Did the Exodus really happen?

“The actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn.” – Baruch Halpern, Professor of Jewish Studies of Pennsylvania State University

“The patriarchs’ acts are legendary stories, we did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, we did not conquer the land. Those who take an interest have known these facts for years.” – Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University.

Many archaeologists, amateur and expert, have attempted to find evidence of the Exodus, however no direct credible evidence has been found[1]. How might the Bible believer respond to these claims? Does it matter whether the Exodus happened in history or not? What about God parting the Red Sea? Does it matter if he did it, or is it just a creative story to inspire an ancient tribe as they started getting set up as a nation? If that’s the case – is the Bible even reliable? Can we trust it?

There are complex questions involved here crossing archeology and history, so I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. Many different dates have been proposed for the Exodus – and each sequence of dates has their own set of consequences for how we interpret the relevant archeological evidence. I don’t intend to enter those debates, my goal here is modest. One of the arguments used to show Exodus is an unreliable account is due to the massive numbers of Israelites discussed through Exodus. However, I don’t think that argument holds up because there are several biblically consistent ways of interpreting those numbers. So how do we understand the Exodus then?

The group that left Exodus was about 600 000 men according to Exodus 12:37, and about 2-3 million people if women and children are included. The group also would have had to have livestock in great numbers to support their journey.

The sceptical argument is this: if there were a group of 2-3 million people wandering around in the dessert, even if existence was nomadic, it should have left some archaeological traces. Rabbi Burt Visotzky put it this way: “There is virtually no evidence, as the Torah says, that 600 000 Jewish males, with their wives and children and elders, left Egypt in the Exodus. Those are big numbers. You’d think someone would notice.”[2] We don’t find any archaeological traces therefore the Exodus didn’t happen. But there’s an assumption built into this argument that needs investigation – the numbers. Whilst the text explicitly states 603 550 males and their families left Egypt (Numbers 1:26) that is by no means the only way to understand the text. There are three main ways to think about the number of Israelites that left Egypt. If we understand the number to be smaller, or symbolic, the tension between the lack of archaeological evidence and the number of Israelites dissolves.

  • The literal view:

The literal view is that when the Bible refers to the 600 000 males, that it is actually referring to 600 000 males, and an estimated 2-3 million including women and children. Supporting this view is that it is the plain reading of the text, and that number is referred to in several places throughout Scripture. It also fits with the Pharaoh’s fears about the Israelites multiplying and overrunning Egypt.

However, this view also has significant difficulties. It doesn’t fit well with the locations the Israelites camped in – 2 million people wouldn’t have been able to fit in some of the camping locations described in their wilderness wanderings[3]. This isn’t the only difficulty. If the Israelites were afraid of the Canaanites when they entered the land, this is difficult to explain if there were a few million Israelites. Most settlements in Canaan would have been smaller than that, and the Israelites would have had nothing to fear. If there were this many Israelites that suddenly left the Egyptian empire, there would have been significant economic displacement and labour issues, as Israel supplied Egypt’s manual labour force. However, history doesn’t indicate anything of the like.

  • The ‘unit’ view:

The Hebrew word for thousand, eleph, may have been mistranslated due to the lack of vowel markings, meaning the same word could also mean ‘clan’, ‘tribe’, or ‘unit’, which then makes the passage imply a unit of men as little as 10 or as much as 100. This would lower the Israeli army to between 18000 and 100 000 men, and between 72000 and 400000 people[4]. This view avoids many of the difficulties with the literal view.

  • The ‘greatness’ or gematria view:

ANE (Ancient Near East) literature often used numbers as a way of showing the greatness of their patron or god. In a similar way, Moses’ use of ‘epic prose’ was used to express the wholeness of Israel and the significant of YHWH’s rescue of his people from Egypt. The number of people was a way of highlighting the greatness of God[5]. This also fits with the gematria bnei yisra’el kol rosh, “the children of Israel, every individual”, a gematria for 603 550[6].

Conclusion

Whilst archaeological evidence hasn’t been found that seems to align with the Biblical account of Exodus, it is important to remember the axiom ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.’ If there were 2-3 million Israelites that left Egypt, the lack of archaeological evidence is problematic. However, there are at least 2 other ways of understanding the number of people that left Exodus. The Egyptians wouldn’t write about the event as it would diminish the glory of the Pharaoh – they never recorded their defeats. Finally, given that this group was nomadic and likely much, much smaller than 600 000, we shouldn’t necessarily expect to find solid archaeological evidence. The lack of archaeological evidence that Israel had an exodus event from Egypt doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

[1] Cline, 2009, Oxford University Press. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 76

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/International/exodus-moses-people-happen/story?id=18068905

[3] Hill and Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd edition, 2009, Zondervan, p. 153.

[4] Ibid., 153.

[5] David Malick, 2004, https://bible.org/article/introduction-book-numbers

[6] Beitzel, Barry (Spring 1980). “Exodus 3:14 and the divine Name: A Case of Biblical Paronomasia” (PDF). Trinity Journal (Trinity Divinity School). 1: 5–20.

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