In its present form, the book of Exodus is a composite of the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly sources. These biblical traditions, which record the story of the Israelites’ enslavement in and exodus from Egypt, maintain that the Israelites were oppressed by an unnamed Pharaoh, used as forced laborers in the Pharaoh’s building projects, and were subsequently liberated by Moses, under Yahweh’s guidance, with signs and wonders.
Yet despite these traditions, historical specifics are never described, and neither are there any extent extra-biblical sources nor archaeological data to corroborate these narratives:1
no Egyptian records of a large number of, nor any, Israelites in Egypt during the alleged time periods proposed by our biblical sources
no literary nor archaeological records of a mass flight of 600,000 males (Ex 12:37) accompanied by women, children, servants, and livestock in what would have been a heavily fortified Egyptian presence from Egypt to Canaan
no archeological record of settlements in the Sinai peninsula in and around the time of Rameses II, or the whole New Kingdom period (15th-11th c. BC) for that matter—especially true of Kadesh-barnea where this one million plus troop allegedly encamped for 38 of the 40 years spent in the peninsula!
no trace of Egyptian influence on Hebrew material culture and language as the result of four centuries of direct Egyptian contact.
These are not the only problems encountered when mistakenly reading the Exodus story as history. There are numerous other historical and textual problems as well.
First, the biblical traditions themselves do not agree on the date of the Exodus. The tradition preserved in 1 Kings 6:1 does not square with the mention of the building of the city Rameses in the tradition preserved in Exodus 1:11, an Elohist text (see also #80). Furthermore, the city of Rameses is not attested in Egyptian sources until the 13th century BC, when the city was itself established, that is built by Rameses II (1279-1213 BC). It should additionally be noted that Rameses used Semites for his building projects, but the Egyptian records make no mention of Israelites. 1 Kings 6:1, however, claims that Solomon’s temple, which was erected in his 4th year, was built 480 years after the Exodus. Through biblical and extra-biblical sources we can surmise that Solomon died circa 931 BC when Pharaoh Shishak “came against Jerusalem” (1 Kgs 14:25). This is the first occurrence of a named Pharaoh in the biblical sources and the earliest occurrence of a biblical source being corroborated by an extra-biblical source, here from Egypt. 1 Kings 11:42 states that Solomon reigned for 40 years, a legendary time period. But if we keep it, we arrive at 1447 BC for the Exodus according to this tradition—a difference of almost two centuries from the tradition preserved in the Elohist version in Ex 1:11!
These historical and textual problems have led scholars and laymen alike to ask if the Exodus ever really happened. There have been attempts to align the Exodus with the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt circa 1570 BC. The Hysksos, although they were of Semitic origin, predate the appearance of Israelites on the historical map by centuries. The expulsion of the Hyksos from the delta, however, brought Egypt into the land of Canaan and as a result Canaan remained a vassal-state of the Egyptian empire through the 15th to 12th centuries BC. The roughly 400 Amarna letters that date from the 14th century BC, which are correspondences between Canaanite vassals (i.e., Egyptian puppet-rulers) in Canaan and the Pharaoh or his administration in Egypt, do not mention the existence of any Israelites! Nor do the biblical records display any knowledge of the fact that Egypt controlled the geopolitical sphere of Canaan during the 15th-12th centuries BC. The first mention of Israelites in an extra-biblical source comes from the Egyptian stela of Merneptah (1208 BC) which commemorates this Pharaoh’s destruction of a people named ‘Israel.’ On the archaeological level, Israelite pottery and other distinctive cultural traits, such as the absence of pig bones, do not appear in Palestine until the 12th century BC. The Israelites were just not around earlier than this!2
At the other end of the spectrum, there is significant archaeological data confirming the re-importance of the city of Rameses as well as the foundation of Pithom (Ex 1:11) in the 7th century BC. In fact, all the major places in the wilderness narratives have settlement layers in the archaeological record for the 7th century BC, especially Kadesh-barnea where the Israelites allegedly remained 38 of their 40 years in the peninsula—at least according to one tradition. In other words, the authors who sculpted the Exodus narrative were familiar with the geopolitical world of the Egyptian delta and the Sinai peninsula as it stood in the 7th century BC!3
Additionally, such stories need to be assessed from within their own historical and literary culture, and not from modern reader’s agendas, presuppositions, or whims. For example, the biblical plague narrative itself was influenced by older ancient Near Eastern literary—and not historical—traditions. There are a number of Sumerian tales that narrate how the goddess Inanna brought forth three plagues upon the land, the last of which was turning all the water of the land to blood. Various plagues and skin diseases, such as boils, are prominent curses among numerous different covenantal treaty documents in the literature of the ancient Near East. Hail is visibly one of the plagues sent by Inanna as well, and swarms of plant eating locusts are a popular divine punishment in Assyrian vassal treaties and other texts from Mesopotamia. Moreover, in the ancient Near Eastern world one of the most significant ways a scribe could argue for the supremacy of his national deity over and against another nation’s god was to present his god, in the present case Yahweh, as ultimate sovereign over the forces of fertility, life, and death—and this is exactly what the whole plague narrative accomplishes. These stories must be understand and read as products of their own literary and historical contexts.
