Evidence for the Exodus
|Light iron-age reading
|Gabbin' with God
|Fiction over fact
|How it didn't happen
This article examines the Young Earth creationist and Biblical literalist claims regarding the historical reality of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, as well as the evidence relating to such claims.
Mainstream history and archaeology now consider the Exodus to not have happened in the manner described in the Bible, and the story to be a narrative put together between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE, based on earlier oral traditions and collective memories possibly dating as far back as the 13th century BCE. Christian and Jewish literalists do not accept this.
Mainstream scholarly consensus
“”...I'm not trying to say that: now, I have proven that the Bible is authorative, is historically accurate — of course not. You still have to have faith.
|—Dr. Paul L. Maier, invoking an escape hatch when the evidence doesn't back up his beliefs
Although Judaism regards the Book of Exodus as the primary factual historical narrative of the origin of Hebrew religion, culture and ethnicity, scholars now accept that this text evolved in the 8th–7th centuries BCE as a compilation from stories dating possibly as far back as the 13th century BCE, with further polishing in the 6th–5th centuries BCE, as a theological and political manifesto to unite the Israelites in the then‐current battle for territory against Egypt.
Archaeologists from the 19th century onward actually expressed surprise when they failed to find any evidence whatsoever for the events of Exodus. By the 1970s, archaeologists had largely given up regarding the Bible as any use at all as a privileged field-guide.
The archaeological evidence of local Canaanite, rather than Egyptian, origins of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel is "overwhelming" and leaves "no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40‐year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness". The culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult objects represent the Canaanite god El, the pottery reflects the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet is early Canaanite. Almost the sole marker distinguishing Israelite villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones.
William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus "dead". Israeli archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog provides his view on the historicity of the Exodus:
“”The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction — made in the seventh century BCE — of a history that never happened.
Professor of Ancient History and Archaeology Eric H. Cline also summarizes the scholarly consensus in his book Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press and winner of the 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society's "Best Popular Book on Archaeology");
Despite attempts by a number of biblical archaeologists — and an even larger number of amateur enthusiasts — over the years, credible direct archaeological evidence for the Exodus has yet to be found.
While one might argue that such evidence would be difficult to find, since nomads generally do not leave behind permanent installations, archaeologists have discovered and excavated nomadic emplacements from other periods in the Sinai desert.
So if there were archaeological remains to be found from the Exodus, one would have expected them to be found by now. And yet, thus far there is no trace of the biblical "600,000 men on foot, besides children" plus "a mixed crowd...and live stock in great numbers" (Exod. 12:37-38) who wandered for forty years in the desert.
Nevertheless, another current consensus among scholars suggests that some historical elements lie behind the Exodus narrative, even if Moses and the Exodus belong more to collective cultural memory than to verifiable history. According to Avraham Faust, a professor of archaeology in the department of General History at Bar-Ilan University in Israel:
“”While there is a consensus among scholars that the Exodus did not take place in the manner described in the Bible, surprisingly most scholars agree that the narrative has a historical core, and that some of the highland settlers came, one way or another, from Egypt.
Those Canaanites who started regarding themselves as Israelites would likely have been joined or led by a small "Exodus group" of Semites from Egypt, likely carrying stories and collective memories that made it into the written composition of Exodus:
It appears that while many individuals, families and groups were involved in the process of Israel's ethnogenesis throughout the Iron Age, and that many of those who eventually became Israelites were of Canaanite origins, the first group was composed mainly of Shasu pastoralists. Other groups, probably including a small "Exodus" group which left Egypt, joined the process, and all were gradually assimilated into the growing Israel, accepting its history, practices and traditions, and contributing some of their own.
Traditions and practices that were useful in the active process of Israel's boundary maintenance with other groups were gradually adopted by "all Israel". It appears that the story of the Exodus from Egypt was one such story.
Dates given for the Exodus
Interpretations of the biblical accounts concerning the Exodus contradict one another, and as a result a variety of dates have been proposed for the Exodus. 1 Kings 6 claims that the beginning of work on Solomon's Temple (sometimes dated to 964 BCE) occurred 480 years after the Exodus, which might then be dated to 1444 BCE or thereabouts. However, the references to the name Ramses in Exodus 1:11 has led to suggestions that a thirteenth-century date is implied. Yet another approach is to add up chronological information in the Bible from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings to arrive at a period well in excess of 555 years between the Exodus and Solomon, implying an Exodus date significantly before about 1519 BCE.
