Did Israel’s Exodus From Egypt Actually Happen?

By Lee Salisbury

Archaeological and Historical Portion of this Article Based On:
The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finklestein, Ph.D. and Neil Silberman, Ph.D.

Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald B. Redford, Ph.D.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology of the Near East

Abbreviated Version of The Bible’s Exodus Saga:

Jacob’s son Joseph sold as a slave... Jacob & family move to Egypt... Egypt’s 7 yr famine... Joseph’s divine wisdom saves Egypt... Israel multiplies, "the land was filled with them." Ex 1:7... New Pharaoh oppresses, enslaves Israel Ex1:12... Moses kills Egyptian, flees to Midian for 40 yrs... Burning bush, YHWH "I am who I am", YHWH commissions Moses... Moses confronts Pharaoh " Let my people go"... YHWH’s famous plaques: Nile turns to blood, frogs in beds, gnats and flies, Egyptian livestock dies, boils and sores, hail ruins crops, locusts, darkness (Egypt worshiped sun), firstborn animals and sons killed and initiation of the Passover... Moses parts the Red Sea, 600,000 males, plus women and children cross "dry shod"... Pharaoh’s chariots chase Israel, but drown in Red Sea... 40 year journey for 2,000,000 Israelites in wilderness... God’s guidance "did not lead them by the land of the Philistines"* ...manna and quail to eat; water out of a rock... Mt Sinai, Ten Commandments......Moses dies age 120. Is this story historical or myth?

Does the Bible Treat Israel’s Exodus As History By Giving Dates?

Solomon’s reign as king begins 970 BCE

Solomon begins construction of Temple three years later (I Kg 6:1) 967 BCE

Time from building Solomon’s Temple back to Exodus (I Kg 6:1) 480 years

Exodus Year 1447 BCE

Time of Israel in Egypt (Ex 12:40), ( Acts 7:6 says 400 years) 430 years

Israel enters Egypt 1877 BCE

Biblical Contradiction of I Kg 6:1 "480 Years" With Other Bible Verses

From Judges and I Samuel From Acts 13: 16-20

In Wilderness 40 Years In Wilderness 40 Years

Under Joshua* 40 Years From Wilderness to Samuel 450 Years

Under Judges 410 Years ------

Under Eli 40 Years ------

Under Samuel* 40 Years Under Samuel 40 Years

Under Saul 40 Years Under Saul 40 Years

Under David 40 Years Under David 40 Years

Total 650 Years 610 Years

Exodus Year 1617 BCE 1577 BCE

Does Archaeology Confirm Migrations From Canaan Into Egypt?

Climatic contrasts between Canaan and Egypt were distinct. Canaan was dependent upon rainfall, but Egypt’s water source the Nile River. Today, the Nile has only two branches with the eastern area being marshy and arid. Ancient maps of Roman-Byzantine period show the Nile River with seven branches creating a vastly larger area of well-watered, fertile, densely inhabited land. Egypt’s climate and habitability was considerably more stable then Canaan.

Archaeological finds verify immigrants from Canaan settling in eastern regions of Nile River delta throughout the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age 3000 BCE-1150 BCE. Immigrants came as pastoralists, farmers, and others as prisoners of war. The Beni Hasan tomb painting dated 19th century BCE portrays immigrants with animals and goods - presumably as traders, not as conscripted slaves.

Does The Hyksos Expulsion Account For The Exodus Story?

Manetho, 3rd century BCE Egyptian writer, using unnamed "sacred books" and "legend", describes a brutal invasion by foreigners from the east called Hyksos meaning "foreign rulers". The Hyksos reportedly made Avaris their capital and allegedly ruled Egypt 500 years. Excavations by Manfred Bietak, Univ. of Vienna, discovered Hyksos pottery, architecture, and tombs dating from 1800 BCE at Tel ed-Daba (Avaris) indicating the Hyksos were Semites (Canaanites, but no mention of them being Israelites), and that their migration had been a gradual process over many years rather then at a specific date in time.

Egyptian manuscripts recount the 18th Dynasty Pharoah Ahmose sacking the Hyksos in 1570 BCE and chasing the Hyksos to their citadel Sharuhen (Jerusalem?) in southern Canaan. These manuscripts indicate the Canaanite influence terminated at this time.

Though some parallels to Israel’s Exodus story are present, there are obvious anomalies such as: brutal invasion, 500 year rule of Egypt, and the Hyksos being defeated and chased by the Egyptian army into southern Canaan. Thus, the Hyksos expulsion is disqualified as the bible’s Exodus by Israel.

