The Exodus Controversy

by Mario Seiglie Estimated reading time: 17 minutes. Posted on 24-Apr-2002
Did the Exodus really happen? Did God deliver the ancient Israelites from Egyptian slavery as the Bible describes? Contrary views have generated much publicity, but the facts of the Bible's side of the argument are seldom told.

It seems that every year, especially around the spring Passover season when Jews and many Christians commemorate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, newspapers and magazines publish articles questioning the validity of the biblical account of the Exodus.

Last year, for example, The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story reporting that a liberal rabbi in the Los Angeles area caused quite a stir when he shocked his congregation by stating he had his doubts that the Exodus ever took place.

“The truth is,” explained Rabbi David Wolpe, “that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all” (April 13, 2001).

Perhaps you have read such articles and wondered whether you can believe the Bible. After almost 200 years of archaeological research in Egypt and Israel, why do so many challenge the Exodus account? The stakes are not small, as the critics well know. If the narrative of the Exodus is not factual, then the trustworthiness of biblical revelation is indeed seriously undermined. Therefore it is essential that our evaluation of the evidence be accurate and fair.

Christ affirms the Exodus

First, let’s make sure we have a clear picture of the biblical perspective. We find that Jesus Christ affirmed the biblical account of the Exodus as true, and He based some of His teachings on it. Reminding His countrymen that God had miraculously provided food for them during 40 years in the wilderness, He said: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:49-51).

Jesus staked His reputation, authority and credibility on the Exodus account’s reliability—on His confidence that the Israelites actually did eat manna in the desert as the Scriptures describe. If this account were not true, then Jesus was wrong, and so are some of His teachings.

We should not be surprised, then, that some critics have focused so much attention on this fundamental event in the Bible. They try to discredit the story of the Exodus to undermine its historical validity.

Biblical historian Eugene Merrill describes the importance the Exodus has for the rest of the Bible: “The exodus is the most significant historical and theological event of the Old Testament because it marks God’s mightiest act in behalf of his people ... To it the Book of Genesis provides an introduction and justification, and from it flows all subsequent Old Testament revelation ... In the final analysis, the exodus served to typify that exodus achieved by Jesus Christ for people of faith so that it is a meaningful event for the church as well as for Israel” (Kingdom of Priests, 1996, pp. 57-58).

Limits of archaeology

Many critics who doubt the historicity of the Exodus share a problem: overreliance on what archaeology can prove. Archaeology is, in fact, a limited and imperfect area of study in which the interpretation of findings, as archaeologists readily admit, is more of an art than a hard science.

Archaeologist Edwin Yamauchi points out the limits of this science when he explains: (1) Little of what was made or written in antiquity survives to this day; (2) few of the ancient sites have been surveyed and a number have not even been found; (3) probably fewer than 2 percent of the known sites have been meaningfully excavated; (4) few of these have been more than scratched; and (5) only a fraction of the fraction that have been excavated have been published and data made available to the scholarly world (The Stones and the Scriptures, 1981, chapter 4).

Considering not only the limits but the positive side of archaeology, it is remarkable how many biblical accounts have been illuminated and confirmed by the relatively small number of sites excavated and finds uncovered to date. Even though, regrettably, some professionals go out of their way to present a distorted picture of what archaeology does reveal, it does provide some of the strongest evidence for the reliability of the Bible as credible and accurate history.

Evidence destroyed

A major challenge in reconstructing an accurate view of history is that, through the ages, most negative or embarrassing evidence was never written down or was intentionally destroyed by later rulers. In fact, the Bible stands in marked contrast to most ancient literature in that it objectively records the facts about biblical personalities, whether good or bad.

When new kings ascended the throne, they naturally wanted to be seen in the best light. So in many nations they covered up or destroyed monuments and records of previous monarchs. This pattern of expunging earlier historical evidence can be repeatedly seen in Egyptian monuments and historical records. For example, after the Hyksos rulers were expelled from Egypt, the Egyptians erased the records of that humiliating period so thoroughly that some of the names and the order of the Hyksos kings remain uncertain.

