Exodus Explored #1

History is essential to Christian faith. If the history narrated in the Bible didn’t happen, then faith is not even a comforting story – it is a cruel deception. In times such as we are living through now, we need to know whether God acts in history or not. If he doesn’t, then prayer counts for nothing and we are on our own.

In my previous post I explored Matthew’s account of the star of Bethlehem, pointing to astronomical evidence that the star was a real celestial event at the time of Jesus’ birth.

That was the New Testament. Here, now, is an example from the Old Testament where historical truth is contested: the exodus of Israel from Egypt. Many scholars don’t believe that it happened as the Bible tells it, or even that it happened at all. One reason for this is that archaeologists can’t find evidence in the ground for the conquest of Canaan described in the book of Joshua. The book of Joshua describes the wholesale destruction of Canaanite cities within a fairly short period. But, according to the experts, there is no evidence of this.

At least, there’s no evidence for this destruction at the time presumed by the conventional dating system. But supposing the conventional dating system is wrong? There are scholars – Egyptologists and others – who believe the conventional dating system for the ancient world is wrong by two or three hundred years. This is highly controversial. But looking at a different time for evidence of the exodus produces some interesting results.

Tim Mahoney is an American film-maker who has made several films exploring the historical truth or otherwise of the exodus account in the Bible. One of his key sources is an Egyptologist named David Rohl. Rohl is one of a number of scholars (see here and here) who question the conventional chronology of the ancient world. Rohl is an agnostic – he has no religious axe to grind. But, in the light of his research into ancient world chronology, he has come to believe the Old Testament should be taken much more seriously as history than many scholars do.

Looking at the account of the exodus and its sequel in the Old Testament, Mahoney develops the following framework as the key sequence of events. He calls it a “pattern of evidence”. He asks: does this “pattern of evidence” show up somewhere else in the history of Egypt? If it does, should this not be taken seriously as possible evidence of the exodus?

Here is the framework:

  1. Arrival of the family of Jacob in Egypt (a Semitic people who can be distinguished from native Egyptians in culture and appearance)
  2. Multiplication of these Semites to the point where they become a threat to the Egyptians
  3. Slavery: a sudden decline in the health and wealth of this Semitic population
  4. Judgment: the Egyptian state overcome by sudden catastrophe
  5. Exodus: sudden departure of the Semitic population
  6. Conquest: destruction of several Canaanite cities (Jericho, Hazor etc) in a short time frame

Arrival

Rohl and others cite the following evidence of the arrival of a Semitic population with the consent of the Egyptian government, one of whose number is a very high official in the state apparatus:

Exodus film screengrab: excavation
  • Excavations in the area of Goshen (where the Bible locates Jacob’s family) reveal (among many things of interest) a burial ground with twelve tombs (remember Jacob’s twelve sons), one of which is a pyramid tomb (an honour otherwise granted only to Pharaohs), containing the remains of a statue twice life-size depicting a Northerner (identified by pale skin, red hair and distinctive hairstyle) with a throw-stick (symbol of authority) over his shoulder and the remains of paint suggesting a striped multi-coloured coat.
  • Preparing for the famine predicted by Joseph’s dreams would require regulation of the Nile: there is a canal, which is still in use today, called “the Waterway of Joseph”, linking the Nile with the Fayum basin. Its construction is dated to the same period as the settlement described above.
  • By the end of the seven prosperous years predicted in Joseph’s dreams, the strategy adopted by Joseph meant that Pharaoh now owned everything in the nation. There is a time in Egypt’s history, during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, when power and wealth shift, without explanation, from the regional governors (known as “Nomes”) to Pharaoh. Statues of Amenemhat III depict him with worry lines, ears turned out to listen to the concerns of the people, and a generally miserable countenance. This is not how Pharaohs were normally represented. Amenemhat built his tomb next to the Waterway of Joseph.
  • The tomb of “Joseph” contains nothing but fragments of smashed statue: no bones and no coffin wood. Grave robbers don’t take bones, which are of no intrinsic value. Bones would only be removed by people treating the body with reverence – perhaps those who remembered Joseph’s instructions to his brothers to take his bones with them when they left Egypt (Genesis 50.25).
Exodus film screengrab: head of statue

Multiplication

Rohl says that the excavation we’ve been considering revealed an initial settlement of around twelve dwellings, housing about 70-100 people (Acts 7.14). Over the next three or four generations the settlement became a large city – one of the largest, according to Rohl, in the ancient world. Over time the inhabitants became quite wealthy. Dr John Bimson (formerly Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol) says there are twenty or so such sites in Goshen, many of which have not yet been fully excavated.

Slavery

According to Rohl, the excavation reveals that the population experienced prosperity but then fell into poverty and malnutrition (the latter as evidenced by Harris lines on bones in the burial pits). People were dying typically aged 32-34. Why? The obvious answer is slavery. There was a massive increase in infant burials. A normal percentage of infant burials for this period would be 25%. The dig reports indicate nearly 50% of children under 10 died in the first three months of life. Significantly more women than men reached adulthood.

More on the “pattern of evidence” in my next post.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

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