This question has puzzled biblical scholars, archaeologists and all those interested in solving one of the Hebrew Bible’s most intriguing mysteries. Was the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt after years of slavery history or myth? Were there 10 plagues that became so terrible that they forced the Pharaoh to finally release all the Israelite slaves? Was there a leader named Moses, and did he guide this “mixed multitude” for 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai desert?
Passover is the Jewish festival that celebrates the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt. During the Passover season it is particularly pertinent to wonder, did the Exodus really happen?
Clues and speculations abound about alleged items of evidence discovered for the Exodus, and all have their champions and detractors. It seems that every time a theory is proposed and the Exodus mystery appears to be solved, it is shot down for one reason or another.
Even so, ongoing archaeological and etymological investigations into the Exodus have produced some tantalizing items and scholarship. Presented for your consideration are Exhibits 1–4. Read and wonder…
Exhibit 1: The Ipuwer Papyrus
How could plagues described in an Egyptian papyrus be so like those found in the Bible?
In the early 1800s, a papyrus was found in Egypt called The Admonitions of Ipuwer. It is now in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands. An Egyptian named Ipuwer wrote it at the end of the Middle Kingdom, between 1991 and 1650 BCE; scribes copied it in the 19th Dynasty, in the 1200s BCE. Below are some of the similar plagues described in both the Ipuwer Papyrus and the Bible. (The biblical plagues befell the Egyptians at the time of Moses and the Exodus, which has been dated to sometime between 1570 to 1290 BCE.)
The disparity of the dates between the Ipuwer and Exodus documents is enough to convince many scholars that no relation exists between the two. Also, a prevalent theory now claims the papyrus is ahistorical. Be that as it may, the similarities are striking, and why they are remains a mystery. Could it be that the scribes who copied the document at the time of the Exodus were experiencing similar calamities to the earlier ones and were using Ipuwer’s words to warn the present-day Pharaoh?
Exhibit 2: The Israelites’ Travel Itinerary and the Egyptian Maps
Did the cities the Israelites camped in on their way to Canaan exist?
One of the most contentious problems about the Exodus investigation is the fact that there is no archeological evidence for various places mentioned in the biblical travel itinerary of the Israelites as they fled Egypt for the Promised Land, Canaan. In an article in the September/October 1994 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Charles R. Krahmalkov, then Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the University of Michigan, points out that various scholars have used this explanation to “reject the entire story” of Israel’s origins, and thus the Exodus.
Yet, Krahmalkov discusses many biblical sites that appear to be corroborated by Egyptian sources. Among them is Dibon (Numbers 33:45), a city where the Israelites’ camped on their way to invade Canaan, and Hebron (Numbers 13:22), another city targeted for invasion.
Krahmalkov concedes the lack of archaeological evidence, but he points out that the Egyptians mapped these sites, as well as many other regions mentioned in the Bible. The mapping was done in the Late Bronze Age, in the 18th and 19th Dynasties (according to his dating, 1560–1200 BCE. He dates the Exodus in the range of 1400–1200 BCE). Also included are the cities of Iyim and Abel (biblical Abel Shittim) both in Numbers 33:45–50; Yam haMelach (Numbers 34:3); and Athar (Hebrew Atharim) (Numbers 21:1). The maps survive in list form, and they are found on the temple walls of ancient Egypt. Since they are documented in the most important extra-biblical source — Egypt — the evidence is strong that these sites indeed existed at the time of the Exodus.