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Did the Exodus Happen?

In response to a question from years ago about the problems posed to critical scholars by the Hebrew Bible I have so far provided two posts, one involving the surviving manuscripts (do we know what the authors originally said?) and the other with apparent discrepancies (where accounts appear to be at odds with one another).   I will now provide a couple of posts dealing with the equally big problem that the Hebrew Bible narrates events that probably did not take place, at least as described.

Today I will provide a chunk from my forthcoming book on the Bible about the exodus event under Moses, in which Moses led the children of Israel out from their slavery in Egypt and a great miracle transpired at the parting of the Sea of Reeds (traditionally called the Red Sea), where the children of Israel were allowed to cross on dry land before the waters rushed back destroying Pharaoh’s entire army (as narrated in Exodus 14).  It’s an absolutely amazing, terrific story.  But it does not appear to be historical.  Here are some reasons why:

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Exodus from a Historical Perspective

It has proved difficult for biblical scholars to establish when these events are to have taken place.  The most common dating of the exodus event places it around 1250 BCE, for three reasons.

First, the text indicates that the Israelites had been in Egypt for 430 years; that would coincide roughly with the narrative of Genesis, when Joseph would have gone to Egypt at the beginning of the 17th century BCE, according to the chronology that appears to be operative there (in Genesis).   But even more important is a hint provided in Exod. 1:11, that the Hebrew slaves were forced to build the cities of Pi-Ramses and Pithon; both cities actually were rebuilt or reoccupied in the mid-13th century BCE.

The third  is an archaeological discovery of….

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Did The Israelites Really Conquer Canaan?
Now: Literary Inconsistencies in the Old Testament

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RSKICE  September 13, 2019

    Thank you for a informative post as always. Really enjoy the blog.
    Just for the fun of it. If we calculate the population growth for 430 yrs. Starting with 70 people. The outcome is 349 thousand people given a 2% growth rate. Now in antiquity the growth rate would probably been lower due illness, warfare, etc. Furthermore, my country has been inhabited by the same ethnic group for the last 1100 years. We are only around 320.000 and the first settlers were more than 70. Many lived in the beginning with hardship. Volcanos and other elements of nature have had a negative mark in our population growth. I expect that similar things would have been in Egypt such as famine, drought, etc.

  2. Avatar
    tcasto  September 13, 2019

    I seem to recall a reference (yours?) to a theory that the Israelites dwelt in Canaan long before the story of the promised land. And that they rose to prominence because a disease that ravaged the low landers spared the mountain dwelling Israelites.

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 13, 2019

    I think some others have pointed out that it would take quite some time for two million people on foot, with children and some animals and surely a lot of provisions (utensils and tools if not food) to cross the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds. And they are being chased by soldiers in war chariots propelled by galloping horses? And somehow while this long, long, snake of human beings winds slowly through a miraculous rift in the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians only manage to catch up when the last person has managed to cross, and only just then are the pursuers able to begin the crossing themselves?? There is something about his picture that strains credulity to the limit. And if it is a sea of reeds, that suggests something rather shallow, so no miracle required to part the sea. That part of the story is simply silly.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 13, 2019

    Do you think the Jews were ever in Egypt or is that a myth as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yup, there were. And still are!

    • Avatar
      FocusMyView  September 29, 2019

      Jeremiah went. Jesus too!. And do not forget about Josephus and Philo as well!

  5. Avatar
    jhague  September 13, 2019

    Is it also legend that all the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt?

  6. Avatar
    Leovigild  September 13, 2019

    if according to the book of Exodus Pharaoh and his the “entire army” (see 14:6, 9, 23) were destroyed in the Sea of Reeds

    I know you know this, Dr. Ehrman, but others may not as it is a common misconception, but the account in Exodus does not say that Pharaoh was killed in the Sea of Reeds, just his men. It’s true that the author of Psalm 136 seems to be of a different opinion, but many later commentators felt that Pharaoh indeed survived the destruction of his army.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      The passage in Exodus 14 indicates that Pharoah was leading the army, and it says the entire army was destroyed; so that’s usually taken to mean he was too, no? (Obviously it never says he wasn’t killed; or specficially that he was. But since he was at the head of hte army and the army was killed by the waters, what would make a reader think he wasn’t?)

