One of the classes I attended at the 2021 Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting was “Archaeology and the Exodus.” For several decades some biblical scholars have denied the historicity of the Exodus, and this demands a response. The lecturer was Ralph Hawkins of Averett University. The presentation was so well done I thought I’d pass on the highlights.
(1) Is “absence of evidence” evidence of absence?
From the 1940s to the 1960s most North American and European scholars presupposed the historicity of the Exodus. They attempted to take biblical history at face value. But by the mid-1960s, a crisis was brewing. Some scholars now challenged the veracity of the patriarchal accounts, pointing out that there are no references to Hebrew slaves in the Egyptian records.
Is this challenge fair? First of all, the Egyptians frequently referred to their slaves as “Asiatics,” with no further distinction. Should we expect them to have identified these Asiatics by their countries of origin? To illustrate, American slaveholders, in referring to their slaves, didn’t distinguish between Senegalese and Ashanti. So why should we expect the ancient Egyptians to have been more precise?
Second, official propaganda was designed to advertise success—never the failures. And the successful departure of a large number of Hebrew slaves would have been an embarrassment to the regime, so is it reasonable to expect such an event to leave a footprint in the official records? True, there isn’t any non-inscriptional evidence from the Nile Delta region—no clay tablet or papyrus fragment. But then there are almost no such records from dynastic times. Further, the climate of the eastern Nile Delta is not conducive to the preservation of papyri; it’s far too wet.
Third, let’s consider how a well-attested historical event can leave no archaeological evidence of ever having taken place. Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III waged the Battle of Megiddo (1457 BC) against a coalition of Canaanites. The war is described in multiple sources. Yet despite a seven-month siege of the city of Kadesh, archaeologists have found not a scrap of evidence that this ever occurred! No late Bronze Age fortification has been unearthed, nor any remnant of Thutmose III’s siege ramp, nor of the tent in which Thutmose III lived during the seven months of the siege.
Or take the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), which involved thousands of soldiers. This time the pharaoh was Rameses II (also likely the pharaoh of the Exodus), yet no evidence of Rameses II’s encampment has yet been found. This famous battle is pictured on the walls of Egyptian monuments, and in inscriptions all over the region. Yet despite the magnitude of the event, no local archaeological evidence has been uncovered!
Historians give these ancient sources the benefit of the doubt, despite the lack of confirmatory material remains. Why the double standard—holding the biblical accounts to a higher standard of evidence? There is a significant methodological issue here: the use of data not found as data. But this is only the construct of the interpreter, what one cultural historian has deemed “the myth of negative truth.” Logicians speak of the argument from silence, which isn’t valid.
(2) What about the lack of evidence of the presence of Israelites in the Sinai?
On the way to the Canaan, the Hebrews would have transited the Sinai. There is abundant evidence for human occupation of the Sinai in ancient times. So why then is there minimal—or no—direct evidence for the Hebrews’ presence in this region?
To start with, the Bible says that Israelites dwelled in tents before settling in Canaan. Surely this should not be considered unusual for such populations. In fact, even after settlement in Canaan, the Kenites (Judg 4:10) preferred to live in the Negev in tents, and the Rechabites (Jer 35:6-10) lived in tents centuries after the wilderness period. Nomadic peoples are often archaeologically invisible. They live on the fringe. For example, Bedouins may move their tents every couple of weeks, for access to water. They travel light. In desert locations, low rainfall makes agriculture unrealistic. Animal husbandry is more common. There is no flourishing material culture. Remains of leather, textile, and wood naturally decompose.
What about datable pottery sherds? Animal skins are used to store and transport liquids—not heavy potter, as at settled (non-nomadic) sites. There are numerous references to such skins in the Bible, as well as in tomb paintings from Egypt. Rock drawings, cemeteries, and other common sources of remnants of material culture are typical when nomadic peoples make the transition to being sedentary. Tangible remains may be abundant once they settle down.
It seems reasonable conjecture that, even though little if anything tends to survive from nomadic populations, the sheer numbers of the Israelites (millions?) would guarantee copious archaeological finds. Yet there are good reasons to interpret the numbers in a way that better matches the clues found in the scriptural record. See Q&A 1329, “What Was Israel’s Population?”
(3) What’s the most compelling evidence for the Exodus?
The story of the Exodus is deeply embedded in the Israelite consciousness. It lies at the core of their identity (Exod 19:5). The proof that God cared about them was his liberating them from slavery. The Exodus made the Israelites distinct. No other god had manifested himself in such a way (Exod 33:16; Deut 4:32-34)!
There are countless allusions to the Exodus in the OT, which became the paradigm for God’s future redemption of Israel. The Exodus is the seminal act of salvation, just as the Cross and Resurrection are for the N.T. The idea that Israel would invent a story of an ignominious past stretches credulity. After all, foundation myths aren’t intended to embarrass or humiliate a people!
Moreover, even foreigners like Balaam, Rahab, Jethro acknowledge the Exodus. God’s salvation didn’t necessarily mean the Hebrews were superior to others—often they were not. (Take a careful look at Deut 7-9.) It was only by the sheer grace of God that they were saved and shaped into “a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6).
Those who believe the Exodus is a fabrication must provide an explanation for all of this. Several suggestions have been put forward, but none is convincing. That’s why I trust the biblical account—and think you should, too.
Related article: Q&A 0763, “Evidence for the Exodus”