Did the Israelites Flee Egypt for the Promised Land?
In our last blog post we looked at whether there is definitive proof that Adam and Eve existed as real people. In this blog post we’ll look at what proof exists for the mass Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
No doubt about it, the Exodus of the Israelites, an event the Bible describes in great detail, is one of the most important historical events for both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Why? Because this central experience of rescue for the helpless out of a desperate condition has been recognized as a key example of God’s love.
Too, it is an example of God asserting His supremacy. In each plague He sends, God repeats this message: “I alone am God.” And in each miracle He provides for the Israelites as they flee Pharaoh’s pursuit, God reminds them that “I am who I am!“
The Bible tells us that Pharaoh — considered a god — was just a man that God specifically placed on the throne for the big showdown with Moses. God, alone, can claim the title. Before He orchestrated the Israelite’s exit from Egypt, God brought 10 plagues that crushed the legitimacy of the numerous deities of the Egyptian people.
Let’s look at the Exodus details, and then at existing evidence for the event. Its symbolism alone makes the Exodus story invaluable.
~ The Exodus Story ~
It is in Exodus 3:7-8 that we see God speak after He decides to take action:
“I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
So God sends the 10 plagues, which the Egyptians dismiss until the pain finally cuts too close to the bone. Gnats didn’t move them. Flies didn’t move them. Neither did thick darkness. Not even the decimation of Egyptian crops and cattle motivated Pharaoh to agree to God’s demand to “Let my people go!” (Charlton Heston, time for your cameo!) #Moses
Only at the last plague — in which every Egyptian firstborn dies — do the now shellshocked Egyptians finally beg the Israelites to get the heck out of Dodge. They even dump parting gifts of silver, gold, and clothing on the Israelites! (And we know what the Israelites did with that gold, right?) #calfidol
An interesting GotQuestions.org article sheds light on why God may have cherry-picked each plague. Examples: The second plague, of frogs from the Nile, was a judgment against Heqet, the frog-headed goddess of birth. Egyptians viewed frogs as sacred, and not to be killed. Yet God used the frogs to make a stench in the nostrils of the Egyptians, as they piled the dead, rotting frogs into heaps across the land (Exodus 8:13–14). The ninth plague, of thick darkness, was aimed at blasting the sun god, Ra, symbolized by Pharaoh himself. For three days, the land of Egypt was “smothered with an unearthly darkness, but the homes of the Israelites had light.” The tenth plague, the death of all firstborn males, was a smackdown on Isis, the supposed protector of children.
Finally, Pharaoh changed his tune from, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go!” to something like, “Crap! Leave! Now!”
It seems incredulous that almost immediately, however, he decides that freeing the Israelites was a really dumb move. Mighty Egypt depended on their manpower. So Pharaoh orders his army to open the throttles on their chariots and make haste to reclaim their slave labor. (Okay, I will cut him some slack; Pharaohs were quite used to getting their way and calling the shots.)
But I wonder if God yawned at the little effort it took Him to stall their progress as He used high winds to separate the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk (bug-eyed, no doubt!) between the watery walls. Only when the huge crowd had reached the waiting shore did God allow the Egyptian army to proceed — and then drowned them as He snapped the divided walls closed. (Even with really bad overacting by Heston and the rest of the Ten Commandments movie cast, the scene is impressive.)
The obvious symbolism: in the Old Testament we see God use Moses to lead the Israelites out of physical slavery. In the New Testament, we see God use His son to free the entire human race from spiritual slavery.
~ Archaeological Limits ~
Jews and Christians have, for centuries, embraced the Exodus story. Because the Bible has proven itself trustworthy as a book of truth and fact.
Only in the last 20 years or so have scholars decided the event isn’t historical, due to lack of evidence. But, says scholar Anthony Frendo:
“Israel must have somehow (at least partially) come from outside Canaan in view of the multiple texts in the Old Testament which point in this direction. Why should the Old Testament authors have made this up? Should we not try harder to understand our texts in connection with the results of good archaeology, rather than superficially to dismiss the former?”
