Monday, February 05, 2007
Did the Exodus Really Happen?
(Warning: exceptionally long post which indulges my ancient history fetish.)

I recently watched a History Channel program called The Exodus Decoded that got me very intrigued about the history of the Exodus story found in the Bible (wherein God miraculously liberates his people from oppression in Egypt). While most of those "mysteries of the Bible" type History Channel shows tend to be full of a lot of fluff, bad scholarship, and fringe history - this one was different. While the producer, Simcha Jacobovici, was definitely proposing a less widely accepted theory of the Exodus, it seemed backed with decent scholarship and offered plausible historical possibilities.

Let me back up and explain the context. Though it may surprise some conservative Christians to hear it, there is actually significant academic debate about whether or not the Exodus actually occurred, and, if it did occur, when and in what manner. The problem is that there is little clear archaeological or historical evidence to corroborate the biblical story. That's not to say there is none, it's just that the evidence we do have is faint, inconclusive, and points to many possibilities, rather than one clear event.

That scarcity of evidence is enough, according to some skeptics, to cast the reality of the entire event in doubt. If over a million people migrated from Egypt all at once, hung out in the Sinai peninsula for 40 years, and then launched a campaign of conquest and destruction into the land of Canaan, wouldn't an event like that leave a pretty big mark? Shouldn't the evidence be obvious and unmistakable? For this reason, some put the Exodus story entirely in the realm of myth.

Others (the majority of scholars) feel that there is enough evidence (including the biblical records themselves) to say that the Exodus, or something like it, must have happened at some point. However, they differ sharply as to when and how it occurred. On this point scholars basically fall into two camps. Biblical literalists tend to favor the "Early Date" option (based primarily on 1 Kings 6:1) which places the Exodus roughly around 1450 B.C. during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep II. However, more "liberal" scholars, who are open to reading numbers of years given in the Bible more symbolically, typically lean towards the "Late Date" option, which places the Exodus between 1280-1250 B.C. during the reign of Pharaoh Rameses II (the version popularized by "The Ten Commandments" and "The Prince of Egypt"). The Late Date option also conveniently matches up with solid archaeological evidence for the Conquest of Canaan described in the book of Joshua - for instance layers of destruction from that time period at cities like Jericho and Hazor which are specifically mentioned in the Bible as having been destroyed by Joshua, as well as the clear emergence of Israelite material culture in the archeological findings. The Early Date has the difficulty of less (though not non-existent) evidence for a conquest in the 15th century, or for Israelite occupation of the land during those centuries.

However, both the Early and Late Dates lack any historical records from Egypt or anywhere else describing a mass migration of Semitic people from Egypt to Canaan during that time. If the Exodus really happened, why doesn't anyone from those time periods mention it?

As it turns out, history does in fact clearly record at least one mass migration of Semitic peoples out of Egypt during this time period. The Exodus Decoded documentary suggests that perhaps the historically established "expulsion of the Hyksos" is the same event as the Biblical Exodus. The Hyksos were a Semitic people that had migrated to Egypt in the 18th century B.C., settling in the northern part of the Nile Valley (the same area that the Bible has Joseph, Jacob and their family settling); and in fact, the ancient Egyptian historian, Manetho (ca. 3rd century B.C.), actually identified the Hyksos migration with Joseph and his family. Indeed, the Hyksos seem to have taken control of the northern portion of Egypt peacefully while the native Egyptian Pharaohs continued to rule in name only from the capital of Thebes further to the south. There is no record of a military invasion or conquest by the Hyksos. They seem to have just moved in and taken over the reigns from a politically weak Egyptian dynasty. Interestingly, this fits well with the biblical story of Joseph being given near total control over Egypt by the Pharaoh and then overseeing the migration of semitic famine refugees from Canaan into Egypt.

