It is one of the most important historical events described in the Old Testament: the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. Remarkably, it is also a highly controversial fact. According to the Bible's description, more than 600,000 adult men left Egypt. In total, the population must have been estimated at more than 2 million people. This group has wandered through the desert for 40 years. Without any archaeological traces to be found. That is hardly conceivable, and for that reason there are many scholars who assume that the description of the Exodus in the Bible cannot be historical. Wrongly, as the remainder of this article will show. Because the more data that emerges from the ancient Middle East, the more it appears that the data from history as described in Exodus are consistent with extra-biblical data.
The size of the population
In Exodus we read that at the Exodus the population was approximately 600,000 people (Ex. 12:37). When reviewing the costs of the tabernacle we come across a more precise number, namely 603,550 (Ex. 38:25-26). Half a shekel is paid per person, and the total, according to this text, is 100 talents and 1775 shekels. Since a talent is 3,000 shekels, this is exactly right. We encounter more extensive counts in Numbers. Right at the beginning, the number of adult males is listed per tribe, with the exception of the tribe of Levi. The total is then again 603,550 (Num. 1:46; Num. 2:32). At the end of the desert journey there is a new count. Then it appears that the people have remained approximately the same size, namely 601,730 (Num. 26:51). Everything seems to indicate that the people of Israel numbered approximately 600,000 men aged 20 years and above, not counting the Levites. So a total of about 2 million people. Yet this apparently simple conclusion raises many questions.
There are indications from the Bible itself that the size of the nation must not have been so large after all. For example, it is recorded that the people were not enough to fill the land (Ex. 23:29-30; Deut. 7:22). The country of Israel currently has more than 8 million inhabitants, and the country is fairly full. A number of times it is stated that the nation was small, smaller than the nations in Canaan (Deut. 4:38; 7:7, 17). There lived in Canaan seven nations that were greater and more powerful than the Israelites (Deut.4:38; 7:1,7; 9:1; 11:23). Joshua sent about 3,000 men to Ai to conquer the city. 36 men die in the battle and therefore the army of Israel flees (Josh.7:5). Numbers mentioned later also indicate a smaller population. For example, Deborah could only summon 40,000 warriors from 6 tribes (Judg. 5:8).
Jacob came into Egypt with seventy people (Gen. 46:27). God tells Abram, “And the fourth generation shall return hither: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not full until the end” (Gen. 15:16). A period of four generations is consistent with data from Exodus and Numbers. Some examples where someone from the fourth generation after that of the sons of Jacob appears to belong to the Israelites leaving Egypt are: Levi-Kehath-Amram-Aaron-Eleazar (Ex. 6:15-22; Num. 26:59 -61 and 1 Chron. 23:12) and Judah-Perez-Hezron-Ram-Amminadab (Num. 26:19-21 and 1 Chron. 2:3-10). In four generations a group of 70 people cannot have grown to 2 million people.
There are additional arguments. We read that there were 22,273 firstborn boys one month old or more (Num. 3:43). With a little calculation we come to the conclusion that a woman must have had an average of 50 sons and 50 daughters. That's an impossibly high amount. We know that the people crossed the Red Sea in one night (Ex. 14:20, 24). Calculations can be made about the time it takes for a nation of 2 million people to cross a sea in, for example, 12 hours. Although it is not impossible for so many people to cross a body of water in such a short time, it does seem unlikely. It is also mentioned that there were two midwives (Ex. 1:15). That seems a bit small for a population of 2 million people. But for a population of, for example, several tens of thousands, it is entirely possible. Were Shifra and Pua perhaps heads of a guild of midwives? Were they Egyptian midwives, while Hebrew midwives were active alongside them? Or should we again conclude that the population was actually smaller?
We are faced with a dilemma here for which, as far as I know, no one has yet found a satisfactory answer. Everything shows that the large numbers are considered real decimal numbers. We already saw this when calculating the costs of the tabernacle. Another interesting example is the battle against the Midianites in Numbers 31. The spoils of virgins, sheep, oxen and asses are divided into two equal parts between the fighters and the others. Of the half for the fighters, 1/500th part is then set aside for the Lord. If we recalculate all the numbers, it turns out that the calculations are correct.
