I’m continuing my way through James Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai. The book has a lot of good information—such as evidence that the biblical writings attributed by scholars to “P” reflect knowledge of thirteenth century Egyptian terminology rather than the fifth century B.C.E. (the date that Wellhausen assigned to P), and that covenant formulas in the Pentateuch resemble early Hittite covenants rather first millennium B.C.E. Neo-Assyrian covenants (which, unlike the Hittite treaties and the biblical covenants, lack a historical prologue and blessings, page 192). Hoffmeier’s point is that the Exodus and wilderness stories date close to the time about which they are narrating—the late second millennium B.C.E.—rather than the first millennium B.C.E.
What I want to talk about in this post, however, is Hoffmeier’s discussion on pages 150-159, which is the reason that I actually bought the book. In 2004, I did a presentation on the historicity of the Exodus for a class at Jewish Theological Seminary. Two of the books that I read were Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed, and James Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt. Finkelstein and Silberman argued that there is no archaeological trace of a vast number of people in the Sinai and wilderness regions during the alleged time frame of Israel’s sojourn. Their point was that the Bible is historically-inaccurate on this point. Hoffmeier made a number of good arguments for the plausibility of a historical Exodus in Israel in Egypt, but he did not address that issue, which was a smoking-gun for Finkelstein and Silberman. But I heard that he had a book coming out on Sinai and the wilderness stories, and so I looked forward to buying it.
As hard as I was on Hoffmeier yesterday—due in part to my anti-conservative Christian mood—I must say today that Hoffmeier’s discussion on pages 150-159 did not disappoint. Hoffmeier actually uses Finkelstein’s own words to buttress his own argument that the absence of archaeological evidence does not preclude that there were Israelites at Sinai and the wilderness. The Israelites were nomads, and even Finkelstein admits that the nomadic lifestyle is “archaeologically invisible” and does not leave an “archaeological footprint.” The reason is (according to Finkelstein) that “nomadic societies do not establish permanent houses, and the constant migration permits them to move only minimal belongings[; m]oreover, their limited resources do not facilitate the creation of a flourishing material culture that could leave rich archaeological finds.” A few pages later, Hoffmeier offers additional reasons that the nomadic lifestyle is hard to trace archaeologically: ancient Near Eastern nomads used skins for tents and to transport liquids, and nomads Hoffmeier observed tend to move their fire holes, rather than marking them and keeping them in one place.
Hoffmeier also refers to examples of incidents in which a text asserts that there were people in a certain place at a certain time, and yet there is no archaeological trace of that:
“By way of analogy, the annals of Thutmose III and the Kadesh inscriptions of Ramesses II report the pitching of Egyptian camps on these respective campaigns. From the Gebel Barkal stela, we learn that Thutmose’s siege of Megiddo lasted seven months. In the case of Ramesses II, we have several portrayals of his tent camp…Even given the prolonged period of the Egyptian siege at Megiddo, with thousands of soldiers and hundreds of horses from the chariots present, no archaeological evidence of this camp has been discovered, despite a century of excavations and exploration at Megiddo. The same is true of Tell Nebi Mend (Kadesh), where a Roman-period encampment has been found, but no evidence of Ramesses II’s encampment.” (151-152)
But don’t Exodus 12:37 and Numbers 1:1-3 number the adult Israelite males at 600,000 (or, actually, the Numbers passage has 603,550)? Wouldn’t that many people have left an archaeological trace? Hoffmeier doesn’t address this question with reference to Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, but, on page 155, he acknowledges that, “Regardless of when one might date the exodus and nature of the entry of the Israelites into Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, if millions of people had arrived the archaeological record would surely attest to such an influx.” Hoffmeier also mentions other problems with holding that 600,000 adult Israelite males left Egypt. For one, that army vastly outnumbers other armies in the ancient Near East, so why exactly were the Israelites afraid of the Egyptians (who sent 600 chariots), or the Canaanites? Hoffmeier appears to go with an alternative interpretation of eleph (usually translated in English versions as “thousand”)—as a military unit (I Samuel 17:18). That means that Israel had 600 military units. That may work, but how would one interpret the figure in Numbers 1:1-3 in light of that? That there were 603 military units, plus 550 other Israelite males?