A few days ago a reader asked me what I thought of the biblical Exodus, especially concerning its historicity. Although I have already tackled this from a few angles here at my site, I thought I could more-or-less summarize it into this one article.
It is true that many historians doubt the historicity of the Exodus event, at least how the biblical account tells it. The Exodus event comes after the early Hebrews had sojourned in Egypt for some time as slaves. God, however, chooses to rescue them and thus uses Moses as a vessel to lead them out and to the Promised Land, Canaan. Following this flight are some of the more well-known biblical stories concerning the parting of the Reed Sea, and Moses’ receiving of the 10 Commandments on Sinai.
Many scholars refer to the Exodus as Israel’s founding myth (1). For example, Christian Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann explains that “More recently, scholars have come to doubt the historicity of the event and certainly to doubt any claim to locate the event historically” (2). According to archaeologist Willaim Dever, a specialist in the history of Israel and the Near East in biblical times, “The whole ‘Exodus-Conquest’ cycle of stories must now be set aside as largely mythical, but in the proper sense of the term ‘myth’: perhaps ‘historical fiction,’ but tales told primarily to validate religious beliefs” (3).
This is not the only viewpoint, however. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier, a professor of Archaeology and Old Testament, would disagree and try to ground the Exodus in real history (4). Similarly, the late conservative scholar Gleason Archer argues that the biblical account is factually correct in what it teaches. Other scholars have proposed other theories of how the Exodus really did occur but in a different way as one would get from reading the Bible.
My personal view would fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that the biblical Exodus account wholly reflects factual history. If it were recorded using a camera, and we were to watch the tape, it probably wouldn’t look the way it is described. The biblical author, centuries later, working with these ancient traditions probably employed creative license in his retelling in order for the final story to reflect theological motifs. This is a theme that runs throughout the Bible in both of our New and Old Testaments where the authors reshape history for their own theological purposes as well as for their audiences. A good example of this would be the 10 plagues. It has been well established that in the ANE battles between gods of different nations, peoples etc. were commonplace. We see this in the Bible and we see this in our other literature from the time. What we have with the 10 plagues is basically a battle between Israel’s god, Yahweh, and the Egyptian gods. 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” (5). The obvious question that arises is, of course, whether or not this really happened. If we were really there watching events unfold, would we have seen the darkness and the Nile turning red? However, this considered, it is still a far cry from saying that the Exodus event never actually happened. I’d disagree with historians who argue that the Exodus has no actual grounding within history. I think that several clues within the biblical texts itself such as, for one, the obvious Egyptian vocabulary suggests some grounding in history, as professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages Richard Hess explains:
“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.”
It is also worth noting that the biblical account doesn’t seem to be detached from history since it places slaves, the Israelites, in Egypt, and we know that slaves lived and worked there at that time. Perhaps, however, what convinces me the most is the argument from embarrassment. I think it stretches credulity to believe that the author would choose such an embarrassing founding myth for Israel. Why, if the author was inventing stories whole cloth, would he make the Israelites slaves in a foreign country (quite a distance from the Promised Land)? As the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen rightly 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” (6).
I also think that Christian apologists have done a disservice. In order to defend the historicity of the Bible, probably out of allegiance to the doctrine of inerrancy, they clutch at straws. Christians have routinely used sources as evidence for the Exodus which have been shown to have nothing to do with the Exodus at all. The obvious example being the Ipuwer Papyrus, and the falsehood of chariots being found at the bottom of the ocean. These are arguments that apologists should avoid. It should not come across as harmful to the apologist’s faith that we have little evidence to support the Exodus account. One simply has to admit that and move on. That considered, it is also not impossible that we might find some solid evidence over the next sand dune.
At most, I’d say, is that the Exodus was a far, far smaller event than what the biblical narrative seems to suggest. Those leaving Egypt probably numbered no more than a few thousands, and certainly never two million as some have interpreted the biblical account to suggest. Using the internal witness of the Bible I make an argument why this is the case. I am also not unconvinced that these few thousand Israelites were led by a figure, or some Moses-like figure. Was his name really Moses? I don’t know, but the group wouldn’t have made it very far if they never had some leader, or number of leaders, to guide them.
In concluding I know that many Christians will disagree with me, and that is quite alright. We should disagree. But as a Christian apologist I think we need to consider evidence and arguments and use that as a basis for coming to our own informed conclusions.
1. Sparkes, K. 2010. “Genre Criticism” in Dozeman, T. Methods for Exodus.
2. Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament. p. 76.
3. Dever, W. 2001. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? p. 121.
4. For the fullest treatment I’ve seen, consult Kitchen’s magnum opus On The Reliability of the Old Testament (chapter 6).
5. Hess, R. 2015. How to Judge Evidence for the Exodus. Available.
6. Kitchen, K. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. p. 245.