Roger D. Isaacs
Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

Passover in Egypt: Did the Exodus really happen?

“Ruins near the Great Pyramid of Giza” by Les Anderson on Unsplash
“Ruins near the Great Pyramid of Giza” by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Exhibit 1: The Ipuwer Papyrus

The Ipuwer Papyrus
The Ipuwer Papyrus – Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Exhibit 3: Aperel’s Tomb

Image of Aperel from his tomb
Image of Aperel from his tomb. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Was there a Hebrew advisor to Egyptian kings at the time of the Exodus?

In 1987, searchers rediscovered a tomb in the Saqqara region of Egypt belonging to a man they call Aperel. They say his name is an Egyptian version of a Semitic name, likely pronounced ‘Abdiel (Servant of El). Aperel was vizier to the famous Amenhotep III (1391–1353 BCE, 18th Dynasty) and later to his son, the monotheistic king Akhenaten (1353–1336 BCE). They dated the tomb to around 1353–1335 BCE, but there is something of a mystery here.

The tomb was originally discovered by the legendary archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie in the 1880s. He copied an inscription that spells the vizier’s name Aperia. I don’t know if the 1987 team found other inscriptions with the -el ending, but -el would be the equivalent of Elohim, one of the terms for God in the Bible. The ending -ia would indicate Ya, short for YHWH or Yahweh, the other biblical name for God, generally translated “Lord.” (Think the familiar Halleluya, Hebrew for “praise the Lord.”)

It is tempting to wonder if Aperel/Aperia was indeed a Hebrew advisor to the young king Akhenaten. If so, did Aperel/Aperia influence Akhenaten’s thinking toward monotheism? In any case, it would place an advisor with a Semitic name to the kings within the range of years claimed for the Exodus just as Joseph was to an Egyptian king hundreds of years earlier. In the book of Genesis, Joseph rose from captive to be second only to the Pharaoh, and he was empowered to save Egypt from starvation during a seven-year drought. It isn’t known how Aperel/Aperia got there.

Exhibit 4: The Shiphrah Papyrus

Is the name of the Hebrew midwife in Exodus the same as that of a slave mentioned in an ancient Egyptian papyrus?

The Brooklyn Museum has a papyrus, possibly from Thebes, with a list of slaves from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (about 1740 BCE). It includes a slave named Shiphrah and others with Semitic names. In the Bible, a Hebrew woman with the same name, Shiphrah, was one of two midwives the Pharaoh commissioned to kill all the male Hebrew children at the time Moses was born (Exodus 1:15). She didn’t. Since by that time all Hebrews had been put into servitude by the Pharaoh, the midwife Shiphrah would also have been a slave. The fact that the name Shiphrah is found in both the Bible and the papyrus indicates that the name and the woman’s condition of slavery were familiar to both Israelites and Egyptians.

The Mystery Continues

Although these comparisons are enticing, they alone do not provide absolute evidence for the Exodus and the Passover. For that matter, they can’t even account for the existence of the Israelites.

As long as there is little tangible archaeological evidence and until the mystery is finally solved, we are left to rely on the venerable Passover service to connect us to our past during the holiday season. We must be content to repeat the most pertinent of the famous “Four Questions,” which the youngest at the table asks on the first night:


Join our ongoing investigation of the Hebrew Bible’s puzzling questions at TalkingWithGod.net

About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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