The Exodus Debunked: Archaeological Issues

The Exodus Debunked: Archaeological Issues March 16, 2018

I will continue my deconstruction of the Exodus accounts by concentrating on the archaeological issues. The articles so far have been:

I want to compile them all into a series as I have done with the Nativity and Easter.

The basis for a lot of what I will be telling you will come from my friend and Skeptic Ink Network colleague Rebecca Bradley and her chapter, “The Credibility of the Exodus”, in John Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science (for which I also contribute a chapter on free will).

As I have stated many times in this series, the evidence for the Exodus account as derived from the Bible amounts to somewhere around nothing. Well, nothing. The rationalisations around the chronology, as seen by some of the Christian commenters during the series, shows you how tenuously they try to hang on to the literal truth in light of there being nothing else to use. They can only seek to find gaps and potential harmonisations about when it could have happened rather than resort to good solid evidence that shows when it did happen.

Still, we plough on.

We must first remember that Ancient Egypt was a very literate context with a huge amount of recording of events and, well, an awful lot of things. As with any sort of Bayesian approach to history, we can do away with claims such as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence because when we would expect evidence and it is not there, then we genuinely do have a problem when assessing the overall probability of a given interpretation of data being true.

In this case, we would definitely expect to see some evidence of the Exodus as described in the Bible because it was such a massive supposedly historical event. The rebuttal so often heard is that, since history is written by the victors, the Egyptians were interested in rubbing out this embarrassing set of events from their recorded history. However, the ramifications of the Exodus would have been so huge that there simply would be no way that this event wouldn’t be referenced in some manner.

In fact, the only appearance of Israel as an entity in all the texts and inscriptions and is artefacts of Egypt’s is in a very brief reference dated to the end of the 13th century BCE. This is, of course, the famous Merenptah Stele, a victory stele of the Nineteenth Dynasty. It is on one-line postscript to some detail all is of some victories in Libya. As Bradley states, it is a sort of “meanwhile, back in Canaan” (p.267):

“Ashkelon has been overcome; Gezer has been captured; Yano’am is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”

And that’s it. That is the totality of reference to Israel in Egyptian history at the time.

Whether “Israel” refers to a region, a pastoral or an ethnic group is up for grabs. As Bradley also adds (ibid):

This similarly, the word “happy room quote” in Egyptian texts, often interpreted as “Hebrew,” was almost certainly a generic term for rootless nomads, Wanderers, bandits, and people generally living on the margins of settled society.

In any event, the children of Israel do not appear to have loomed large on the Egyptian horizon; this is ironic, as the sheer size of the Exodus described in the Bible is also something of a problem. Literalist believers defend the number of men claimed in Exodus 12:37 – 38 and extrapolated to the total figure of 2–2.5 million, plus herds

Taking the figures in the bible of 603,550 fighting men, that gives an estimate of 2-2.5 million people in total. There is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus, the number of Egyptians in Egypt only numbered some 3-6 million.

Now, some apologists, like Kenneth Kitchen, point out that this could well be a translation error and so the numbers are vastly lower than a literal interpretation would claim. With a more plausible estimate of 20,000 people, all the same issues still remain. There has also been no archaeological evidence found of anyone fitting this narrative in the wilderness area, especially requiring settlements of the size necessary to support such large numbers.

If this literal interpretation is to be taken seriously, then there will be some massive ramifications to this many people walking around the Sinai for 40 years. In order for the Pharaoh’s army to defeat such a massive number of people, then the army would have to be pretty substantial itself. And if this army was to be destroyed by the Red Sea, this incredible and miraculous event would almost certainly be recorded somewhere else other than in a later-written religious text or a parochial neighbour. The ramifications of having an entire army and all those virile men killed in one fell swoop would be incredible. But it’s not just that, it’s a fact that there would have been a massive depopulation of livestock throughout Egypt if we are to believe that the plagues happened (again and again, as according to three of the plagues). The sheer devastation of having all firstborn children killed, of having the entire army decimated, and having livestock destroyed en masse, would have meant Egypt would have been crippled for generation upon generation. But there is absolutely no evidence of this in Egyptian records. Quite the opposite, indeed, because this period of Egyptian history was one of flourishing. As Bradley states, “it is quite the reverse: the dates proposed by believers land squarely in the middle of Egypt’s greatest period of prosperity and empire-building.”

