Evidence of Exodus

By Jeff Laird

Is there any tangible, non-Biblical support for the story of the Exodus? Or has archaeology proven such a thing never happened? Many critics claim there is no evidence of large slave populations in Egypt, or bones of Israelites in the desert near Sinai, from the necessary time periods. As usual, those claims have no basis in fact, and there is substantial archaeological evidence which fits nicely with the Biblical narrative.

Note, of course, the phrase "ancient historical proof" is almost a contradiction in terms. This is especially true when the events in question are more than three thousand years past. The best a reasonable person can hope to find is a combination of supportive documentation and tangible remnants. The scriptures are one written record, and, as it turns out, there is other evidence available, even for the Exodus, for those who aren't committed to rejecting it out of hand.

We need to be especially careful about the difference between traditions, assumptions, and Biblical statements. For instance, fictionalized accounts such as The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments often use "Rameses" as Pharaoh's name. But the Bible never identifies Exodus' Pharaoh using that name; that association is a product of tradition and assumption. If a person looks for evidence of the Exodus during the reign of Ramesses II, they're not actually vetting the Bible, they're chasing a pop culture assumption. As a result, many people are looking not only in the wrong places, but in the wrong time periods.

Dating, then, becomes the biggest sticking point in finding evidence for the Exodus. Not every culture uses the same type of calendar, not all calendars are consistent, and not all ancient events are easily dated, even when there's considerable evidence that they really happened. Egyptian chronology is notoriously erratic. For example, it's not unusual to see Egyptian rulers who ruled simultaneously to be listed as ruling in sequence. Even experts in Egyptian archaeology disagree about dating certain events, so it's not unfair to say historical claims, vis-á-vis Egyptian chronology, have to be taken with a grain of salt.

All that being said, standard attempts at dating the Exodus within Egyptian histories have normally placed it in the 18th Dynasty. Note carefully how the typical critic will say there is no evidence of the Exodus "from that time period." Egyptian Pharaohs were purposefully not in the habit of recording their defeats — only their victories. So, one would not anticipate finding Egyptian records of a defeat as humiliating as the Israelites leaving Egypt. But if one is looking at the wrong century, it's not surprising to find little or no supportive evidence.

In contrast to the jumble that is ancient Egyptian historiography, Hebrew history and Assyrian history are clearer and line up with each other quite well. If we use Assyrian dating to better align events in ancient Egypt, it moves the Egyptian eras forward (later). As a result, the same date in objective history would move to an earlier era of Egyptian history. When these factors are considered, we would actually expect to find Hebrew slaves present in Egypt's 12th Dynasty. As it turns out, archaeological evidence of that era does align with the description of the Exodus given in the Old Testament.

Secular researchers such as Rosalie David and Flinders Petrie noted many finds dated to that earlier period which correspond to the Biblical narrative. 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 during this time.

• ...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 a substitute (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 of monuments of this period survive.

• ...rods used by court advisors which look like snakes (Exodus 7:10-12). This corroborates the sleight-of-hand done by Pharaoh's advisors.

• ...the Ipuwer papyrus, most recently dated to the 13th Dynasty, is a work of poetry stating: "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), they offered little or no resistance, something which makes sense only if Egypt's armies and economy had been recently devastated (Exodus 12:35-36; Exodus 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.

• ...a lack of a mummy of Neferhotep I himself (Exodus 14:28), indicating he could have been among those wiped out at the Red Sea.

So non-Biblical evidence shows us there was a large Hebrew workforce in Egypt, which left suddenly at the beginning of a time of chaos, under a Pharaoh who left neither an heir nor a mummy, after which time Egypt was weak and ravaged. This evidence is found in inscriptions, monuments, excavations, and other physical forms. Where Biblical details intersect with historical evidence, they match.

As far as bones in the desert go, dating likewise makes a difference. That being said, a lack of bones is hardly evidence against the presence of a particular people in a particular place, especially if the target dates don't match those actually described in the Bible. Beyond that, one has to consider the burial practices of the Hebrews. It was common for bodies to be buried for only a year or so, disinterred, and the bones placed in a box or taken to a different site. Israelites such as Jacob and Joseph notably had their bones re-located (Exodus 13:19, Joshua 24:32). This habit of collecting the bones of family members together is the origin of the phrase "gathered to his fathers" or "sleep with one's fathers", in parallel to its implications for the afterlife.

Along with this, one functional consequence of violating God's covenant with Israel was indecent burial (Deuteronomy 28:26). The New Testament notes stubborn disobedience happened all too often (1 Corinthians 10:5). Improper or hasty burial, especially in a harsh wilderness environment, would obliterate most remains quickly, let alone after centuries of exposure. That few Hebrew bones, and no definable Hebrew "graves" are found in that area, even from that time period, is hardly a surprise.

Professional archaeologists often struggle to confirm dates and events from so long ago. All a reasonable person can expect is supportive evidence, of reasonable quantity and quality for the era in question, and the Bible enjoys a great deal of that. Where we can test it, it passes, so we have good reason to trust it, even when we can't find hard attestation of every detail. We do, in fact, have non-Biblical evidence for the Exodus.

Image: Detail of Vizier Rekhmire's burial chamber; Thebes, Egypt.


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Published 9-3-2014