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Israel In Egypt, Moses, and the Exodus

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Egyptologists (those who study Egyptian history, language and culture) are by no means in agreement over the credibility of the biblical accounts of Joseph arriving in Egypt as a slave and rising to prominence; being joined by his father Jacob (Israel) and his brothers; generations passing during which their descendants become an enslaved nation, finally culminating in their liberation from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Many dismiss the entire narrative as nothing more than legend, though they disagree as to the time the “legends” were written.

A few careful Egyptologists, however, cite evidence that such things could in fact have happened. Among things they consider are pillar-like monuments known as stelae (plural of stele: a stone monument on which a king has had records inscribed of his conquests or accomplishments); recent geological explorations such as those by the Israeli Geological Survey near the Gulf of Suez; Egyptian archaeological sites; and written records on materials like stone and papyrus.

In this chapter we’ll examine the evidence—and the opinions of scholars regarding 1) Joseph, and the likelihood that he was sold into Egypt as a slave and rose to be number two in the kingdom; 2) whether descendants of Joseph’s father, Israel, became so numerous that they were considered a threat and were thus forced into slave labor; 3) whether the plagues of the book of Exodus ever occurred; and 4) whether there ever was an Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and a parting of the Red Sea.

Joseph: Legend or History?

In the book of Genesis, we read that Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery and ended up in Egypt. After years in prison, he was eventually freed because the king of Egypt had a troubling dream that Joseph was able to interpret.

The dream warned that after seven years of abundant grain crops there would be seven years of famine. The king put Joseph in charge of the nation under himself as viceroy or prime minister. Under Joseph’s administration, surplus grain was put into storage during the good years so it would be available during the lean years, thus saving many from starvation. This of course made Joseph something of a national hero.

During the famine, which also included Canaan, Joseph’s father, Jacob, sent the ten brothers (but not the youngest, Benjamin) to buy grain in Egypt. As the official in charge of distributing the food reserves, Joseph (whom they did not recognize) was the one his brothers had to deal with to purchase grain.

Eventually, Jacob himself and the entire extended family—sons, their wives, and his grandchildren—settled in Egypt in the northeastern Nile delta region, the “Land of Goshen.” For purposes of sheep herding (the Israelites’ main occupation), this was the “best of the land” (Gen. 47:6, 11).

Could this “story” have actually happened? Minimalists (those who attribute minimal or no historical value to the Bible) dismiss the entire account in Genesis as “historical fiction” or outright fabrication by writers in Canaan centuries later—though with no agreement among them as to how much later. But there are several Egyptologists who show that Genesis 37-50 contains information about places and customs that no fiction writer from centuries later in Palestine could have known about or gotten correct. Let’s look at what a few of them have to say.

Historian Werner Keller in The Bible As History published an illustration of an Egyptian tomb carving in which a dignitary is being installed into office. According to Keller, “Joseph’s elevation to be viceroy of Egypt is reproduced in the Bible exactly according to protocol. He is invested with the insignia of his high office, he receives the ring, Pharaoh’s seal, a costly linen vestment, and a golden chain. This is exactly how Egyptian artists depict this solemn ceremony on murals and reliefs. As viceroy, Joseph rides in Pharaoh’s ‘second chariot.’ That could indicate the period of the Hyksos [the non-Egyptian “shepherd kings”] at the earliest…. The first chariot belonged to the ruler, the ‘second chariot’ was occupied by his chief minister.”7

Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen—having examined evidence from writings on unearthed tablets, on tomb and temple walls, on objects inscribed with recently deciphered hieroglyphics and having considered the undisputed facts of the known history of that time—concludes the following: “Thus, the fairest judgment—no agendas please—would appear to be that a real historical family of a man named Terah once existed in and around Ur this side of circa 2000 BC; he and they moved on northwestward [to Haran in northern Syria], and then his son Abraham and family moved south into Canaan; after three generations the latter’s great-grandson (Joseph) could care for the group in Thirteenth/Fifteenth Dynasty Egypt in the East Delta.”8

James K. Hoffmeier adds, “I concur with Kitchen that the weight of the Egyptological data, when thoroughly examined, lends credibility to the essential historicity of the [biblical] narratives….”9

