Did the Exodus really happen?

This is one that has been building up for nearly two centuries since Egyptian archaeology got under way.  I recall in the 1970s working with the books then available, Bible encyclopaedias and the like, and being told, and innocently in good faith passing it on to others, that the Exodus took place in the time of Rameses, i.e. c1200BCE.  Now with much more detailed knowledge from the archaeology, books are being written which say that the Exodus as biblically portrayed simply doesn’t credibly fit in that period, and that from carbon dating and the like various cities in Canaan claimed to have been overcome by the invading Israelites under Joshua had actually already been destroyed centuries earlier, and so on.  Therefore, they’re saying, the biblical story is just made up in all kinds of ways….  Indeed, follow on deductions have ended up claiming that David and Solomon never existed either, and denying almost all biblical history before the Exile in Babylon – and of course the Bible has lots of enemies who are quite happy to believe it’s all a lie!

It gradually occurred to me that there was something wrong with this scenario in terms of what the Bible itself says.  When recounting Solomon building the Temple, I Kings 6; 1 gives a date of how long ago the Exodus was relative to that time.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel left the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign….

Now biblically Solomon is dated at c960BCE, and 960 +480 is c1440BCE, i.e., 2-300 years before Rameses. Also instead of being after the destruction of those cities mentioned above, it would actually be about the same time, in which case their destruction might after all be related to the Israelite conquest of Canaan.  Suppose we take that biblical date for the Exodus seriously…?

There’s an obvious objection; there must be a reason why people identified the Exodus with the time of Rameses in the first place.  If that aspect of the dating is secure, then we’ve got a problem – so what was that based on?

Simply, the Bible refers to the city where the Israelites were enslaved as ‘Ramses’ – Exodus 1; 11, ‘… they were building the store cities Pithom and Ramses for Pharaoh’.  Surely that settles it that these were ‘Ramessid’ cities, with ‘Ramses’ the Nile Delta city known to archaeology as ‘Pi-Ramesse’?  Not necessarily….

Consider this – ‘the district of Ramses’ is also mentioned in Genesis (ch 47 v11) as the place where Joseph’s family settled in Egypt in c1800BCE – four hundred years before the Exodus and at least six hundred years before there was any Rameses to give it that name!  Presumably in Genesis the later name is being used for the sake of later readers, so it’s also pretty certain that the same applies to the Exodus passage.

Similar things happen in modern history writing.  For example, in the time of Julius Caesar, the ‘English/Angles’ were a miscellaneous bunch of nomadic Germanic tribes just outside the Roman Empire; only many years after Caesar did they become Viking-style raiders of the British coast, and only after the Romans withdrew did they start actually settling.  Yet you’ll often read in popular histories of Caesar invading via the ‘English Channel’[i].  Again, you may read of ‘Roman York’; but York/Jorvik is actually the Viking name, centuries after the Romans in time and a few miles away on the ground from the Roman settlement as well!  The Romans called their place ‘Eboracum’.  But the later writer has used the name current in his time so that his readers will know where he means; sometimes this is done deliberately, sometimes the writer himself doesn’t know the earlier name.

That is what has probably happened with the names of the Egyptian cities here.  At the 1440 date, I’m told, the Pharaohs would have had the Israelite slaves building a city in the Nile Delta called Ha-wa-re or Avaris.  But the delta is not stable; a few hundred years later Avaris was stranded and unsustainable because of shifts in the watercourses, and its mud bricks were rapidly being swallowed up; the Ramessid rulers had to build a new city not far away on a new channel, and that was the city Pi-Ramesse.  At some later time, a person copying the text of Exodus comes across the almost forgotten name Avaris, asks where it is, and having been told ‘near where Pi-Rammesse is now’ uses the more recent name.  Or something very like that happened anyway….

So it’s not necessary to assume that the name ‘Ramses’ means it was a Ramessid era city, and in that case the biblical c1440 date is perfectly acceptable.  But in the early days of archaeology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with everything more primitive and a great deal less actually known – acres of hieroglyphs not yet translated, for example – many people did make that assumption, and others which have also proved awkward eventually.  Worse, they often did so because they were over-enthusiastically trying to ‘prove the Bible’ so their interpretations were skewed.  This is a caution to Christians – we are concerned with truth first, and should trust God that all truth is His.  Because a Ramessid Exodus date was wrongly assumed, later discoveries – even so simple as getting more dating info on Rameses – became problematical.  As I pointed out at the start, trying to reconcile the biblical data with a Ramessid date had distorted the accounts in many books I was using when I was younger.  And in more recent years those overhasty assumptions, far from supporting the Bible, have actually given ammunition to the Bible’s enemies to claim they have disproved it.

On the other hand, do, I think, have confidence in the Bible; a very different thing from a panicky defence of it.  This particular example is fairly clearly a case where the Bible is in the end reliable….


[i] As I was compiling this I met an amusing example; an article about St Albans in a railway magazine I take referred to Alban as ‘the first English martyr’.  This being a railway magazine there were quite a few ‘anoraks’ writing in to point out that Alban was Romano- British – though he could properly be described as ‘the first martyr in the country now known as England’!