My previous post compared Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014, dir. Ridley Scott) with the Biblical account of the Exodus. This post is going to look at the historicity of the Exodus. This is a big topic and one that bumps into the challenge of separating belief from verifiable historical evidence. As a Christian, I can believe in the Bible as a matter of faith, but as a historian, I have to look at the actual evidence. And I am a long ways from being a specialist in ancient Egyptian history or Biblical archaeology or any of the other specific fields required to really speak authoritatively on this problem.
As I mentioned in my last post, the essential problem with comparing the Biblical narrative with historical fact is that scholars have not found any Egyptian documents that fit with the Biblical text. One of the biggest challenges is simply pinning down when the Exodus is supposed to have happened.
Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?
(Warning: I’m going to gloss over some very complicated issues of chronology in this post, chief of which is that the regnal dates for Egyptian pharaohs are less fixed than they seem; most of the regnal dates I’m going to cite can actually vary by nearly a half-century, for reasons too complex to tackle here, unless people really want me to get into the messy details. I’ll do my best to explain the core issues but understand there’s more going on here that I’m leaving out for brevity’s sake.)
Throughout Exodus, the ruler of Egypt is simply identified as ‘Pharaoh’ with no additional reference to which pharaoh we’re talking about. Given that Egypt was ruled by pharaohs for close to 3,000 years, that means there are a lot of candidates to look at. Modern scholars have offered arguments for most of the pharaohs from Dedumose I (d.c. 1582 BC) to Setnakhte (d.c.1186 BC). Scholars have generally agreed that the New Kingdom period, including the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties and running from around c.1550 to c.1069 BC is the right period. (Just for reference, the famous Akhenaten was an 18th dynasty pharaoh ruling from about 1353-1336 BC, and his even more famous son Tutankhamun died around 1323 BC. The 18th dynasty died out about 1292 BC and was succeeded by the 19th dynasty.)
1 Kings 6:1 says that the Exodus happened 480 years before the construction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (which happened some time around 970 BC, give or take a decade), which would put the Exodus happening around the 1440s, 1446 to be precise, if you assume that various Biblical details are exactly correct. 1446 falls during the reign of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III (step-son of the famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut). But during this period, Canaan was part of the Egyptian empire, and an Exodus from Egyptian territory into Egyptian territory makes little sense. And Thutmose’ reign was one of the cultural and military high points of the New Kingdom, which doesn’t exactly fit with the story of military disaster told in Exodus
Many historians consider that 480 number symbolic, because the same figure of 480 years is said to separate the construction of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple. (Also, the anonymous author of 1 Kings doesn’t give us any clue how he calculated that figure of 480 years, and he’s not likely to have had a lot of written records to work from.) ‘480 years’ may well be a way of saying 12 generations of 40 years each. If Jewish authors used 40 years to stand for a single generation (note that Moses is said to have lived for 120 years, with his life falling into neat 40 year chunks), then perhaps that 480 figure is a different way of saying 250 years (much closer to an actual human generation), which would give the Exodus a date around 1210 or so. That date falls late in the reign of Ramesses II (who reigned 1279 to 1213 BC, one of the longest reigns in human history) or slightly after, during the reign of his son Merneptah (r. 1213-1203 BC). Consequently, most historians who accept the Exodus as a fact have argued that Ramesses is the pharaoh of the Exodus.
Another small point in Ramesses’ favor is his son Merneptah became pharaoh because all of his older brothers had already died, which fits into the story of all the Egyptian’s first-born sons dying.
Additional support for the idea that Ramesses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus comes from Exodus 1:11, “So [the Egyptians] put slave masters over [the Hebrews] to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and [Pi-]Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Pithom (or Per-Atum, the “House of Atum”) has never been definitively identified, but Pi-Ramesses (or Per-Ramesses, the “House of Ramesses”) has been fairly definitively identified since the 1960s as a city built in the Nile Delta, on the easternmost branch of the Nile. Ramesses II built it as a new capital, since the location was much closer to the Canaanite territories of the Egyptian Empire, as well as a good spot from which to stop an invasion of Egypt by the Hittites (since such an invasion would have to go through the northern Sinai peninsula. (The previous capital was Avaris, also on the same branch of the Nile. The film inaccurately depicts Ramesses as ruling from Memphis, much further to the south, slightly below the point where the Nile splits into different branches at the Delta.)
So the Biblical claim that the Hebrews built Pi-Ramesses fits with what we know of Ramesses II’s building work. His father Seti possessed a summer palace there, and Ramesses was born in the area, so it is more accurate to picture an existing complex being developed into a large city (ultimately housing about 300,000 people). But Exodus says that the city was built as a ‘store city’. Scholars have debated what a ‘store city’ is, but since Pi-Ramesses was apparently intended as a new capital, the text seems to be wrong, unless Ramesses built the city and then decided it could serve as a capital. Or perhaps it was only Pi-thom that was intended to serve as a store city. So if we are going to find evidence of the Exodus outside the Bible, it appears that the mid- to late-13th century BC is the period to look in. A few scholars have argued that the Biblical ‘Ramesses’ is not a reference to Pi-Ramesses, but that view does not seem to command much acceptance.
