The Exodus – what can we learn?

This page last updated September 12th, 2021
Moses and the Red Sea

The second book of the christian Bible, and of the Jewish Tanakh, tells of the second millennium BCE exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their travel to the Promised Land of Canaan.

The Exodus is one of the key events in Jewish religious history and christian belief. But did it actually happen? Did 2 million people cross the Red Sea and travel through the Sinai Desert, aided and guided by miraculous interventions by God, and eventually settle in Canaan?

There is virtually no archaeological evidence for or against the Exodus, nor would we expect there to be – nomadic people and fleeing slaves don’t normally carry stone artefacts with them and drop them around the desert for eager archaeologists to find 3 millennia later! But there are many reasons why scholars doubt that this is history.

Nevertheless it seems most likely that a group of Semitic people did move from Egypt to Canaan, bringing with them some new religious and ethical beliefs and practices. But almost certainly it was a much smaller group than the Bible portrays, and many aspects of the story are most likely legendary.

In arriving at this conclusion, I have considered the views of the arch sceptics (minimalists) and the committed believers (maximalists) and tried to find what seems to be a reasonable middle ground and consensus.

But if much of the story is legendary, how do we know what we can believe? And doesn’t this undermine our confidence in the Bible? I argue that exactly the opposite is true.

Understanding the Exodus rightly greatly enhances our christian faith.

The story in brief

The story of the Exodus is told in the book of Exodus in the Jewish and christian scriptures. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt sometime around 1500-1300 BCE. Their leader, Moses, asks the Pharaoh to let them return to the land promised to them by their God, and after a number of miraculous and nasty plagues, the Pharaoh agrees.

About two million people set off and are then pursued by the Egyptian army when the Pharaoh changes his mind. God saves them from the Egyptian army by making a way through the waters of the Red Sea, which then close over the army. God continues to lead them miraculously across the Sinai until they reach Canaan (modern day Israel). Along the way they receive the Ten Commandments engraved by God on stone tablets, and numerous other laws that will define them as a people, their worship and their ethics.

That’s the story. But how believable is it?

Why is this question important?

There are many things in history that we simply don’t know and many recorded events that may be true, or may be legendary – and most of them we don’t care either way. But for many people, the Exodus of the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into their “promised land” of Canaan is one event that they have firm beliefs about.

For Jews, the Exodus is possibly the defining event of their history, and their entry into Canaan more than 3 millennia ago forms the justification for their claims to the territory. For christians, the Exodus forms part of the Bible, and while not as significant as the coming of Jesus, most christians think it is still important to believe it really happened.

On the other hand, sceptics see so much in the Exodus story that they find unbelievable and unlikely, so that showing the story’s implausibility can be used to attack the Bible as a whole.

So the stakes are high.

Is the Exodus story in the Bible a nail in the coffin of belief in the Bible? Or is it believable, and hence a pointer to the accuracy of the Bible?

Or is it something else again?

History and the supernatural

Historical study isn’t like science – most historical events can’t be repeated like a science experiment. So when dealing with an event like the exodus, historians have to depend on the often meagre evidence available – archaeological remains, artefacts, ancient texts often written a long time after the event, language and culture, the origin of names, and a sense of what is believable (which is very subjective).

Dealing with reports of supernatural events is especially tricky. Even if miraculous events occur, the evidence that is was indeed a miraculous element is likely to be close to non-existent. Perhaps something unusual occurred, but was it an intervention by God, or was it a coincidence; has it been exaggerated? History cannot say.

So historians generally assess what they are able to. Some may disregard the supernatural entirely, assuming it is impossible, some may look for natural explanations of apparently supernatural events, some may accept that God intervened, while others may make no judgment either way.

It seems best to first consider what scholars say we can conclude from the evidence. Then with that as a basis, we can determine what we can believe about the supernatural elements in the story, and what the whole thing means for us today..

Maximalists and minimalists

Up until the twentieth century, most Old Testament history and archeology was based on a belief that the Old Testament was a true historical record, and the historical and archaeological evidence would support this. But gradually scholars began to have doubts – archaeological evidence was missing, dates didn’t add up, it was hard to fit some parts of Old Testament history with other historical records, and some anachronisms were found in the Old Testament.

In the last few decades, the scholars have tended to separate into maximalists, who thought the Old Testament text contained good historical evidence, and the minimalists, who wouldn’t accept the text unless it was supported by other, preferably hard archaeological, evidence. Many other scholars, perhaps the majority, have taken a middle position. I am generally following this middle view.

The historical doubts about the exodus

Apart from the Biblical text, there is little evidence for the exodus, and some against it.

Archaeologists have found no evidence of a large group living for 40 years in the Sinai desert or the area just south of Palestine. Normally the lack of archaeological evidence means little – very little of ancient remains are still intact and discoverable – but in this case, experts believe that something should remain at locations like Kadesh Barnea, where 2 million Israelites are recorded to have camped for many years.

The biggest difficulty is the sheer number of people.

  • If 2 million really travelled to Canaan, and they walked 2 metres apart and 100 abreast, the column would be 40 km long. Walking at 4 km/hour would mean the last of the group would leave 10 hours after the first. Addressing a crowd of 2 million would be impossible.
  • The total population of Egypt at that time is estimated to have been about 2 million. It is hard to believe that they were able to enslave 2 million Israelites.
  • Archaeological studies suggest that the total population of Canaan after the supposed invasion was probably no more than about 100,000. It is virtually impossible that 2 million people could have lived there.

Whatever else then, it is hard not to conclude that the numbers in the exodus story are greatly overstated.

It is also hard to fit in the beginning and end of the story. It isn’t clear when this could have occurred and who could have been the Pharaoh. The loss of 2 million Hebrew slaves from a nation of barely that number would surely have been notable enough to be recorded somewhere, even if only to explain the apparent defeat in some way.

Likewise, the dates of the conquest of Canaan don’t seem to work. The account  of the supposed conquest in Joshua is not much supported by archaeology, and other parts of the Bible tell a quite different story.

On top of all this, the supernatural elements of the story – staffs that turn into snakes, the plagues, the Red Sea crossing, the miraculous provision of food and water for 2 million people in the desert and the giving of the Ten Commandments – are hard for many people to accept. Many also object to the portrayal of a God who would kill so many children in Egypt to punish the Pharaoh.

So it isn’t surprising that most neutral scholars doubt that the exodus happened as described in the Bible. Some aspects of the story have similarities to apparently legendary stories in surrounding cultures. So the Exodus story is, they conclude, at least partly legendary.

This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that many of the stories in Exodus (as elsewhere in the Old Testament) appear in two different forms; it appears that original stories have been passed down in different traditions and edited to make different points. For example, there are two different versions of the supposed conquest of Canaan in the books of Joshua and Judges, and the archaeological evidence suggests that triumph of outright conquest is legendary.

Of course many christian and Jewish scholars support the idea that the story is more historical than that. Some even hold to the full 2 million Israelites migrating from Egypt to Canaan, but others accept that the numbers at least have been exaggerated. In the end, the only real evidence they have to offer is the Biblical text, and I feel there are good reasons to regard it as at least partly legendary.

Reading the text again

But while minimalists may be right in rejecting the full story told in the text, this doesn’t mean there is no useful information in it. And so some recent work has taken a closer look at the non-archaeological evidence.

Professor Richard Friedman’s book The Exodus, published in 2018, outlines the evidence for a historical exodus, albeit smaller and less miraculous. Friedman has concluded that a smaller group of “Hebrews” did indeed leave Egypt and travel to Canaan. He argues that this group was the Levites, now known as one of the 12 tribes of Israel, but then a separate group who brought new religious and ethical ideas with them.

The new historical arguments for the exodus

Who wrote the story of the Exodus?

Many scholars, including Friedman, believe that the Old Testament Pentateuch (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were assembled by later editors from four earlier sources, commonly labelled J, E, D & P. (The first two are named Jahwist and Elohist after the names for God found in those sources and are the earliest; Deuteronomic is named after that book, and Priestly is based on the view that it was written by a priest.)

According to this understanding, the each source reflected a different viewpoint, and all viewpoints were woven into the text by the editors, much later than the events described. This explains why sometimes there are two versions of some events, sometimes apparently contradictory, and different parts of the stories have different emphases.

The Levites

The Levites in Israel were the group associated with temple worship, and the one tribe that didn’t have its own territory. Friedman says that the E, D & P sources are related to the Levites, and it is those sources that tell the stories of the plagues and the exodus.

The Levites and Egypt

It is known that different peoples from the area of Canaan and nearby were living in Egypt, and travelling to and from Egypt, in the middle and later second millennium BCE. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if a coherent group left Egypt, perhaps fleeing oppression.

Friedman points out that it is the Levites, and only the Levites, who seem to have a connection with Egypt:

  • Only 8 Israelites in the Bible have Egyptian names, and they are all Levites (Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Phinehas and others).
  • Among the laws given to Moses in the desert are detailed instructions about how to build the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, a special portable tent that served as a temple, where worship of God was to be centred. These instructions all appear in Levite sources, and have a close parallel to the design of the battle tent of Pharaoh Rameses II.
  • Likewise the design of the ark of the covenant, a sacred religious object kept in the tent of meeting (and sought by Indiana Jones in the famous movie) has similarities to Egyptian barks, also sacred objects decorated with winged cherubs and carried on poles by the priests.
  • There are a number of elements in the story of the plagues and exodus that reflect Egyptian culture and lore – “the hidden divine name, turning an inanimate object into a reptile, the conversion of water to blood, a spell of three days of darkness, death of the firstborn, parting of waters, death by drowning, and stories of quotas for brickmaking and the use of straw in mudbrick” – and these are all found in the Levitical sources.
  • The Levitical sources give all the Old Testament commands about slaves and aliens, and more than 50 times say that aliens are to be treated the same as Israelites “because you were aliens in Egypt”. No such statement is to be found in the J source or anywhere else in ancient Near Eastern law.

DNA evidence

Human DNA contains 23 chromosome pairs. The 23rd chromosome pair determines gender. Women pass on to their children only the X 23rd chromosome, whereas men may pass on either an X or a Y. Two Xs and the child is female, whereas X-Y means the child is a male. Thus only males have the Y chromosome, and it is passed on identically from father to son unless there is a rare mutation. Thus men with the same or very similar Y-DNA have a common male ancestor sometime in the last few thousand years.

DNA studies show that most Jews have variable Y-DNA, indicating many common ancestors back in the times we are considering. Their DNA is similar to other modern day people of Canaanite descent (e.g. Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze), showing that many Jews were once Canaanites.

However, while “there is no clear Levite-specific genetic signature”, studies show that the present day Kohanim (Levites who descend directly from Aaron through their male line, and who now can be found all around the world) have a distinctive Y-DNA that “represents a unique founding lineage of the ancient Hebrews” (Hammer et al, 2009). This DNA evidence indicates that all present day Kohanim descend from a group of just a few males three millennia ago, and quite separate from the remaining Israelites, supporting the possibility of a migration from elsewhere to Canaan.

The idea of a smaller exodus is gaining favour

None of this is irrefutable evidence, but a picture is emerging. Some more cautious scholars (such as William Dever and Israel Finkelstein) see little evidence and only grudgingly admit the possibility that a small group could have escaped slavery and journeyed from Egypt to Canaan. But Richard Friedman is just one voice arguing for the likely historicity of a small exodus.

  • Archaeologist Avi Faust says “most scholars” agree that the exodus story has a historical core, and cites 20 who support this.
  • James Hoffmeier surveyed 25 of his fellow Egyptologists from 11 different countries and found 19 thought that some Israelites lived in Egypt and left there to travel to Canaan, and none were opposed to the idea.
  • A conference on the exodus, held at the University of California in 2013, and the subsequent book published in 2015, contained papers by many leading scholars, minimalists, maximalists, and centrists, from a wide range of disciplines. The book’s editor, anthropology professor Thomas Levy, wrote: “There was also considerable agreement that an Exodus event or series of events took place on a much smaller scale than the one depicted in the Hebrew Bible.”
  • Old Testament scholar Peter Enns has offered the observation that most of his colleagues are neither minimalists or maximalists, but conclude that the exodus story contains some history.

So there seems to be a definite association between the Levites and Egypt, and a growing acceptance that at least some parts of the exodus story are historical.

But wait, what about what the New Testament says!?

One argument for the truth of the exodus story is that Jesus and the New Testament writers refer to the story as if it were literally true, so shouldn’t we also?

But this argument is, I believe, based on a misunderstanding of the Jewish view of the scriptures. Studying how Jesus and the apostles used the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament) shows that first century Jews generally were willing to quote as if authoritative sources that weren’t scriptural, and to re-interpret and re-state scriptural passages. Granted this, it is hard to see how Jesus’ reference to Moses can be taken as definite endorsements of the historicity of all stories about him.

Furthermore, in Exodus for Normal People, Peter Enns points out again and again where there are two different traditions present in the text, sometimes telling a part of the story in ways that are incompatible. He says the editors were more concerned to preserve all the traditions passed down to them than to make the story consistent. This makes it almost impossible to believe that the whole story is historical.

So what happened …. perhaps?