It is true that outside of the Bible, there isn’t much evidence for the event. But that shouldn’t surprise us, asserts Alan Millard of the University of Liverpool, for several important reasons:
“Lacking any trace of Joseph, Moses, or Israelites in Egypt, many have concluded they were never there. Yet no pharaoh would boast of the loss of his labor force on a monument, and administrative records on papyrus, leather, or wooden tablets which might have registered such events would perish rapidly in the Delta’s damp soil. It is equally unlikely that a camping crowd would leave recognizable remains from a semi-nomadic life in the Sinai Wilderness and in Transjordan. The absence of evidence is not, therefore, evidence of absence!”
Old Testament scholar and Egyptologist James Hoffmeier confirms that Goshen, in the Nile Delta, is quite moist due to rain and annual flooding. If the Israelites had been in the dry Southern region, where the Dead Sea scrolls have been uncovered, he is certain papyrus documents would have survived. “We have to be realistic,” he adds, “about what we think archaeology can and can’t do.”
“Archaeological discoveries have verified that parts of the Biblical Exodus are historically accurate, but archaeology can’t tell us everything, agrees the Biblical Archaeological Society. “Although archaeology can illuminate aspects of the past and bring parts of history to life, it has its limits.”
Our key takeaway: limited evidence does not mean the event didn’t happen as the Bible tells it.
~ Proof for the Plagues, Then? ~
Again, hard to prove. But some scholars give credence to naturalistic phenomenon, which God certainly could have used to achieve His goal. Hoffmeier explains:
“Some have theorized that the first plague — in which the Nile turns blood red — is associated with the presence of microscopic flagellates in the water that account for the color. This phenomenon is associated with the annual inundation of the Nile that begins in August, crests in September, and ends in October. These microbes consume large amounts of oxygen from the water which results in fish dying and causes a rank smell, rendering the water undrinkable as described in the Bible (Exodus 7:21). If indeed a contaminated annual flood marked the beginning of the plagues, which would have begun in the period of August to October, and since Passover is observed in the period March-April (that is, seven to nine months later), the ninth plague — three days of darkness — might have been caused by a severe dust storm or khamsin. Such dust storms can still blanket Egypt for days at a time during the months of March and April. They even darken the sun and fine dust covers everything. This scenario for the ninth plague certainly fits the description that it was a darkness to be felt (Exodus 10:21). By using the forces of nature against Egypt, the God of Israel demonstrated His superiority over the gods of Egypt and over Pharaoh, who was responsible for maintaining cosmic order in the land.”
How often, I wonder, does God use “the forces of nature” to make His point? But like the Egyptians, we often refuse to acknowledge the Hand of God until the pain becomes excruciatingly personal. Only then do we move.
~ Taking the Bible as Truth ~
We find the Exodus mentioned as a historical event throughout the Old Testament, including the books of Psalms, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and in the Prophets. We should note that the Bible is not a single source document. It is multiple sources, all of which maintain the authenticity of the Exodus tradition. Historians recognize that the likelihood of the authenticity of an event increases as independent sources that verify it are discovered.
To date, scholars cannot concretely prove that Moses existed, that Israel lived in Egypt, or that this group of Hebrews fled from Pharaoh. But neither can they disprove the historicity of the biblical narrative.
As Hoffmeier notes:
“With this overwhelming evidence within the Bible regarding the Egyptian sojourn, exodus, and wilderness episodes, evidence coming from a variety of types of literature and used in a host of different ways, it is methodologically inadvisable, at best, to treat the Bible as a single witness to history, requiring corroboration before the Egypt-Sinai reports can be taken as authentic.”
Simply put, there is enough evidence contained in the Bible to make the story believable. It is likely such a man as Moses existed, a people such as Israel lived in Egypt, and these people left Egypt via the route detailed in the Bible.
“Many people today treat the Bible as being guilty until proven innocent,” adds Hoffmeier. “Which doesn’t seem fair, as who’s around to prove it that lived back then?”
I stand firmly in the camp that God can do what He says He’s going to do, whether large or small. When I read of the Bible’s miracles — from the miraculous parting of the Red Sea to the miraculous resurrection of Jesus — it’s not my default to think, “I’m not believing it until I see definitive proof!” Rather, my default is, “Wow! Mind blown!”
I want my God, as we say here in Texas, “to go big, or go home!”
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.