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The Bible & History: Exodus (Part 4)

The Possibility of a Mass Exodus

Having tentatively established the second half of the 13th century, during the reign of Rameses II, as the most likely period of time in which an historical Exodus could have taken place, based on Biblical and historical data, a new question arises. Was it even possible for a mass exodus of people from Egypt into Canaan to have occurred during this time – especially without the Egyptians seemingly knowing or bothering to record the event? To answer this question, it is important to realize what was actually going on in Egypt during this time frame.

In 1570 BCE the Egyptians expelled a foreign power from their land. This group is known as the Hyksos, and many people have pointed out similarities between them and the Exodus tale. The Hyksos were West Semitic, or Canaanite, and gradually immigrated into the eastern Nile delta region. They ruled Egypt as the 15th dynasty from 1670 to 1570 BCE. In that final year they were violently chased out of Egypt and back into Canaan. This is the only known historical parallel to the Biblical events, but these events took place much too early to be actually be equated with Israel’s Exodus. Since Israelite settlements did not appear in Canaan until the end of the 13th century, as stated, this would imply over 300 years of “wandering” after their expulsion if we date the Exodus to the same time as the Hyksos.

Nevertheless, after this event Egypt became “extremely wary of incursions into their land by outsiders” (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, pgs. 54-55) As a result, they tightened their control on immigration between Egypt and Canaan beginning with the 19th dynasty (Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 BCE, pg. 279). This was accomplished by constructing a system of forts along their eastern borders that were manned by troops and administrators. The temple of Amun at Karnak from the time of Seti I (c1300 BCE) contains a wall relief showing a map of “The Way of Horus,” a road leading from the Nile Delta into western Palestine. According to Mazar, “The Karnak relief shows over twenty stations along this northern Sinai desert route, each having a small fort and a water reservoir.” Archaeological surveys confirm the existence of this extensive network of forts. All in all, according to Mazar, “These finds demonstrate the existence of a network of military and administrative strongholds along northern Sinai, the northern Negev, the coastal plain, and the Beth-Shean Valley—a network constructed by the Egyptian pharaohs of the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties to enforce their presence and control in Canaan” (pg. 283). A papyrus from the end of the 13th century shows that commanders closely monitored foreigner’s movements. The consequences of this set up should be obvious, as The Bible Unearthed points out on page 59, “If a great mass of fleeing Israelites had passed through the border fortifications of the pharaonic regime, a record should exist. Yet in the abundant Egyptian sources describing the time of the New Kingdom in general and the thirteenth century in particular, there is no reference to the Israelites, not even a single clue.”

Records exist describing nomadic groups from Edom coming in to Egypt from the desert. The Merneptah stele previously mentioned makes clear that Israelites—or at least a group of proto-Israelites—existed in Canaan around this time. Yet nothing indicates that a large group of Israelites ever occupied a portion of Egypt’s eastern Nile delta during the 13th century BCE nor does anything indicate that such a group passed from Egypt into Canaan. Considering that Egypt during the time of Rameses II was at its peak of authority over its portion of the world, including Canaan, it is unlikely that such a large group of people could have passed through this area completely unnoticed by the Egyptians. An Egyptian army could have converged on any such group coming from both Egypt itself and its many forts in Syria and Canaan. “One can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt through heavily guarded border fortifications into the desert and then into Canaan in the time of such a formidable Egyptian presence” (The Bible Unearthed, pg. 61). One could attempt to argue that God simply allowed it to happen, but that still begs the question. A series of miracles would have given the Egyptians even more reason to record the events.

The only other option is that the Israelites passed through the Sinai Peninsula, a very desolate place. The name “Sinai Peninsula” comes from an early Christian tradition that the Mountain of God, sometimes referred to as Mount Sinai in Exodus, is located there. The true location of this mountain, if any, is not known. It was associated with the highest peak on the Sinai Peninsula in the 6th century CE. In Arabic, this particular mountain is named Jebel Musa (“Mountain of Moses”). Associating high places with the presence of deities was extremely common during ancient times. Nevertheless, archaeology is more than capable of tracing a generation long wandering in Sinai of a large (or even small) group of people. Nothing has shown up. “Except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Rameses II and his immediate predecessors and successor has ever been identified in Sinai” (The Bible Unearthed, pg. 62). People have most certainly been trying very hard over the years to find such evidence, but none exists, “not even a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment…There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the thirteenth century BCE” (The Bible Unearthed, pg. 63).

This is the case even though the Bible provides detailed routes for the Israelites throughout their wondering years. However, most of the names and places mentioned remain completely unknown to this day. “Of approximately three dozen or more localities mentioned, few can be pinpointed on the ground, and none of the places listed in Egypt or the Sinai Peninsula can be situated with confidence” (Carol A Redmount. “Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt,” in Michael D. Coogan, ed., The Oxford History of the Biblical World, pg. 67). A few, however, can. Kadesh-barnea is listed in the Bible as being the location where the Israelites camped for 38 of the 40 years spent wandering is but one example that has been pinpointed based on descriptions to the modern day oasis of Ein el-Qudeirat. Yet nothing around this location from around the time period we have been discussing has ever shown up that would suggest that a group of people had occupied it. Excavations only revealed the existence of a small fort that went through several phases during the 10th-7th centuries BCE (William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and where did they come from?, pg. 19).

Ezion-geber is the other location that can be safely identified by archaeologists. Again, remains show up from much, much later (Late Iron Age), but absolutely nothing from the time period we are discussing (Late Bronze Age). No wandering Israelites. The Bible also mentions an account of how the king of Arad attacked the Israelites and captured some of them in Numbers 21Open Link in New Window. Excavations of this region have shown that it was actually deserted during this time frame. In another tale, the Israelites were forced to battle at the city of Heshbon (Numbers 21:21-25Open Link in New Window). Once again, excavations of Heshbon reveal that the city simply did not exist during this time. The Bible also states that the Israelites met resistance from the nations of Edom and Ammon – nations that archaeology reveals didn’t exist yet! Thus, there could not have been a king of Edom to deny the Israelites access. Early occupation of Edom was, in fact, very sparse, and the area remained nomadic until about the 7th century BCE with the emergence of a tribal state.

The Verdict

Even though the Biblical tale of the Exodus mentions historical places, these places were not around during the supposed time of the Exodus. They were, however, occupied much later – during the time of Judah’s monarchy when these Biblical sources were first put into writing. In fact, it becomes a clear pattern. The itinerary of the wilderness wanderings itself might be a literary scheme, as Gordon Wenham notes. “If the beginning (Raamses) and the concluding points are eliminated, Wenham suggests, forty names are recorded, which might correspond to the forty years in the wilderness (Num. 14:34Open Link in New Window)….Wenham also observed that the list of forty-two toponyms can be divided into six groups of seven, that ’similar events recur at the same point in the cycle,’ and that the names might be arranged in numerically significant patterns which correspond to special occurrences” (James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, pg. 178). In light of all of this, is it reasonable to suppose that the Exodus is yet another example of a national mythology that never happened?

Go to Part 5

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


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