Did the exodus really happen?

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their travel to the Promised Land is one of the key events in Jewish religious history, and, therefore, in christian belief as well.

But did it actually happen? Did something like 2 million people cross the Red Sea and through the Sinai, aided and guided by miraculous interventions by God?

Scholars from various disciplines have argued about the facts for years now, but perhaps there is some sort of consensus emerging. Perhaps.

History and belief

Historical study isn’t like science – most historical events can’t be repeated like a science experiment. So when dealing with an event like the exodus, historians have to depend on the often meagre evidence available – archaeological remains, artefacts, ancient texts, often written a long time after the event, names, etc.

Miraculous events generally leave no miraculous trace. Even if they occurred, the evidence for the miraculous is likely to be close to non-existent. Perhaps something unusual occurred, but was it an intervention by God, or was it a coincidence; has it been exaggerated?

Take the crossing of the Red Sea as an example. Perhaps the whole story is a legend. Or perhaps God did part the Red Sea miraculously. The event left such a lasting memory in Jewish lore that maybe something did occur. But what can historians investigate? There is the evidence of the scriptural text, but historians want substantiation from some other source. So some look for a natural explanation for the parting of the Red Sea, and some argue that a geological event such as a volcano or earthquake, or a tsunami or wind storm might have had that result, and computer models apparently show this may have been possible.

But whatever the outcome of such investigations, they will always fall short of demonstrating the full range of supernatural events associated with the exodus.

So each of us will be left to form our beliefs, or disbelief, based on the evidence we have. It is that evidence, not belief or disbelief, that I am discussing here.

Maximalists and minimalists

Up until the twentieth century, most Old Testament history and archeology was based on a belief that the Old Testament was a true historical record, and the historical and archaeological evidence would support this. But gradually scholars began to have doubts – archaeological evidence was missing, dates didn’t add up, it was hard to fit some parts of Old Testament history with other historical records, and some anachronisms were found in the Old Testament.

In the last few decades, the scholars tended to separate into maximalists, who thought the Old Testament text contained good historical evidence, and the minimalists, who wouldn’t accept the text unless it was supported by other, preferably hard archaeological, evidence. Many other scholars, perhaps the majority, took a middle position.

The historical doubts about the exodus

Apart from the Biblical text, there is little evidence for the exodus, and some against it.

Archaeologists have found no evidence of a large group living for 40 years in the Sinai desert or the area just south of Palestine. Normally the lack of archaeological evidence means little – very little of ancient remains are still intact and discoverable – but in this case, experts believe that something should remain at locations like Kadesh Barnea, where 2 million Israelites are recorded to have camped for many years.

The biggest difficulty is the sheer number of people. If 2 million really travelled to Canaan, and they walked 2 metres apart and 100 abreast, the column would be 40 km long. Walking at 4 km/hour would mean the last of the group would leave 10 hours after the first. Addressing a crowd of 2 million would be impossible. Whatever else, it is hard not to conclude that the numbers are greatly overstated.

It is also hard to fit in the beginning and end of the story. It isn’t clear when this could have occurred and who could have been the Pharoah, and the loss of 2 million Hebrew slaves from a nation of barely that number would surely have been notable enough to be recorded somewhere. Likewise, the dates of the conquest of Canaan don’t seem to work, and the account in Joshua of the supposed conquest is not much confirmed by archaeology, and even contested in other parts of the Bible.

Reading the text more thoughtfully

But while minimalists may be right in rejecting the full story told in the text, this doesn’t mean there is no useful information in it. And so some recent work has taken a closer look at the non-archaeological evidence.

A conference on the exodus, held at the University of California in 2013, and the subsequent book published in 2015, contained papers by many leading scholars, minimalists, maximalists, and centrists, from a wide range of disciplines. The books editor, anthropology professor Thomas Levy, wrote:

“There was also considerable agreement that an Exodus event or series of events took place on a much smaller scale than the one depicted in the Hebrew Bible.”

Now Professor Richard Friedman is about to publish The Exodus, which outlines the evidence for the historical exodus. Like Levy, Friedman has concluded that a smaller group of “Hebrews” did indeed leave Egypt and travel to Canaan.

The new historical arguments for the exodus

There were Semites in Egypt at that time

It is known that different peoples from the area of Canaan and nearby were living in Egypt, and travelling to and from Egypt, in the middle and later second millennium BCE. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if a coherent group left Egypt, perhaps fleeing oppression.

The Levites were one such group

This to me is the most interesting aspect of Friedman’s argument.

