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.