Evidence for the Exodus? What Ancient Egyptian Sources Can and Cannot Tell Us

As the paradigmatic act of redemption, the Israelite exodus from Egypt is one of the most important events and themes of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. While its historicity has been accepted throughout Western history, this has been questioned and even denied in the modern period. Other than the Bible itself, then, what evidence exists for the exodus?

At the outset, it is important to note that there is no direct extrabiblical evidence for the exodus. Given the geological nature of the Egyptian East Delta, however, this should not come as a surprise. According to K. A. Kitchen, a prominent Egyptologist and biblical scholar, the Delta is an annually flooded “alluvial fan of mud” that does not preserve artifacts, documents, or even stone structures very well.[1] In addition, “as pharaohs never monumentalize defeats on temple walls, no record of the successful exit of a large bunch of foreign slaves (with the loss of a full chariot squadron) would ever have been memorialized by any king, in temples in the Delta or anywhere else.”[2] Still, multiple extant sources indirectly support at least the plausibility of the biblical account.

First among these, Egyptian documents such as Papyrus Anastasi VI lend credence to the notion of a Hebrew entrance into Egypt.[3] Dating to c. 1200 BCE, this text not only shows that Bedouins from southern Transjordan migrated to Egypt in times of famine; it also shows that Egypt was able to control its borders during the thirteenth century. However, earlier texts, such as the Instruction for Merikare and the Prophecies of Neferti, imply an ability to control the borders during the Middle (2106–1786 BCE) and New Kingdoms (c. 1550–1200 BCE), but not during the Second Intermediate Period (1786–1550 BCE), when central authority had broken down and border forts had been abandoned by the military.

Second, Papyrus Anastasi V (19:2—20:6), which dates to the twelfth century BCE, reveals that Semitic peoples sometimes in fact did escape from Egypt. This document describes two laborers fleeing from Egypt through northern Sinai. According to Egyptologist James P. Allen, “Although the fugitives are described only as ‘workers,’ their route suggests they were Asiatics [i.e., Semitic-speaking people from western Asia] rather than Egyptians, attempting to escape to Canaanite territory.”[4]

Ancient EgyptThird, several known sites or areas in the Nile Delta from the thirteenth century BCE and later can be identified with the place names of the exodus narrative.[5] Thus, biblical “Rameses” and “Pithom,” both mentioned in Exodus 1:11, have been identified with Tell el-Dabʿa/Qantir and Tell el-Retabeh, respectively. “Succoth” corresponds to Egyptian “Tjeku.” “Etham,” “Pi-Hahiroth,” “Migdol,” and “Baal-Zephon,” on the other hand, are as of yet unknown. Still, there are linguistic and geographical reasons to place Etham at the end of the Wadi Tumilat, just before the Sinai wilderness. Likewise, based on a comparison of Papyrus Anastasi III and the Onomastica of Amenemope, there is reason to identify Pi-Hahiroth, Migdol, and Baal-Zephon in the area south of Tjaru (Sile), near Sety’s tower. For similar reasons, yam suf (Reed Sea) can be identified with the now desiccated Ballah Lake. Finally, avoidance of “the way of the land of the Philistines” (the northern route into Canaan) in Exodus 13:17 reflects a knowledge of New Kingdom military realities related to Tjaru (Sile). This particular site served as a military outpost along Egypt’s northeastern frontier and has been identified with Hebua I, while the major fort of the region has been identified with Hebua II.

Finally, even though the Merneptah Stele (c. 1209 BCE) better fits a discussion of the emergence of Israel in Canaan, it is also important here because it suggests a late date for the exodus. If the Israelites did in fact escape from Egypt, this inscription would place the events in the early to mid-thirteenth century BCE, not the fifteenth century BCE as in the early-date hypothesis. This is because, as is well known, the reference to “Israel” is marked by the determinative for an ethnic group, not for a geographic region or city—as are the references to “Ashkelon,” “Gezer,” and “Yanoʿam.” Had Israel emerged in Canaan hundreds of years earlier, the latter likely would have been applied to “Israel” as well. At this time, however, Israel did not appear to have been viewed as a centralized nation-state.

In light of this brief survey, it is entirely reasonable to accept the historicity of the exodus event. In short, the sources discussed in this post uphold the plausibility of Israel’s entrance into and presence in Egypt, the exodus itself, and the emergence of Israel in Canaan in the mid- to late thirteenth century BCE.

[1] K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 246.

[2] Ibid. (emphasis original).

[3] The contents of this paragraph are summarized from James K. Hoffmeier, “The Exodus and Wilderness Narratives,” in Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources, ed. Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 49–55.

[4] James P. Allen, “A Report of Escaped Laborers,” in The Context of Scripture, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003) 3:16.

[5] Again, the following is a summary of Hoffmeier, “Exodus and Wilderness Narratives,” 59–80.

About the Author
Brandon C. Benziger is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and Denver Seminary, currently serving as Biblical Integration and Curriculum Development Manager at Sevenstar Academy, LLC.

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