The Exodus: Did it Really Happen? The Musings of an Egyptologist (Part 2)
May 18, 2021
“There’s no straightforward archaeological evidence” for the Exodus account, says Egyptologist Bob Brier in his Great Courses lecture series, and from that one might conclude that he will trash it. But he doesn’t. There is internal evidence for it and the internal evidence holds up, he says.
Brier’s not concerned that the external evidence is not there. The Egyptians kept only records of their victories, never their defeats, and the Exodus would for sure have been a defeat for them. “If you read all the battle accounts of all the pharaohs, they won every one. Some of them they just kept winning closer to home, as they retreated.”
He also is not concerned because, even if there had been such records, they would never have survived in damp delta area where all the Hebrew action takes place. Chimes in Thomas Mudloff, another researcher: “Indeed, archaeologically we have virtually nothing of this nature from the Delta. The fact is that the entire area is simply too wet for material of this sort [papyrus] to survive. Anyone familiar with the problems of excavation in the Delta will immediately understand. The ancient ground level is now some twenty feet or more below the modern surface and the water table is so high in the area that most current excavations must employ the constant use of pumps to keep the diggings dry.”
Mudloff also builds upon Brier’s first point—that the Egyptians kept no record of defeats, only victories. In the attempt to account for that, the reason that immediately springs to mind is that of pride. Victors write history down to this day, and whenever they think they can get away with it, they are equally inclined to hide whatever embarrasses them. But there is another factor: that of the Egyptian religious belief that “once anything is written down or spoken it may have the ability to be perpetuated and perhaps repeated, something that is part of the nature of Egyptian religious beliefs. We see examples in the Egyptian’s desire to have their names spoken after death in order to maintain their existence in the afterlife, and so the idea that writing an event down will also make it possible for the event to continue, perhaps recurring at some future point. Surely so catastrophic an event as so many slaves being let go at once would not be something the Egyptians would wish to commemorate.”
Besides, Brier doesn’t think the birth of the Jewish nation would be all that important to anyone else. “Do you think the Hittite king cares about what’s happening in upper Egypt?… Nobody cared.” He compares it to the early stirrings of the American Revolution. Would anyone in the Middle East have cared about it enough to take note of the details? He thinks not.
I’m not so sure about this comparison. According to Rahab, the Exodus was the talk of the town in Jericho: She “went on to say to [the Israelite spies]: ‘I do know that Jehovah will certainly give you the land, and that the fright of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have become disheartened because of you. For we have heard how Jehovah dried up the waters of the Red Sea from before you when you came out of Egypt . . . . When we got to hear it, then our hearts began to melt. . . ’” (Joshua 2:9-11)
But Rahab is one of the little people, telling the fears of the little people that are not necessarily in the official report. Being a little person, she is only a hairbreadth away from being a fictional one, and until her Facebook page is found, most scholars will suppose she is.
So get used to it—there’s little external evidence for the Exodus. (though there is some, as will be seen) That said, Brier looks at the “internal evidence” “Does the story hold together internally?” He examines the details and declares that it does.
One detail he likes (with every such detail, he says: “So that’s pretty good,” as in building a case) is the straw in the bricks. “[Moses and Aaron] go to [Pharaoh] and say, ‘let my people go’—not only that, but it’s what we would call chutzpah, they say we want three days off! To celebrate a festival to our God. And Pharaoh really thinks this is outrageous. ...He says you’re not getting the three days off to celebrate your holiday, and not only that, we are not giving you any straw for your bricks,” the non-Bronx version found at Exodus 5:10.
Bricks in Egypt were made with straw to give it strength. But they were not made that way in Canaan. The factoid points to an authentic account of someone who knew Egypt, not a made-up-later tale from a Canaanite outsider. Brier likes the fact that they worked with bricks, and not the stones that a later writer might suppose from the pyramids and tombs. He likes where they did it, “building cities as storage places for Pharaoh, namely, Pithom and Raamses.” (Exodus 1:11) There were such places and they were storage cities in the days of Ramses II. Brier thinks that Ramses II (Ramses the Great) would have been the pharaoh of the Exodus, assuming that there was one.