It seems likely that Israel in the last few centuries BCE was composed of tribes that originated in Canaan, plus Levites who travelled from Egypt. These new arrivals may have conquered a few small settlements, but generally they were assimilated into the existing population. This may explain why they were not recorded as having any land of their own, while the other tribes had clearly defined territories.

It is quite reasonable to believe that a group of Levites left oppressive circumstances in Egypt and travelled to Canaan by a desert route to avoid Egyptian garrisons along the coast. This group presumably had a leader, and his name could have been Moses.

These Levites appear to have brought some religious ideas with them from Egypt, and these seem to have formed a significant basis of the monotheistic priestly sacrificial religion of the later Israelites and also some of their ethical beliefs related to caring for aliens and loving one’s neighbour. The Canaanite Israelites’ worship of multiple gods, principally the god El and his concert, was merged with and replaced by the belief in Yahweh that the Levites brought with them.

On this hypothesis, the exodus story we have in the Tanakh and the Bible is ‘mythicised history’ – an historical event that has been handed down and embellished as a foundational legend that provides a sense of identity for the Israelites, who were, after all, just minor players in the history of those times. We cannot know for sure how much of the story is historical and how much is legendary. Believers are free to hold, in faith, to the Biblical story (except I suppose for the large numbers).

This interpretation of the evidence is not a consensus among scholars, but it may be moving towards one. The extremes of minimalism and maximalism are perhaps less accepted these days.

The miracles in the story are another matter. Archaeological, textual and historical study cannot prove or disprove these events, and we will all decide what we believe by what seems fitting to each of us.

What can we learn from Exodus?

It is clear that the final editors of Exodus had some key themes they wanted to get across.

The holiness of Yahweh

Yahweh isn’t a God to be trifled with. He is pre-eminent over all other gods. He alone is worthy to be worshiped by Israel. They are enormously blessed to have Yahweh as their God and to be his people.

Israel has a heavy destiny

God has chosen his people for a purpose – that they inherit the land of Canaan, where they can demonstrate Yahweh’s character to the world, and so fulfil God’s promise to Abraham that through his seed all nations would be blessed.

Thus the first half of Exodus shows numerous examples of God’s great power, while the second half outlines laws for living as God’s people and worshiping him in the tabernacle.

For Jews in the last half of the first millennium BCE, Exodus helped reinforce their identity and destiny as God’s people and their rightful claim to the land of Israel.

But what can christians make of it?

Even though we can reasonably conclude that many of the stories in Exodus are legendary, we can nevertheless see the book as part of the formation of the people into which Jesus was born. God did indeed have a purpose for them, even if realisation of that only came much later, and was written back into the Exodus story.

But it is a mistake for christians to try to apply any of the Torah laws today, even the Ten Commandments. Christians are not under the old covenant, but under a new covenant. The laws were written for a different time and a less developed understanding of God.

Christians will also be troubled by a depiction of a violent God who behaves very differently than how we can imagine Jesus behaving. Many christians believe it is correct to trust our knowledge of Jesus more than Exodus to show us what God is like and what he would or wouldn’t do.

What does this say about belief in the Bible?

If the exodus is a foundational belief for christianity, and yet many of the elements of the story are probably legendary, doesn’t this threaten the truth of christian belief and support sceptical views of the Bible?

It depends on how we see the Bible. Was it written by God and therefore without error, or was it inspired by God and his dealings with people, and contains a mix of fact and legend, and early ideas about God that were later corrected?

More than half a century ago, CS Lewis (who wasn’t a Biblical scholar, but was trained in ancient history and literature, and expert in myth) said that the Hebrew Old Testament began with myth, and records the original beliefs that were something close to pagan religion. These ideas were gradually purged and deepened, especially by the prophets, and slowly the stories became more historical and the beliefs more representative of God’s truths, until it more closely reflected the character of God and prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.

I think that broad picture is still reasonably accurate. It doesn’t actually matter how historical the early Old Testament is. History or myth/legend, or a combination of the two, can equally well prepare the ground for the coming of Jesus, which is well-based in history.

Christians who are uncomfortable with this approach can still hold to the historical accuracy of the exodus story in scripture, though with some difficulty. It will be based on faith rather than historical evidence, but that isn’t unreasonable if they don’t claim historical evidence that isn’t there.

More progressive christians who don’t have an inerrant view of the Bible, can reasonably see the exodus story as mythicised history, while still seeing the New Testament and later parts of the Old Testament as historical and still holding more conventional beliefs in God or in Jesus.


Graphic: Free Bible Images

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