The Levites in Israel were the group associated with temple worship, and the one tribe that didn’t have its own territory. Friedman points out that it is the Levites who commonly have Egyptian names (Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Phinehas and others), and Levites who are associated with circumcision, the tabernacle and the Ark, all of which have parallels in Egyptian religious practices.

So there seems to be a definite association between the Levites and Egypt.

Levitical sections of the Old Testament contain the stories

Many scholars, including Friedman, believe that the Old Testament is composed of four main sources, commonly labelled J, E, D & P. (The first two are named Jahwist and Elohist after the names for God found in those sources and are the earliest; Deuteronomic is named after that book, and Priestly is based on the view that it was written by a priest.)

Friedman says that the E, D & P sources are related to the Levites, and it is they that tell the stories of the plagues and the exodus, which include episodes also found in Egyptian lore: “the hidden divine name, turning an inanimate object into a reptile, the conversion of water to blood, a spell of three days of darkness, death of the firstborn, parting of waters, death by drowning, and stories of quotas for brickmaking and the use of straw in mudbrick”.

These sources also give commands about slaves and aliens

The Levitical sources give all the Old Testament commands about slaves and aliens, and more than 50 times say that aliens are to be treated the same as Israelites “because you were aliens in Egypt”. No such statement is to be found in the J source or anywhere else in ancient Near Eastern law.

DNA evidence

DNA studies show that most Jews have similar DNA to other modern day people of Canaanite descent (e.g. Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze). However, while “there is no clear Levite-specific genetic signature”, studies show that the Kohanim (Levites who descend directly from Aaron through their male line) have a distinctive DNA that “represents a unique founding lineage of the ancient Hebrews” (Hammer et al, 2009).

Friedman argues that this lends support to the hypothesis that Levites, especially the Kohanim, originated elsewhere than in Canaan.

So what happened …. perhaps?

The idea is that Israel in the last few centuries BCE was composed of tribes that originated in Canaan, plus Levites who travelled from Egypt and, though they may have conquered a few small settlements, generally assimilated into the existing population. This may explain why they were not recorded as having any land of their own, while the other tribes had clearly defined territories.

These Levites appear to have brought some religious ideas with them from Egypt, and these seem to have formed a significant basis of the monotheistic priestly sacrificial religion of the later Israelites and also some of their ethical beliefs related to caring for aliens and loving one’s neighbour.

On this hypothesis, the exodus story we have in the Tanakh and the Bible is ‘fictionalised history’ – an historical event that has been handed down and embellished as a foundational legend that provides a sense of identity for the Israelites, who were, after all, just minor players in the history of those times. We cannot know for sure how much of the story is historical and how much is legendary.

This interpretation of the evidence is not a consensus among scholars, but it may be moving towards one. The extremes of minimalism and maximalism are perhaps less accepted these days.

Is this a threat to christian belief?

If the exodus is a foundational belief for christianity, and yet many of the elements of the story are legendary, doesn’t this threaten the truth of christian belief?

I don’t see why. More than half a century ago, CS Lewis (who wasn’t a Biblical scholar, but was trained in ancient history and literature and expert in myth) said that the Hebrew Old Testament began with myth and something close to pagan religion. This was gradually purged and deepened, especially by the prophets, and slowly became more historical, until it more closely reflected the character of God and prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.

I think that broad picture is still reasonably accurate. It doesn’t actually matter how historical the early Old Testament is. History or myth/legend, or a combination of the two, can equally well prepare the ground for the coming of Jesus, which is well-based in history.

Christians who are uncomfortable with this approach can still hold to the historical accuracy of the exodus story in scripture. It will be based on faith rather than historical evidence, but that isn’t unreasonable if they don’t claim historical evidence that isn’t there.

But I think it would be better to put the historical question completely to one side once we are aware of the facts. The exodus is a foundational story for our faith, and it can teach truth whether it is seen as a legend or a fact, or a mixture. We don’t really need to decide or define. And we certainly don’t need to argue.

Graphic: Free Bible Images

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16 thoughts on “Did the exodus really happen?

  1. limey says:

    Ref the DNA evidence. Shouldn’t there be evidence for shared ancestry with Egyptians? Lack of that would be pretty damning.

    Regarding the question of should it challenge Christianity? Yes it should. Because the Exodus is one of many stories in the OT that are retold fables. The Exodus is not a sole fiction in a book of truth. It is one of many fictions in a book which claims to be all truth. That is the problem for Christianity. The very foundation of it is a lie and the Exodus is just one of the nails that kills it.

