Exodus as Historical Fiction
by Junelie Anthony Velonta
Upon first inspection, it would seem that the Exodus story and the Trojan War have little to no similarities to each other. The Exodus deals with the plagues set upon Egypt by the Hebrew god and the exit of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt, while both of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey deal with war. Thematically, they are as opposite as it can get. However, did YHWH not intervene to set the Hebrew people free? Did the Olympians and the minor deities of nature not play a role in the entirety of the Trojan War?
Not many realize this, but the estimated date for the Siege of Troy and the date set by biblical scholars when the Exodus happened are very close to each other. Modern estimates place the Siege of Troy from mid to late 12th century BC. Exodus on the other hand is said to have “occurred” in the 13th or 12th century. At most, there is a difference of 100 years between these two events. At the least, they occurred very close to each other. While these two events may have occurred on the opposite ends of the known world then, such that Moses may have not heard of Menelaus and the other way around, one thing is certain: both stories are products of the Late Bronze Age.
What’s with the mention of the date and the apparently divine? People of the modern age typically regard the Trojan War and its chronicles as both myth and legend. However, the Exodus for some is regarded as a historical fact, especially among Jews and Christians. Here comes the problem. It is ridiculous to think that 200,000 men fought before and within the walls of Troy, especially comparing it to the total populations of the Greeks and Hittites long before. Human civilization back then was not so widespread. To compare, the Battle of Waterloo involved roughly 191,000 men, and that was nearly 3,000 years after the Siege of Troy—when birthrates were higher and the cities were larger. Now, compare this with the 600,000 Hebrew men (emphasis on men, women were not included in the tally) that marched the desert for 40 years.
Both the stories of the Exodus and the Trojan War exhibit two symptoms: the intervention of deities, and the over-inflation of numbers. However, there was a city of Troy. Its ruins could be found in Hisarlik and are continued to be excavated today. At one point in time, the city was put to siege. While heroes like Hector, Achilles, and Odysseus may not measure up to their legends, or they may not have existed at all, it could be clearly seen that the Siege of Troy did happen, but perhaps not sparked by the powers of Persephone.
The historicity of the Exodus is still debated today. After all, how could 600,000 Hebrew men wander the desert for 40 years and leave no archeological trace? Still, the Exodus story and the chronicles of the Trojan War do something similar. In the Odyssey, the aftermath of the Trojan War saw infighting within the Greek coalition until their cities lay in ruins and the Greek civilization as a whole suffered. This is a possible reference to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which destroyed the Mycenean (the ancestors of the classical Greeks) civilization to the point where reading and writing stopped entirely. It is possible that the plagues set by YHWH upon the Egyptians were symptoms of the Collapse. Plagues and famine were some of the factors that many Bronze age empires collapsed. The plague that killed all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians could be attributed to war—a predominantly male affair—as Egypt found itself raided by the Sea Peoples and at war on multiple fronts in the years during and after the Exodus supposedly happened.
It could well be past the time when we can check the veracity of the Exodus story. Too much time has passed. Legend, hearsay, and belief insert themselves in parts where the chronicles are not so clear: making something reminiscent of history, but wholly fiction. The Hebrew people may not have been slaves, or if they were, they might have escaped Egypt in small numbers, but the Exodus story is now set in stone, with those that believe them fully as unmovable as the legend itself. But if there is something to be learned from this, it is this: when truth and fiction mix, it becomes hard to separate one from the other.