Almost every year around the time of the Jewish Passover, debates about the validity of the Biblical account of the Exodus frequently come up.
A number of scholars and Jewish rabbis claim that the biblical account of the Exodus is legendary, contrived, or if true at all, embellished, because there is no evidence to support the idea that people worshipping Yahweh were ever enslaved in Egypt or left it en masse as depicted in the Bible.
These arguments seek to undermine the truth of the Bible and the typology the Passover embodies – the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.
If the narrative of the Exodus is not factual, then the trustworthiness of Biblical revelation is doubtful.
First, Jesus Himself affirmed the Biblical account of the Exodus as true and appealed to it as basis of His teachings:
“Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn. 6:49-51).
Since Jesus staked His credibility, authority and confidence on the reliability of the Exodus, that the Israelites did actually eat manna in the desert as recorded in Scripture, then it was no contrivance or lie, otherwise, these critics are saying Jesus was being a party to deception by affirming fiction as fact.
One problem that should be acknowledged is the strong anti-Bible bias prevalent in secular academia which largely reflects in the experts often quoted by the media.
When these people make sweeping, dogmatic and disparaging conclusions about the Bible, Christians need to be circumspect before hanging on to their words.
For instance, these Bible critics allege that the Exodus vaguely relates to Egyptian history because none of the Pharaohs were mentioned by name, but according to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, this was how the title was first used in the 15th century BC:
“The biblical and Egyptian uses of ‘pharaoh’ correspond closely. Thus in the Pentateuch ‘Pharaoh’ is used without a proper name precisely as in Egypt … From the 10th cent. B.C. onward ‘Pharaoh’ plus a proper name became common usage; cf. Pharaoh Hophra [Jer. 44:30] and Pharaoh Neco [2 Kgs. 23:29-35]” (Pharaoh 1986, p. 821 in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, p. 3)
There are two groups of archaeologists and scholars with different views about the Bible:
(1) The minimalists or Bible deconstructionists – they generally view the Bible as a book of myths and thus unreliable.
Thus, they try to refute any evidence that supports the Biblical account. Professor and archaeologist Anson Rainey says of them:
“Their view that nothing in Biblical tradition is earlier than the Persian period [538-332 BC], especially their denial of the existence of a United Monarchy [under Saul, David and Solomon], is a figment of their vain imagination … Biblical scholarship and instruction should completely ignore the ‘deconstructionist school.’ They have nothing to teach us” (Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov-Dec., 1994, 47).
(2) The maximalists – those who believe the Biblical account has solid historical and archaeological backing. They may be a minority among archaeologists, but with the discoveries found each year supporting Biblical narrative, their numbers are growing.
Those who believe that there was an actual Exodus fall into two camps: those that believe that it happened in the 13th century BC, and those that believe that it happened in the 15th century BC. Minimalists usually fall into the first camp.
An emerging pool of scholars have adduced several reasons for a revision of traditional Egyptian timeline because the whole chronological framework upon which current interpretation of Egyptian history rests is in error by several centuries.
The Biblical account of the Exodus contains several tiny details that place it within a distinct historical and chronological context. For example:
a) In the events leading up to the Exodus, the book of Genesis records that Joseph’s brothers sold him for 20 shekels to slave traders who took him from Canaan to Egypt (Gen. 37:28).
As an Egyptologist noted, the price of 20 shekels is the price of a slave in the Near East in about 18th century BC.
If these accounts were invented during the Exile (6th century BC) or the Persian period by some fiction writer(s), then the price for Joseph would have been 90-100 shekels because that is the cost of a slave at that time the story is alleged to have been written (Kenneth Kitchen, Patriarchal Age: Myth or History? BAR 21:02, Mar-Apr. 1995, 52).
b) In 1 Kings 6:1, the Bible mentions that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was “the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt.”
Scholars agree on the dates of Solomon’s reign and his fourth year would be in the 960s BC. Subtracting 480 years will place the date for the Exodus in the 1440s BC.
c) In Judges 11:26, Jephthah tells the Ammonites that Israel had been in the land for 300 years. Scholars agree that Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites took place circa 1100 BC.
