On the historicity of the Exodus.

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In one article I argued that the Old Testament exodus, given the reliability of the biblical traditions, probably consisted of a few ten thousands of Israelites, perhaps between 20 000 and 60 000. The purpose here is to formulate a concise report of the exodus account by looking at some of the arguments forwarded against it, as well as some of the evidences for it. First things first: Why do some doubt the historicity of the Biblical exodus?

There are two main reasons, and perhaps the biggest cause of doubt for the veracity of the Biblical exodus is that no Egyptian records mention it, nor is there a clear record of an Israelite population working in the East Delta. Secondly, nowhere in Sinai have we found archaeological evidence of a group of migrants passing through as the Biblical record describes. We will in turn look at these as we progress.

1. Is there a possible double standard at play?

Some have argued in the affirmative, namely that one detects a double standard at work in some academic writing on the ancient Near East. Professor Joshua Berman writes that “biblical sources that make historical claims are regarded as untrue unless backed by airtight confirmation from archaeology, while non-biblical sources, even in the absence of archaeological authentication, are taken as containing a good deal of factual information.”

Berman illustrates his poiny by bringing other large migrations into the picture: “But now let’s consider the absence of specifically archaeological evidence of the exodus. In fact, many major events reported in various ancient writings are archaeologically invisible. The migrations of Celts in Asia Minor, Slavs into Greece, Arameans across the Levant—all described in written sources—have left no archeological trace. And this, too, is hardly surprising: archaeology focuses upon habitation and building; migrants are by definition nomadic” (1).

Likewise John Montgomery argues that “no historian can legitimately rule out documentary evidence simply on the ground that it records remarkable events; if the documents are sufficiently reliable, the remarkable events must be accepted even if they cannot be successfully explained” (2).

2. What would constitute historical evidence in our pursuit of the exodus?

Historical events, of any kind, are not subject to proof in the same manner as a logical proposition or a scientific fact. A scientific experiment can be repeated and observed, a historical event cannot. This tells us that a scientific fact and a historical fact are two separate things, and require separate methods to establish their veracity.

Of course some historical events are better attested to than others. For instance, Jesus’ miracle status is very well confirmed in multiple sources (Pauline epistles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), early pre-New Testament sources (Q, L, M, pre-Mark passion narrative, and pre-John Signs Gospel) as well as by Josephus Flavius. By this historical evidence alone we can conclude with confidence that Jesus was a miracle worker. However, when we are dealing with the exodus we have only a few texts describing events from more than 3000 years ago. This makes them very old and very limited. So, to this end we cannot be as certain historically of the events surrounding the exodus as we can about Jesus’ status as a miracle worker. This means that we must make use of what do have, and this requires us to sift through four texts from the Old Testament, namely Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Most of our information about the movements of people and historical figures come down to us via written sources. On these sources we must depend, but let us dispel some false claims first.

3. Some false claims in support of the exodus.

a. Ipuwer Papyrus. Because of the dramatic scenes recorded in this text, some of which seem to parallel the biblical account of Moses and the ten plagues, a few Christian apologetic sites, and others, have said this counts as evidence for the historicity of the exodus. This is, however, not the view and consensus of Egyptologists (3). One commentator puts it:

“The broadest modern reception of Ipuwer amongst non-Egyptological readers has probably been as a result of the use of the poem as evidence supporting the Biblical account of the Exodus” (4).

The willing Christian apologist should guard against promulgating something as evidence when it actually isn’t. Concerning the Ipuwer Papyrus the key reason for doubt is that the poem seems to have conflicts with the biblical account, for instance, instead of reporting a migrating population fleeing Egypt it instead chronicles an Asiatic invasion (5).