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  2. unkleE says:

    I have tried to find out more about the DNA, but finding it hard to get something definitive. But if the levites were Semites who lived in Egypt for a while, then left again, as the Bible portrays them, than they’d have little shared ancestry with Egyptians.

    Why do you think a “retold fable” (assuming for the moment that is a reasonable description) 1500 years before Jesus challenges the truth of christianity?

    If Romulus and Remus was a fable, that makes no difference to the subsequent history of Rome. If the Vikings believed in their Norse gods, that didn’t make the Viking raids on England any the less real. Surely what matters is the historical truth, or otherwise, of the gospels?

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  3. limey says:

    It challenges the truth of Christianity because the roots of the religion are not what is claimed by the religion. If the history on which the religion builds itself isn’t true then the claims of a miracle working creating god are not true either.

    Romulus and Remus are a fable, which means that Rome wasn’t built by brother who were raised by wolves. The difference in the history of Rome changes significantly between a world where they were real and a world where they are but a fable.

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  4. Kevin says:

    Eric, I think you would agree that archaeology has confirmed the historical accuracy of the Bible: it has verified many ancient sites, civilizations, and biblical characters whose existence had been previously dismissed by the academic world. And archaeology has demonstrated the accuracy of many Bible prophecies. (Personally, I believe the evidence for the historical accuracy of the Bible will only continue to grow.)

    But, would you also agree that we do not live in a spiritual vacuum? That humans are influenced by spiritual forces both benign and malignant (with mention of “malignant” forces being noticeably absent in your thoughtful discussions)?

    Rationalistic academics in white lab coats are NOT immune to these forces: their work is SUBJECTIVE, because they too are “subjected.” (Yes—gasp—I’m talking “conspiracy”: the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers. 2 Cor. 4:4.)

    On that note, would you please consider the following competing information with an open mind?

    1. “PHARAOH’S CHARIOTS FOUND IN RED SEA? ‘Physical evidence’ of ancient Exodus prompting new look at Old Testament,” at http://www.wnd.com/2003/06/19382/

    2. A video of Dr. David Kim, a Korean physician who was the personal physician for the Prince of Saudi Arabia for 16 years, and who, during that time, made repeated trips into Midian to search for traces of the Exodus and Mount Sinai (to substantiate purported evidence published by Ron Wyatt, mentioned above), at http://gospelministry.org/items/forbbiden-pictures-revealed-did-ron-wyatt-tell-the-truth/

    Also, Professor Lennart Möller, whose disciplines include medicine and molecular biology, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which awards Nobel prizes, has corroborated some of “amateur” archeologist Ron Wyatt’s discoveries, including his evidence of the Red Sea Crossing. Möller’s book, The Exodus Case, and his stunning documentary entitled “The Exodus Revealed: Search for the Red Sea Crossing” (Questar, Discovery Media, 2002), both at Amazon, are worth consideration.

    You say, “If the exodus (sic) is a foundational belief for christianity (sic), and yet many of the elements of the story are legendary, doesn’t this threaten the truth of christian (sic) belief?” Many would answer, “Yes!” As you know, many have left their faith over less. But I would argue there is no compelling reason to believe ‘many of the elements’ of the Exodus were merely legendary.

    Again, I believe the evidence for the historical accuracy of the Bible will only continue to grow. So…am I being influenced by a divine, or a demonic spiritual force in such an outlook? Is there an actual Spirit of Truth trying to lead men? OR, are there no SUPER-natural influences at work on any of our thought processes or judgments, whatsoever?

    Shalom.

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  5. unkleE says:

    Hi Limey, I am interested in what you say.

    “If the history on which the religion builds itself isn’t true then the claims of a miracle working creating god are not true either.”

    Can you give me any reason why this might be true? Do you mean to argue that unless everything written about a subject is true, nothing about it is true? It seems to me that is the only way to get from:

    1. Some parts of the OT are legendary.
    to
    3. The whole thing is false.

    Perhaps you can present the argument as you see it please?

    Romulus and Remus serve as an example. If we agree that the story of R & R is a fable, then we can use your argument:

    “If the history on which the Roman Empire builds itself isn’t true then the subsequent historical accounts of the Empire are not true either.”

    Perhaps you could explain how the two cases differ in your view, please.

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  6. unkleE says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your contribution. But I cannot go along with all you say, I’m sorry.

    ” I think you would agree that archaeology has confirmed the historical accuracy of the Bible:”

    This is a very general statement. The stories in the Bible cover two millennia (more if we include Genesis 1-11), and they were written in different genres at different times by different authors. That is way too much to generalise.

