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The Exodus - Fact or Fiction?

The word "Exodus" simply means "a going out". It is usually applied to a mass movement of people from one location to another. In Biblical terms, the Exodus is used to describe the evacuation of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt about 3,500 years ago. These events are recalled in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible.

Bible background

The Jews are all descended from one man, the patriarch Abraham, who lived about 1900 BC. He followed a nomadic life in the land of Canaan (now called Israel) to the north of Egypt. His grandson Jacob (also called Israel) had twelve sons, and one of these, Joseph, was treacherously sold into Egypt by his brothers as a slave. After initial setbacks, Joseph prospered in Egypt, eventually becoming vizier (equivalent to a modern Prime Minister) to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Sometime later, a famine in Canaan compelled Jacob and his remaining sons and their families to migrate into Egypt, where, under the patronage of Joseph, they settled in the northern Nile delta area. As time went by Jacob's descendants, the Israelites became so numerous that they were considered a threat to Egyptian stability, and so the Pharaohs instituted a system of slave labour by which it was hoped to keep the Israelites in check:

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh ... They made their lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labourthe Egyptians used them ruthlessly.

  • Exodus 1.11,14 NIV
Egyptian charioteers shown on the walls of Rameses' temple

The book of Exodus then describes the coming of Moses to be their leader, and how under divine guidance the people of Israel threw off the oppressive yoke of the Egyptians and fled the country. But this Exodus was not accomplished easily. Pharaoh was keen to hold on to his source of free labour, and it was only after God inflicted on the Egyptians a series of ten terrible plagues, culminating in the death of every firstborn, that permission was given for the Israelites to leave.

Even so, Pharaoh had second thoughts and sent his elite chariot corps to recapture the departed slaves, who were apparently trapped beside the Red Sea. But miraculously the sea parted to allow the Israelites to escape, and when the Egyptian charioteers attempted to follow, the sea closed in on them and they were never seen again.

The freed slaves travelled to Mount Sinai where they were constituted the nation of Israel with God as their king. They went on to settle again in the land of Canaan in which their ancestors had lived about 250 years earlier.

This, in brief, is the record of the Exodus as told in the Bible. But did it actually happen? Is it fact or fiction?

The problem outlined

Needless to say, the Bible account of the Exodus has come in for much sceptical comment. The ten plagues, especially the last one, and the dividing of the Red Sea are miraculous elements of the story. They are either denied outright or considered to be merely natural phenomena that by chance occurred at a fortuitous time. It is also alleged that all accounts have been embellished and exaggerated by continual retelling, and are therefore untrustworthy.

In addition to this, while archaeology gives a wealth of historical information about Egypt, there have been little or no recognisable allusions to the Israelites ever having been in Egypt. If they were sufficiently numerous and influential to pose a threat to Egyptian security it seems most likely, so the argument goes, that somewhere the Egyptians would have mentioned them in their extensive archives.

Even if it did occur as described in the Bible, there is uncertainty among scholars as to the date of the Exodus; suggested dates vary by almost 200 years! In view of this it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to answer the question posed by the heading of this article: is the Exodus fact or fiction?

Arguments to support the Biblical Exodus

All is not lost however! Whilst there is no absolute proof that the Exodus actually happened, there is a lot of evidence that gives strong indications that the Bible record is true.

Subsequent history

It is an undeniable fact that by about the twelfth century BC the nation of Israel had settled in the land of Canaan, and that some 200 years later was a major power in the area under the kingship of David and Solomon. It is also unquestionable that during this period the Israelites had preserved a consistent tradition that the nation was born in Egypt and had become the chosen people of God by the events connected with the Exodus. References in later parts of the Bible abound with allusions to the Exodus, and it is inconceivable that the Israelites would have just dreamed up all these. Here is just one example, and there are many others:

This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery ...

  • Jeremiah 34.13 (NIV)

This national tradition continued down to New Testament times. It would be difficult to explain all such references unless the Exodus actually happened.

A Jewish family celebrates the Passover

The Passover

But there is much stronger evidence. On the night of the last plague on the Egyptians, the death of all their firstborn, God exempted the Israelites from the plague provided they carried out a special ritual, later known as the Passover. After the event God commanded His people to keep the Passover every year in commemoration of their deliverance. So over the intervening centuries, right down to our own day, the Jews have kept the Passover. Thus there is a direct link between the Exodus and the present time. If the original miracle is denied, how can the consistent tradition of the Passover from that day to this be explained?

Historical evidence - the date of the Exodus

Until very recently almost every student of ancient history dated the Exodus at about 1280 BC. The evidence goes something like this:

  • A Pharaoh known as Rameses the Great reigned around this time.
  • The city the slaves built was named Rameses (Exodus 1.11).
  • It was assumed that the city was named after the reigning king.
  • Therefore Rameses was the Pharaoh that enslaved Israel.

However this date has always had its difficulties. Firstly, it does not fit in with the known archaeological finds relating to Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan after leaving Egypt. The well-known Merneptah Stele found in Egypt mentions Israel along with the towns of Ashkelon, Gezer and Yeno'am.

Merneptah Stele - 1219 BC

The Egyptian symbol for "town" is attached to the last three, but attached to 'Israel,' is the symbol for 'people'. This indicates that the Israelites were well settled in their land as a nation long before the conventional date for the Exodus.

This also applies to the fall of Jericho. The Bible describes the destruction of the city by the Israelites 40 years after they had left Egypt, but archaeology suggests that Jericho was already largely a ruin by 1280 BC. The Bible gives its own date for the Exodus. We read: ... in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel ... he began to build the house of the LORD.