However, there appears to be agreement with the biblical account concerning a river becoming red. Some scholars hold that this detail is a metaphorical description of what happens at the times of catastrophic Nile floods. The river is given the appearance of blood due to its carrying of large quantities of red soil. We can be confident that the Ipuwer papyrus is not an extra-biblical testimony of the Israelite exodus, as says Gundlach:

“It is quite likely that the destruction lament in the ‘Admonitions’ refers to the destruction of Memphis at the end of the Old Kingdom. Thus, this fully independent micro-text can be understood as a sort of oral tradition or at least a literarily formed piece of historical recollection which has trickled into writing, but it is clearly a text with literary forms and ambitions – certainly not a historical report in the narrower sense. Indeed, even recently this passage has been understood as an almost concrete historical report” (6).

b. Egyptian archaeologists discover remains of Egyptian army from the Biblical exodus. This is the headline of article at World News Daily who were probably the first to publish this claim. However, this site is satirical according to its own testimony:

“World News Daily Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within worldnewsdailyreport.com are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental, except for all references to politicians and/or celebrities, in which case they are based on real people, but still based almost entirely in fiction.”

The article essentially claims that a Professor from Cairo University named Abdel Muhammad Gader led a science team and found remains of chariots, humans etc. at the bottom of the Red Sea. The article is entirely false.

c. On another occasion some have allegedly claimed to find  chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea embedded within coral reefs. However, these were discovered to be fakes. These finds come from the very controversial amateur archaeologist Ron Wyatt. He was deemed suspect after claiming to have found Noah’s ark, the Ark of the Covenant, the location of Sodom And Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, the true site of Mt. Sinai, the true site of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the original stones of the Ten Commandments. Peers have labeled him a fraud, as archaeologist Joe Zias explains: “Ron Wyatt is neither an archaeologist nor has he ever carried out a legally licensed excavation in Israel or Jerusalem. In order to excavate one must have at least a BA in archaeology which he does not possess despite his claims to the contrary. … [His claims] fall into the category of trash which one finds in tabloids such as the National Enquirer, Sun etc.” (7).

To sum up both of these cases of “discoveries” are best left buried.

4. Why is there a  lack of evidence for the biblical exodus? 

a. There is a limit to what we can know about ancient Egypt from written records. 99% of the papyri produced in Egypt during the probable time period of the exodus has been lost. Furthermore, no papyrus has survived from the eastern Nile delta, the area where the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) claims that the Israelite slaves lived before departing. It is not at all surprising why there is no Egyptian papyri evidence for a migration of Israelite slaves, as prominent  Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen explains:

“In the sopping wet mud of the Delta, no papyrus ever survives (whether it mentions fleeing Hebrews or not)…In other words, as the official thirteenth-century archives from the East Delta centers are 100 percent lost, we cannot expect to find mentions in them of the Hebrews or anybody else” (8).

Sifting through what we do have from ancient Egypt is tricky when it comes to historical reliability. We have monumental inscriptions that are often far from historical since they are reports to Egyptian gods about royal achievements. It shouldn’t surprise us that there isn’t extant manuscripts chronicling the Israelite exodus.

b. The Egyptians were not known to keep records of humiliating events. This considered, and given the reliability of our biblical witness, the pharaoh’s defeat and loss of chariots pursuing the Israelite slaves was a humiliating event for him and Egypt as a whole. Kitchen argues that “It is no use asking the pharaohs to blazon their defeat and loss of a top chariot squadron high on temple walls for all to see. Egyptian gods gave only victories to kings – and defeats indicated divine disapproval, not applause!” (9)

Commentator Jeffery Sheler explains that “Official records and inscriptions in the ancient Near East often were written to impress gods and potential enemies, it would be quite surprising to find an account of the destruction of pharaoh’s army immortalized on the walls of an Egyptian temple…Indeed, the absence of direct material evidence of an Israelite sojourn in Egypt is not as surprising, or as damaging to the Bible’s credibility, as it first might seem” (10).

This is a probable explanation as to why we have not found any Egyptian inscriptions or material concerning the exodus.

c. Any archaeological evidence from buildings or sites made of mud are not expected to remain for us to discover. Kitchen explains that “The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again. Even stone structures (such as temples) hardly survive, in striking contrast to sites in the cliff-enclosed valley of Upper Egypt to the south” (11).