The name Hyksos is an Egyptian label that means "Foreign Princes", which seems like a good description of Joseph and his successors. In fact, several Hyksos rulers from that period bore the name "Yakov" (i.e. Jacob), and the documentary notes that signet rings of the Hyksos dynasty also often bore the name "Yakov" - perhaps a reference to their founding patriarch and tribal identity? The documentary also points out that the lower-class peasant "Hyksos" were referred to by the Egyptians as "Amu" which is linguistically related to the Bible's name for the Israelites - "Amo Israel" (literally "The Children of Israel"). Not all of the Hyksos and Amu would have been Israelites, but then, the Bible likewise tells us many other peoples went with the Israelites when they left Egypt (Exodus 12:38). It seems very likely to me that the Israelites were at least a major segment of the Hyksos population.

Around the 1550's the Egyptian Pharaohs in the south decided that they had had enough of Hyksos domination and started to resist. By the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose I (ca. ~1525 B.C.) the Theban's had taken control of most of the northern countryside, with the exception of the Hyksos capital of Avaris. One could suppose that they likely enslaved the Amu/Hyksos people (including Israelites) in the areas they recaptured, just as the Bible tells us the Egyptians did to the Israelites. Eventually Ahmose reached an agreement with the Hyksos rulers in which they and their people would leave Egypt in return for a payment of gold and other valuables - again, an interesting parallel with the biblical account in Exodus 12:35-36 in which the Israelites plunder the Egyptians of their gold, silver and clothes. However, the most stunning parallel with the Exodus story is the Tempest Stele (pictured above) erected by Ahmose I, which describes cataclysmic natural disasters in Egypt that bear striking resemblances to the biblical plagues. For instance, at one point the Stele records the following:
... a thick darkness, without the least light, spread itself over the Egyptians; whereby their sight being obstructed, and their breathing hindered by the thickness of the air ... under a terror least they be swallowed up by the dark cloud ... Hail was sent down from heaven, and such hail it was, as the climate of Egypt had never suffered before ... the hail broke down their boughs laden with fruit.
Compare this Egyptian account with Exodus 9:23-25 & 10:22-23 to see the similarities. (Jacobovici gives some really intriguing scientific evidence to support the possibility that the Biblical plagues were caused by the volcanic eruption of Thera on the island of Santorini in the Mediterranean.)

Manetho tells us that 480,000 Hyksos left Egypt at this time, certainly an "exodus" of biblical proportions (by some translations, 600,000 men were part of the Jewish Exodus - though it is possible that the actual number was significantly less than this as the Hebrew word for "thousand" can also be translated as "families" or "military units"). Again, not all of these would have been Israelites, and we can assume that not all of them would have stuck with Moses as he headed into the Sinai desert. However, we are also told by Manetho that, like Moses and the Israelites, the ultimate destination of the Hyksos was the land of Canaan.

So here we have historical and archaeological accounts of a large number of Semitic peoples migrating out of Egypt to Canaan, accompanied by cataclysmic plagues. One wonders why scholars feel the need to look further for evidence of the biblical Exodus. As I was reading scholarly responses (here, here, and here, for instance) to Jacobovici's documentary (as I always like to check these type of "alternative" theories against mainstream scholarship) I found that most scholars refused to really engage with the Hyksos hypothesis, and instead just dismissed it out of hand because it ran counter to the current scholarly consensus or to their preconceptions about the biblical timeline. Indeed, most of the scholars didn't even bother to clearly show reasons against the Jacobovici's proposal, but instead merely dismissed him out of hand because he's "not a real scholar". While that may be a legitimate reason to scrutinize a theory more closely, I don't see that such ad hominem attacks necessarily undermine a decent theory.

I couldn't find much in the way of real reasons why the expulsion of the Hyksos couldn't be the Exodus event. Instead what I found is that both conservative and liberal scholars seem too locked into their own established orthodoxies to consider alternative possibilities. The conservative, Early Date supporters seem pretty locked into a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1, which requires the Exodus to have been right around 1450 B.C. (50-75 years later than the Hyksos exodus). On the other hand, the liberal scholars seem dogmatically certain that the Exodus occurred in the 13th century B.C. and ridicule any suggestions to the contrary. I didn't find any scholars who weren't either strict biblical literalists or else skeptics who saw little historical value in biblical accounts at all.

