- What the Bible Says
- The Captivity
- The Exodus
- The Wandering
- The Israelites in Transjordan
As we pass from the patriarchal period, we enter the time when the events of the Bible emerge into the full light of archaeology. The life stories of three generations of men wandering around the ancient Near East, however interesting they may be on a human level, are for the most part not the sort that archaeology can confirm or disprove. The Book of Exodus, however, tells of massive migrations, battles, and catastrophes that devastated nations – precisely the sort of events that archaeology is best suited to verify.
In light of this obvious applicability, it is strange how little attention this topic has received from pro-Christian quarters. Of course, many apologetic efforts make hopelessly vague assertions such as “no archaeological find has ever contradicted the Bible”* without providing specifics, but what is lacking is a comprehensive synthesis of the Old Testament text and the archaeological data, showing in detail at each step how the evidence of the latter confirms the former in a way not amenable to alternative explanations. One would think that, if the Bible were historically true, this would be easy to do; believer archaeologists would immediately have produced the decisive evidence that it all happened just as the text says. Instead, what has arisen is a morass of conjecture and speculation. Among scholars who do believe in a literal Exodus, there is a bewildering diversity of opinion regarding when it happened, who the pharaohs involved were, what route the escaping Israelites took, and so on. As of yet there is nothing even remotely resembling consensus.
Why is this? The answer, simply put, is that archaeological evidence for the early events of the Old Testament is non-existent. Without facts to tie their explanations down to, biblical scholars have had free rein to speculate, and the door has been opened to all sorts of conjecture whose only common feature is that it all begins with the assumption that the text is true.
However, when this assumption is set aside, the heretofore fuzzy and blurred picture snaps into clear focus. When evidence is lacking where evidence should be, the simplest explanation is because the event in question never happened, and that is the position this section of the essay will take. Given the evidence we both have and do not have, by far the best conclusion is that the Exodus never happened as depicted in the Old Testament. There was no enslavement of an entire people, no ten plagues, no large-scale escape, and no mass wandering in the desert. This position will be defended in the sections that follow.
It is interesting to note the extent to which biblical literalists are on the defensive over these arguments. Of the few apologetics websites which deal with claims such as the ones presented in this essay, most of them do not even attempt to present positive evidence for the Exodus and the conquest; instead, they mainly attempt to rationalize away the contrary evidence we do have and claim that the events are not conclusively disproven – in short, not trying to show that the events happened, but merely trying to create a space into which they could conceivably fit. As we will see, this pattern will be repeated elsewhere; however, they have not been successful even at this.
Following the events of the Book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers enjoy a life of peace and prosperity in Egypt, and each one of them becomes the ancestor of a great and numerous tribe. But in time “there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and, fearful that the Israelites will turn against him, enslaves them and sets them to hard labor building cities. But the Israelites continue to multiply, and to keep their population down, Pharaoh orders the midwives to drown every male child born to them. This does not happen, but a woman of the tribe of Levi has an infant son and fears for his life, so puts him in a basket and sets him adrift on the river Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the child, names him Moses, and raises him as her own son.
Moses, however, is aware of his origins and still feels loyal to his people, and one day when he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he kills the Egyptian and hides his body. Fearful of the repercussions of what he has done, he flees to the land of Midian, where he marries Zipporah, one of the seven daughters of a priest named Reuel (Exodus 2:18).
In time, the Pharaoh dies, but the Israelites’ servitude is not ended. God hears their cry and remembers the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the desert of Midian near the mountain of Horeb, he appears to Moses in a burning bush. Identifying himself as the God of Moses’ fathers, he promises to use Moses as the instrument of redemption of his people, and sends him back to Egypt with a message for Pharaoh: “Let my people go” (Exodus 7:16).
Moses returns to Egypt and rallies the Israelites with the aid of his brother Aaron, but the new Pharaoh is unimpressed and refuses to release them from their slavery. To punish Pharaoh and prove his omnipotence, God sends a series of plagues upon the land of Egypt: the river turns to blood, frogs, lice, flies and locusts swarm the land, cattle die, hail bombards the land, boils break out on man and beast, and heavy darkness blots out the sun. With each plague the Egyptians are afflicted while the Israelites remain unharmed, but Pharaoh refuses to repent, and so God sends his most terrible plague: the sudden death of every firstborn son in all the land, save for the firstborn of the Israelites. “And there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead” (Exodus 12:30). Pharaoh finally orders the Israelites to leave, and they do so, free at last after 430 years of slavery (Exodus 12:40). After they have left, Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues the escaping Israelites with a force of chariots, but in one final miracle, God parts the waters of the Sea of Reeds so that the Israelites can pass through safely, then brings the waters crashing back down to engulf and drown the Egyptians when they try to follow (Exodus 14:27-28). The people of Israel, their escape now made certain, head into the desert wilderness of Sinai singing songs of praise to their god.
However, their sense of triumph quickly evaporates, as Sinai proves to be a harsh and desolate land without enough food or water to sustain them. Even with God going before them, leading them in the form of a pillar of cloud at day and a pillar of fire at night, they grow discontented. God provides for them with miracles, feeding them with a magical substance called manna that falls from heaven at night, and at a place called Kadesh-barnea he brings forth a spring of water out of the rock for them to drink.
The Israelites encamp at Mt. Sinai, where God descends on the mountaintop in thunder and lightning and summons Moses to the peak. There he gives him the Ten Commandments as well as a host of other laws, including meticulously detailed instructions on how to conduct animal sacrifices and how to build the Ark of the Covenant, a wooden chest to contain the stone tablets of the law that the Israelites would carry in their midst as a visible reminder of their covenant. However, while Moses communes with God, the Israelites grow impatient and construct and worship a golden calf at the very foot of Mt. Sinai. Furious, God threatens to kill them all (Exodus 32:10), but Moses persuades him not to do it, though he does destroy the calf and order the death of everyone who worshipped it, 3000 people in total (Exodus 32:28).
His wrath assuaged, God renews his promise to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan, which he promised to the patriarchs and their descendants; God also promises that he will drive out the people already living there to make way for them (Exodus 33:2). He warns the Israelites to have nothing to do with the native Canaanite religions, ordering them to destroy the altars and sacred groves of the pagan peoples of the land and to worship him alone.
Passing through the desert of Sinai, the Israelites encamp at Kadesh-barnea, on the border of the promised land, poised to sweep in and claim their inheritance. But before they enter, God orders Moses to send out scouts, one from each of the twelve tribes, to survey the land and report back on the strength of the enemy that awaits them. This they do, but the scouts’ report is bitterly discouraging and frightening: the Canaanites are numerous and strong, and dwell in huge, heavily fortified cities; there are even giants who wait to crush them (Numbers 13:33). The Israelites are terrified and disheartened, demanding of God why he went to the effort to bring them out of Egypt only to let them die in the wilderness of Canaan; they even plan to return to their slavery rather than enter a battle they are certain will mean their death (Numbers 14:4). Furious at their lack of faith, God appears and pronounces sentence: as punishment for doubting him, the Israelites will not enter into the promised land, but will wander in the desert of Sinai for forty years, until all those who rebelled against God’s commandment have died out and a new generation has grown up (Numbers 14:33). Even Moses is sentenced to this fate, though for a different reason: at Kadesh-barnea, he brought forth the spring by striking the rock with his staff, rather than speaking to it as God had commanded (Numbers 20:8,11-12). To further show he means business, God kills the scouts who brought back the discouraging report, save two: Joshua and Caleb, of the tribes of Ephraim and Judah respectively, who never lost faith in him (Numbers 14:37-38). Repentant, the Israelites change their mind and try to enter the promised land after all, but God will not let them, and they are beaten back by two groups of native people, the Canaanites and the Amalekites (Numbers 14:40-45).
