Evidence of the EXodus from Egypt

Hi guys,

I heard that they are going to make another Moses and the Exodus movie. I can guess that magic stuff is old folklore dressed up in hollywood (actually bollywood would fit  better)? IT is so far back, I am tempted to give up, but kjust for an argument, is there anything in it?



Hi Max,

Many have given up on the question of Moses, so I sympathise. But it still matters. The Israelite exodus from Egypt is clearly the most important event in the Hebrew Bible, and yet there is presently no direct archaeological evidence to support the tradition. That is, no settlement pattern in Sinai that befits a crowd of three million (as stated in one text).

In recent decades, some scholars have questioned whether the absence of evidence means that it was not an historical event. It is always academically dangerous to draw conclusions from an absence of evidence, so this paper proceeds from an evidence-based stance.

There are several reasons for the justified absence of verifiable evidence:

  1. Archaeology of the Egyptian delta (green triangle at top left of the picture) is still in its infancy. The right hand side of this delta is the area in question for the Exodus.
  2. The ancient ‘exodus’ city of Rameses is too moist to preserve papyrus records. The city itself, in addition, dug by the French since the thirties, had apparently been moved from its original site (to be closer to an altered flow of the Nile River).
  3. The Sinai (the big triangle in the centre of the picture above) was a ‘war zone’ for fifty years in an era when archaeology was developing elsewhere.
  4. Nomadic people (from the Negev Desert at the top half of it) would not leave much hard evidence in any settlement pattern, though some sort of artefacts should still be expected. Nomads use a lot of animal products in their technology, and would leave few, if any, monuments. For instance, they carry water in leather bladders, which bio-degrade, and not pottery, which, if fired, remains for centuries. So, nomads generally disappoint archaeologists.[1]
  5. Modernists make large assumptions about what should have appeared in the records of the time. Recent history has generally made academia more objective, the free press makes politics slightly more transparent, and telephone/internet makes news travel fast. All three assumptions do not apply to the ancient world.

Archaeology, however, can provide important background material that enables the events of the book of Exodus to be visualized, and discoveries at various sites in Egypt have made it possible to identify some of the places mentioned in Exodus, some of the names, contextual factors, buildings and even some facts about the itinerary of the Exodus. From this evidence, we gain high plausibility but not particularity. Let’s lok at these areas of evidence in turn.

Names of places

One of the most important discoveries that relate to the time of the Exodus is the Merneptah stele which dates to about 1210 BC. Merneptah, the king of Egypt, boasts that he has destroyed his enemies in Canaan. He states: “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”; (ANET 1969, 378).The word “Israel” here is written in Egyptian with the determinative for people rather than land. This implies that Israel did not have a king or kingdom at this time. This would be the time of the Judges. The text also implies that Israel was as strong as the other cities mentioned, and not just a small tribe. The south to north order of the three city-states may provide a general location for Israel.

There is an interesting place named in Joshua 15:9 and 18:15, “well of waters of Nephtoah,” that may be the Hebrew name of Merneptah. The well which is probably anachronistically named after Merneptah would be near Jerusalem. The Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi III contains “The Journal of a Frontier Official” which mentions this well. It says: Year 3, 1st Month of the 3rd Season, Day 17. The Chief of Bowmen of the Wells of Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat–life, prosperity, health!–which is (on) the mountain range, arrived for a (judicial) investigation in the fortress which is in Sile .

One archaelogist, Yurco, has recently re-analyzed the Karnak battle reliefs, and has concluded that they should be ascribed to Merneptah and not Ramses II. There are four scenes which Yurco correlates with the Merneptah stele. One scene is the battle against the city of Ashkelon which is specifically named. Yurco argues that the other two city scenes are Gezer and Yanoam. He concludes that the open country scene must be Israel. Rainey rejects Yurco’s view because it shows them with chariots and infantry, but Stager suggests that the small horses pulling the chariot belong to pharaoh’s army as in the Ashkelon scene. Before the discovery of the Merneptah stele scholars placed the date of the exodus and entry into Canaan much later. They now admit that Israel was already in Canaan at the time of Merneptah. Israel was strong enough to present a military challenge to Egypt. This stele puts a latest date of 1210 BC for the exodus.

People and Contexts

Ancient bowl with curses against their enemies. Metro Museum of Art.