  7. Avatar
    darren  September 13, 2019

    I’ve read that the Exodus story is based on a smaller group of exiles from a town called something close to Yaweh who left Egypt and merged with ancient Israelis. They credited their escape to their god, The theory is that’s where ancient Israel got their god, and there’s archeological evidence of a significant but not massive population growth around that time. Did I dream this theory?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Parts of that theory are often held; but I don’t recall hearing anything about a town named Yahweh (or something close to it)

      • Avatar
        FocusMyView  September 29, 2019

        That sounds like the Shasu of YHW, where the YHW was a toponym. However, on the Merneptah Stele, both the Shasu and the Isrealites are depicted.
        I got this from the Wikipedia article on the Shasu. The article seems to be written from both sides, though the need for citations is clear.

  8. Avatar
    JGonzalezGUS  September 13, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I have read accounts where it’s claimed that most of the Exodus is either myth or, at best, symbolic and the Israelites were what we now called ‘Hyksos’ who were expelled from Egypt some time the past.
    Can you comment on that, or do you talk about it in your book?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yes, the idea is that the sons of Jacob who descended into Egypt actually represent the Hyksos invasions into Egypt known from about that time. I’m nt sure that’s a theory held widely any more, but I’m not *completely* sure! More likely there were some stories about some people coming out of Egypt and resettling in Canaan, and these stories got magnified over time into a kind of “invasion” of Egypt and a later “Exodus” out of it.

      • Avatar
        mkofron  October 23, 2019

        Richard Elliot Friedman has a book “The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters” where he argues that it was only the Levites who made the Exodus from Egypt. One of his arguments is that only the Levites in the Hebrew Bible possessed Egyptian names.

  9. Avatar
    flshrP  September 13, 2019

    Couple the fantasy of the Exodus with the equally fantastic and contradictory biblical account of the ten plagues that befell Egypt before the Exodus and you have two pieces of legend.

    Add the events that were supposed to have transpired during the Exodus, especially the fantasy of Moses, Mt. Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, and you have even more legend. This fantasy would have us believe that until Mt. Sinai the Israelites did not understand that murder, rape, theft, genocide, etc. were immoral and criminal and needed those stone tablets for their moral education. If humans did not have this understanding as an innate guide to fostering human solidarity for the thousands of years that humans lived in social groups prior to Exodus, then those fugitive Israelites would never have made it to the foot of Mt. Sinai. The state of Israel would have self-destructed long before that.

    And, of course, the finale of Exodus, entering the Promised Land, negates all of the Ten Commandments fantasy since the Hebrew God commands the Israelites to engage in a massive land grab and commit murder, rape, enslavement, ethnic cleansing, and genocide on the inhabitants. Arguably the most immoral event in the Hebrew bible.

    • Avatar
      Martintee  September 29, 2019

      One of the points I like to bring out to biblical literalist is the tenth plague. Just ask a Christian or a religious Jew to explain why God killed tens of thousands of innocent children . Yet Passover is treated as a joyous holiday . I remind them to imagine the suffering of the mothers and fathers of these children. Seriously, God could not find a better way to rescue the Jews from slavery than by killing innocent children ? I then point out the absurdity that God needed lambs blood to distinguish his chosen people. Really, God couldn’t figure out who the Jews were in Egypt without them splashing lamb’s blood on the front door? Most religious people have a really hard time with this one.

  10. Avatar
    fishician  September 13, 2019

    When Israeli historians and archaeologists agree that there is no evidence for an exodus, I think that’s pretty good non-evidence for such an event. Of course, you can sometimes prove that an event did occur (like the eruption of Vesuvius, which was captured in stone), but it’s really hard to prove that an event did NOT occur! Oh yes, maybe there was a conspiracy by the Egyptians to cover up the exodus of millions of slaves, and the destruction of their land, water and livestock, but really, come on? I think there may be a link between conspiracy buffs and religion – but I don’t claim any proof of that!

