From  the  book  by  the  same  name

The Exodus  ----  The First Passover Plot?

An Egyptian record of the exodus from Egypt is hardly to be expected.... [Nevertheless] the tradition is so vital an element in Israelite history as to make a denial of the event all but incredible. 1

—Alan R. Millard

As these words are being written it is again Passover in the land. Throughout the world, Jews (and many Christians, see 1 Corinthians 5:7-8) are celebrating the redemption of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt. 


In a ceremony that the Jewish community has celebrated in unbroken succession for almost 3,500 years, the Passover commemorates the signal event that began the Jewish nation-—the Exodus. It is curious, then, that even as the Seder (the traditional meal) is set and the Hagaddah (the retelling of the scriptural story) is read, there are many Jewish and Christian scholars who believe the Exodus never happened! For example, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, has contended that the Exodus was "created by priest scribes in Jerusalem" who used "a series of old legends and distorted memories which had no relationship to history." O1d Testament scholars N.P. Lemche and G.W. Ahlstrom consider the Exodus "fiction" 3 and "concerned with mythology rather than with a reporting of historical facts." 4 Years ago the Jewish scholar Hugh Schonfield wrote a book called The Passover Plot, in which he erroneously concluded that Jesus had staged His death and resurrection. But if the views of these scholars concerning the Exodus are correct, then it was the first Passover Plot!

Archaeology Explains a Difficult Text

The biblical narrative of the ten plagues is one of the most memorable and fundamental parts of the Exodus story. Who does not remember the river that turned to blood, the swarms of locusts, or my personal favorite as a kid—the piles of frogs! Is this just a superstitious tale or was there an accurate historical setting for these unusual plagues? Looking through archaeological lenses at the religion of Egypt we can understand the plagues as a divine polemic (attack) against the manifold gods of the Egyptians (the tomb of Seti I, pictured at least 74). Associations between the individual plagues and specific gods whose control of the elements were disrupted or destroyed by the plagues can be made based on our information about these deities from the archaeological records.5 However, there is one incident recorded in the Bible that runs through the whole of the plague narrative-— the account of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Regardless of whether one argues that God or Pharaoh first hardened his heart, the reason for the act has often eluded biblical commentators. Yet, if we understand that this was also a polemical act, as the plagues that attend it, then we can look into the Egyptian archaeological record for clues as to its possible meaning.

The Egyptian Background

The Egyptian View of Pharaoh's Power

What we find is that the Pharaoh was considered to be an incarnation of the Sun god Ra and Horus-Osiris, the most important gods in Egypt.6 Thus, he was viewed as the primary god of the world.7 The Pharaoh's word was seen as a "creative force," the word of a god, which controlled history as well as the natural elements and could not be reversed or overruled by any other will. Therefore, by making the will of Pharaoh bow to the Divine Will, God demonstrated His sovereign power over the one who embodied the power of the Egyptian pantheon in the theology of Egypt.

The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

25. Egyptian Book of the Dead mural on papyrus, entitled "The Weighing of the Heart."

Egyptian discoveries provide us with a fascinating explanation as to why God may have chosen to "harden" Pharaoh's heart. In the theology of the ancient Egyptian death cult, as described in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," after death the properly embalmed and entombed deceased had to go through a trial in the Hall of Judgment to determine his guilt or innocence. If judged guilty his fate was destruction; if innocent, then eternal life with its rewards. In order to pass through this judgment, the dead had to deny a long list of sins that were read against him and successfully declare that he was pure. This act was called the "Negative Confession,"8 and while it was being conducted the deceased's heart (depicted in a canopic jar) was being weighed in the scales of judgment against the standard of truth (represented by the hieroglyphic symbol of a feather). This judgment is vividly depicted in a mural painting known as "the weighing of the heart." Against the testimony of the deceased, his heart would confess the truth, showing his Negative Confession to be a lie. The heart, therefore, would tip the scales in favor of judgment and result in his destruction. 

