The Torah’s Exodus
Biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars question whether the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness ever happened. The debate rages on a number of fronts:
- Archaeological: Does the description of the account in the Torah comport with other material evidence or written accounts from the period when it purportedly occurred?
- Textual: Does the biblical text—the nature of its composition and its genre—allow us to categorize it as historical?
- Philosophical: Do we believe in supernatural occurrences, public miracles, divine intervention in history, etc.?
Each of these points deserves separate treatment.
The exodus and wilderness stories have some specific claims that can be fact-checked. Given the gaps in the archaeological record, fact-checking with archaeological data is rarely perfect, yet it still provides a valuable tool for evaluating the probability of historical claims. For the sake of brevity I will explore three examples: the plagues, the drowning of the Egyptian army, and the great number of Israelites who left Egypt.
The Ten Plagues
The Torah describes Yhwh, through Moses and Aaron, smiting the Egyptians with ten plagues. These are massive events that include turning the entire Nile river to blood, fiery hail, darkening the sky for three days straight, and the killing of all first-born male Egyptians.
There is no record of this event in Egypt historical documents. This cannot be stated clearly enough—though the internet is full of “proofs” for the historicity of the exodus, not a single Egyptian record or archaeological find shows that a substantial number of Israelites were enslaved in Egypt in the late second millennium B.C.E and saved by the miraculous intervention of a rival god.
The absence of such a record could be explained any number of ways. The record could have existed but be lost. Alternatively, the Egyptians could have avoided writing about this since it admits defeat. These are possible responses for why no Egyptian literature reflects this event, but explaining the lack of evidence does not itself constitute evidence for the truth of the biblical account.
Other scholars point to the correspondence between this story and some Egyptian realities. For example, Prof. Ziony Zevit, in his TABS essay, "The Ten Plagues and Egyptian Ecology," points to the correspondence between many of the plagues and specifically Egyptian (as opposed to Levantine) natural phenomena. This may be so, but, as he writes in the piece, this implies only that the story could have been inspired by some historical occurrence of these phenomena; it does not show that Exodus records historical events.
Another approach, taken by Prof. Gary Rendsburg in his TABS essay, "Reading the Plagues in their Ancient Egyptian Contexts," points to the strong possibility that the author of the plague account was familiar with Egyptian myths or accounts—like the “Admonitions of Ipuwer” or “The Wax Crocodile.” Perhaps the biblical author was specifically polemicizing with these texts or, at least, purposely invoking them in the account. This may well be the case, but again this does not demonstrate the historicity of the biblical account. Quite the contrary, if an author is using literature as inspiration for his own story, this implies that the details are not historical.
The Drowning of Pharaoh’s Army
The exodus story ends with the drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the sea. No record of such an event is found in Egyptian historical documents, nor does any archaeological evidence support a drowned legion of Egyptian troops.
Moreover, although the Torah never specifies the name of the pharaoh who chased the Israelites into the sea, the favorite pick for this, Rameses II, was not drowned or lost in the sea, contrary to the biblical claims about the Pharaoh of the exodus (Exod 14:8, 28, 15:4, Psa. 135:15.) Rameses II died at the age of 90, probably of heart disease, and his mummy can still be seen in the Cairo Museum. We know from Egyptian documents how and when most pharaohs from this period died—and none was drowned in battle.
The Number of Israelites
The Torah describes an Israelite population of 600,000 fighting-age males, translating to an Israelite population of almost 3 million. All historians agree that such a number could not have been supported in ancient Egypt, and that if such a huge amount of people were wandering the Sinai Wilderness for forty years, it would be reflected in the archaeological record.
Some try to answer this by saying that the Hebrew word eleph (אלף) used here doesn’t mean one thousand, but rather “clan” or “troop,” like the related word “aluph (אלוף)” in Genesis 36. This is difficult to accept. The number “like 600,000” (six hundred eleph; כְּשֵׁשׁ־מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף; Exod 12:37) seems to be a rounded form for the 603,550 (six hundred eleph, three eleph, five hundred and fifty; שֵׁשׁ־מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וַחֲמִשִּׁים) recorded in the half-shekel census in Exodus 38:26. In that context, eleph, followed by 550, cannot refer to a clan; that verse claims, unambiguously, that 603,500 males aged twenty or older were counted.