On the other hand, there is a strong tendency to look for explanations that reduce the numbers. For example, it is known that the word 'eleph' ('lf) which is translated as thousand, can also mean a unit or group (see e.g. Ex. 12:37, 20:6, 34:7; Num. 1:16; 10:36; 31:5; Deut.5:10; 33:17; Josh. 22:14; 22:30; Judg. 6:15; 1 Sam. 10:19; 23:23; Micah 5:1) . There are interpreters who, for example, translate the number 46,500 (literally: 46 'thousand/group' 'and/or '500) from Numbers as 46 groups or 500 men. That is certainly possible, but if we continue this way of reading to other texts, we will encounter some problems.
Numbers in the Bible often appear not to be used as exact units in the same way as we do in our current Western society. We also see this in other examples. For example, in David's census we read that there were 800,000 soldiers, including 500,000 from the tribe of Judah (2 Sam. 24:9) and 1,100,000 soldiers, including 470,000 from Judah (1 Chron. 21:5). Why are these counts different? Did David of the Arameans kill 700 horses (2 Sam. 10:18) or were they 7,000 (1 Chron. 19:18)? And how many horses did Solomon have? Was that 40,000 (1 Kings 4:26) or 4,000 (2 Chron. 9:25)?
If we look at all the data, we must conclude that it is not clear exactly how large the population was when it left Egypt, but that it was probably much smaller than the 2 million people that is often taken as a starting point.
No written or archaeological source in Egypt?
Historians note that we have no written source from Egypt that mentions the Hebrews or Israelites. That's right. But that's no surprise. All Semitic slaves were referred to by the Egyptians as 'Asiatics'. Furthermore, we must assume that 99% of all papyri from ancient Egypt have been lost. And by comparison, we also have no archaeological sources of the migration of the Celts to Asia Minor. And there are more examples of major migrations that we know from written sources without having any archaeological support for them. In short, the absence of sources proves nothing at all.
But there is another point of attention. If we look closely at the chronology of the Egyptian pharaohs and Biblical history, there appears to be much more archaeological data than you would expect.
There is debate as to whether the Exodus occurred in the 15th or 13th century BC. took place. As Exodus mentions, the Israelites were to build the store cities of Piton and Raamses (Ex. 1:11). Many scholars assume that the name Raamses indicates that this city was built on behalf of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279 – 1213 BC) and that the Exodus must therefore be dated to the 13th century. However, that is just the question.
There is an important argument against this dating. On the Victory Stela of Merenptah, the son and successor of Ramses II, Israel is mentioned as an independent nation. That is not conceivable if the Exodus had taken place so recently.
The Biblical data itself also points to a different period. The years of the kings of Israel can be determined quite well. In Kings it is stated that construction of the temple began in the 480th year after the Exodus, in the fourth year of the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 6:1). That must have been in 966. Then the exodus was in 1445 BC. and the entry into the land of Canaan in 1405 B.C. Jephthah, who lived around 1100 BC, indicates that the Israelites have lived in the land for about 300 years (Judges 11:26). That statement is consistent with this dating. Finally, it can be pointed out that according to the genealogy of Chronicles there are at least 18 generations between Korah of the period of the Exodus and Heman, the singer in the court of David (1 Chron. 6:33-37). This fact also fits into this timetable.
So the Biblical data clearly points to an Exodus in the 15th century, and it turns out that if we look into that period there is more archaeological data supporting Biblical history than you might expect.
