The Exodus out of Egypt: Archaeology Generally Confirms Biblical History
- R. Totten - � 2004
Admittedly, there is not an abundance of specific archaeological evidence to confirm each particular event in the biblical account of God delivering the people of Israel out of Egypt through Moses, as described in the book of Exodus --however, since the Hebrews in Egypt were slaves to begin with, and then they continued to be nomadic for a period while returning to the land of Canaan, finding tangible traces of such a history may be similar to trying to prove archaeologically what the nomadic conqueror, Attila the Hun, specifically did in his life.
--Still, there is --in broad brush-strokes-- a fairly good body of evidence confirming the Bible's overall account of the Exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt, some of which will now be described.
Hebrews in Egypt
In an article entitled, "Egypt and the Palestinian Connection in the Second Millennium BC," Dr. Manfred Bietak (Egyptologist and head of the Austrian Institute of Archaeology) gives the following summary of the relationship between Egypt and inhabitants of Canaan (Palestine) around the time of the Exodus:
After the interlude of the First Intermediate Period (2200-1970 BC) Egypt started its contacts with Palestine. Mercantile relations were only interrupted from the Second Part of the 12th dynasty onwards (ca. 1900-1800 BC). This can be assessed by imports within the stratigraphy of Ezbet Rushdi and Egyptian exports to Tel Ifshar. It seems that during the late 12th dynasty the Egyptian crown granted liberal access to the town of Tell el-Dab'a (Eastern Nile Delta) which seems to have become something like a free trading town, otherwise the marked increase of settlers of Syro-Palestinian origin in the size of approx. 25,000 inhabitants cannot be explained. Whilst trading links with the Northern Levant (Byblos) dominated, during the Second Intermediate Period the main Egyptian trading partners were situated in Palestine. Finally a local dynasty appeared at Avaris/Tell el-Dab'a which took from ca. 1640-1530 BC control over all of Egypt. They are known as Hyksos. They also controlled a part of Palestine. Relations with Palestine flourished at this time. After the expulsion of the Hyksos by the Egyptian 18th dynasty, the major part of Palestine remained independent till Thutmosis III and the battle of Megiddo (ca. 1459 BC)."
It is usally understood that the "Hyksos" invaders, who finally gained temporary control of Egypt from about 1720 B.C. until 1570 B.C., were various immigrant Semitics from Palestine (Canaan), Assyrians, and Amalekites, many of whom originally had a nomadic lifestyle or were driven to Egypt by bad agricultural conditions. Some of the Hyksos were peaceful immigrants who moved into Egypt for many years, while others acted more like "invaders," exhibiting more violent behavior, such as the pillaging of some Egyptian villages.
The Hebrews (Israelites) were also nomadic Semitics, and may well have been considered to be a part of the various "Hyksos" immigrant peoples, who lived mostly in northern Egypt for hundreds of years. --Thus, Dr. Bietak gives us an outline which gives room --in broad brush-strokes-- for the arrival, presence and the influence of Hebrews among the immigrant "Hyksos" Asiatics in Egypt. This outline also indicates the eventual expulsion of the Hyksos from the land during the Egyptian 18th daynasty. Such expulsion may generally describe a series of Semitic "Exodus" events which would possibly include the Hebrews.
In 1966, Manfred Bietak --head of the Austrian Institute of Archaeology-- excavated ruins at Avaris (Tel el-Dab'a) in the Nile Delta, and discovered a settlement of "Asiatics," which is a term that Egyptians used for people from Canaan/Palestine. The inhabitants of Tel el-Dab'a were not Egyptians, but were Semitic Canaanites. They were of the Syro-Palestinian Middle Bronze Age Culture, and none of the remains are Egyptian. Significantly, the U-shaped floor-plans, and the walls of their buildings are exactly like those later constructed by the Hebrews in Israel. In addition, their burial methods were different than the Egyptians. This particular Semitic settlement at Tel el-Dab'a had a population of about 30,000 people, and is dated as being from the Late Hyksos or the early 18th Dynasty of Egypt. This time would be not long after the time of Joseph (see Genesis chapters 37-50) --perhaps somewhere around 1500 BC.
