Alleged Evidence Against a Historical Exodus
There are several arguments regularly cited, even in reputable textbooks and scholarly works, for regarding the Exodus as largely unhistorical (though not necessarily lacking a historical core). A popular presentation of these arguments is laid out in Israel Finkelstein’s and Neil Asher Silberman’s popular book, The Bible Unearthed. Because the assertion that the Exodus tradition conflicts with archaeological evidence is so common, it is appropriate to first address these arguments and show why they are misplaced. I have summarized these responses from Kitchen.
1. No records of the Israelites in Egypt
The most common argument against the historicity of the Exodus is that ancient Egyptian records do not attest to a large group of Israelites in Egypt. The Egyptians were meticulous record-keepers, yet there are no records of the Israelites in ancient Egyptian papyrus documents, temple walls, or tomb inscriptions. Similarly, there are no records of the plagues or of the drowning of the Pharaoh’s army. Additionally, the border between Egypt and Canaan (the biblical term for ancient Palestine) was closely controlled during the New Kingdom period, when the Exodus is usually assumed to have happened. If a great mass of fleeting Israelites passed through these border fortifications, a record should exist, just as we do have a record of the escape of a small group of Edomite slaves. The only mention of Israel is the Merneptah Stele (c. 1208), which mentions the Israelites as a group existing in or around Canaan.
Answer: The Bible places the location of the Israelites in the East Nile Delta. We should not expect to find records of the Israelites there because records in the Delta are lacking in general, since papyrus records do not tend to survive its humid climate. Monuments and other ancient Egyptian remains are similarly lacking in the East Delta because they were repeatedly recycled as building material, moved, leveled, and or/built over. Moreover, the Egyptians did not usually memorialize humiliating defeats on their temple walls, only victories. Finally, the Egyptians generally referred to Semites as “Asiatics” rather than mentioning specific groups.As we will see, the story of the presence of the Israelites in the East Nile Delta fits in extremely well with what we know about the setting during the New Kingdom period, and there are many positive reasons to acknowledge it.
2. The Unlikelihood of Escaping Egypt
Argument: The escape of a large group of slaves would have been highly unlikely, because during the New Kingdom period, Egypt was at the peak of its might and its borders were heavily guarded. There was a sophisticated system of Egyptian forts, granaries, and wells established along entire length of the road to Canaan (known as the Way of Horus), with Egyptian officials in charge of administration. There were also Egyptian strongholds in various places in Canaan.
Answer: The Book of Exodus specifically states that God led the Israelites on the southern roundabout way through Sinai in order to avoid conflict:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. (Exod. 13:17-18)
In fact, the archaeological data shows that the southern route was virtually free of Egyptian presence. Hence this turns out to be evidence for the historical authenticity of the Exodus account.
3. No Archaeological Remains of the Wilderness Wanderings
Argument: The Sinai desert could not have supported a group of more than a few thousand people. If the Israelites camped around in the Sinai for forty years, they should have left behind archaeological traces. Despite extensive archaeological surveys of the Sinai Peninsula—especially the traditional locations of Mount Sinai, Kadesh-barnea (where the Israelites allegedly camped for 38 years), and Ezion-Geber—no remains have been uncovered from the 13th century BCE except of some Egyptian forts on the northern coast. In contrast, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of even simple hunter-gathers and pastoral nomads from the 3rd millennium BCE.
Answer: “The state of the preservation of archaeological remains is very uneven.” We know from written texts that there was indeed considerable migration by nomadic tribes and Egyptian travelers back and forth through the Sinai Peninsula throughout the second and early first millennium BCE. Yet the archaeological remains for those are scant. Moreover, “from Sinai the Hebrews expected initially to be in Canaan in a year, not in forty years. They had no need to lug tons of heavy pottery around with them…if leatherwork or skins would do.”
4. Anachronisms in the Exodus Account
Another objection is that the books of Exodus and Numbers contain anachronisms which render their accounts historically dubious, such as the mention of Edom as a kingdom. It is not essential to address this claim here, since we are concerned with the Qur’anic account, which does not contain these specific details. However, the interested reader can consult Kitchen and Hess for crisp refutations of these claims.
Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.