  11. Avatar
    Stephen  September 13, 2019

    As central as the Exodus tradition is in Israel’s history, some OT scholars point out the presence of alternative traditions in the texts. In some of the Pre-Exilic Prophetic oracles that refer to both Egypt and the origins of Israel no mention is made of slavery in Egypt. In the descriptions of the origins of some of the Jewish festivals the story of the Exodus seems to have been tacked onto pre-existing Canaanite traditions. In these alternative stories the most primeval tradition seems to be the idea of a nomadic people coming out of the “wilderness” and this seems to pre-date the story of the Exodus and slavery in Egypt by centuries

    Fascinating stuff.

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  September 13, 2019

    Professor Ehrman:
    If two million slaves escaped from Egypt, and the army was destroyed, this would be a significant event, and we surely would find some mention of it.

    Other nations of the region would have been ecstatic to learn that Egypt could no longer field an army; surely they would have swooped down to the south to take over that fertile land. But we have no such record of the event and no other nation came in to take advantage of the situation.

    Steefen:
    While you brought up some valuable analysis, the second paragraph above is incorrect. Joseph and his brothers were in the Delta city of Avaris. There is archaeological evidence of this. This city harkened Moses at the end of his exile. Moses would have had to go to the city where Jacob/Israel and his 12 sons had lived–the city where Joseph, second in command to a pharaoh lived. (I agree with you that the number of people in the Exodus is too large, especially for Avaris as the city of origin.) People from the Canaanite area were called Asiatics. In the archaeological record, the Asiatic quarter of Avaris was abandoned after a plague (similar to the Israelites leaving Egypt proper (areas along the Nile, including the Nile branches in the Delta).

    Now, here is the clash, why I say you are incorrect about “we have no record of another nation coming to take advantage of the situation.” After the Asiatics [Israelites, generations after Joseph] abandoned their section of Avaris, the Hyksos did swoop in. The Upper Kingdom of Southern Egypt was threatened and had to push them out.

    It was less an Exodus of the Asiatics of Avaris that made the Lower Kingdom of Northern Egypt threatened and appetizing to the Hyksos invaders but more so the fallout of the Thera eruption along the eastern Mediterranean region that probably prompted the Hyksos to charge south into the Egyptian Delta but the meteorological fallout from Thera had even reached Avaris.

    The archaeological dating of the fall of Jericho prevents the Exodus from happening after the descent of the Hyksos. How, then, were the Hebrew slaves working on Pi-Ramesses? The centuries-later writers used the then name of the Delta region, not the name of the Delta region at the time when a) Moses could have come out of exile to his ancestors’ hometown of Avaris and b) Israelites/Asiatics abandoned the Asiatic quarter of the city.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  September 17, 2019

      See the book Exodus: Myth or History by David Rohl, Egyptologist. The book has 67 amazon reviews averaging 5-stars.

      Unfortunately, it is not at the Dallas Public Library. // When I check the Plano, TX library, the DVD of the documentary video is available at one branch and that DVD is unavailable at the moment. // When I check the Collin County College Libraries, it is not there. // When I check UNC Chapel Hill library catalog, it is not there. // Finally, when I check the New York Public Library catalog, the book is not available, but the DVD of the documentary video, “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” is.

      I think I would give the book 4 out of 5 stars because 1) it does not have an index and 2) the Exodus plagues cannot be discussed without the Minoan eruption, the eruption of the Thera volcano. Furthermore, he goes against the traditional datings of that eruption, even though the Austrian archaeologist who excavated Avaris found pumice there. Because he does not have an index, I do not know where I am going to find his discussion of Thera. When I wrote to him, he said he has another book coming out with an appendix on his dating of the Minoan eruption occurring during the 18th Dynasty. Furthermore, how can you have the Ipuwer Papyrus/Admonitions of Ipuwer dating to the Exodus from Avaris without the Exodus plagues of Thera fallout reaching Avaris?

  13. Avatar
    cmdenton47  September 13, 2019

    Did Moses Exist? by DM. Murdock has a wonderful chapter on the logistics of moving two million people. How would you even get them all marching? At six abreast how long would the line be? How could they stay in one spot for decades and never leave a trace?

    • Avatar
      DominickC  September 15, 2019

      I wouldn’t put stock in anything D. M. Murdock says. I bought two of her books, but never got past the first chapter of either one. Why? It’s immensely difficult for me to take a self-proclaimed scholar seriously when she ends every other sentence with an exclamation point.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 16, 2019

        Yeah, it’s worse than that. She is incredibly ignorant, and doesn’t realize it. Or if she does realize it, she’s massively defensive in declaring her expertise. But really, genuinely, she is remarkably uninformed….