(ref: "The Exodus Revealed," Docu-Video, Discovery Media Prod., 2002)
In Genesis 46:27 we read that when Joseph's family immigrated to Egypt (because of famine), there were only 70 people involved in the move --however, the families of Jacob and Joseph surely intermarried with other Asiatics who fled the famine, and by the time the Semites were established well enough to have built cities with walls, there was a population of almost 30,000 in Tel el-Dab'a. --There may have been other Semitic cities as well.
Thus, we have direct archaeological evidence of the presence of at least several tens of thousands of Semites with Hebrew culture established in cities in the Nile Delta around the very time that the Bible says the Hebrews were there.
Enslaved in Egypt
Next, we do find a number of writings which clearly indicate a sizeable number of Syro-Palestinian slaves in Egypt around the 1300s BC. --James Hoffmeier of Wheaton College points out that after the "Hyksos" dynasty in Egypt was overthrown, "Egypt was teeming with Semitic-speaking peoples," whom the Egyptians then treated as prisoners of war and slaves. This turn-around of the Hebrews starting out as free inhabitants but becoming enslaved in Egypt, parallels with the biblical account. Hoffmeier adds that the presence of Israelites among these Semitic slaves is very likely.
(Ref: "Is The Bible True?", Jeffery Sheler, Harper/Zondervan, 1999 p.79)
As a way of "bragging" about their slaves, there are 18th dynasty wall-painting insciptions in Egyptian tombs which show such Semitic slaves from Canaan (the home-land of the Hebrews) making bricks out of mud and straw, with stick-wielding taskmasters forcing them to work --and the biblical account states the very same thing: The Hebrews labored as slaves in the making of "bricks" out of mud and straw. Such inscriptions are found in the tomb of Rekhmire, who was the vizier of pharaoh Thutmose III in the mid-1400s BC. --Professor Hoffmeier adds, "It is worth noting, that the practice of using forced labor for building projects is only documented for the period 1450 to 1200, the very time most biblical historians place the Israelites in Egypt."
--Thus, it so happens that at the time the Hebrews would have been enslaved, there are actually Egyptian inscriptions to verify the fact.
(ref. "Did the Exodus Never Happen?" by K.D.Miller, Christianity Today, Sept.7, 1998, p.48)
Possibly much more significant is a line from the "Leiden Papyrus 348," which dates from the time of Ramesses II. It has orders that food be given to "the Apiru who are dragging stones to the great pylon" which was part of some unspecified construction.
(ref: J.K.Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, New York/Oxford U.Press, 1997, p.112-114)
--The word "Apiru" meant a "state-less" individual, and many scholars think it was used to refer to the Hebrews --and indeed, Dr. Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University directly says that "the term 'Apiru' is the origin of the term Hebrew."
--The Apiru (Hebrews) were being employed as slaves in Egypt.
(ref: "The Exodus Revealed," Docu-Video, Discovery Media Prod., 2002)
As for the numbers of these slaves in Egypt, it is not precisely known, however --for instance-- Pharaoh Thutmose III is reported to have brought back about 90,000 prisoners returned from a single campaign in Canaan. Then down through the decades there were many such campaigns, and there were also probably hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war (many of whom had been civilians) who were then pressed into slavery in Egypt. During the Roman Empire, 30% of the Roman population was slaves, and perhaps about 16% of the Egyptian population was slaves. The population of Egypt at the time of Israel's exodus is estimated to have been about 7.5 million --so if 18% of the Egyptian population was slaves at that time of the exodus, then there were perhaps about 1,350,000 slaves in Egypt.
The book of Exodus states that 600,000 Israelite adult males (over the age of 11) left Egypt, and if women are added to that number --bringing the Hebrew population to perhaps 1.2 million--, then these numbers are within tolerances of what is possible at the time ...and remember, that not all of the Israelites would have been counted as slaves. --And it should also be remembered that there may have been a number of smaller "exoduses" over the course of several years, with a larger exodus which typified "the Exodus" of the Hebrews out of Egypt.