Another approach, taken by Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman in his TABS essay, "The Historical Exodus," is to assume that the numbers are an exaggeration, and that the number of Israelites (or Levites in Friedman’s reconstruction) that fled Egypt was significantly smaller, a few hundred perhaps. Historically speaking, this is possible. A few hundred Hebrew slaves could have escaped Egypt without leaving any written record, nor would such a small number necessarily have left any archaeological trace. Nevertheless, this is not the exodus story anymore, but a (possible) historical kernel upon which the exodus story may have been built.
The textual record raises two problems: What is the genre of the stories in the book of Exodus, and why do they contain contradictions?
When recounting the history of the world and the Israelites in particular, the Torah contains many stories that sound like more like myths or folklore than attempts at recording history, like Adam, Eve, and talking snake or the flooding of the world and Noah’s Ark. The characters in these stories live for hundreds of years, and each is written with an intentionally fantastic character.
Some (like the Adam and Eve story) are written in order to explain some aspect of the world in which the writer lives: Why do men love women? Why does childbirth hurt? Why don’t snakes have legs? Scholars refer to such stories as etiological tales. Others are probably written for entertainment or to teach a moral lesson: “Once upon a time the world was a wicked place, and God caused a flood to appear, but there was one righteous man…” This sounds like classical mythology, and, in fact, some of these same myths appear in different forms among the Ancient Israelites’ neighbors.
Many contemporary Orthodox scholars have suggested a compromise: we can say that everything up to Abraham is folklore or allegory but from Abraham on it is history, but this is easier said than done, since the protagonists of the folklore stories are connected to the main protagonists of the rest of the Pentateuch genealogically. Adam begets, Seth, who begets Enosh, etc., until we get to Noah. Similarly, Noah begets Shem, who begets, Arpachshad, etc., until we get to Abraham. Abraham, in turn, is the progenitor of all the Israelites.
Moreover, the same fantastic elements that color the first 11 chapters of Genesis with a folkloristic or mythic feel appear, although with less frequency and force, in the stories of the patriarchs. Sodom is destroyed by fire and brimstone from the sky and Lot’s wife turns to a pillar of salt (Gen 19). God strikes Pharaoh with a plague when he takes Sarah (Gen 12) and Jacob wrestles with an angel near the Jabbok River (Gen 32). These same elements play a key part in the exodus and wilderness stories as well. It is hard to see where myth/folklore ends and history begins.
It seems likely, therefore, that even if the certain parts of the Torah do participate in the genre of historiography to some extent, they also participate in other genres, such as folklore, myth, or etiological tale. In this thinking, stories like the exodus from Egypt are meant to explain rituals like the Pesach sacrifice to the author’s contemporaries in the same way that the story of the Tower of Babel was meant to explain the existence of multiple human languages to that author’s contemporaries. Thus, even stories that purport to tell what happened in the past, and appear to be peppered with historical kernels, cannot be taken simply as attempts to relay factual accounts of the past. The author has other concerns as well, and these shape the account in essential ways.
Even if, for argument’s sake, we accept that the Torah can function as a historical document, how could we reconstruct such a history? As has been demonstrated—convincingly I believe—by two hundred years of academic biblical scholarship, the Torah is a composite work containing multiple versions of stories and contradictory details.
To begin with, how would we reconstruct the first plague? As Prof. Marc Brettler shows in his TABS essay, "Source Criticism: It’s in the (Plague of) Blood," some verses imply that all the water in Egypt turned to blood, others that only the Nile did. Or, if we were to accept that Pharaoh’s army was drowned, how did this happen exactly? As pointed out in a TABS essay,"What Really Happened at the Sea?", some verses imply that Yhwh brought a tidal wave and drowned the stationary Egyptians; others state that Yhwh split the sea and then closed it upon the Egyptian army as they were chasing the Israelites to the other side.