The Egyptians practiced the magical cursing of their enemies by inscribing pottery bowls and figurines with the names of their enemies, and then smashing them to break the power of their enemies. What names do we find? “Iy-‘anaq” is named which may be related to the Anaqim or giants who dwelt in Canaan before the conquest (ANET 1969, 328). There is the ruler of “Shutu” named Job. Shutu is probably Moab the sons of Sheth (Numbers 24:17; Ahituv 1984, 184). There are the rulers of Shechem, Hazor, Ashkelon, Laish, Tyre, and Pella (‘Apiru-Anu). The ruler of Shamkhuna is Abu-reheni (Abraham). The tribes of ‘Arqata and Byblos are mentioned (ANET 1969, 329). Jerusalem is named, but there is no mention of Israel. There is the interesting mention of the personal name “Zabulanu” which is similar to the cuneiform for “Zebulon” (ANET 1969, 329 note 6). This was probably not the son of Jacob, but just a popular name? In Ugaritic zbl is a place name (Gordon 1965, Text 1084:13; Glossary #815). Rohl finds the name Jacob and Joseph (Iysipi, E31), but this is highly questionable (1995, 352; ANET 1969, 329). The Execration texts seems to parallel very well the context and stories of the biblical patriarchs. There are other textsthat demonstrate similarity of context: e.g.The Story of Sinuhe.

The larger historical context is also consistent with the Story of Joseph, a foreigner rising to power. This period of Egyptian history is about the Hyksos

Hyksos princess crown Tell el-Yahudiyeh ware

It seems most likely that Joseph rose to power during the time of the Hyksos, wwho came to power 1648BC, or just before in the 12th Dynasty when many Asiatics came into Egypt. It also seems most likely that the Exodus from Egypt should be equated with the expulsion of the Hyksos. Not all the Hyksos were Israelites. It says in Exodus that a great mixed multitude came out of Egypt with Moses (Exodus 12:38). The Greek name “Hyksos” was coined by Manetho to identify his fifteenth Dynasty of Asiatic rulers of northern Egypt. The word comes from the Egyptian Hk3(w) h3swt, which means “ruler(s) of foreign countries” which Manetho mistranslated as “Shepherd Kings”. The Hyksos were of West Semitic background probably from southern Palestine who migrated down into northern Egypt during the 12th and 13th dynasties. At first they lived peacefully with the Egyptians until the deterioration of Egypt’s power when in 1648 BC they captured the Egyptian capital at Memphis.

The early entry of Semitic or Aramaean nomads into Egypt’s borders is attested by the Egyptian hieroglyph below. Note the characteristic semitic hair and beard, pack animals, weapons, a musical instrument?, women and children, and some men wearing a many- coloured coat, such as the one ascribed to Joseph.

The Hyksos made Avaris their capital (see below picture of a tomb from Avaris) which is modern Tell ed-Dab’a, which was later known as Piramesse (Exodus 1:11). “Avaris” is the Greek term for the Egyptian Hwt-w’rt meaning “mansion of the desert plateau”. Other important Hyksos cities were Tell el-Yahudiyeh (meaning “mound of the Jews”) known for its distinctive black and white ware, and Tell el-Maskhuta (probably Succoth in Exodus 12:37 NIV note, 13:20).


According to the Turin king list there were six Hyksos kings who ruled for 108 years. One important ruler was named “Y’qbhr” or “Jacob-hr”. The name “Jacob” found in the Bible would be the same as the name “Jacob-El” which is found on a number of Hyksos Scarabs. This name was common among the Arameans, but uncommon among the Canaanites and Phoenicians, consistent with the Aramaean ethnicity of the patriarchs as described in Genesis.

In 1969 a scarab of Jacob-El was found in the Middle Bronze II tomb at Shiqmona, a suburb of Haifa, that was from a mid-18th century deposit a century before the Hyksos. The Jacob-El of Shiqmona must have been a local Palestinian ruler, possibly the same Jacob of the Bible. According to Genesis 32:23-33 Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Joseph Austrian Manfred Beitak excavating Tell ed Dab’a, the ancient capital of the Hyksos, between 1984 to 1987 discovered a palace and garden dating back to the 12th Dynasty with a tomb containing a statue of an Asiatic with a mushroom hairstyle that some scholars think might be Joseph. More evidence is needed to claim for certain that this is Joseph’s tomb.

