Reviewing Egyptologist James Hoffmeier’s "Israel in Egypt"


The Israelites leaving Egypt
by David Roberts

Dear Readers of Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog:  It is my contention that one can prove the supernatural claims of Christianity as false simply by demonstrating that the stories told in the first five books of the Bible are pure fiction.

Here is my line of thinking:

If the Exodus story can be demonstrated to be outright fabrication, or even, highly embellished, then what does that say about the reliability of other stories in the first five books of the Old Testament?  If the Exodus is a fabrication or even a highly embellished story, then why should we trust the Bible’s stories of the Creation, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel, or of Abraham and the other Patriarchs?  And if it can be demonstrated that the Old Testament is untrustworthy, why then should anyone believe that the New Testament is trustworthy, when Jesus and the authors of the New Testament believed that the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, had been dictated by God himself to Moses…a man who if minimalist scholars are correct…never existed!

If a person named Abraham is only a nationalistic invention of a sect of ancient Canaanites,  a people living in ancient Palestine for thousands of years prior to the alleged Exodus; a sect of Canaanites who eventually came to refer to themselves as Hebrews/Israelites, as many modern archeologists suggest is the case, what does that say about Jesus and Paul?

Jesus and Paul both believed that Adam, Abraham, the other Patriarchs, Moses, the Exodus, the Passover were all real people and real events!  And if Jesus and Paul believed fictitious people and fictitious events were real historical figures and real historical events, then this is proof positive that Paul was not guided in his writings by an all-knowing (holy) spirit and Jesus was not the all-knowing Creator of the universe.  It proves that both Paul and Jesus were fallible men; men who were very, very mistaken.

My Christian opponents over on Theology Web are highly critical of me because they do not believe that I have read enough “scholarship” to discount their supernatural-based ancient superstition.  To demonstrate my willingness to look at both sides, I intend to read evangelical Christian scholar and Egyptologist James Hoffmeier’s (a “maximalist”) book Israel in Egypt and compare it to Finkelstein and Silberman’s (“minimalists”) The Bible Unearthed.  I will then do a series of reviews here on this blog. 

Today I looked at some of the reader reviews on Amazon about Hoffmeier’s book.  Here is one that I found very interesting:

I picked up a copy of Hoffmeier’s extremely well researched work directly after I finished reading Finkelstein and Silberman’s: The Bible Unearthed. What a contrast!!! In The Bible Unearthed, the authors flatly refute the Exodus tradition with one fell swoop. Their knowledge of archaeology is very impressive and they convincingly show that there is no physical evidence for an Exodus.

Enter James K. Hoffmeier. Prof. Hoffmeier states from the very beginning of his book that there is in fact no archaeological or physical evidence to prove that the Exodus tradition is true. However, he continues to say that he is able to provide indirect evidence that is indeed convincing. Hoffmeier begins his book by first explaining to the reader the types of Biblical Scholars/Archaeologists that exist. Firstly there is the “maximalist” camp. This group ascribes a high level of confidence to the biblical narrative and hence is convinced that much of its content is historical. Conversely, the “minimalist” camp treat the bible as a collection of stories with little or no hitorical significance.

Hoffmeier claims that the “minimalist” camp has been destructive and has introduced far too much skepticism into the area of Biblical Archaeology and Scholarship. Hoffmeier then contends that his book is a beacon amongst the sea of skepticism with particular focus on the Exodus tradition.

Although Hoffmeier’s research contains hundreds of references, it seems that his position is not a scientific one. At no point does he criticise or point out the short-comings of the biblical stories but rather he assumes that they are accurate and hence he builds a fortress of speculation around them. His indirect evidence includes Egyptian writings and inscriptions. He asserts that Joseph could have existed and risen to power in Egypt based on the fact that there are a number of Egyptian writings that confirm foreign leadership in Egypt. He claims that most plagues expressed in Exodus may have occured “naturally” as a result of the periodic flooding of the nile. He claims that the inundation could have easily explained the first five plagues reported in Exodus. This is wild speculation and has never been reported elsewhere in history or to this very day. Hoffmeier also conveniently skips over the problem of Moses leading 600,000 men plus an inordinate number of women and children through the wilderness undetected by the enemy and able to sustain themselves for forty years. Finally, Hoffmeier doesn’t even dare go into detail about the parting of the Red (Reed) sea and the many problems surrounding this event.

Overall, I believe that Hoffmeier is gravely concerned about the amount of evidence that is currently being accumulated which discredits the historicity of the Bible. His attempt at presenting convincing evidence for the Exodus tradition is weak at best. There is no doubt that his book is well researched, however it fails to deal with many issues that are very problematic with respect to the wanderings of the Israelites. As far as readability is concerned, Hoffmeier’s book is very dry and I would be hesitant to recommend it to a lay person with little experience in the areas of Biblical Archaeology and Scholarship. I believe that the true value of this book is in its presentation of the “other side of the coin” when dealing with the Exodus tradition. I would therefore recommend that enthusiasts read it along side The Bible Unearthed and reach their own conclusions with respect to this contentious topic.