As far as I can tell, the primary objection to both an Early Date Exodus and to the Hyksos Exodus hypothesis is the lack of a clear archaeological record of the Conquest of Canaan or the emergence of a distinctive Israelite material culture in Canaan prior to the 13th century. If the Exodus occurred around 1500 B.C., where were they for the next 300 years?

It's a good question, but it so happens that there are some good answers too. The key is to not misunderstand the nature of the Israelites Conquest and Settlement of Canaan. Both liberal and conservative scholars often seem to assume that the Bible depicts the Conquest as a rather linear event that must have happened over a relatively short period of time, and that the replacement of Canaanite culture with Israelite culture would have happened almost immediately and very thoroughly. Consequently, they tend to look for sharp transitions in the material culture and clear destruction layers in the conquered cities.

However, as Jacobovici points out, the Bible doesn't actually describe the Conquest as a singular event, and doesn't say that the Israelites completely drove out or exterminated the Canaanites. Instead, in most cases the Israelites preserved the cities and became overlords of the existing Canaanite citizens (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10-11). Only a few of cities were destroyed outright, including Jericho and Hazor - both of which do in fact show signs of destruction dating from the 15th century (the time of the Hyksos). The rest maintained a mixed population of Israelites and Canaanites. Besides this, according to this scholar, "Hebrews and Canaanites had little that distinguished them from each other in their material culture", which means that we would expect the archaeological transition between the two to be very gradual and likely take several centuries. In other words, if, as the biblical books of Joshua and Judges describe, the Israelites did not replace the Canaanites, but dwelt among them and ruled over them, and the two cultures were similar to begin with, then we should expect to find exactly what the archaeological record in fact reveals - some initial destruction and conflict immediately post-Exodus, followed by a long and gradual transition of material culture over the next few centuries.

If we accept this more gradual account, then suddenly historical evidence does emerge to answer the question of where the Hyksos/Israelites were during the centuries immediately following the Exodus. It turns out that we've been looking for the wrong thing. If the Israelites were in the land but didn't emerge as significant & unified regional power for several centuries after the Exodus, we shouldn't expect the records of nearby civilizations (like the Egyptians) to call them by their own name (i.e. "Israel"). Rather, we'd expect people like the Egyptians to use their own labels and descriptors for the Israelites. And in fact, Egyptian records do mention two groups of people in the region of Canaan that seem like a very good match for the descendants of the Exodus: the Habiru and the Shasu.

Habiru (a name which may or may not be connected with "Hebrew") was the name given by the Egyptians and other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations to any of a number of nomadic groups of bandits and mercenaries composed of social outcasts, escaped slaves and the like. The Egyptian Amarna letters (ca. 14th century B.C.) mention that these Habiru people were stirring things up in Canaan and threatening to take control of the whole land - which correlates well with an Early Date or Hyksos view of the Exodus. It seems likely that the term Habiru was a broad designation that was not limited to the Israelites, but very well could have included them during this time period. Indeed, one can imagine that this negative label applied to the Israelites by their enemies could have provided a basis for the them later identifying themselves as Hebrews. Biblically speaking, "Hebrew" means "descendant of Eber", one of Abraham's ancestors listed in Genesis 10-11; but this etymology could have been a later scribal explanation meant to "dignify" a label originally meant to lump them in with rogues and outcasts. (This practice of groups willingly adopting labels for themselves that were originally meant as insults is very common throughout history.)

The Shasu was another nomadic people group that appeared in the region in the 15th century (again, around the time of the Hyksos migration). The name itself means "to travel by foot" and it seems that this was the Egyptian designation for the pastoral nomads that lived in the region around the Jordan River. Egyptian drawings (like the one at left) depict them as circumcised, with side-locks in their hair and tassels on their clothes - exactly as the Torah prescribes for Israelite men. We are also told in Egyptian records that at least some of these Shasu belonged to a deity named Yhw (or Yahweh). It seems obvious that these Shasu (or at least a portion of them) were Israelites, and it is significant that they make their first appearance shortly after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt. Again, if we take a more gradual view of the conquest of Canaan, then it makes sense to think that many of the Israelites would have remained as nomadic herdsmen for several centuries following the Exodus.

So again, we have historical evidence that lines up perfectly with the premise that the Exodus was the same event as the late-16th century expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt. Jacobovici's documentary piles on even more evidence (some pretty solid, some more doubtful) that all point to this same conclusion - and all the arguments against the theory seem based more on an appeal to "accepted scholarly consensus" than to a thoughtful consideration of the evidence. I have found no one who can conclusively say why the Hyksos migration absolutely could not have been the Exodus event; and, as it is the only historically recorded mention of a mass migration of Semites out of Egypt in this period, I see little reason why we shouldn't identify these as one and the same. As Jacobovici points out, there is a convergence of evidence, none of which is absolutely conclusive, but which together build a pretty strong case.

As they say, "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck..."

At any rate, I just find this all so fascinating, and it is a helpful reply to those who want to claim that there is absolutely no historical basis for the Old Testament narratives (an unsubstantiated claim that I've actually encountered several times recently in my conversations with atheists.) It is especially intriguing to me to understand the broader context and fuller history underlying the Biblical narratives. It's easy to get tunnel vision when reading the Bible, and assume that all that was going on is only what the text tells us. We forget that the writers and editors of the Bible were selective in the details they include. It does not give us the full story. Rather, it gives us the portion of the story that is relevant to the specific point the writers/editors (and perhaps God himself) are trying to make through the text. But as we read, we should always keep in mind that there is a bigger picture and many more complicated dynamics to the total story that aren't reflected in the Bible itself. Understanding the context will ultimately help us understand the Bible better too.

That's a good rule of thumb whenever you're reading any part of the Bible, I think.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 5:53 PM | Permalink |


At 2/07/2007 08:24:00 AM, Blogger gerbmom

OK - well I'm exhausted...... ;)


At 4/05/2007 11:17:00 PM, Anonymous Nicholas Price

I never did comment on this post, but I keep coming back to it time and again because it was so well thought out. Thanks for this research Mike. It was awesome


At 5/28/2007 05:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous


Came across your site & saw you had an interesting article on the *EXODUS!

As I read it I thought the views & opinions held on the period of time this biblical event happened were very thought provoking. Nevertheless, their are other valid views on the period in history in which this biblical event occurred as well.

It is pointed out that the exodus could have very well occured during the time of egypts *SIXTH Dyanasty for many reasons. Also it also is pointed out that while many embrace the idea of the exodus happening during the time of *Ramases, it should be noted that from scripture, *Ramases appears in exactly *5 places. Each time it is employed as a geographical reference, as Gen.47 shows that goshen & rameses are one & the same.

The pharaohs of ancient egypt had at least 5 names as well. This adds to the confusion of the identity of egyptian rulers. SEE *RIDDLE OF THE EXODUS! J.D.LONG! Of course, I'm sure that in time ALL THINGS WILL BE REVEALED BY G*D.(SMILE)!


At 6/19/2007 09:07:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Nick, I'm glad you found my research helpful. I just kind of got sucked into it - following link after link online - until a clearer picture started to emerge for me.

Hi Nony Mouse. I have studied the other Exodus options as well. In college I actually studied under a Harvard PhD biblical archaeologist who took us through both the liberal and conservative dates of the Exodus. Oddly enough though he never mentioned the Hyksos as a possibility - mainly for the reasons I described above.

Anyhow, thanks for dropping by.


At 1/22/2010 07:43:00 PM, Blogger clement

Did the documentary indicate what the Hyskos rule of Egypt was like?

Atheists love to argue that the Hyskos rule was brutal and that they enslaved the Egyptians. And thus, the Book of Exodus becomes a sour-grapes propaganda piece.

Any evidence to the contrary?


At 4/28/2010 06:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Muy buen articulo, aunque no logre leerlo todo pero realmente es bueno. Creo que ente mas personas investigando sobre esto podemos descubrir nuevas pruebas y relacionarlas con lo que ya existe, aunque los que somos cristianos, por fe hemos creido lo que la Biblia nos dice.


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