Did the Exodus Happen?
© 2016 S.H. Parker

"Did the Exodus happen?"

This is a very poorly phrased question. Very poorly phrased indeed. 

Why is this a question?

Questions about the exodus began being raised about 1,000 years ago. Earlier, actually; in the first century C.E., Josephus (Antiquities) reports ancient doubts about the exodus and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. These questions came from devout Rabbis, not from persons looking to denigrate the Bible (that waited until the 17th-18th century). These Rabbis, reading the Biblical texts very carefully, began to notice variations in the stories, some minor, some quite major.

Over the years it became clear that the exodus story is a composite. The story interweaves multiple traditions. To quickly satisfy yourself that there are multiple traditions - noting that Levantines and Mesopotamians had no problem with acknowledging multiple traditions ... we do, they didn't - start reading from Exodus 13:20, when Israel sets out from Ramses. Read through to the middle of Numbers. Make a list of the places Israel visits. Then, check the Levitical list of encampments at Numbers 33. These two itineraries are very different. Two completely different routes, one more northerly, one more southerly (for a more detailed discussion of these two routes, see Rabbi Dr. Richard A. Freund's Digging Through the Bible).

Even more interesting is that one of these place-lists does not mention Sinai/Horeb or the encounter at the mountain.

Another significant difficulty with the texts, not just the exodus stories, is the phenomenon of "temporal compression." Most Biblical stories are told without time references. There is a story that takes just eight lines (Gen. 47:12 ff.) that, on slight reflection, could not have happened in less than several years. Guestimates for the 10 plagues range from nine months to several centuries. Temporal compression distorts our understanding of the events related.

In sum, the story in Exodus and Numbers has credibility issues. Because of these issues, archaeologists began looking for what they could contribute.

And, archaeology does contribute significant evidence about the "factuality" of the Biblical account of the exodus.

The Argument From Silence

Torah reports that "about 600,000 men on foot" left Ramses (Ex. 12:37). About 600,000 men, the number is later made more precise, 603,550. 603,550 military-aged men. Add wives, children, men under 20, the elderly and scholars estimate the total population numbered two to three million or more.

This many people wandering around for 40 years should certainly leave some trace (or is "40" a magic number, it does appear quite frequently in Torah, that really means "a long time?"). But none has been found. Ergo, the exodus story is invented, a "pious fraud."


This argument rests on two assumptions, one is the result of either not reading or not understanding the original Hebrew (intentionally?). The other rests on sloppy logic ("black swan" reasoning, a blatant violation of basic scholarly integrity).

The first assumption is that "603,550" is not only accurate but correctly renders the Hebrew "elef," translated here as "thousand." This word, at least through the time of the prophets, is as often used to refer to a fighting unit provided by a family or clan, what we might today call a "squad" (see Colin Humphrey's The Miracles of Exodus for an excellent discussion, as well as Freund, op. cit.), not "a thousand."

See, for example Num. 1:16 where elef is rendered "clan" or Jud. 1:15 where Gideon claims his elef if too weak to save Israel. Try reading either passage substituting "thousand."

So "six hundred elef" could mean "six hundred squads." 600 squads would indicate a total population of only several thousand (guestimates range from 5,000 to 20,000). Hiding the evidence of a few thousand persons in the Sinai is somewhat easier than 2-3 million.

The second assumption is that all possible encampments have been found and excavated. But until and unless the entire Negev/Sinai is in fact excavated, this argument, known nowadays as "the argument from silence" (and the counter-mantra is "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence") is just plain bushwa, an induction no rational person should countenance. No self-respecting speaker continues to rely on this argument.

Of course, there is Anati's Har Karkom, in the southwestern Negev which does show habitation by a mass of people. But, Har Karkom is inhabited too early for the tastes of modern scholars (Anati, himself, has argued that the exodus needs to be redated to a much earlier period).