Since all men sin and the natural inclination of the heart is to confess such sin, the ingenious Egyptians devised a means to keep the heart from contradicting the Negative Confession. They did this by writing magical incantations on a stone image of their sacred dung beetle, called a scarab, that was carved in the shape of a heart.9 This stoneheart scarab was then placed in or on the chest cavity during mummification (a fact revealed by x-rays of Egyptian mummies).10 Various incantations which ordered the heart "not to rebel against me" or "not witness against me" transferred the stony character of the scarab to the fleshly heart in the afterlife, making it "hard" and unable to speak.11 This act of ritual "hardening of the heart" reversed the natural function of the un-hard-ened heart and resulted in salvation since the deceased was now decreed sinless through silence.12

However, when God "hardened" Pharaoh's heart, who as a god himself represented the salvation of Egypt, He reversed the theological hope of all Egyptians. This hardening resulted in Pharaoh's inability to naturally respond to the fearsome plagues, and therefore stop them, by surrendering to Moses' request. Therefore, instead of the "hardening the heart" bringing salvation, it brought destruction.13 Thus, archaeology has provided new insight into a difficult theological concept by giving us the proper background and setting of the Egyptian beliefs God through Moses wished to counter. In addition, in revealing the accuracy of the details in the biblical account it implies its historicity. Yet, finding historical backgrounds to the Exodus narrative does not necessarily mean that it reflects actual history. Therefore we must now turn to the difficult question of the historicity of the Exodus.

The Historicity of the Exodus

Establishing the historicity of the Exodus is one of the major problems remaining to biblical scholars. The biblical narrative of the Exodus has been notoriously difficult to confirm with archaeological evidence, thus causing serious doubt to be cast on the authenticity of the event.

One hindrance to accepting the Exodus as an actual event has been scholars' inability to reconcile the Exodus events to both a biblical and archaeological chronology. An early date in the fifteenth century B.C. (1446-1441 B.C.) for the Exodus is in greater harmony with the internal chronology of the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 6:1).14

The classic chronological study by Edwin Thiele 15 fixed an early date of 1447 B.C. for the Exodus.16 According to this dating the pharaoh of the Oppression was either Thutmose I or Thut-mose III and the pharaoh of the Exodus was Thutmose II or Amenhotep II. The ancient biography of an Egyptian naval officer named Amenemhab, who served under several pharaohs of this period, tells us that Thutmose III died at the time of the Passover in early March of 1447 or 1446 B.C.17 Thus, his death occurred at exactly the right time to fit the biblical chronology and events of the Exodus. However, William Shea has recently argued in an unpublished paper18 that Thutmose I and a recently installed co-regent son-—a preliminary Thutmose II—died together in pursuit of the Israelite slaves (as perhaps implied in Exodus 15:4,19). He believes that their bodies were not recovered (hence the mummies ascribed to them in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are misidentified). He bases his argument on new photographs by Oral Collins of the Wadi Nasb Sinaitic inscriptions, first discovered by Professor Gerster many decades ago, which purport to record the name of Thutmose I and depict images of both him and his son and events connected with the Exodus. The problem for the early date is that despite its harmonization of biblical and extrabiblical sources, it lacks sufficient support in the archaeological record. A later date in the thirteenth century B.C. (1280-1200 B.C.) appears to offer more archaeological support (see Exodus l:ll),19 but has significant chronological problems and cannot accommodate the events of the Conquest.

According to this date, the pharaoh of both the Oppression and the Exodus was Ramses II and his successor was Mer-neptah. The lack of consensus has generated other options which often require the revision of Egyptian chronology20 or which take the biblical chronology as a rough estimate rather than a precise indicator.21 This later revision moves the date back to 1470 B.C. Faulstich has arrived at incredibly precise dates for all of the Exodus events from his computerized correlations of known astronomical dating data, biblical information concerning astronomical events (star risings, moon phases, and eclipses), the Hebrew weekly day cycles, and specific dates given in the Bible.22 Although no consensus has yet been reached, the continued search for archaeological evidence of the Exodus underscores the great importance of this event for students of the Bible.