Some have wondered: If there were so many Israelites involved in the Exodus, where is the evidence of more than a million of them wandering through the desert? -- In answer of this, two main things should be taken into account:
1. The Scripture records that the movement of the Hebrews was almost constant, and they did not stay in any one place for more than a few days or perhaps a week or two, and as a result, such brief encampments would not involve much land-clearing, and wouldn't leave significant amounts of objects behind which would survive the centuries.
2. After the Israelites refused to invade and take over Canaan, the judgment was that a whole generation would die in the wilderness, until there were only about 80,000 left at the end of 40 years, who finally entered into Canaan.
Hebrews Re-Inhabit Canaan
Some time around the 14th and/or 13th century BC we find good evidence of the return and influx of Hebrews back into the land of Canaan.
At Tel Amarna, Egypt, cuneiform tablets from about the 14th c. BC were discovered, and they contain urgent pleas to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akenaten, asking him to do something about the "Apiru" which were invading in sizeable numbers and taking over parts of Canaan. --And again, as mentioned earlier, Dr. Frank Moore Cross of Harvard Universtiy states that the term "Apiru" is "the origin of the term 'Hebrews'." So, at about this time, there is a return and major influx of Hebrews back into Canaan --in large enough numbers to cause alarm in the current residents, and a plea to higher authorities in Egypt for help.
To confirm this "invasion" picture further, consider several lines from the Victory Stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, which was found in his funerary temple in Thebes. That granite monument has lines of heiroglyphics which commemorate the conquests of Merneptah in Canaan in about 1210 BC. Some of those lines read:
"Desolate is Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not."
(ref: Ibid, J. Sheler, p.80)
Although we may overlook the usual exaggeration used to glorify the Pharaoh, these statements are nonetheless a specific archaeological confirmation of the return of substantial numbers of "Apiru" (Hebrews / Israelites) to the land of Canaan, specifically and clearly demonstrating that by the year 1200 BC "Israel" was indeed a sizeable and organized national power, with which the regional power (Egypt) had to recon. --This is beyond dispute.
At the same time as the influx of the "Apiru," Dr. Lawrence Stager of Harvard University discovered that during the 12th century BC, there was an accompanying increase in the number of villages in the hills on the West Bank of the Jordan River (between Hebron and Shechem) --an area of about 2,600 square miles. In that area alone, the number of villages increased from 23 to about 114, and the population balooned from about 14,000 to about 38,000. This is almost a trippling of the population in about a century's time, which cannot be accounted for by just the birth-rate --there must have been a sizeable influx of Apiru (Hebrews) from outside of Canaan.
William Dever indicates that the characteristics of those new villages (including the artifacts found in them) "provide an archaeological assemblage that agrees remarkably well" with the cultural trappings of Hebrew life-styles and the situation which the Bible describes as the returning Hebrews re-settled the land of Canaan.
(ref: Ibid, J. Sheler, p.91)
Archaeological Evidence Now Emerging: ... [Exerpts from Haaretz]
"Have the first Israelite sites built after Exodus been found? - By Ofri Ilani, Haaretz Correspondent
A Haifa University archaeologist on Monday [April 27, 2009] said he has unearthed structures in the shape of human feet believed to have been erected by the Israelites upon their initial entry to the Land of Canaan.
Prof. Adam Zertal said that the large compounds discovered in the Jordan Valley were "the first sites to have been built by the Israelites upon entering Canaan and manifest the biblical notion of claiming ownership of the land by setting feet on it."
Prof. Zertal's excavation team uncovered five large foot-shaped compounds that he identifies as the biblical site of Gilgal.
Zertal's most famous discovery is a compound on Mount Ebal near Nablus, which he identified as the site of the Covenant ceremony depicted in the biblical Book of Joshua. Other archaeologists have identified that site as a watchtower.
Since 1990, five sites shaped like human feet have been excavated in the Jordan Valley. All five date back to the early Iron Age (12th to 13th centuries B.C.E.), and their shapes indicate that they were used as communal gathering places.
Zertal said that the foot-shaped sites were used during ceremonies following the Israelites' entry into the Land of Canaan. He added that the concept of the Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem on three major holidays (known as "aliya la'regel" or ascending on foot) also originates from the foot-shaped sites in the Jordan Valley and Mount Ebal.