He likes how the Hebrews got into their bondage: “In time there arose over Egypt a new king who did not know Joseph. And he proceeded to say to his people: “Look! The people of the sons of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we are. Come on! Let us deal shrewdly with them, for fear they may multiply, and it must turn out that, in case war should befall us, then they certainly will also be added to those who hate us and will fight against us and go up out of the country.” (Exodus 1:8-10)
It fits in well with a previous lecture of his on how Egypt pushed back at Libya, taking captives: “It seems that the Egyptians always minded when foreigners become too numerous. It was okay to have a few, but when they became a large body to be reckoned with they didn’t like that. As for example, remember the Exodus?”
He also likes a detail of Exodus 1:16, in which Pharaoh lays plans to kill off the newborn Hebrew boys. He there instructs the midwives: “When you help the Hebrew women to give birth and you see them on the stool for childbirth, you must put the child to death if it is a son; but if it is a daughter, she must live.”
The Hebrew word for “stool for childbirth” literally means “two stones,” as in ‘a stone under each buttock.’ Egyptians did give birth that way—it can be seen in their hieroglyphs—and it makes more sense than the modern way of lying prone, for it allows for gravity to assist. One source even tells of an old Egyptian put-down of a capricious man as: “He left me like a woman on the bricks.” What kind of a lowlife would do such a thing?
There are even a few who think “watch the two stones” has nothing to do with the birthing stool and everything to do with the testicles of the newborn! If you see them coming down the birth canal, kill the one who has them.
The two midwives mentioned in the Bible, Shifra and Puah, fear God, and so they disobey Pharaoh. In time, Pharaoh wants to know why: “The king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them: ‘Why have you kept the male children alive?’ The midwives said to Pharʹaoh: ‘The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are lively and have already given birth before the midwife can come in to them.’”
Arthur Waskow says that the midwives are very clever here—they placate Pharaoh with a pun that appeals to his prejudices. ‘They’re not civilized like us—they drop them fast, like animals,’ is what he hears. It makes perfect sense to him. And Yahweh rewards the midwives for it, Brier says. He doesn’t use the anglicized ‘Jehovah’ form of God’s name, but neither does he say “The LORD.”
What of the frequent expression that Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened?” “Very Egyptian, very Egyptian,” Bob says. The Egyptians believed that a person thought with his heart. After all, it is the heart that beats faster when someone is excited.
Brier likes the name “Moses,” and says that it’s a purely Egyptian name. It means “birth.” It is incorporated into the names of several pharaohs: Ahmose, (“the moon god is born”) Thutmose. (“Thoth is born”) In Greek, the name with its appended suffix becomes Amosis and Thutmosis. Ramesses is similar in pattern: (Re is the one who bore him)
If this Egyptian etymology is correct, it makes an even greater point for authenticity, because the Bible writer doesn’t appear to know that, and he attributes a Hebrew setting to the name, a play on the verb mashah (to draw out [of water]). We read that the weaned infant was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, “so that he became a son to her; and she proceeded to call his name Moses and to say: ‘It is because I have drawn him out of the water.’” (2:10) The application doesn’t quite fit, say some, for the word construction implies that Moses does the drawing, whereas the text says otherwise, and the only way to solve the difficulty is to ignore it. Moreover, why would Pharaoh’s daughter name the child with Hebrew etymology and not her own? Without intending to, the Bible writer gives added reason to regard the account as genuine.
There is a document, known as the Leiden Papyrus, from the time of Ramses the Great. It contains an instruction to “distribute grain rations to the soldier and to the Apiru who transport stones to the great Pylon of Ramses. Some connect “Apiru” (it means “stateless people”) with the origin of the “Hebrew” that it sounds like. It fits well with Exodus 1:11, “they appointed chiefs of forced labor over [the people of Israel] to oppress them with hard labor, and they built storage cities for Pharaoh, namely, Pithom and Raamses.”
Ramses the Great ruled for 67 years, had about 100 children, of which 52 were sons, and outlived many of them, including his firstborn, Amunhirkepshef. It is his 13th son, Merneptal, who succeeds him as pharoah. Of his early military campaigns, (“he’s going to list the countries that he’s beaten up,” Bob says) Merneptal has recorded in his fifth year that “Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe; Ashkelon has been overcome; Gezar has been captured; Yano’am was made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” This is the first (and only) mention of “Israel” in ancient Egyptian records.
