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The Bible & History: Exodus (Part 3)

The question of whether or not the biblical Exodus is an actual historical event can first be approached by considering if there is any evidence that Israelites ever occupied Egypt as slaves or otherwise. Genesis reports several occasions when the patriarchs either made a trip or anticipated a trip to Egypt in order to avoid drought and famine in Canaan. One such occasion involves Abraham (still called Abram at this point), “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land” (Gen. 12:10Open Link in New Window). When the Pharaoh takes Sarai as his wife, Yahweh rescues the pair by inflicting the house of Pharaoh with “great plagues” (Gen. 12:17Open Link in New Window), the kind of which is not mentioned. This theme of descent into Egypt and rescue through plagues interestingly anticipates the basic plot of the later Exodus. Isaac, the son of Abraham, also considers traveling to Egypt to avoid famine, “Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham” (Gen. 26:1Open Link in New Window). Yahweh, however, appears to Isaac and instructs him to “Not go down to Egypt” (Gen. 26:2Open Link in New Window). In Genesis 46:26-29Open Link in New Window, the family of Israel moves into Egypt to escape a long famine (Gen. 41:50-46Open Link in New Window:7). They are said to have settled in “the land of Rameses” (Gen. 47:11Open Link in New Window), but The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version states that this location cannot be identified with any certainty.

Thus, we see that at the very least the Bible speaks of a tradition of migration into Egypt during times of drought and famine in Canaan. Throughout ancient times it was actually quite common for immigrants from Canaan to settle into the eastern border regions of Egypt, where Joseph was said to have settled. Egyptian records speak of Asiatic foreigners infiltrating the Eastern Delta region as early as the First Intermediate Period (2190-2106 BCE). A Middle Bronze Age wall painting at Beni Hasan, to name one example, shows a group of Asiatics riding on asses and traveling into Egypt. Canaan is dry during the summer and receives a widely varying amount of rainfall during the winter months. Egypt’s fertility, a consequence of the Nile River, would have been especially luring to people living in Canaan during times of drought and famine. Other people came to Egypt for trade or were brought over as prisoners of war and sold into slavery.

Therefore, the basic tenet of the Exodus saga – that a group of Canaanites lived and worked in Egypt before being forced to travel (or by traveling by their own free will) back to Canaan – is certainly plausible. Egyptian prisoners of war, including Semitic-speaking peoples, were often used as force-laborers beginning with the Eighteenth Dynasty in the manner described in Exodus 1Open Link in New Window:

“Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor…The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor” (Ex. 1:11, 13-14Open Link in New Window).

Israel in Egypt?

So the question remains, did the Israelites ever occupy Egypt in the manner described in the Bible and if so, when? James K. Hoffmeier readily admits in his book, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition that “no one has been able to identify any unimpeachable evidence in Egypt, either historical or archaeological, to support the biblical accounts of the sojourn and exodus events” (pg. 53). The Oxford History of the Biblical World also comments on this problem:

Any search for a historical core to the Exodus saga must work within the network of established and interdependent chronologies for Egypt and the ancient Near East. The first step is to seek mention of Exodus events in nonbiblical ancient sources. Unfortunately, there are none: no texts from Egypt or anywhere else in the ancient Near East provide such an independent witness. Years of the most intensive scrutiny have failed to produce a single unequivocal, or even generally accepted, nonbiblical historical reference to any event or person involved in the Exodus saga (pg. 71).

But isn’t the biblical text itself enough proof that the exodus actually happened? “Facts” in the historical sciences must be judged against their levels of corroboration. Realistically, in the context of historical events in ancient times, one cannot speak of “facts” but levels of confidence. The more corroborated a given “fact” is the more confidence one can place in its validity. With regards to ancient texts, they could be a forgery or deliberately exaggerated, they could have been dated incorrectly, the author may have been mistaken, or we might be dealing with cultural mythology. Many doubts could be raised about a validity of a text, depending on its perceived purpose. Few doubts could be raised about an inventory listing the number of jars of grain in the king’s stockpile, but many could be raised about a victory stele, which often contain exaggerated claims. The Bible in particular is an expression of faith and religion that attempts to show how God works in the world rather than a strictly historical document.  William G. Dever, in his book What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel, correctly notes that ancient literature does not necessarily reflect the life of the general population but the life of a select, literate few:

…the biblical texts reflect the creative, literary imagination of a very few of the elite classes. In ancient Israel, pre- and postexilic, these classes constituted a mere handful of priests, intellectuals sometimes attached to the court, writing prophets, and probably scribes. These were the people who wrote the Bible, for others like themselves. (pg. 105)

Thus, the Bible alone cannot be considered as proof in and of itself. As a consequence of this, Dever states that “…the fact is that we are nevertheless almost totally dependent upon archaeological data for most of what we shall ever know, about most of the people of ancient Israel, most of the time.”

What Evidence?

The Oxford History of the Biblical World goes on to say that “No archaeological evidence from Egypt can be construed as representing a resident group of Israelites in the delta or elsewhere.”