James Ussher/Paul Hansen: 1491 BCE
James Ussher gave a date of 1491 BCE for the Exodus in his 1654 work, Annales Veteris Testamenti: A Prima Mundi Origine Deducti. Ussher's work very strongly influences the chronology advocated by Paul Hansen of Answers in Genesis, who uses the same date.
A 1491 BCE date would put the exodus in the early 18th Dynasty, during the reign of Thutmose II according to standard chronology, though a date early in the reign of Hatshepsut or late in the reign of Thutmose I would be within the ±10 year margin of error given by Shaw for the New Kingdom period.
Immanuel Velikovsky/David Rohl: New Chronology, Reign of Dudimose
David Rohl and Velikovsky both date the Exodus to Dudimose, final ruler of the 13th Dynasty at the very end of the Middle Kingdom, at the time of the Hyksos rise to power in the Delta region. Both based their dates on the alternative chronologies, the Revised Chronology of Velikovsky, and New Chronology of Rohl, both of which shift the accepted chronology forward by several centuries, in the case of Rohl from c.1690 BCE to 1450–1446 BCE, with the exodus occurring in 1447/1446 BCE.
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg: Reign of Tutankhamun (1330 BCE)
Conditions at the beginning of the reign of Tutankhamun closely match those described in Exodus:
- a large mudbrick city having been just constructed by slaves of Akhnaten in two years at El Amarna, a site with little straw, and being abandoned with his religion
- a disenfranchised monotheistic priest class displaced by followers of the old gods of Saqqara & Luxor being restored
- extremely specific predictions of disaster - recorded on his restitution stele - claiming "old gods would punish him if they were not given back their old rights and positions:
- Hapi, the androgynous god of the Nile, would make its waters undrinkable;
- Heqet, the goddess of fertility, would release her frogspawn to swarm over the land;
- Osiris, the god of corn, would not prevent the locusts from consuming his cereals, and
- Ra, the sun god, would refuse to shine."
- strong resemblance (cherubim, carrying poles) between a pharoah's battle shrine and the portable Mishkan or Tabernacle that went into the desert with other riches - from a city that was abandoned
- extremely strong similarity between the treatment of this portable shrine and the Temple rituals (inner and outer room) at Jerusalem.
Rosenberg further suggests that this date can be reconciled easily with Exodus 12:40 claiming 430 years in Egypt - since 1760 BCE - and the theory that the Israelites came to Egypt with the Semitic Hyksos, as proposed by Josephus Flavius, which modern scholars place within decades of that time. And also, that if the Solomonic Temple was built 12 generations after the Exodus (I Kings 6:1) and these are actually 30 not 40 real years, 360 years after 1330 is 970 BCE, again within decades of modern estimates.
Various: Reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 BCE)
The reign of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) has long been considered a candidate for the Exodus, due to the biblical reference to the city of Per‐Ramesses, which was largely constructed during his reign. Ramesses II reigned for just over 66 years, circa 1279–1213 BCE.
Various: Reign of Merenptah 1213–1203 BCE
Merenptah (sometimes spelt Meneptah) is one of the "old favourites" for being the "Pharaoh of the Exodus", and his reign is used by adherents of both conventional and also (less commonly) in the New Chronology. Conventional chronology gives Merenptah's reign as c.1213–1203 BCE, or 888–875 BCE in Rhol‐world.
“”Dr. Paul L. Maier: Critics often say there's no record of their crossing the Red Sea and that sort of thing - totally understandable why. Because the Egyptians never recorded any reverses, or any defeats, of any kind. This would diminish the glory of the pharaoh! So, can you imagine the pharaoh in charge saying "By the way, on my watch - under my administration - hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves were able to escape when we wanted them to stay in Egypt"? I mean, they're not going to record this!