The clincher, however, may be the well-documented work by Egyptologist/archaeologist David Rohl entitled Exodus: Myth or History? In his book, Rohl describes in detail the important excavations made in the 1980s in the eastern Nile delta region by an Austrian team headed by Manfred Bietak. According to Rohl, here are some of Bietak’s astounding finds:

“In the city of Avaris—at the stratigraphical level of its foundation—the Austrian excavators uncovered an unusual building, to the west of the main mound (Tell A) in an agricultural field which they designated ‘Area F.’ A few feet below the plowed surface, they came across the foundations of a large villa laid out in the ground plan of a north Syrian dwelling…. This foreign design suggested to Manfred Bietak that its owner was from Syria, which of course was the homeland of Abraham and his descendants…. [Historically], this would have been the house of Jacob, constructed upon his arrival in Goshen in Year 2 of the [biblical] famine….

“Some time later … a much grander residence was constructed over the Mittelsaal Haus [the German name for the type of house Jacob had lived in]. This mansion—it has been referred to as a ‘small palace’—is much more Egyptian in character, built for a person of high status, with all the trappings of wealth and power…. This impressive building is fronted by a portico of twelve [the number of the tribes of Israel] wooden columns….

“[This] palace would have been constructed for Joseph the vizier [high official] as his family home. Once Jacob had died in the thirty-seventh year of Amenemhat’s reign, the patriarch’s home could not have continued in use. Instead, it was demolished, leaving only the shadow of the villa in its foundations and Joseph’s house built over it on the family plot. Here, in this new Egyptian-style residence, Joseph—known to the Egyptians as the great vizier Ankhu—would have received petitioners and officials when he was residing in his northern residence.”10

Throughout this project, Bietak’s team found only foundations of buildings buried in farm fields. But as Rohl tells us, “[Enough] remained to work out what had once stood there. The excavations exposed a large, almost square base of mud bricks, attached to the front of which was a small chapel. Bietak determined that this base once supported a mud-brick pyramid. This in itself was remarkable because, for the period of pharaonic history up to the New Kingdom, pyramids were the exclusive prerogative of kings and their queens. No official or commoner had ever been granted a pyramid to house his mortal remains. Yet here, the high official who had lived in the Area F palace had been given just such an honor. This marked the man out as someone very special.”11

Rohl sums up the find and his conclusions: “To me—and I hope to you—this all pointed towards one conclusion. Without searching for it … and, it has to be said, without realizing it … the Austrian archaeological mission at Tell ed-Daba had found the lost city of the Israelites located at the heart of the biblical land of Goshen. They had unearthed the house of Jacob and the palace of the vizier Joseph with its twelve-columned façade representing the twelve sons of Jacob. They had found twelve main tombs in the palace garden, one of which was a pyramid tomb with a colossal cult statue of its occupant, which once stood in the chapel attached to the tomb. They had discovered that the burial chamber had been accessed in antiquity via a tunnel and the entire contents—including the body—removed. The tomb had not been plundered, but nevertheless, it was empty. The colossal cult statue had been smashed into pieces and parts had rolled into the tunnel. This statue had been made in the royal workshops of Amenemhat III, in whose time there had been a prolonged famine caused by a series of high Nile inundations. The cult statue represented an Asiatic official with yellow skin and sporting an Asiatic throw stick as his scepter. He had flame-red hair. And he wore a coat of many colors. Short of finding a name on the missing part of the statue, I could only come to one conclusion…. [This] complex in Tell ed-Daba Area F was the home and tomb of Joseph—the Asiatic vizier famous for his multicolored dream coat and the man who brought the Israelites into the land of Goshen—the foreigner who had saved Egypt from the great famine and who had been rewarded by Pharaoh with a magnificent pyramid tomb in the heart of the Asiatic city of Avaris.”12

Israel’s Enslavement, Moses, and the Exodus

After the death of Joseph, a new king arose in Egypt who “knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). Meanwhile, Jacob’s descendants, the “children of Israel,” had become so numerous that they were seen as a potential threat; thus, they were forced into slave labor. To save her baby from an edict that had gone out to kill all male Israelite children, Moses’ mother had his older sister worked it out so the daughter of Pharaoh would adopt him and bring him up as her own. Reaching adulthood as an “Egyptian prince” who knew his Israelite heritage, Moses defended a fellow Israelite from an Egyptian attacker by killing the attacker. Moses then had to flee when he found out that Pharaoh wanted him dead.

