“There was no real exodus. There was no real wilderness wandering,” asserts William G. Dever, excavator of the ancient biblical city of Gezer (between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), and former director of the Albright School of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
Dever’s views are by no means universally accepted, but he is one of the most highly regarded biblical archaeologists in the world. The questionsthat Dever and others raise about the Exodus are of more than passing interest to secular historians, to Christians and to Jews, who will be sitting down Monday night to eat unleavened bread and the other traditional dishes of Passover — the celebration of the Children of Israel’s exodus from bondage in Egypt. The Exodus and the bondage that preceded it are the seminal events in Judaism — for they mark the transformation of Jacob’s clan into the people of Israel.
Approaching the Exodus as an historical event, however, is another matter. Regardless of their views, biblical historians have a problem reconciling what the Bible says with the physical evidence that has been unearthed over the centuries.
Among the problems: No direct archaeological evidence has been found to prove that the Children of Israel were in Egypt. Similarly, no direct evidence has been found to prove that they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Even where the results of archaeological research do seem to fit the scenario of the Bible, other contemporaneous archaeological discoveries conflict with that scenario.
To understand the unusual fragmentation of scholarly views regarding ancient Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, it is convenient to start at the one fixed point on which virtually all modern scholars agree:
In about 1200 B.C. scores of agricultural villages appeared in the central hill country of Canaan. Archaeological remains of 97 new villages have been found so far, built on previously uninhabited land. Both the architecture of the houses and the pottery found in these villages are different from that found in earlier periods. The Bible tells us that when the Israelites came to Canaan, they settled in the hill country: “Their God is a God of the hill country,” says the king of Aram (1 Kings 20:23). Biblical historians and archaeologists, including Dever, agree that these new villages were the habitations of the Israelites in Canaan.
If these hilltop villages represent the emergence of Israel in Canaan, then — according to the biblical chronology — the exodus from Egypt would have occurred about 40 years earlier, in about 1240 B.C. And, indeed, that is the period to which most scholars who accept the Exodus as fact assign it.
There is much evidence to support a 13th-century exodus. The earliest extra-Biblical reference to Israel is found in a victory stele (an inscribed stone commonly used to commemorate an historic event) set up by Pharaoh Merneptah in about 1230 B.C. — shortly after the Exodus. The name Israel, written in hieroglyphic signs, is used to designate a people living in Canaan. In hieroglyphic writing, non-phonetic signs called determinatives are often attached to nouns to indicate the kind of word it is. The names adjacent to the name Israel in the Merneptah stele include determinatives indicating the names are cities. Israel alone, however, is signaled by the determinative for people, indicating that the Children of Israel had not yet settled down in their own cities.
Another indicator that may help date the Exodus is the city of Raamses, mentioned in the Bible as the rallying point for the Israelites at the time of the Exodus. Pharaoh Ramesses II (1290-1224 B.C.), known as Ramesses the Great, built a huge new administrative center by this name in the northeast Nile Delta, the area designated Goshen in the Bible, where the Israelites lived in Egypt. Ramesses of course named his new administrative center for himself. It is difficult to avoid identifying this Egyptian city with the city of Raamses the Bible says Israelite slaves built, especially because Ramesses II is known to have used conscripted foreign labor in his many massive building projects.
More evidence to support the historical fact of the Exodus is found in biblical references to the kingdoms of Edom, Moab and Ammon encountered by the Israelites east of the River Jordan on their roundabout trek to the Promised Land. These references, coupled with archaeological findings, also suggest a 13th-century exodus. Many archaeolgists have concluded after surveying these areas that these kingdoms did not exist before the 13th century B.C.
On top of this evidence, the general condition of the geopolitical world of the 13th century provides an appropriate context for the Exodus. Egyptian national power began declining significantly toward the end of Ramesses’ reign. In about 1200 B.C. the 19th Egyptian Dynasty ended amidst anarchy and chaos.