Michael Shermer: Ok, maybe the Egyptians were embarrassed or whatever, but... that is not an answer to the skeptic's challenge. That's just saying that it's true because there's no evidence for it.
|—Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
It is unlikely that the 603,550 adult males plus women and children mentioned in the Exodus story would have gone unremarked by contemporary Egyptian records. That's easily 2 million people (assuming one man, one woman, 1.5 children, which is very conservative). But no Egyptian account mentions them. Or the plagues, which would be similarly unlikely not to have been recorded. There is no evidence of any of this. Given the standard of Egyptian record keeping of the time, this is an absence that would require explanation.
Bible literalists claim that it did happen, but that the Egyptians destroyed all the records, for reasons generally unspecified, though embarrassment has been offered. This is contrary to the normal archaeological practice of testing a theory against the evidence, rather than the evidence against the theory.
Still, the plagues infesting Egypt would have completely devastated the country (if nothing else, all the drinkable water turning to blood!), yet no one outside Egypt mentions it, either. A devastated Egypt would have been remarked on by its neighbors and likely taken advantage of by one of them, yet none of that happened that we can tell. Egypt's rivals certainly didn't have an incentive to cover up such a disaster.
The alleged refusal by the Egyptians to record the events of the Exodus isn't the only problem, as pointed out by eminent biblical scholar Michael Coogan, author of The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press);
We should observe that the biblical sources for the earlier periods are remarkably unspecific. Although pharaohs of Egypt are described as having had dealings with biblical figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses, none of the pharaohs referred to in the books of Genesis and Exodus is named by the biblical writers, so that we cannot fit them into the well-established chronology of ancient Egypt. Nor do Egyptian sources make any mention of the biblical figures. As a result, scholars have no conclusive answers to such questions as these: When did Abraham live or did he even exist? When did the Exodus from Egypt take place, if at all?
Archeological digs dispute Exodus
The Book of Numbers gives a list of sites at which the Hebrews allegedly settled, in Sinai and its immediate surroundings, during the Exodus. Of these sites, a select few can be pinpointed relatively well by description and deduction. Two such sites are the Biblical Kadesh Barnea, modern Ein Qadis, and Ezion Geber, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Jordan, just outside Eilat. Both sites have been investigated archaeologically, and found to have been founded during the Ancient Near Eastern Late Iron Age — no earlier than 700/800 BCE, with the obvious exception of early neolithic/nomadic activity.
However, many if not most of the places mentioned in the Exodus did not exist within the same chronological period as one another. Pithom (Per‐Atum/Tckenu) and Raamses (Per‐Ramesses), the two "treasure cities" claimed to have been built by the Hebrews, never existed at the same time. Pithom did not exist as a significant settlement before the 26th Dynasty. Prior to this, the settlement was known as Tckenu, and was still referred to as such in the Ptolemaic period. It was an obscure garrison town which mainly, if not exclusively, served as a waystation for Egyptian expeditions. Even in its enlarged Roman state, the town barely registered on either Egyptian or Greco–Roman accounts. Per‐Ramesses, the Royal Residence of the Ramessides, was abandoned at the end of the New Kingdom, centuries earlier.
Another example is the Exodus portrayal of Edom. Edom was not yet a nation. In fact, the region wasn't even inhabited yet. The place the Hebrews stop at wasn't even built until 800 BCE, as the earliest Iron Age settlements (copper mining camps) date to the 9th or 10th century BCE according to radiocarbon dating done by Thomas Levy (the previous estimates having been placed some 300 years later) and the main excavated sites have been dated between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. However, the latest the Exodus could have occurred and still be biblically accurate is in the 13th century BCE, meaning that if the radiocarbon dating is contested, the settlements would be estimated to be from the 12th or 13th century BCE, thus additionally slimming the "window of opportunity" for Exodus to have taken place.
No sign of plagues in Egypt
All of the dates put forward by advocates of the historicity of Exodus fail to correspond to any period of national chaos or collapse in Egypt, as would clearly be expected by such a series of disasters.
Ussher's 1491 BCE date corresponds with a time of ambitious Egyptian expansion. The reign of Hatshepsut was stable, peaceful and saw extensive construction projects and trading missions; this is known from actual material remains as well as Egyptian records. Her successor, Thutmose III, took Egypt to its greatest imperial extent, forging an empire from the Euphrates to the 4th and possibly the 5th cataract. These are not the signs of a nation that, just a few years before, had lost its entire harvest, its drinkable water, its army and its sons. There is no archaeological evidence at all of mass death and impoverishment in the early New Kingdom period.