In exile, Moses befriended a Midianite priest and ultimately married his daughter. Later, he encountered the Messenger of God, who sent him back to Egypt, after forty years in exile, to demand that Pharaoh let the people of Israel leave. Pharaoh refused, and God brought one plague after another on Egypt, each one worse than the last, until the whole land was essentially a devastated ruin. Finally, after the death of all the firstborn children of Egypt, Pharaoh practically begged them to leave.

However, no sooner had Pharaoh sent the Israelites away than he again changed his mind and led his army after them. The Egyptian army overtook Israel in a location were they were hemmed in between the land and the Red Sea—having no way of escape. But God parted the sea and the Israelites walked across on dry land. When the horsemen of Egypt tried to pursue them over the now-opened dry-land path, the sea’s waters returned, drowning the entire Egyptian army and destroying their chariots.

Did these events actually happen the way the Bible tells us? Minimalists, of course, dismiss the whole narrative as fiction or legend. But careful, open-minded analysts say, “Not so fast.” As we will see, many parts of the story questioned by skeptics actually fit with known facts about the land, the people and customs, and the times.

By the time Moses was born, the dynasties with whom Joseph had found such favor had died out and been replaced. It would thus be understandable if such later kings viewed the Israelites as a threat—especially after they had become so numerous. In fact, Moses was born during the time when the Israelites had become so numerous that an edict had gone out to kill all male Hebrew babies at birth. His mother and sister hatched a plot by which Pharaoh’s daughter would adopt him as her own; she gave him the name Moses, a name with Egyptian etymology, and brought him up as a “prince” in her household.

But finding they could not easily reduce Israel’s numbers by infanticide, the new Pharaoh put them to work as slaves building his store cities, Pithon and Raamses. The idea was to keep them too busy to be able to mount any sort of rebellion.

At this point, David Rohl fills us in with some important details: “According to the Royal Canon of Turin, Neferhotep reigned for eleven years and two months. He was succeeded by his brother Sihathor who managed just three months on the throne. Then came the third brother—Khaneferre Sobekhotep IV—identified by Artapanus as Moses’ stepfather. Now this all fits rather neatly with the biblical narrative. If we combine that narrative with the data from the Royal Canon we get the following timeline.

“The pharaoh who ‘did not know Joseph’ and enslaved the Hebrews must have been Sobekhotep III or one of his immediate predecessors. It is in this usurper king’s reign that we first come across Semitic slaves in contemporary papyrus documents. With no obvious connection to the royal family of Amenemhat III, Sobekhotep III would not have seen himself as owing any loyalty to the now deceased vizier Joseph. And so he enslaved the Hebrews.

“Three years pass; Sobekhotep III dies and is succeeded by Neferhotep. It is during his rule in Upper Egypt (Memphis southward) that Moses is born in Avaris, where an independent line of rulers exists, and where the Hebrew boy is fortuitously adopted by the local king’s daughter. The child spends his first few years of life in the palace at Avaris before the local king’s daughter is married to Sobekhotep IV, the younger brother of the Upper Egyptian king, Neferhotep. Sobekhotep has succeeded to the throne following the eleven-year reign of his eldest brother and the three-month reign of his middle brother, Sihathor. By now Moses is around ten years old and continues his education in the palace of his new stepfather, Khaneferre Sobekhotep IV.”13

Meanwhile, the Israelites’ primary task as slaves was the making of bricks for construction. Some have wondered why straw was such an important ingredient in the mud bricks the Israelites had to produce. Investigators have found that straw, when mixed with mud, releases humic acid, which makes the bricks up to three times stronger than ones made without straw. Those made without straw also tended to lose their shape and fall apart more easily. A wall painting found in the tomb of an Egyptian nobleman named Rekhmire depicts the multi-step, labor-intensive process of brickmaking as it was done in the middle of the second millennium BC, when the Israelites would have supplied much of the labor.