(Incidentally, this reference to the Hebrews building store cities in Egypt is what lies underneath Ben Carson’s infamous claim that the Pyramids were built for grain storage. He’s conflating the Biblical claim of store cities with the popular misconception that the Pyramids were built with slave labor.)
Some professional and amateur scholars make arguments for other pharaohs. Ahmose I, the founder of the 18th dynasty, who ruled c.1539-c.1514) is sometimes pointed to because of the so-called ‘Tempest Stela‘, which describes a period of darkness and severe storms. But his reign seems way too early for the Exodus. Another popular candidate is Amenhotep II (r.1427-1401), son of Thutmose III. The argument here is that there were actually two Amenhotep IIs. The first died four years into his reign and his successor took the same name to disguise the humiliating death of his predecessor. As a theory, it’s a big stretch with only a small amount of evidence to support it (which I don’t want to get into). And it’s worth pointing out that Pi-Ramesses was built centuries after their rule.
There’s also the question of whether the Pharaoh of the Exodus died along with his army. Exodus does not explicitly claim this, but many assume that the pharaoh must have been with his army when it was destroyed by the sea. Since Exodus 2 says that the pharaoh at whose court Moses was raised died before Moses saw the Burning Bush, scholars have looked for a pharaoh who had a very long reign followed by a pharaoh who had a short reign (assuming that pharaoh died during the Exodus). None of the candidates fit that pattern exactly, which is why the two Amenhotep IIs theory is appealing. But for my money, the fact that Exodus insists that Pi-Ramesses was built during the reign of Pharaoh makes Ramesses II or his son Merneptah the best candidate. He comes closer than any of the others.
Unfortunately, after more than a century of searching for evidence, archaeologists and Egyptologists have yet to find any clear proof for the events described in Exodus. Exodus 12: 37-38 says that at the time of the Exodus, the Hebrews numbered around 600,000, not counting women and children. Factoring in women and children, the text is claiming that a population of close to 2 million people emigrated from Egypt (probably larger, since the figure of 2 million is assuming one woman and child per man). In the 13th century, Egypt is estimated to have had somewhere between 3 and 3.5 million inhabitants, so if we read the numbers as literal in a modern sense, Exodus is claiming that literally half the population of Egypt were Hebrews, a figure that seems impossibly large. Even if we assume that modern scholars have severely underestimated the total population of Egypt, the numbers seem implausible (among other details, Exodus 1 claims that these 2 million Hebrews were served by just 2 midwives). Given the Biblical tendency to use numbers symbolically (or at least non-literally), it is likely that this figure of 600,000 men should be understood that way. (Indeed, the statistic 603,350, which is given in the book of Numbers, translates in Hebrew numerology to “the children of Israel, every individual.”) Otherwise, it is hard to see how the loss of half its population would not have triggered a complete collapse of Egyptian civilization, something for which there is no evidence.
A large emigration (even if not 2 million people) would plausibly have left archaeological evidence (600,000 people camping out at Mt. Sinai, for example, would probably leave refuse in the form of animal bones, broken pots, and broken tools), but archaeologists have yet to find evidence for any such camps.
Nor do Egyptian texts make any reference to either the Hebrews as a slave people, to the 10 plagues, or to the destruction of an Egyptian army in the sea. The closest scholars have found to a reference to the Hebrews in Egypt are references to a people called the Habiru or Apiru, mentioned in various sources between about 1800 BC and 1100 BC, who live in the Fertile Crescent and Canaan. These people are various described as nomads, rebels, raiders, laborers, slaves, and thieves. But the term seems to be a catch-all term for people in that region, and not a specific ethnic or cultural group, and the similarity of ‘Habiru’ to ‘Hebrew’ appears to be accidental rather than linguistic. And remember, this group is supposed to be half the population of Egypt. If the Hebrews were such a large segment of the population, why is there no clear mention of them?