Thirty-eight years pass. Unable to enter the promised land, the Israelites with Moses’ guidance decide instead to go around it, traveling to the east around the far side of the river Jordan. However, the king of Edom, a powerful Canaanite nation in that area, refuses to give them passage through his land (Numbers 20:18). The Israelites take a different route, and on their way encounter the king of a different nation, Arad, in the desert of the Negeb. The king of Arad attacks them, and the Israelites plead for divine assistance to aid their revenge; this time God hears them, and the Israelites utterly destroy Arad (Numbers 21:3). Continuing on their way, they encounter another nation in Transjordan, the kingdom of the Amorites, ruled by one Sihon from his capitol city of Heshbon. He too refuses the Israelites’ request to pass through his land, and attacks them; the Israelites counterattack and again are victorious, conquering Heshbon and the other Amorite cities (Numbers 21:25). The Israelites have two more hostile encounters, the first with King Og of the nation of Bashan; with God’s aid, they massacre him and his people, and take control of his land (Numbers 21:35). The second is with the people of Midian, whose women begin to tempt the Israelites into idolatry while they are staying in their midst; and predictably, the Israelites slaughter all the Midianite males and burn their cities, though they save the virgin female children as slaves (Numbers 31:17-18). Two other peoples in this region, however, namely Moab and Ammon, God instructs the Israelites to spare, because they are descended from Lot (Deuteronomy 2:9,19).
After these battles are concluded, two of the Israelite tribes, Reuben and Gad, speak up. They find the land in Transjordan agreeable, and want to remain there rather than crossing the Jordan River and entering into the promised land with the other ten tribes (Numbers 32:5). Moses is initially angry, but finally gives in and agrees to let them stay there, on the condition that their men pass over the Jordan armed with the other tribes, to aid in the conquest; once the rest of the Israelites are safely settled in the promised land, they can return to Transjordan and stay there. Half the tribe of Manasseh also takes Moses up on this offer.
The final chapter of the wandering takes place on the plains of Moab in Transjordan, on the very threshold of the promised land. The by now elderly Moses instructs the Israelites at great length on the necessity of obeying God’s commandments; God then brings him to the peak of Mt. Nebo, from which point he views all the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land the Israelites will inherit (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). With this, Moses dies. The Israelites mourn for a month and then bury him, and Moses’ right-hand man, Joshua, assumes the leadership of the people in preparation for the final realization of the promise: the conquest of Canaan.
In all its descriptions of the Israelites’ labors in Egypt, the Bible only mentions two cities by name: Pithom and Raamses, storage cities which the Old Testament tells us they built for Pharaoh (Exodus 1:11). Of the two, Pithom’s location is far more disputed: at least three different sites have been proposed. However, the proposal that seems to have the best support identifies biblical Pithom with the site of Tell el-Maskhuta on the eastern Nile delta. The toponym known from ancient Egyptian records and inscriptions to be associated with this site is Per-Atum, i.e., “House of the God Atum,” which would have come into biblical Hebrew as Pithom. During classical times, the site was known by the name of Heroonpolis, which is the Greek equivalent of that Egyptian name (Holladay 1992, p. 588).
However, if Tell el-Maskhuta is indeed Pithom, as seems to be the case, this poses a challenge to the biblical story. The site was occupied during two periods, one during the second millennium BCE in the Egyptian Second Intermediate period, which roughly corresponds to the Middle Bronze II and III. This was during the time when the Hyksos, a group of Semitic immigrants (discussed below), were rising to power in the Egyptian delta. The pottery styles at Tell el-Maskhuta from this period are distinctively Syro-Palestinian in origin, paralleling those found in the Hyksos capital of Avaris at Tell ed-Daba (ibid., p. 589). For reasons that will be discussed in a later section, the Hyksos period could not have been the time of the captivity and the Exodus.
After the Hyksos’ departure, Tell el-Maskhuta lay abandoned for centuries. The second stage of occupation did not begin until the time of Pharaoh Necho II, around 600 BCE. Necho’s most impressive achievement was the construction of a canal from the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River to the Red Sea, and Pithom was rebuilt as part of this project, serving as a defensive and trading outpost along the canal. This, obviously, is far too late to have been the time of the captivity – Necho II was the pharaoh responsible for the death of Josiah, one of Judah’s last monarchs (2 Chronicles 35:20-24), and Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem and the ensuing Babylonian captivity came only a few decades later.
Intriguingly, there was a minor Israelite presence at the site dating to this time, as is attested by several typically Judean items (a lamp and a wine decanter) found there. Holladay (ibid., p. 591) suggests that Judean refugees came there fleeing the retribution that was sure to follow from the murder of the Babylonian governor Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:17-18). While at the site, they would have been sure to notice the remains of the distinctively un-Egyptian, “Asiatic” tombs dating to the earlier Hyksos period, and might have drawn an erroneous inference. Furthering their confusion might have been the fact that so-called Ramesside monuments, built considerably earlier and later shipped to the city by sea following the construction of the canal, were present at Pithom, though the site was not occupied during the New Kingdom period when said monuments were created. (As will be discussed below, Ramesses II is often identified as the pharaoh of the Exodus, and this might have been the belief in ancient times as well.) If, as many scholars believe, the Pentateuch was only taking its final form around this time, it is easy to see how Judean refugees might have mistakenly concluded that their ancestors had once labored to build this place, and how this belief might have become incorporated into the Torah. There is, however, no evidence that this was actually the case; no artifacts or inscriptions have been found that point to an Israelite presence in the area at the time of Pithom’s construction.
In contrast to the confusion over the site of Pithom, the identification of Raamses seems secure. The biblical city is unanimously equated with the Egyptian city of Piramesses, the “House of Ramesses”, a royal residence at the site of Khatana-Qantir on the delta of the Nile River. Though he did not begin building efforts there, the lion’s share of the construction of Piramesses can be attributed to the pharaoh Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE. This was during the so-called New Kingdom, a time of resurgent Egyptian might and glory, and Ramesses II was one of the most powerful pharaohs of this period. He reigned for an unprecedented 67 years, and was a renowned builder of monumental works such as temples and statuary, to the extent that “hardly a site exists in the Nile valley that does not preserve some trace of his activity… so that the modern epithet ‘the Great’ is not entirely misapplied to this pharaoh” (Wente 1992b, p. 619). (One of Ramesses II’s best-known works was the great mortuary temple known as the Ramesseum, which contained a colossal granite statue of the pharaoh, over fifty feet tall and weighing one thousand tons, whose ruin was the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” (Magnusson 1977, p. 57).) As we shall see, Ramesses II has been believed by many scholars to be the pharaoh of the Exodus, although this cannot be correct, not least because we have his mummy and it is that of an octogenarian who died a natural death (Wente 1992b, p. 620).
