Is there any evidence of the exodus?
Question: "Is there any evidence of the exodus?"
Answer: Critics of the Bible often demand more proof for biblical events than they do for other historical claims. Skeptics have suggested there is no evidence of a mass Hebrew exodus from Egypt. The typical claim is that Egyptian records mention neither this event nor large slave populations, and there is a lack of bones or graves in the wilderness. Such criticisms are factually incorrect: there is archaeological evidence that corresponds to the Bible’s description of the exodus.
It’s important to realize that “proof” of prehistoric events is extraordinarily rare. Mountains of obvious evidence don’t typically survive three thousand years, even when the event itself is significant. It’s only reasonable to look for remnants, circumstantial evidence, collaborating artifacts, and perhaps some random documents. Of course, insisting that evidence must be found outside the Bible is, itself, an unfair bias. Scripture is part of ancient written records, whether skeptics appreciate it or not. For those not committed to rejecting such things out of hand, archaeological evidence favors a real, historical exodus of Israel from Egypt.
Examining evidence fairly means avoiding myths and poor assumptions. Pop culture is not historical evidence. For example, movies such as The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments use the name Rameses for the Pharaoh of the exodus. However, Scripture never identifies Pharaoh using that name. Looking for explicit evidence in connection with the reign of Rameses II is an attempt to verify a movie, not the Bible. Skeptics who assume the Bible speaks of Rameses are not only looking at the wrong sources but the wrong time period.
Cultures use different dating systems, not all of which are consistent. Even when there is ample evidence of an occurrence, it can be difficult for historians to know exactly what dates were involved. This is particularly true of Egyptian history, the record of which is erratic. Egyptians sometimes recorded rulers who reigned simultaneously as if they were consecutive, for example. Even experts in Egyptian archaeology would admit that dating anything using ancient Egyptian records requires an inflated level of tolerance.
The normal approach to examining the exodus starts with the 18th Dynasty, and critics will note there is no evidence from that era. Of course, Pharaohs were not in the habit of listing failures. Something as humiliating as the exodus is exactly the kind of event an Egyptian historian would choose to omit from his record. However, even if every historical event was recorded in the annals of Egypt, we can’t expect to find evidence if we’re looking at the wrong century. Different cultures may have assigned different dates to the same event, and just because there’s no evidence for an event in one culture’s history at the time we would expect to find it doesn’t mean the event did not happen.
Compared to Egyptian records, Assyrian and Hebrew history is more consistent and easier to correlate with known history. Assyrian dating, aligned with identical events in Egyptian records, shifts many Egyptian accounts to earlier dates. Using this Assyrian “correction,” the right place to start looking for evidence of the exodus is in Egypt’s 12th Dynasty. When examining that era, we find extensive information corresponding to the Bible’s account.
For example, scholars such as Rosalie David and Flinders Petrie have noted the following from that era in Egyptian history:
• Pyramids built of mud-and-straw bricks (Exodus 5:7–8), and both written and physical evidence that Asiatic people were enslaved in Egypt.
• Skeletons of infants of three months old and younger, usually several in one box, buried under homes in a slave town called Kahun (Exodus 1:16), corresponding to Pharaoh’s slaughter of Hebrew infants.
• Masses of houses and shops in Kahun, abandoned so quickly that tools, household implements, and other possessions were left behind. The findings suggest the abandonment was total, hasty, and done on short notice (Exodus 12:30–34,39), consistent with the sudden exit ordered in the wake of Passover.
• The Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty, Amenemhat III, had no surviving sons, and his daughter Sobekneferu had no children; this would explain why she took in a Hebrew child—Moses—as her own son (Exodus 2:5–10). After Moses fled (Exodus 2:11–15), there would have been no heirs, and the 13th Dynasty began after Sobekneferu died.
• The 13th Dynasty, in which the exodus would have occurred, is often described by later records as one of bedlam and confusion, and few monuments from this period survive.
• Court advisors used rods that look like snakes (Exodus 7:10–12). This partly corroborates the magical opposition against Moses performed by Pharaoh’s advisors.
• The Ipuwer Papyrus, most recently dated to the 13th Dynasty, is a work of poetry stating, in part, “Plague stalks through the land and blood is everywhere. . . . Nay, but the river is blood . . . gates, columns and walls are consumed with fire . . . the son of the high-born man is no longer to be recognized. . . . The stranger people from outside are come into Egypt. . . . Nay, but corn has perished everywhere.”
• When Egypt was invaded by the Hyksos—possibly the “stranger people” mentioned by Ipuwer—the Egyptians offered little or no resistance, something that makes sense only if Egypt’s armies and economy had been recently devastated (Exodus 12:35–36; 14:26–28).
• Neferhotep I, Pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty, was not succeeded by his son, Wahneferhotep, but by his brother Sobkhotpe IV (Exodus 11:45). This harmonizes with the Passover death of Pharaoh’s firstborn.
• The lack of a mummy of Neferhotep I (Exodus 14:28) indicates he could have been among those wiped out at the Red Sea.
These points are detailed in various excavations, monuments, and physical remains.
In summary, non-biblical archaeological evidence shows a sizable Hebrew workforce in Egypt that rapidly evacuated in connection with a time of chaos, under a Pharaoh who left neither a mummy nor an heir, and after whose time Egypt was notably weakened. As usual, when biblical details can be checked against historical evidence, they match.
This same approach to history applies to the supposed lack of Hebrew remains in the desert between Egypt and Israel. First and foremost, this complaint ignores traditional burial practices of Israel. This included disinterring bodies after a year, in order to rebury the bones in a common family location. Patriarchs such as Jacob and Joseph famously had their bones relocated after death (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32). This practice was the origin of the phrase gathered to his fathers or to sleep with one’s fathers, in parallel to its implications for the afterlife.
Nature isn’t prone to preserving remains for long, either, let alone for three thousand years. Worse, one of the consequences for disobedience, about which God warned Israel, was improper burial (Deuteronomy 28:26; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:5). Hasty or slipshod burial would allow scavengers and the elements to eradicate a body relatively quickly. This means there is no “lack” of Hebrew graves or bones in the wilderness—there’s no rational reason to expect such remains to be abundant.
Recommended Resource: Exodus NIV Application Commentary by Peter Enns
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Questions about Exodus
Is there any evidence of the exodus?