The Importance of the Exodus

The importance of the Exodus has been emphasized by Eugene Merrill, professor of Old Testament at Dallas Seminary, who has called it "the most significant event in all of the Old Testament."23 The Exodus is not simply one isolated event among many in the history of the Jewish people; it was the pivotal event upon which God's plan turns and both the Old and New Testaments are linked together. Professor John Durham explains:

Both within the Book of Exodus and beyond it, the Exodus deliverance is depicted as the act by which Israel was brought into being as a people and thus as the beginning point in Israel's history.... with the Exodus, he [God] revealed his presence to a whole people and called them to nationhood and a special role by relating himself to them in covenant. This special role becomes a kind of lens through which Israel is viewed throughout the rest of the Bible... one that shapes much of the theology of the OT [Old Testament]. It is this special role, indeed, that weaves the Book of Exodus so completely into the canonical fabric begun with Genesis and ended only with Revelation.24

The Exodus ties together the testaments in such a way that to deny it ever happened would unravel the theological threads of both Judaism and Christianity. Thus it is natural that we should seek the Exodus somewhere in the archaeological record. But where do we look, and what should we expect to find? Let's answer this last question first.

Should We Expect to Find the Exodus?

Should we expect to find any archaeological evidence for the Exodus? Like the Patriarchs before them, the Israelites lived a nomadic lifestyle during the Exodus. The demands of living in the Sinai desert required that nothing be discarded, that every item be used to its fullest capacity-—and then recycled. Even the bones of a finished meal would be completely reused in various industrial applications. The temporary tent encampments of the Israelites would have left no traces, especially in the ever-shifting sands of the desert. There may be traces of rock graffiti in the Sinai25 that suggest the Israelites' presence in this region, but for the most part, because of the desert conditions, the Israelites would have become "archaeologically invisible."

But what about the possibility of Egyptian records that confirm the occurrence of the Exodus plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea? It is possible that some such evidence may yet appear, but we should not expect the proudly religious Egyptians to openly document disasters that defamed their gods and memorialized their army's defeat at the hands of vagabond slaves. As Charles Aling notes:

The peoples of the ancient Near East kept historical records to impress their gods and also potential enemies, and therefore rarely, if ever, mentioned defeats or catastrophes. Records of disasters would not enhance the reputation of the Egyptians in the eyes of their gods, nor make their enemies more afraid of their military might.26

This means that it is unlikely that we will find a record of the plagues, the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, or Israelite footprints in the sands of the Sinai desert. If we cannot expect to find traces of an Exodus in these places, where can we look?

The Evidence for the Exodus

Historical Considerations

One way we can make a case for the occurrence of the Exodus is from what may be called "contextual plausibility." That is, even though we may not have direct historical evidence for any of the persons or events connected with the Exodus, or even be able to agree on specific dates, the general outline as presented in the biblical account is true to the times. Therefore the Exodus is far more likely to have occurred than not. The most plausible case at present has been made on the basis of the Egyptian evidence.27 For instance, we can show that the details of Egyptian court life and certain peculiarities in the Hebrew language used to describe such activities indicate that the writer had firsthand knowledge of that particular Egyptian setting.28 We have evidence that foreigners from Canaan entered Egypt,29 lived there,30 were sometimes considered troublemakers,31 and that Egypt oppressed and enslaved a vast foreign workforce icing several dynasties.32 We also have records that slaves escaped,33 and that Egypt suffered from plague-like conditions.34 We can provide a computer model of a scientific mechanism for the parting of the waters at the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea.35 We can prove the presence of people like the Israelites in the Sinai peninsula, at Kadesh-barnea, and at other places mentioned in the books of the Bible that record this history.36 We can demonstrate from a comparison with ancient Near Eastern law codes that pre-dated the giving of the Law at Sinai that its form and structure fit the then-established standard for such texts.37 Finally, we can provide archaeological data to support several dates for the Conquest and settlement periods, which followed the Exodus. This data comes from sites such as Jericho, Megiddo, and Hazor.38

Archaeological Considerations

At the commencement of the Exodus, when the Israelites left Egypt, the most sensible and direct route would have been to travel north along the present-day Gaza Strip in a direction that would take them to Canaan. However, the biblical account tells us that God forbade this route along the Mediterranean coastal plain. The biblical account reads:

Now it came about when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, "Lest the people change their minds when they see war, and they return to Egypt""(Exodus 13:17).