Until fairly recently, Piramesses was believed to be identified with the ruins of Tanis, another ancient city on the Nile delta, since initial excavations there turned up a great number of statues and stelae bearing the name of Ramesses II (Magnusson 1977, p. 48). However, later research showed conclusively that this was an error; the confusion stemmed from the fact that the original site of Piramesses, about 20 miles to the south at Khatana-Qantir, had been plundered for building material after the downfall of the New Kingdom. Subsequent pharaohs of the 21st and 22nd Dynasties had moved many of the site’s temple stones, statues and obelisks wholesale to Tanis, where they were reconstructed as if they had been there all along (Wente 1992a, p. 617). The original Piramesses seems to have been a splendid place indeed; Egyptian papyri call it the “Sustenance of Egypt” and describe its massive temples with accompanying statues and obelisks. Archaeological digs have turned up an inner city, the lavish residence of the pharaoh himself, complete with a royal zoo where lion and elephant bones were discovered; surrounding the palace complex were officials’ residences, administrative buildings and military barracks and parade grounds, intersected by waterways and surrounded by fertile agricultural country known for fishing and vineyards. All told, the city was almost four square miles in size (ibid., p. 618).
With the original location of the biblical Raamses securely in hand, we are afforded a valuable clue to the date of the Exodus, since it obviously could not have happened before this city existed. (It is tempting to say that the city could not have been built before the first pharaoh of that name came to the throne, but we should not forget the possibility that it was originally called something else when the Israelites built it, and the name given in the text is the name it was given only subsequently.) Again, Ramesses II deserves credit for the vast majority of the work there, although there is also some evidence of building activity by his predecessors Seti I and Horemheb, whose combined reigns lasted from 1323 to 1279, the date of Ramesses II’s own ascension to the throne. (Ramesses I reigned in between the two of them, but only held the throne for one year.) Combined with the dates of Ramesses II’s own rule, Piramesses can be said to have been built sometime between 1323 and 1213 BCE. Most intriguingly, a papyrus dating to the reign of Ramesses II states that a group of people called “Apiru” or “Hebiru”, who seem to have been Semite in origin, were employed in “hauling stones to the great pylon” of one of the city’s temples (Wente 1992a, p. 618). Is it possible to say that we have found extra-biblical proof of the Israelites’ Egyptian captivity?
The group known as the Apiru was first recognized in 1888, mentioned in a letter written in 1375 BCE by Abdi-Hepa, the king of Canaanite Jerusalem (Lemche 1992, p. 6). The word was clearly West Semitic in origin, and more references to this group soon turned up from all over the ancient Near East, including some from Egypt that described them as hired laborers working on building projects. Most of the mentions were unflattering, describing them as outlaws, mercenaries, or refugees living on the fringe of society. “No one in power seemed to like them; the worst thing that a local petty king could say about a neighboring prince was that ‘he joined the Apiru’” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 103).
With mentions of the Apiru both laboring in Egypt and attacking and harassing cities in Canaan, it was not long before this group was identified as the early Israelites – a conclusion seemingly bolstered by the alternative pronunciation of the term as “Hebiru”, which of course is suggestively similar to “Hebrew”.
However, problems with this interpretation soon arose. For one, linguistic studies of Egyptian and Ugaritic documents showed that “Apiru” or “Hapiru” was in fact the proper reading, not “Hebiru”. But a larger problem which soon became apparent was that the term was used too widely. It appears in documents throughout the ancient Near East, including archives from the Hittite empire (modern-day Turkey), throughout the Fertile Crescent, and all the way to Susa on the Iranian plateau. None of these are places the Israelites were ever reported to have reached. The term occurs throughout the second millennium as well. The earliest known mention was found at Kanis, an Old Assyrian trading post in Anatolia, in the 19th century BCE (Lemche 1992, p. 7). Needless to say, this is neither the time nor the place we would expect to find Israelites – in fact it is during the lifetime of Abraham even according to the earliest proposed dating of the patriarchal period.
The Apiru, then, cannot be one and the same as the Israelites. What seems more likely is that the term referred to a socioeconomic group rather than a specific race of people: outlaws, refugees, the poor and dispossessed of every country, living on the edge of Ancient Near East society and making their living however they could, from hiring themselves out as mercenaries and laborers to raiding settled communities. Bolstering this conclusion is the fact that records such as those from Alalakh, on the Mediterranean coast in modern-day Syria, list Apiru possessing Hurrian (Hittite) names as well as Semitic ones (ibid., p. 9). Likewise, no source ever reports or remarks on a nation of Apiru, though mentions of them can be found up through the end of the second millennium BCE, around the time the Davidic united monarchy is thought to have been established.
If the Apiru cannot be identified with the Israelites, then we must face a fundamental question: Was Israel ever in Egypt at all? Aside from the Bible itself, there is nothing to indicate that this was ever the case. Not a single text known to us from anywhere in Egypt at any point during its history makes reference to what the Old Testament tells us was four centuries of captivity: not in papyri, nor on stelae or obelisks, nor in inscriptions on walls of temples or tombs. There are references to Egyptian military victories in Palestine, to foreign traders and nomads entering Egypt, even to foreign laborers working on government building projects, but what is missing is recognition of a specific, cohesive foreign ethnic group enslaved in its entirety within Egypt. Likewise, none of the Israelite settlements or artifacts found in Palestine show the Egyptian influence one would expect if the two cultures had lived side by side for hundreds of years (Dever 1992, p. 546). There is a total lack of evidence for past contact on both sides.
Can this state of affairs be explained without abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament? The suggestion commonly put forward from apologetic quarters, that Egyptian pharaohs humiliated by their defeat deliberately expunged all mention of the Israelite captivity from their records, seems unlikely. If for no other reason, the sheer scale of such an effort would be daunting – how could the collected records of the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people over four centuries be so easily obliterated? (Imagine a revisionist American government trying to blot out of historical memory the fact that any Africans had ever been enslaved there.) In any event, if the biblical narrative is to be believed the period following the Israelite escape from Egypt would be an extremely turbulent one, to say the least (see the below section on The Plagues). The idea that Egyptian society, struggling to survive the most severe crisis of its history, would somehow find the time to chisel out centuries of records, seems unlikely; and this would not address inscriptions in sealed tombs, in letters sent to foreign nations (such as the Tell el-Amarna tablets), or in whatever scribblings were left by the slaves themselves in all the places where they labored. Needless to say, no Hebrew inscriptions lamenting captivity have ever been found in the cornerstones of buildings in Pithom and Raamses.
If we set aside for the moment the problem of whether the Israelites were ever in Egypt in the first place and assume that they were and later escaped, there are some relevant pieces of evidence that may help us fix the date of this event. One is a datable text containing the earliest ever known mention of Israel outside the Bible, providing a date which the Exodus, if it happened, cannot have occurred after. Another is of interest to the captivity: as it happens, there is clear and definitive evidence that a group of Semitic foreigners lived in Egypt for a considerable period – however, they were there not as slaves, but as rulers.
In the third century BCE, the Egyptian historian Manetho wrote about a massive invasion of his home country that had happened around 1500 years earlier. These ruthless, bloodthirsty invaders, according to Manetho, overpowered the Egyptian defenders, burned their cities and temples, and massacred or enslaved many people. They then established a capitol at the city of Avaris, on the Nile delta, from which they ruled Egypt cruelly for over a hundred years.
Who were these invaders? Manetho says they were from the east and names them “Hyksos”, a Greek form of an Egyptian word which he translated as “shepherd kings”. This identification initially caused some excitement, as some speculated that the Hyksos were none other than the biblical patriarchs. However, there is no record in Genesis of the Israelites’ forerunners ever having ruled Egypt – a rather significant event to have left out, if it had really happened – and moreover, we now know Manetho mistranslated the word; it actually means “rulers of foreign lands” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 54; Laughlin 2000, p. 72).
