On the morning of Sunday, April 8, 2001, a man stood before a reported audience of 2,200 people and declared that the Exodus most likely never happened.
Citing “virtually every modern archaeologist,” the man declared “that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.” He added that archaeologists have “found no trace of the tribes of Israel — not one shard of pottery” — in Egypt or the Sinai to support the narrative.
The claim was neither new nor original, yet the man’s words that day made headlines around the world. That was because the man who spoke those words was David Wolpe, a nationally prominent Conservative rabbi, and he spoke them as part of his sermon on that day — the first morning of Pesach, Passover, the festival of freedom celebrating that very Exodus.
Wolpe’s point was that the authenticity of the narrative was irrelevant. What mattered were the messages of that story — messages of freedom for all, equality for all, justice for all, and fealty to the God whose messages those are.
Wolpe was not wrong in saying the Exodus saga did not occur the way the Torah reports it, but he was wrong in adding, “if it happened at all,” and in declaring that there is no archaeological evidence to support it.
This is a song that never stops playing. In my column last November 17, for example, I quoted from an article that had just appeared in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. It said that despite “cutting-edge dating and molecular technologies, archaeologists increasingly agree…that generally, the Bible does not reflect historical truths.” This, I wrote, was especially true regarding the Exodus. Said the Haaretz article, “There is, in fact, no evidence to substantiate [the narratives in the Book of] Exodus.”
In fact, there is “evidence to substantiate” the basic outlines of the Exodus narratives. The problem, as I noted in the November column, is that the Torah is not a history book in the ordinary sense. It was, is, and always will be a book of “sacred history,” reporting on events as seen through a God-centered lens.
For example, a computer modeling study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder “shows how the movement of wind as described in the Book of Exodus could have parted the waters” of the Red Sea. A historian viewing this at the time would merely report that an extraordinarily heavy east wind from Gaza parted a section of the Red Sea. As it happens, a large group of escaped slaves were at the site and used the phenomenon to complete their escape.
The sacred historian did report on the event, but in his version, God sent the east wind to part the sea just when the Israelites needed Him to do so. That is the difference between history and sacred history.
One of the objections raised by archaeologists is that the Exodus narratives were written so many centuries after the events they claim to recount that they are totally useless in providing supportive evidence.
Biblical scholars say such thinking is simply wrong.
In his 2017 book “The Exodus,” Dr. Richard Elliott Friedman cites evidence amassed by Rutgers’ Dr. Gary Rendsburg. He “collected a series of known items of Egyptian lore that appear in the story of the exodus,” Friedman wrote, and “noted that the story in Exodus 1-15 ‘repeatedly shows familiarity with Egyptian traditions….In sum, the narrative that encompasses Exodus 1-15 evokes the Egyptian setting at every turn.’”
This led Rendsburg to challenge two prominent archaeologists at a conference in San Diego some years ago. As Friedman reports it, “He noted that the Bible [Amos 9:7] says, ‘Didn’t I bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor?’ The archaeologists agreed that the Bible was right about this…. So, Rendsburg asked, if the Israelites could remember the history of the Philistines 400 years back, why should we think that they could not remember their own history that far back?!”
Neither archaeologist was able to answer Rendsburg adequately.
A similar notion came from an Egyptian-born, University of Toronto-trained archaeologist who also happens to be a biblical scholar — Prof. James K. Hoffmeier. “It would be inexplicable,” he wrote some years ago, “for the prophet (and his audience) to know the origins of the Philistines and Arameans, but be wrong about Israel’s origin.”
Friedman also cites some startling discoveries made by other biblical scholars. For example, Dr. Michael Homan of Xavier University demonstrated how the structure of the wilderness tabernacle, the Mishkan, is a perfect match for the structure of the war camp of Ramses II. Both were enclosed rectangular structures, with their entrances on the east side. Both had a tent located toward the west end. Within Ramses’ tent was a second, more private, area that served as his throne room, where he held conversations with his officers and other officials. Within the Mishkan’s tent was a second, more private, area — the Holy of Holies, where, said God to Moses, “I will meet with you, and I will impart to you…all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (See Exodus 25:22.)
University of Washington’s Dr. Scott Noegel, meanwhile, “showed parallels between the…Ark of the Covenant and Egyptian barks,” Friedman wrote. These barks “were sacred ritual objects” and so “were rarely set in water.” Some were “gold-plated, many were decorated with winged cherubs or birds, they were carried on poles by priests, and they served as a throne and footstool,” which was the role played by the Ark in the Holy of Holies according to Exodus 25:22, 1 Chronicles 28:2, and several psalms. “Noegel concluded that ‘the ark served as a model, which the Israelites adapted for their own needs.’”
As for the claim that nothing archaeological ever has been found in Egypt or Sinai to corroborate the Exodus narrative, that claim should have flown out the window in the mid-1980s. I commend readers to explore the work of Dr. Emmanuel Anati, an Italian archaeologist who has spent several decades excavating a single site in the Sinai — Har Karkom, which he identifies as “the Mountain of God.” His very convincing 1986 book of that name is updated with each new find (and they are plentiful). Anati’s incredible work is detailed at www.harkarkom.com.
Chag sameach v’kasher.