by Timothy Chilman
The Jewish World Review declared, “If the Exodus did not occur, there is no Judaism.” It is a mitzvah – commandment – to tell the story to children. Questioning whether the Exodus occurred is rather more serious than calling into question the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Song of the Nibelungen. And so it is so much fun to ask: did the Exodus happen?
The story is that many Jews – Israelites – moved to Egypt because of famine in their land of Canaan. Eventually, their numbers grew so large that the Pharaoh came to believe they could upset his rule. He enslaved them. Under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites departed Egypt with such alacrity there was no time for their bread to rise.
When might the Exodus have happened? Kings 6:1 says it happened 480 years before the construction of Jerusalem’s temple by King Solomon – around 1450 BCE. Exodus 1:11, however, says that the Pharaoh used Jewish slaves to build the “treasure cities” – cities of store houses – of Pthom and Raamses. Scholars do not agree as to the location of Pthom, but Raamses is thought (Kitchen 2003: 255; Wood 2004; Hoffmeier 2005: 53, 55) to be Pi-Ramesse, a large, capital city which was constructed during the reign of Ramesses II circa 1270 BCE. Recent excavations show that Pi-Ramesse was built upon an earlier city, and it is possible that this is what the Babble referred to: the city of Raamses is mentioned in an inscription in the tomb of the pharaoh, Amenhotep III, who ruled from c.1391 – c.1354 BCE almost a century before Ramesses II, who ruled from c.1303-1213 BCE. The latest date for the Exodus would be around 1209 BCE during the reign of Merenptah, when an inscription of “Israel is desolate, and has no seed” was carved – Israel existed as a nation by that time. This was the only time Israel was mentioned in Egyptian records. It is generally believed that if the Exodus took place, it was during the reign of Ramesses II, between 1304 and 1237 BCE.
And how many Israelites were there? After departing Egypt, G-d asked Moses to carry out a census. Numbers 1:46 says of the adult males, “Even all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.” Adulthood began at 14, and there were generally seven children per family, so 603,550 men with attendant wimmen and kiddies would have been around two million people all told, which is rather a lot to leave no archaeological or documentary trace.
The Hebrew word, “elef,” can be translated not only as “thousand,” but also as “family,” “tribal unit,” or “leader.” Most recent studies have taken this to mean there would have been about 20,000 Israelites.
Since the 19th century, archaeologists have been surprised to find no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, while there are traces of smaller groups of people in the same area. Despite the availability of ground-penetrating radar and satellite imagery, there is not one shard of pottery, Hebrew carving, bone, nor campsite remains. Rabbi Dovid Lichtman countered: “It is nearly impossible to find traces of large Bedouin encampments in the Sinai Desert from 200-300 years ago. So would one expect the remains of large encampments after 3,000 years?”
Slightly more than a century after the rule of Ramesses II came the turn of Ramesses III, who ruled (1186-1155 BCE). In this time there was massive construction in Egypt, and successful military campaigns on land and at sea, which is not consistent with an Egypt which had been struck by devastating plagues and lost much of its slave population.
The Exodus supposedly occurred at a time from which much documentation has survived. The Egyptians would have preferred not to have recorded such a humiliation as the Exodus. R. Alan Cole, once a lecturer in the Old Testament at Sydney’s Moore Theological College and Singapore’s Trinity Theological College, said, “Egyptian monarchs were never given to recording defeats and disasters, and certainly not the loss of a chariot brigade during the pursuit of runaway slaves.” An example of the propagandistic nature of records at that time is the inscriptions from the walls of the palace of the Assyrian Emperor, Sennacherib. These display scenes from Sancheriv’s military campaigns of the 8th century BCE. They show decapitated and impaled enemies, but no dead Assyrians.
Some twisted re-telling of the tale would have endured, however, or a record from a private tomb. Hatsheput was the third female Pharaoh in 3,000 years, and by far the most successful female Pharaoh ever. She was one of the most successful pharaohs of either gender. She is believed to have died of bone cancer, which was possibly the result of a skin lotion she used. Her successor, her stepson, Thutmosis III, ordered the destruction of all records of her. Thusmosis III attempted to rewrite history to show that rule had passed directly from his father to him, with Hatshepsut never acting as regent. Thutmosis’ motivations were more likely to have been political than personal, perhaps to support the standing of his own son, as the censoring of Hathsheput did not begin until the end of his reign (c.1458-1425). Statues of Hathsheput were smashed. Her image was chiseled from walls. Her body was removed from its tomb. Her name was omitted from lists of kings. Evidence of her rule (c. 1479-1458 BCE) was not found until 1903. A very deliberate attempt was made to suppress record of Hatshepsut, but some images of her survived.
Decades later, nearly every trace of Pharaoh Akhenaten was destroyed, as his monotheism was perceived as heretical. A great deal of the radical, naturalistic art of the period was destroyed, and buildings dismantled. His name was removed from monuments and lists of kings. But again, some trace survived, such as the Amarna Letters, a collection of diplomatic correspondence.