The Hyksos’ control over Egypt was never absolute. Even while they ruled the northern region of the country, the native Egyptian pharaohs maintained their control over the south, establishing a sort of government in exile at the ancient city of Thebes (Magnusson 1977, p. 52). The Hyksos dynasty lasted from 1648 to 1540 BCE, but after over a century of vassalage, the Egyptian revolt began. The first pharaoh of the rebellion seems to have been Seqenenre II, who may have been killed in battle; his mummy, which was found in 1881, bore five terrible head wounds (ibid.). His successor, Kamose, took up the banner of revolt and launched a fierce attack on the Hyksos, driving them back to their fortified capitol of Avaris. However, the ultimate expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt was accomplished by Kamose’s successor, Ahmose, who finally stormed and sacked Avaris sometime around 1550 BCE. The defeated remnants of the Hyksos fled into Palestine, to their stronghold of Sharuhen (modern day Tell el-Ajjul), where Ahmose pursued them. After a three-year siege, Sharuhen fell to the Egyptians (Laughlin 2000, p. 72), and the heyday of the Hyksos was brought to an end.
Though archaeological evidence basically supports this picture, Manetho got some of the details wrong. For example, it now seems that the Hyksos takeover of Egypt did not happen all at once, as the result of a sustained military campaign, but rather as the result of a long and peaceful process of infiltration. Excavations at Tell ed-Daba, the site of ancient Avaris, show a gradual increase in Canaanite presence – inscriptions and seals bearing West Semitic names, distinctive architectural styles, and so on – starting around 1800 BCE (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 55). By the time the Hyksos established themselves as rulers, Avaris had become a large city, and its culture was overwhelmingly Semitic. Scholars have suggested that the Hyksos infiltration and eventual takeover was more the result of weakening Egyptian power than the cause of it (Laughlin 2000, p. 72).
Some have suggested that the Hyksos period should be identified as the time of the Israelites’ first entry into Egypt. After all, it is more plausible that Joseph, an Israelite, could have risen to a position of power during the time that lower Egypt was ruled by Semitic princes. However, as we have seen, the problem is that the Hyksos were never slaves in Egypt; they were its rulers. They did not march out in triumph after terrifying the Egyptians into obeying them, but were defeated in battle and expelled. This conclusion is supported by excavations at Sharuhen, which have found a destroyed Hyksos city dating to the Middle Bronze II with inscriptions bearing the name of Apophis, the last of the Hyksos rulers, found in the ruins (Liwak 1992, p. 1164).
Another problem is that Ahmose’s resounding victory over the Hyksos ushered in the 18th Dynasty – the so-called New Kingdom period, of which Ahmose was the first pharaoh. As this essay has already pointed out, the New Kingdom was the zenith of Egyptian might, a time when the pharaohs’ conquering armies repeatedly swept through Canaan, Syria and even the Fertile Crescent, all the way to the Euphrates, laying waste to all who stood in their path. During this period, under the rule of formidable pharaohs such as Thutmose III and Ramesses II, Egypt was at the height of its power. This is virtually impossible to square with the events of the Exodus. Recall that, according to the Bible, when the Israelites finally left, Egypt was in ruins: its crops devoured by locusts and its orchards shattered by hail, its cattle all dead of the murrain, an entire generation of firstborn sons lying dead, its treasuries plundered, and, let us not forget, the millions of slaves whose labor had sustained the country for generations suddenly gone. That the country is said to have survived such a catastrophe at all makes this account highly implausible; that we are to believe that it then immediately entered into a period during which it was at the historical height of its power and glory makes it impossible. If there is any truth to the Biblical story of the plagues, the Hyksos period could not have been the period of the captivity.
The Merneptah Stele, one of the most justifiably famous finds in the field of Near Eastern archaeology, offers another valuable clue to the dating of the Exodus and the origins of ancient Israel. The pharaoh Merneptah, successor of Ramesses II, ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BCE, and in 1896 a seven-foot-tall black granite obelisk dating to his reign was found in a temple in Thebes. The inscription on this obelisk is a hymn, praising Merneptah’s military victories over his enemies in Canaan and elsewhere. Toward the end of the inscription are the following lines:
“The princes are prostrate, saying ‘Mercy!’ Not one raises his head among the nine bows. Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified; 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; Hurru is become a widow for Egypt! All lands together, they are pacified.” (from Laughlin 2000, p. 89-90; emphasis added).
The Merneptah Stele, as this obelisk is now known, contains the first extra-biblical reference to Israel known from anywhere in the ancient world. More interestingly, the word “Israel” is preceded by a hieroglyphic determinative for “people”, as opposed to the other entities mentioned, which are all described with the hieroglyphic sign for “land”. This would imply that Israel, alone of all these groups, was still a nomadic, tribal culture at this time, rather than a settled populace with fortified cities and an established state. A straightforward reading of the biblical text would therefore link this stele with the period of the judges, following the conquest but before Israel had coalesced into a unified kingdom. Regardless of whether this is valid, we can still draw an important conclusion: if there was a historical Exodus, it took place sometime before Merneptah’s reign. (Merneptah obviously could not have been the pharaoh of the Exodus – how could he have claimed victory over an Israel in Canaan if he had been drowned trying to stop Israel from getting to Canaan in the first place?)
Detail from the inscription of the Merneptah Stele: the hieroglyphic symbols for “Israel”. (Adapted from Laughlin 2000, p. 89).
Out of all the proposals that swirl around the Exodus, two main schemes for dating have been proposed. The first scheme, which is based largely on the biblical chronology, places the Exodus from Egypt around 1440 BCE. This is the period of the New Kingdom, during the reign of Thutmose III, one of the most powerful of all Egyptian pharaohs.
To derive this date, we refer again to one of the most useful verses for biblical chronology, 1 Kings 6:1. This verse states that the construction of Solomon’s temple began 480 years after the Exodus, four years into his reign. Using the previously cited figure of circa 970 BCE for Solomon’s ascension, we obtain a date for the Exodus around 1440 BCE. This is about 100 years after the expulsion of the Hyksos and about 150 years before the first pharaoh named Ramesses came to the throne. The few fundamentalist archaeologists such as John Bimson and Bryant Wood who still argue for the occurrence of a literal Exodus tend to support this dating (Dever 1997, p. 69).
The early dating scheme for the Exodus is not without its problems. The most important of these, of course, is that no extra-biblical literary or archaeological evidence whatsoever supports the idea of an Israelite presence in Egypt at that time. However, a more subtle point is that the 480 years mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1 may not necessarily have been intended to refer literally to that span of time. As http://www.cresourcei.org/exodusdate.html puts it, “numbers were used for other purposes in ancient Israel than just precise counting”. The number 40, for example, was often used symbolically to refer to the length of one generation, while the number 12 was used to signify community or completeness. 480 (40 x 12) is the product of these, and therefore, rather than signifying an exact length of time, may be intended simply to denote the interval it took for the Israelite community to emerge or Israelite society to come to fruition.
This by itself does not establish a date for the Exodus as much as cut us loose from the previous chronology. However, an alternative scheme has been proposed. For example, if we keep the 12 generations figure cited above, but reduce the 40-year length to a more reasonable 25, as some scholars have done (Magnusson 1977, p. 53), the date of the Exodus drops to around 1270 BCE – the reign of Ramesses II, and the time of the building of his royal city, the biblical Raamses. As already mentioned, Ramesses II is frequently identified as the pharaoh of the Exodus for that very reason. Although the mere mention of this name is hardly conclusive evidence, it is the only detail in the text itself that ties the occurrence of the Exodus to any external reality. Archaeologists who consider a literal Exodus unlikely, such as William Dever and Israel Finkelstein, tend to favor this dating inasmuch as it relies more on extra-biblical correlation and less on a literal reading of the biblical text (Dever 1997, p. 68-69; Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 57). However, ultimately both schemes are based on no more than educated guesses. Just as there is no evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt in the first place, neither is there evidence that they ever left.