The Ipuwer Papyrus, a New Kingdom copy of a text composed sometime between the late Old Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period (so, between roughly 1850 BC and 1600 BC) describes a period of anarchy in which society has turned upside down: the laborers are not working, the poor have become rich, the nobles are distressed, death and blood are everywhere, barbarians have invaded Egypt, and cats and dogs have generally started living together, just like Bill Murray once said. In other words, the text is a description of a society in which nothing is working properly and it seems like the end of the world. Some details are evocative of the Exodus story: there is pestilence in the land, the river is blood, the servants are rebelling and not working and they have taken the riches of the nobles, grain is destroyed and the cattle moan, the land is without light, and everyone is lamenting. But the text also includes a lot of details that don’t fit the Biblical narrative (a barbarian invasion, children are having their brains dashed out, widespread warfare and violence, crocodiles are killing people, the nobles are being beaten and forced to labor, the poor are living in mansions, the king has been overthrown by a mob, and so on. So while some people have tried to use the Ipuwer Papyrus as evidence for the Exodus, this requires that they ignore all the parts of the text that don’t fit the story, and it also requires the Exodus to have happened hundreds of years earlier than any scenario the Tanakh/Old Testament envisions.
There are a few bits of indirect evidence in support of the Biblical narrative. A monument erected by Merneptah, Ramesses II’s successor contains the word ‘Israel’ in a context that suggests a group of migratory people, which does fit the Biblical narrative for what happened to the Hebrews after they left Egypt. The Egyptian form of ‘Yahweh’ occurs in a temple built by Ramesses II. Some of the Hebrew names in Exodus seem to reflect Egyptian linguistic influence, including ‘Moses’. But overall, the evidence is not convincing unless one is already convinced.
One argument is made that Egyptian sources may not mention the facts connected to the Exodus because Egyptians didn’t like commemorating royal failures. That’s certainly true. Ramesses II, to take a very relevant example, depicted himself as the victor of the battle of Kadesh when Hittite sources make it very clear the battle was a draw. Occasionally the Egyptians posthumously tried to obliterate the evidence of unpopular pharaohs; Thutmose III had the name of his predecessor Hatshepsut chiseled off of monuments. So Egyptians were more than willing to rewrite their own past by glossing over events and people that did not fit with their ideology. So it is possible that Ramesses II might have ordered the suppression of evidence of the 10 plagues and the Exodus, which would have made him look very weak, and not the living god he claimed to be.
But there are three flaws with this argument. First, despite Egyptian efforts to rose-color the past, scholars have found considerable evidence of the things they tried to obliterate; Hatshepsut’s reign is fairly well documented. Papyrus documents often contain references to things the pharaohs clearly wanted kept secret (like the political trial of a wife of Ramesses III who was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate him, or the destruction of royal mummies by tomb-robbers). So it’s unlikely that Ramesses would have been able to completely eliminate evidence of these events. Second, the fact that we can see a reason why evidence was suppressed doesn’t prove the event happened and was covered up. At best, it only means that it is possible that such a thing could have happened. Absence of evidence is not evidence. Third, even if all mentions of the Exodus itself were scrubbed, why aren’t there mentions of the Hebrews in Egyptian documents and monuments from before the Exodus? Purging centuries of records would almost certainly have been beyond the capacity of ancient Egyptian government.
So because the actual evidence for the Exodus is so scanty and unpersuasive, most archaeologists and Egyptologists have argued that specifically searching for evidence of the Exodus is pointless. The resources for archaeology is scant enough that they are better spent on projects more likely to bear important fruit. More skeptical scholars argue that the lack of evidence means that the Exodus is best regarded as a story invented centuries after the fact to explain where the Hebrews came from.
To my mind, there’s a major problem with arguing that the story of the Exodus was invented to provide an origin for the Hebrews. Most cultures, when they are inventing their origins, like to provide a noble and heroic ancestry for themselves. Consider all the people who wanted to be descended from those noble and tragic Trojans: the Romans, the medieval Britons, the Merovingians, and the Norse, among others. People invent ancestors who are gods and towering heroes.
But the Hebrew origin story is quite different. In the Exodus story, they acknowledge being helpless slaves, entirely oppressed and unable to save themselves until Yahweh sends Moses. Moses is timid and unwilling, a lousy speaker who needs help just delivering his message. When he does liberate the Hebrews, they respond by constantly doubting and challenging him; they repeatedly fail to trust Yahweh despite the miracles they see, and have to be punished more than once. Moses periodically loses his temper and disobeys Yahweh and winds up being punished for it. Pretty much everyone in this story looks bad at least once. And why make their great liberator the foster-son of the hated Egyptian ruler?
So the Exodus story doesn’t fit with the sorts of stories people invent for themselves. If the Exodus were simple a made-up story, we’d expect the Hebrews to be far more noble and consistent than they are. We’d expect Moses to be more of a paragon of virtue. To my mind, the constant moral failings revealed in the story make it surprisingly plausible, despite the lack of evidence and the hard-to-accept miracles. The core of the story simply looks real to me in a way that, for example, Vergil’s Aeneid doesn’t. Does that mean that the Exodus must have happened? No. But for me at least, it’s a peg I can hang some faith on.
Want to Know More?
Exodus: Gods and Kings is available on Amazon. If you want to read the story, check out the Bible!