoffmeier’s book that irritated me.  On page 31, Hoffmeier states that “there is a tendency to accept the historicity of a non-Hebrew story that refers to divine intervention, while dismissing a biblical counterpart, or searching for a natural explanation…”  An example he mentions is when an Egyptologist accepts the historicity of a section of the Merneptah stele that refers to a miracle: the enemy chieftain was captured!  Um, excuse me, but that’s not in the same category as the parting of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds), or of the sun and moon standing still!  No natural law is being suspended in that part of the Merneptah stele!  Rather, there’s an event in battle, and the stele is attributing that to the divine.  Why not accept that the event took place, when it doesn’t violate natural laws?  By contrast, I wonder if Hoffmeier accepts non-biblical miracle stories—in which natural law is actually violated.  If so, good for him!  If not, then he’s the one with the double standard.

Not that I’d debate Hoffmeier, for he knows far more about the Hebrew Bible and Egypt than I do.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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