When the above facts of the many thousands of Semitic-speaking Canaanites (Hebrews) who had been enslaved in Egypt are considered, along with the "expulsion" of the Hyksos from Egypt (to which Dr. Bietak referred) --followed by the Apiru (Hebrew) invasion and settling of Canaan-- then we are compelled to conclude that there must have been an exodus of large numbers of Hebrews (Apiru) out of Egypt (or possibly several smaller "exoduses"), who then invaded and re-settled the land of Canaan, establishing the people of Israel --and these "Apiru" (Hebrews) are then specifically identified as the nation "Israel" with whom Pharaoh Merneptah fought. --This is archaeological fact, not speculation.
In view of this overall picture, it seems obvious that there was a significant Exodus of Hebrews out of Egypt --even though more precise dates and numbers of people may not be archaeologically specified and confirmed. --Thus, it would seem somewhat ignorant --perhaps arrogant-- for anyone to unequivocally state that "there was no Exodus" (as a few do).
Perhaps the archaeological evidence is not quite as specific at the beginning of the Hebrew history as some would like, but since the people of Israel had their beginning with small numbers (70 people) and their exodus occurred in a time of slavery --as an embarrassment to the Egyptian Pharaoh-- then one would actually expect to find minimized records of them in Egypt.
--William Dever points out that "Slaves, serfs and nomads leave few traces in the archaeological record." Whatsmore, Egyptian rulers did not immortalize their defeats (especially by slaves!) on their temples and pyramid walls.
--Writing for the Bible Review magazine, Peter Feinman humorously suggests how someone ignorant of ancient Egyptians might expect the record of an Egyptian humiliation by Moses to have read:
"A spokesman for Rameses the great, Pharaoh of Pharaohs, supreme ruler of Egypt, son of Ra, before whom all tremble in awe blinded by his brilliance, today announced that the man Moses had kicked his royal butt for all the world to see, thus proving that God is Yahweh and the 2,000-year-old culture of Egypt is a lie."
(ref: Peter Feinman, "Drama of the Exodus," Bible Review, February 1991, p.29)
The Man Moses
Although the man Moses has not yet turned up in extra-biblical sources, it is intriguing that the name itself is from the Egyptian name "Mose," meaning "(he) is born". This name "Mose" is orginally Egyptian and not Hebrew --and in Hebrew the name is "Moshe," which is how it is used by Israelis today.
As Egyptians used the name, "Mose" was often combined with another name, resulting --for example-- in the names of a number of pharaohs, such as "Thut-mose," which means "Thut is born," --or "Ra-messes," which means "Ra is born."
The biblical account says that Moses (Moshe) was raised in the Egyptian royal court by Pharaoh's daughter, and given the name Moses (meaning "[He] is born"). Baruch Halpern notes that this story "mirrors the practice of Egyptian kings raising the children of their Semitic vassals as hostages in the court."
(ref: Baruch Halpern, The Rise of Ancient Israel, a symposium, Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992, p.104)
A Chronology Problem?
It is maintained by some, that the chronology for the exodus event is a serious problem for the book of Exodus. This is because 1Kings 6:1 states that the fourth year of Solomon's reign was four hundred and eighty years after the Israelites came out of Egypt --and since that point in Solomon's reign was about 962 BC, therefore the exodus must have occurred in about 1438 BC. --The problem is: 1438 BC is perhaps about 150 years off from what some say is a likely date for the Exodus event with Moses. Exodus 1:11 notes that the Hebrew slaves were employed in the building of Pharaoh's "storage cities, Pithom and Rameses," and many egyptologists now think that these cities were built mostly by Ramesses 2, about 200 years after the exodus date, so, the Israelite's wouldn't have been there to do the building.
This problem may be partly answered by the fact that the name of the city "Rameses" in Exodus 1:11 may be an editorial "updating" by someone who lived after Moses --whereas the city was not actually named "Rameses" right at first. This is similar to the way that Columbus is often said to have discovered "America," even though America --named as such-- did not yet exist.
In addition, evidence may show that the Exodus event actually happened in about 1446 B.C., which is exactly the right date to harmonize with the 480 years specified in the biblical text. Dr. Lennart Moller, in his book "The Exodus Case," gives what may be a reasonable and logical argument pointing to 1446 B.C. as the actual date of the Exodus under Moses --which lines up nicely with the 18th dynasty of Egypt.
