Reading Time: 11 minutes Salamandra123, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 11 minutes

I will continue my deconstruction of the Exodus accounts by concentrating on the issues surrounding the claims of the Hebrews coming out of Egypt. The articles so far have been:

I want to compile them all into a series as I have done with the Nativity and Easter.

As I have stated many times in this series, the evidence for the Exodus account as derived from the Bible amounts to somewhere around nothing. Well, nothing. The rationalisations around the chronology, as seen by some of the Christian commenters during the series, shows you how tenuously they try to hang on to the literal truth in light of there being nothing else to use. They can only seek to find gaps and potential harmonisations about when it could have happened rather than resort to good solid evidence that shows when it did happen.

When I asked a Christian commenter here, who has been defending the Exodus account with torrents of claims from Jehovah’s Witness apologist Gerard Gertoux, could he succinctly list all the non-biblical positive evidence that the Exodus is true, he said:

No. It is impossible to do this succinctly. That would take too long. you can read Gerard Gertoux’s Moses and the Exodus: What evidence?

I can say that the evidence from the excavations at Avarice, and the physical evidence in Israel, show that there was a migration out of Egypt and into Canaan in the beginning of the 15th century BC.

I doubt you will take the time to look at it.

That is pretty much an admission that there is not really any positive evidence for the Exodus.

What he and others do is to, instead of providing something positive – placing chess pieces on the board as positive evidence of your army – move existent chess pieces around to make space on the board so that there is a small space to perhaps create a possibility that their army might once have been there.

As to Avaris and the Hyksos, that was dealt with in a previous post, but it is worth noting:

The Hyksos’ connection to Canaan or the Levant is proven by a wealth of archaeological, textual and artistic remains found throughout Egypt, most notably in the ancient city of Avaris, known to archaeologists as Tel el Daba. These people left a strong mark on the Egyptians, most readily seen in the adoption of a Levantine goddess who was absorbed into the goddess Hathor.

The Hyksos were defeated and expelled from Egypt by the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Ahmose. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, dated to around 1650 BC, tells that Ahmose conquered Tjaru before attacking the Hyksos’ capital in Egypt, Avaris. In fact recent excavations at Tel Habuwa, which is associated with the site of ancient Tjaru, found archaeological evidence of Ahmoses campaign. There is even ancient Egyptian wall art showing Ahmose defeating the Hyksos (see herein).

It is unlikely that all the Hyksos were physically kicked out of Egypt. It makes more sense that some remained and were subjugated, possibly becoming a lower class, and that a memory of that event would have been passed down in oral tradition.

None of which helps, one iota, the biblical literalist and our friend above. If this is the best evidence he can come up with, well…

So, as per my series, we have:

1) Absolutely no archaeological evidence of the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt.
2) Absolutely no archaeological evidence of the Hebrews escaping en masse and living in Sinai for 40 years.
3) Absolutely no evidence of the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt in any records outside of the Bible.
4) Miraculous claims being made, meaning there should be very, very good evidence to believe this (extraordinary claims mantra).
5) Camels were not domesticated in the area, yet Bible claims so, hinting at later writing in 600 BCE.
6) Pitch didn’t exist in the area, yet the Bible claims so, hinting that the Moses’ birth story was stolen from Sargon.
7) Textual analysis pointing towards non-Mosaic authorship and later written date.
8) Anachronism of the Philistines at the time, though they existed at the later date critics claim the Bible was written but not the t supposed time of Exodus.
9) Ramifications of plagues and army loss and firstborn loss to Egypt would have been massive and recorded. Egypt actually enjoyed a time of prosperity and flourishing.

And so on

So, which this better explains this data?

a) that the Exodus account is a true, accurate, historical account, including some of the most amazing supernatural events known to man.
b) that the Pentateuch was written later as an attempt to garner national identity in time of exile, drawing on the culture surrounding them (ie Sargon), creating a mythological text akin to every other holy book in the history of humanity (e.g. the Epic of Gilgamesh, which the Bible steals its flood account from).