This implies that the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan occurred near 1400 BC. Thus there’s Biblical evidence for the time the Exodus occurred.
d) In Chronicles 6:33-37, the genealogy of Heman results in 19 generations from the time of Moses to Solomon. If we take 25 years for a generation, we will get 19 x 25 = 475 years which also places the exodus in the 1440s BC.
Archaeologist Bryant Wood argues that the archaeological data for the Exodus fall into place if the event is dated back to 1450 BC, the approximate date the Bible indicates for the Exodus. He also highlighted that the documented evidence of foreign slaves at the time in Egypt must have included the Israelites.
The archaeological indications of the destruction of Canaanite cities (Ai, Hazor and Jericho) some 40 years afterward support the account of Joshua’s conquests.
But minimalist scholars believe the Exodus took place around 1260 BC – a date that contradicts the Biblically-derived dates and history by almost two centuries.
Were Jews ever Slaves in Egypt?
In the traditional chronology adhered to by minimalists, the Egyptian oppression of Hebrew slaves would have occurred in the 13th century, but there is little to no historical evidence of Hebrew slaves in Egypt at this time.
However, when placed in the 15th century (the 12th dynasty) under a revised chronology, there is substantial evidence for Israelite slave labourers in Egypt.
Dr. Rosalie David, the head of the Egyptian department of the Manchester Museum writes about Semitic slavery in Kahun during the second half of the 12th dynasty:
“It is apparent that the Asiatics were present in some numbers, and this may have reflected the situation elsewhere in Egypt. It can be stated that these people were loosely classed by Egyptians as ‘Asiatics,’ although their exact homeland in Syria or Palestine cannot be determined … The reason for their presence in Egypt remains unclear” (The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce, Guild Pub., 1986, 191).
From the Bible, however, we know why the Israelites slaves resided in Egypt (see Exodus 1:8-14). Dr. David also points out that though there is no clear answers “there is nevertheless firm literary evidence that Asiatic slaves, women and children were at Gurob” (ibid, 192).
Boxes have also been discovered beneath the floors of houses excavated in Kahun. Sir Flinders Petrie excavated a number of these boxes which contained the skeletons of babies up to 3 months old, sometimes up to three in a box (Ashton John and Down David, Unwrapping the Pharaohs, Master Books, AR, 2006, 100).
These were possibly the baby skeletons of Hebrew babies killed by Pharaoh Amenemhet III’s direct orders in an attempt to limit their population (Ex. 1:16).
A leather scroll dating to the time of Ramesses II (1303-1213) describes a close account of brick-making apparently by enslaved prisoners of the wars in Canaan and Syria very much resembling the biblical account. It describes 40 taskmasters, each with a daily target of 2,000 bricks (cf. Exodus 5:6)
The tomb of vizier Rekhmire (c. 1450 B.C.) shows foreign slaves making bricks for the workshop-store place of the Temple of Amun at Karnak. Semites and Nubians are shown fetching and mixing mud and water, striking out bricks from moulds, leaving them to dry and measuring their amount, under the watchful eyes of Egyptian overseers, each with a rod (cf. Exo. 1:11-14) (Philippe Bohstrom, Were Hebrews Ever Slaves in Ancient Egypt? Yes. April 14, 2016).
The ten plagues is an important feature of the Exodus story. A papyrus in the Leiden Museum in Holland provides a graphic portrayal that closely resembles the biblical account.
There is no consensus among archaeologists as to when it was originally penned. Part of it says:
“… Plague stalks through the land and blood is everywhere … Nay, but the river is blood. Does a man drink from it? As a human he rejects it. He thirsts for water… Nay, but gates, columns and walls are consumed with fire … Nay but the son of the high-born man is no longer to be recognized … The stranger people from outside are come into Egypt… Nay, but corn has perished everywhere … Everyone says ‘there is no more’ (Immanuel Velikovsky, Ages in Chaos, London, 1973, Vol. 1, 25-26).
The ten plagues culminates in the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn, including that of the Pharaoh.
Interestingly, Neferhotep I, who must have ruled during this period, was not succeeded by his son, Wahneferhotep, but instead by his brother Sobkhotpe IV. Historians are not sure why this was so, but the Biblical account tells us why.
