Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence

  • Ernest S. Frerichs, Leonard H. Lesko
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Frerichs, Ernest S. and Leonard H. Lesko eds. Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997. 112 pp. Hardback. ISBN 1-57506-025-6.

This book represents a collection of essays by six contributors who first presented these papers at Brown University in 1992. It provides a convenient collection of papers on its subject by a number of scholars from various disciplines and views. Abraham Malamat's essay, "The Exodus: Egyptian Analogies," presents a useful collection of primarily New Kingdom texts that provide examples of the sorts of things that Moses and the Israelites are described as doing at the time of the Exodus. For example, there are papyri that record movements of peoples (one being a whole tribe of Edomites) across the tightly controlled Egyptian border, there is a description of two slaves escaping Egypt, wandering into the desert, and being pursued on a similar itinerary as that found in the book of Exodus, and there are workers who are released to celebrate religious festivals and to worship their god.

Frank Yurco's "Merenptah's Canaanite Campaign and Israeli's Origins," presents a lucid discussion of the implications of mention of the name, Israel, on the famous Merneptah stele, dating from the end of the 13th century B.C. He argues that the figures portrayed on the fourth relief at the Karnak temple must be Israelites and that these Israelites were indigenous to Canaan. Yurco suggests that the original constituents of Israel could have been a mixture of Sea Peoples, Canaanites, and Shasu Bedouin. He also upholds the idea that only a few hundred or thousand Israelites participated in the exodus from Egypt and therefore it was not particularly noticeable in Egyptian history and archaeology. However, Yurco also concludes that there are bits and pieces of evidence (e.g., the capital at Ramesses, the names of Moses and others, the early death of Ramesses II's son) that could not be explained otherwise than as reflecting an authentic tradition of emigration from Egypt in the 13th century B.C.

Donald Redford's brief "Observations on the Sojourn of the Bene-Israel," argues that there is no evidene for a substantial presence of West Semites in the area that Israel inhabited during the 18th through 20 Dynasties. He implies that the eastern defenses were so strong that an Israel never could have gotten through. Thus Redford concludes that the entire story is fiction.

William Dever, "Is There Any Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus?" concurs with Redford by arguing a "No" to his question. However, the archaeological evidence of cities such as Ramesses leads Dever to speculate that perhaps the tribe of Joseph did leave Egypt in the 13th century B.C. and journey to Canaan. Nevertheless the absence of occupation in Transjordan and of destruction levels at relevant sites in Cisjordan leads Dever to conclude that there never was an exodus or a conquest.

James Weinstein's "Exodus and Archaeological Reality," argues that there is no significant evidence of Egyptian artifacts in the hill country where Israel settled. Therefore, there is no evidence that Israel was a substantial tribal entity by the time of the Merneptah stele. Therefore, there was no exodus as described in the Bible, i.e., a "major outflow of Asiatics from Egypt to Canaan at any point in the XIXth or even early XXth Dynasty."

William Ward's "Summary and Conclusions" reiterates the conclusions of Redford, Dever, and Weinstein. He argues that perhaps a single family migrated from Egypt and this formed the basis for the exodus tradition.

This is a useful presentation of a variety of views. However, there are a few observations that should be kept in mind by anyone reading this volume. First, there seems to be a tendency to define the exodus as involving a large group of hundreds of thousands. If this is not likely, then the whole exodus story can be discounted. Second, the positive observations of Malamat and Yurco seem to be lost in the conclusion. They never argue that the biblical account is fundamentally distorted, unlike Redford, Dever, and Weinstein. Yet, the position of Malamat and Yurco is not represented in Ward's conclusion; something that seems an unfair treatment of their work and essays. Third, Redford and Dever reiterate positions without answering some of the problems. Redford seems unaware of Malamat's contribution so that he can present a picture of no foreigners in the Wadi Tumilat and an impassable border, when textual evidence attests to foreigners (apiru) working on the construction of the capital of Ramesses while other texts give evidence for constant movements of people across the border and of slaves escaping from Egypt at the same time as the Bible witnesses to Israel's presence there. Dever ignores the New Kingdom itineraries that attest to Dibon and other sites in Transjordan similar to the witness of the Pentateuch. Nor does the destruction of cities and towns in Palestine require that they be burnt (Josh. 11:11-13).

On the whole, therefore, readers should read the essays for themselves and not rely upon the conclusions of another writer.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary