Archaeology confirms the account of the Children of Israel’s sojourn in and exodus from Egypt
Rabbi Lawrence Keleman writes in Permission to Receive on pages 99-101:
It is thoroughly accepted among archaeologists and historians that ancient Egypt, during the period when the Israelites would have been present, did enslave massive numbers of people in the construction of two cities called Pithom and Pi-Ramesses. Paul Johnson identifies both sites, and John Bright and others concur: Pithom is modern Tell er-Rataba in the Wadi Tumelat; and Pi-Ramesses, or Raames as it was also called, is modern San el-Hagar on the Tanatic arm of the Nile.
The Greco-Roman historian Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.E.), relying on Egyptian documents, reveals a detail about these projects which fits snugly into the biblical narrative: For his vast building campaign, Pharaoh preferred to conscript foreigners in the area rather than enslaving either local Egyptians or faraway non-Egyptians.
Dr Kenneth Kitchen, professor of Egyptian and Coptic languages and cultures at the University of Liverpool, writes about a painted scene discovered in the rock-cut tomb-chapel of the Theban vizier Rekhmire. According to Kitchen, the scene dates to the period of the oppression and exodus and pictures slaves forming bricks from straw and clay while “Egyptian overseers (each armed with a slim baton)” stand vigil over the project. Kitchen notes, “In this scene it is the presence of foreigners from the Levant (like the Hebrews) that has so often attracted attention.” A contemporaneous Anastasi papyrus contains a report to the Pharaoh about the workers’ performance, “They are making their quota of bricks daily”, a phrase Kitchen says is “strongly reminiscent of Exodus 5:8-19.”
Kitchen is probably best known for his translations of the “Louvre Leather Roll” (or LLR), a sort of erasable notepad whose last inscriptions have also been dated to the period of Israelite enslavement. Commenting on the document, Kitchen draws three parallels between this explicitly Egyptian description of mass enslavement and the biblical narrative. First, the LLR relates how “gangs of workmen were led by two foremen appointed from their own number,” just as the Hebrew slaves reported directly to Hebrew supervisors who in turn had Egyptian bosses (Exodus 5:14). Second, like the Anastasi Papyrus, the LLR indicates that each worker had to manufacture a quota of bricks per day (2,000 here), a concept that finds expression throughout Exodus 5. Finally, the LLR states that slaves could petition for time off to observe religious festivals, making Moses’ requests in Exodus 5:3 and elsewhere seem reasonable.
Albright renders this summary of the enslavement evidence: “We must content ourselves here with the assurance that there is no longer any room for the still dominant attitude of hypercriticism toward the early historical traditions of Israel”. John Bright concurs, “The tradition of [Israelite] bondage in Egypt is unimpeachable”.
Keleman says on pages 102-103:
Even William Albright – who was heavily influenced by Julius Wellhausen and German biblical criticism, and who was therefore loathe to advance any argument in favour of a literal reading of the Torah unless absolutely forced to by concrete evidence – admits that this detail of the biblical narrative deserves credibility:
It is absurd to deny that Moses was actually the founder of the Israelite commonwealth and the framer of Israel’s religious system. This fact is emphasized so unanimously by tradition that it may be regarded as absolutely certain. Nowhere is there the slightest breath of doubt cast on this irrefragable fact by Israelite tradition. If we regard Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius as the founders of monistic religions we cannot deny this right to Moses.
However, Albright was too thoroughly an archaeologist and physical scientist to be moved by textual cues alone. Elsewhere, stating, “We may confidently assume that Moses was a Hebrew who was born in Egypt and reared under strong Egyptian influence”, Albright alludes to hard archaeological evidence “for the presence of foreign students, especially Semites, in the royal schools in the Rammesside period.” Such hard evidence probably motivated his sympathetic reading of the text. In a 1993 article, Dr Thomas Davis of the University of Arizona describes the evolution of William F. Albright’s attitude toward the biblical text. The Chilean scientist who, early in his career, described himself as “on the other end of the spectrum from those who accept the Bible as literally true,” after decades of fieldwork reported that “Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition of the Bible as a source of history”. See Thomas Davis, “Faith and Archaeology”, Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 1993).
Keleman continues on pages 103-106:
Second to Moses himself, the miracles performed to soften Pharaoh’s heart attract the most attention in the popular imagination. The Torah describes how “Aaron threw down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it turned into a snake,” and how Pharaoh’s magicians immediately imitated the miracle using their own “secret arts”. An identical event finds expression in an Egyptian papyrus published first in 1966 by Egyptologist Dr A. Erman. Although we cannot determine whether Egyptian eyewitnesses actually recorded the biblical occurrence, or whether the papyrus just demonstrates the presence of an Egyptian historical tradition parallel to the Bible’s, the coincidence is striking.
D.P. Mannix writes that modern Egyptians have preserved some of those “secret arts”, and still practice the “snake as stiff as a rod” trick. Professor David Noel Freedman of the University of Michigan also reports that the feat performed by the Bible’s Egyptian Magicians “has been well documented in modern times”. Obviously, non-biblical texts and Egyptian cultural phenomenon tell us nothing about whether Aaron’s performance was also a simple trick or something more substantial.
Two separate Egyptian papyri testify to the Nile’s turning to blood. Egyptologist Dr James Pritchard published one in 1950, “The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage”, and Egyptologist M. Lichtheim published the other in 19810, “Setne Khamwas and Si-osire.”
In Exodus 10, God instructs Moses to stretch out his hand toward the heavens and thus stimulate a “plague of darkness.” Moses follows God’s order, and, the Torah says, “there was a thick darkness in all Egypt” for several days. Dr Donald Redford, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto, tells us that “sources contemporary with the expulsion…apprise us of curious atmospheric disturbances, strange for the Nile valley”. He describes a “snippet of a diary preserved on the verso of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus [which] records the events leading up to the fall of Avaris,” Avaris being the Egyptian capital city close to biblical Goshen. The diary’s author complained that “darkness covered the western heavens… and for a period of days no light shone in the two lands.” Redford confesses that “the striking resemblance between this catastrophic storm and some of the traditional plagues seems more than fortuitous.”
At the 1987 meeting of the Near East Archaeological Society, Dr Hans Goedicke, professor of Near Eastern Studies at John Hopkins University, spoke about an inscription found on an ancient religious shrine at El-Arish, near modern Gaza. The shrine had been brought there from Egypt’s Goshen region in 626 B.C.E. as part of frantic efforts to solicit the gods’ assistance in fortifying Egypt’s eastern border against an impending Persian attack. The inscription reads, “There was no stepping out into the open for a period of nine days…one face could not see its equal.” Pritchard’s collection also includes an ancient Egyptian papyrus, “Prophecies of Neferti,” describing the same phenomenon.
Dr John Wilson, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, translated another papyrus relevant to the plagues, “The Admonitions of Ipu-Wer,” also published in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts. According to its first possessor (Anastasi), it was found in ancient Egyptian Memphis. In 1828 the Museum of Leyden (Netherlands) acquired the document. The papyrus offers a blow-by-blow description of an Egyptian dynasty’s wildly destructive end, resembling in some ways the biblical narrative. The text provides a graphic portrait of the Nile flowing with blood: “If one drinks of it [the river of blood], one rejects it as human [blood].”
Like the biblical record of fire that descended from heaven during the plague of hail, Ipu-Wer recounts how “doors, columns…are burned up…fire has mounted up on high.” Also reminiscent of the biblical hail that “destroyed all the outdoor plants”, the Egyptian eyewitness exclaims, “Grain has perished on every side… Everybody says: ‘There is nothing!’”
The Torah tells us that when the Israelites finally left Egypt, “They requested silver and gold articles and clothing from the Egyptians…draining Egypt of its wealth”. Ipu-Wer complains that:
The robber is now the possessor of riches… Gold is lacking… Behold, the owners of robes are now in rags. But he who never wove for himself is now the owner of fine linen… Behold, she who had not even a box is now the owner of a trunk.
The Torah also relates that after the seventh plague a few Egyptians, disgruntled over the plagues, protested to Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave. Ipu-Wer moans, “Ah, would that I had raised my voice at that time – it might have saved me from the suffering in which I am!”
Before the final biblical plague, the death of the first-born, Moses warns Pharaoh, “It will be something that your fathers and your fathers’ fathers have never seen since the day they were in the land”. Ipu-Wer similarly mourns, “Something has been done which never happened for a long time…the once prayed for children are now laid out on the high ground”.
Keleman continues on pages 107-108:
However it happened, historians say the Israelites did escape Egyptian bondage. Goedicke told Newsweek in his 1981 interview, “That a real historical experience lies beneath the Exodus cannot be doubted”. Paul Johnson wrote in 1987, “Something happened at the frontiers of Egypt that persuaded the eyewitnesses that God had intervened directly and decisively in their fate”. Harvard’s John Bright writes, “There can really be little doubt that ancestors of Israel had been slaves in Egypt and had escaped in some marvellous way; almost no one today would doubt it”. Even Dr William Stiebling, professor of history at the University if New Orleans, confesses, “Most biblical scholars, archaeologists, and historians – even ones like myself…who are generally skeptical about the accuracy of biblical traditions concerning Israel – usually agree that an exodus took place”.
Archaeologists say the event took place sometime in the fourteenth century B.C.E. Belgium’s Dr. S Yeivin dates the exodus to about 1350 B.C.E.; the University of London’s Dr. Kathleen Kenyon puts that date closer to 1305 B.C.E.; and the Australian Institute of Archaeology’s Dr. J.A. Thompson writes that “Most scholars today feel the weight of evidence is for an Exodus from Egypt about 1280 B.C.” Significantly, all these dates fall within forty years of the date implied by the Torah’s chronology – about 1312 B.C.E.