She continues (p. 268):

As noted above, the Exodus narrative pushes an estimated 2-million-plus people, with extensive herds, out into the Sinai wilderness – agricultural peasants and (reputedly) construction workers, who were several generations away from any expertise in nomadic herding and life in the deserts and were moreover heavily laden with children, the elderly, and the treasure “borrowed” and pilfered from the Egyptians. The Sinai is not a welcoming place format a mass migration: stretches of desert, broken backside-of-the-moon rockskapes, winding escarpments, fractal wadis that are dry much of the year. No wonder we’re told the Children of Israel complained.

The 2 million wanderers were given manna by God for the forty years, a miraculous substance that sustained the people. This is a very convenient narrative tool to allow for such a ridiculous situation. However, even if you were to believe such an outlandish claim (that in other holy books you would dismiss out of hand), the narrative says nothing about miraculous provision being made for feeding the livestock, which would have been a huge issue in such a deserted area. Fuel to keep the 2 million people warm on those cold nights in the desert seems to have been another issue forgotten by the narrators. As for hygiene issues, without access to fresh water, I can barely imagine what an awful existence these people and animals must have had. Of course, it never happened, so we don’t really have to imagine what they went through. But, if the literalist is to be believed, then there are myriad issues with such an account, on logistical, hygienic, geographical, archaeological, and plausible levels.

As ridiculous as this whole situation appears to be, the main issue to bring up is one of archaeology. There is simply no archaeological evidence to suggest a mass migration of people across Sinai ever happened. And this is despite the fact that there have been several archaeological expeditions to try and find evidence to support such an exodus.

The problem is that we have contemporaneous evidence of far smaller communities of nomads and Bedouin who have travelled and existed in the area (Kadesh-Barnea). Nomads do leave archaeological evidence:

Actually, they do, often in patterns that reflect seasonal transhumance, clustering around certain resources at certain times of the year and in places where they interact with sedentary populations. Of course, because pastoralist or foraging groups tend to be small and mobile, the archaeological footprint is more subtle than those of sedentary populations, but nomads are by no means invisible in the archaeological record. As for the Exodus, however, there would be nothing subtle about a great mass of people and animals shuffling across the landscape. The equivalent of a fair sized city on the move – say, Greater Cleveland, or Calgary plus Edmonton – should have left a large, clear footprints, including a good scatter of artifacts.

The idea of the series that I am doing is one about probability. Where I have had certain Christian commenters ad hoc rationalising different harmonisations to allow for the claims I am making, they need to understand that the probabilities are compounding them into a rather difficult corner from which they must extricate themselves. In other words, for each rebuttal to be the true explanation of what the Bible claims, of the data, the low probabilities compound themselves to give a final probability that is very, very low.

If, on the other hand, you consider that the Bible, as the only source for the Exodus, is simply incorrect, then you don’t have to ad hoc rationalise and compound your probabilities for each and every difficulty.

Simply put, the most likely thesis is that the biblical account of the Exodus is incorrect. And this is what Christians and Jews do for every other holy book from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Rigveda of Hinduism to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. They don’t spend hours upon hours reading around to try and harmonise the claims in there to external claims as they do with the Bible. They don’t presuppose the truth of these books and then post hoc rationalise from henceforth. They claim they evaluate the Bible on its merits as a historical document but that is patently false.

Back to the archaeology again. Bradley continues:

Further, scholars have a reasonably clear idea about what was happening in the Sinai in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age: it has been designated the Tiomnian Complex, a sequence of hunter-gatherer groups that added sine pastoralism to their subsistence by about 5500 BCE and segued by the Early Bronze Age into full nomadic pastoralists with an additional, critically important, resource: The Sinai Peninsular is the site of very ancient copper and turquoise mines, an activity that the Egyptians took over as early as the Third Dynasty and maintained (with the odd hiatus) right through to the mid-twelfth century BCE, toward the end of the Late Bronze Age. During this long period of Egyptian mining, pastoralist camps continued but tended to be scarcer, clustered around the Egyptian mines and interacting regularly with the Egyptian, who referred to them as shasu. Egypt was clearly in control, maintaining a strong military presence in a string of forts along the coast, though Elizabeth Bloxam also suggests a certain integration between the indigenes and the Egyptian mining authorities, rather than “forceful domination.”