If we allow other biblical texts outside of Exodus to inform the discussion, the problem becomes even worse. For example, if Yhwh brought plagues against the Egyptians, what were the plagues exactly, and in what order? Exodus offers one version, but Psalm 78 another, and Psalm 105 a third. Or, if we believe that Yhwh brought a massive amount of quail for the Israelites to consume in the wilderness, was this done every night for the entire 40 years, as implied in Exodus 16, or just for a day or so, ending in a horrible plague, as implied in Numbers 11?
These contradictions demonstrate that the Torah cannot be read as an eye-witness account, but at most as a composite text, where a redactor likely spliced together older sources, and supplemented them, creating a final product that reflects no one ancient source. That does not mean that there is no historical information in the Torah, but it does mean that the work as a whole is not history. History in the sense of an accurate accounting of the past cannot report contradictory details and splice or supplement accounts unreflectively.
Perhaps the most significant issue, and the proverbial elephant in the room, is philosophical or theological, and, since it touches upon people’s core beliefs, feels harder to speak about candidly. The story of the exodus from Egypt is a story about miracles. Many free-thinking people struggle with this fact because miracle stories contradict the most basic premises of the modern scientific world.
If someone were to come to us today and say that God saved him or her from harm through some miraculous intervention—a fireball from the sky let’s say, or a protective cloud—we would assume the person was delusional or crazy. And yet, biblical stories are more fantastic than this. The only difference is they are accounts of the past and not the present.
But is there any reason to assume the past was fundamentally different than the present in this regard? I think that many of us would say no, and are sympathetic to Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Don’t say, ‘How has it happened that former times were better than these?’ For such a question does not come from wisdom.”
An Exodus or The Exodus?
This gets to the heart of what someone can mean when he or she says that evidence exists that the exodus happened. Perhaps some minimal evidence suggests that a group of Asiatics (like the Hebrews) were slaves in Egypt. Perhaps the use of Egyptian loanwords in the beginning of Exodus is evidence of the author’s familiarity with some Egyptian language and culture. Maybe an archaeologist will one day find evidence that a group of nomads lived near the Kadesh Barnea oasis 3000 years ago. Even so, none of this provides evidence that the story as told in the Torah, happened. At best it may mean that the Bible’s exodus story has some basis in history.
Setting up to Fail?
Where does that leave the religious person? Tradition teaches that God took two-million-plus Israelites out of Egypt, after sending Moses to bring ten plagues down upon the Egyptians, and eventually drowning their army in the sea. This is what the Torah says.
Now, a person may choose to eschew modern research and stick with the traditional story as is. But is this story believable as history for a modern person open to the scientific world and its outlook? For most such people, the answer is “no.”
This leaves us with the question of whether we should nevertheless grab hold of whatever evidence we can with the hopes of offering the average believer a scaled-down natural version of the exodus. My own view is that few if any who have started to question traditional notions will be satisfied by such an approach once they realize that the Torah contains myth and folklore as an essential part of its historiography, and its details cannot be considered historically accurate.
Here is the main challenge as I see it: We no longer live in a world explained primarily by the direct control of God (or gods), but in a world governed by science and the laws of nature. Meteorologists explain the presence or absence of rain in natural terms, without reference to sin or piety. Medicine has replaced magic; the planets are no longer gods (or angels) but rocks and gas; the demon-haunted world (to quote Carl Sagan) is no more.
And yet, our religions and our holy texts come from this lost world, and this leaves us in a conundrum. Since the world has changed, by definition our relationship to the Torah and how to read it must change as well. This is the reason I advocated in my "Avraham Avinu is my Father" essay not seeing the text as presenting history but as mnemohistory and mythic history.
Such an approach is more productive than attempting to base religion on some ephemeral historical core. It allows us to try to understand the Torah and its development, and uses academic tools and scientific method to gain greater insight into our tradition and its meaning. Ultimately, I believe this is also the safer approach for the religious person, since basing faith on concrete historical claims with the hope that it can somehow be proven leaves the faithful open to the opposite possibility as well.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 11, 2015
January 18, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics: