Archaeological Support for the Exodus

In my previous blog, I challenged the claim that Moses was a fictional character, a combination of various different characters from fictional mythology. The Usefulcharts YouTube channel claimed in their video that the archaeological evidence did not support the Biblical report of Israelites leaving Egypt, travelling around the desert for decades, till they eventually reached Canaan. I challenged that statement and I pointed out that a few relevant archaeological finds do exist. In this blog, I will list some more artefacts that support aspects of the Old Testament Exodus account.

Why do people claim the Old Testament as fiction? In the 1800’s, the school of higher criticism began to claim that the Old and New Testaments recorded fairy tales. The science of archaeology had not begun at this point, so there was no physical evidence yet to pose a counter argument supporting the Bible. Today – that situation has changed. Archaeological digs are uncovering artefacts supporting many Biblical accounts. Titus Kennedy is a professional field archaeologist and adjunct professor at Biola University. He comments that:

“the degree of historical corroboration between the Bible and the artifacts that have been discovered over the last 150 years is startling, surpassing previous expectations and estimates, and continuing to astonish.”[1]

Titus Kennedy

Higher criticism has entered popular culture today. The Old Testament is viewed by people as fictional and mythological, right? Yet – archaeological digs are uncovering many artefacts from the Ancient Near East which confirm claims made in the Bible. This directly challenges the notion of a mythological Bible. The argument from silence that was made by the higher critics is being shown to be unsustainable. For example, to date the reality of 70 individuals mentioned in the Old Testament have been confirmed thru artifacts discovered by field archaeologists.[2]

Here are four discoveries that are relevant to the Moses account in the Bible:

First – the Papyrus Brooklyn is dated 17th century BC. It contains the names of domestic servants, and some of the names are Hebrew. This supports the idea that Israelites lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus under Moses.[3]

Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah. (Exodus 1:15)

Check out Brooklyn Museum for more details.

Second – Egyptian records show that the Egyptians used Semitic slaves to make bricks. The Louvre Leather Roll records the brick making quotas and potential penalties imposed on the slaves. The Leningrad Papyrus 1116A and a wall painting found in the Valley of the Nobles in Egypt show compulsory labor on public building projects.[4]

You are no longer to give the people straw to make brick as previously; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the quota of bricks which they were making previously, you shall impose on them. (Exodus 5:7-8)

For more, refer to Leather Scroll: Quota for Brick-making, 1274 BCE : Center for Online Judaic Studies (cojs.org).

Third – the Dream Stele. An inscription was found between the paws of the Great Sphynx in Egypt. This text was from Pharaoh Thutmose IV, son if Pharoah Amenhotep II. Thutmose IV was not the natural heir to the throne due to the death of his brother, Amenhotep II’s first born son. The cause of death is not recorded in Egyptian documents. But Thutmose IV fabricates a divine promise to solidify his legitimacy as Pharaoh.[5]

You can find a translation of the Dream Stele here – Dream Stele (Sphinx Stela) | Ancient Egypt Online.

If Amenhotep II was the Pharaoh during the Exodus, his eldest son would have died during the final plague on Egypt.

[Yahweh] struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon. (Exodus 12:29)

Four – the Nomads of YHWH. In Sudan, two Egyptian temples contain reference to the “lands of the nomads of YHWH.” They are the earliest known references to Yahweh, the name of God in the Old Testament. They describe nomadic people living in the wilderness east of Egypt who were enemies of Egypt. They lived in tents. Surely, they nomads must have been living like that for a considerable period for the Egyptians to record their existence? The inscriptions are dated to Late Bronze Age, 1300 BC.[6]

For more, refer to Three Egyptian Inscriptions About Israel – Bible Archaeology Report.

The only ancients known to worship Yahweh were the Israelites, so it follows that these nomads were the Israelites prior to their settlement in Canaan after their Exodus from Egypt. The inscriptions show the Egyptians knew about them.

[Yahweh’s] anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years. (Numbers 32:13)

Conclusion

Sure. It is easy to claim the Old Testament is fiction, but it’s becoming harder to justify that claim. If we think that, then we are ignoring an increasing amount of physical evidence that continues to be found today suggesting otherwise. While it is hard to line up an exact timeline, and difficult to match Egyptian and Israelite texts, the physical artefacts suggest a connection exists between them. They record the same events and peoples. Artefacts cannot by dismissed as mythology or propaganda. These and many more artefacts support the historicity of Old Testament accounts like the Exodus from Egypt.