The 106 times the Pharaoh is mentioned in the book of Exodus, his name is not. If the writer of Exodus had but named the pharaoh, many trees would have been saved, as the subject has been done to death. But it was not Egyptian practice to name kings: the Annals of Thutmose III refer to the King of Kadesh as “that wretched enemy of Kadesh.” When Egyptian scribes listed the booty which was taken after the Battle of Megiddo, they did not name the king whose possessions they were, calling him “the Prince of Megiddo.” The Amada Stele of Amenhotep II does not name the Syrian chieftains who were defeated.
This, however, was not the practice of later Biblical writers. Shishak is mentioned by name seven times, and Neco nine times. Hence, the absence of the Exodus pharoah’s name, his praenomen, is suspicious. The author of Exodus was not writing history.
Camels are mentioned 32 times in Genesis, the first book of the Babble, and once in Exodus, the second. Camels, however, were not domesticated until between 1200 and 1000 BCE and not widely used as beasts of burden until long after 1000 BCE. Genesis 37:25, incidentally, speaks of “camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh,” which were not the main products of trade until the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Exodus 13:17 says, “G-d led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near,” but the Philistines did not establish themselves as a country until the 10th century BCE.
What was published as the Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage from a Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden is known to its friends as Leiden Papyrus #344, being held at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. It was discovered in the early 1800s, written during the New Kingdom of Egypt (16th-11th century BCE) and is a copy of a document the Encyclopedia Britannica said was “perhaps” written between 1850 BCE and 1600 BCE by an Egyptian called Ipuwer.
The Admonitions speak of events reminiscent of the plagues G-d visited upon Egypt: “Plague is throughout the land” (cf. Exodus 7:21); “The river is blood” (cf. Exodus 7:20); “Men shrink from tasting” (cf. Exodus 7:24); “That is our water! That is our happiness! What shall we do in respect thereof? All is ruin!” (cf. Exodus 7:21); “Trees are destroyed” (cf. Exodus 9:25); “Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire” (cf. Exodus 9:23-24); “Lower Egypt weeps… The entire palace is without its revenues. To it belong (by right) wheat and barley, geese and fish” (cf. Exodus 9:31-32); “Forsooth, grain has perished on every side” (cf. Exodus 10:15); “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan” (cf. Exodus 9:3); “The land is not light” (cf. Exodus 10:22); “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls” (cf. Exodus 12:29); “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere” (cf. Exodus 12:30); “Behold, the fire has mounted up on high. Its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land” (cf. Exodus 13:21).
Renowned Egyptologist, Joachim Quack, said the Admonitions were “strikingly close to the Sumerian city laments.” When the Admonitions say “the river is blood,” they could be speaking of the Nile turning red due to large quantities of red earth when it flooded. While the similarities between the Admonitions and Exodus are striking, Egyptologists do not generally believe the Admonitions refer to the events of the Exodus, or to history at all, and it was anyway written fart oo early. This is the only Egyptian mention of anything resembling the alleged plagues.
The Sinai peninsula the Israelites crossed was strewn with Egyptian forts housing many troops to facilitate the reinforcement of Canaan, an Egyptian territory, at a time when Egypt was becoming the dominant power of the region. The writer of the book of Exodus seems to have been ignorant of these. As the Hebrew Bible says on page 55, “The Egyptians kept tight control over their eastern border and kept careful records. If a large group of Israelites had departed, we should expect some mention of it.” A papyrus from the 13th century BCE says that people could only leave if they were in possession of a permit. This papyrus mentions Succoth and Pithom, which appear in the Exodus story, but does not tell of masses of fleeing slaves.
The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, said slaves built the pyramids and Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, said the slaves were Jewish, but tombs of the builders of the pyramids of Gizeh discovered in Egypt in 2010 were evidently those of paid laborers, and not slaves. Their burial near the pyramids would not have been accorded to slaves. Melvin Konner, anthropologist and teacher of Jewish studies at Emory University, said in his book, Unsettled, An Anthropology of the Jews: “Except for the Torah text, there is no decisive proof that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, that they rebelled and walked away from the place, or that a leader such as Moses arose and took that people into the desert.” Dieter Wildung, one-time director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, said, “The myth of the slaves building pyramids is only the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood.”
Jews, in fact, were not present in Egypt at all in great numbers. Donald Redford, Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Pennsylvania State University, studied Egypt and its neighbors and found there was no evidence of a large population of Jews. Carmen Weinstein, leader of the Egyptian community of Egypt, said, “Were it not for the Bible, anyone looking at the Palestinian archaeological record data would conclude that whatever the origins of the Israelites, it was not Egypt.” Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog said, “The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad…. It is a later legendary reconstruction – made in the seventh century < BCE> – of a history that never happened.”
The sites where the Israelites settled in Canaan are named in the Babble’s book of Numbers. Kadesh Barnea is now Ein Qadis and Ezion Geber is in the area of Aqaba and Eilat. They were founded no earlier than 700 or 800 BCE, and have revealed not a trace of evidence of an exodus. The cities of Pthom and Raamses which Israelite slaves are said to have built never existed at the same time. Extensive excavations in Israel have shown no change in pottery or buildings consistent with a large influx of people at the supposed time of the Exodus.