This is a probable explanation as to why we have not found any physical evidence of an ancient Israelite population living in the area.

d. It is highly unlikely that we would find any pottery, utensils, or tools left by the Israelites wandering the desert, for several reasons. Given the biblical tradition we must remember that the Israelites lived as nomads during their time in the wilderness. If so it is not unreasonable to think that every tool, utensil etc. would have been valuable to them. After all, there would have been a limited supply, a fact that would have negated against them discarding their valuables in the desert. It is also quite unlikely that we’d find anything after thousands of years of swirling winds, sands, and natural elements.

An additional factor to consider is that the traveling Israelites would not have been burdened by so many items for the reason that they were not expecting to wander the desert for 40 years (which was a later punishment by God for their disobedience). They expected to arrive in Canaan within a year.

Thirdly, the biblical tradition suggests that the flight from Egypt was a quick, speedy event, we read that “they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared provisions for themselves” (12:33, 39, italics mine). They thought they would arrive in the Promised Land within a year and that God would provide for them on their journey (Exodus 3:8–12). It appears that they had little time to organize their belongings. Professor Millar Burrows explains that “It is hardly reasonable, in fact, to expect archeological evidence of their sojourn anywhere. We cannot expect much help from archeology in tracing the route of a people’s migration through the desert” (12).

e. It is unlikely that we will find human remains. The cross desert migrating population of the exodus could have been a couple of ten-thousands. Given this the chances of ever finding human remains is analogues to finding a needle in a haystack. The natural elements would have likely buried the skeletal remains. That would make it difficult for anyone actually trying to find them within the Sinai desert. Secondly, according to Jewish practice it was common for bodies to be buried for around a year, then unearthed, and the bones placed in a box or taken to a different site. We see this occurring in the narrative itself where Jacob and Joseph had their bones relocated (Exodus 13:19, Joshua 24:32). If bones were moved to different sites then this only further confounds our attempts to find their remains.

These several points seem to provide a fair explanation as to why we haven’t found any archaeological confirmation of the biblical exodus.

5. Evidence for the exodus.

a. It is attested to in the Hebrew Bible. Our evidence for the exodus comes from four textual sources within the Old Testament. All throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, the exodus is referred to as being a historical event. These are our primary sources.

b. Realistic details and recordings. Several descriptions in the biblical texts are accurate concerning certain features of Egypt at the said time of the exodus. Although there were some centuries before this narrative was penned, it does show that the author was familiar with the events described. For instance, the details of the salt-tolerant reeds, water from rock, habits of quails, kewirs, and so on seem to suggest this. Also Pyramids were built of mud-and-straw bricks as correctly recorded in Exodus 5:7-8. The rods used by court advisors which look like snakes (Exodus 7:10-12) corroborates the sleight-of-hand done by Pharaoh’s advisors. Another illuminating facet is the reference we read in Exodus 1:11 to the two cities of Pithom and Ramesses, and this reference is a possible allusion to the city of Pi-Ramesses built by Ramesses II. This name was no longer in common use after the second millennium BC so that would negate against a later writer inventing it from whole cloth. Another noted detail would include the instruction not to go north to Canaan as fits perfectly with Egyptian presence in the area in the thirteenth century BC:

“If the texts include references to details of late Bronze Age Egypt that were unlikely to be known in Iron Age Canaan, then these texts probably do preserve real historical memories. Multiple examples of such details appear in the books of Exodus and Numbers. Take the fact that the Israelites feared taking a direct northern route to Canaan “lest they see war” (Exodus 13:17)” (13).