Evidence for the Plagues

In 1808—years before the Rosetta stone provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics—Giovanni Anastasi discovered a papyrus (inscribed in hieroglyphics) in the area of Memphis, Egypt, that contained eyewitness accounts of plagues too similar to those described in the book of Exodus to be coincidental. After being purchased from Anastasi in 1828, the papyrus sat in a museum in Leiden, Netherlands, for decades until H. O. Lange and Alan Gardiner translated it in 1909. The complete hieroglyphic text, with Gardiner’s English translation, explanation and commentary, can be purchased from

A few excerpts from Gardiner’s translation should suffice to paint a picture that well supports Moses’ account in Exodus (listed by papyrus numbers):14

2:10 “The river is blood. Men shrink from tasting.”

7:20 “All the waters in the river were turned to blood.”

Notice that the author does not say the river merely “looked like” blood. He says it had literally become blood. How many times in history has any river ever turned to blood—by any cause? Compare this with Exodus 7:20: “And he lifted up the rod and struck the waters that were in the river…. And all the waters in the river were turned to blood.”

8:1 “No fruit nor herbs are found. Oh, that the earth would cease from noise and tumult be no more.”

9:23 “The fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.”

Notice Exodus 9:23-25: “And the LORD sent thunder and hail, and the fire [lightning] came down to the ground.… And there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. And the hail struck throughout all the land of Egypt, all that was in the field, both man and beast. And the hail struck every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.”

9:11 “The land is not light.”

Compare Exodus 10:22: “And there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt.”

2:13 “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.”

3:14 “It is groaning that is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”

Notice Exodus 12:29-30: “And it came to pass at midnight the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne, to the firstborn of the captive that was in the prison, also all the firstborn of livestock…. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.”

The above is a sampling of the biblical plagues on Egypt as described in the Ipuwer Papyrus. The remainder of the text pertains chiefly to the conditions in the land and in society as a direct result of those plagues and the loss of Egypt’s slave population—the Israelites and the “mixed multitude” (probably also slaves) that left with them.

Crossing the Red Sea

After finally being forced to release the Israelites from bondage, the ever-deceitful and vengeful Pharaoh—upon hearing that the children of Israel had taken a route by which they would be hemmed in between the land and the sea—decided to pursue them with his army. He was intent on slaughtering the unarmed former slaves. We read in Exodus chapter 14 that just when it looked like Pharaoh’s army was about to close in on them, God parted the sea so Israel could walk across on dry land. When Pharaoh’s army tried to follow, the waters returned—and Pharaoh and his entire army were drowned.

Those who deny the biblical narrative claim that the area where the Israelites crossed was no more than a marshy swampland between a couple of lakes in the eastern delta. While it is true that the Hebrew yam suph can be translated “Sea of Reeds,” the translation “Red Sea” is also considered legitimate. According to James Hoffmeier, “the Red Sea has retreated from its ancient shoreline by five hundred meters…. Geological, oceanographic, and archaeological evidence suggests that the Gulf of Suez [i.e., the Red Sea] stretched further north than it does today and that the southern Bitter Lake extended further south to the point where the two could have actually been connected during the second millennium. This linking may have stood behind the Hebrew naming the lake yam suph as well as the Red Sea, to which it was connected.”15

Moreover, “salt-tolerating reeds and rushes, called halophytes, do thrive in salt marsh areas.” Also, the remains of marine life have been found in both Lake Timsa and in the Bitter Lakes, showing they were once part of an extension of the Gulf of Suez, (i.e., the Red Sea).16

What does this tell us about where the Israelites crossed? It tells us that they were not merely slogging through marshland, but were confronted with an impassible sea—which they could have never crossed without the miraculous intervention of God. There may well have been reeds by the shore of this sea, but that does not mean it was a freshwater lake or marsh.

But was Pharaoh’s army really drowned? Remains have been found in the area—still under water—of the wreckage of chariots, including one encrusted wheel of a chariot clearly identified as being Egyptian, still on its axle sticking up almost vertically. Rabbi Michael Rood presents a video on YouTube entitled “A Rood Awakening” in which these remains may be seen, still under water at the approximate site of the Israelites’ crossing. Are these the remains of Pharaoh’s chariots? See the video and draw your own conclusions.