The Historicity of the Exodus

In recent decades, a number of sceptical scholars have cast doubt on the Old Testament story of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt (the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the 10 commandments etc). Some have even questioned the existence of Moses, suggesting that everything detail of the Exodus story is myth.

While the debate on the historicity of the Exodus is fairly complex, the existence of Moses is much more straight forward. It’s well captured by an exam question that’s asked of seminary students in North America: “If Moses didn’t exist, then we would have to invent him. Discuss.” The point is that the writings attributed to Moses have had such a big impact on human history, that if they didn’t come from Moses then we would have to invent a historical figure from whom they came, someone, say, called Moses.

The more complex debate on the historicity of the Exodus, is closely tied to the debate on its date. For a number of years, scholars have assumed a ‘late date’ for the Exodus around the year 1250 B.C. because Rameses II was the Pharaoh of Egypt at this time, and according to the book the Exodus in the Bible, the Israelites “built Pithom and Ramses as store cities for Pharaoh” (Exodus 1:11).

However, as the Torah was passed down from generation to generation, they Israelites updated certain place names for their contemporary audience (Genesis 14:14 cf. Joshua 19:47). In fact, the place that would later be called Rameses is described as “the district of Rameses” (Genesis 47:11) in a narrative that takes place well before the generation of the Exodus (Exodus 1:6-8). The text that we have has updated place names, but that doesn’t mean they were the names recorded in the original text.

Moreover, 1 Kings 6:1 places the Exodus 480 years before Solomon’s temple. This would suggest an ‘early date’ for the Exodus around 1450 B.C. rather than the ‘late date’ of 1250 B.C. Furthermore, the recently discovered Berlin Pedestal, which has been dated to 1360 B.C. (over 100 years before the ‘late date’), refers to the nation of Israel, even though Israel was not a nation until after its Exodus out of Egypt. The evidence both inside and outside of the Bible indicates an early date for the Exodus in the 1400s B.C. rather than a late date in the 1200s B.C.

While a number of scholars argue that the Exodus didn’t happen because of a lack of evidence for a historical Exodus out of Egypt in the 1200s B.C. (the late date), an agnostic Egyptologist, David Rohl, has catalogued a significant amount of archaeological evidence for the Exodus in the 1400s B.C. (the early date) in his recent work Exodus: Myth or History? which has been popularised by the recent documentary Patterns of Evidence.

Rohl catalogues archaeological evidence for the Israelites arrival into Egypt (Genesis 46), their multiplication and slavery (Exodus 1), their Exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 12), and Israel’s subsequent conquest of Canaan (Joshua 1-12). For the Israelite’s arrival, there is archaeological evidence for Joseph’s house, palace and empty tomb (the Israelites took his bones in the Exodus, see Exodus 13:19). Joseph’s statue is even depicted as wearing a multi-coloured coat. And the waterway of Joseph is still in use, which, if built by Joseph, is evidence of his preparation for the seven years of famine (Genesis 41).

For the Israelite’s multiplication and slavery, we have evidence for a rapidly growing Semitic population in Avaris in the form of foreign tombs with non-Egyptian pottery and weapons. The human remains in these graves show a deterioration in health (cf. Exodus 1:11-14), with a historical increase in male infant deaths (cf. Exodus 1:15-22). The Brooklyn Papyrus also provides a list of the names of slaves at the time, many of which are Hebrew names. The 10 plagues are not something that you would expect the Egyptians to record (people tended to record their victories but not their defeats). Nevertheless, the following extract comes from the Egyptians text, The Admonitions of Ipuwer:

“The river is blood. If you drink of it you lose your humanity, and thirst for water... Gone is the barley of abundance. Food supplies are running short. The nobles hunger and suffer. Those who had shelter are in the dark of the storm... Behold, plagues sweep the land. Blood is everywhere, with no shortage of the dead. He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere. Woe is me for the grief of this time... Wailing is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations... People are stripped of clothes. The slave takes what he finds. Gold, lapis lazuli, silver and turquoise, are strung on the necks of female slaves.”

For the Exodus itself, there is archaeological evidence of grave pits filled with bodies hastily buried in a semitic settlement in Egypt (Avaris) indicating a sudden migration, documentation of slavery and evidence of mass abandonment at another semitic site in Egypt (Kahun), and an Egyptian source outside of the Bible describing an economic collapse in Egypt’s history with the explanation that “God (singular) smote the Egyptians” (Menitha’s History of Egypt).

Finally, for the subsequent conquest of Canaan, the archaeological evidence also fits with the early date for the Exodus, but not the late date – the cities in the promised land were occupied before 1400 B.C. and then destroyed and abandoned after 1400 B.C. The archaeological evidence for Jericho’s fallen fortification walls, evidence of its intentional burning, and its storage jars with charred grain indicating an extremely short seize (one week), all point to a conquest around 1400 B.C. Hazor’s remains also contain a cuneiform tablet that refers to Jabin, the King of Hazor in the biblical account (Joshua 11:1).

And yet, despite the growing body of evidence, not everyone is convinced. After being confronted with these findings in the documentary Patterns of Evidence, atheist Matt Dillahunty responded with a counter video, which doesn’t actually list any counter-evidence, but simply encourages viewers to google it (after a few hours of research, I couldn’t find any that directly counters the evidence presented in the documentary).

Dillahunty assures his viewers that there are plenty of good reasons to opt for the late date for the Exodus, while he simultaneously argues that the Exodus probably didn’t happen because of the lack of evidence found in that time period. However, these two arguments constitute a contradiction. One simply cannot argue that there are good reasons to think that the Exodus happened late, and simultaneously argue that the Exodus didn’t happen at all.

The only way to refute the archaeological evidence for a historical Exodus is to engage with the archaeological evidence itself. Why can’t the Egyptian statue of a foreign official in a multi-coloured coat be a statue of Joseph? Why don’t the foreign graves and list of slaves with Hebrew names point to Israel’s sojourn and slavery in Egypt? How does the archaeological evidence of a sudden migration from Avaris and a mass abandonment of Kahun, point to anything other than a historical Exodus out of Egypt?

Ancient archaeology is fragmentary at best. There’s simply not a lot of evidence for anything that has survived for over three thousand years in the brutal conditions of a North African desert. Archaeologists are frequently trying to reconstruct historical events from rags and tatters, and yet the archaeological evidence for the Exodus is strong and growing. One can deny that the Exodus was a historical event if they choose to, but it’s becoming harder and harder for such people to claim that they are the one’s who are following the evidence.

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