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Is there any evidence of the exodus?

evidence of the exodus
Question: "Is there any evidence of the exodus?"

Critics of the Bible 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.

A Daunting Task

It’s important to realize that “proof” of ancient 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 of the exodus 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 very possibly 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.

Support from Archaeology

Attempting to narrowly date ancient events is difficult. However, biblical scholars typically place the exodus from Egypt somewhere between 1446 and 1225 BC. Within that period, there is ample archaeological evidence to reinforce the account of Scripture. For example:

• Pyramids built of mud-and-straw bricks (Exodus 5:7–8) and both written and physical evidence that Asiatic people were enslaved in Egypt (Exodus 1:13–14).

• 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 Israelites’ sudden exit from Egypt in the wake of Passover.

• 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, 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.”

• The Amarna letters, ancient correspondence between Egyptian and Middle Eastern rulers, blame significant unrest on a people group labelled as Habiru or ‘Apiru (Exodus 9:1).

• Discoveries also include evidence of cities such as Jericho being conquered during that timeframe.

Possible Pharaohs

Several scenarios in the annals of Egyptian rulers dovetail with the biblical book of Exodus. The “early” 1446 BC date of the exodus would align the slaughter of infants (Exodus 1:16–21) with either Thutmose I or Amenhotep I, whose reputations would support such an act. It would place the life of Moses in the same general era as Hatshepsut, a woman who co-ruled Egypt (Exodus 2:5–6) and was at odds with her stepson Thutmose III. He would have had good reason to evict her adopted son, given the chance (Exodus 2:14–15). This would align the liberation of Israel with the rule of Amenhotep II. His army notably stopped military campaigns in 1446 BC (Exodus 14:28), and his eventual successor, Thutmose IV, was scoffed at for being less-than-legitimate (Exodus 11:4–5; 12:29).

That is not the only possible match. A minority of Egyptologists advocate for a significant revision of the historical timeline, shifting the “actual date” of some Egyptian dynasties by centuries. One such theory would align the book of Exodus with Amenemhat III, who had no surviving sons and a childless daughter, Sobekneferu (Exodus 2:5–10). Her death ended that Dynasty. Soon after came Neferhotep I, who left behind no mummy (Exodus 14:28), and, although he had a son (Exodus 11:4–5; 12:29), he was instead succeeded by his brother.

There Is Evidence of the Exodus

In summary, non-biblical archaeological evidence shows that the main details of the book of Exodus are not merely plausible, but they are present in archaeology. That era of Egypt’s history includes elements corresponding to a sizable Hebrew workforce in Egypt, which rapidly evacuated in connection with a time of chaos, under Pharaohs whose histories fit with the details of Exodus, and preceding conquest in the land of Canaan.

One Last Bone to Pick

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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