Thus, far from being a work of historical fact or the recollection of an historical event, the Exodus traditions were most likely the product of centuries of accumulated and shared cultural memories of past events in the long history between Egypt and the land of Canaan: the expulsion of the Semitic Hyksos; the fact that the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom regularly used Semites in their building projects; and the underlying political reality that the Canaanites did in fact liberate themselves from Egyptian control in the 12th century BC, but it was the Egyptians who were expelled from the land of Canaan, not the Israelites from Egypt! As some scholars have suggested, the shared cultural memory of the liberation of Semites in Egypt might have been a powerful enough narrative to have been the catalyst for creating a shared ethnic identity and past which took the form of the Exodus narrative.4
Yet others have seen the Exodus narrative of liberation and return to the land of Canaan as the byproduct of a later history of continued Egyptian and Israelite contact and tension. After Pharaoh Merneptah (son of Rameses II) invaded Canaan and “crushed the people of Israel” circa 1208 BC, the land of Canaan remained a vassal state under Egyptian control during the 12th and 11th centuries BC. Solomon, in the 10th century BC had reportedly established a political treaty with Egypt by marrying one of the Pharaoh’s daughters, but this seems to have been short-lived; for when his son Rehoboam ascended the throne in 931 BC, Pharaoh Shisak invaded the southern kingdom of Judah and not only destroyed the land, but left with the treasures of the Jerusalem temple in hand (1 Kgs 14:25-26, confirmed by Egyptian sources as well). There are good grounds to see this as tribute paid to Shisak and to see the southern kingdom of Judah as returning to a state of Egyptian vassalage!
During the same period, Egypt served as a place of refuge for Jeroboam I (928-910 BC), who liberated the northern kingdom from Solomon’s and his son’s enslavement and forced-labor policies (1 Kgs 5:27-32, 11:26-40) and established a pilgrimage to Yahweh and set up two Yahwistic cultic centers in the north after the ancient Yahwistic-El symbol of the bull! The Golden Calf narrative of Exodus 32 is a polemic against Jeroboam’s bull altars in Bethel and Dan, written by Levites who attacked Jeroboam’s cultic practices and retrojected their condemnation back to the Mosaic era (see forthcoming #144). All of the italicized points above are also present in the Exodus narrative, and the Hebrew word used for the Egyptian “taskmasters” and Solomon’s “taskmasters” in both Exodus and 1 Kings 5:27-32 is identical: missim. These are just a few of the similarities between the northern Elohist’s account of the liberation of Israel from Egypt in the book of Exodus and Jeroboam’s liberation of the northern tribes from Solomon’s tyranny in Kings.
Egypt additionally served as a place of refuge for the northern Israelite exiles of 722 BC, when the Assyrians came and destroyed the northern kingdom (Hos 9:3; Isa 30:1-5). And Egypt served as a place of refuge for Judahite exiles of 587 BC, after the Babylonians decimated Judah, Jerusalem, Yahweh’s temple, and the Davidic line of monarchs (2 Kgs 25:26; Jer 42-44). All or any one of these historical events could have prompted versions of an Israelite exodus from Egypt and a return to the land of Canaan. The story was especially important for the exilic community who would one day hopefully be lead by Yahweh with signs and wonders from their state of captivity in Babylon back to the land promised to their forefathers, as he once did in the past. Stories of hope, liberation from foreign rule, traveling back or wandering through a wilderness to return to Canaan, and the giving of legislation that would prevent a repeat of the catastrophe of 587 BC were fundamental to the exilic community and the exilic scribes who collected, edited, and redacted these ancient narratives, and, in effect, created the Torah of Moses. It was a story after all for the exilic and post-exilic communities.
- For a detailed assessment of the literary and archaeological data see: Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 48-71; William Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, 7-21; and especially William Propp, Exodus 19-40, Anchor Bible Series, 735-756.↵
- In general see: Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed and Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?↵
- Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 65-71.↵
- Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford 2005), 57-73.↵