The Archaeology of Exodus

According to the Biblical account, Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites who gained their freedom by escaping their enslavement by the Pharaoh of Egypt. For most Christians, this weekend is significant for Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. I suppose I could write a whole blog post on just the pagan origins of Easter and the non-Christian aspects of celebrating spring festivals involving the goddess Eostre or Ishtar, but I’ll abstain from anthropological discussion and stick to archaeology.

Passover and Easter coincide and are different holidays, but its the source of Passover that I’m interested in today. Passover and Seder, which follows, are fascinating and, as religious holidays go, among my favorite even though I’m neither Jewish nor a believer. Regardless of whether or not these holidays and their rituals are based in factual events, to me, is irrelevant to the fact that they provide a very valid and purposeful reason to bring family and close friends together. To me, this is rarely a bad thing.

Having said that, however, I’ve long been fascinated by the story that inspired Passover. A story that has been integral to Judeo-Christian mythology and often taken literally by fundamentalists. Moreover, its a story, alleged to have occurred nearly 4,000 years ago, that has probably contributed greatly to the current crises in the Middle East, specifically the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Below the fold is my discussion on Exodus and what can be said archaeologically about it, based mostly on the work of Finklestein and Silberman, cited below.

The Biblical Claim
The claim is, in a nutshell, this: 600,000 “children of Israel” escaped from Egypt where they were the slaves of the pharaoh. These Israelites were chased by the pharaoh’s armies who were unable to catch them. The entire band of 600,000 former slaves “wandered” the desert, camping at various locations, encountering various peoples and kingdoms, and finally settled to form a new nation. All of this occurred, ostensibly, in the 15th century BCE. We “know” this because I Kings 6:1 tells us Solomon’s temple was constructed in the 4th year of his rule, 480 years after Exodus. 966 BCE + 480 years = 1446 BCE.

Exodus 1:11 mentions two cities of Egypt: Pi-Ramesses and Pithom as forced labor projects of the Israelites. The first pharaoh named Ramesses is the son of Seti I and reigns in the year 1320 BCE, so even the 480 years of I Kings doesn’t work. Pi-Ramesses was built in the Nile Delta during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) and Egyptian records indicate Semites were used in its construction.

Who Were the Hyksos?
Often in discussions of Exodus and Israelites in Egypt, the Hyksos come into the picture. This is because the Hyksos were Semite in origin, specifically Canaanite. The same progenitor peoples of the modern day Israelites and Palestinians. The Nile Delta, a.k.a. Lower Egypt, was frequently inhabited by migrating peoples and nomads who sought to find refuge in the relatively stable delta ecology, particularly in times of drought and famine. From about 1668 – 1565 BCE, Canaanites occupied the Delta and ruled Lower Egypt. Manethos referred to the them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners.

The Hyksos had a distinctive Canaanite pottery and architecture, which is present in the archaeological record and, according to the Turin Papyrus, they ruled Lower Egypt for 108 years. One of the most prominent of their rulers was Apophis and their capital was Avaris, known today as the archaeological site Tell Daba’a.

Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it.

From that point, the Egyptians maintained tight control of the border between Eastern Egypt and Canaan.

For those that are quick to pick up on the similarities of the Hyksos and the Exodus tale, it’s important to note that the dates also don’t line up with the I Kings account and the difference is more than 130 years. Moreover, there is no “Ramesses” for whom a city can be named at this point. Though, the correlation is one to not be quickly dismissed.

What if the Exodus Story Were Concocted?
What if, indeed? Why concoct such a tale and how would we know it was either concocted or true. Believers in Christianity and Judaism assign varying degrees of trust in Old Testament mythology: some willing to accept it as myth at one extreme; others taking great umbrage to the use of the term “myth” at the other.

But if we hypothesize for a moment that the Exodus narrative (I’ll stick to this term) is one that was invented by the authors of Genesis, then what might we expect to find to corroborate the hypothesis?

First, we might expect that narrative be limited to only what the authors knew. Assuming that they didn’t have Iron Age archaeologists excavating sites, we can assume that their knowledge was limited to the geography and politics of their time.

Second, if the narrative is an invented one, we would fail to see corroboration in Egyptian texts of it.

Third, if, indeed, this is a narrative invented by a much later author or set of authors, we would not expect to find archaeological evidence that supports it.

Guess What?
The sites mentioned in Exodus are real.

The problem is this: the sites mentioned were sparsely populated by a few pastoralists or otherwise completely unoccupied during the alleged period that Exodus occurred in the Late Bronze Age (13th century BCE). A few were well-known and occupied much earlier and certainly much later than the Late Bronze Age, but during the Exodus period, nada. They were unoccupied at precisely the time they were reported to be by Exodus.

Not only that, but Egyptian texts don’t mention “Israelites” at all. If 600,000 slaves escaped the pharaoh, they were so stealthy they slipped past all the border stations that were put into place following the Hyksos expulsion, snuck past each of the fortifications used to supply soldiers along the “Ways of Horus,” the 250 km route between Egypt and Gaza. And they successfully eluded Egyptian soldiers that were already present in Canaan, which was controlled by Egypt from the 13th through the 7th centuries BCE. The only mention of “Israel” is on the Merneptah Stele where Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE) boasts that “Isrir lies in waste its seed no more.” The lack of a country determinative in the hieroglyphs clearly indicates Merneptah was referring to a people not a country and the depiction of the Israelites on the stele was consistent with Canaanite hair style.

Addressing the third point above, regarding archaeological evidence, it must be recognized that there has been extensive work done in archaeology in the Levant, particularly in the Sinai desert where the “children of Israel” (all 600,000 of them) were said to “wander.” Biblical stories are very much responsible for this archaeology as “biblical archaeologists,” searched -and still search- for evidence that supports their beliefs.

600,000 Wandering Jews?
Let’s put the number into perspective. Fresno and Mission Viejo, both in California have populations of 500,000. Bakersfield is only 250,000. Vancouver, Canada has a population of 600,000.

Not a single archaeological expedition, and there have been a great many, has discovered evidence of any substantial group of people subsisting off of the land in the Sinai desert or in or near any of the sites mentioned in Exodus. According to the biblical narrative, the equivalent of the population of Vancouver was moving around and camping in the desert for 40 years. Not only were they stealthy (not encountering the Egyptian armies who recorded even encounters with a few nomadic pastoralists tending their flocks); but they were frugal! Not a single pot sherd has been found!

Not a single campsite or site of occupation has been found with the exception of the well-documented coastal forts and stations of the Egyptian army for the period of Ramesses II or for any of his immediate predecessors or successors. There have been repeated archaeological excavations at the site of St. Catherine’s Monastary in the Sinai, where Moses is supposed to have spoken to a burning bush, but the results have always been negative evidence. Not a single sherd or indication that the site was occupied in the Late Bronze Age. Modern archaeological techniques can trace the remains of hunter-gather and pastoral nomads all over the world, but cannot find a population the size of that of Vancouver in a barren desert! Indeed, the activity of a small population of pastoralists is present in the 3rd millennium (2000-3000) BCE, as well as in the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. But the evidence is NON-EXISTENT for the Late Bronze Age.

Tell Arad
East of Beersheba there is the remains of a great Early Bronze Age city that spans about 25 acres. A “tell” is a mound of past human habitation that has since eroded from mud bricks to a pile of dirt, often built upon again and again over many generations. This tell also became an Iron Age fort, but there are no remains for the Late Bronze Age when Exodus is alleged to have happened.

This directly contradicts the biblical narrative since the king of Arad “who dwelt in the Negeb” attacked the Israelites who appealed for divine intervention to destroy the Canaanite cities (Num. 21:1-3). There’s no evidence of Arad anywhere in the Beersheba valley (Negeb).

Tell Heshban
The wandering Jews supposedly did battle here with the Ammorite king, Sihon, who tried to block there passage (Num. 21:21-25). Excavations here reveal NO Bronze Age city. Not even a village.

Eddom and Ammon were alleged to be full-fledge states ruled by kings on the Transjordan plateau, yet the evidence shows that the plateau was sparsely inhabited by pastoralist populations in the Bronze Age. Not a single sedentary population is evident in the archaeological record.

Exodus was probably a story written by authors in the 7th century, or possibly as late as the 6th century, BCE. The place names mentioned above existed by the 7th century but not in the Bronze Age. Iron Age authors would have known of the many public works created by the Saite Dynasty in Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, who employed the largest numbers of foreign settlers. A large community of immigrants from Judah was present from the 7th through the 6th centuries. Pithom, mentioned in Exodus 1:11, was built in the 7th century. Migdol, mentioned in Exodus 14:2, was built in the 7th century.

Exodus apparently did not happen in the period or in the manner in which it is portrayed in biblical mythology.

Useful References:

Beitak, M. (1996). Avaris the capital of the Hyksos: recent excavations of Tell el-Daba. London

Finkelstein, I. & Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York

Oren, E.D. (1987). The “Ways of Horus” in North Sinai. In Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1992). Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton

Redford, D.B. (1987) An Egyptological perspective on the Exodus narrative. In: Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1973). Studies in Relations between Palestine and Egypt during the First Millennium B. C.: II. The Twenty-Second Dynasty. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 93(1), pp. 3-17.


9 Responses

  1. Did you submit your site at

    You can reach blogsearch by just typing in your browser window or click here

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  2. hi Carl – I just wanted to check with you if it’s ok to use your post on the upcoming FSH – Alun at archaeoastronomy very kindly suggested this and a few other posts from elsewhere, and I’m more than happy to include your essay here, but wasn’t sure of you knew it had been nominated, so if you could let me know, that would be great, bye for now, Tim

  3. Just a quick point before I go back to reading. By your dating, the exodus should have happened in the 15th century BCE not the 13th.

  4. Although I’m by far not a biblical literalist, I think there are a few things (outside of the field of archeology, admittedly) that you should take into consideration.

    The first is literary. It is well known that any pastoralist society from the proper time period would have been illiterate. Their sagas would have been passed down orally with changes being introduced both intentionally and unintentionally. One of the changes often introduced into oral stories is anachronism. Details are changed for the benefit of a “modern” audience who would not recognize outdated place names, for instance. Hence, perhaps, the mention of Pi-Ramesses. The general location for a now-defunct settlement? Accurate representations of historical events would not become valued until millenia after the composition of these stories.

    We see some of this in the Homer’s Illiad, which we now know reflected somewhat the events of a real place and the war that happened there. For centuries, Troy was written off as a myth. Many attempted to find it and failed before its final discovery.

    Finally, remember the huge gaps in the evidence we do have. We don’t have the complete records of the Egyptian Empire nor do we know whether the Israelis called themselves that at that time nor what word the Egyptians may have used for them.

    Examples of what I mean: American slave records make no mention of particular slave tribes, only Africans. We refer to many groups by names that they don’t use for themselves. The Sioux referred to themselves as Dakota. The Germans call themselves Deutsch. We know these things because we have extensive records from literate societies or groups that still exist today. What about the pre-literate ones like the early Hebrews?

  5. Melinda,

    Thank you for posting!

    exodus should have happened in the 15th century BCE not the 13th.

    And I cheerfully accept your correction! As embarrassing as such a mistake is, I have only my poor habit of proof-reading to blame. Thank you.

    With regard to your other comments, I find I have to agree. Its also ironic that I mentioned something very similar to my wife over diner just hours before your own comment. And I suppose its why I included the Hyksos section.

    More and more I find myself leaning toward the Hyksos as a source for the Exodus myth, particularly in light of what you’ve typed. Clearly, these are events that someone is trying to record that exist in an oral tradition. Embellishments are inevitable, particularly for a culture with an agenda to push (and what complex culture doesn’t?). But there must be some core event(s) that initiated the story.

    Its clear that Hyksos were chased out of Egypt by the Egyptian army that finally had enough of them, sacking Avaris, etc. As the story gets told and retold around the hearth, it becomes less and less likely that those telling the story will be willing to say they were evicted and more and more likely that they escaped.

    Redaction of the dates in the Exodus story might be explained by the necessity of meshing it with an already established timeline.

    Thanks again for posting!

  6. Without responding one way of the other to the other propositions in your post, I wanted to clear up a misconception about the number 600,000. Traditionally, 600,000 is the number of military-ready males between the ages of 20 to 60. The number of Jews at Sinai, according to Jewish tradition, is much higher, between 2 to 3 million total when taking into account women, children, elderly and those Egyptians who joined with the Jews on their exodus.

    As for archeological evidence, again, without disputing the general nature of your argument, it is difficult to compare a modern Canadian city of steel, glass, rubber and concrete with that of wandering tribes. Not to say that there wouldn’t be traces in the records, but it would be difficult to find traces of civilizations which used organic/biodegradable building materials/tents after a few thousand years.

  7. Check out
    who provides a much larger in depth exodus analysis, called “an alternative view of exodus.” He or she mentions that Pithom is being built in the MB II era.

  8. What no comments on June 28, 2008 Debunking Atheist! Check Rex’s September 2009 comments.

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