The Book of Joshua and the Conquest

Much more serious, is the evidence adduced from the Book of Joshua. 

Joshua tells us of a massive, violent military assault conquering substantially all of Canaan in a very short period. 

Quite a number of cities - "cities" being from several hundred to perhaps a few thousand, not tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of people - are named in Joshua. A number of those sites have been identified and excavated, over 30. Of all these excavations, only two or three show any sign of a destruction layer. But, if a city was assaulted and conquered as described, a destruction layer should be found. No destruction, no conquest.

Conclusion?-The conquest did not happen. Just that simple.

The conquest is a necessary consequence of the exodus. A large number of escapees (refugees) seeking homesteads in the Land of the Promise (Judea/Samaria, the central hill country of Canaan) would have no choice but to dispossess the existing inhabitants (especially if those inhabitants are believed to be a source of theological contamination, as they are depicted), just as those inhabitants would have no choice but to resist. Otherwise, the refugees have no place to go.

So, no conquest, no exodus. (And some anti-semiten take a vast leap claiming "no exodus, no enslavement." Bushwa.)

Fortunately, Torah provides an alternate account of how Israel occupied the Land of the Promise. That alternate account is found in the books of Judges and of Kings and of Chronicles. This account describes a peaceful, gradual infiltration of the land. Perhaps there were a few isolated battles but no massive military campaign. 

Judges, for example, tells us Canaanites were still living in and amongst Israel in the period of the Judges (200 years). It also tells us of cities not taken. Some of the cities not taken are among the cities listed as completely destroyed by Joshua. So, was Hazor destroyed by Joshua or not?

Some variant on the "Peaceful Infiltration" or "Indigenous Origins" is now fairly widely accepted in the scholarly community. Unfortunately, a migration - which archaeology conclusively demonstrates, came from western Canaan, eastward, into the central hill country - does not require a preceding exodus. (The Judges/Kings/Chronicles account very accurately describes what archaeologists are finding in the ground.)

No matter which way we turn, the exodus is left twisting in the wind, utterly without corroboration or evidence. There is no reason to suppose it happened as written, nothing from which to infer that it happened but good reasons to assert it did not, including evidence from within the Bible itself.

A Poorly Phrased Question

"Did the Exodus happen?" is a very poorly phrased question. Because the way a question is phrased influences and may even determine the answer. 

It is poorly phrased because of the use of the definite article, "the." As phrased, this asks about one and only one exodus, that one being precisely the one described in the text. Asked this way, the answer is "no, it did not." Period.

Except, as noted earlier, there appear to be two or three exoduses described in the text. And the text gives us two incompatible accounts of the entry into the land.

Instead, we should be asking "How did the story, in its current form, come into being?" "What is the backstory of the story?"

The "Halpern Perspective"

Viewed at a whole, the story, from Joseph's ascension in Egypt, through Pharaoh's pursuit of the fleeing slaves forms a "big picture" (one that Cecile B. De Mille pretty much got right.) That picture does, in fact, accurately describe one place and one time. That place is Egypt. That time is the late Second Intermediate Period/early Middle Kingdom (middle/late Bronze Age), Egypt in the 17th century and onward. The story is what Baruch Halpern calls "topologically true" (see Halpern's "The Exodus From Egypt: Myth or Reality?" in The Rise of Ancient Israel). 

To wit:

We know that the eastern Nile delta, known in the Bible as Goshen, was an Asiatic enclave (Egyptians called Western Semites "Asiatics;" Western Semites are Canaanites are us). Western Semites lived in the eastern delta from at least the 18th century, flocking to Egypt especially during times of draught and famine (Egyptian "conservatives" whine long and loud over these aliens, we have their letters).

We know that Western Semites were subject to corvée labor (impressment) and to full enslavement. We have pictures in Egyptian temples and palaces. These paintings show Western Semites working in fields under Egyptian overseers (task masters). They show Western Semites making bricks, cutting up straw, building buildings. All exactly as depicted in the Biblical story. "And they built store cities for Pharaoh....And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks and with all kinds of labor in the fields" (Ex. 1:11-14, emphasis added).