After this preamble, let us look at what evidence there is for the Hebrews coming out of Egypt and what it is the Bible claimed they did.

This is how Wikipedia sums up the events:

The Book of Numbers tells how the Israelites, led now by their god Yahweh, journey on from Sinai towards Canaan, but when their spies report that the land is filled with giants they refuse to go on and Yahweh condemns them to remain in the desert until the generation that left Egypt passes away.[8] After thirty-eight years at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea the next generation travel on to the borders of Canaan, where Moses addresses them for the final time and gives them further laws.[8] The Exodus ends with the death of Moses on Mount Nebo and his burial by God, while the Israelites prepare for the conquest of the land.[8]

Moses dies at something like 120 years old and leadership passes to Joshua. Between the Books of Exodus and Joshua sit Leviticus and Numbers, which also include some pretty wild claims. The conquest of Canaan includes a good many supernatural and amazing claims. In all, Joshua 12 lists 31 kings who were defeated, and Joshua 11 says (twice): “So Joshua took this entire land.” – and yet there is a bit of an internal contradiction:

Later in the book of Joshua, it is clear that the more fertile coastal lowlands, and several other cities (e.g. Jerusalem, Gezer) had not been captured as claimed earlier. The following book of Judges tells of the different tribes having to subdue Canaanite cities in their allotted areas, including some previously said to have been conquered (e.g. Debir), and in some cases failing to do so. And Samuel and Kings report that some cities (e.g. Megiddo, Jerusalem) were not controlled by the Hebrews until several centuries later.

So the Bible recognises that the conquest was far from complete, despite the strong statements in Joshua. It is almost as if there are two different accounts, a more accurate one later in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and an earlier “talked up” account in Joshua 1-11.

Here is a brief synopsis of most of Joshua:

  1. Joshua Sends Spies From Acacia Grove
  2. Spies Hide in Rahab’s Home in Jericho
  3. Joshua and Israel Cross the River Jordan
  4. Twelve Memorial Stones Placed at Gilgal
  5. Priests Bring the Ark From the Jordan
  6. Israel Celebrates Passover on Plains of Jericho
  7. Israel Eats Fruit of the Land of Canaan
  8. Israel No Longer Eats Manna
  9. Commander of the Lord’s Army Instructs Joshua
  10. Joshua Instructs Israel About Battle for Jericho
  11. Walls of Jericho Fall on Seventh Day
  12. Israel Attacks and Destroys City of Ai
  13. Gibeon and Israel’s Treaty Angers King Adoni-Zedek
  14. Sun Stands Still Allowing Defeat of Amorites
  15. Joshua Opens Cave and Kills Five Amorite Kings
  16. Central and Southern Canaan Conquest Completed
  17. Israel Returns to Camp at Gilgal for Winter
  18. Northern Canaanite Kings Meet at Lake Merom
  19. Joshua Gets Instructions for Northern Canaanite Battle
  20. Joshua Defeats Kings of Jebusites and Hivites
  21. Canaan Rests From War After Almost Five Years
  22. Joshua Divides Land East of the Jordon River
  23. Caleb Inherits Hebron at 85 While In Gilgal
  24. Canaan Land Given to Tribe of Judah

And so on until Joshua dies at the age of 110. The supernatural claims of the Exodus continue such that we have the walls of a great city falling to the sound of trumpets, manna still sustaining a people, levitating priests, hailstones coming down and killing people, and the sun and moon standing still.

Simply put, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the fact that none of these claims is attested outside of the Bible is a real problem. It’s not that the evidence is poor, it’s that it doesn’t exist. Or, if you take the Bible as evidence of the Bible, then the evidence is terribly, terribly poor at absolute best.

The famous destruction of Jericho is now famously unattested as archaeology has evolved from times where archaeologists were paid up members of seminaries who were sent to verify the Bible in a time of biblical maximalism. As Eben Scheffler states in “Jericho: From archaeology challenging the canon to searching for the meaning(s) of myth(s)”:

Archaeologically, virtually no trace has been found of the 9th century BCE occupation attributed to Hiel, but there was some settlement in the 7th century BCE, ending perhaps at the time of the second Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE. Tell es-Sultan was then finally abandoned, but the town continued to expand to the south (cf. above)….

In a relatively short chapter entitled ’Jericho and the coming of the Israelites’Kenyon (1957:256–265) reports on the LBA and what the main goal of the excavations (the link to the Joshua narrative) was. The result is negative (and according to her ‘sad’, cf. above). There was a virtual gap in occupation during this time and no large wall was found (contrary to Garstang who dated the MBA wall wrongly) which one would have expected if Joshua 6 were to be interpreted literally.

Let me remind you of part of a quote given in the last piece, taken from Finkelstein and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed (p.66):

And what of other settlements and peoples mentioned in the account of the Israelites’ wanderings? The biblical narrative recounts how the Canaanite king of Arad, “who dwelt in the Negeb,” attacked the Israelites and took some of them captive – enraging them to the point that they appealed for divine assistance to destroy all the Canaanite cities (Numbers 21:1-3). Almost twenty years of intensive excavations at the site of Tel Arad east of Beersheba have revealed remains of a great Early Bronze Age city, about twenty-five acres in size, and an Iron Age fort, but no remains whatsoever from the Late Bronze Age, when the place was apparently deserted. The same holds true for the entire Beersheba valley. Arad simply did not exist in the Late Bronze Age.

The same situation is evident astward across the Jordan, where the wandering Israelites were forced to do battle at the city of Heshbon, capital of Sihon, king of the Amorites, who tried to block the Israelites from passing in his territory on their way to Canaan (Numbers 21:21-25; Deuteronomy 2:24-35: Judges 11:19-21). Excavations at Tel Hesban south of Amman, the location of ancient Heshbon, showed that there was no Late Bronze city, not even a small village there. And there is more here. According to the Bible, when the children of Israel moved along the Transjordanian plateau they met and confronted resistance not only in Moab but also from the full-fledged states of Edom and Ammon. Yet we now know that the plateau of Transjordan was very sparsely inhabited in the Late Bronze Age. In fact, most parts of this region, including Edom, which is mentioned as a state ruled by a king in the biblical narrative, were not even inhabited by a sedentary population at that time. To put it simply, archaeology has shown us that there were no kings of Edom there for the Israelites to meet.

The pattern should have become clear by now. Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real. A few were well known and apparently occupied in much earlier periods and much later periods – after the kingdom of Judah was established, when the text of the biblical narrative was set down in writing for the first time. Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

Indeed, they later conclude (p. 67-68):

Lastly, all the major places that play a role in the story of the wandering of the Israelites were inhabited in the seventh century; in some cases they were occupied only at that time. A large fort was established at Kadesh-barnea in the seventh century. There is a debate about the identity of the builders of the fort – whether it served as a far southern outpost of the kingdom of Judah on the desert routes in the late seventh century or was built in the early seventh century under Assyrian auspices. Yet in either case the site so prominent in the Exodus narrative as the main camping place of the Israelites was an important and perhaps famous desert outpost in the late monarchic period. The southern port city of Ezion-geber also flourished at this time. Likewise, the kingdoms of Transjordan were populous, well-known localities in the seventh century. Most relevant is the case of Edom. The Bible describes how Moses sent emissaries from Kadesh-barnea to the king of Edom to ask permission to pass through his territory on the way to Canaan. The king of Edom refused to grant the permission and the Israelites had to bypass his land. According to the biblical narrative, then, there was a kingdom in Edom at that time. Archaeological investigations indicate that Edom reached statehood only under Assyrian auspices in the seventh century BCE. Before that period it was a sparsely settled fringe area inhabited mainly by pastoral nomads. No less important, Edom was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, and sedentary activity there recovered only in Hellenistic times.