  14. Avatar
    dws  September 13, 2019

    Bart,

    Thank you for the post. I read Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Exodus where he argues that an exodus really occurred that is close enough to the Exodus to be the Exodus, even if the number of people involved was much smaller than 2 million people. He argues that the religious, cultural, and historical significance was out of proportion to the numbers. He combines various kinds of evidence including, most importantly, textual analysis. I found his arguments persuasive, although I have no expertise. Have you read it and what do you think? He also discusses the state of the field and argues that researchers that reject the (small) Exodus are not engaging with the arguments of those that find evidence for it. This is an important charge if true. Thoughts?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      I haven’t read it. But by “textual analysis” I assume you mean a detailed study of the hebrew bible? The problem is that there’s not evidence *outside* the Bible. We certainly know the Hebrew Bible supports the idea of some kind of exodus! But yes, I too tend to think there was some kind of resettlment of immigrants from Egypt in Canaan, and teh stories of their transition came to be blown up and exaggerated hugely over time.

      • Avatar
        dws  September 16, 2019

        Ah, right. “Textual criticism” is a technical phrase with a specific meaning. I just meant a detailed study. I’d say Friedman argues that there is evidence outside the Bible, albeit not standalone. If you ever read this work, I would be very curious about your opinion, especially his views on the state of scholarship on this. Research areas can get into trouble and it’s interesting when they do. There is an increase of physicists saying this is happening in physics now (as opposed to cranks claiming to be Galileo).

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2019

          Ah, I wasn’t meaning “textual criticism” in that sense, but was agreeing that you must have meant “textual analysis” — that is the detailed interpretation of the literary text. My only point is that we know the text supports an exodus, on both the surface and deep level, but that there’s no external (archaeological/material) evidence of it. And I believe that’s factually true. There isn’t. (See Finkelstein and Siverman Unearthing the Bible).

  15. Avatar
    nichael  September 13, 2019

    Could you comment on the arguments in “The Exodus” by Richard Elliott Friedman (probably best known by readers of the blog for his “Who Wrote The Bible?”)

    [For others who’ve not read Friedman’s book the quick summary is, roughly, that while the full story of the Exodus is not historical the story may record a memory of the group who eventually became the Levites (and later joined with the Israelite tribes) originating in Egypt.]

    All that said, I’ve several times recommended Friedman’s book to friends as an excellent example of how to use primarily textual evidence to support a historical argument (regardless of whether you necessarily agree with the resulting conclusion.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      here’s what I just wrote in comment to someone els’s similar remark / question:

      I haven’t read it. The problem is that there’s not evidence *outside* the Bible. We certainly know the Hebrew Bible itself supports the idea of some kind of exodus! But yes, I too tend to think there was some kind of resettlment of immigrants from Egypt in Canaan, and teh stories of their transition came to be blown up and exaggerated hugely over time.

  16. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 13, 2019

    Have you read “The Invention of God” by Thomas Romer? This is probably right up your alley in relation to this subject.

  17. Avatar
    Damian King  September 13, 2019

    I am surprised that in your long blogging career, you have never examined Jesus and Biblical history as portrayed in the Quran and Islam. I understand you are no scholar of Islam or the Quran, and would rather differ to Orientalists, but there is an entire culture and the second largest religion that has its own views about the Bible, Jesus, Moses, Covenant, who the historical Jesus was etc. and you have not interacted with it at all. Could we perhaps see you blog on your perception of Jesus as portrayed in Islamic sources?

    By the way, this is not an attack on Muslims or Islam. I am not a Muslim myself, but I respect Muslims very much. And I am sure our Muslim friends would also be very interested to see what you have to say about these subjects.

    Thanks Dr Ehrman for today’s awesome post

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yeah, maybe I should at some time. I haven’t done so mainl because I stick to sources near the time of the events themselves; for the historical Jesus that would be sources from teh first two centuries, not centuries later. The Qur’an would have received its information from earlier texts and traditoins that its authors read/heard, and the information is indeed important for understanding the Qur’an and ealry Christian-Muslim relations, but not for understanding the historical Jesus himself (or the early Gospels), imho.

