The Exodus from Egypt is the foundational story of the Jewish people. The image of Moses delivering his people from Pharaoh through the walls of water has become ingrained in Western consciousness. According to orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the Exodus was a real historical event that took place sometime in the fourteenth and twelfth centuries BCE, or the Late Bronze Age. During this momentous event, the descendants of Jacob left Egypt one night as a large group of slaves and escaped bondage through the Sea of Reeds by the miracles of their God Yahweh.
They recorded this story in the Torah of Moses: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” [Leviticus 26:13]
The Exodus event is the raison d’ être for the existence of the Jewish nation, and it is the most frequently cited episode in the Bible. It is celebrated every year in the synagogue through readings of the Torah and in the home of every Jewish family during the Passover Pesach meal. Academic orthodoxy also accepted it as true for centuries.
Then came the 1980s. During these years a great divide emerged in the academic literature between those who believed in the Exodus and a whole new generation of scholars who denied it ever happened. These new mavericks were radically reinterpreting history, bit by bit pushing the origin of the exodus “myth”, as they called it, to later and later generations, until some claimed it was actually written after Manetho’s Greek-period Aegyptiaca in the third century BCE.
For example, leading Egyptologist Donald Redford noted in 1992: “The Exodus was part and parcel of an array of ‘origin’ stories to which the Hebrews fell heir upon their settlement of the land, and which, lacking traditions of their own, they appropriated from the earlier culture they were copying.” In 2013, archaeologist Bill Dever said: “The Exodus-Conquest story overall is fiction—the stuff of legend.” In that same year, the important magazine Reform Judaism came out with a cover that read: “We Were Not Slaves in Egypt.”
Archaeology seemed to offer no help in confirming the Exodus. Years of surveying the Sinai desert by Israeli archaeologists did not yield any vast encampments the Israelites may have used, and no royal pronouncements from Egypt describing Moses have ever been found. This paucity of data only seemed to reinforce the opinion that the Exodus was all just “made up”. Most scholars today imagine the Exodus as an aetiological myth of the Israelites, designed to explain their origins, and written relatively late by people who did not understand their own history. Fortunately, this orthodox position is slowly crumbling. Several scholars have insisted on a historical core of an Exodus tradition in the late second millennium BCE. They have resisted the claims of the skeptics, fought back against the “myth” label, and are now working to provide new archaeological and text evidence for an Exodus out of Egypt during the time of Ramesses II in the nineteenth dynasty.
Slaves in Egypt
Readers of Atlantis Rising will already be familiar with earlier attempts at placing the event back into Egyptian history: Emmett Sweeney in the Old Kingdom (A.R. #105), Tim Mahoney in the Middle Kingdom (Patters of Evidence, 2014, A.R. #123), and Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron during the time of the Hyksos invaders (The Exodus Decoded, 2006). Over the years, there have been dozens of proposed dates for the Exodus, but the bulk of evidence so far points to a time in the New Kingdom, specifically the Ramesside period. This is the position seen in DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1956) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
The most outspoken defender of an Exodus event during this time period has been Egyptologist James Hoffmeier. Following in the footsteps of archaeologists W.F. Albright, George E. Wright, and John Bright, he offers abundant evidence that almost nothing described in the Bible is outside historical norms of the nineteenth dynasty, except the large numbers of people involved (over 600,000 men), which can be shown through source criticism to be a later exaggeration. In fact, many features mentioned in the Bible could only have occurred during this time period and not later. For example, the “Victory Stela” of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, records the oldest inscription of the name “Israel” in Egypt, suggesting the Exodus must have occurred before the stela’s 1205 BCE date.
There is abundant evidence that the ancient Egyptians utilized foreigners as slaves for manual labor, mud-brick making in particular, as explained in the Bible: “So the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites, and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labour in brick and mortar…” [Exodus 1:12-14] The best evidence for this brick making comes from the mortuary chapel of the vizier Rekmi-Ra in Thebes. He was a vizier under Thutmose III (~1430 BCE) and his chapel contains a scene showing the making of mud bricks by Asiatic slaves (“The captives that His Majesty has brought back to work in the temple of Amun”) at Karnak, exactly as depicted in the Bible.