Sommer goes on to say “that by the time of the Israelite and Judean monarchies, these forts had been abandoned and were covered with sand. A Hebrew writer of that time, even one interested in adding historical verisimilitude to his narrative, could not have known that the northern route was the more militarily daunting. The presence of this verse, then, seems based on historical traditions much older than the written Iron Age sources found in the Pentateuch” (14).

c. The unique presence of Egyptian vocabulary in our existing texts hints at its historicity. Professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages Richard Hess explains that “The use of other Egyptian words found in the early chapters of Exodus but nowhere else in the Bible similarly supports the view of a connection with Egypt in the same period. Such pieces of incidental information, which would not have been known to a later scribe, point to an antiquity and authenticity in the Exodus account that is difficult to explain otherwise. It is one thing to remember a great figure like Moses and perhaps build all sorts of legends around him. It is something else when minor characters and other incidental details that occur but once in the biblical account fit only within the period of Israel’s earliest history and would be unknown to a writer inventing a tradition centuries later” (15).

d. Slaves were present in Egypt at this time. We have both written and physical evidence that Asiatic people were enslaved in Egypt during the time period of the exodus. Some of these slaves were themselves poor Egyptians from families that had to sell their children into slavery, while others were brought in from different countries after battles were won. This means that the biblical record is not mistaken on this basic fact, and although it does not prove the exodus happened it does give plausibility to our primary sources that mention these details.

e. Skeletons of infants found in boxes in Kahun. In Exodus 1:16 we find that the Pharaoh ordered the killings of male infants: “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”

What is promising in light of this text is that we have found evidence of skeletal remains of infants, around three months old and younger. These infants are usually several in one box, buried under homes in this slave town of Kahun. This seems to correspond with to Pharaoh’s order to slaughter Israelite infants. When the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered them he reburied their remains in the desert. Furthermore, it is known that the town of Kahun was a place where Asiatic slaves actually lived: “It is apparent that the Asiatics were present in the town in some numbers, and this may have reflected the situation elsewhere in Egypt…. Their exact homeland in Syria or Palestine cannot be determined…. The reason for their presence in Egypt remains unclear” (16).

Furthermore, Egyptologists Rosalie David and Flinders Petrie, mentioned above, have noted finds that correspond to the Biblical narrative. For example, one being that masses of houses and shops in Kahun were abandoned quickly and the tools, household implements, and other possessions were left behind. Their findings suggest this abandonment was thorough, quick, and done on short notice (Exodus 12:30-34,39). These passages tell us that the Israelites were sent “out of the land in haste,” “nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves” before they left. This is consistent with the biblical narrative.

From these findings we have a slave village that housed Asiatic slaves (of which could have constituted Israelites since Asiatic is a term used to describe foreign slaves). We have also found skeletal remains of babies in coffins beneath the slave houses that is suggestive of the Pharaoh’s order to slaughter Israelite infants. On top of this we have evidence of a hasty abandonment of slaves and their leaving of tools, and possessions behind, and this is suggestive of recordings in Exodus 12:30-34,39.

f. Parallels with the Kadesh poem: Professor Berman examines the similarities between the Kadesh Poem and the account detailed in Exodus 13-15. The Kadesh Poem consists of inscriptions on monuments erected by the pharaoh Ramesses II to celebrate his victory over the Hittite empire 1274 BC, and the account in Exodus 13-15 details the encounter between the pursuing Egyptian forces and the Israelites on their flight into the wilderness. Sommer writes that “Any one of these similarities might be dismissed as coincidence. The assemblage of similarities, however, suggests that the exodus narrative, and especially the Song at the Sea in Exodus 15, draw on a text from precisely the era to which the exodus is usually dated. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that many of the links between the two texts do not appear in other ancient Near Eastern poems, historical narratives, and myths” (17). He continues:

“the shared elements appear in the two texts in precisely the same order. Ancient traditions often invoked stock phrases and motifs, shared in any two texts that drew on those traditions. But the order of the elements is flexible. When two texts share a large number of elements in the same order, as they do in the case Berman brings to our attention, the likelihood is much higher that one is borrowing from the other… taken together, comes as close as we can get in the study of ancient literature to proving that chapters 13-15 of Exodus, though composed in the middle of the first millennium, are based on traditions going back to the time of Ramesses II in the late second millennium. The exodus story is not a fiction invented by Israelites in the Iron Age” (18)

g. The exodus narrative passes the criterion of embarrassment: The criterion of embarrassment is a tool that is applied to an ancient text to judge for authenticity. This criterion does not prove a text is authentic but it gives one more confidence that it is. This criterion argues that a writer would not invent and record details of an event that would be highly embarrassing to him if that event never actually occurred. Some scholars argue that this is applicable to the exodus account. Particular emphasis is on the nation of Israel’s origins from enslavement that is unique in the ancient world, and no other ancient Near Eastern culture has produced a literature so revealing of its own failings. This would be surprising unless it rested on some ancient tradition that actually happened. As Egyptologist Kitchen asks: “…why on earth invent such a tale about such humiliating origins? Nobody else in Near Eastern antiquity descended to that kind of tale of community beginnings” (19).