We have letters from Egyptian task masters about meeting (or not meeting) their brick quotas. We have letters from task masters about meeting (or not) their brick quotas despite straw not being available or, even, withheld by the government (as one writer accuses - as in Ex. 5:7). And we know the use of straw as a binding agent in mud brick would have been unknown to an Israelite writing centuries later in Canaan (dung was used as a binder in Canaan).

In short, somebody knew an awful lot about the Egypt of several centuries before the stories were set to parchment. And none of these things are things one would expect the writers to know, unless they had a tradition (oral or documentary).

We know that Western Semites could, and did, rise to high office and/or influence in 16th-14th century Egypt, much as Joseph is depicted as doing. Yuya, a western Semite is buried with Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings (married Amenhotep II's daughter and his grandson became Pharaoh Amenhotep IV) and there is a quasi-royal tomb of a western Semite in Avaris (whose occupant wore a multi-colored stripped coat).

We know that slaves regularly escaped across Egypt 's eastern border. Usually in smaller groups, we have letters from officers at Egyptian outposts reporting seeing escapees, reporting capturing escapees, inquiring about what to do about escapees, inquiring about escapees previously captured.

All of the plagues are attested in Egyptian documents and lore (some of these attestations go back to the late 3rd millennium). Even the final plague: there are multiple reference in Egyptian documents to "The Night of the Slaying of the Firstborn."

There's more. But it should be clear by now that there are a large number of key details, indeed almost all of them, in the story which are factual. The story accurately reflects Egypt in the Middle Kingdom and whoever wrote it down had no reason to know any of these things. To this extent, the story is true. But because of the problem of the census implied by the text and the complete absence of conquest evidence, it is not accurate.

Multiple Exoduses?

The text itself, as mentioned, is a composite of three or more traditions. What if there were multiple exodus stories or experiences, what if the texts correctly reflect more than one exodus?

Indeed, multiple historical events that would qualify as exoduses are known. Three of them....

And two clearly inform the Biblical account.

In the mid-16th century, a group of Western Semites were driven out of Egypt. Known to us through Manetho (a 3rd century BCE Egyptian historian) as the Hyksos, 240,000 were driven out by a resurgent Egyptian dynasty according to Manetho. The Hyksos expulsion provides the entire context of the Biblical story throughout the Joseph tales (see Halpern, op. cit.).

It is also worth noting that Josephus asserts in Against Apion, twice, without argument or discussion, as if the matter were well known, that the Hyksos were Israel's ancestors. Manetho, too, identifies Joseph and his brothers with the Hyksos.

The Hyksos took a northerly route. They are reported to have founded Jerusalem and continued on to the northwest of Canaan. Undoubtedly some took up residence in the hill country (north and west of Jerusalem). They provide the militaristic aspects of the story.

Two hundred years later, Amenhotep IV (known to history as Akenaten, the monotheistic revolutionary) was deposed and, because there is no record of his death, it may be safely supposed that he and his followers were also driven out of Egypt. Because Akenaten's city was in the south, suppose they are the ones who took the southern route. (Manetho mentions this too, at the same time, ascribing it to renegade a priest he names Osarseh, who rebelled against Egypt. Manetho claims that Osareph lead 80,000 lepers and he identifies them as early Israelites too.)

A number of scholars, going back over 100 years, accept the assertion that Moses was a follower of Akenaten (Ahmed Osman, Moses and Akhenaten: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus argues that Moses and Akenaten are one and the same). Even if Akenaten, himself, was not driven out of Egypt, his followers were. The Levites are supposed to come from them (note the high percentage of Egyptian names in the list of Levites in the exodus accounts and similarities in purity requirements and rituals).