Yet there are problems with the theory of a 13th-century exodus: Archaeologists and biblical scholars have been able to identify almost none of the many Israelite stops in the desert after they left Egypt. As a result, half a dozen exodus routes have been hypothesized. Among the unidentified sites is Mt. Sinai itself, where God gave the tablets of the law to Moses. The most important stop in the wilderness was at Kadesh-Barnea, which has been located. The Israelites stayed there, according to the Bible, 38 out of the 40 years they lived in the desert. Kadesh-Barnea is identified with Ain el-Qudeirat, which has a perennial spring and is the largest oasis in northern Sinai. Extensive excavation of the ancient remains of Kadesh-Barnea, however, has revealed nothing earlier than the 10th century B.C. — the time of King Solomon and three centuries after the Children of Israel would have been there. Between 1967 and 1982, Sinai was accessible to Israeli scholars and archaeologists. They scoured the length and breadth of it, but found almost nothing from the end of the Late Bronze Age, the archaeological period when the Exodus was supposed to have taken place. Defenders of the Exodus argue that a scraggly bunch of ex-slaves, now semi-nomads, would hardly be likely to leave a trace that could be found, especially after more than 3,200 years.
Yet archaeologists found evidence of human occupation from many earlier periods. Broken pieces of pottery, the most common evidence of human occupation, are almost indestructible. Why none in central and southern Sinai from the Late Bronze Age? As Israeli archaeologist Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, who worked in the Sinai for 15 years put it, “Nowhere in Sinai did we or our colleagues find any concrete remains of the stations of the exodus route, nor even small encampments that could be attributed to the relevant period.” Perhaps most damaging to the defenders of a 13th-century exodus is the situation in Canaan at the time the Israelites were supposed to have conquered, destroyed or otherwise taken possession of the country’s major urban centers in a series of lightning military campaigns. In many cases, there were no cities in the 13th century at the sites the Israelites were supposed, according to the Bible, to have occupied or destroyed.
Take Jericho, for example. According to the Bible, this was the first city encountered by the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan. In a remarkable strategem of psychological warfare, the Israelites marched around Jericho’s city wall for seven days until it collapsed — apparently the inhabitants were so frightened by the besieging Israelites’ mysterious behavior they could not defend themselves.
Jericho was surrounded by a massive wall in the Middle Bronze Age (as late as the 16th century B.C.), but the city had long been abandoned by the 13th century. It was not resettled again for hundreds of years. So if Jericho was conquered as the Bible describes it, the conquest could not have occurred at the end of the 13th century B.C. because the city was long since gone.
Similarly with Ai, the second city the Bible says the Israelites conquered — no city here at the end of the 13th century B.C.
The absence of cities in the 13th century B.C. at so many sites the Israelites were supposed to have conquered according to the Bible has led a few scholars to propose an earlier, 15th-century conquest and, as a consequence, a 15th-century exodus.
Prof. John J. Bimson of Trinity College, in Bristol, England, suggests that Israelites were responsible for the urban destructions in Canaan at the end of the period known as Middle Bronze Age II. Bimson dates the end of this period at about 1450 B.C. At that time, about 40 cities in Canaan were destroyed. Scholars usually attribute these destructions to the military campaigns of Pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II, but Bimson argues that many of these destructions — the cities the Bible says were destroyed by the Israelites — should be attributed to the Israelites emerging from the desert.
One of the problems with this theory is that there were many more destructions than the Bible mentions. Second, how could the Israelites take the Promised Land at a time — in contrast to the situation 200 years later when Egyptian power in Canaan was declining — when powerful Egyptian monarchs were subjugating and destroying it? And if the Israelites left Egypt in the 15th century B.C., why doesn’t any evidence of them show up in Canaan until the late 13th century B.C., 200 years later?