But the chronology issue isn't necessarily a very damaging problem for the book of Exodus, however, because (as Nahum Sarna and others argue) the timespan of 480 years may definitely be taken as a symbolically rounded number. To the Hebrews, a generation was often symbolically considered to be 40 years, and 12 generations would then be called 480 years in a "schematized" chronology of rounded numbers, even though the actual literal number was plus or minus 150 years or so. --Similarly, Sarna further points out that based on the time-spans listed in 1st and 2nd Kings for the reigns of David and Solomon, as well as other events and eras, the Bible marks out another 480 years which passed from the start of the Temple in Jerusalem to the end of Israel's babylonian exile. Sarna maintains that this suggests a "schematized chronology" instead of a literal historical record with a precise chronology, because the biblical writers "wanted to place the Temple at the center of biblical history" (Sheler, p.79). This makes the 480 years a sort of "theological" statement, as opposed to a precisely historical one. --So, in light of such symbolic and schematized numbers for some biblical chronologies, the exodus event may very well be placed within the archaeological framework.
These sorts of discrepancies between various chronologies or genealogical lists in the Bible is not very shocking, because various lists have different functions: Some genealogies are familial, some are political-legal lists, and others are religious/theological in their purpose. Because their purposes aren't the same, different types of generational lists will reveal discrepancies, which is called "fluidity."
The NIV Study Bible states that "The most common type of fluidity in Biblical materials is telescoping, the omission of names "behind" the list, or "between the lines." Unimportant names are left out in order to relate an individual to a prominent ancestor, or possibly to achieve the desired number of names in the genealogy. Some Biblical genealogies, for example, omit names to achieve multiples of 7: For the period from David to the exile Matthew gives 14 generations (2 times 7), while Luke gives 21 (3 times 7) for the same time-period, and the same authors give similar multiples of 7 for the period from the exile to Jesus (Mt. 1:1-17; Lk. 3:23-38). --This does not constitute an actual contradiction, but lines up with the symbolic/theological purposes of the authors.
(NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, '95, p.575)
So, the chronological view of 1Kings 6:1 exhibits "fluidity" because it has a theological purpose of locating the Temple at the schematic center of Israel's history, but this cannot be construed as an actual "contradiction" to the Bible's historical account of Israel's exodus from Egypt.
Crossing the Red Sea
The route which the Israelites took from Egypt to Israel is not at all clear, but a southern route through the Sinai Peninsula may seem preferable. Despite the lack of such clarity on the exodus route, the overall substantiation of the Exodus as an historical event should not be in doubt. --In addition, the identity of the body of water which was miraculously crossed is not clearly understood from the Bible --nor clearly shown from archaeological remains-- but still, there is some tentative or tantalyzing evidence and possibilities which have come to light.
The first issue in discussing the Red Sea crossing, is to determine:
The Location of the Red Sea Crossing
In his DVD-video entitled "The Exodus Revealed - Search for the Red Sea Crossing" (Questar, Discovery Media, 2002), Dr. Lennart Moller (a research scientist & marine biologist of the Karolinska Institut, in Stockholm, Sweden) along with other researchers have reasoned that the crossing path must be somewhere across the Gulf of Aqaba --which is part of the Red Sea-- for the following reasons:
Moses hid in "Midian," which is evidently in the western part of today's Saudi Arabia. This is where Moses saw the burning bush on Mt. Sinai.
In Galatians 4:25, the Apostle Paul states that Mt. Sinai is "in Arabia."
Josephus states that Mt. Sinai was near the city of "Madian," whose ruins are near the town of El-Bad, near the Saudi Arabian west coast.
Exodus 14:11 says that the people had gone "out of Egypt," therefore, it sounds like the crossing point did not start from an Egyptian beach --near the Gulf of Suez-- but it may have been over on the Gulf of Aqaba instead.
Right after the Red Sea crossing, Moses and the people were directed immediately to Mt. Sinai --apparently in western Arabia-- so the crossing is likely to have been across the Gulf of Aqaba.
From these indications, it was concluded that the path of the crossing went over the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba.
