Using the Bible to Debunk the Bible Debunkers

Some people claim that the mention of ‘pitch’ in Exodus is an anachronism. Here’s why they’re wrong.

Andries Cornelis Lens (1739-1822), “The Finding of Moses”
Andries Cornelis Lens (1739-1822), “The Finding of Moses” (photo: Public Domain)

I love biblical archaeology, and archaeology that (very often) happens to intersect with and confirm the Bible in its findings. I shall take a look at one small issue that biblical skeptics and atheists have used to bolster the claim that the book of Exodus is “anachronistic” and historically inaccurate.

Active online atheist, anti-theist and author Jonathan M. S. Pearce stated flat-out in one of his blog articles that “pitch was not available in Egypt at the time of Moses.” In an earlier article, Pearce claimed much more:

“One reason we know that the direction of appropriation goes from Sumerian to biblical, Sargon to Moses, is the mention of pitch. Rather like camels, this is an anachronism in the Exodus story. This source elucidates further:

‘...Was Moses to[o] quick to transcribe Sargon’s birth account without fully aware that bitumen does not exist in the Nile delta? The lower Sumer valley, today known as Kuwait, has a large supply of bitumen that seeps through the ground, from Kuwait’s large oil deposits. …

‘Contrary to Moses account, bitumen does not exist in the Nile river or the Nile delta. In Moses haste to plagiarize Sargon’s birth account he failed to realize that the Nile and the Euphrates have a different geology. A simple mistake, but with huge ramifications (‘Was the Book of Genesis Just a Cheap Copy of the Original Sumerian Text?’).’

“Therefore, it seems highly probable that the Moses account was based on the earlier life of King Sargon of Akkad. Whilst this does not invalidate the Exodus as a whole (rather like the nativity accounts for Jesus don’t necessarily invalidate the life of Jesus as a whole), it does add further fuel to the cumulative case that there is no historical basis for the Exodus accounts.”

Before we reply to this claim, let’s look at the Bible passage (Exodus 2:2-3) and define our terms

The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river’s brink.”

Bitumen and pitch are essentially synonymous terms (tar and asphalt also similarly used). We see this in the Wikipedia article on “Pitch”(see also, Wikipedia: “Asphalt”).

The latter article noted the “use of natural bitumen for waterproofing, and as an adhesive dates at least to the fifth millennium BC ...” — also that the ancient Egyptians used it for embalming mummies.

Now, I think the incorrect information Pearce is parroting — in order to mock the accuracy of the Bible, as he and other anti-theist atheists habitually do — comes from historical data more or less proving that the Egyptians didn’t use bitumen for mummification before about 1000 BC, some 300 years after Moses.

I found that bit of information confirmed in the scientific article, “The significance of petroleum bitumen in ancient Egyptian mummies”, by K. A. Clark and others. But the same article also states

“Until recently, it was thought that the trade route for the Egyptians to the Dead Sea was only available in Ptolemaic and later times, but archaeological discoveries and chemical analyses have revealed molecular evidence for trade during the earlier Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods (3900–2200 BC). Clearly, therefore, bitumen was available to the Egyptians…”

A footnote sends the reader to this journal article, which definitively settles the issue of whether there was pitch in Egypt at the time of Moses’ birth.

As to the date of the latter, Encyclopedia Britannica (“Moses”) informs us that he “flourished 14th–13th century BCE” and that “the most probable date for the Exodus is about 1290 BCE.” Therefore, Moses’ birth was “probably ... in the late 14th century BCE.” The latter is deduced from the Bible’s statement (Exodus 7:7) that Moses was 80 in the year of the Exodus, which would make his birthdate around 1370 BC and his death in 1250 BC.

The article’s Abstract concluded:

“Nine archaeological bitumens from excavations in Canaan, Sinai and Egypt (Tel Irani, Ein Zik, Palmahim, Tel Arad, Jerusalem, Ein Besor-Site H, Sheik Awad and Maadi), dated 3900–2200 BC. And two natural asphalts of the Dead Sea area (Ein Gedi floating blocks and Nahal Heimar) have been compared …

“This study is the first evidence of the trade and export of raw bitumens from the Dead Sea area within Canaan and to Egyptian trading centers on the mainland route to Egypt between 3900 and 2200 BC, prior to the extensive utilization of bitumen for mummification in ancient Egypt.”

Case closed! The big mistake that Pearce and his sources made was to simply analyze whether pitch was present in Egypt, as a natural resource. But they completely (and pretty foolishly) neglected the factor of trade and commerce.

Christians and believers in biblical inspiration, infallibility and the Bible’s status as God’s revelation have nothing whatsoever to fear from archaeology, or any scientific field, because truth is truth. Science discovers much truth in physical matters and immensely benefits the world in so doing.

The Bible (God’s revelation) also teaches truth, obtained by different — but equally valid and valuable — methods. Confirmed, established science is always harmonious with the Bible, and the matter of pitch in Egypt during the time of Moses is just one of innumerable examples of that harmony and concord.