  • 1 Kings 6.1

The date of the fourth year of Solomon can be established with a fair degree of accuracy, and going back another 480 years gives about 1440 BC for the date of the Exodus. It is most heartening for the Bible student to now learn that over the last 20 or so years some 'experts' are coming round to accepting this earlier date for the Exodus. The important result of this is that many already known items of history fit exactly into place, and the Bible's record of the Exodus is confirmed. foreign slaves in Egypt For example, a papyrus roll dating from a generation before the time of Moses lists the names of 95 slaves of a certain Egyptian household. Of these over half had 'Asiatic' rather than Egyptian names, suggesting that they were of Syrian-Canaanite origin. Among these names are several that are the same as those found in the Bible. Issachar, and Asher, both sons of Jacob, are mentioned; and even the name later given to one of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, Shiphrah (see Exodus 1.15) is mentioned. This papyrus related to a household in southern Egypt. It is reasonable to assume that, if many of the slaves down south were foreign, then in the Nile delta area to the north, much nearer to their country of origin, the proportion of Asiatic slaves would have been much greater. Therefore the comment in Exodus can be regarded as accurate: ... the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with the

  • Exodus 1.7 NIV

There were a great number of foreign slaves, some with non- Egyptian names similar to people mentioned in the Bible, at the very time in Egyptian history now thought to be just before the Exodus. This is a striking indication that the Bible's record of the presence and persecution of the Israelites in Egypt is a fact, not fiction.

A blast of God

If the 1440 BC date for the Exodus is accepted, then the ruling Pharaoh at that time would have been a king called Dudimose. In the third century BC an Egyptian priest named Mantheo wrote a history of Egypt. In the record for the reign of Dudimose he notes: "A blast of God smote us" (i.e. the Egyptians). Can what has hitherto been regarded as an irrelevant comment (because of the assumption that the Exodus dates from 1280 BC) now be regarded as a reference to the plagues by which God forced the Egyptians to submit?

The destruction of Jericho

In the well-known Bible account the Israelites captured Jericho 40 years after leaving Egypt. The city was circled each day for seven days, and on the seventh day the walls fell down, leaving the defenders at the mercy of the attackers.

A trench cut through the mound of the old city of Jericho to expose its history

Archaeologists now know a lot about the history of Jericho. One thing is clear: if the Exodus had taken place in 1280 BC, then the Israelites, reaching it forty years later, would have found a city that had been in ruins for about 200 years! Obviously either the whole Exodus story is a myth or, much more likely, the accepted date for it is wrong. If we take the date for the Exodus as around 1440 BC, everything slots neatly into place. The attack that left Jericho a ruin for a long time is now thought by many scholars to be the assault by Israel under Joshua as described in the Bible. And in the ruins archaeologists have found evidence that agrees completely with the Bible record. The city of this time was covered with a thick layer of ashes. The Bible says that Joshua burned the city and all that was in it (Joshua 6.24). Contrary to usual practice the city was not looted. Large stores of grain and other produce was found among the ashes.

Storage pots still full of grain found in Jericho

This is precisely as mentioned in the Exodus record. The Bible says the attack on Jericho took place at harvest time (Joshua 3.15). Among the ruins of the city were found many jars full to the brim of carbonised grain, indicating that the harvest had just been gathered in. A recent archaeologist (Dr. Bryant Wood) summarises these findings:

The correlation between the archaeological evidence and the narrative in the book of Joshua is substantial:

  • The city was strongly fortified (Joshua 2.5,7,15; 6.5,20).
  • The attack occurred just after the Spring harvest ( Joshua 2.6; 3.15; 5.10).
  • The inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their foodstuffs ( Joshua v6.1).
  • The siege was short ( Joshua 6.15).
  • The walls were levelled, as if by an earthquake ( Joshua 6.20).
  • The city was not plundered ( Joshua 6.17,18).
  • The city was burned ( Joshua 6.24).

Conclusions and significance of the Exodus

All the main objections that have had the effect of casting doubt on the Biblical record of the Exodus can now been shown to be ill-founded. Once the correct era of Egyptian history is put alongside the Scriptural information any alleged discrepancies disappear. The Exodus of Israel from Egypt can therefore be regarded as a fact, and one that can with assurance be put alongside all the other undisputed events that make up ancient history. The purpose of this study is not merely to demonstrate that the Exodus took place. The reason why there are so many Bible references to the Exodus is because this one event is crucial to God's purpose with the earth and man. It is viewed in several different ways. First, it marked a major public intervention by God in human affairs, and thus has set the precedent for all future demonstrations of God's existence and of His purpose with mankind. Further, it marked the choice of the Jewish people (Israel) as God's own nation. It was through them that salvation would come to the whole world, as Jesus said salvation is of the Jews (John 4.22). It also demonstrated the power of God. Because He had delivered Israel in such a dramatic way, they should have had no doubt as to His existence, His power and also His mercy. The Exodus also had a special symbolic meaning that applies to all people, not just Israel. Just as God's people were delivered from slavery and death, led out of Egypt, and after a period of trial in the wilderness allowed to enter the Promised Land, so mankind can be delivered from the bondage of sin and death to inherit eternal life and blessing. In the Exodus this deliverance was achieved specifically by the Passover ceremony, in which the sprinkled blood of a slain lamb ensured the liberation of the Israelites. No reader of the New Testament can escape the teaching that this predicted the death of Jesus, whose blood was shed to take away the sins of the world and deliver mankind from death. This is why the Exodus is so important to a Christian.

How good it is to know that this event as recorded in the Bible is:

Fact and not fiction!
  • Author Peter Southgate
  • Country Surrey, England
  • Source Light on a New World reprint from Volume 29.1

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