All these indications suggest that the Exodus narrative reached its final form during the time of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, in the second half of the seventh and the first half of the sixth century BCE. Its many references to specific places and events in this period quite clearly suggest that the author or authors integrated many contemporary details into the story. (It was in much the same way that European illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages depicted Jerusalem as a European city with turrets and battlements in order to heighten its direct impact on contemporary readers.) Older, less formalized legends of liberation from Egypt could have been skillfully woven into the powerful saga that borrowed familiar landscapes and monuments. But can it be just a coincidence that the geographical and ethnic details of both the patriarchal origin stories and the Exodus liberation story bear the hallmarks of having been composed in the seventh century BCE? Were there older kernels of historical truth involved, or were the basic stories first composed then?]

As this (Christian) source concludes:

…Ai was a ruin at this time (the name even means “ruin” and it was destroyed almost a millennium earlier) and Jericho was destroyed around 1550 BCE. It is possible that there were small (unfortified) villages on these sites at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but this hardly seems to support the Joshuaaccount. Several other cities said to have been conquered (e.g. Gibeon, Arad, Heshbon) did not apparently exist at this time (though it is always possible that their location hasn’t been correctly determined).

Furthermore, archaeologists think that the cities which were destroyed at this time were not conquered at the same time, as described in Joshua 1-11, but perhaps over a period of half a century or more.

So the archaeology is difficult and more than one interpretation is possible. But it cannot be said to strongly support the account in Joshua 1-11.

Part of the problem is that Christians tend to think the Canaanites as the bad guys, overcome by the triumphant returning Hebrews and such. But, as even British Zionist Daniel Gavron admits in 2003 in a piece called “King David and Jerusalem: Myth and Reality”:

The account of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan is inconsistent with the archaeological evidence. Cities supposedly conquered by Joshua in the 14th century BCE were destroyed long before he came on the scene. Some, such as Ai and Arad, had been ruins for a 1000 years.The Book of Judges, which directly contradicts Joshua, and shows the Israelites settling the land over a prolonged period, is nearer historical reality; but even it cannot be taken at face value.

The conclusion is somewhat startling to Bible readers who know the Canaanites portrayed in the Bible as immoral idolaters: most of the Israelites were in fact formerly Canaanites. The story of Abraham’s journey from Ur of the Chaldees, the Patriarchs, the Exodus, Sinai, and the conquest of Canaan, all these were apparently based on legends that the various elements brought with them from their countries of origin. The consolidation of the Israelites into a nation was not the result of wanderings in the desert and divine revelation, but came from the need to defend themselves against the Philistines, who settled in the Canaanite coastal plain more or less at the same time the Israelites were establishing themselves in the hills.

This is a hugely important point made also by Bradley (p. 270):

Canaan, the endpoint of the Exodus, the promised land of milk and honey, is where archaeological predictions based on the biblical narrative are most glaringly falsified. No conquering multitudes suddenly burst out of the Wilderness of Zin; no new Israelitish culture suddenly explodes in what would become the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The full story is outside the main scope of this chapter, but here is the bottom line: the area that would become the Judahist heartlands was a marginal zone that experienced several waves of settlement from 3500 BCE through to the beginning of the Iron Age. In each case, the settlers were not incomers but indigenes responding to changing climatic and trade situations by shifting emphasis from pastroalism to cultivation and back again – a common strategy of ecotonal peoples. The evidence points ot in-place development rather than incursions, on a background of overall cultural continuity. Israel, it seems, did not come out of Egypt; it appears they were in Canaan all along.

This last quote comes from my friend and Skeptic Ink Network colleague Rebecca Bradley and her chapter, “The Credibility of the Exodus”, in John Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science (in which I also contribute a chapter on free will).

It’s difficult to succinctly draw together all the archaeology completed in this area, but the movement away from biblical maximalism is not only borne out by the archaeology itself, it is also methodologically far more sound. Archaeology supports neither the Exodus account nor those in the Bible following it.

Which thesis does this best support?

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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