Did the Exodus Really Happen?

Here's why we should give credence to the historical reality of the Exodus.

David Roberts, “The Israelites Leaving Egypt”, 1830
David Roberts, “The Israelites Leaving Egypt”, 1830 (photo: Public Domain)

According to multiple books in the Old Testament, the Israelites came into possession of the land of Canaan after they left slavery in Egypt—an event known as the Exodus.

Yet, according to some skeptical scholars today, the Exodus never happened.

Instead, the Israelites simply were a group of Canaanites, and they eventually took over the territory in which they already lived—either as part of a peasant revolt or through some other process.

Despite these claims, there are reasons to hold the Exodus occurred.

Let’s talk about that.


Origin Stories

Every people has an account of its origins, or what could be called its origin story.

  • In the case of the United States, our origin story involves the original thirteen rebellious colonies that seceded from England in the American War of Independence, starting in 1776.
  • In the case of the United Kingdom, the origin story involves the uniting of the Kingdom of England with the Kingdom of Scotland in 1701.
  • In the case of Rome, the story involves the founding of the city by the hero Romulus.

But everybody’s got an origin story.

History doesn’t know any people who, if asked about their origins, would say, “Well, we don’t really know who we are or where we came from.”

The Israelites were no exception: Their national origin story involved the Exodus.

So why wouldn’t one take them at their word?


Sketchy Stories

It’s certainly true that you can’t take everybody’s origin story at face value.

For example, certain long-settled peoples have no memory of their true origins, and they have provided an account based on folklore and mythology.

When this happens, they may say that their people was created by the gods—or otherwise entered the world—in the same territory they now occupy.

This is the case with the Hopi and Zuni tribes of North America, whose origin stories hold that human beings—including themselves—first emerged into this world out of a hole in a rocky mound known as the Sipapuni, which is located on the Colorado River outside Grand Canyon National Park.

However, if modern scientific accounts are remotely accurate, their ancestors originated in the Old World and migrated over the Bering Land Bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska.

Sketchy origin stories are found in the Old World as well. The Egyptians, similarly, had no memory of their ancestors ever having lived anywhere else, and they set their creation stories in the Nile Valley. Curiously, their stories also feature a primeval mound, which they called the Benben.


Distance in Time

One thing the Hopi, Zuni, and Egyptian origin stories have in common is that they describe events occurring long before recorded history.

In the absence of historical memory, folklore has filled in the gaps.

This is markedly different from the origin stories of the U.S. and the U.K., which deal with events only a few hundred years ago.

If you read a modern account of the American Revolution or the British Acts of Union, the distance in time between the account and the events it describes is only 250-300 years.

How does Israel’s origin story fare by comparison?


References to the Exodus

For much of Church history, the book of Exodus was regarded as having been authored by Moses and thus as having been a record produced within the same generation as the events it describes.

More recently, biblical scholars have drifted away from this view, and by the 20th century it became common to hold that the Pentateuch—of which Exodus is a part—is a composite of four sources known by the initials J, E, D, and P.

The parts of the book of Exodus that deal with the Exodus event itself were held to be derived from the J (“Yahwist”) and E (“Elohist”) sources, which are named after the terms they use for God (“Yahweh,” and “Elohim,” respectively).

Scholars debated precisely when these sources were to be dated, but it was common to date J to some time between 950 and 850 B.C.

It was also common to date E sometime between 850 and 750 B.C.

More recently, the JEDP theory has begun to fall out of favor—at least in its classical form—though there is no current consensus about what should replace it.

However, if—for purposes of argument—we were to accept the dates proposed above, we would have references to the Exodus event in Israel’s literature between around 950 and 750 B.C.

Even if one were to take a more skeptical view and think the Pentateuch is composed of later sources, the date of our earliest Exodus references would not change much, because there are multiple references to the event in the prophets.

Thus in Micah 6:4, God declares, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage.”

And in Hosea 11:1, he says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

  • Micah prophesied between the times of King Jotham and King Hezekiah (Mic. 1:1), which puts his ministry between 750 and 687 B.C.
  • Hosea prophesied between the times of King Uzziah and King Hezekiah (Hos. 1:1), which puts his ministry between 783 and 687 B.C.

We therefore would still have references to the Exodus event in Israelite literature by the 700s.