It is telling how the word “Israel” is written. At the end of every other mention is a hieroglyph of three hills. It means “country.” At the end of “Israel” is the drawing of a man and a woman. It denotes Israel is not yet an established place, not yet a country. It is still a people wandering in the Sinai wilderness? If so, and counting backwards, might Amunhirkepshef be the firstborn of Pharoah who’s death at last twisted his arm to let the Israelites leave Egypt?
Bob doesn’t buy into the Bible number of Israelites leaving Egypt, 600,000–all men—not including families. It’s like the fish tale that gets bigger each time you tell it, he says. He thinks the number is much smaller, maybe by a factor of 1000. Nor does he buy into the Red Sea. It is a mistranslation of “Reed Sea,” (Hebrew: Yam Suph) he says. I am reminded of a tale somewhere in Jehovah’s Witness literature in which a schoolteacher tries “educate” a child away from his faith in the Exodus account by asserting that it was not the Red Sea, it was the “Reed Sea,” and the latter was a marshy area of water probably just “two inches” deep—whereupon the child begins to snicker. When the annoyed teacher demands the reason why, it turns out the child is amused at his teacher thinking the Egyptians could drown in just two inches of water. Maybe he was combining the image with God “taking wheels off their chariots so that they were driving them with difficulty.” (Exodus 14:25) Come on!—how can anyone not smile at that image?
“Suph” means “reed” in Hebrew, and from that fact comes the “Reed Sea” derivation, a place that no longer exists, but some think might be bodies of water replaced by the Suez canal. However, there is also a Hebrew word,“Soph,” which means “destroy,” “end,” or even “storm-wind.” What a fine pun it would be, some have suggested, to let one stand for the other, “suph” for “soph,” since the Egyptian army did indeed come to an violent end in that sea. Besides, King Solomon later builds a fleet of ships “upon the shore of the Red Sea (also Yam Suph) in the land of Edom.” (1 Kings 9;26) He wouldn’t do that if the sea was only two inches deep.
To make a pun not so fine, you can only water down the Exodus account so much before you create problems with Brier’s earlier lecture of Ramses II’s life. His early years were warlike. No battle in history is so well-documented as Ramses fighting the Hittites at Kadesh in his fifth year. It is carved everywhere—Egypt’s version of Washington crossing the Delaware, Bob states. Afterwards, Ramses relocates from Memphis to more strategically located Pi-Ramses to the north, because he means to return and pummel the Hittites, perhaps yearly.
Yet, he later experiences a “midlife crisis,” as Brier puts it more than once. He signs a peace treaty with the Hittites, very much to their benefit since they were also battling the Assyrians, but for Egypt, making peace was unheard of and seemingly unnecessary. The treaty may be the first one recorded in history. A temple wall inscription says Hittite and Egyptian soldiers “ate and drank face to face, not fighting.” Bob declares it nothing short of “amazing—Hittites were one of Egypt’s nine traditional enemies.”
Thereafter, Brier states, Ramses II becomes “a more sedentary pharaoh,” who turns to supervising tomb building, his last forty years so different from “the glorious beginning” of his reign. Ramses “didn’t seem to have any fight left in him,” says Bob. “Why did Ramses have a midlife crisis?” Bob Brier ends a lecture with this cliffhanger: “The Exodus, as we shall see in the next lecture, may have had something to do with it.”
Well, it wouldn’t have had something to do with it if the Exodus was some penny ante affair involving just a few hundred fleeing people, and chariots that bog down in the two-inch mud trying to catch them. No, a “midlife crisis” only ensues if it was a spectacular event involving thousands of Israelites and the mass destruction of Pharaoh’s troops.
Does Bob not realize the non-sequitur he sets up? Or does he realize it very well, but also realizes that he puts his status as learned Egyptologist at risk by siding too openly with the Bible account, and so he avoids speculating on the available facts (as he doesn’t elsewhere)? Dunno. Still, I appreciate that the Egyptian record allows very well for the Exodus account to be reality, even if it doesn’t nail down the point. Given what archeologists have uncovered thus far, you could hardly expect it to.
(Thomas F. Mudloff is the author of Hieroglyphs for Travelers)
Photo by CCXpistiavos
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