There is an interesting study done by Barbara Bell on the records of the Nile’s water levels. She concluded that in the middle of the 12th Dynasty there were erratic Nile water levels that caused crop failure. Could this be Joseph’s famine? There is “The Tradition of Seven Lean Years in Egypt” written during the Ptolemaic period about the reign of Djoser that states: “To let thee know. I was in distress on the Great Throne, and those who are in the palace were in heart’s affliction from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of seven years. Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short. Every man robbed his companion”. Again, exact context, but where is the killer engraving that says ‘Israel was here’. Is it too much to ask that a despised and immigrant, later oppressed people would be respected or even recorded?

The Story of Two Brothers is an Egyptian text that dates to about 1225 BC that is very similar to the story of Joseph. This tale tells how a young man was falsely accused of a proposal of adultery by the wife of his older brother after he had rejected her advances. In the 12th Dynasty Egyptian tomb of Khunum-hotep (1890 BC) at Beni Hasan is pictured a caravan of 37 Asiatics arriving in Egypt trading black eye paint (stibium) from the land of Shutu. The land of Shutu is probably an ancient term for Gilead. The Ishmaelites who took Joseph down to Egypt came from Gilead through Dothan (Genesis 37:25).

Expulsion of the Hyksos

The earliest document that describes the time of the Hyksos is from the Temple of Hat-shepsut (1486-1469 BC a female pharaoh) at Speos Artemidos which says: “I have restored that which had been ruined. I have raised up that which had gone to pieces formerly, since the Asiatics were in the midst of Avaris of the Northland, and vagabonds were in the midst of them, overthrowing that which had been made. They ruled without Re, and he did not act by divine command down to (the reign of) my majesty”. The Hyksos worshipped Baal. This led to the neglect of other gods and temples which upset the Egyptians. The Admonitions of Ipuwer is from the time of the Hyksos and states: :Foreigners have become people everywhere….the Nile is in flood….poor men have become the possessors of treasures….many dead are buried in the river….let us banish many from us….the River is blood”. This sounds similar to the event of the first plague against Egypt (Exodus 7:14-24). The river is not actually blood, but looks blood red because the Nile is flooding.

Some speculate that the rest of the plagues are a result of the Nile flooding. The expulsion of the Hyksos was a series of campaigns which started with Kamose who was king in Thebes, and rebelled against the Hyksos. His son Ahmose was finally successful in pushing the Hyksos out. This exit from Egypt by the Hyksos probably included the Israelites as well.

The story of the Exodus may be based on the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, for there is no other record of any mass exit from Egypt. Although the Egyptians saw the expulsion of the Hyksos as a great military victory, the Israelites viewed this as a great salvation victory for them. This seems similar to other events recorded in ancient history where both sides claim a great victory. (E.g. Ramses II and the Hittites , Sennacherib and Hezekiah , king Mesha and Israel, (2 Kings 3:4-27)).


Apart from the items above, there are few archaeological remains in the Sinai and Negev deserts between 1550 and 1000 BC. Either side of these years, archaeological finds are numerous, suggesting larger populations.In other words,Occupation was sparse during the very period that the exodus journey is said to have been under way, until the time that Solomon’s cities are said to have expanded.

Brick making Egyptian hieroglyphs (below) show foreigners making bricks under overseers carrying the sticks, carrying yokes around their necks (as recalled in Hos 11). Both Semites and African people are depicted described as ‘plunder’ are here building mud-brick storage facilities at the temple of Thebes. See picture – The water pool on the left, working the clay, stacking bricks, and constructing walls. Exodus 1.11 says the brick-making by Israelites in the eastern delta project are for storage facilities and the illustration above is similar to their experience. But here is more evidence of the semitic clans actually named.


The books of Exodus and Numbers include similar itineraries for the journey and much of the description agrees with the geology and geography. The original city of Rameses, before it was moved, was the largest city of the ancient world, where Rameses built huge monuments to himself in simply huge numbers. See one only in the right picture. Such an egotist could easily be the tyrant of the biblical record.

An ancient canal and lake system (pre-dating the Suez by thousands of years) has been observed by aerial photographs, today simply desert. A chain of ancient forts of the appropriate period has been identified. This would have been the first decision point on the route out f the delta, perhaps near the huge frontier fortress at Tel Hebua. A number of inscriptions show it to be a garrison for chariots, so it may be the one from which those unfortunate Egyptian chariots came from.

This frontier post offered Moses a choice of journey, turning left ‘by way of the Philistines’ (the coastal route among the lakes, which they rejected as too vulnerable) or turning right, turning ‘aside’, by way of the desert, using known oases. This is the route they took.

Among these brackish inland lakes were an (excavated) harbour, the remains of crocodiles, and surrounded by very tall reeds. No wonder then that we find the Biblical reference to the body of water they walked through is Yam Suf means the ‘Sea of Reeds’, wrongly translated ‘Red Sea’ (yes, it’s as simple as that). Buildings here date to the right period of King Rameses II and his father.

How did they walk across?

We hear in the text that they came up against a large water body by surprise. After a good amount of panic, and a famous prayer by Moses, they all crossed over in a parting of water, and the pursuing chariot regiment got stuck by wheels and as the water receded some drowned.

One theory posited for the northern exodus route by the sea was a tsunami. Water goes out, then a great weave comes in. Fits exactly except that I doubt they wetre anywhere near the sea. And what was the eruption or earthquake at that time which caused such a large tsunami?

On the other hand, the text describes a strong wind, which could have quickly evaporated a shallow lake dry enough to walk across but only shallow-crusted so a chariot would sink (outback travelers find salt lakes like this all the time).

Another theory that goes seismic is the liquefaction of ground that accompanies earthquakes. With an earthquake, the ground liquefied behind the Israelites, causing a major traffic bog in quicksand, an inrush from nearby lake system mentioned above, and leaving a new lake to locate the event. That seismic account might go with the ‘pillar of fire’ theory also. It is an area known for faultline activity, being the junction of Asia, Europe and Africa.

Any other good ideas? Why are we trying so hard to find alternative explanations? Of course we can re-imagine if we want to, but why are we doing that? Is it because we don’t want to imagine the unimaginable, or explain it away on the basis of contemporary empirical imagination, or simply are we struggling to imagine it happening? Maybe the only miracles are coincidences, engineered to take place at the right moment, and the scientific explanation and the faith explanation are not opposed. Good questions.

Some of these oases down the Sinai route, like the seven springs of Elim (pictured below), still exist while others, like the canal system, have been covered by the relentless dunes of the growing Sahara.

The ‘howling wilderness’ mentioned in Deuteronomy 1 fits only the very mountainous area of the southern Sinai. Two verses describe one particularly harsh part of the early journey: ‘that vast and dreadful (hagadol w’anora) desert (midbar)’(Dt 1.19). Later, God ‘found’ Israel in a desert (midbar) land which was a ‘barren and howling (tohu yelel) wasteland (yeshimon)’(Dt 32.10). Seen in context, ‘The LORD came from Sinai’ ( Dt 33.2), this is the granite mountain territory explicitly referred to in Dt 1.19 ‘we set out from Horeb’, famous for its wind-tunnel effect.[2]

The country further north at Kardesh Barnea, where thirty eight of the forty-year ‘wilderness wanderings’ are recorded to have been spent, was and is good country for small-animal grazing (but not for farming), which fits what the text describes as their way of life. Archaeology in oasis areas has apparently found no convincing Semitic finds in this period, although earlier and later remains of apparently larger populations have been found. It was a largely empty desert at the time, with bordering tribes only.

In a more recent research article about the Environment of Exodus (reference), several lines of evidence are advanced for the historical depth of the largest of the Exodus narratives, the book of Deuteronomy. They include literary-historical examples from legal forms, language, technology and literary method. For the second time only, the enquiry into this part of the bible includes an environmental analysis of local knowledge, historically-located geography, and a reference system typical of that sort of environment. This evidence shows that Deuteronomy was positive about the desert experience of the original Exodus, but more particularly that it took place in a place and a time that its writers knew specifically.

A mystery hangs still over these questions. From this summary of evidence above, the background and context of the Exodus stories are all highly accurate.

But how many were there?

The text says three million, but scholars rightly ask whether that many people can make an exodus in one event and it is not recorded in the history. A major exodus is recorded by the expulsion of the Hyksos, but it was too early for this event. If the numbers were smaller we have two other issues.

  1. why does it say three million if there were not that many?

b. how many were there and on what basis do we speculate?