Hoffmeier notes there are many words and phrases in the Bible that point to Egypt. For example, Exodus 2:3 has six Hebrew words based on Egyptian words: “basket,” “papyrus,” “pitch,” “reeds,” “Nile,” and “river bank.” Yahweh is described in the oldest part of the Torah, the Exodus-themed “Song of the Sea” [Exodus 15], as having both a “strong/mighty hand” (Yad hazaqah—from the Egyptian phrase hps = “strong arm”) and an “outstretched/powerful arm” (Zeroa netuya—from the Egyptian phrase pr-a = “the arm is extended”). We can see both ancient phrases many times in the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 26:8: “And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.”
Pi-Ramesses and Exodus Geography
We now turn to the most important site of the Exodus, the site of Pi-Ramesses (“House of Ramesses”). This was the site of the Israelite internment as slaves: “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Ramesses as store cities for Pharaoh.” (Exodus 1:11) It was also the city of their departure on the Exodus: “The Israelites set out from Ramesses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover.” (Numbers 33:3) This name is mentioned five times in the Torah and strongly connects the Exodus to the city of Ramesses II.
The city was known from Egyptian writings long before the actual city was found. The French archaeologist Pierre Montet believed he found the site when in 1929 he discovered a city in the Delta region full of monumental stonework with the name of Ramesses II. This later turned out to be the Egyptian capital of Tanis, not Pi-Ramesses, which was eventually found by Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak in 1966. When Bietak looked closely at the density of the pottery along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, he found a concentration at the modern village of Qantir. This suggested the presence of a large city from the time of Ramesses and earlier that was larger than anything along that branch of the Nile. Now, after three decades of archaeological digging and mapping, remains have been found that suggest a massive city and military garrison with many statues and temple areas, including a horse stable for hundreds of horses. The academic world is now confident that the site of Pi-Ramesses has been located—at Qantir in the eastern Nile Delta.
This city is estimated to have been over two square kilometers, or 250 hectares, in area and is currently the focus of the largest EM ground scanning and radar scanning study of its kind in the world, revealing a hidden city just below the farm fields and roads. They have found temples and palaces and administrative centers and abundant inscriptional evidence. They have also found 460 slots for horses, over 500 tethering stones and even horse toilets. They have recovered a complete set of bronze horse bits, the only set ever found in Egypt, as well as chariot pieces exactly like the ones recovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, including decorated knobs. This concurs with the Bible’s description of Pharaoh and his nearby chariots pursuing the fleeing Israelites.
East of Pi-Ramesses, archaeologists have discovered many of the place names in the Bible that were only used in Egypt from 1400-1150 BCE. The chain of military forts that guarded Egypt along the Mediterranean coast from the Delta to Canaan was called the “Way of Horus” and is well documented, including in the famous inscription of Seti I at Karnak. In Exodus 13:17-18, Yahweh tells the Israelites that they are not to go this coastal route. These military forts fell into disuse by 1200-1100 BCE, which suggests the Exodus occurred while these forts were still active and posed a threat. Hoffmeier has spent the last two decades finding and excavating several of these ancient forts, one of which had walls 34 ft. thick!
Further place names from the Ramesside Period include: Pi-Atum (i.e. Pithom—“House of Atum,” mentioned in Papyrus Anastasi VI and modern Tell el-Retebeh), (Pa-)Tjuf (Reed Sea—Yam Suph), Pi-Ha-Hiroth, and Migdol. Pi-Atum in particular is important because it did exist during this time period and is referred to explicitly in Exodus 1:11 along with Ramesses as a city in which the Hebrew slaves worked. Pi-Ha-Hiroth has been linked to a Semitic word meaning “canal” and may refer to the Eastern Boundary Canal mentioned by the Pharaohs, built centuries earlier as a barrier against invaders. Migdol means, “tower” in Hebrew, and is recognized as an Egyptian loan word.