Thus, the Israelites ended up taking a much longer southern route that went deeper into the Sinai. Not until the last decade did anyone know why God kept them away from the easier, northern route. The cryptic reference to "war" in Exodus 13:17 was debatable because no one knew what people would have been at odds with the Israelites. The answer was discovered by Israeli archaeologist Trade Dofhan, who specializes in the early period of the Philistine occupation of Canaan. At the site of Deir el-Balah along the ancient route called the "Ways of Horus," she uncovered the evidence that finally solved this Exodus riddle.39 When I visited with her recently at the Hebrew Univer-

26. Archaeologist Trude Dothan, who discovered an explanation for the Exodus route, with anthropoid coffins from Deir el-Balah.

sity's Institute of Archaeology, I asked her to recount this discovery and explain its significance:

I came to the site of Deir el-Balah in the Gaza Strip in search of the Philistines. What I found was a very fascinating and exciting Egyptian outpost from the period of the Exodus, the period in Egypt of Ramses II, who is considered to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The story of the site is intriguing, piecing together information from [grave] robbers and then from our professional archaeological dig. What the results are is that we found on the route from Egypt to Canaan an outpost which had been built [in the fourteenth century B.C.] as well as a fortress from the period of Seti I [and that of  his son] Ramses II. Adjacent to the settlement itself was a cemetery full of large anthropoid (human shaped) coffins which are definitely in Egyptian style. Because I previously worked on the customs of the Philistines at Beth-Shean, a very important site in Israel and well-known from the Bible, I knew about coffin burials like these. [So I] tried to identify five of these coffins with special head gear with portraits of the Philistines known from the Egyptian reliefs in the period of Ramses III.

The importance of this site is its geographical location on the route from Egypt to Canaan a military route of the Egyptians going up to Canaan "When we found the fortress [dated to] the end of the thirteenth century, the idea came up that this was really one of many fortresses dotting the way from Canaan to Gaza. [Thus] the area was very well fortified, which is why the Israelites did not want to go on the short way to Canaan but chose the long way to the Sinai, because they were afraid of the Egyptians and the fortification that was on the short road.

We now know in light of the Deir el-Balah excavations that "the Way of the Philistines" mentioned in the Bible is also "the Way of Horus," mentioned in reliefs at the Egyptian temple at Karnak. This relief also depicted some of the Egyptian fortresses along this route including the one Trade Dothan discovered. So, from this remarkable correlation between the Bible and two archaeological sites, we can conclude that the Israelites were warned to avoid this route because they would have ran into this line of northern defensive garrisons manned by Egyptian solders. The soldiers stationed there would have been prepared to fight to recapture and return to Egypt such runaway slaves. Because the just-released Israelites were untrained in battle, the desert wilderness was the safer option.

Considerations from Satellite Imagery

According to satellite image analyst George Stephen, the route of the Exodus can still be seen today through the use of infrared technology.40 The satellites that employ this technology for purposes such as intelligence gathering and mineral exploration can also isolate trails in the desert sands even though they are thousands of years old. They do this by capturing heat patterns left in the earth. Such satellites have enabled archaeologists to recover information about ancient caravan routes, uncover traces of long-dried and buried riverbeds, and find lost cities beneath the sands. Stephens studied French SPOT satellite imagery of Egypt, the Gulf of Suez, Gulf of Aqaba, and portions of Saudi Arabia at a 530-mile altitude. He claims that he was able to see evidence of ancient tracks made by "a massive number of people" leading from the Nile Delta straight south along the east bank of the Gulf of Suez and around the tip of the Sinai peninsula. In addition, he says that he observed traces of "very large campsites" along the trail.

Of course it is not possible to determine whether these tracks were made by the Israelites themselves or by other caravaners down through the millennia. But it does demonstrate that large numbers of people could be sustained in the same region and on the same route as that taken by the Israelites in the Exodus.

Future Research

Clues from Volcanic Debris

With so many questions about the events of the Exodus still unanswered, it is certain that new proposals and archaeological projects will be forthcoming in the future. One recent project is a unique investigation of the site Tell el-Dab'a. This site in the eastern Nile Delta area has been identified with the biblical land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived prior to the Exodus.41 An ongoing excavation has been conducted for years by the Smithsonian under the direction of Manfred Bietak. The new project has begun searching the site specifically for evidence of tephra (volcanic debris) deposits left by the eruptions of a volcano on the Mediterranean island of Santorini (Thera) during the Bronze Age.42 According to the theory, this cataclysmic explosion, which left ash deposits in at least nine Aegean archaeological sites, may have also brought the plagues to the Egyptians, especially the plague of the "darkness that can be felt" (volcanic ash?—Exodus 10:21-23), and divided the waters at the sea crossing.