Some time later Pharaoh Thutmose III destroyed virtually all records relating to Queen Hatshepsut, the previous ruler, whom he despised. Visitors to her famous temple can still see where Thutmose’s workmen carefully chiseled away her image from the walls of the structure. A few decades afterwards the ruling priests eliminated virtually all possible traces of the teachings of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who had introduced what they considered to be heretical Egyptian religious reforms.

So it should come as no surprise that the ancient Egyptians would not have wanted to record or even remember what was perhaps their greatest humiliation—the national devastation that occurred when their Israelite slaves won their freedom and Egypt’s might proved powerless to stop them. This attitude is not limited to the past. Even today some of what went on during the two world wars is still hotly debated by historians on both sides of the issue.

It seems too much to hope for, then, that a proud and powerful nation such as Egypt, whose rulers were considered gods, would record that their mighty army was ignominiously crushed by a band of virtually unarmed slaves who had a more powerful deity on their side. This would have embarrassed them in front of the entire known world. It’s more natural to believe they simply licked their wounds and tried to cover up all traces of this humiliating national episode, especially since they are known to have done this on other occasions.

Bias against the Bible

Besides these limits of archaeology, an additional problem exists that is seldom noted—the ever-present scholarly bias. It takes only a brief reading of archaeological journals to witness how alive and well human nature is among many of the experts. Differing opinions can stimulate public accusations that are envious, arrogant, spiteful and even hateful.

Radio commentator Dennis Prager made an insightful comment about Rabbi Wolpe’s skepticism of the Exodus account noted earlier: “According to the [Los Angeles Times] article, most archaeologists ... do not believe the biblical Exodus occurred. That most archaeologists conclude from the alleged lack of archaeological evidence that Jews were never slaves in Egypt and the Exodus to Canaan never took place tells us something about these individuals, but nothing about the Bible or the Exodus.

“What does it tell us? That most of these archaeologists have the same bias against traditional religious beliefs that most academic colleagues have. Ten years ago, Dr. Robert Jastrow, ... founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute ... , wrote about this in his book, God and the Astronomers. Jastrow described a disturbing reaction among his colleagues to the big-bang theory—irritation and anger. Why, he asked, would scientists, who are supposed to pursue truth and not have an emotional investment in any evidence, be angered by the big-bang theory?

“The answer, he concluded, is very disturbing: many scientists do not want to acknowledge anything that may even suggest the existence of God. The big- bang theory, by positing a beginning of the universe, suggests a creator and therefore annoys many astronomers. This anti-religious bias is hardly confined to astronomers. It pervades academia, home to nearly all archaeologists” (The Jewish Journal, April 20, 2001, emphasis added).

Uphill battle for believers

When it comes to the Bible, archaeologists and biblical scholars categorize themselves into two groups: minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists (also called deconstructionists of the Bible) generally hold the view that the Bible is full of myths and is therefore unreliable. So they vigorously try to refute any evidence that supports the biblical account.

Professor and archaeologist Anson Rainey says of the minimalists: “Their view that nothing in biblical tradition is earlier than the Persian period [538-332 B.C.], especially their denial of the existence of a United Monarchy [under Saul, David and Solomon], is a figment of their vain imagination ... Biblical scholarship and instruction should completely ignore the ‘deconstructionist school.’ They have nothing to teach us” (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1994, p. 47).

The maximalists, on the other hand, believe the biblical accounts have solid historical and archaeological backing. Long a minority among archaeologists, their numbers are growing, since it seems that every year discoveries are found that support, rather than refute, the biblical narrative.

Archaeologist Bryant Wood is an example of a biblical maximalist who is slowly turning the tide in favor of the biblical evidence. He argues that the archaeological data for the Exodus fall into place if the event is dated back to 1450 B.C., the approximate date the Bible indicates for the Exodus. He mentions that the documented evidence of foreign slaves at that time in Egypt could well include the Israelites. He also adds that archaeological indications of the destruction of Canaanite cities some 40 years afterward support the account of Joshua’s conquests (an interview with Dr. Wood begins on page 12 of this issue).

But Dr. Wood goes against the current. Although he sits in the forefront of archaeological digs and is excavating what he believes is the biblical city of Ai, he notes that he can’t get his research published in serious archaeological journals because of an ingrained anti-Bible bias.

The tide of scholarly opinion on the Bible has shifted several times in the past centuries. During the later part of the 19th century there was much skepticism of the Bible, but in the 20th century, thanks to astonishing archaeological discoveries supporting the Scriptures, the tide turned somewhat in its favor.

U.S. News & World Report religion writer Jeffery Sheler observes: “... The spirit of post-Enlightenment skepticism unquestionably continues to dominate the biblical academy. But it is skepticism seemingly less rigid and dogmatic than it has been at times in the past ... There are many scholars of a decidedly ‘secular’ nature who nonetheless appreciate the possibility of realities, some which are represented in the Bible, that are beyond the scope of nature and of a natural explanation” (Is the Bible True?, 1999, p. 14).

The biblical evidence for the Exodus

How do these factors affect the debate over the Exodus?

Although not apparent at first glance, the biblical account of the Exodus contains many tiny details that place it within a distinct historical and chronological context. Those who ignore this evidence refuse to give the biblical record a fair hearing.

For instance, in the events leading up to the Exodus, the book of Genesis records that Joseph’s brothers sold him for 20 shekels to slave traders who took him from Canaan to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen notes some of the flaws in the logic of those who reject the biblical Exodus or assign it to unnamed writers many centuries later. He notes that the price of 20 shekels is “the price of a slave in the Near East in about the 18th century B.C. ... If all these figures were invented during the Exile (sixth century B.C.) or in the Persian period by some fiction writer, why isn’t the price for Joseph 90 to 100 shekels, the cost of a slave at the time when that story was supposedly written? ... It’s more reasonable to assume that the biblical data reflect reality in these cases” (Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April, 1995, p. 52).

The date of the Exodus can be accurately calculated since the Bible mentions in 1 Kings 6:1 that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was “the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt ...”

Surprisingly, there is scholarly agreement about the dates of Solomon’s reign, placing his fourth year in the 960s B.C. Subtracting 480 years takes us back to a date for the Exodus in the 1440s B.C.

Another biblical reference to date the Exodus is found in Judges, where Jephthah tells the Ammonites that Israel had been in the land for 300 years (Judges 11:26). Again, there is acceptance among the experts that Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites took place around 1100 B.C. This would place the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan near 1400 B.C., precisely 40 years after the Exodus. Thus both biblical dates for the Exodus agree.

In spite of this biblical evidence, most minimalist scholars believe the Exodus took place around 1260 B.C., a date that contradicts the biblically derived dates by almost two centuries. Minimalists generally give three main reasons for this later date of the Exodus: (1) the mention of the Israelites’ building of the city of Rameses (Exodus 1:11); (2) the archaeological evidence that no sedentary population lived in the Transjordan and Negev regions between 1900 and 1300 B.C.; and (3) the widespread devastation of cities and towns of central Canaan during the 1260s B.C.

Let’s consider whether these reasons are grounds for a date that contradicts the Bible.

The city of Rameses

Many archaeologists assume the city of Rameses was named after Rameses II, a famous Pharaoh who was a great builder. Yet the term Rameses simply means “born of the god Ra” (or Re) and had been used in monuments centuries before the time of Pharaoh Rameses II. The Bible itself mentions the same name when it speaks of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt, hundreds of years before the reign of Rameses II:

“And Joseph situated his father and his brothers, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded” (Genesis 47:11). So the argument that Moses lived in the 1200s because the Israelites helped build a city with the name Rameses is not convincing.

In fact, Manfred Bietak, the excavator of Rameses (Tell el-Daba), has determined that the name of the site at the time the Israelites were there was at first Rowaty, and then later changed to Avaris. The name Rameses was not used until the city was rebuilt by Rameses II in the 13th century. Thus the use of the name Rameses in Exodus 1:11 and Genesis 47:11 is a case where a later biblical writer updated the text to reflect the changed name of the city, as we see in some other biblical passages.

We have the same situation with regard to Pithom, the other store city named in Exodus 1:11. That name was not in use until the Saite Period, ca. 600 B.C.

Evidence for settlements

The second argument against the traditional date for the Exodus is based mainly on the work of archaeologist Nelson Glueck in the 1930s, which failed to find evidence of permanent settlements in the Transjordan and the Negev regions between 1900 and 1300 B.C. This region should have shown a sizable presence of Edomites, Ammonites and Moabites at that time, since the biblical account mentions their strong opposition to the Israelites.

However, more-recent excavations have shown many settlements in the area that Glueck did not find. Archaeologist John Bimson notes that “Glueck’s initial conclusions were definitely wrong [indeed he later retracted them], and it is disappointing to find scholars citing them as if they were still valid evidence. All too often the 13th century date for the Exodus has been perpetuated by the baseless repetition of outmoded views” (Biblical Archaeological Review, September-October 1987, p. 44).

Widespread destruction

The third argument used to date the Exodus to the 1200s B.C. is the archaeological evidence for the destruction of several Canaanite cities during this period. Scholars believe this took place when Joshua invaded and conquered Canaan.

Yet, if the traditional 1400s date for the Exodus is maintained, the archaeological evidence seems to fit much better, for This would have given the Israelites time to eventually take over much of the land during the 300 years of the judges. The Bible is clear that there were many cities the Israelites didn’t conquer during Joshua’s time or even during the time of the judges (Joshua 13:1; Judges 3:1-6). The archaeological record does support such a gradual process.

Dealing with the present findings, archaeologist Randall Price concludes: “... The signs of widespread destruction

at certain sites should not be considered as archaeological evidence against the biblical chronology and for a late date for the Conquest [by Joshua]. These destructions better fit the period of the Judges, during which ongoing warfare was commonplace” (The Stones Cry Out, 1997, p. 147).

Dr. Merrill adds: “... Signs of major devastation in the period from 1400 to 1375 would be an acute embarrassment to the traditional view because the biblical witness is univocal that Israel was commanded to annihilate the Canaanite populations, but to spare the cities and towns in which they lived. And the record explicitly testifies that this mandate was faithfully carried out. The only exceptions were Jericho, Ai, and Hazor” (Kingdom of Priests, p. 73).

We find, then, that the archaeological evidence better fits the traditional date of the Exodus backed by the Bible.

Recent discoveries

Another argument that the Exodus never occurred is that there are no signs that the Israelites wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years. However, we must remember that during the Exodus the Israelites were forced to live nomadic lives. No longer did they reside in villages with sturdy houses and artifacts that could have survived as evidence. Instead, in the wilderness environment every item had to be used to its fullest capacity and then, if possible, recycled. Also, the portable tent encampments during those 40 years would have left few or no traces that could be found 3,400 years later, especially in the shifting desert sands.

Interestingly, recent satellite infrared technology has revealed ancient caravan routes in the Sinai. George Stephen, a satellite-image analyst, discovered evidence in the satellite photographs of ancient tracks made by “a massive number of people” going “from the Nile Delta straight south along the east bank of the Gulf of Suez and around the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.” He also saw huge campsites along the route, one that fits the description given in the book of Exodus (Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out, p. 137).

Could this evidence be a coincidence?

If nothing else at least it shows that a large number of people could be sustained in the same region and on the same path as that taken by the Israelites during the Exodus.

The sturdy anvil

We have covered only some of the evidence for the biblically derived date of the Exodus. It seems that every year more discoveries are made that confirm the existence of biblical persons and places. But the skeptics know what is at stake, and in this world of growing unbelief they will not be deterred from striking at the foundations of Christianity and Judaism.

Although almost 200 years old, a statement by 19th-century writer H.L. Hastings regarding skeptics’ attacks on the Bible holds true: “For eighteen hundred years, skeptics have been refuting and overthrowing this book, and yet it stands today as a solid rock ... The skeptics, with all their assaults, make about as much impression on this book as a man with a hammer would on the Pyramids of Egypt.

“When a French monarch proposed persecuting Christians, an elderly advisor told him, ‘Sir, the Church of God is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.’ So the hammers of the skeptics have been pecking away at this book for ages, but the hammers are worn out, and the anvil still endures. If this book had not been the book of God, men would have destroyed it long ago. Emperors and popes, kings and priests, princes and rulers have all tried their hand at it; they have all died and yet this book lives on.”

As with the rest of the Bible, the Exodus account remains a mighty witness to a God who cares about His people and intervenes in human affairs to carry out His plan.

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