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3 thoughts on “Reviewing Egyptologist James Hoffmeier’s "Israel in Egypt"

  1. I find this review rather highly problematic, for the following reasons.

    You look, wanting, for Hoffmeier to criticize the Bible itself. But why would he do that? The thesis of the book is to build a *positive* case for a certain hypothesis, not attempt to repudiate it. Hoffmeier is not interested in debating against the Bible in his book that is meant to examine the historicity of the exodus account.

    I’d also like to ask what exactly is so ‘problematic’ about the splitting of the Red Sea. It perhaps looks to me as if there could only be a problem when someone presupposes naturalism, which is something that I, nor Hoffmeier would even seriously consider. Presupposing naturalism itself would require fervent argumentation to back up, and such fervent argumentation I suppose you do not have.

    Apart from a series of other problems in this review, the most dauntingly funny statement in this review, perhaps;

    “I picked up a copy of Hoffmeier’s extremely well researched work directly after I finished reading Finkelstein and Silberman’s: The Bible Unearthed. What a contrast!!! In The Bible Unearthed, the authors flatly refute the Exodus tradition with one fell swoop.”

    It’s quite enormously weird to see someone claim that Finkelstein (and Silberman) have “refuted” the exodus with “one fell swoop”, especially when the book contains so many errors, and has been rejected by perhaps an obvious majority of scholars, especially as more recent scholarship accumulates. Finkelstein himself has moved away from some of his main theories in this ridiculous book, such as a 700 BC (or so) dating of the ‘urbanization’ of Israel and Judah. He has pushed this back by 100-200 years, so not even Finkelstein agrees with Finkelstein here anymore! Anyways, Finkelstein hardly refuted anything to do with the exodus. Perhaps the most truthful review of this book has been written by the distinguished professor Richard Hess, whom wrote: “The authors always present their interpretation of the archaeological data but do not mention or interact with contemporary alternative approaches. Thus the book is ideologically driven and controlled.”

    Although Hoffmeier did not interact with the 600,000 number in Israel in Egypt, he did in fact discuss this in his follow-up, Israel in Sinai, also published by Oxford University Press (in 2005). He seems to show, following many other scholars, that the Hebrew word ‘eleph’ should not be translated as ‘thousand’, rather as ‘military unit’ or ‘family’ or ‘tribe’ (so we have 600 military units of people that escaped from Egypt, not 600,000), which Hoffmeier seems to view as indicating that the biblical narrative indicates an exodus of somewhere over 20,000 people.

    The book probably isn’t very readable for a laymen on these issues, however it wasn’t written for laymen, it was written for scholars — and this book (and its follow up, Israel in Sinai) has been very-well received in scholarly circles (unlike The Bible Unearthed).

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    1. “William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus “dead.” Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus;[6]

      ”The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction — made in the seventh century [BCE] — of a history that never happened.”

      Professor of Ancient History and Archaeology Eric H. Cline also summarizes the scholarly consensus in his book Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press and winner of the 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society’s “Best Popular Book on Archaeology”);[7]

      “Despite attempts by a number of biblical archaeologists — and an even larger number of amateur enthusiasts — over the years, credible direct archaeological evidence for the Exodus has yet to be found. While it can be argued that such evidence would be difficult to find, since nomads generally do not leave behind permanent installations, archaeologists have discovered and excavated nomadic emplacements from other periods in the Sinai desert.

      So if there were archaeological remains to be found from the Exodus, one would have expected them to be found by now. And yet, thus far there is no trace of the biblical “600,000 men on foot, besides children” plus “a mixed crowd…and live stock in great numbers” (Exod. 12:37-38) who wandered for forty years in the desert.”

      Gary: Arguing over the historicity of the Exodus is like arguing over the flatness of the Earth. It is a settled issue, unless you are speaking with evangelical Christians or Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

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      1. Here is an article from the Jerusalem Post which clearly states that it is the position of Israeli archeologists (not just Finkelstein) that there is ZERO evidence for the Exodus.

        http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/The-Exodus-Does-archaeology-have-a-say-348464

        And think about the claim that it was “20,000” Hebrews who left in the Exodus not the two million that Christians and Jews have claimed for the last several thousand years. Half of that 20,000 would have been females, so that leaves 10,000 males. Half of those males would have been babies, young boys, and elderly men. So that would leave about 5,000 males, capable of hard labor. So we are to believe that Pharaoh allowed the complete destruction of Egypt over five thousand male slaves???

        Are we to believe that then these 5,000 Hebrew ex-slaves conquered Canaan?

        A ridiculous story just got even more ridiculous!

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