6. Some further worthy considerations.

a. Parallels to the 10 plagues: A parallel relationship can be seen between each of the ten plagues and the deities worshiped by the Egyptians. Concerning the 9th plague (of darkness) Hess explains that “it is difficult not to see a direct, tit-for-tat challenge to the sun god Amon-Re, who possessed the most powerful and wealthiest temple complex in the land at the time of the exodus. Nor could the placement of this plague just before the tenth and final plague be accidental.” It is possible that the author chronicling these narratives likely based his writings off traditions that originated in Egypt. Which could suggest that the Israelites were really there.

b. The size of the chariot army. Some details in the biblical account have possibly been corroborated by archaeology. For example, the BBC reports that “According to the Bible, as the Hebrews left Egypt, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent 600 chariots to chase the runaway slaves. Could 600 be a biblical exaggeration? In 1997, on the site of the city of Ramses II, German archeologists unearthed the foundations of an ancient stable. By the end of the dig, they had found enough stables for at least 500 horses and chariots” (20).

This discovery, in regards to the number of chariots, is relatively close to the biblical description. However, if the author said that there were instead some 2000 or 50 chariots that gave chase to the fleeing Israelites then we would doubt his testimony. However, we don’t expect the biblical author did get the actual number of pursuing chariots spot on, but at least he gets close enough. This, one could argue, gives the tradition a ring of truth.

7a. Absence of evidence.

When critics downplay the historicity of the exodus they do not do so on the basis of established evidence. In fact, there is no evidence against the biblical narrative at all. If the critic argues this line he is arguing from silence, as Sommer explains:

“To put it bluntly, there are no archaeological or historical reasons to doubt the core elements of the Bible’s presentation of Israel’s history. These are: that the ancestors of the Israelites included an important group who came from Mesopotamia; that at least some Israelites were enslaved to Egyptians and were surprisingly rescued from Egyptian bondage; that they experienced a revelation that played a crucial role in the formation of their national, religious, and ethnic identity; that they settled in the hill country of the land of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1300 or 1200 BCE; that they formed kingdoms there a few centuries later, around 1000 BCE; and that these kingdoms were eventually destroyed by Assyrian and Babylonian armies” (21).

It would be a different story if there actually was established evidence contradicting the biblical account.

b. What about the future?

Professor of Ancient History Paul Maier points out that “Hardly any archaeology is taking place in the Sinai, and if this changes, evidence of migration may very well be uncovered” (22).

It is possible that if sufficient attention is focused on Sinai someone may uncover the evidence. But that suggests we’d need to look in the right place (the needle in a haystack analogy). Either way this limits the critic in the sense of positively arguing that the exodus never occurred because of a lack of archaeological evidence. This is not an uncommon line argued by the critic. Many times before it has been alleged that biblical details were  unhistorical but only to have newly discovered archaeological evidence to show otherwise. As philosopher William Craig argues: “The salient question is not whether we have a proof of the historicity of the Exodus but whether the evidence disproves the historicity of the Exodus. It does not” (23).


3 responses to “On the historicity of the Exodus.

  1. Pingback: The slave village of Kahun may provide compelling evidence of the Israelite exodus. | Historical Jesus studies.·

  2. Pingback: Refuting Atheist John Loftus – Bible, Christianity & Science | Historical Jesus studies.·

  3. Pingback: My Personal Opinion on the Exodus from Egypt. | James Bishop's Theology & Apologetics.·

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