Despite the historical nature and the epic magnitude of the Exodus story, the Bible is the only source that mentions it. From the viewpoint of the rest of the world, the event seems to have never happened. Because of this, and other reasons, scholars have had a difficult time attempting to place the Exodus story within our actual history. William G. Dever calls any such attempts as “fruitless”:

…archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has…been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40 year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century BCE, where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite religion. (pgs. 98-99)

Since there is no corroborating evidence from outside the Bible that confirms any of the events in the Exodus, we must look strictly to the Bible and hope that it can give us any clues to help answer these questions. Unfortunately, the Bible in fact offers very little. For example, it does not refer to any of the Pharaohs throughout the entire narrative by name nor does it offer any distinguishing characteristics between them that could help identify them in history. Even the Pharaoh that Moses confronts is not given an identity. They are all nameless, faceless, generic “Pharaohs”.

The term Pharaoh literally means “great house”, and was originally used as a reference to the palace until the 18th dynasty (c1500 BCE). It was not widely used as a reference to the monarch until the Ramesside period (1300-1100 BCE). Hoffmeier notes that Egyptian use of the term Pharaoh did not include a name attached with it until the 10th century BCE. One may speculate, then, on whether or not the Hebrew author of Exodus would have adopted Egyptian writing customs or simply did not know the actually name of the Pharaoh. Later books in the Bible mention pharaohs by name, including Shishak and Necho, while the Bible in general consistently gives the names of its enemy kings.

In addition to the complete and utter lack of any descriptions for the Pharaoh’s, there is also a lack of distinctively Egyptian literary and historical material from the narrative. This is odd considering that the story takes place in Egypt and the surrounding countryside. Practically no details are mentioned that could help place the story in a particular time during Egyptian history.

The purportedly Egyptian setting is so generic that the action could have taken place almost anywhere. (Oxford History of the Biblical World, pg. 65)

There are, however, a few details that are worth mentioning. In speaking about the forced labor projects given to the Israelites in slavery, the Bible mentions the building of the store-cities of Pithom and Rameses. “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh” (Ex. 1:11Open Link in New Window). Pithom comes from the Egyptian Pr-‘Itm, or Per Atum, which is the name for the temple of the god Atum. However, these temples existed in many cities, and thus, it was necessary to refer to the Per Atum of some city or place. Per Atum by itself effectively doesn’t tell us anything:

In effect, the biblical rendering of Pithom strips the reference of its specificity and thus indentifiability, and transforms it into a collective allusion equivalent to the generic references to ‘Pharaoh.’ (Oxford History of the Biblical World, pg. 65)

Nevertheless, scholars have attempted to identify Pithom with the mounds of Tell el-Maskhuta or the nearby Tell el-Retabeh, both of which have been partially excavated. Both sites were occupied during the Middle Kingdom period but abandoned during the New Kingdom period.

The first pharaoh named Rameses came to the throne in 1320 BCE. This effectively rules out the Biblical dating for the Exodus. According to 1 Kings 6:1Open Link in New Window, the start of the construction of the Temple in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign took place 480 years after the Exodus. This dating scheme would place the Exodus to around 1440 BCE – which in this case is too early. The 480 years should be disregarded as mythic symbolism anyway, since it is equal to the length of time spanning 12 generations living the traditional 40 years. Twelve, of course, is one of the Bible’s favorite symbolic numbers.

Nevertheless, Egyptian sources tell of a city named Pi-Rameses (The House of Rameses) that was built in the delta area by the command of the Pharaoh Rameses II (ruling from 1279-1213 BCE; 19th dynasty). It is even likely that Semites were used in its construction. However, not all is well and good here. First, no actual building remains have been found, let alone any slave camps. Rameses II was such a famous king that the memory of his named continued to live on and was used in many place names long after his death and well into the Greco-Roman times. So, all we can really say is that 1279 is the very earliest date of a long span of time. The reference may even come from Israel’s monarchic period or later:

Some scholars have suggested that the reference to Rameses is an anachronism reflecting the geography of a much later period, from somewhere within the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE. (Oxford History of the Biblical World, pg. 65)

The Bible mentions that the Israelites inhabited an area in Egypt known as the Land of Goshen. Such a place has never been located and the name “Goshen” does not appear in any Egyptian texts nor does it seem to be derived from any Egyptian word. The Bible also mentions that Pharaoh’s army was equipped with horses and chariots, something that was not common before the 18th dynasty.

Merneptah SteleWe can, however, place an upper limit to the time period in which the Exodus might have happened. The earliest non-Biblical reference to the nation of Israel comes to us in the form of a stele which describes the campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II, into Canaan at the end of the 13th century. The stele claims that Merneptah’s armies found a people called Israel in the land of Canaan and that they had wiped them out completely. The hieroglyphic symbol that the stele uses to refer to Israel is a symbol that the Egyptians used to signify nomadic people who lacked a fixed nation or country. This would indicate that early Israel was semi-nomadic, which matches up well with archaeological evidence. Archaeological evidence also links many early Israelite settlements to just around this same time period. Interestingly enough, this early encounter with the Egyptians in Canaan is not mentioned in the Bible. Nevertheless, the stele provides evidence that a group known as Israel was occupying Canaan around the end of the 13th century.

Based on the above, it would seem appropriate to conclude that if the Exodus happened at all, it had to have happened sometime in the second half of the 13th century – after the beginning of the reign of Rameses II and before Merneptah encountered Israel in Canaan.

Go to Part 4

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This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:17 pm

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