Image: a small section of the Merneptah Stele, translated: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Public domain.
The quick answer: no, and yes. The Creation stories are not history (and they are definitely not science.) They convey values: that all created beings are essentially good, that order is preferred to chaos, that human beings are responsible for the care of the world. They convey a religious world-view, not a scientific explanation of anything.
Some of the Bible, especially Genesis, is prehistory. None of the folks in Genesis were writing those stories down, as far as we know. The stories have survived because they were oral traditions. Oral traditions are tricky: at their best, it’s amazing what checks out, but at their worst they are like a game of “telephone” in which every detail is changed as the story travels. However, again, what the book gives us is an account of our people’s understanding of who they are, and of the vision of a particular (very dysfunctional) family.
Exodus is a puzzle. There is no corroborating account in the Egyptian archives, and no archaeological evidence of a vast multitude of people crossing the Sinai wilderness. We are not even sure which pharaoh is the Pharaoh of the story. At the same time, there are some tantalizing connections. One of the pharaohs thought to be a possibility for the Yul Brynner role is Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), who celebrated his victory over some Libyan immigrants by commissioning the Merneptah Victory Stele and placing it in a temple in Thebes. The 7.5 foot stone slab has an inscription which provides the first mention of Israel outside the Bible:
The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!” Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head: Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace, Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not, Khor is become a widow for Egypt. All who roamed have been subdued. By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day.
This part of the inscription mentions places inside of Egypt, but also places in Canaan: Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer. Many (but not all) scholars agree that the Israel mentioned here is indeed connected to the Israel of the Bible. Of course, there’s the little problem that Israel’s “seed” [descendants] were hale and hearty – perhaps Merneptah was just engaging in some ancient Egyptian PR – or was he covering up a successful rebellion? We’ll never know.
Likewise, we have no corroborating evidence for the rest of the journey back to Canaan, but how likely is it that we would have much evidence? Egypt wasn’t writing about it, since it was an embarrassment to Egypt. No one else much cared. (“Escaping slaves? Big deal!”)The stories survived as oral history until the Jews wrote them down, probably during or immediately before the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE).
It’s only when we get to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah that we get much outside evidence for the stories in the Bible, by now the stories in the Books of Kings, 930-586 BCE. For that era, we have a number of inscriptions and quite a bit of archaeological evidence, as the kings of Israel and Judea became involved in geopolitics, often against the advice of the prophets. As it is now, the Holy Land was at the fulcrum of world politics. The superpowers of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (Babylon and Assyria) in the east jockeyed for advantage, and little Israel and Judah were in the middle. As a result, we have inscriptions and depictions of kings, none of them very flattering but all very much there.
So in summary: No, the Bible isn’t a history book. It is more of a journal, an account a nation gives of itself. Many of the things in it actually happened, but whether an “objective viewer” would agree on exactly how things happened is another question. By the time we get into the later books, Kings and beyond, it is remarkable how much of it does bear out, which is why I also say: Yes, there’s history in there.
For me, the Bible’s worth does not depend on outside inscriptions, or its value as history. Its worth lies in the fact that for thousands of years and millions of people, this collection of books has been a source of inspiration, learning, and solace. Whether the Exodus included 600,000 refugees or 50, its message of freedom remains. Torah is divinely inspired, for me, because in my struggles with its words, I encounter God.
6 thoughts on “Is the Bible History?”
it is interesting how you bring up the point of how would an objective viewer see the events, because when it comes right down to it, all history is written by non-objective participants or people who weren’t there and none are omniscient. but how that history affects people and what they take with them in living out their lives is important and does affect history in the making. Shavuah tov, Rabbi Ruth
Yes, that’s a little habit of mine – trying to think of questions that might come up for some readers. You are absolutely right, there is no “objective” point of view. There’s only the sum of all the stories told by all the players (and by people writing later on who had axes to grind!) And yes, – what counts, with a document like Torah, is how it affects people and what they make of it.
This is a great short well written post. In my high school we were taught Old Testament/New Testament (Shortened by student to OT/NT which translated into the quirky phrase “Ought-Not” We were taught from a historical perspective, but several discussions occurred (among very sincere and passionate 17 yr olds….) regarding fact or fiction. The influences of these texts is what is most important today. They do give an idea of the times, and influences of the “era” but to think of them as a perfect account would be perilous…as it would be to look at any account of events as the “Gospel” truth! Everything’s got a spin!
So glad you enjoyed it, mizunogirl! I love learning more about the world in which the events of the Bible took place.
It always puts things in perspective doesn’t it. I have to remind myself often that Jesus was not a popular much beloved figure at the time. he was a radical and was reviled by many… and I for that most of Christianity has forgotten that standing the light often means going against the status quo…