What then about the dating of the building of the city of Raamses? This appears to be based on a misunderstanding. It has long been thought that the city of Pi-Ramesse, the Egyptian name for Raamses, lies beneath the current city of Tanis. The oldest layer of habitation appears to date from the 13th century, and so it was determined that this was the city that the Israelites had to build. However, in recent decades excavations have been carried out at a site further south. Here was the city of Avaris, which was destroyed around 1530 BC. And nearby the city of Qantir was built, which later received the name Pi-Ramesse when Ramesses II expanded the city. Because the Nile arm on which Pi-Ramesse was located silted up, the new capital Tanis was built. In addition, many materials from Pi-Ramesse, including the names and images of Raamses II, were reused in the 11th century. That is why, until 1975, it was wrongly thought that Tanis was the ancient Pi-Ramesse. In short, the city of Raamses that the Israelites had to build turns out to be Qantir. This city was only later called Pi-Ramesse.
In fact, the designation Raamses is an anachronism. This means: the place that was known under this name at the time of writing. Even though this place name itself is much newer. And that happens more often. In Gen. 47:11 mentions that Joseph gave his father and brothers a piece of land near Raamses. And that was long before the Exodus.
Avaris was a city of about 30,000 inhabitants. The construction of the homes shows similarities with homes from Northern Syria. Traces of flocks kept by shepherds have been found around it, something the Egyptians did not do. This city had a kind of palace with 12 pillars, which must have belonged to a prominent person. 12 crypts have been found nearby. There is also an elegant crypt in the shape of a small pyramid with an unusually large statue. The skin is painted yellow, the hair red, and the statue has a multi-colored robe. This crypt contains no human remains. Scholar David Rohl is convinced that this is Joseph's grave.
A remarkable fact is that from this period dates a waterway that fills the Fayum basin from the Nile. This basin is intended for irrigation. The waterway and basin still exist. The waterway is called the 'Waterway of Joseph' (Bahr Yusuf).
Archaeological excavations of Avaris reveal other remarkable things. The residents lived in prosperity, but suddenly there is a period when people lived in poverty and the lifespan is much lower. During that period, a striking number of graves of newborns are found and the graves of adults contain many more women than men.
The chronology of the Pharaohs
Based on the dating as shown above, we can also determine who the pharaoh of the Exodus must have been. That must have been Amenhotep II. He died at the age of 45, and his grave has been hastily decorated, indicating an unexpected death. He was not succeeded by his eldest son but by a younger son, Thutmose IV. This also corresponds with the story from Exodus, which indicates that all the firstborn in the land of Egypt died in the tenth plague.
The pyramid of Amenhotep II is located near the Waterway of Joseph.
The pharaoh who did not know Joseph would have been Thutmose 1. Both his sons died young and he appointed his only daughter Hatsheput as co-regent. It must have been this daughter that Moses found on the banks of the Nile.
There are two written documents from Egypt that are interesting for this article.
The Brooklyn Papyrus contains a list of slaves. It is striking that 70% of the names are Semitic. Given the dating, it is quite possible that these were Hebrew slaves.
A second papyrus worth mentioning is the 'Admonitions of Ipuwer'. This involves water turning into blood, food shortages, numerous deaths, poor people and slaves enriching themselves with gold and jewelry. The document is incomplete and difficult to date, but at least very interesting.
In Ex. 12:40-41 states: “The children of Israel dwelt in Egypt four hundred and thirty years; After exactly four hundred and thirty years, not a day sooner or later, the people of the LORD came out of Egypt in groups. If we calculate backwards, we arrive at around the year 1875 BC, the period when the capital of the Egyptian empire was 120 km. was south of Goshen. However, the Genesis text indicates that Goshen was close to the capital (Gen. 45:2,10). We also get the strong impression that Jacob's sons bought their grain immediately after crossing the border. In short, everything points to a later period when Avaris was the capital.
Now the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, has the addition 'and in Canaan' in Ex. 12:40. Then the total period from the promise to Abraham to the Exodus would have been 430 years and not just the period of the stay in Egypt. Paul also appears to assume this: 'Now God gave his promises to Abraham and his descendant. (…) I mean this: the law, given four hundred and thirty years after the promise, does not invalidate the will ratified by God. (…)” (Gal. 3:16-17). If we calculate the ages mentioned in Genesis, then 215 years passed between the promise to Abraham and the arrival of Jacob and his sons in Egypt, and therefore another 215 years later the Exodus began. The Talmud, the collection of Jewish traditions, confirms this (Pirkei Rabbi Elieser, c.48).