As should be obvious by now, the date of the Exodus, if indeed there was an Exodus, is far from clear. Yet all the scholarly debates and all the ink spilled over this topic should not have been necessary. This entire issue could have been resolved instantly if only the Bible’s authors had provided just one simple, seemingly minor detail: What was the name of the pharaoh of the Exodus? He is never named in the text, nor is the pharaoh of the oppression.
A moment’s thought should convince the reader how strange this is. Why omit such a basic piece of information? Later pharaohs who interact with the Israelites are named, such as Necho (2 Chronicles 35:20) and Shishak (2 Chronicles 12:2). In fact, I do not know of any other place in the Old Testament where a foreign ruler plays such a prominent role in the text without ever being named. As one scholar writes, “Should the biblical writers not have known and included the name of such a pivotal actor in the drama?” (Dever 1997, p. 68).
We have essentially complete lists of all the pharaohs who ever ruled Egypt, as well as fairly secure dates for the beginning and end of most of their reigns. Had the pharaoh involved in the Exodus been named, it would have been child’s play to pin down when the event must have occurred.
Why was this detail omitted? I would suggest that the answer is because the biblical writers didn’t know – because the Book of Exodus is a fictional tale written long after the time it purports to describe. Not having access to the Egyptian king lists turned up by modern research, the authors chose to leave out the names of the pharaohs involved rather than guess and likely be wrong. Believers who dispute this should ask themselves what more likely explanation they can pose.
Another problem for the historicity of the Book of Exodus, which was alluded to in the above section on the Hyksos, has to do with the state Egypt would have been left in after the Israelites’ escape. Consider: The slave labor of the Israelites, which the Egyptians had grown used to depending on for 400 years, was suddenly gone. This alone should have thrown the Egyptian economy into a tailspin. However, we must also factor in the effects of the plagues. In the first plague, all water in the land of Egypt was turned to blood (7:19), killing all fish in the Nile and other bodies of water (7:21). Following the second plague, the land would have been covered with the stinking, decaying corpses of frogs (8:14). In the fourth plague, the swarms of flies would likely have corrupted most of the Egyptians’ stored food (8:24). In the fifth plague, all of the Egyptians’ livestock – horses, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep – were killed (9:3,6). In the seventh plague, massive hailstorms destroyed the Egyptians’ orchards, shattering every tree (9:25) and wiping out the crops of flax and barley (9:31), and the eighth plague, locusts, finished the job, devouring all the crops the hail had not destroyed (10:12, 15), to the extent that “there remained not any green thing” in all the land of Egypt. And in the tenth and most terrible plague of all, every firstborn son in all of Egypt died (11:5), wiping out an entire generation of people.
It gets still worse for the beleaguered Egyptians. When the Israelites left, they “spoiled” their former captors, carrying away jewels, silver, and gold (12:35, 36). And in the final cataclysm, when Pharaoh decided to pursue the Israelites after all, both he and the Egyptian army – its mounted cavalry, its infantry, and all its chariots (14:7,9) – were engulfed and drowned in the closing of the sea.
What would have been left of the nation of Egypt at this point? It had no king and no army. Most, if not all, of its treasures and wealth had been carried away by over a million departing Israelites. The slave labor which had formed an integral part of its economy was gone with no replacement. An entire generation of people was dead. And there was no food – the orchards were smashed, the crops devoured, the herds of livestock annihilated, the fish poisoned, and whatever had been stored likely putrefying and inedible thanks to the flies and whatever diseases were stemming from the decaying frog carcasses. There was no food, no money, no military and no government, and every family in the nation had to face the tragedy of at least one death. The inevitable result should have been anarchy – mass starvation, disease, civil war, and invasion by foreign groups. Are we to believe Egypt somehow did not collapse into permanent chaos? How could any nation survive after a string of catastrophes such as this?
It is extremely difficult to believe that Egypt could have recovered and reestablished society essentially unchanged after events of this magnitude. At the very least, we should expect to find associated with the Exodus the most severe period of societal breakdown and mass death in Egyptian history. Any proposal for dating the Exodus that does not precede such a period should be considered deeply suspect. In this respect, both major dating schemes discussed above are extremely problematic, as they both place the Exodus within the New Kingdom period – the height of Egypt’s power, as already discussed – without postulating any sort of discontinuity or resulting societal impact. Of course, some might say that we need not accept the occurrence of the ten plagues and the parting of the sea in order to accept an Exodus. And this may well be true. An atheist could, in principle, readily accept the historical aspects of the story if the supernatural ones were discarded; are believers willing to make that same tradeoff?
According to the Bible, as punishment for their lack of faith the Israelites were condemned to wander in the desert wilderness of Sinai for forty years, moving around and making temporary campsites but never staying in one place for long. This was a substantial host: according to Exodus 12:37, an incredible 600,000 adult Israelite males escaped from Egypt. (Numbers 1:46 further refines that number to 603,550.) Assuming there were at least as many women, and assuming a very conservative 1.5 children per family on average, then we see that the Sinai must have played host to well over two million people, plus their livestock, for an entire generation.
The first question that must be asked is whether such an enormous number of people could even survive in this desolate wilderness for that length of time. Indigenous Bedouin tribesmen dwell in the Sinai even today, but despite modern technology and the fact that many of them have become settled in towns or cities, there are not nearly as many people there today as the Bible says once lived there for a generation. Estimates I have seen for the total Bedouin population vary widely, from around 5,000 to around 50,000, but even if we double that higher estimate we are left with a number less than one-twentieth the size of that given in the Pentateuch. It is inconceivable that a group of people massive even by today’s standards could have survived for long in what is by all accounts one of the harshest environments on Earth. As one archaeologist has noted, “The barren terrain and sparse oases might have supported a few straggling nomads, but no more than that” (Dever 1997, p. 72). Of course, believers who have no qualms about postulating miracles to rescue the Bible story from every difficulty will point out the Old Testament’s claim that the Israelites were sustained by rains of manna from heaven and springs of fresh water brought forth from the rock (Numbers 20:10), but the atheist can respond that any historical account can be rescued from disconfirmation if we allow miracles to be brought in to resolve any problem that might arise. Plainly, such occurrences will only be accepted by those who already believe the biblical story. If miracles even occur – and our modern scientific understanding of the world has given us good reason to think otherwise – the possibility should be introduced only when strongly supported by independent evidence.
Moving on, another frequently given apologetic is that the English translations in most versions of the Bible are erroneous, and the actual numbers of the Exodus are much smaller. For example, some say that the Hebrew word ‘eleph, which in the text is usually translated as “thousand”, can also refer to a smaller group of people (Kitchen 1992, p. 705). However, in this specific case that seems untenable. The Israelite population as given in the Book of Numbers is laid out in precise fashion, with each place value given in order, such as in this verse, Numbers 1:25:
“Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Gad, were forty [Hebrew arba'iym, "forty"] and five [chamesh, "five"] thousand ['eleph] six [shesh, "six"] hundred [me'ah, "hundred"] and fifty [chamishshiym, "fifty"].”
The other tribes’ numbers are described in similar fashion, producing the sum of 603,550. Given that the explicit purpose of Numbers chapter 1 was to take a census of Israel and report the results, it would have been useless to merely report the number of vaguely sized “groups” or “companies” in each tribe. The simple, straightforward listing of the tribes’ numbers one place value at a time leads inevitably to the conclusion that the sum given in the Bible, while far too large to accept, was nevertheless intended to be taken literally.
