How Reliable Is Exodus?

Allen Millard

Biblical Archaeology Review July-August, 2000

Recent attacks on the historicity of the Exodus raise the question of whether or not a text prepared long after the event is likely to be historically accurate. For it is undoubtedly true that the text of Exodus was prepared centuries after the events it describes. The Exodus would have occurred, in archaeological terms, in the Late Bronze Age (13th century B.C.). According to the Biblical chronology, the Exodus occurred before the establishment of the Israelite monarchy in about 1000 B.C. The existing Exodus text, however, was hardly prepared before that time.

     In considering the accuracy of the Biblical account, we must treat the story in its context, as a product of the ancient Near East. The preservation of records over many generations is a standard feature of those societies. There are many examples of texts that claim to relate to times long past. Here I will explore only one such case.

     In 1875 George Smith, the pioneer in the retrieval of Babylonian literature, published a story from two cuneiform tablets in the British Museum that had been found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.(1) Ashurbanipal was the last great king of Assyria. He ruled from 668 to 627 B.C. The cuneiform text tells of a baby born to a priestess who belonged to a class prohibited from bearing children. She hid him in a basket coated with pitch and placed the basket in the Euphrates River. Carried downstream, the basket was opened by a gardener, who took the child and raised him as his own. Favored by the goddess Ishtar, the boy advanced and eventually became the first known emperor, called Sargon, conquering places far and near.(2)

     At the time Smith published the text, the only Sargon known as a powerful king was Sargon II, who ruled Assyria from 721 to 705 B.C. Some scholars suggested that the story was written to glorify him. Indeed, a few scholars still maintain this position.(3)

     Later discoveries, however, have revealed two other Sargons: Sargon I, who ruled Assyria about 1920 B.C., and more importantly, the great monarch Sargon of Akkad, who ruled Babylonia from about 2340 to 2284 B.C. or from 2296 to 2240 B.C. (take your pick).

 It is now clear that the cuneiform tablet that Smith published preserved traditions about Sargon of Akkad that were circulating a thousand years before the Nineveh texts were copied. Several epic poems surviving on tablets written about 1700 B.C. celebrate the achievements of Sargon of Akkad. At that time, Babylonian scribes who visited old temples made copies of monuments they saw in them. Some of these monuments were set up for Sargon of Akkad and related his conquests both in Babylonia and beyond. These scribes were thus copying texts written about 500 years earlier.

     Is there anything in these epics—either in the texts copied about 1700 B.C. or in the text from Ashurbanipal's library about a thousand years later, both de-scribing events in the reign of Sargon of Akkad in the third millennium B.C.—that can be taken as reliable historical information?

     The history of the Akkad dynasty is now known not only from the records of Sargon's successors, but also from excavated sites. These sources indicate that many assertions in those later texts are feasible. Moreover, linguistic study shows that the scribes who copied the old monuments worked with care and usually preserved the grammatical forms of the originals. It is widely agreed that these copies reproduce the originals very well.

     Further confirmation of a factual basis for some of the claims of conquest comes from administrative and legal deeds written in Sargon's reign. Some of these documents are dated by the years of Sargon's reign named after his conquests.(4)

     Not all the conquests are reported in contemporary texts, however. In such cases, for example, a campaign in central Anatolia, circumstantial evidence makes them plausible.

     What of the birth legend of Sargon? It is hardly likely that documentation of this will appear. The story is one common in various forms in folklore and is obviously comparable to the story of Moses in the bulrushes. Before we dismiss either or both as fiction, however, we should note that Babylonia and Egypt are both riverine cultures and that putting the baby in a waterproof basket might be a slightly more satisfactory way to dispose of an infant than throwing it on the rubbish heap, which was more usual. Today unwanted babies are frequently dumped on hospital doorsteps or in other public places in the hope that they will be rescued. The story of the foundling rising to eminence may be a motif of folklore, but that is surely because it is a story that occurs repeatedly in real life.

     In short, nothing in the cuneiform texts of the second or first millennium B.C. conflicts with what we know of Babylonia and the Akkad dynasty in the third millennium. The epics and the birth legend may have been created as propaganda during Sargon of Akkad's reign or at any time thereafter, but that does not mean their contents are fictional. They can still preserve accurate information about their hero.

     The Sargon stories are in many ways analogous to the Exodus narrative. Here is a text that tells of unusual events that occurred centuries earlier. The Sargon stories attest the long survival of knowledge of the past in Babylonia, and there is no reason to doubt similar knowledge could survive over many centuries in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, in both oral and written forms.

     It is clear that the standard Hebrew text of Exodus was prepared much later than the 13th century B.C. Spelling and grammar make that plain. Modernizing old works was not uncommon in the ancient Near East, so the age of the present form does not determine the age of its contents. The language of Babylonian literary compositions can be approximately dated because there is a wealth of documents that bear dates, enabling changes in the language to be traced historically. This is true even of the special literary language used for royal inscriptions and belles lettres. Without lengthy Hebrew texts indubitably dated through the earlier centuries of the first millennium B.C., it is impossible to state when the present text of Exodus was produced. However, the absence of Aramaic, Persian or Greek influence in grammar and vocabulary of the sort visible in the books that are dated by obvious criteria after the Babylonian Exile (sixth century B.C.) makes it likely that the Exodus text is earlier.

     The content of the Exodus text, like the Sargon stories, can be checked for anachronisms. Is there anything that conflicts with a Late Bronze Age date (13th century B.C.)? On the other hand, are there features that suit that period well? Exodus is a long book with a variety of contents, so we shall look at only a few examples.