Monday, March 05, 2012

Is the Exodus Story Historical?

One of the most popular arguments against the historical reliability of the Bible is the argument that there is apparently no historical evidence for one of the most momentous events in the book: the Exodus. Critics of the Bible delight to point this out, though it is not only from the irreligious that we hear this argument. Liberal and unorthodox Christians like to argue against the historical reliability of the Bible, pushing forth the idea that faith is not about objective facts and historical truth, but that faith is about our subjective feelings and mystic experiences with God. To them, a blind leap in dark is the essence of faith, and the more unobjective and ridiculous a belief, the more spiritual! I recently had a Mormon say to me that believing in the Bible is the same as believing in the Book of Mormon – since both require you to believe in the preposterous. Just as the Book of Mormon contains a “history” with no evidence (or rather, with evidence to the contrary), so also does the Bible, and the example he pointed to from the Bible was the Exodus story.

However, faith is not a blind leap in the dark. It has never been defined that way until the most recent centuries, and even then it has only been defined that way by liberals and the unorthodox, not by the traditional Christian body at large. To Christians, faith has nothing to do with the absurd. It is not more spiritual to believe in something without evidence and against reason – such an idea does not come from the Bible - it is harmful and foolish. If you can believe something without evidence then you can believe anything at all. That is not Christianity. Christianity is a religion of truth, not of falsehood and unreality.

If one objects by saying that in the Bible we are required to believe all sorts of wonderful things, like God parting the Red Sea, and the virgin birth, and the resurrection of the dead - all alleged absurdities - we respond by saying: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14) “For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) “Why should it be thought a strange thing that God can raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8) Faith is about believing in God, not believing in the absurd. The greatest statement of faith is: what is impossible with man is possible with God. We do not argue that virgins naturally give birth, nor that seas naturally part, nor that dead bodies naturally rise. Of course they don’t. But that is not our faith. Our faith is that God can do anything, and we call those miracles “miracles” precisely because they lie outside the realm of natural ability. To believe that miracles naturally occur is to believe absurdity. To believe that miracles occur by the power of God is to have true faith. One need only believe in the supernatural power of God and miracles no longer are absurdities, but rather testimonies of the presence of the Almighty.

To believe in the Exodus is not preposterous. That God could deliver Israel from their Egyptian captors with great signs and wonders, dividing the sea, and bringing them through it safely while crushing their enemies behind them – this is not outside the realm of possibility. The question that faces us in this article, however, is whether there is evidence for it; or is the Exodus to be compared to the Book of Mormon, which has no evidence for its alleged history, but rather has evidence to the contrary? It is the purpose of this article to show that the Exodus cannot be compared to the Book of Mormon based upon the argument that in both cases there is equally a lack of evidence; but rather, unlike the Book of Mormon, there is in fact a reasonable basis to believe that the Exodus is true history. I contend that the popular argument which says that the Exodus is unhistorical due to a lack of evidence is superficial and hasty. Before anyone passes judgment upon the historicity of the Exodus, they must carefully consider the case.

There is an immense difference between the case for the Book of Mormon and the case for the Exodus. It is important that we recognize this major point: that when dealing with the Book of Mormon we are dealing with centuries of civilizations, but when dealing with the Exodus we are dealing with a single event. The Book of Mormon claims that great Hebrew civilizations existed in the Americas from around 600 BC to the 15th century AD – civilizations complete with walled cities, road systems, large armies, and prosperous trade. Do you not think that this would be easy to discover? Our archaeological experience in other parts of the world tells us it should be. The size of the claim means that it should be quite easy to find evidence for it if were it true. On the other hand, the Exodus story concerns a single event which is said to have happened in just a short period of days around 1400 BC: a group of slaves left Egypt after ten dramatic wonders from God. Do you not think that it would be difficult to discover archaeological evidence for a brief event like this that happened thousands of years ago? Our experience searching for ancient events tells us this is so. The size of the claim means that it should be quite difficult to find evidence for it if it were true. Yet in spite of this, what is most fascinating is that while we cannot find any evidence to support the centuries of civilizations said to have existed in the Book of Mormon (though we have found plenty of evidence to the contrary), we do in fact find a surprising amount of evidence to support the event of the Exodus said to have happened in the Bible. Thus, where it should be easy to find, we do not find, and where it should be difficult to find, we find!