The most serious problem of all remains to be addressed, and it has to do with the question asked at the beginning of this section: Were the Israelites ever in Sinai? The answer, as far as archaeology can tell, is no, although “it has not been for lack of trying” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 62). Repeated, extensive archaeological surveys of the peninsula have turned up absolutely no remains that could be attributed to a large group of wandering Israelites: no firepits or ash lenses, no pottery shards, no metal or stone implements, no day-to-day artifacts, no traces of campsites or ruins of temporary structures, no dolmens or cairns, no worn footpaths or trails, no domesticated animal bones, not even any human graves. Throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Age, the south and central Sinai is a wasteland as far as archaeology is concerned, lacking any evidence of transient or permanent occupation on any significant scale (Dever 1997, p. 72). The only evidence of human presence in the Sinai during the supposed time of the Exodus is along the northern coastal dunes, the so-called “Ways of Horus” – an Egyptian royal road leading from the Nile delta to Palestine, used by the New Kingdom pharaohs to facilitate quick movements of troops. Along this route, archaeologists have found abundant evidence of Egyptian presence, including fortified military outposts, granaries, and water reservoirs (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 60). However, this is precisely the route which the Bible tells us the Israelites did not take (Exodus 13:17).
The most common apologetic reply to this is that a band of nomads would not be expected to leave evidence that would survive for archaeologists to find millennia later. This argument is untenable. In reality, even transient human activity on a scale far smaller than the Exodus was ever claimed to be is amenable to detection by modern archaeological techniques, which are “quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 63).
As proof of this, consider the archaeological record of the Sinai peninsula from other periods. The surveys mentioned earlier, though they found no traces of occupation during the Middle and Late Bronze, clearly show the presence of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers from periods both before and after. For example, the Paleolithic period – when humanity consisted entirely of bands of roving hunter-gatherers, when no structures whatsoever were built, and when the extent of human technology consisted of stone chipped into crude tools – is easily recognized in archaeological surveys of the Sinai. From the early Paleolithic, hand axes belonging to the so-called Upper Acheulean culture have been found throughout the northern section of the peninsula, whereas stone flakes, scrapers and other items of the Mousterian culture have been found in sites in the east, in the region of Kadesh-barnea and the Negev hills (Bar-Yosef and Beit-Arieh 1993, p. 1385). From the later Paleolithic, a culture known as Ahmarian is “particularly well known” (ibid.) from finds such as blades, knives, and end scrapers from a variety of excavations along the Wadi el-Masajid in northern Sinai that “indicated a variety of small hunter-gatherer groups…. Judging from site size… the Paleolithic communities seem to have been small” (ibid.). The resolution of the surveys is sufficiently fine that the authors of the previously cited article state confidently that the geographic limits of another, distinctive Stone Age culture, the Levantine Aurignacian, can be determined by the fact that its typical tools are rare or absent at most sites in Sinai and the Negev, and the peninsula seemed to have formed the boundary of its expansion. From the following Epipaleolithic period, small seasonal encampments are known consisting of one hearth (containing ashes and charred fruit that can be carbon-14 dated) or several clustered together.
Keep in mind that these cultures were not cohesive groups of thousands or millions of people tramping through the desert. As the quotes given show, they were, at most, small bands – dozens or hundreds – of roving hunter-gatherers. And yet their presence can still be detected tens of thousands of years later. Are we to believe that the Israelite Exodus, which was enormously larger, much more recent, and carried much more in the way of material possessions, is invisible to archaeology?
Moving on, the shift from hunter-gatherer societies is evident in the record of the Sinai, beginning in the Natufian culture that existed roughly from 10,800 to 8500 BCE. Base camps from this culture, discovered in the western Negev hills, yielded remains of temporary structures, stone tools such as knives, scrapers and sickle blades and evidence of tool knapping, and the remains of animals such as gazelle, deer and rabbit. Seashells originating from the Red Sea suggest trade networks with people living further south (ibid., p. 1386).
In the following Neolithic period, remains are “particularly rich” (ibid.) and consist of abundant arrowheads and stone points, burned stones indicating the presence of hearths, the remains of walled huts, silos, grinding stones, and evidence of shell working to create pendants. Hunting of deer, gazelle and rabbit took place, as is evidenced by bones and by well-known stone formations called “desert kites” in the southern Sinai – V-shaped stone walls meant to channel fleeing animals into a trap. Human burial sites are also known. The patterns of settlement, with some sites in places that would have been too cold and harsh for winter occupation, indicate seasonal movement of hunter-gatherer bands, with hunting and tool creation taking place in the summer and fall and gathering along the seashore during the winter.
Surveys of the northern Sinai have turned up about thirty campsites from the Chalcolithic period, most grouped into small clusters. Basalt vessels, flint tools, and collections of pottery, some imported from Egypt, define this period (Bar-Yosef and Beit-Arieh 1993, p. 1387). Also known are hearths, clay ovens, refuse and ash pits, stone and clay figurines, stone vessels for pounding and grinding, and even “small round depressions containing organic remains which probably mark the location of wooden posts for huts and tents” (ibid.). Sheep, goat and cattle herding are attested to by animal bones; many types of fish bones were also present at these sites, including shark and dolphin. From the following Early Bronze Age, dwelling sites and campsites are plentiful in southern Sinai, containing flint and copper tools, seashell ornaments, bones from domesticated goats, small amounts of pistachio and other kinds of wood, and pottery similar to Canaanite forms (ibid., p. 1399).
For periods following the time of the Exodus, remains are also well-known: Assyrian outposts and towns and Egyptian fortresses from the Iron Age and hundreds of small forts, villages, towns and cemeteries from the Persian period, with associated artifacts and material remains. Again, while settlements are known from the Middle and Late Bronze, they are almost exclusively Egyptian fortresses and permanent settlements along the northern coastal route. The evidence for a large migration out of Egypt during the Late Bronze Age does not exist, and it is all but certain that the search has been sufficiently thorough to have found it if it had been there; it has, after all, found traces of even small-scale nomadic occupation from every other period. To maintain the historicity of the Exodus in light of this evidence, we would have to conclude that the Israelites, if they ever passed through, would have to have been “phantom wanderers” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 61). And this conclusion holds regardless of whether the total number given in the Bible is taken literally or as exaggeration. When apologists cite instances of other nomadic groups whose existence is known from independent records but unknown from archaeology, it is proper to ask if those groups lived in places that have been as thoroughly surveyed as the Sinai.
The final nail in the coffin comes when we examine one of the most important sites mentioned in the biblical narrative in relation to the Exodus: the oasis of Kadesh-barnea in the eastern Sinai. According to the Bible, Miriam, Moses’ sister, died and was buried there (Numbers 20:1). It was at Kadesh-barnea that Moses disobeyed a divine command, creating a spring by striking a rock with his staff rather than speaking to it as God commanded, and as a result was condemned to die in the desert without ever entering the promised land (Numbers 20:11-13). It was from Kadesh-barnea that Moses dispatched scouts to survey the land they were about to enter and determine the strength of their enemies (Numbers 13:26; Deuteronomy 1:19; Joshua 14:7), as well as messengers to ask the kings of Edom and Moab for permission to pass through their land (Judges 11:16-17). Of all the sites mentioned in the narrative of the Israelites’ wandering, Kadesh-barnea is the one where they stayed the longest. Deuteronomy 1:46 declares that they abode there “many days”, and verse 2:14 clarifies this, explaining that the Israelites spent thirty-eight of their forty years in the desert in the vicinity of Kadesh-barnea, between that site and the brook of Zered.
