‘Exodus’ and Archeology

I’ve been reading a fair amount of believers’ accounts of Bibilical archeology lately.  One of the most interesting issues to explore is ‘Exodus’ and its historicity.

To sum up:  it is impossible to prove through archeology that the exodus took place as described in the Bible.  In fact, there are significant problems, even among believing (Christian and Jewish) archeologists, trying to find a timeline that works.  In this post, I’m going to concentrate on three large problems:  who was the Pharoah during Moses’ time?; where was the Red Sea?; and, finally, where was Mount Sinai?

It seems clear to me that the historicity of the exodus is impossible to prove.  Yet, my take is that some kind of exodus did take place because the event is central to the Jewish identity.  The fact that the exodus took place is also confirmed in latter-day revelation (see 1 Nephi 4:2 for an example).  This message is extremely important for Mormons because Book of Mormon archeology is also very difficult to prove, yet we nonetheless continue to believe in it.  It seems there are lessons here for Jews, Mormons and other Christian believers.

Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

It sure would have been helpful for the Bible to have named he Pharaoh, but it is interesting to note that archeology shows it was extremely common during that time period not to give the Pharaoh a name when writing about him.  So the fact that the Pharaoh does not have a name in the Bible is actually a small sign of its historical authenticity.

There are three main candidates for the Pharaoh of the Bible:  Rameses II (c. 1279-1213 BC), Thutmose III (c. 1479-1425 BC) and Amenhotep II (c. 1427-1400 BC).  All three of these possibilities have significant problems, although Rameses appears to be the Pharaoh of popular imagination (the Pharaoh of “The Prince of Egypt” is called Ramses).  It is worth pointing out that the Bible Dictionary in LDS scriptures says that Ramses II was most likely the Pharaoh of the oppression.

Ramses (who lived in the 13th century BC) as the Biblical Pharoah creates an insurmountable obstacle, however:  the rest of the Biblical timeline doesn’t work.  We know that David and Solomon lived around 1000 BC, and the Bible implies there were about 450-500 years between the exodus and David and Solomon.  So other candidates must be considered.

There are good reasons to think that Thutmose III was the Pharoah of the oppression and that his son Amenhotep II could have been the pharoah of the exodus.  Thutmose III was a strong Pharoah who conducted 17 military campaigns and consolidated Egyptian control over the Levant.   Amenhotep II inherited from Thutmose III a kingdom at the zenith of its power.  The historical record seems to describe Amenhotep as the type of person who would have challenged Moses (and Jehovah), and there is some evidence that Amenhotep suffered a huge military defeat near the end of his reign (the Red Sea falling on your chariots can do that to you).   Interestingly, some evidence has survived implying that Amenhotep’s first-born son died for an unexplained reason.

However, there is a huge problem with this theory as well:  there is almost no archeological evidence of Canannite conquest in the 15th century BC.  There is some evidence of extensive fighting in the 16th century BC, and again in the 12th century BC, but then the possible Pharoahs don’t line up, and Biblical chronology is off. (In Judges 11:26, Jepthat, who lived in about 1100 BC, says Israel has been in Canaan for 300 years).

Bottom line:  archeological discoveries do not fit neatly with Biblical timeframes.

Where was the Red Sea?

The Bible has the people of Israel traveling through a long list of obscure place names.  We do not know the modern-day location of those place names.  There are three main theories for the route of the exodus and the location of the Red Sea.

But first, let’s consider the source of the Hebrew name of the Red Sea, which is “yam suph.”  In Hebrew, yam means “sea” and suph “reed.”  So it is possible that the Red Sea is actually the “Reed Sea,” which means it could be any sea or lake with reeds surrounding it.  However, the Septuagint (early Greek translation of the Bible) translates suph as “Red.”  So, the Red Sea could be the Reed Sea, or maybe not.  1 Kings 9:26 uses the word “yam suph” to refer to the Gulf of Aqaba (the body of water between the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia).   Could the Red Sea really be the Gulf of Aqaba?  Well, let’s take a look at the three theories.

The northern route:  this theory has the Israelites crossing close to the traditional trade route of travel from Egypt to Canaan.  In this case, the Red Sea could actually have been Lake Sirbonis on the Mediterranean coast.  But in Exodus 13:17 makes it clear that the Israelites did not take this route, so it appears unlikely.

The southern route:  this is perhaps the most popular interpretation, which has the Israelites escaping Egypt near what is now Wadi Tumilat and heading south into the Sinai peninsula.  There is significant archeological evidence that Egypt maintained a long series of lakes and canals (now dry) along the southern Suez.  One of these lakes could easily have been the Red Sea.  However, if this is the case, why doesn’t the Bible memorialize these historically significant bodies of waters as the “yam suph?”  Instead, the only “yam suph” mentioned later in the Bible is the Gulf of Aqaba.  The LDS scripture map seems to imply that the southern route was taken.

The Arabian route:  under this hypothesis, the people of Israel followed the traditional trade route from the Suez to Arabia.  They passed the Suez area without incident and continued to the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba (near modern-day Eliat).  In so doing, they were out of traditional Egypt.  However, this theory has the people of Israel passing onto the Arabian side of the Gulf of Aqaba and then being attacked by the Pharaoh as they were trapped there.  The Red Sea that was parted was the Gulf of Aqaba heading west back toward the Sinai.  A lot of archeologists are intrigued by this possibility for a number of reasons, but it is not the generally accepted route of the exodus.

Where was Mount Sinai?

A nothern location:  this is supported by many people because of what the Bible itself says about its location.  Deut. 1:2 says Mount Sinai is an 11-day journey on foot (about 60 miles) from Kadesh Barnea, which is probably in nothern Sinai.  In Exodus 5:3, Moses requests permission for Israel to make a three-day journey into the desert, which many have interpreted to mean he wants them to travel to Mount Sinai.  A northern location is not traditional, however.

A southern location:  Most people recognize Mount Sinai as Jebel Musa (“Mountain of Moses”) in the southern Sinai Peninsula.  There is a broad plain nearby that could have held the multitudes of Israel, but there is almost no water in this location, which would have been extremely problematic.

An Arabian location:  many people believe that because the Midianites (Moses’ people before he returned to Egypt) ranged into Arabia, that Mount Sinai may have been somewhere in modern-day Saudi Arabia.  There is a very promising mountain called Hala al Bedr that may be a good Arabian candidate for Mount Sinai.  Remember, Paul in Galatians 4:25 says Sinai is in Arabia.

Conclusion:  If there is one thing you can learn from studying Biblical archeology, it is that we don’t know a lot more than we know.  It seems to me extremely important that believers do not let their faith depend on things that are unsure.  Personally, I tend to mentally put a lot of things in the “I don’t know” category and not let those things affect my faith.

I have known people who base their faith on some claim they read in a book once that the archeology of the exodus has been proven true.  Or they might read something saying that archeology proves that Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and Central America) is the land of the Book of Mormon.  So, when some new discovery comes along that undermines their faith, they lose faith altogether, rather than realizing that a lot of these details are simply unknown and probably will be until the Millennium.

My faith is based on a sure knowledge of Jesus Christ’s goodness and a certainty of the Atonement.  It is based on a sure knowledge that my life has become significantly better since my baptism.  It is based on a sure knowledge that service in the Church is a good thing.  It is based on a sure knowledge that our prophets and apostles are truly good people doing good works.  It is based on a sure knowledge that the Book of Mormon is true, which has been confirmed to me by the Holy Ghost.

These are the rocks of my faith.  Biblical archeology is a fun hobby because I like to look at maps and history and imagine the settings of the events of the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  A lack of easy proof does not in any way diminish the sure knowledge of the things above.   But looking at archeology and Exodus is a fun pastime and a certain way to learn something new.  But it can also be frustrating because so much is unknown.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “‘Exodus’ and Archeology

  1. Nice summary of the current situation, Geoff.

    Another significant problem lies in the logistics of moving a group of 2 million individuals through the Sinai wilderness. The food, water, and sanitation needs of a group that large are simply not possible to manage.

    However, this is only a problem if you take the numbers in the Pentateuch literally. Alternate ways of translating and reading bring the numbers down to around 20,000, which is much more realistic. (Even the extremely conservative LDS Institute manual has a reading supplement that suggests this alternative.)

  2. Nice summary, Geoff. I also love maps, and I like to get a sense for the setting of a story. I believe that science ultimately vindicates and clarifies faith, and this is a prime example.

  3. Mike, I think it’s basic common sense to wonder about the realities of managing a group of millions of people. The Bible seems to go to great pains to prove there were millions, but I’d be open to another possibility.

  4. Thank you Geoff for taking the time to share with us what you have learned. Rameses has always been my bad guy Pharaoh, I thought it was an established fact, now not so much. For all the Book of Mormon nay sayers, who want evidence, the Bible has it’s uncertainties too.

  5. I suggest a look at Bruce Feiler’s excellent books, particularly Walking the Bible: A Journey on Land Through the Five Books of Moses, Where God Was Born : A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion, and Abraham : A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Any good book seller will have them, at least on line. Although Feiler is a
    Jew, he tends to look at things from multiple points of view. His books are easy to read and
    use lots of scripture (IIRC, he uses a modern translation of the Bible). I am a huge fan of
    his work. In fact, I read Abraham : A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths when I was in
    Iraq and visiting Abraham’s boyhood home, Ur, periodically. Feiler explores the same kind of
    issues in his books that you discuss here, but walks the ground and seeks the wisdom of tour
    guides as well as museum officials and experts of all sorts.