If these events can indeed be attributed to the Santorini eruption, then the Exodus could be established in Egyptian history and securely located within an Egyptian chronology (through linkage with an established Aegean chronology for the event) if the debate now raging over the date of the eruption itself can be resolved.43 News from the field is that pumice from the eruption has now been found at Tell el-Dab'a in a level which can be securely dated to the early eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty, or about 1525 B.C. This offers both an answer to the eruption date controversy and perhaps a connection with the Exodus itself (which the biblical chronology indicates at around 1447/6 B.C.).

Clues from Grain Seeds

Following the same theory that geological evidence from the Santorini volcanic eruption can be used to date Exodus events, archaeologists Hendrik J. Bruins and Johannes van der Plicht have offered new evidence that they believe confirms the Exodus story.44 The two compared new radiocarbon dates of cereal grains found among debris in the destruction of Jericho with their date of 1628 B.C. for the Santorini eruption (which was based on counting tree rings). Based on their findings, they concluded that the Santorini disaster predated the Jericho destruction by 45 years, a time span which they believe would fit the events of the Exodus and the 40-year wilderness wandering of the Israelites. This would make their date for the Jericho destruction at 1583 B.C. and the Exodus around 1543 B.C., much too early for even the traditional early date (at 1400 B.C.).

Bryant Wood, the director of the Associates for Biblical Research, defends an early date and takes exception with Bruins and van der Plicht's method of calibrating their dates:

Not only my research at Jericho, but that of other scholars demonstrates that there is a gap of a century and a half or so between C-14 dates and historically determined dates in the second millennium B.C. Currently there is a fierce scholarly debate going on concerning the date of the eruption of Thera. This is an extremely important date, because the eruption provides a benchmark in the histories of most Mediterranean cultures. Evidence for it has been found at a number of archaeological sites. Those who work from C-14 dates are convinced that it took place in ca. 1628 B.C., while those who work from archaeological dates are convinced that it took place around 1525 B.C. My work at Jericho provides another example of the discrepancy that exists between C-14 and historical dates in the second millennium b.c. It is evident that one of these methods is wrong, but which one?

Advocates of each, of course, claim the other is wrong. Historical dates are ultimately tied to astronomical observations recorded in antiquity. Presumably, astronomers can calculate backwards very accurately due to the precise movement of the universe. Proponents of C-14 dating, on the other hand, say that their corrected values are very precise because they are based on the counting of tree rings, year-by-year, back to 6,000 b.c. (dendrochronology). The Biblical date of 1400 B.C. is based on Assyrian chronology for the kingdom period, known very well from astronomical observations and Biblical data (480 years from the fourth year of Solomon to the Exodus, 1 Kings 6:1, and the 40 years in the wilderness). My dating of the destruction of Jericho is based on pottery, which is tied to eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian chronology, which is again tied to astronomical observations.

What about the possible connection between the eruption of Thera and the plague of darkness? In order for there to be a connection, the date of the event would have to be reduced to about 1450 B.C. before it could be correlated with biblical history.45

If the evidence of the Santorini eruption at Tell el-Dab'a confirms a 1525 B.C. date for the eruption, then the C-14 date must be adjusted. Even so, the research now in progress may eventually help resolve the unanswered questions that are still before us.

What Does the Evidence Prove?

Our survey of the Exodus question has attempted to present what can be known (at present) from the archaeological and historical record. What does our present data prove? Admittedly, direct archaeological evidence for the Exodus is still wanting. However, this lack of historical data does not mean that the Exodus didn't happen. Conclusive proof may yet appear in a future excavation but we do not need to wait for this in order to accept the historicity of the Exodus. Our case can be made from a comparison of the biblical context with what is already known from history and archaeology-—-a case that offers sufficient substance to resolve doubts over the reality of the event and makes probable greater archaeological confirmation in days to come. Therefore, those who celebrate the Passover this season—and every season to come-—can do so with the assurance that its promise is not based on a plot, but on the proven performance of a God who has really redeemed!