Kadesh-barnea is today almost unanimously identified with the oasis of Ain el-Qudeirat in the eastern Sinai, on the western margin of the Negev foothills about 50 miles southwest of Beersheba (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 268). A nearby, smaller spring, Ain Qedeis, seems to echo the ancient name, but initial acceptance of this claim fizzled when it was realized that Ain Qedeis was far too small and barren to have sustained a large population for any length of time; one visitor described it as “a shallow pool of water surrounded by a desert wasteland” (Cohen 1981, p. 23). However, interest soon turned to nearby Ain el-Qudeirat: the largest and richest oasis in the northern Sinai, with a spring that produces over 1500 cubic feet of water per hour (Dothan 1965, p. 134). Moreover, Ain el-Qudeirat is visually impressive; the spring flows downhill between two mountain ranges, broadening out as it goes to irrigate a fertile, green valley that stands in sharp contrast to the desolate desert surrounding it. One archaeologist has described it as “remarkably lovely” (Cohen 1981, p. 24), while another writes, “The traveller who suddenly finds himself at the entrance to this valley-garden after hours spent in the pitiless desert sun finds himself uplifted at the sight of these lush green fields” (Rothenberg and Aharoni 1961, p. 122). Most importantly, on the main road leading through the valley is a tell containing the remains of an ancient fortress. It seems likely that the name was transferred from the original site to a nearby one at some point, an occurrence not unknown in archaeology.
The tell of Kadesh-barnea has been excavated extensively down to virgin soil, revealing that contained within are the ruins of not just one, but three Iron Age fortresses, each built atop the ruins of its predecessor. Pottery remains were abundant in all three layers, helping to establish a solid stratigraphy for the site.
The uppermost fortress level was destroyed by fire, and buried in the ash layer was a wealth of ceramics – bowls, plates, jars, cooking pots, oil lamps, jugs and more – all dating to the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The construction of this level is possibly to be attributed to King Josiah of Judah, and its destruction is almost certainly linked to Nebuchadnezzar’s final invasion of Judah in 586 BCE (Gilead and Cohen 1993, p. 847).
The pottery of the middle fortress dates to the eighth and seventh centuries, though the agent of its destruction is less clear. The excavator, Rudolf Cohen, credited its building to the reformist Judean king Uzziah (ibid., p. 845), though this is little more than speculation. Buried underneath this is the lowest of the three fortresses, an oval-shaped structure which was apparently constructed on virgin soil; no older architectural remains were found. In it was found pottery dating to the ninth and tenth centuries BCE.
Most importantly, however, no evidence of occupation exists at Kadesh-barnea for the time of the Exodus. Not even a sherd from the Bronze Age has been found (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 63), despite thorough excavation of the site and surveys of the surrounding area. Evidence from earlier periods, the Neolithic and Paleolithic, does exist, and includes flint flakes, blades, burins and end scrapers, limestone hammerstones and anvils, ochre flecks used for coloring (Gilead and Bar-Yosef 1993, p. 268-273), small stone ovens and granaries, and an apparently seasonally reused fire pit. There is also evidence of fragmentary occupation from later periods, including a small, unfortified settlement on top of the tell dating to the postexilic period, and scattered pottery shards from Roman and Byzantine times. Again, as with the Sinai in general, evidence of even small-scale, transient occupation is readily forthcoming for both earlier and later periods, but at the time of the Exodus, none. It would be purely special pleading to argue that the Late Bronze Age, out of all the periods in ancient Near East history, was the only one in which people just happened to occupy Kadesh-barnea but left no noticeable remains.
According to Numbers 20, while the Israelites were encamped at Kadesh-barnea, Moses sent messengers to the king of the nation of Edom asking for permission to pass through his country en route to the Promised Land. That petition was soundly rejected, however, and the “strong hand” of Edom denied the Israelites passage.
However, in a by now familiar theme, archaeology has failed to corroborate this account. Surveys of the ancient nation of Edom, on the plateau of Transjordan between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, have revealed that the Middle and Late Bronze Ages were periods of little or no population (MacDonald 1992, p. 299). Except for some activity in the copper mines of the north-central Feinan region, there is virtually no evidence of human presence either sedentary or nomadic during this time. By contrast, both earlier and later periods are well attested archaeologically. Paleolithic and Neolithic sites occupied by hunter-gatherer communities are found throughout northern Edom, spanning 100,000 years of human prehistory; among the most important of these is the site of Beidha, a permanent, walled community dating to 7200 BCE (ibid., p. 296). Chalcolithic sites, typically consisting of simple circular stone structures found in association with ash and refuse pits, pottery, and lithic tools, are also common. Early Bronze sites are scant and appear to be concentrated around mining areas.
Following the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, Edomite population experienced a resurgence during the Iron I period. Small villages appear around mining and farming sites, and this theme continues into the Iron II, with larger, permanent agricultural settlements, slag piles from mining and smelting, and pottery sherds and charcoal datable by radiocarbon methods both dating to the 8th to 6th centuries (ibid., p. 297).
The situation with regard to Edom is best summed up by excavations at the city of Bozrah, apparently the capitol according to several biblical verses (Amos 1:11-12; Jeremiah 49:7-13). Bozrah, whose name means “fortress”, is identified with the modern village of Buseirah just off the line of a route called the King’s Highway (Numbers 20;17), almost due east of Kadesh-barnea. Buseirah is built on an easily defensible position, protected by steep natural ravines on three sides, and a fortified city here could have easily controlled traffic along the King’s Highway. And a fortified city was precisely what was found when the site was excavated in 1971 by Dr. Crystal Bennett, director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, who by her own account was attempting to find evidence to confirm the biblical account (Magnusson 1977, p. 73). Ancient Bozrah was a formidable stronghold, with strong walls surrounding a city and a central walled citadel. Unfortunately, it was not built before the end of the eighth century BCE, centuries later than the latest proposed date for the Israelite escape from Egypt, and Dr. Bennett “now has considerable doubts over whether there can be any historical validity in the Biblical traditions of the Exodus” (ibid., p. 74).
In short, at the time of the Exodus, Edom was not a settled nation, but an empty desert occupied by, at most, a few roving bands of pastoralists. The king of Edom could not have denied the Israelites passage, because there was no king, no nation. There was no “strong hand” that could have come out against them, nor were there “much people”, as Numbers 20:20 claims. (Note that a nomadic tribal people would not have fields, vineyards, and especially not borders, as Numbers 20:17 claims. Clearly, what is envisioned here is a settled country, with established boundaries and a sedentary population practicing agriculture, and this is precisely what did not exist in Edom during this period.)
The next Transjordanian king to meet the Israelites, according to the Bible, was not as lucky as Edom. When “the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb” (Numbers 21:1), came into contact with Israel, he attacked them and took hostages, and in revenge the Israelites utterly destroyed his cities.
Biblical Arad can be identified with the mound of Tell Arad (the ancient name has been preserved) in the eastern Negev. Over eighteen seasons of work, five principal strata have been excavated, corresponding to the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze periods, from the 4th millennium up to around 2650 BCE. During much of this time, Arad was a large, prosperous walled city, approximately 25 acres in size, with an organized city plan and monumental public works supporting the existence of an orderly society and government. Various material finds support the existence of a diversified economy, specialized craftsmen, and trade networks extending to Egypt (Aharoni et al. 1993, p. 79-80). Sometime during the Early Bronze Age II, the city was destroyed; the following stratum is sparse and consists entirely of squatters living in the ruins (ibid., p. 76).