--- However, where along the shore of the Sinai Peninsula might the Israelites have started to cross?
Dr. Moller concluded that probably the only place where about a million people could have camped along the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba would have been on the Nuweiba Peninsula ---a sandy peninsula and beach which can be located on a map by starting at the northern-most tip of the Gulf of Aqaba and then go 50 miles south. In Exodus 14:2, it says that the place where the Israelites camped is called "Pi-hahiroth," which means "mouth of the Gorges," which is a fitting description for Nuweiba Peninsula, since it lies along some mountains which form a gorge that opens out onto Nuweiba Peninsula. --Any other places where Israel is suggested to have crossed through the water do no lie along mountainous terrain, at the mouth of such a gorge.
In Exodus chapter 14, the Bible states that after the people of Israel had crossed over on the floor of the Red Sea, God caused the military chariots of Pharaoh to follow after the Israelites to try to kill them, but after the chariots had been driven down onto the sea floor, Moses stretched out his hand, and "the sea returned to its normal state ...and the waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen," and they perished.
Having concluded that Nuweiba Peninsula was the most likely candidate for the crossing, Dr. Lennart Moller and his researchers got scuba equipment, and started diving off of Nuweiba Peninsula and searched along the Red Sea floor to see if they could find evidence of the exodus crossing --and what was found was astounding.
Dr. Moller's DVD ("The Exodus Revealed") has underwater motion video of artifacts on the Red Sea floor, such as the ones seen below.
Here we see the picture of a weel-shaped object lying on the Red Sea floor off of Nuweiba Peninsula, which is the right size and has the dimensions of 13th century BC Egyptian chariot wheels. The wheel is sheet-metal, and is apparently made of "electrum," which is a mixture of gold & silver. The sheet-metal electrum was used to cover a wooden wheel on an Egyptian officer's chariot, but the wood has decomposed over time, and the researchers did not move the sheet-metal covering because it may be too delicate to disturb, and the Saudi Arabian government also wouldn't allow the distubing of artifacts, nor the removal of any coral.
Notice that the wheel has a rim, four spokes, a hub, and a hole in the hub through which the axle extended. A little coral has tried to grow on one spot by the hub, but coral couldn't get started on most of the wheel, because gold and silver are not suitable substrates on which coral can start growing.
Here is another wheel-shaped object, however there is alot more coral, because evidently this wheel was mostly made of wood, and coral is able to start growing on wood.
Notice the circular shape where the wood used to be, but the wood itself has decomposed over the centuries --however, the coral still retains the round shape of the rim of the wheel, despite the fact that the top part of the wheel broke off before the coral started forming on it. In addition, the coral has built up over the area of the hub, and extends even higher where a portion of the axle was (or still is).
Metal-detectors were taken down to these wheels by the researchers, and a scan determined that there is still metal (probably bronze) inside the coral, still in the circular shape of the wheel.
So, there is good archaeological evidence for the presence of Semitic Canaanites (which would include the Apiru / Hebrews) in Egypt at the time in question for the biblical Exodus story. And the end-point is basically beyond question, as we find the Apiru/Hebrews invading Canaan, and finally, with the Merneptah Stele specifically naming the nation of "Israel" in Canaan at around 1200 BC. --An exodus of Hebrews must have taken place.
--As a result, Nahum Sarna (Brandeis University professor emeritus of biblical studies) maintains that the story of the exodus account --which traces a nation's origins to an ignoble beginning of slavery-- "cannot possibly be fictional. No nation would be likely to invent for itself, and faithfully transmit century after century and millennium after millennium, an inglorious and inconvenient tradition of this nature."
--Similarly, Richard Elliott Friedman, professor at the University of California at San Diego, says, "If you're making up history, it's that you were descended from gods or kings, not from slaves" (ref: Sheler, p.78).
These historians --along with many others-- say there must have been some an actual exodus event by the Hebrews, and as we read the book of Exodus in the Bible, we are essentially reading an historical account which is confirmed by archaeological evidence.
God loves you, my friend, and that's why he provided the Bible to explain the work and ministry of Jesus Christ, who came to provide the way of salvation. We invite you to investigate, by reading the Bible.