The reasons that the exodus couldn't really have happened are simple, and manifold.
First off, the Egyptians recorded every important event in hieroglyphs. But there is nothing there about the seven plagues, the exodus of the Egyptian slaves, or the destruction of their army.
The Egyptian economy would have collapsed, to say the very least. But in the historical and archaeological record: no such thing. Quite the contrary, never in history was the Egyptian empire doing better.
And there’s more. Around 1450 BC, you couldn’t just get up and leave Egypt. The Egyptian empire was vast, back then. It reached deep into what’s now Israel, with fortresses and army outposts everywhere. Canaan was Egyptian, the Sinai desert was Egyptian. Yet in Exodus and Numbers, we read how Moses and Joshua come across many cities and people without ever bumping into even one Egyptian soldier.
Then, there are the details. Exodus mentions the Philistines, a people that didn’t exist yet. Cities like Ezion Geber, Arad, Heshbon and Kadesh Barnea weren’t founded yet. Other cities mentioned in Exodus and Numbers, like Ai and Jericho, were abandoned ruins for centuries by the time the Israelites arrived.
Essentially, Moses and the Israelites were walking through a fantasy land a Middle East that never really existed!
The archaeology doesn’t help, either.
The bible tells us how 600,000 Israelites lived in the desert for forty years. It even gives details about where they set up camp. But although archaeologists can even recover the traces of small bands of bronze age tribesmen in the desert, no camp site of the Israelites has ever been found.
And then, you could argue that in real life, all the firstborn in a country don’t simply die overnight, and oceans don’t tend to open up when you raise your staff to them. But that’s debatable: after all, they were miracles.
So, exit the exodus?
Don’t worry. Most scientists (historians, archaeologists and theologists) believe there may be a core of real history here after all. The exodus could be an exaggerated, mystified version of something that really happened!
But what? Here are the four most important theories:
|1. The Hyksos|
Around 1570 BC, pharaoh Ahmose did something remarkable. He kicked out a mysterious people named the ‘shepherd kings’ the Hyksos.
Ancient Egyptian inscriptions tell us how Ahmose killed many of the Hyksos, and chased the rest out of Egypt, all way to the Syrian border where they may have founded Jerusalem.
Archaeologists have discovered that the Hyksos lived in the Nile Delta from about 1800 to 1570 BC. They were Semitic. Ancient Israelites. And in Egypt, they founded a ‘state within the state’, with the city Avaris as its capital.
In the beginning, there were only few Hyksos. But after a while, the Hyksos became a pain in the neck. The situation got so bad, that the Egyptians considered them an alien, invading army. So they kicked them out. Exodus may reflect this traumatic event, from the Hyksos' point of view.
Plus: The expelling of the Hyksos is well documented. And indeed, the parallels with Exodus are striking: Jews that are chased away by a pissed-off pharaoh.
Minus: The Hyksos were expelled many, many centuries before Exodus was written. And of course, the Hyksos weren’t slaves.
|2. Petty tribal stuff|
The Exodus may echo a small and insignificant conflict between Egyptians and a ancient Jewish tribe of shepherds.
It’s a well-known fact that in dry times, ancient Hebrew shepherds often went to Egypt. Here, they usually quarreled with the Egyptians: most Egyptians hated the guts of these stupid aliens with their sheep and goats and their strange, pagan customs.
There must have been many of these small, local border conflicts. Perhaps the real Moses was just a local chief who did heroic things during one of them. Perhaps Exodus is all about some minor, long-forgotten conflict with the Egyptians that has been exaggerated into mythical proportions over the course of time.
Plus: The archaeological and historical evidence favors the theory: at Egypt’s border, there were many small conflicts between Egyptian soldiers and small bands of Israelites.
Minus: You can’t prove Moses was among them. And of course, it doesn’t explain all of Exodus.
|3. The big desertion|
Around 570 BC, something awful happened in Egypt.
A garrison of 240,000 mercenaries fighting for the Egyptian army suddenly packed their stuff and deserted to Egypt’s arch enemy, the Ethiopians.
Up to that moment, the garrison was stationed on Elephantine, an island in the Nile. And among the mercenaries, there were so many Jews that the desertion was considered a Jewish revolt.
The Egyptians went into pursuit. Not a pharaoh, but an army commander named Nesuhor chased the deserters all way across the desert. Finally, Nesuhor convinced the army to return to Egypt.
Scholars have pointed out the striking parallels with Exodus: here we have a huge group of Israelites who worked for the Egyptians, decided to leave, and were chased by the Egyptian army.
Plus: On at least one occasion, Exodus directly refers to the mass desertion at Elephantine. In Exodus 1, the Egyptian pharaoh says about the Israelites:
“Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country." (1:10)
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in 570 BC.
|4. It’s all just political propaganda|
In the fifth and fourth century BC, there was a lot of foul reeking anti-Israeli gossip in Egypt.
The trouble with the Hyksos from a thousand years earlier was to blame. Egyptian historians described the event as a terrible invasion of godless barbarians. Egyptians even recalled how their army once had chased away a colony of lepers into Canaan.
Lepers! Now, that’s obviously not a very nice thing to say. Exodus may have been the answer to all the bad mouthing from Egypt.
Scholars have pointed out that Exodus is a striking and complete reversal of the anti-Jewish propaganda from Egypt. In Exodus, the Egyptians are the bad guys.
So, Exodus could have been the Israelites’ way of saying: “Look, this is what really happened! We have always been the good guys here!”
Plus: Exodus has many subtle references to the anti-Israeli propaganda stories from Egypt. It seems clear that the authors of Exodus at least knew what the Egyptians told about the Jews.
Many scholars have pointed out that the pharaoh from Exodus must have been Rameses II. After all, Exodus explicitly states that the Israelites were building the city of Rameses (1:11). And that city was built under Rameses II’s reign.
But unfortunately, this only adds up with the evidence against a historical exodus. Rameses II built many public buildings, and decorated them with numerous inscriptions telling all about his life and times. But: no mention of 600,000 Israelites, the exodus, the plagues or the destruction of the pharaoh’s army at the Sea of Reeds.
What’s more, Egyptologists have pointed out that Rameses II was an extremely proud, jump-to-the-gun pharaoh. Never would he have allowed 600,000 slaves to humiliate him. The god-king would have regrouped his men and followed Moses into the Sinai, no matter what. He would have chased Moses to his last breath.
Marcel Hulspas: "En de zee spleet in tweeen" (2006)
Finkelstein and Silberman: "The bible unearthed" (2003)
William Stiebing: "Out of the desert? Archaeology and the exodus" (1989)