The fact we have multiple such references (and there are others) means the tradition was widespread and thus has to be dated earlier to allow time for it to become popular and be mentioned multiple times in the surviving literature.

We thus would conclude that the story had to be circulating by around 850 B.C.—a century before the prophets just mentioned.


Dating the Exodus

That leads us to the question of when the Exodus occurred.

The traditional date for the event is in the 1400s B.C. However, more recently a date in the 1200s B.C. has been proposed.

The latter seems more likely, and it corresponds to the earliest extra-biblical reference we have to Israel.

This is found on an Egyptian monument known as the Merneptah Stele, which celebrates a military victory over the Israelites by the Egyptian pharaoh, Merneptah, who reigned between 1213 and 1203 B.C.

The inscription on the stele is significant not just because it refers to Israel but because of the way it refers to it.

Egyptian writing uses a set of symbols—known as determinatives—to help the reader identify the kind of thing being described. For example, when a man’s name is given, a symbol representing a seated man is often placed after it. When a woman’s name is given, a symbol representing a seated woman is used.

On the Merneptah Stele, when Israel’s name is given, a determinative indicating a foreign people is used.

This determinative is usually used for nomadic peoples that do not have a settled location, suggesting the inscription was made during the period of wandering before Israel was settled in the land.

That would suggest that the Exodus occurred in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.).


The Role of Writing

If accounts of the Exodus were circulating in Israel by 850 B.C. and if the event itself would have taken place around 1250 B.C., that’s only a gap of 400 years.

Four centuries is not a long time when it comes to national origin stories.

Even in purely oral (illiterate) societies that depend entirely on tradition for knowledge of the past, collective memory can preserve the core facts regarding where a people came from for that length of time.

But Israel was not a purely oral society at this time.

We have artifacts with Hebrew writing that date from the time of King David’s reign, in the 10th century B.C.

Given the fragmentary nature of the historical record in this period, writing had to have been in use in Israelite society even earlier. Very conservatively, we could push it back by a century, into the 11th century B.C.

That would reduce the time between the proposed date of the Exodus (13th century) and the Israelite use of writing (11th century) to only two hundred years.

That’s not long at all for oral tradition to preserve memories of something as important as how a nation was founded, and there’s no reason it need be that long. The Israelites could have been using writing even earlier.

In fact, according to the Exodus account, they came from Egypt, which had been a literate culture for 2,000 years by that point.

Even if they hadn’t yet begun writing their own language in the Phoenician-based script that they later used, the Israelite’s origin story attests that they had been exposed to a literate culture, and they could have been using writing even before the Exodus.

But there’s another reason we should give credence to the Exodus.


You Wouldn’t Make This Up

Nobody wants to look down on their ancestors, and national pride pushes people to glorify their ancestors and the founding of their nation.

Even if your nation was founded as, say, a penal colony, you’ll want to find admirable things about your ancestors and talk about their heroic struggle in a new and difficult land.

But you wouldn’t invent the idea that your nation was founded by convicts if it wasn’t true.

Long before 1984, inconvenient facts like that would be conveniently sent “down the memory hole” if at all possible.

We see this all the time in the ancient world. If you read the military records left by Egyptian pharaohs, guess what! They never lost a battle! (Though we do sometimes read about them “winning” battles progressively closer and closer to home as their armies were forced to retreat.)

If the Israelites had been in Canaan since time immemorial, they would have done what other ancient peoples did, such as saying they were created there.

They might have even depicted the Canaanites they displaced as invaders whose yoke they threw off.

Or they might have said their ancestors came from a powerful, nearby civilization which they admired (the way the Romans said Romulus was a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas).

But they would not have invented a shameful past that depicted their ancestors as slaves in a neighboring country that they hated and that periodically conquered them in their own land—which Egypt did.

Slavery was not a desirable condition in the ancient world, and Jewish people were as sensitive to that as anybody.

Thus the Gospel of John reports that, on one occasion, Jesus’ opponents declared, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one” (John 8:33).

This hasty statement ignores not only the bondage in Egypt but the subsequent conquest by the Babylonians and even their present subjection by the Romans—but it testifies to the common feeling of national pride that leads people to minimize or ignore uncomfortable facts about their past.

“We were slaves in Egypt” is one such uncomfortable fact, and it is not something that the Israelites would have made up.

We thus have good reason to hold that the Exodus occurred.