There has been much recent work in the geosciences in trying to reconstruct what the eastern Nile Delta region looked like during the New Kingdom time of Ramesses II. Led by geologist Stephen Moshier and Hoffmeier, this approach uses stratigraphy, palynology, Corona satellite imagery, magnetometry, and core sampling to reconstruct how the ancient Nile Delta looked three thousand years ago. There are still marshy wetlands in the area around Ballah and Timsah lakes, although they have all receded due to the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. In the Late Bronze Age, there would have been substantially larger wetland-reedy areas.
In particular was the Yam Suph, or “Reed Sea” (not the “Red” Sea, which would have been Yam Edam in Hebrew). This large, marshy area was near modern Lake Ballah and is referred to in multiple Egyptian sources, such as Papyrus Anastasi III. Now virtually dried up, Moshier and Hoffmeier found a surprising 6-m drop over 320m. Therefore, the ancient Yam Suph of the Exodus would have appeared as a reedy, marshy lake that was anywhere from zero to eighteen feet deep in spots, with seasonally variable, tidally-affected water levels. This crossing point into the Eastern Desert was risky—being surrounded by the forts of Tjarw (Tell el-Borg) and Migdol to the northeast, the canals of Pi-Ha-Hiroth to the southeast, and the army of Pharaoh pursuing them from the west—risky, but not impossible, to cross.
Parting of the Sea and Egyptian Magic
The parting of the sea has been discussed in the pages of Atlantis Rising. In #110, two new theories were mentioned to account for the strange hydrodynamic phenomenon. Dr. Bruce Parker suggested natural tides behind the event, noting Napoleon’s near drowning at the Gulf of Suez in 1798 due to tides. Meanwhile, Carl Drews has suggested a “wind set-down” in which the heavy east winds described in the Bible actually produced a storm surge in Lake Tanis, and when the winds died, the waters rushed back to equalize. However, it seems more likely that this “miraculous” event of the water being divided was based on much older Egyptian tales of exactly the same miracles.
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. So the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22) Finally, after the group has passed over the dry land: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians.” (Exodus 14:26)
Compare this to a story from the famous Westcar Papyrus story of a jewel lost in a lake, written around 1600-1500 BCE but likely composed earlier: “The chief lector priest (of Pharaoh Sneferu), Djedjemankh, recited words of magic (hekau). Thereupon there was lifted up all the water from the lake from one side to the other, and the jewel was found lying in a potsherd…Now the water was twelve cubits deep and twenty-four on the other side of the lake. Then he uttered words of magic (hekau) and brought the waters of the lake back to their proper place.”
Magic in Egypt was performed by Pharaoh and the lector priests, who wrote and performed “words of magic” (“hekau”) using scrolls and wands/staffs. These are called the hartummin in Exodus—the magicians who battle with Moses in Pharaoh’s court. Moses is associated in the Bible and other ancient texts as both a great author, writing the law code and travel exploits of the Israelites on scrolls, and also as a great magician—all Egyptian attributes. This demonstrates that the author of Exodus, likely Moses himself, was intimately familiar with these tales of magic from the Egyptian annals, and was influenced by them when recording their real escape through the Sea of Reeds, exactly how Ramesses II referred to his god Amun helping him in his real battle against the Hittites.
As Hoffmeier points out: “The storyline of the Exodus, of a people fleeing from a humiliating slavery, suggests elements that are historically credible. Normally, it is only tales of glory and victory that are preserved in narratives from one generation to the next. A history of being slaves is likely to bear elements of truth.” All the evidence speaks to an authentic Exodus from Egypt, and I believe the Biblical narrative accurately describes a real physical migration in the Late Bronze Age by Hebrew slaves. It is still celebrated every year at Passover, at every Bar Mitvah, and in daily Jewish prayers. Its themes of liberation and deliverance from oppression are universal and have been embraced by divergent people throughout history. It was the founding act of the Jewish culture, spawned three world religions, and was critical to the development of the Western world in a way few other singular events can match.
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.