The same holds true for the period of Ramesses II. Although there were a few brief reigns after Merenptah, and what appears to be an attempt to interfere with the line of succession (the Chancellor Bey affair), there is no evidence of national catastrophe. Not long after, during the reign of Ramesses III, the state was still able to construct numerous massive monuments (such as Medinet Habu and the temple of Ramesses III within the Karnak complex) and mount effective military campaigns on both land and sea.
Parting the Red Sea
According to a map produced by the British Admiralty, while a short distance to both north and south the sea is over 900m deep, opposite Nuweiba it is a "mere" 765m deep. Even if some mechanism could be suggested to produce a channel through such a depth of water, sending hundreds of thousands or even millions of people of all ages, plus accompanying animals, down steep cliffs and coral dropoffs that typify the Gulf of Aqaba, and then up the other side is clearly infeasible, unless of course you want to use one of your daily allotted "Goddidit" cards.
Or was it the Reed Sea?
Apologists who wish to defend the historicity of Exodus, but without the burden of the absolute implausibility of Moses having parted the Red Sea as described above, instead seek to direct us towards the Sea of Reeds explanation, arguing for an unfortunate "mistranslation" in the otherwise divinely proofread Bible:
“”People often have trouble with biblical miracles, including the stupendous ones like parting the waters of the Red Sea à la Cecil B. DeMille and so on... Probably didn't happen that way at all. Probably, they did not cross the fifty-sixty-seventy mile wide Red Sea; they crossed the Sea of Reeds, the "Reed Sea". Now, you get a good north wind or a good offshore breeze or so, it will dry up the land.
|—Dr. Paul L. Maier
The downside to this attempted diversion, however, quickly becomes apparent:
“”Once you buy the "Red/Reed"-thing, well... They walked across a low-tide marsh on a windy day. What's the miracle in that - the smell didn't annoy them? And why give us a podunk explanation for a miracle - if it isn't a miracle, it isn't God! If it isn't God, it's a bullshit story! ...Maier, you're pissing on your own feet.
This puts Abrahamists in the interesting predicament of needing to find a spot in either the Red or one of the Reed seas that's deep enough to require Divine Intervention for the Hebrews to cross, but not so deep that it would've been simpler for God to just, say, levitate them across it.
Crunching numbers and other issues
Some people with a calculator at hand have estimated that were those more than 600,000 males forming a single line, assuming a separation between them of a bit more than 1 meter, would stretch over around 800 kilometers (this without including females, children, chariots, and livestock) and if we include the latter, even assuming they were marching in files of ten, the numbers are not less ludicrous (and if we assume they formed scattered groups not only is the situation worse as they'd occupy a much larger area but also the Pharaoh's forces would have found it much easier to attack the Israelite refugees). Things just go downhill from here as you think on stuff like the logistical considerations of such a large population on the move across a searing hot desert during decades with just Bronze Age technology. Even if one left aside the issue of food and assumed they fed on manna (and also what about those people or animals who suffered an injury/illness that made them unable to continue, not to mention those (probably many) who were born and/or died in those 40 years and the very likely many things left behind for whatever reasons (broken, etc) during the journey?).
Ron Wyatt was a self‐proclaimed "archaeologist" with no formal training in the subject who time and time again presented "evidence" for various aspects of the Exodus tale.
The "ancient" fortress of Nuweiba
Wyatt’s Exodus “proof” also rested on a supposedly "ancient" fort at Nuweiba, which blocked the Hebrews in on the beach‐head, leaving the sea as their only exit. The fort is, in fact, Ottoman, not Pharaonic, as a glance at Wyatt’s own photo clearly shows.
Wyatt also claimed to have found a "Solomonic" column lying on the beach at Nuweiba in 1978, complete with a partially erased inscription by Solomon. No publication of the inscription has ever been made, despite the granite column being accessible to anyone, standing on a concrete base in Nuweiba. It is, in fact, totally bare, with no evidence at all to support the idea it was made by Solomon. However, the architecture of the Levant of the time Solomon is claimed to have existed used individual square blocks, forming rectangular columns, completely unlike the round column of a single piece of stone Wyatt shows us.
Another pillar that Wyatt claimed to have discovered in Saudi Arabia, on the opposite side of the crossing, has mysteriously vanished off the face of the earth, with no records of it by the Saudi or any other antiquities authorities.
Actual point of crossing
Between Nuweiba and Saudi Arabia lies a relatively shallow stretch of the otherwise very deep Gulf of Aqaba. This, Wyatt claimed, was the strongest sign yet that the Red Sea must have parted here, to allow an easy way across the waters.
Wyatt also claimed to have discovered the exact point at which the Israelites crossed the Red Sea while being pursued by the historically anonymous pharaoh and his army.
The basis of Wyatt's theory was first finding a beach that would seem appropriate for the event, and later by simply searching until something old in the sand was allegedly found - in this case, the remains of what Wyatt described as a wagon wheel submerged nearby.
Wyatt claims to have dived in the area of Nuweiba in 1978, and later released a set of low resolution images of vaguely wheel shaped coral formations - what actually looks very much like a modern steel shutoff/valve control wheel as "proof" of his discovery.
Wyatt, who died in 1999, claimed to have brought one eight‐spoked wheel to the surface, and sent it to Nassif Mohammed Hassan at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He claimed that Hassan dated it to the 18th Dynasty. However, no record of the wheel entering the museum has ever been found, the article itself has never been seen, and no photographs of it on the surface have ever been released.
- United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, Admiralty Chart H2 73 0012 – El 'Aqaba to Duba and Ports on the Sinai Coast, UKHO, Taunton
- The Catholic Encyclopaedia WWW Link
- Hansen, P, Timeline from creation to Jesus – PDF Document
- Finkelstein, I & Silberman, N (2001), The Bible Unearthed, The Free Press, New York
- Gospel Pedlar, James Ussher: The Annals of the World – PDF Document
- Merling, D (1999), Did the Israelites Cross the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aqaba? – WWW Link
- Shaw, I (2000), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford
- Uphill, E P (1968), Pithom and Raamses: Their Location and Significance, JNES, Vol.27 No.4
- Wyatt Archaeology, The Exodus Conspiracy – WWW Link
- John McDermott, "Reading the Pentateuch" (Paulist Press, 2002) p.22
- Faust, A., 2015, The Emergence of Iron Age Israel: On Origins and Habitus, in T.E. Levy, T. Schneider and W.H.C. Propp (eds.), Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archeology, Culture and Geoscience, Springer, pp. 467-482
- Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Free Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-684-86912-4. The Wikipedia article summarises it nicely.
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, S02E01, The Bible - Fact or Fiction
- Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Free Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-684-86912-4. The Wikipedia article summarises it nicely.
- Dever, William G. (2002). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-2126-X.p.99
- Quoted in Sturgis It Ain't Necessarily So, pg. 74
- Dr. Eric Cline Wins 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award - Best Popular Book on Archaeology
- Meyers 2005, p. 10.
- Faust, A., 2015, The Emergence of Iron Age Israel: On Origins and Habitus, in T.E. Levy, T. Schneider and W.H.C. Propp (eds.), Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archeology, Culture and Geoscience, Springer, p.476
- Faust, A., 2015, The Emergence of Iron Age Israel: On Origins and Habitus, in T.E. Levy, T. Schneider and W.H.C. Propp (eds.), Israel's Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archeology, Culture and Geoscience, Springer, pp. 467-482
- Gospel Pedlar, Annals
- Hansen, Timeline
- Shaw, 2000 p480–489
- Exodus 1:11
- Uphill, 1968
- Catholic Encyclopaedia – Merenptah
- Studies of Ancient Egyptian suggest an average fertility rate of >6 in A.Egypt. See: Meskell (2002), Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt
- The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 32.
- Finkelstein & Silberman, p63
- Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (2009), ISBN 0-19-534263-1, page 131.
- UKHO, Admiralty Chart
- Wyatt Archaeology, Conspiracy
- Merling, 1999
- WAR describes Wyatt's evidence of the Red Sea crossing