Has the Exodus Really Been Disproven?

By Lawrence H. Schiffman

That there are people who do not believe the biblical accounts of the ancient history of the Israelites is not new.  What is new in "Doubting the Story of the Exodus" (LA Times, April 13, 2001) is that doubt seems to have been turned into historical fact.  Readers were told that there is a consensus of biblical historians and archaeologists that the Exodus did not happen.  In reality, though, no such consensus actually exists. 

Many archaeologists, Bible scholars and historians continue to conclude from the evidence that the Exodus did indeed occur, among them the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks (Ha'aretz Magazine, Nov. 5, 1999).

Evidence for ancient events is very difficult to come by.  Sometimes, to be sure, indications of an eventís historicity is uncovered but more often all that can be done is to see whether the event can plausibly fit into what is presently known about the historical period.  Lack of direct evidence does not disprove an ancient event.   Nor can the existence of evidence only in later literary texts be taken as an argument against their reliability; the discovery of ancient Troy came about on the evidence of the much later writings of Homer. 

The Exodus is dated by most of those who accept its veracity to about 1250 BCE.  We know that for the previous few centuries, the period during which the Israelites are reported to have come down to Canaan from Egypt and to have become influential, there was indeed a rise in Semitic influence in Egypt, led by a group of western Semites known as the Hyksos, who were closely related to the Hebrews.  At some point, ca. 1580 BCE, the native Egyptians rebelled against these foreigners, and this development can be taken to be reflected in the Bible's description of the Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph."  As a result of this change, the Semites, including the Israelites, found themselves in the difficult position the Bible records, one which must have lasted for centuries.  From this point of view, the story of the slavery and Exodus is perfectly plausible within the framework of Egyptian and Near Eastern history.  Further, we have letters which describe the life of work gangs from Pharaonic Egypt and these seem to paint a picture very close to that of the biblical report.

The Bible describes the period immediately after the Exodus as one of extended wandering in the desert. This wandering was said to result from the fear of the Israelites that a direct route to Canaan, along the Mediterranean coast toward what is now the Gaza Strip, would be dangerous because of the Egyptian armies stationed there. This circumstance has been confirmed as historical by the discovery of the remains of extensive Egyptian influence, habitation and fortification in the Gaza region in this period, especially at Deir al-Balakh.  Again, the biblical record is confirmed.

Further support for the historicity of the Exodus comes from a stele of the Egyptian ruler Merneptah (1224-1214 BCE).  In reviewing his victories against the peoples of Canaan, he claimed, "Israel is laid waste; his seed is not."  Here  the text designated the people of Israel, not the land, as can be shown from the Egyptian linguistic usage.  Many scholars believe that this text refers to the people of Israel before they entered Canaan--that is, in the period of desert wandering.  More likely, it is a reference to Israel after they have entered Canaan, but before they established themselves as a sedentary population in the hill country in today's West Bank (Judea and Samaria).  Since this view accords with the dating of the Exodus we suggested above, it seems that in this text, the only Egyptian document to mention Israel, we have a direct reference to the Israelites in the period of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Assuming the biblical account to be unreliable, some scholars have substituted a Marxist theory of class revolution to explain the formation of ancient Israel.  According to this approach, the masses revolted against their Canaanite overlords and, after taking control, forged for themselves the new collective identity and mythology of the Israelites.  Other scholars have suggested a process of differentiation in which some Canaanites began to see themselves as a separate people, and created an identity and a sacred history from whole cloth, thus inventing the Exodus and conquest narratives.  But who would invent a history of slavery and disgrace?

Further, this theory must explain away the historical and archaeological evidence.  Numerous cities from this period show a cultural change at precisely the point when the Israelites are said by the Bible to have appeared.  Indeed, the newcomers, since they came from the desert, show a lower level of material culture than the Canaanites whom they displaced.  This situation fits well the notion of Israelite conquest and infiltration.  Second, the Israelites, throughout their history in the land, were concentrated in those areas easiest to defend against the superior arms of the Canaanites, a fact that supports the notion that they were invaders.  Third, the doubters have claimed that few cities from this period show evidence of armed destruction.  But careful consideration of the biblical narrative, with due attention to the account in Judges and the evidence that the Canaanites were never entirely displaced, eliminates this inconsistency fully.  Indeed, the archaeological record supports a reconstruction of the historical events of the conquest when both Joshua and Judges are studied together.  Finally, these scholars often claim that the Bible is the only source supporting the Exodus.  But they forget that several different accounts of the Exodus exist in the Bible, in books written at different periods, thus providing corroborative evidence for the basic scheme of events.

We may not possess, at least at present, conclusive proof that the Israelites left Egypt en masse as the Bible describes.  What we do have, though, are several indications of the Exodusí historicity, and ample evidence that the biblical account is entirely plausible.

It is a simple matter to claim that lack of clear, decisive external confirmation of the biblical account is itself a disproof, but no rational person believes that what has not been proven is false.  What can be stated with certainly, however, is that there is no consensus that the Exodus is a myth.      


Lawrence H. Schiffman is Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where he serves as Chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.  He is an internationally known scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and recently co-edited the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford, 2000).