Here we get the first themes of persecution, along with priestly purity and one god. At this point, if some of them settled in the hill country (sparsely populated, there were few, in any, impediments to settlement), we have a few thousand people living, fairly isolated, in the hill country.

Finally, the big exodus, the one archaeologists focus on because there is so much evidence in the ground, the exodus that increased the population of Judea/Samaria from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

This is the exodus described in Kings and Chronicles, the gradual and peaceful infiltration of the central hill country, the description of which converges so nicely with the empirical evidence.

Beginning sometime in the late 15th or early 14th century, Canaanite society began disintegrating, began its death spiral. The feudal lords did what feudal lords have always done and continue to do: they warred, they stole, they raped, pillaged, plundered and made life utterly miserable for everyone, especially the peasants.

By the late 14th/early 13th century, some Canaanite peasants had had quite enough abuse and, taking a cue from the movie Network,  decided they were sick and tired and weren't going to take it any more. They packed up and moved into the central highlands.

By the end of the 13th century, enough had made the migration that Pharaoh Merneptah not only knew about them but claimed to have totally defeated them ("Israel is laid waste and his seed is not").

Merneptah's stele refers to Israel as a "people," not a "nation." Why not a "nation?" Merneptah shares a prejudice with modern historians: a "nation" has a hierarchical social structure with a central capital and administration.  (This is why some historians claim there was no "nation" of Israel before the monarchy, there was no feudal hierarchy; though, where the monarchy sprang from, they do not say.)

Israel had neither. Israelite philosophy, formed under the depredations of feudal lords, and later enshrined in its theology (see Deut. 17:14, where making a king "over yourself" is first, and disparagingly, mentioned), was egalitarian (though this degraded over the centuries but, thanks to the prophets, never quite becoming totally feudal). To Israel, all persons were on the same level, equal (in later theology, all equally the creation of God). Therefore, it was illogical, indeed, immoral for one person to rule over another.

The case for this migration is very well presented in Dever's Who Were the Ancient Israelites and Where Did They Come From? I highly recommend it.

While these fleeing Canaanites were assimilated into the society formed by the hamlets and villages already in the hill country, how could they identify with any existing stories of oppression or flight from Egypt?

This is simple. Canaan was a vassal of Egypt. Egyptian soldiers patrolled the region, enforcing "peace." Canaanite warlords ("kings") acknowledged Pharaoh as their suzerain. The Amarna Letters make this crystal clear (these letters were probably written to Akenaten's functionaries; Amarna, then known as Aketaten, was Akenaten's capital and abandoned soon after Akenaten's abdication).

Canaanites were Egyptian subjects. The actions of local feudal lords were actions of Egyptian officials. Their forced labor was for Egyptian officials. Seizure of their lands, appropriation of their produce, all the typical feudal abuses of ordinary people, was by the hand and by the order of an Egyptian official. The oppression Canaanites felt was at Egyptian hands. They easily identified with the tales of il-treatment by Egyptians they heard from the descendents of Hyksos; they identified with the tales of il-treatment by Egyptians they heard from the Levitical descendents of Akenaten's refugees. They had suffered similarly under the Egyptian lash.

So when they heard the tales of Egyptian oppression, they could say "Same thing happened to me." It had. When they heard about a sudden, unexpected ("miraculous") escape from Egyptian domination, they could say "Same thing happened to me." It had.... Add a few hundred years of repeating - and embellishing - the stories at the Passover seder, it all becomes fixed.

But, that shared memory happens to be based on fact. The story as told paints a very accurate portrait of Middle/Late Bronze Age Egypt and gives us a good sense of what life could be like. But it does not, at least on the superficial reading most people give it, tell our story. It does not tell what happened to us.

Did "the exodus" happen? No.

Did several exoduses happen and do they account for the tale as written? Yes.

Did the people who became Israel suffer under Egyptian domination and escape it? Yes.

It seems to me that what actually happened shows my ancestors as rather more heroic than the "received tradition."