  6. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ron Wyatt’s supposed findings in the Gulf of Aqaba.

    http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33168%20

    For those not familiar, there was a lengthy email floating around for the last few years claiming that Ron Wyatt had potentially found where the Jews crossed a body of water – at the Gulf of Aqaba. As the article cited above indicates, he took pictures of chariot wheels discovered at the sea floor, and found other inscriptions and identifiying markers near the area.

    Both Snopes and Truth or Fiction are undecided on the veracity of his findings, and I haven’t heard anyone refute it. Anyone heard anything about it?

  7. Ron Wyatt, to put it charitably, is a fraud. He claims to have discovered dozens Biblical sites and artifacts, including Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant. His entry on Wikipedia details his claims and (lack of) credentials:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Wyatt

    This article details “creationist folk science,” and mentions Wyatt and Carl Baugh as prime examples of this field:

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/ce/3/part1.html

    One other thing: World Net Daily is not a reliable news source by any stretch of the imagination.

  8. Mike: You accept Wikipedia as a reference but challenge WND? I’m not a huge WND fan, but I think we should do better than Wikipedia when we assail a man’s reputation. (I am not defending Ron Wyatt, in fact I’ve never heard of him.)

  9. I have no horse in the Ron Wyatt discussion (never heard of him until now) but Wikipedia is only as good as the last person who edited it. However, I have found it to be a great source of information in the past.

    Here is more from Ron Wyatt:

    http://www.wyattmuseum.com/mount-sinai-02.htm

    http://www.weareisrael.org/biblical_archaeology_set.htm

    There are many, many sources discrediting Wyatt. He is apparently considered by some Seventh Day Adventists to be a prophet. Serious archeologists think he is a joke, and many Christians are seriously concerned about his tactics. See here for more:

    http://www.tentmaker.org/WAR/

  10. I don’t know much about Ron Wyatt either. However, I couldn’t find any information debunking his Gulf of Aqaba findings (even on Snopes, etc.). I guess common sense here rules supreme: if he really did find all these great things at the bottom of the sea, why aren’t they in a museum by now or at least being analyzed by competent archeologists?

  11. Jeremy,

    Part of it has to do with competent archeologists rolling their eyes at Wyatt’s claims, and the rest has to do with Egyptian political restrictions on recovering artifacts.

    There is not a shred of evidence that the items photographed are chariot wheels from Pharaoh’s drowned army. They could be lots of things, including wheels from wagons that were being transported and fell overboard, or other debris from sunken ships.

    I don’t know how long wood lasts in salt water, but it seems unlikely to me that a wooden chariot wheel would still be recognizable after 3,500 years at the bottom of the Red Sea.

  12. I think looking at any random sample of WND articles is enough to show it’s a poor source.

    Great post Geoff. Like JA Benson I too assumed Ramses was the bad guy. Maybe because he was named in the Ten Commandments movie? I really have no idea where I got that information.

  13. Some scholars believe that because the city mentioned in Exodus 1:11 was named Ramesses, the Pharaoh on the throne during Israel’s oppression had to be Ramesses II.

    However, that verse may reflect an updating in the narrative to name the city according to its later name (i.e., it was called something else when they built it, but later Ramesses finished it and named it after himself).

  14. Nice summary. Another idea is that if the Israelites crossed the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqaba and Mt. Sinai is in Arabia, they still would have gone eastward through the water.

    A lot of the non-Biblical elements of the movie The Ten Commandments were taken from Josephus, such as the talk near the beginning of Moses leading a military campaign against Ethiopia. I assumed the movie identified its pharaohs with such confidence because of something Josephus wrote, though he wasn’t around until the Jewish revolt against Rome around 70 AD, and can’t be considered an infallible historical source.

    I highly doubt Ramses II was around for the events during Exodus; he’s too well documented compared to earlier pharaohs. Before his time, the Egyptians tended to write inscriptions on stone by carving raised letters, which would then get erased whenever a later pharaoh wanted a surface to use for writing about his own accomplishments. Ramses II changed the practice by having his inscriptions carved in relief, which was both easier to do and harder to erase. I’m pretty sure the events of Exodus occurred before his time.

    As for Wikipedia, it’s like the Apocrypha: mostly true, but some discernment is needed to detect the interpolations by the hands of men. If an article’s sources check out, there shouldn’t be a problem with it.

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