      • Avatar
        Damian King  September 23, 2019

        Well, the Da Vinci code was decidedly not written anywhere near the first few centuries of Christianity, and yet, since many people had questions about the Da Vinci code’s version of Christian history, historical Jesus etc, you analyzed the book’s conclusions. What I was wondering is, why hasn’t the same interest been seen in the Islamic view of all these subjects?

        And to make it clear, I am not interested in “sticking it” to the Muslims. I have high respect for Muslims. But it just baffles me slightly, that even though, you have offered your opinions on the Quranic manuscript fragment… The Islamic view of Jesus, Bible, The Convenant, Exodus etc has almost completely escaped any significant comments in the history of this blog.

        Islam is the second largest religion in the world. We are talking about 1.9 billion believers, who have their own conceptions of the Historical Jesus, Bible, textual criticism (you name it). So it’s definitely something that I think we would all appreciate, both, non-Muslims, like myself, and Muslims, who may happen to frequent this blog.

        It would definitely be very interesting from all sides.
        Thanks Bart!

        • Bart
          Bart  September 24, 2019

          I”m interested in many, many things that I’ll never write about! Wish I had more lifetimes. But I’m not an expert in Islam and to write anything competently about the Quran, even if it was just about the Quran’s views of Jesus, I would need to acquire more expertise. And I’m too busy doing other things. I’m afraid it’s just the reality of my life….

          • Avatar
            Damian King  September 24, 2019

            That’s understandable. Thanks for what you write about already

  18. Avatar
    Damian King  September 13, 2019

    What about the theory that there was a minor “Exodus like” event? I have heard this idea even from William G Dever. The idea is that there was some limited, tribal movement out of Egypt of some Semitic people, that later was described much more colorfully in the Book of Exodus. Any thoughts on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2019

      Yes, I think probably something like that. Dever is a veyr fine scholar of such things.

    • Avatar
      mkahn1977  September 15, 2019

      I think Dr. Bart has mentioned it before but I loved Dever’s “Who Were the Ancient Israelites and Where did they Come from?” This book definitely covers that. “The Exodus” by Richard Elliot Friedman is also a great interpretation. I Alonso recommend the PBS documentary “Ancient Secrets of the Bible” which partially covers the Exodus and features many of the scholars that Dr. Bart has mentioned and or cited.

  19. Avatar
    Silver  September 13, 2019

    It has always intrigued me to think that if there were three million Israelites who left Egypt and they were walking 20 abreast and perhaps in ranks a metre apart then the line would stretch back over 90 miles. Think how long it would take to cross the Red Sea!
    In addition, I have read that in light of Deuteronomy 23:12,13 (which perhaps indelicately speaks of the rules for using latrines which had to be placed outside any camp area) any family settled down in the middle of the encampment housing such a multitude might have to walk a mile or more to relieve themselves!

  20. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  September 14, 2019

    Bart Ehrman said:
    “Biblical scholars have long identified a number of difficulties that the exodus account presents– making it hard to think that everything happened as it is described in the book.”
    The “difficulties” and “errors” in Exodus are so evident that many Christian apologists, especially the champions of biblical inerrancy, have tried to give implausible and even comic and ridiculous explanations to these discrepancies, which worsen even the scarce, for not say none, credibility of the Bible.
    About what Dr. Ehrman writes, here is a fun example:
    EXODUS 6: 16–20 — How could the people of Israel have been in Egypt for 430 years when there were only three generations between Levi and Moses?
    https://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-solutions/Exodus_6.16-20.php

    There are many more desperate attempts to explain the inesplicable at https://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-difficulties/ , in the Exodus heading.
    Two very funny and certainly twisted and original:
    EXODUS 7: 11 — HOW COULD THE WISE MEN AND SORCERERS OF PHARAOH PERFORM THE SAME FEATS OF POWER THAT GOD TOLD MOSES TO PERFORM?
    https://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-solutions/Exodus_7.11.php

    EXODUS 9: 19–21 — IF ALL THE CATTLE DIED, THEN HOW DID SOME SURVIVE?
    https://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-solutions/Exodus_9.19-21.php

    Enjoy!

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