There may be no direct evidence outside of the Bible that the Exodus was a historical event. But there are details of the Exodus story which match what we know of the area and period. This provides some evidence of authenticity, because such correlation would be unlikely if the story arose from the minds of Israelite scribes hundreds of years and hundreds of miles away.
- Israel a distinct people in Canaan
The earliest reference to Israel in Egyptian records is on the Merneptah Stele. Merneptah (1213 – 1203 BC) was the successor to Ramesses II, commonly believed to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The inscription, recording military campaigns in Libya and Canaan, include the line “Israel has been wiped out its seed is no more.” This reference to Israel as a people shows that they were in Canaan a generation after the presumed date of the Biblical exodus.
- Semitic peoples in Egypt
The Israelites were a Semitic people, culturally and linguistically distinct from the Egyptians. There is abundant evidence of Semitic settlement in the period of the Exodus. What’s more, we find them in the correct geographical area – the Nile Delta (where the Biblical ‘land of Goshen’ was located). We find too the antagonism of the Egyptians to these settlers recorded in texts such as the Prophecy of Neferti. This evidence is not specific enough to link directly to Israel in Egypt, but it does confirm that the situation described at the beginning of Exodus in plausible.
- Semitic officials
It might seem strange for foreigners such as Joseph and Moses to have risen to prominence in the Egyptian court. Yet we know from contemporary records that it was not at all uncommon for men of foreign origin to serve in high office during the reign of Ramesses.
- Unnamed Pharoahs
The Pharaohs of the Genesis and Exodus narratives are not named, making it difficult to identify them with individuals from Egyptian history. This, in fact, reflects Egyptian use. Pharaoh was originally used solely as a title, and the designation of name and title did not come into use until the tenth century BC, the same time the Biblical story starts naming Pharaohs.
- Forced labour
The Biblical story of the Exodus opens with the Israelites becoming forced labourers in building and agriculture. Tomb paintings of the period show Semitic workers making mudbricks, and engaged in agricultural work. A papyrus from the reign of Ramesses II speaks of “the Apiru who are dragging stone to the great pylon”. Egyptian records also mention quotas for brick, as mentioned in Exodus 5:7-8, and religious holidays for labourers, reminiscent of Moses’s request for a time of worship (Exodus 5:1).
- Store cities
According to Exodus, the Israelite labourers built the store cities of Pithom and Raamses. Raamses has been identified as Qantir, referred to outside the Bible as Pi-Ramesses, which flourished as a city during the twelth and thirteenth centuries. Pithom, meaning ‘house of the god Atum’ has been linked to a number of sites, but none conclusively.
- Egyptian elements in the Exodus story
James Hoffmeier detects elements of the Exodus story which are of Egyptian origin. For example, in Exodus 2:3, there are five words which are of Egyptian derivation.
When she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket for him, and coated it with tar and with pitch. She put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank.
Other elements of story reflect aspect of Egyptian life. A strong motif is that of the rod or staff of Moses and Aaron (omitted from the film) – which miraculously becomes a snake (Exodus 4:2-3) – and is used to strike the waters of Nile to bring the first plague (Exodus 7:20). Both staff and snake are known from sources outside the Bible as symbols of Pharaoh’s authority; thus it is appropriate that these same symbols should be used to show God’s higher authority.
- Fortifications on the route to Canaan
When Pharaoh had let the people go, God didn’t lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, “Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and they return to Egypt”; but God led the people around by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea
Why would they see war by taking the way of the Philistines? The answer is found in inscriptions and excavations which show that this route was heavily fortified by the Egyptians. The Israelites would have come under attack from both sides had they taken this route.
For further details of this evidence and additional examples, see this article by James Hoffmeier, the following books, or watch Dr. Hoffmeier’s lecture.
|Israel in Egypt
James K. Hoffmeier
|On the Reliability of the
K. A. Kitchen
The lack of evidence categorically confirming the Exodus has led to some different interpretations among Egyptologists.
The archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, among others, claims that the people of Israel never were in Egypt and never came out of Egypt. Rather, they emerged from the native Canaanite population of the land of Israel. Yet even he concedes that the “basic situation described in the Exodus saga – the phenomenon of immigrants coming down to Egypt from Canaan and settling in the eastern border regions of the delta – is abundantly verified in the archaeological finds and historical texts” (Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, p. 52).
Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier believe that the Biblical account is authentic, and that the Exodus took place in the 13th century BC. The information on this page is largely based on their research.
David Rohl is something of an outlier, using a radically revised chronology of ancient Egypt. He claims to have found evidence of Israelite settlement in Goshen, as well as locating the tomb of Joseph, and an Egyptian record of the plagues. His books and TV series brought him a popular following, but his ideas have received little support from fellow Egyptologists.