Despite what most scholars believe to be the shaky foundations on which Bimson’s theory rests, it does fit nicely with another Exodus theory recently proposed by Hans Goedicke, a world-famous Egyptologist and former chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Unlike most scholars, who readily concede that no existing Egyptian source even hints at Israel’s presence in Egypt, Goedicke claims to have found a contemporaneous Egyptian account of the Exodus.
Known as the Great Speos Artemidos Inscription, this hieroglyphic text is a royal announcement of the accomplishments of the famous female Pharaoh Hatshepsut. (According to Goedicke, the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a woman.) Hatshepsut states in this text that she has finally dealt with some immigrants (shemau) who “disregarded the tasks assigned them.” These immigrants, Goedicke argues, are the Israelites. According to Hatshepsut, “the earth swallowed their footsteps.” Goedicke interprets a disputed passage in the text as referring to a watery destruction of their footsteps; that is, they were drowned. In short, in the Egyptian version, it is the Egyptians who are victorious; their opponents — the Israelites — drowned.
No scholar of repute has supported Goedicke’s conclusions. But the Great Speos Artemidos Inscription can be accurately dated to the 15th century B.C.
Mainstream archaeologists and biblical scholars are proceeding on a different tack in their efforts to learn more about the Exodus. Most of them begin with that fixed point in about 1200 B.C. when Israelite villages suddenly begin to dot the central hill country of Canaan. About this, all agree.
The question is, where did they come from?
Because of the absence of major urban destructions at many cities the Bible says the Israelites conquered, several prominent scholars have proposed that the Israelite settlement was peaceful infiltration, rather than a conquest, extending over hundreds of years. The late Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni claimed that in the Galilee he found pottery evidence of the beginnings of the Israelite infiltration dating to the 14th century B.C.
More recently, George Mendenhall of the University of Michigan and Norman Gottwald of the New York Theological Seminary have argued that Israel’s emergence in Canaan was not the result of an outside invasion but of an internal revolt — a revolt of peasants against their feudal overlords. The peasants literally took to the hills. This theory, based on sociological and anthropological models, has proven increasingly popular with highly respected scholars. Dever’s preference for this theory led him to assert, as noted at the beginning of this article, that there was no real Exodus and no real wilderness wandering.
Is the entire story — of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, the Israelite escape known as the Exodus, the wandering in Sinai where God gave the Israelite the law and the taking of the land by force — all made up out of whole cloth?
Few scholars, and fewer lay people, can really accept this. Not because they are fundamentalist believers in the literal truth of the Bible, but because it simply defies common sense to conclude that there was no basis whatever for these biblically described events. No doubt, the events did not happen precisely as the Bible describes them, but there must be some historical core to the stories, though doubtless embroidered by centuries of tendentious traditional retellings.
As the great Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin once told me, “What nation would invent such a crazy story? — that they were slaves in Egypt and they left that country and came to this country — and then make that the kernel of all their history. Even if you want to minimize it, there is a core of truth there.”
The likelihood, therefore, is that there was a real Exodus and real desert wandering. The literary evidence, although doubtless exaggerated, is too powerful to be denied, especially in light of tradition’s having preserved no hint of any other account of Israel’s early origins.
We shall probably never know precisely when it occurred or what the exact details were. No doubt fewer than the 600,000 able-bodied men the Bible records actually left Egypt. Perhaps the Israelites left on several occasions and on only one of the treks did they have an extraordinary religious experience at a mountain in the desert. Perhaps they entered the land of Canaan in different groups at different times, at different places and from different places. Perhaps when the proto-Israelites migrated to Egypt some stayed behind in Canaan. Scholars have suggested all of these possibilities.
But at their core these stories, despite their embellishment by centuries of tradition, reflect genuine history. And not only history. As a reflection of an oppressed people’s struggle for freedom and of its confrontation with the Divine, these stories — the first in history where a god stands with the oppressed as opposed to the privileged — reveal a truth far deeper than a concern with detailed historical accuracy. Hershel Shanks is editor and publisher of Bible Review and Biblical Archaeology Review.