Let us now consider the evidence we find for the Exodus, but let us keep in mind the nature of the evidence we are looking for. It must be noted what we are not seeking to prove. We are not seeking to prove that ancient Egypt existed, or that the physical geography of the Biblical record is as it says it was. All the infrastructure and physical geography which the Exodus story requires is in place exactly as it should be. Egypt, with its cities and terrorities, existed in the ancient world just as the story describes. The geographical locations in the story are all in place, such as the Red Sea and the wilderness of Sinai. Nor are we trying to prove that the ancient Egyptians or Israelites even existed - this too is an established fact of ancient history. So unlike the Book of Mormon, we are not seeking to prove the infrastructure, locations or people of the story. The only thing we are looking for is evidence for an event. Is there any evidence that the Hebrews lived in Egypt and left Egypt as the Biblical record describes? That is the question.

Therefore, what kind of evidence do we need, then, to discover the event of the Exodus? The answer: documentation. Literature, art, pottery, monuments, coins... anything that would indicate that the Hebrews lived in Egypt and left Egypt in the manner described in the Bible. But let us be sure to take into account the difficulty we should expect when trying to find evidence for this kind of an event. We are trying to find documentation for one event in the tide of ancient history. Just finding documentation is difficult for any event in the ancient world. Even if something was written down thousands of years ago, you still have to find it, provided it has been preserved. On top of that, we are trying to find documentation for an event that involved slaves: people of no importance in the ancient world. In the social psyche of the ancients, slaves were looked down upon as the defeated, not worthy of mention, forsaken by the gods. The Exodus story is controversial to the ancient system of thought because it is the slaves who are victorious; the slaves who are honored and cared for by God. Furthermore, the Exodus event is an event that the Egyptians would not want to broadcast or remember. This latter point shouldn’t be underestimated. Unlike today, in the ancient world such an event becoming public would mean doom for a nation. Other nations would no longer fear their gods nor their military might. Who would want to ally themselves politically with them, a nation that God was against and that was defeated by slaves? And if the Egyptian gods were defeated by the God of slaves, what more incentive could other nations have to conquer the Egyptians themselves? Thus, the Exodus event would not only be a matter of great dishonor for the Egyptians, but it would be a matter of national survival to erase the memory of the Exodus from off the face of the earth.

However, despite the obvious difficulties to finding documentary evidence for the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, we are not without such evidence. Several surprising accounts of the Exodus occur in the histories of various Greek and Roman writers, who wrote down the prevalent traditional history of what happened long ago in the land of Egypt. It is worth quoting some of these writers. The first is Hecataeus of Abdera, a Greek historian from the 4th century BC, who visited the city of Thebes in Egypt and wrote a history of Egypt entitled Aegyptiaca. Scholars agree that his writing reflects the Egyptian understanding of their own history. The famous passage on the Exodus, preserved in Diodorus Sicilus's massive history, is as follows:

When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practising different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honour of the gods had fallen into disuse. Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, and the most outstanding and active among them banded together and, as some say, were cast ashore in Greece and certain other regions; their leaders were notable men, chief among them being Danaus and Cadmus. But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited. The colony was headed by a man called Moses, outstanding both for his wisdom and for his courage. On taking possession of the land he founded, beside other cities, one that is now the most renowned of all, called Jerusalem. In addition he established the temple that they hold in chief veneration, instituted their forms of worship and ritual, drew up their laws and ordered their political institutions. He also divided them into twelve tribes, since this is regarded as the most perfect number and corresponds to the number of months that make up a year. But he had no images whatsoever of the gods made for them, being of the opinion that God is not in human form; rather the Heaven that surrounds the earth is alone divine, and rules the universe. The sacrifices that he established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion from Egypt he introduced a kind of misanthropic and inhospitable way of life.” (Bibliotheca Historica, 40.3)

This is one of the most remarkable proofs that the traditional history of the ancient world was, based upon the Egyptians themselves, that the Hebrews (then living in Judea) actually originated from the borders of Egypt, and were expulsed from Egypt on account of religious controversy, in order to divert divine displeasure manifested by pestilence!

In Book V of his Histories, the famous Roman historian Tacitus, as he is about to describe the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD, thinks it is worthwhile to give a brief history of the city and of the Jewish people for the sake of putting the events he is relating into context. He begins by describing various views on the origin of the Hebrews, but then concludes by writing:

Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king [Pharoah] Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moyses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random. Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock shaded by trees. Moyses followed them, and, guided by the appearance of a grassy spot, discovered an abundant spring of water. This furnished relief. After a continuous journey for six days, on the seventh they possessed themselves of a country, from which they expelled the inhabitants, and in which they founded a city and a temple.” (Histories, Book V.3)

While this interpretation on the story is actually quite comical, it contains many important elements that are relevant to our case. Tacitus informs us that the view of most writers in his day was that the Hebrew people did in fact live in, and leave, Egypt. Furthermore, they were expelled from Egypt in an attempt to appease the gods, due to a horrible disease that had broken out across the land (boils? Ex. 9:8-1). Tacitus, like Hecataeus, also goes on to mention Moses, and how the Hebrews afterward settled in Judea and Jerusalem. While it is certainly an interesting interpretation of the story, the parallels to the Biblical account are impressive.

Many more ancient historians can be cited who likewise recorded the traditional history of the Hebrews coming out of Egypt and settling in the land of Canaan, but the greatest documentary evidence for the Exodus event that we possess is none other than the Torah itself: a first-hand account of the event written by Moses and entrusted to the very people who came out of Egypt. The Torah is one of the world’s most ancient books, and must not be underestimated for its historical value. According to the testimony of a people, it has been copied and preserved from the earliest days of their national history, and this fact has been attested to by its spectacular historical accuracy of the ancient world. It is used by archaeologists to discover ancient sites and locations, ancient kings and peoples. The Smithsonian Institution has stated concerning the Bible:

Much of the Bible, in particular the historical books of the old testament, are as accurate historical documents as any that we have from antiquity and are in fact more accurate than many of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Greek histories. These Biblical records can be and are used as are other ancient documents in archeological work. For the most part, historical events described took place and the peoples cited really existed. This is not to say that names of all peoples and places mentioned can be identified today, or that every event as reported in the historical books happened exactly as stated. There are conflicts between present archeological evidence and historical reports that may result from a lack of information on our part or from misunderstandings or mistakes by the ancient writers.”

On the other hand, their statement concerning the Book of Mormon is not so friendly:

The Smithsonian Institution has never used the Book of Mormon in any way as a scientific guide. Smithsonian archeologists see no direct connection between the archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book.”

As mentioned before, that we should expect to find first-hand documentation of the Exodus event outside of the Bible is highly unlikely, since the Egyptians would not have recorded it (because  it would have spelled disgrace and doom upon their nation), but it is entirely to be expected that Israel should have recorded and remembered such a monumental event if it had in fact happened - and so they did. Thus both the Egyptian silence and the account in the Torah is exactly what we would expect to find if the Exodus is historical.

One significant and often overlooked evidence in favor of the historicity of the Exodus event comes from internal evidence in the Torah itself. It has been observed by many Old Testament scholars that whoever wrote the Book of Exodus was in fact familiar with Egyptian language and culture from the required period, even on points of minutia. Intimate knowledge of Egyptian names, places, gods, court life, idioms, concepts, and theological peculiarities, reveal that the author was a contemporary of the period and was not writing a history of Egypt from an ignorant distance. This is in sharp contrast with the author of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith. While Smith’s Book of Mormon claims to be an ancient document of the Hebrew people living in the Americas, upon examination it plainly exposed itself to be a product of the 1830’s, written by one who had little-to-no knowledge of the history, setting, geography or culture of the period he was writing about. The Book of Mormon is full of anachronism  (ex. nearly every theological debate unique to the 19th century is addressed in the Book of Mormon) and factual errors (ex. the Book of Mormon claims that horses, elephants and steel weapons were used by the Hebrews in the Americas. For more information, see Gerald and Sandra Tanner, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon). In short, the internal evidence of the Book of Mormon reveals that it is not an ancient historical document and that it’s author was not familiar with the period he was writing about, while on the other hand, the internal evidence of the Torah reveals that it is an ancient document and it’s author was well acquainted with the period he was writing about. “Whoever wrote the Torah must have known Egyptian.” (Professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University, Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out, fn. 38, p. 411) Could it be that Moses, who grew up in Egypt, indeed wrote the Torah, and was in fact an eyewitness of the events recorded?

It is also highly significant that we do not have any documentary evidence against the Exodus event. No Egyptian writer, nor other ancient writer, ever wrote a refutation of the audacious claims of the Torah. If the event were a hoax there would have been such writings, and if there were such writings, they would have been popular. In that case, we would expect ancient historians to be conscious of Torah refutations, but no ancient historian was ever familiar with any such work. On the contrary, what we find ancient historians writing about is actually what we would expect if the Exodus event were true: not denial, but reinterpretation, and with plenty of points of corraboration. However, there are a few Egyptian documents from the event period that may actually corraborate with the Biblical account (though we cannot be absolutely certain; see Admonitions of Ipuwer, and the Biography of Amenemhab).

If we are looking for documentary evidence for the Exodus event we have certainly found it in the Torah. The only reason to doubt the historicity of the Exodus is due to disbelief in the supernatural. This we have already discussed above. Why couldn’t the Torah be accurate? There is no reason to believe that the Exodus couldn’t have happened: the geography and infrastructure is all there, the power of God is well able to do all the things recorded in the Scriptural record, and we have documentation of the event in the Torah. Ancient tradition attests to the Exodus story, and no writings refuting the story can be found. The nation of Israel has an unbroken witness to the Exodus in their yearly commemoration of the event by the Passover feast. This feast has its roots in the earliest period of Israelite history. Every Biblical author believed in the Exodus and spoke of it frequently to the people throughout the centuries. Preserving the memory of the Exodus is paramount to the identity of the Jewish people, not only because it marks the formation of their nation, but because it also defines their calling as God’s people. Furthermore, for those of us who are Christian, Jesus Christ the Son of God believed in the Exodus event. Against all this testimony, if such an event never occured, where did the idea come from? Why did all these people believe in it as having literally happened? Where is the evidence to the contrary? Was the Son of God mistaken?

However, our consideration of the evidence is not yet complete, even though we already have sufficient documentation to form a reasonable basis for believing that the Exodus event was historical. There is more evidence yet to be considered. 

Archaeologists claim to have discovered a remarkable proof that the Israelites lived in the land Egypt at the time required by the Biblical record, and what they have discovered actually coincides with a very special claim in the Bible: that Joseph the Hebrew lived in Egypt and became the second-in-command to Pharaoh himself (Gen. 41:40-46). Egyptian archaeologists claim to have discovered, in Egypt, Egyptian amulets and scarabs, the dating of which accords with the pre-Exodus period, bearing the face and inscription of Joseph, the second-in-command to Pharaoh (! Apparently both his Hebrew and Egyptian name are on these coins. If these are authentic, this is powerful evidence showing the spectacular accuracy of the Bible, and that the Hebrews did in fact live in Egypt just as the Biblical record suggests. It was because Joseph lived in Egypt and could provide for grain them that the Hebrews first came to dwell in the land of Egypt.

The apparent absence of any physical trace for the actual parting of, and crossing through, the Red Sea, with the subsequent destruction of Pharaoh’s army, stands for most people as the case against the Exodus as historical. However, such a conclusion is hasty and does not fully consider the case. In the first place, finding physical traces of the actual parting and crossing of the Red Sea is unlikely. It was a nautical event that occurred on one day which involved no buildings or cities or obvious historical markers to remember it by. Outside of documentation, the only thing one might hope to find is remnants of the drowned Egyptian army (chariots, armor, weapons, etc) that perished in the sea. Is there any physical trace of the drowned Egyptian army? The answer to this question is that at this time we cannot answer. Divers have explored the bottom of the Red Sea and some have said that they have found remains such as chariot wheels and gold artifacts, but these cannot be confirmed due to the fact that the Egyptian government does not allow anything to be removed from out of the sea (see Based upon these reports, we cannot say conclusively either way at this time. We must also consider that this event happened nearly 3500 years ago, and many factors will create difficultly for finding such evidence. Erosion, burial, coral growth, the equipment being moved or recovered - all these factors present significant obstacles to discovery. If such remains do exist, in order to discover them underwater excavations are required, and that is something that is costly and has not yet been done. People overestimate the achievements of archaeology, but the true fact is that archaeology is a young discipline and only a small portion of archaeological excavation has actually been done on our globe (though the small portion has yielded rich results). At the end of 2002, no nautical archaeological program existed in any Egyptian university (Ruppe and Barstad, International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology, p. 533), and only as recently as December 2008 was the first course in nautical archaeology given at Alexandria University ( The argument that there is no physical evidence for the drowning of the Egyptian army is premature.