It is certain that the Exodus story was retold and re-appropriated in the sixth century BC, when Israel returned from its Babylonian exile across the Arabian desert. Mirroring circumstances called forth for inspiration from their history. Some go further and say that that is all it was – there was no earlier history, just a fable made up to galvanise a nation. Their arguments are based mostly on literary theories but they are weak in that the earlier forms of the story were oral and not literature.

It could be that the new nation made up of returning exiles in 6th century BC were then three million in number and so they wrote themselves into the old story. This was the era when this sort of literature began, so it would be easy to do.

It could be that the original numbering system is lost in history, and mistranslations of numbers have occurred across the centuries, across the cultural destruction of multiple invasions, across changing counting systems and changing calendar systems. For instance, if the original number of 3 million was derived in a base-four number system – nomads counting on one hand the way Aboriginals famously did – that number in our decimal system is more like 30 thousand.

Or both, or neither, and I could be wrong.

What was that ‘cloud by day and pillar of fire by night’ that they followed and which came to rest on Mt Horeb?

Cloud by day, fire by night. Many have speculated that it must have been a volcano, continuously visible from about three or four hundred kilometers. With the curvature fo the earth, that is not possible. Maybe 100 k’s maximum.

Maybe it wasn’t visible for quite so long and the stories have been conflated. We would have to look to the Arabian side of the Red Sea for a likely volcanic location for Mt Horeb. (Note: the original name is Mt Horeb in the Sinai Peninsular. Only much later did the place name turn into “Mt Sinai”, as it is generally known today in English. The local Bedouin know it is as the ‘Mount of Moses.’)

The area is famous for seismic activity and underground oil deposits. The Rift Valley (parallel deep fault line) runs through here, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. There may or may not be a volcano, since those who say that have found it in Arabia also say that it is now heavily guarded and they can’t take you there.

But there is another version of this. Looks like a volcano, sounds like a volcano, but is it? Not all volcanoes leave craters. Like the seismic activity and pit-fires described earlier about Sodom and Gomorrah in the bottom of the Rift Valley, it could have been underground activity releasing oil fires to the surface. We may not be looking for magma but tar.

On the other hand, maybe they weren’t so dumb back then – maybe it just looked like a volcano and they all said – ‘wow doesn’t that look like a volcano, floating out there like a cloud, wonder what it is really?’

And further, to achieve this Arabian volcano scenario, a sand bar at the mouth of the eastern arm of the Red Sea has to be ‘extended’ to provide walking space for everyone. To do that requires the long term suspension of tidal movements in and out of the narrow entrance of the Red Sea.

Others have tried to locate the exodus route and the Mt Horeb along the sea route, which is the route which the text records specifically that they did not take. Puzzle that one.

It is modernist arrogance to assume that these ancients were gullible dupes, for whom any major natural event would cause them to ‘see God’. They would have seen God more enmeshed in nature than we now do, fair point, but no culture or religion can survive when it is undiscriminating. Israel knew God in multi-faceted terms. For instance, in other biblical stories, (Elijah, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark and Luke) God’s visible presence (in Hebrew ‘Shekinah’) was sometimes accompanied by fire or bright radiance, thick cloud, sometimes stationary and sometimes swift movement (like a chariot). Going the other way, Psalm 29 (and other passages) sees a lightning and thunder storm in the northern mountains and draws a strong comparison with the presence of God. But in the very same stories God can also be the ‘still small voice’, being up close and personal, and specifically not those pyrotechnics. These are rich and resonant experiences, not fleeting mirages.


If only Al Jazireh had been around. What we have instead is a series of major drama that established an enduring 12 tribe federation out of political tyranny. The origins of the texts are very ancient indeed, and some of it (Deuteronomy) reaches all the way back to its origin.

Some of the texts (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) show that the story of national identity was re-used and re-appropriated after a later ‘exodus’, half a millennium later. This was the return of Judaeans from Babylonian captivity, after being released by the Persians (Read Ezra and Nehemiah). On that story there is much more direct evidence, including the ration cards issued to the king named in the bible, King Jehoiachin. All of the texts of this period look backwards and make historic comparisons. It is a major leap of credibility to suggest, as some scholars do, that the Exodus texts were all invented at this time. But I digress.

There are many inconclusive lines of enquiry here, and large gaps in the evidence we would hope for. However, the larger contextual evidence makes the Exodus story plausible, and there are further clues that confirm some of the smaller specifics. It’s the middle bits we lack.


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