[1] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible 101 Archaeological Discoveries that Bring the Bible to Life, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), 239.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] Ibid., 50-51.

[5] Ibid., 58-59.

[6] Ibid., 60-61.

“Did Moses Exist?” – a Response

A friend pointed me to a video produced by the Usefulcharts YouTube channel this week – Did Moses Exist? Applying the Historical Method. I enjoyed it – it’s well produced, and the communication style is really easy to follow. He makes great use of pictures and…well…charts in his communication. His channel is well named – this is a useful way to communicate complex ideas.

I also appreciated the way he summarises a scholarly approach to history – “The Historical Method.” He refers to the importance of matching texts to archaeology, of seeking multiple sources, recognising genre, and taking notice of the passage of time. He also mentions the need to ask whether a source is “biased.”

Can we know whether something is true? Or are we left to just choose the interpretation we like best to explain an event or a writing from history? The video says – truth is accessible to us. We can know something about the past when we use historical methods. YES! I think he’s 100% on the money here.

For the rest of the video, the author applies these methods to the question, “did Moses actually exist?” In this blog I am going to make a few comments about his application of the Historical Method to the Moses question.

Responding to the Usefulcharts Argument about Moses:

First – he omits consideration of the cultural context of the ancient text. This is an important consideration. Which culture produced these writings, what were they like, and what was the purpose in writing. He does refer to the idea of “literary tropes” which were common at the time the text was originally written. We will come back to that. I think context is crucial in understanding any text. And if you are trying to answer the question, “did Moses exist?” we should include context in the discussion.

Second – his stated aim at the top of the video is to assess whether Moses existed in real life.[1] He says that he will take a historical perspective, and so this means he must restrict the historical data to reports that are only found outside of religious tradition – the Bible, or the Jewish written Torah. He isn’t using the Bible as a source of historical information in this video.

I think this is a misapplication of his historical method. Why would a historian arbitrarily set aside a rich source of information about a culture and the figure under consideration in the video – Moses? Particularly when this source is incredibly ancient, and so dates back to the times when these events occurred? A better approach would be to INCLUDE the Biblical texts, but assess the data we find in there. Perhaps he decided to set scripture aside because – he thinks it is somehow “biased.” I think this is an important misstep – and I will come back to it in a moment.

Also – I think his use of other Ancient Near Eastern writings to make his arguments shows a double standard. He seems happy to refer to the Babylonian record of Sargon of Assad as “an important part of the historical record,” and so is worthy of quoting directly as history.[2] If that is the case, on what grounds can he discount the writings of neighbouring Israel? Why are they not worthy of consideration as part of the historical record?

Third – he points to various competing Moses stories that he says come from the Hellinistic period,  spanning the time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the birth of the Roman Empire around 31 BC. He seems to assume these competing Moses accounts are as potentially truthful as the Bible’s account of Moses. But they all describe a very different man.

What the video does not admit, however, is that these competing Moses stories are much much later than the Torah accounts. There is evidence that the Torah is much older than these Greek stories. For example, an inscription from the book of Numbers in the Torah has been discovered on metal amulets in Jerusalem that date back to 700 BC, and the Torah writings would have to have been around much longer before that time.[3] So – why does it make sense to treat the later Greek descriptions of Moses on an equal footing with the Torah? Clearly, the Greek accounts were written many hundreds of years after the Torah and the events it describes, in a different culture at a different time and for a different purpose. It is more reasonable to assume the earlier Israelite record is more likely to report who Moses actually was.

Fourth – he spends a lot of time making the argument that, because elements of the story of Moses are found elsewhere in other writings, this means that it is likely that Moses life in the Torah was a fictional account. He has a few examples of this. First, the Babylonian Sargon of Akkad, whose mother put him in a basket of reeds and placed him in the river.[4] He also points to common story tropes of the prince who finds out how hard life is outside the palace, or the hero who runs away and has to come back. He also observes that writings of this time viewed crossings of bodies of water as a metaphor of leaving behind an old life and starting a new one.[5] He likens this to the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus.

There are major problems with this line of reasoning. First, it commits the post hoc fallacy, which says that since Y followed X, this necessarily means X caused Y. Unless there are very good reasons to conclude that X caused Y, it is just not rational to suppose that it must have been so. There appear to be no good reasons to suppose this in the case of Moses. Second – most of the “tropes” the video identifies are very general themes that do crop up in many true historical accounts throughout human history. So – why must we assume the Moses account is fictional if the others are not?

Fifth – there is an assumption that religious sources are biased sources, and so should not be treated as reliable source of history. First – the Israelite nation recorded their religious history as a record of important events in their history. The Torah recorded of the nation’s covenant with Yahweh. This is the context in which the texts were produced. Second – to discount any text as biased (Biblical or otherwise) is to fail to realise that ALL communication from people carries bias. In fact, every person has a biased perspective in life. So – if we follow the video and reject biased accounts, then that means we also have to reject the video! Because he himself also carries bias when he wrote it.

The video’s tacit assumption is that a biased person is not capable of recording historical events. It turns out – the issue is not bias at all. The question is – can biased people (everyone is biased) tell the truth? I think the clear answer to that is – yes. For example, the most important accounts of the Nazi holocaust are from Jewish sources. Does that render them inaccurate? Quite the opposite. The people most interested in an event are likely the most meticulous in recording them.[6] Just because we all carry biases of different kinds does not mean we are unable to be objective. We can be objective. When it is important to us that we record what happened for the next generation to know and understand, we are likely to get details correct. Even though the ancient Israelite approach to historical record is less linear than our modern historical approach, this does not mean it must contain fiction. Israel’s record is likely to reflect what happened within the frame of their approach to history.

Sixth – he claims there is no archaeological evidence of Moses and an exodus from Egypt. But why would we expect to have evidence of the journey of a nomadic people who lived in tents as they travelled? It would seem more likely that we should find archaeological evidence of Israel from Egypt  (where they started from) and the Canaanite areas (where they ended up). The video gives the impression that there is no archaeological evidence – but this is clearly false. Evidence exists in both locations. For example, the Merneptah Stele was discovered in 1896. It is an Egyptian record mentioning Israel which is dated at around 1200 BC. There may be other earlier references to Israel in Egyptian archaeology.[7] Archaeologists have also found evidence supporting the Bible’s claim that Israel conquered Canaan around this time period.[8]

Also – just because we have not found archaeological evidence of Moses today does not mean the evidence does not exist. It just means it has not been found. Absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. There are many examples of Biblical accounts which were thought to be fictional, and yet archaeological evidence supporting the Bible’s account has eventually been found. One example of this is the archaeological evidence for King David in the Bible.[9]

Conclusion:

The video is an interesting discussion around whether Moses and the exodus occurred. He concludes that Moses must have been a composite fictional figure designed as a literary work explaining the origins of Israel.[10]

The idea that a story which forms an important part of a nation’s identity must necessarily contain invention – does not make sense to my mind. It assumes a very base level understanding of the idea of “myth.” But myth’s can be so much more than fictional tales. They can also be stories of actual events that shaped a people’s lives and their culture that take on incredible significance. I think – if you accurately assess the whole historical record for Moses – including Israel’s record – you can arrive at a strong argument proposing that the Torah contains historical accounts of a man called Moses.


[1] Usefulcharts Youtube Channel, Did Moses Exist Applying the Historical Method, youtube, uploaded Feb 19th 2021, accessed May 23rd 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptYz-Vu0dxY, 0:17.

[2] Ibid., 19:23.

[3] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 102.

[4] Usefulcharts, 19:20.

[5] Usefulcharts, 20:11.

[6] Morrow, 114.

[7] Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel, Biblical Archaeological Society, uploaded January 17th, 2012, accessed May 23rd, 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/does-the-merneptah-stele-contain-the-first-mention-of-israel/.

[8] Israel Enters Canaan Following the Pottery Trail, BAS Library, September/October 1991, https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/17/5/2.

[9] The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible, Bible History Daily, uploaded October 18th 2020, accessed May 23rd 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/the-tel-dan-inscription-the-first-historical-evidence-of-the-king-david-bible-story/.

[10] Usefulcharts, 20:32.