It was already pointed out earlier in this article that the fourth generation after the sons of Jacob left Egypt. This does not correspond to a period of 430 years, but it does correspond to a period of 215 years.
So we must conclude that Joseph's palace was in Avaris. This fits well into the chronology of Egypt.
The conclusion is that we must date the promise to Abraham to 1875 BC. Jacob arrives in Egypt in 1660 BC, the Exodus is in 1445 BC. and the conquest of the land of Israel began in 1405 BC.
Description historically correct
It is clear from Egyptian sources that a Semitic population lived in the eastern Nile Delta, the area called Goshen by the Bible, in the second millennium BC. The Biblical names Ramses, Pithom, and Yam Suph (Red Sea, Reed Sea) correspond to the Egyptian place names Pi-Ramesse, Pi-Atum, and (Pa-)Tjuf. The literal meaning of the latter name is papyrus swamp, and it is located in the northeastern Nile Delta.
Large forts have been found on the route from Egypt to Gaza (the land of the Philistines) along the coast. This is consistent with God leading the people into the wilderness toward the Red Sea to prevent the people from repenting when faced with a battle (Ex. 13:17).
The Bible uses the expression that God brought His people out of Egypt with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” There is a remarkable parallel with texts about Pharaohs from the latter part of the second millennium, which speak of Pharaoh acting with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Nowhere else in the Middle East was this expression used.
Ramesses II's greatest achievement was the battle of Kadesh against the Hittites (1274 BC), where he defeated this arch-rival of Egypt. The description of the battle of Kadesh is very similar to the description of the crossing of the Red Sea and the song of Moses (Ex. 14-15). The text of Ramesses II mentions how Pharaoh's troops were surprised by the Hittites' chariots. Then Ramses II prays to Amon: “Go forward! I am with you, I am your father, my hand is with you!”. The troops leave the pharaoh, but Ramesses II continues to fight alone. Then the enemy recognizes that they are fighting a divine power, and the enemy flees: “One of them shouted to his fellow men: Watch out, beware, do not come near him! Behold, Sekhmet the Mighty is with him!” In their haste to flee, the Hittites jump into the river, where they are slaughtered by Pharaoh. And then the text states: “No one looked behind them, no one turned around. Whoever of them fell, he never got up again.” The similarities we see with the passage through the Sea of Reeds and the song of Moses are striking. However, scholars doubt the originality of Ramses II's text, so it is quite possible that this pharaoh was inspired by older texts. Propaganda was undoubtedly much more important than accurate historiography in these types of texts.
There is another striking parallel. There appears to be a remarkable similarity between the plan of the camp of Pharaoh Ramesses II and the tabernacle. The Pharaoh's reception room and his throne room correspond to the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies respectively. In the throne room, the pharaoh is flanked by falcons symbolizing the god Horus, just as the Ark of the Covenant is flanked by two angels. Around this camp were the four divisions of the army, as the tribes of Israel were encamped on the four sides of the tabernacle. We also encounter similar shrines in other Middle Eastern cultures, such as in Ugarit. The tent for the god El showed great similarity to the tabernacle. In fact, the Hebrew word for tabernacle is closely related to the Ugaritic word for it. We also find similar sanctuaries among the Hittites.
Of course, in the literal sense of the word it cannot be proven that the Biblical description of the Exodus is historically correct. But it is certainly not the case that it should be concluded on the basis of archaeological data that history is incorrect. On the contrary, the data appears to confirm its accuracy.
Joshua Berman; Was there an Exodus?; essay published on 2 march 2015
Werner Stauder; De tien plagen - ESER HAMAKOT; published in 2013
Studiebijbel van het Centrum voor Bijbelonderzoek
David M. Rohl; Farao’s en de Bijbel
Michael M. Homan; To your tents, o Israel!
Patterns of Evidence - Exodus (Netflix documentary)