Does The Bible’s Exodus Date Coincide With Egyptian Chronology ?

I Kings 6:1 states the Exodus took place "480 years" before the temple construction commenced, prior to Solomon’s 4th year as king. Solomon’s reign began 970 BCE, thus the temple construction began in 967 BCE.

Egyptian records and archaeological evidence indicate the expulsion of the Hyksos was in 1570 BCE. If the Hyksos expulsion were the Exodus date then the temple construction date would be "480 years" later in 1094 BCE. which was before kings Saul and David who preceded Solomon. So, the Hyksos expulsion does not coincide.

Ex. 1:11 specifically mentions the children of Israel being used as slave labor to build the city of Raamses. But, the first Pharaoh named Raamses came to the throne in 1320 BCE. Egyptian records state Raamses II, who ruled 1279-1213 BCE built the city of Raamses. If the I Kings 6:1 number of "480 years" is to be taken literally, then the temple construction period would have been long after Solomon’s reign in the mid 8th century BCE. So, the bible contradicts itself. Either the children of Israel constructed the city of Raamses(Ex 1:11) in the mid 13th century resulting in a mid 8th century BCE temple construction or the I Kings 6:1 "480 years" is incorrect.

Was An Exodus Even Possible in the Late Bronze Age 1550-1150 BCE or Time of Raamses II ?

The dominant powers of the Near East in the late Bronze Age 1550-1150 BCE were the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians. Throughout the Late Bronze Age, Egypt was a stable and growing military power. Under Tuthmosis II Egypt’s empire reached to the Euphrates. The traditional Exodus date of 1447 BCE falls in the reign of Tuthmosis III or Amenophis II. Egypt’s hegemony throughout Canaan continued through the Late Bronze Age until challenged by The Sea Peoples invasion of the 10th century.

In 1570 BCE. Pharaoh Ahmose led the expulsion of the Hyksos, chasing them to their citadel in southern Canaan- Sharuhen- which he stormed by seige. In years following Egypt commenced a strategy of controlling further migration from Canaan into the eastern delta. Egypt established a system of forts, granaries, and water reservoirs along the delta’s eastern border.

The 14th century el-Amarna 400 letters of the cuneiform archive found at Tell el-Armarna in Egypt describe in great detail social, religious, political, military, demographic conditions both within and between these nations. In addition the 10,000 cuneiform tablets found at Boghazkoy , Asia Minor supplements the interchange of information between these nations. These nations made many commercial and military excursions throughout Palestine/Sinai recording activities of other ethnic groups, but make no mention of an "Israel".

Late 13th century papyrus writings from an Egyptian army commander state "We have completed the entry of the tribes of the Edomite Shasu (i.e., bedouin) through the fortress of Merneptah, which is in Tjkw, to the pools of Pr-Itm... for the sustenance of their flocks." Scholars believe Succoth (Ex 12:37) is probably the Hebrew form of the Egyptian Tjkw. Pithom (Ex 1:11) is the Hebrew form of Pr-Itm. Migdol (Ex 14:2) is a common Egyptian word for forts. The bible alleges Israel passed through these communities. So, any migration of especially 2,000,000 refugees leaving Egypt in a shambles with Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea would at least merit some written record, if not an armed offensive by the soldiers of these Egyptian outposts.

The Merneptah stele (upright stone slab) dated 1207 BCE is the first mention of "Israel" found in Egypt describing Raamses II’ son, Pharaoh Merneptah’s campaign into Canaan in which a people named "Israel" were soundly defeated. Apart from this lone military encounter which in itself contradicts the Wilderness account, it seems incomprehensible that 2,000,000 Israelites could be unknown to literate people who seem to take note of all circumstances in their sphere of influence.

Is It Realistic To Expect That Archaeologists Could Find 3,500 Year Old Artifacts?

Modern archaeological techniques are no longer limited to trowels and brushes. Satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar are just some of the sophisticated equipment utilized enabling archaeologists to trace even the most meager remains of hunter-gathers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological records from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in the 13 century BCE era and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods.

In the case of Israel, the search is not for a "needle in a haystack". The bible documents the locations. The years of archaeological searching only affirms that (especially Christian)archaeologists anticipate being able to find artifacts from 2,000,000 Israelites. Yet, repeated surveys at Kadesh-Barnea where Israel spent 38 of its 40 years have not provided the slightest evidence of an Israelite encampment. Ezion-geber, a camping place of Israel has not produced a trace of evidence. Twenty years of intensive excavations at Tel Arad (Num 21:1-3) where Israel allegedly did battle with King Arad has provided no Late Bronze Age remains. Tel Hesbon, the site of Hesbon (Num21:21-35) where Israel allegedly did battle with the king of the Amorites provides no Bronze Age remains.