    I think the evidence shows that the main events of the second half of the OT are well supported by archaeology, and the NT is supported by the little relevant archaeology we have. But the first half of the OT (say before David) is not well supported. Even if it was all literally true, we wouldn’t expect much from those nomadic times to have survived, but it isn’t true that archaeology confirms that early history.

    I read the rest of your information with interest, but with insufficient knowledge to assess it. But if all that is true, then it will find its way into the literature and into acceptance by historians. The only way that won’t occur is if there is a giant conspiracy against it. It is common for people with fringe views (whether about moon landings, or the death of Elvis or JFK, or climate change, or Jesus mythicism, etc) to claim conspiracies are preventing their discoveries from being accepted, but I am very doubtful about that. So I will wait to see if these ideas become accepted by the experts.

    Thanks.

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  7. limey says:

    “Do you mean to argue that unless everything written about a subject is true, nothing about it is true? It seems to me that is the only way to get from:

    1. Some parts of the OT are legendary.
    to
    3. The whole thing is false.

    Well, the exodus is highly doubtful. If it’s false, it means no Moses and no wondering about the desert because they upset god. It means no Joseph which puts Jacob into question too. The tentacles of doubt go way beyond wading across a bit of water.

    Without an exodus, the whole premise of a promised land is removed. The miracle of a rescuing god is but a lie. The history of the Israelites is but a fabrication, a nonsense story of self elevation.

    Exodus isn’t the only one. In fact every major god event is in doubt. Not a single claimed god event is confirmed to be an actual god event. Which means that the very birth of what became Christianity is but a fabrication, a string of myths bound together but not known to be true. So yes, no confirmed god events means no god and no god means that all god claims are false.

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  8. limey says:

    “1. “PHARAOH’S CHARIOTS FOUND IN RED SEA? ‘Physical evidence’ of ancient Exodus prompting new look at Old Testament,” at http://www.wnd.com/2003/06/19382/

    You do realise that is a hoax and not a real find don’t you! Check it out, how come no follow up excavation? How come the quoted fork lift engineer isn’t a real person? The clues are all there.

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  9. Kevin says:

    Unklee, you say, “It is common for people with fringe views (whether about moon landings, or the death of Elvis or JFK, or climate change, or Jesus mythicism, etc) to claim conspiracies are preventing their discoveries from being accepted, but I am very doubtful about that. So I will wait to see if these ideas become accepted by the experts.”

    As you know, expert “consensus” can be a long time in coming, when it comes at all. And as to “experts,” we each choose our own. We each weigh evidence based on our view of reality; we each draw our own conclusions; and we each sometimes reassess our conclusions when we are challenged.

    Again, I would argue that there is a greater reality, and a lesser reality. We are all being influenced by intelligent outside forces. And, no, I don’t think they are extraterrestrials, or “ascended masters.” They are either God or fallen angels. Furthermore, I would argue that outside the influence of the Holy Spirit, there is no true objectivity.

    Darwin, Marx, and Freud were highly intelligent men, who were pulled around by their noses by deceiving spirits. They were unable to discriminate truth from error, because they did not have the Spirit of Truth in them. They saw men as animals or machines, who inhabit a universe controlled by impersonal forces. They believed that our behavior and our thoughts are purely the result of the forces of biology, chemistry, and the environment (which some others may argue includes EVOLVED intelligences from other planets).

    Such a materialistic conception of reality has infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art. But why such a hard time for so many to follow a loving Creator? Well, because God (for the time being) gets such brilliantly bad press from our common enemy, the “god” of this world, that is, Satan.

    Regarding the most amazing archeological discoveries confirming the Bible, I point you and Limey again to material from the late Ron Wyatt, found, for example, at ronwyatt.com . (Please note: this is one of several competing sites presenting these discoveries. I do not support Seventh Day Adventism; and by the end of his life, neither did Ron Wyatt.)

    Blessings.

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  10. unkleE says:

    Hi Limey, I read your argument, but I don’t see any evidence to support it. Let’s see if we can clarify the argument first. I think you are saying something like this:

    1. There is doubt about most aspects of the exodus.
    2. Therefore there is “no Moses and no wondering about the desert, no Joseph and probably no Jacob.
    3. Likewise there is no Promised Land and no rescuing God.
    4. “In fact every major god event is in doubt. Not a single claimed god event is confirmed to be an actual god event”
    5. Therefore “the very birth of what became Christianity is but a fabrication, a string of myths bound together but not known to be true.”

    Have I fairly represented your argument?