The bottom line is this: at times when Exodus-positive scholars propose the Israelites were in a holding pattern in the wilderness, (1) the Egyptians maintained a strong presence in the Sinai peninsular due to the valuable copper and gemstone deposits, (2) Pastoral groups displaying a high degree of cultural continuity from predynastic times continued to subsist in the Sinai, and (3) Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites were said to have hung out for much of their forty years in the wilderness, was archaeologically barren at the time – though known for its Iron Age fortress dating from the seventh century BCE. All these factors rule out a migration across Sinai on the scale described in the Bible and give no support for a sojourn in Kadesh-Barnea.

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, in The Bible Unearthed (p.63-64), agree:

Even if the number of fleeing Israelites (given in the text as six hundred thousand) is wildly exaggerated or can be interpreted as representing smaller units of people, the text describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions. Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent. However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been identified in Sinai. And it has not been for lack of trying. Repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the peninsula, including the mountainous area around the traditional site of Mount Sinai, near Saint Catherine’s Monastery (see Appendix B), have yielded only negative evidence: not even a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment. One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archaeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium BCE and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the thirteenth century BCE.

The conclusion – that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible – seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication – if present – would almost certainly be found. According to the biblical narrative, the children of Israel camped at Kadesh-barnea for thirty eight of the forty years of the wanderings. The general location of this place is clear from the description of the southern border of the land of Israel in Numbers 34. It has been identified by archaeologists with the large and well-watered oasis of Ein el-Qudeirat in eastern Sinai, on the border between modern Israel and Egypt. The name Kadesh was probably preserved over the centuries in the name of a nearby smaller spring called Ein Qadis. A small mound with the remains of a Late Iron Age fort stands at the center of this oasis. Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees.

Ezion-geber is another place reported to be a camping place of the children of Israel. Its mention in other places in the Bible as a later port town on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba has led to its identification by archaeologists at a mound located on the modern border between Israel and Jordan, halfway between the towns of Eilat and Aqaba. Excavations here in the years 1938-1940 revealed impressive Late Iron Age remains, but no trace whatsoever of Late Bronze occupation. From the long list of encampments in the wilderness, Kadesh-barnea and Ezion-geber are the only ones that can safely be identified, yet they revealed no trace of the wandering Israelites.

And what of other settlements and peoples mentioned in the account of the Israelites’ wanderings? The biblical narrative recounts how the Canaanite king of Arad, “who dwelt in the Negeb,” attacked the Israelites and took some of them captive – enraging them to the point that they appealed for divine assistance to destroy all the Canaanite cities (Numbers 21:1-3). Almost twenty years of intensive excavations at the site of Tel Arad east of Beersheba have revealed remains of a great Early Bronze Age city, about twenty-five acres in size, and an Iron Age fort, but no remains whatsoever from the Late Bronze Age, when the place was apparently deserted. The same holds true for the entire Beersheba valley. Arad simply did not exist in the Late Bronze Age.

The same situation is evident astward across the Jordan, where the wandering Israelites were forced to do battle at the city of Heshbon, capital of Sihon, king of the Amorites, who tried to block the Israelites from passing in his territory on their way to Canaan (Numbers 21:21-25; Deuteronomy 2:24-35: Judges 11:19-21). Excavations at Tel Hesban south of Amman, the location of ancient Heshbon, showed that there was no Late Bronze city, not even a small village there. And there is more here. According to the Bible, when the children of Israel moved along the Transjordanian plateau they met and confronted resistance not only in Moab but also from the full-fledged states of Edom and Ammon. Yet we now know that the plateau of Transjordan was very sparsely inhabited in the Late Bronze Age. In fact, most parts of this region, including Edom, which is mentioned as a state ruled by a king in the biblical narrative, were not even inhabited by a sedentary population at that time. To put it simply, archaeology has shown us that there were no kings of Edom there for the Israelites to meet.

The pattern should have become clear by now. Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real. A few were well known and apparently occupied in much earlier periods and much later periods – after the kingdom of Judah was established, when the text of the biblical narrative was set down in writing for the first time. Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

We are really seeing a pattern here: every single aspect of the biblical Exodus story presents a problem for the literalist. Here, archaeology condemns the literalist to the fringe wilderness, the Kadesh-Barnea, of scholarship and believability. If you really, really want to live in Kadesh-Barnea, I am sure you could make it your home, but I would rather live somewhere more comfortable, more reasonable.

Whilst you’re here, please check out my treatment of the Nativity accounts:

 


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