In light of modern day archaeological capabilities, the Exodus story has to be highly suspect when after so many years of repeated archaeological surveys using the latest scientifically advanced equipment and techniques in all regions of the peninsula including the mountainous area around Mt. Sinai, provides not a single archaeological artifact, not a single sherd, or not a trace of a campsite from the alleged 2,000,000 Israelites wandering 40 years in the desert.

Did The Exodus Writer ( Moses ? ) Demonstrate A Knowledge of Bronze Age Egypt ?

Though the Exodus story utilizes a few names derived from Egyptian history and geography such as the Red Sea, the river Shihor ( Jos 13:3), and Raamses, this falls far short of proving the historicity of the Exodus. The Exodus story gives several clues to a late 7th , early 6th century authorship:

A. Israel’s alleged home in Egypt, "the land of Goshen" is a name derived from Geshem, a 5th century Qedarite royal family name, not Bronze Age Egypt.

B. The Exodus writer gives no name of any Pharaoh at the alleged time of Joseph or Moses. The Exodus author’s avoidance of king/pharaoh names suggests the objective is something less then an accounting of datable, historical fact.

C. The Exodus writer does name the "Philistines" stating God would "not lead them through the land of the Philistines" (Ex 13:17), but archaeologists have determined the Philistines did not begin to appear in Canaan until the late 13th century and did not establish themselves governmentally until the 10th century BCE.

D. The Exodus writer is ignorant of the Egyptian forts in northern Sinai or the Egyptian strongholds in Canaan, especially in the 15th to 13th century BCE when Egypt became the dominant power of Middle East.

The Exodus writer’s ignorance of Bronze Age Egypt only increases the probability of Exodus being a much later folkloric or mythical creation having little or no basis in historical fact.

Summary Of The Biblical, Historical, and Archaeological Questions Raised By The Exodus’ Vagaries

Why does the bible contradict itself as to the years when the Exodus occurred? Why doesn’t the Exodus writer Moses name specific Pharaohs? Specific Egyptian forts? Why does the Exodus story use names of peoples (Philistines) who are non-existent at that time?

Does Egypt’s detailed chronology record Egypt’s pharaohs, major events, i.e. wars, treaties, commerce, personalities?...Yes.

Does Egyptian chronology mention Joseph and the 7 year famine?...No. Israel’s 600,000 male population?...No. Moses?...No. Moses confrontation with Pharaoh?...No. Israel’s 2,000,000 people Exodus (50% of Egypt’s then total population)?...No. Pharaoh’s army including 600 chariots drowning in the Nile?...No. Egypt’s total desolation from the Exodus?...No. Would events of this magnitude merit mention in Egyptian papyri, stele, or tomb inscriptions?...Yes.

Does Near East archaeological evidence confirm the Exodus era?...No. Israel in Egypt?...No. Moses?...No. The Exodus?...No. The 40 year wilderness journey of 2,000,000 people?...No.

What Are The Christian Theological Implications of a Fictionalized Non-Historical Exodus and Moses?

Moses’ historicity is both foundational and prerequisite to Jesus’ credibility as Messiah. Moses’ name is used eighty times in the New Testament. Scriptural examples of the alleged Moses- Jesus relationship are : Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of the prophet like unto Moses (Dt 18:15) whom God would raise up (Jn 6:14); Jesus’ ministry of grace and truth is compared to Moses ministry of the law (Jn 1:17); Jesus quotes Moses giving the 5th Commandment to honor your parents (Mk 7:10); Jesus’ crucifixion is likened unto Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness(Jn 3:14); the resurrected Moses appears on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah before Jesus, Peter, James, and John (Mt 17:1-8).

If historical and archaeological evidence for the American Revolutionary War provided no confirmation and in fact offered numerous facts which contradicted even the possibility of that war, then one would have to question the very existence of George Washington as well as the legitimacy of subsequent stories built on George Washington’s life. Likewise the gospel accounts of Jesus are dependant on the veracity of Exodus and Moses. Their validity as historical persons is mutually dependent on one another. To put it bluntly, if the Exodus and Moses are mythical or folkloric fabrications, then at a minimum, Jesus has to be put in the same class, or least that of an impostor.