Lack of evidence for anything is never a proof of falsehood – to prove something false, one needs to present positive evidence against it. Regarding the Exodus event, up to this point there is proof for it and no proof against it. However, the same cannot be said regarding the Book of Mormon. Unlike the Exodus event, where we are dealing with a one-day event in history, with the Book of Mormon we are dealing with thousands of years of alleged cities and civilizations, which not only has no evidence for it, but has positive evidence against it (for an excellent introduction, see The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon,

It also shouldn't surprise us that there would be little to no evidence of the Israelites in the wilderness during their forty years of wandering subsequent to their passing through the Red Sea. A forty year span isn't a long time to leave a lasting archaeological footprint for us to discover 3500 years later, especially considering that the Israelites built no cities nor buildings during this time (the mobile tabernacle doesn't count, which was a tent, not a building). Neither did they farm nor dig wells, but were miraculously fed with manna and quail from heaven and water from rock. This is an extremely significant point. If the Biblical story is in fact true, then what we find today (or rather don’t find) of their wilderness is exactly what we would expect; but if the Biblical story was merely a legendary modification of an actual historical wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness – the real story being entirely non-supernatural – then we would expect to have found traces of the Israelites in the wilderness, which we do not. Therefore the lack of physical evidence of the Israelites' forty year stay in the wilderness actually supports the Biblical account.

However, there is yet another line of evidence that needs to be considered in the case for the historical Exodus, and that is the archaeological evidence of the emergence of Israel in the land of Canaan. Archaeologists agree, in accordance with the Biblical record of Joshua, Judges and the four books of the Kings, that the land of Canaan became inhabited by the Israelites and that Israelite culture dispossessed Canaanite culture somewhere between 1400 and 1200 BC. The Israelites conquered the ancient land of Canaan, and relevant to the case for the historical Exodus is that this conquest occurred chronologically on the heels of Israel’s departure out of Egypt. According to the best Biblical and archaeological research, Israel left Egypt c. 1450 BC, and Israel began conquering the Canaanites c. 1400 BC (for an excellent treatment of the conquest of Canaan and the remarkable archaeological discoveries regarding the battle of Jericho, see Joel Kramer, Jericho Unearthed). Though the emergence of Israel in the land of Canaan does not tell us what the Israelites were doing beforehand, it does show us that the Biblical time frame is accurate. This then contributes to our trust in the Biblical record of the Exodus.

To deny that the Exodus event could have happened in history is a stance driven more by unbelief than by a lack of evidence. As we have seen, contrary to popular argument, there is much evidence supporting the historical reliability of the Exodus story: documentation, tradition, artifacts, geography, infrastructure, timeline, etc. In light of the fact that we are inquiring into a single event that happened 3500 years ago, this is an impressive catalog. It is not therefore a lack of evidence that causes people to disbelieve in the Exodus story, but it is rather an a priori conviction that such supernatural phenomenon cannot happen. Such a conviction is entirely unwarranted and philosophically unsound. Yet many people choose to commit to naturalism, precluding in their mind any possibility that Biblical stories like the Exodus might be true, and therefore they argue vigorously against them. But if one does not commit a priori to naturalism, and follows the evidence wherever it leads, one can believe in the Exodus account with a reasonable historical basis. Most importantly of all, when one believes in the Exodus event as historical, one takes side with the Jesus Christ, the Son of God from heaven.

In conclusion, it cannot be said that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are comparable in that they both require you to believe in the preposterous. Such may be the inevitable Mormon position, with its obvious lack of evidence and the mounting catalog of evidence against it, but it is not the Biblical position. Faith is not believing in something without evidence, but according to the Bible’s own definition of faith: “faith is the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) That is, though one does not have a perfect knowledge of something (ie. you cannot see it), one is convinced, based upon evidence and reason, that such a thing is true. Accordingly, we each exercise faith in many things everyday. You do not know perfectly that your workplace is still there, yet you get up in the morning and drive to work because you have good reason to believe it is, though you do not see it before you get there. God calls us to such faith in Him, and He supplies us with an abundance of reasons to believe; so much so that we are without excuse if we do not believe. Therefore, let us not be content to be either doubtful or absurd. Let us hear God’s call to faith as it is recorded by the prophet Isaiah: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18)

1 comment:

Eli said...

For the record: I changed the first line from

"One of the most popular arguments against the historical reliability of the Bible is the argument that there is apparently no historical evidence for the most momentous event in the book: the Exodus."


"One of the most popular arguments against the historical reliability of the Bible is the argument that there is apparently no historical evidence for one of the most momentous events in the book: the Exodus."

because the original wording caused some unintended confusion with a friend of mine. Certainly the most momentous event in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. I was simply trying to emphasize how momentous the Exodus event was, and my wording was poor. I overlooked how my wording could be confused. My apologies.