    If so, can you clarify the following questions please:

    (a) What evidence do you have to go from #1 to #2 & #3?
    (b) What is your evidence for #4?
    (c) If I made a similar argument about doubts about Romulus and Remus leading to doubts about the historicity of the Roman Empire, how would you reply?

    Thanks.

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  11. unkleE says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your response. I want to say up front that I recognise that while you disagree with me, you have responded courteously. That doesn’t always happen, and I am appreciative.

    “expert “consensus” can be a long time in coming, when it comes at all.”
    It may take a decade or two, but things have changed dramatically in my lifetime. Doubtless it took a while for the previous consensus to be defeated, so we have to be content to wait in this case too. But I think it isn’t going to happen as you suggest, because I think the experts have already examined the evidence and are not convinced. When an amateur thinks he or she has found something the experts have missed, it is almost always the case that the experts are right and the amateur just doesn’t understand.

    “And as to “experts,” we each choose our own.”
    I think this is sadly true as a statement of what human beings do, but I oppose this idea in the very strongest terms. It is the antithesis of truth to seek the “experts” who most support our own views, even if the majority concludes otherwise. I’ve met Jesus mythicists who resolutely hang on to the opinion of a single or a couple of amateurs against the almost total consensus of secular historians, and somehow think they are being rational. I think we all should make a commitment to start from the consensus of the experts, and be careful how far we move from that.

    “I would argue that there is a greater reality, and a lesser reality.”
    I don’t disagree, but you have perhaps made assumptions about this. I see no in principle reason to think that God is on the side of the conspiracy theorists rather than the experts. I think we should look at what the experts say is true, and see if there is any reason to suppose that isn’t God’s truth. In general, I haven’t seen any reason to think otherwise.

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  12. limey says:

    “(a) What evidence do you have to go from #1 to #2 & #3?
    (b) What is your evidence for #4?
    (c) If I made a similar argument about doubts about Romulus and Remus leading to doubts about the historicity of the Roman Empire, how would you reply?

    a – the evidence that one would expect from the story does not exist. tens of thousands of people living in Egypt and then wandering the dessert and yet it can’t be confirmed that they were there? That’s the evidence that the story is false.

    b – tell me which major god event has be shown to be an actually major god event. You can’t. The list of zero length. That’s my evidence.

    c- doubts about R and R are very valid reasons for denying the claim that the roman empire was founded by twins who grew up with wolves. The roman empire must then have an alternative source and the R & R story can safety be discarded as myth.

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  13. unkleE says:

    Hi Limey, sorry to be delayed, I have had a few things to do.

    I think you must have a different idea of evidence to me. You seem to think that an assertion alone is evidence. But I think it is reasonable to ask for something more.

    (a) I asked you for evidence for your assertions that if many of the facts about the exodus are doubtful or unlikely, that therefore there was “no Moses and no wondering about the desert, no Joseph and probably no Jacob …. no Promised Land and no rescuing God.” All you have done is address the “no wandering in the desert” part of your assertions, and your “evidence” is “it can’t be confirmed that they were there”. That is not evidence! And you have offered no evidence at all for the rest of your assertion!

    (b) In defence of your statement “Not a single claimed god event is confirmed to be an actual god event” you say “tell me which major god event has be shown to be an actually major god event. You can’t”. That is NOT any evidence to support your statement, it is asking me to defend a different statement. If you make a statement, you surely must be able to offer SOMETHING to support it.

    (c) I agree here. The fact that R & R is a myth doesn’t prevent there being other evidence for the Roman Empire. So the same principle must apply to the exodus. The fact that the exodus has legendary elements doesn’t prevent there being other evidence for many of the following events recorded in the later OT and in the NT. Which means that your original argument suggesting otherwise was incorrect.

    So we end up with this. The exodus is a partly legendary story, but the rest of the Bible needs to be assessed on its merits. I’m happy with that. How about you?

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  14. limey says:

    I think you’ve misunderstood some of my comments.

    a) The Bible makes specific claims regarding the Exodus. The evidence that one would expect to be there if those claims were true, does not exist. That is the evidence for those claims being false.

    b) The same logic applies. There is not a single god event that has been shown to have occurred. That is the evidence that there are no god events.

    c) R & R being a myth, shows that the stories of them founding Rome is but a legend, it does not make Rome itself something that does not exist. Ditto, with Christianity, the origins stories being myth means that the claimed source of Christianity is legend. That does not make the existence of Christianity false, only it’s origins claims. The origins claims of Christianity being false, does give justification to doubt other claims of Christianity.

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