The facts are : in spite of an alleged omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of the bible having an eternity to plant extra-biblical historical and archaeological artifacts confirming the stories of the Exodus and Moses,

(1) there is no historical or archaeological confirmation for the Exodus, for the 40 year Wilderness Journey, or for Moses;

(2) the Egyptian military outposts in the eastern Nile delta and Canaan make it highly improbable that Israel could escape unnoticed, with no Egyptian written account;

(3) the thousands of surviving detailed cunieform letters failure to even mention an Israel (until 1207 BCE) indicates that there was no Israel in the Wilderness;

(4) the Exodus writer’s demonstrated ignorance of Bronze Age Egypt suggests a much later folkloric creation;

(5) the bible’s self-contradicting time schedule for the Exodus only dampens Exodus’ credibility. Unless a major archaeologic discovery overcoming the past 200 years of research occurs, Israel’s Exodus and Wilderness Journey can only be seen as a folkloric, a social-construct common to many ethnic groups who create they’re own history to legitimize their goals. A fictional, non-historical Exodus and Moses removes the legitimacy of present-day Israel’s claim to Palestine and clearly questions the origins and truthfulness of the Jesus of Nazareth story.

Supplemental archaeological data

Anomalies in the Genesis, Late 3rd- Early 2nd Millennium Account of the Patriarchs

1. "Camels": Abraham’s servant Eliezer has camels Gen 24; Jacob’s owns camels Gen 32; Joseph sold to slave traders with camels Gen 37; But, the archaeological evidence reveals that camels were not domesticated until late 2nd millennium (1200 to 1000 BCE) and not widely used in the capacity as beasts of burden until well after 1000 BCE.

2. "Ishmaelites came ...with their camels bearing spicery, balm, and myrrh" Gen 37:25. The writer uses the main products of trade under the Assyrian empire 8th and 7th Centuries BCE, approximately 1,000 years later.

3. "Isaac went unto Abimelech, king of the Philistines unto Gerar" Gen 26:1. But, the archaeological evidence reveals that the Philistines were from the Aegean and did not migrate to the coasts of Canaan until 1200 BCE, at least 500 to 800 years after the Genesis account. Philistine cities did not prosper until the 11th and 10th centuries. The city of Gerar is identified with excavations at Tel Haror. I n the Late Iron Age (1150-900 BCE). Gerar might have been a village, but most certainly not a fortified city until late 8th or early 7th Century.

4. "Rebekah...the Syrian...sister to Laban the Syrian" Gen 25:20 King James Version uses Syrian, all other translations state Arameans. Jacob is called "a wandering Aramean" Dt 26:5 But, the Arameans are not mentioned as a distinct group in ancient Near Eastern texts until 1100 BCE. They first became known on the northern borders of Israel in the early 9th Century BCE..

5. Esau is called "Edom" Gen 25:30. Esau lived in Edom Gen 32:3. Esau’s descendants were kings in Edom Gen 36:31-40. But, Assyrian records indicate that Edom did not exist as a political entity and had no kings until the Assyrian conquest in the eighth Century BCE, some 1,000 to 1,200 years later then Genesis states.

6. Names such as Kedarites, Ishmael’s sons Adbeel and Nebaioth, Tema, Sheba, Gen 25; Chedorlaomer and Kadesh Gen 14; are all names mentioned in Assyrian records and inscriptions referring to persons and places of the eighth to sixth Centuries BCE.

The Genesis narratives are thought to be in the early 2nd Millennium BCE, but use names, places, and events common to the 8th - 6th centuries BCE. This strongly suggests the Genesis’ stories are the fictionalized product of the time of their writing, i.e. the 6th to 7th centuries. Further examples illustrating a lack of historicity are Genesis’ two conflicting creation stories 1:1-23 and 2:24-25; different genealogies of Adam’s offspring 4:17-26 and 5:1-28; two spliced and rearranged flood stories 6:5-9:17; Moses and Aaron represented as fourth generation descendants of Jacob Ex 6:16-20 whereas Moses’ contemporary, Joshua, is listed a twelfth generation descendant of Jacob I Ch 7:22-29; plus the dozens of doublets and even triplets of the same events all together are indicative of disconnected legend gathered at later dates from various sources in an attempt to present an impression of a unified saleable history. Quoting Israel Finkelstein, Ph.D., Tel Aviv University in The Bible Unearthed, "In reality, the Genesis narratives have no more historical basis then the Homeric saga of Odysseus’s travels or Virgil’s saga of Aeneas’s founding Rome."

By Lee Salisbury Copyright 2001 (posted with the express permission of the author)

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