The sudden departure of the inhabitants of Kahun is another evidence. Dr. Rosalie David writes:
“It is evident that the completion of the king’s pyramid was not the reason why Kahun’s inhabitants eventually deserted the town, abandoning their tools and other possessions in the shops and houses … The quantity, range, and type of articles of everyday use which were left behind in the houses may suggest that the departure was sudden and unpremeditated” (The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt, Guild Publishing: London, 1986, 195).
This appears to confirm Exodus 12:33 “And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste…”
As Pharaoh and the Egyptian army pursued the Israelites, they were drowned as God miraculously parted the Red Sea for His people (Ex. 14:28). It’s no coincidence that the mummy of Neferhotep I has never been found.
Some experts argue that the Exodus never occurred because there are no signs that the Israelites wandered in the desert of Sinai for 40 years. But one fact they omit was that the Israelites lived nomadic lives during their sojourn.
They didn’t live in cities or villages or build house structures or leave behind artifacts that would have survived as evidence.
They were in the wilderness, and they obviously had to re-use every item. The Bible also indicated they lived in tents during those years, which would have left few or no traces that could be found in the desert sand 3,000 years later.
Interestingly, satellite infrared technology has revealed ancient caravan routes in the Sinai.
George Stephen, a satellite-image analyst discovered evidence in the satellite photographs of ancient tracks made by massive number of people going from the Nile Delta straight south along the east bank of the Gulf of Suez and around the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
He also saw huge campsites along the route which fits the description given in the book of Exodus (Price Randall, The Stones Cry Out, Harvest House OR, 1997, 137).
Limits of Archaeology
Many critics who reject the historicity of the Exodus question how it’s possible that 2 million people would leave Egypt without it reflecting in Egyptian records.
These critics are neglect the fact that ancient history is a patchwork of information where certain answers aren’t clear. Much of it have come down to us in fragments that have to be pieced together to have a complete picture and there is no 100% certainty.
These critics are over-relying on what archaeology can prove. But Archaeology is not infallible; this field of study is fraught with its own limitations. Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, a respected archaeologist point out some of them:
- Little of what was made or written in antiquity survives to this day
- Few of the ancient sites have been surveyed and a number have not even been found
- Probably fewer than 2 per cent of the known sites have been meaningfully excavated
- only a fraction of the fraction that have been excavated have been published and their data made available to the scholarly world (The Stones and the Scriptures, Philadelphia, 1972, ch. 4).
Perhaps the most challenging impediment to having a complete archaeological evidence of the Exodus event is destruction of evidence.
The Egyptians were known to have expunged historical records when the truth proved to be embarrassing or obliterate records if it doesn’t suit their political interests.
In fact, this practice has made it difficult for scholars to determine Egyptian chronology because the names of conquered rulers were literally chiseled out of their place in history.
For instance Pharaoh Akhenaton (c. 1350-1334 BC) tried to introduce monotheistic reforms into Egyptian religion and had the names of his rival god, Amon removed from Egyptian monuments throughout Egypt.
After Akhenaton’s death, the scribes entered his father’s tomb and re-carved all of it, and while at it, eliminated all references to Akhenaton from it!
Pharaoh Thutmose III also virtually destroyed all records relating to Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1503-1483 BC), the previous ruler whom he despised from Egyptian history after he ascended the throne.
Thutmose and his son, Amenhotep II, systematically removed her image from monuments, reliefs, statues, and the official list of Egyptian rulers.
A scholar suggests that Hatshepsut is the most likely candidate for the princess who adopted Moses (Ex. 2:10) and the obliteration of her memory was for her adoption of Moses – regarded as a rebel (Hansen David, Moses and Hatshepsut, Bible and Spade, 2003, 16:14-20).
The mass exodus of the Israelites was a national embarrassment to ancient Egypt and her religion (since each of the plagues was a slam against their deities) therefore it’s understandable why records of it wouldn’t be preserved.
And there is no valid reason why the Israelites would invent a tale about a beginning birthed in slavery in an era where most nations invented tales linking them to the highest races or gods.
Biblical accounts however includes the failures, defeat and sins of God’s people. The Exodus account is also reiterated in 1 Samuel 4:8, Psalm 7:8, 95, 106; 1 Cor. 10:1-5, reminding us that this event has much significance both to Israel and the Church.