At least 13 locations have been suggested as that of the Israelites’ crossing of the Sea of Reeds, now known as the Red Sea, pursued by the army of the Pharaoh. The story is that G-d parted the waters of the sea to allow his people to escape before allowing the waters to return to their natural state while the Pharaoh’s army was still crossing.
Self-taught archaeologist, Ron Wyatt, settled on Nuweiba, on the Egyptian coast, as the location of the Red Sea crossing. The name of the place was given as Pi-hahiroth in the book of Exodus, meaning “mouth of the gorges,” which reflects Nuweiba.
In 1978, Wyatt discovered what he claimed was a gilded chariot wheel while diving at Nuweiba at depths of 60 to 200 feet. The wheel was photographed on the sea bed, but no other objects are in the frame, so the wheel’s size cannot be ascertained. The wheel was sent to Nassif Mohammed Hassan, the Director of Antiquities in Cairo. Hassan dated the wheel to around 1400 BCE, somewhat earlier than the likely date of the Exodus. He was recorded on video saying that the finding “resembled an ancient Egyptian chariot wheel.” He is unable to provide further comment on account of being dead.
There was no coral on the wheel. Lennart Moller of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, author of The Exodus Case, said coral did not grow on gold or electrum (silver and gold), but any archaeologist who has spent time in the field would differ. Coral is an animal rather than a plant, and it derives nutrients from zooplankton and other minuscule marine lifeforms as well as sea water. Gold is toxic to mycobacterium tuberculosis but not to gold or anything else. The wheel was all-too-close to the surface for something that has lain in the Red Sea for three-and-a-half millennia. It does not have the joins seen in drawings of Egyptian chariot wheels.
Moller said that the coastal slope at Nuwaiba is “within current U.S. standards for handicapped ramps.” Wyatt Archeology, the organization Wyatt left behind him, says, “Only here, on the shores of Nuweiba, does the ‘pathway’ drop off at a gradual slope of one in fourteen, to a depth of just over 850 meters. On the Saudi side the slope climbs again at a slope of one in ten.” A map produced by the British Admiralty said the sea in this area was between 2,500 and 3,000 feet deep. It would not have been practical for thousands of people and their animals to descend and ascend the steep cliffs which characterize the gulf of Aqaba. People wishing to believe the Babble say the chart is inaccurate, but no proof has been offered and the Admiralty is an internationally recognized brand which has purveyed nautical maps since 1795.
Wyatt’s wife, Mary Nell, said that the Egyptian government does not currently allow archaeological finds to be removed from protected areas, making identification of any finds difficult. Fossilized bones were discovered, but fossilization precludes carbon dating. Wyatt also claimed to have discovered Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant: obviously a reliable source.
The tale of the Exodus appears to have been a folkloric creation concocted to legitimize the goal of its author: to unite the Israelites in their struggle against Egypt. Respected archaeologists, Professor Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, believe the evil Pharaoh of the Exodus story was modeled on Psamethicus I, who ruled from 664 to 610 BCE, and that the Exodus in general reflects the Egypt of the day. Finkelstein said that more than 90 percent of scholars do not believe the Exodus took place. The Hebrew Bible said that some scholars are of the opinion that a number of small exoduses transpired over several centuries, and these were combined for narrative purposes. While most Christians heard at Sunday school that Moses wrote the pentateuch, the first five books of the Babble, this is no longer believed outside the most conservative circles, and it is now commonly held that the pentateuch was the work of several authors. The Jewish Encyclopedia says that this was the result of “the many inconsistencies and seeming contradictions” of the books. The five books are now thought to have been written in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE using stories dating as far back as the 13 century BCE.
We have an idea of how the story of Moses arose. Cuneiform texts quote King Sargon of Akkad around 2360 BCE: “I am Sargon, the powerful king, the king of Akkad. My mother was an Enitu priestees, I did not know any father . . . . My mother conceived me and bore me in secret. She put me in a little box made of reeds, sealing its lid with pitch. She put me in the river. . . . The river carried me away and brought me to Akki the drawer of water. Akki the drawer of water adopted me and brought me up as his son. . .”
The really good thing about questioning the Exodus is that it undermines Jesus, who used the story for legitimacy and based some of his teachings upon it. Moses is mentioned 79 times in the New Testament. Jesus spoke of the Exodus in John 6:49-51, referring to the Jews eating manna while exodussing. John 1:17 said, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Jesus quoted Moses in Mark 7:10 – “For Moses said, honour thy father and thy mother; and, whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death.” Jesus was compared to Moses in John 3:14 – “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” The spirit of Moses put in an appearance before Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John in Matthew 17:1-3.
If the Exodus never occurred, Jesus was wrong. And by the way, Jonah never lived in a whale and Noah never took pairs of every animal species onto his ark.
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