Following this, Arad was abandoned for 1,500 years. The next occupation layer, an unfortified village, appears in the late twelfth century BCE – the early Iron Age. Above this is a succession of eleven more strata, the next six of which are strongly fortified citadels dating to the age of the Israelite monarchy that were, in fact, probably built by Israelite kings. Artifacts such as perfume bottles, silver ingots and jewelry found in several of the citadels attest to economic prosperity and trade during these periods. Each of the six citadel layers was destroyed suddenly, in a violent conflagration; some of these may be correlated with historical events, such as Pharaoh Shishak’s campaign against Judah or the attack of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. The last citadel layer fell at the end of the First Temple period, around 586 BCE (ibid., p. 82).
The problem, of course, is that no remains were found at Arad from the Middle or Late Bronze Ages. Following the destruction of the large Early Bronze city, there was a long gap in occupation until the first Israelite settlement was finally built on top of the abandoned mound. One plausible theory proposed to explain this holds that the biblical story of Arad’s destruction is etiological; that is, the Iron Age settlers noted the presence of the large and imposing mound and the much earlier ruins atop which they built their city, and conjectured that this state of affairs was due to the destruction of the former site by their renowned ancestors long ago. Of course, this solution is intolerable to biblical literalists.
Another hypothesis to explain this difficulty, proposed by Benjamin Mazar among others, argues that Arad was the ancient name for the entire district, not a single city, and the Israelite victory over its king actually occurred at the city of Hormah (Numbers 21:3), which Mazar identified with the mound of Tell Malhata, seven miles southwest. As it happens, Tell Malhata, a small (1.5-acre) site consisting of a strongly fortified town and an unwalled suburb, was destroyed by fire in the Middle Bronze Age II, in the 16th century BCE, after which it was abandoned for 500 years. Like Tell Arad, settlement resumed in the Iron Age, the 10th century BCE, with the building of a new fortified city. However, neither the early nor the late dating places the Exodus in the Middle Bronze, and “the absence of any LB remains” (Kochavi 1993, p. 488) refutes the idea that Tell Malhata was either Canaanite Arad or Hormah. Furthermore, in light of the existence of a tell preserving the name of Arad, it is very unparsimonious to move the location of the ancient site to somewhere else just to rescue the Bible story from difficulties. There remains no evidence of any such hostile city the Israelites could have come into contact with, and the most feasible explanation for this is that “the biblical stories [relating to the destruction of Arad] were formulated as a literary tradition of no historical value when the Israelites began settling this region” (Mazar 1990, p. 330).
The Exodus narrative continues with the Israelites’ arrival at the boundary of the land of the Amorites, led by one King Sihon. They ask permission to pass through, are refused, and this time decide to fight, defeating Sihon’s army and capturing his cities, including his capitol, Heshbon (Numbers 21:21-26).
Biblical Heshbon appears to have been securely identified with the site of Tell Hesban, a large (3000 feet high, 15 acres in area) mound on the northern edge of the plains of Moab. However, six seasons of excavation have produced no evidence for any occupation earlier than the Iron I, in the eleventh century BCE, when an unfortified pastoral-agricultural village was constructed at the site. Though Lawrence Geraty, supervisor of two of the six seasons of excavation there, believes that Sihon’s capitol was seminomadic and thus left no archaeological traces (Geraty 1993, p. 626), a more likely explanation, in view of the long string of sites mentioned by the Bible in connection with the Exodus but discovered by archaeology to be unoccupied during that time, is that the biblical account is a later, unhistorical product of the monarchic period.
Another city mentioned in connection with the Israelite conquest of Sihon’s land is Dibon (Numbers 21:30), which can be identified with the mound of Tell Dhiban in Moab. Just as at Tell Hesban, six campaigns excavating various regions of the mound have produced a scattering of pottery from the Early Bronze I and a Moabite city dating to the Iron Age I and II, including a major structure which seems to have been a royal palace (Tushingham 1993, p. 351). There is a gap in occupation during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages; there would have been nothing there for Sihon to conquer from Moab or for the Israelites to conquer away from him.
Several other sites which are mentioned in the Book of Exodus in connection with the Transjordan campaign either have never been identified with certainty or have never been excavated or surveyed in detail, and so are not discussed here. These sites include Edrei, a city in the country of Bashan where the Israelites fought against King Og (Numbers 21:33), and Shittim, where the Israelites began to intermarry with Moabite and Midianite women and so fall into idolatry (Numbers 25:1). If and when more information arrives, it will be discussed here.
Many defenders of the faith have offered rosy statements to the effect that archaeology has never contradicted a biblical reference. Such claims can now be shown to be no more than wishful thinking. Consider the narrative of the Exodus. At every step of the way, evidence is lacking: no evidence for Israelite presence in Egypt, no evidence for the long trek across the Sinai, no evidence for the encampment at Kadesh-barnea, no evidence for opposition from Edom, no evidence for battles at Arad or Heshbon. In fact, not a single event from the Book of Exodus has been corroborated by archaeology, and as this section has argued, this cannot be considered a problem with archaeology. Most sites that archaeologists have determined to have been unoccupied at the supposed time of the Exodus show abundant evidence of occupation from both earlier and later periods. Surveys that easily track the movements of much smaller bands of nomadic people from much earlier than biblical times find no trace of a vast migration across the desert. Sites that are easily determined to have been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times earlier, in the Early Bronze Age, or later, in the Iron Age, show no sign of disturbance or even occupation at the time the Israelites are supposed to have been destroying them. And in addition to all this, the Book of Exodus is liberally sprinkled with fantastic miracle stories that should make us vastly more skeptical of accepting its claims, just as Christians and Jews are skeptical of the miracle claims of other religions. Whatever metaphorical or spiritual meaning it may have to believers, the only conclusion that can rationally be drawn is that the story of the Exodus is folklore, myth, but not history.
The reply that this is an “argument from silence” cannot be maintained. If it were only one site where no evidence had been found, such a claim would have merit, but what we have here is a pattern of consistent findings. I reiterate that no site out of all those mentioned in the biblical narrative has produced evidence that can be ascribed to an Exodus. And the more sites we excavate that show no evidence of the Exodus where such evidence should be, the weaker the argument becomes that at each site we just happened to miss finding it. Those who argue that there should not be any evidence left by now are giving the game away: they seek to move the biblical narrative beyond all possibility of rational investigation in order to save it from being falsified.
But in so doing, these apologists must abandon hope of ever being able to show the story to be true. This rear-guard effort may soothe the doubts of those who already believe, but how can it ever persuade those without such a priori convictions? Can any spokesman for these traditions explain why we should accept these stories without corroborating evidence? Where is the documentation? Where are the hard facts? These questions are no less than theists themselves would ask the proselytizers of a different tradition, one which they did not agree with. If said proselytizers could not answer these questions, those theists very likely would not believe their message; and in just the same way, atheists may validly conclude that the most likely and most parsimonious explanation for the total lack of evidence for an Exodus is that there never was one.
The Old Testament informs us that there is one more major stage in the formation of biblical Israel: namely, the conquest of the land of Canaan. In the next section of this essay, these events will be discussed and critically analyzed in the light of archaeology, and we will see if Joshua and his compatriots fare any better than do the patriarchs or the Exodus.
* See, for example, http://www.carm.org/questions/desert.htm.