Biblical Archaeology:
Evidence of the Exodus from Egypt

Merneptah Stele

??????????????? Merneptah pylon at University of Penn Museum

One of the most important discoveries that relate to the time of the Exodus
is the Merneptah stele which dates to about 1210 BC. Merneptah, the king of Egypt,
boasts that he has destroyed his enemies in Canaan. He states: Plundered is
the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam
is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; (ANET
1969, 378).The word "Israel" here is written in Egyptian with the determinative
for people rather than land (ANET 1969, 378 note 18). This implies that Israel
did not have a king or kingdom at this time. This would be the time of the judges.
The text also implies that Israel was as strong as the other cities mentioned,
and not just a small tribe. The south to north order of the three city-states
may provide a general location for Israel. There is an interesting place named in Joshua
15:9 and 18:15, "well of waters of Nephtoah," that may be the Hebrew name of
Merneptah. The well which is probably anachronistically named after Merneptah
would be near Jerusalem. The Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi III contains "The Journ
al of a Frontier Official" which mentions this well. It says:Year 3, 1st Month
of the 3rd Season, Day 17. The Chief of Bowmen of the Wells of Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat–life,
prosperity, health!–which is (on) the mountain range, arrived for a (judicial) invest
igation in the fortress which is in Sile (ANET 1969, 258).Yurco has recently
re-analyzed the Karnak battle reliefs, and has concluded that they should be
ascribed to Merneptah and not Ramses II (1990, 21-38). There are four scenes
which Yurco correlates with the Merneptah stele. One scene is the battle against
the city of Ashkelon which is specifically named. Yurco argues that the other
two city scenes are Gezer and Yanoam. He concludes that the open country scene
must be Israel. Rainey rejects this view because it shows them with chariots
and infantry (1990, 56-60). Lawrence Stager suggests that the small horses pulling
the chariot belong to pharaoh’s army as in the Ashkelon scene (1985, 58). Rainey
thinks the Shasu are Israelites, but others identify the Shasu as Edomites (Stager
1985, 60). Both scholars Yurco and Rainey agree that these battle scenes are
from Merneptah’s reign (Yurco 1991, 61; Rainey 1992, 73-4; Hess 1993, 134).
Before the discovery of the Merneptah stele scholars placed the date of the exodus
and entry into Canaan much later. They are now forced to admit that Israel was
already in Canaan at the time of Merneptah. Israel was big and strong enough
to challenge Egypt in battle. This stele puts a terminus ante quem date of 1210
BC for the exodus (McCarter 1992, 132).


??????????????? Ancient bowl with curses against their enemies. Metro Museum of Art.

Execration Texts

There are two types of execration texts from the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. The
oldest type are inscribed red clay bowls that date to the reign of Sesostris
III (1878-1842 BC). The second type, dating a generation or two later (Middle
Bronze II, 1800-1630 BC) are clay figurines which list cities along major routes
of travel (McCarter 1996, 43). The Egyptians practiced the magical cursing of
their enemies by inscribing pottery bowls and figurines with the names of their
enemies, and then smashing them to break the power of their enemies. "Iy-‘anaq" is
named which may be related to the Anaqim or giants who dwelt in Canaan before
the conquest (ANET 1969, 328). There is the ruler of "Shutu" named Job. Shutu
is probably Moab the sons of Sheth (Numbers 24:17; Ahituv 1984, 184). There are the
rulers of Shechem, Hazor, Ashkelon, Laish, Tyre, and Pella (‘Apiru-Anu). The
ruler of Shamkhuna is Abu-reheni (Abraham). The tribes of ‘Arqata and Byblos
are mentioned (ANET 1969, 329). Jerusalem is named, but there is no mention of Israel.
?There is the interesting mention of the personal name "Zabulanu" which is similar
to the cuneiform for "Zebulon" (ANET 1969, 329 note 6). This was probably not
the son of Jacob, but just a popular name? In Ugaritic zbl is a place name (Gordo
n 1965, Text 1084:13; Glossary #815). Rohl finds the name Jacob and Joseph (Iysipi,
E31), but this is highly questionable (1995, 352; ANET 1969, 329). The Execration
texts seems to parallel the time of the patriarchs.

Inscription of Khu-Sebek, Called Djaa

A stele found at Abydos tells about an Asiatic campaign by Sen-Usert III (1880-1840
BC) which says: His majesty proceeded northward to overthrow the Asiatics. His
majesty reached a foreign country of which the name was Sekmem. His majesty
took the right direction in proceeding to the Residence of life, prosperity,
and health. Then Sekmem fell, together with the wretched Retenu (ANET 1969,
230b).Some scholars think "Sekmem" is probably Shechem which is located in a
pass between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Shechem controlled an important trade
route and the fertile valley to the East. It seems that Shechem was a very powerful
and important city at the time of the patriarchs. The city was surrounded by massive
embankments of earth with mudbrick walls on top. During the 17th century BC
a rectangular fortress temple was built with walls 17 feet thick (Toombs 1985,
936; Wright 1962; See Judges 9:46). In the Amarna Letters the king at Shechem
was Lab’ayu who was the most important ruler in central Palestine (Na’aman and
Aviv 1992, 288). Lab’ayu is accused of going over to the side of the Hapiru.
The Hapiru are probably the Hebrews during the time of the Judges. Joshua renews
the covenant with Israel’s leaders at Mount Ebal (Joshua 8) and again at Shechem
(Joshua 24). Joshua never took Shechem so some scholars think that the Gibeonite
deception included the city of Shechem (NIV, Joshua 9). Joseph’s bones which
were brought out of Egypt were buried at Shechem. There is no mention of Israel
in this text.

The Story of Sinuhe

The story of Sinuhe also gives us a background picture about Syria-Palestine
life in the Middle Bronze Age which is most likely the patriarchal period. Sinuhe
flees Egypt on hearing of the death of King Amenemhet I (1960 BC) and becomes
an exile like Moses. His path of flight may have been similar to the Exodus, but
his destination was Byblos. He says, "I came up to the Wall-of-the-ruler, made
to oppose the Asiatic and to crush the Sand-Crossers….I halted at the Island
of Kem-wer. An attack of thirst overtook me" (ANET 1969, 19; Lichtheim 1975, vol.1,
224; Gardiner 1916; Anati 1963, 386; Rainey 1972). This "Wall" is the fortresses
on the eastern frontier near the present day Suez Canal. Kem-wer is the area
of the Bitter Lakes.The ruler of the Upper Retenu (northern Palestine and southern
Syria) then befriended him, and Sinuhe marries his eldest daughter. It is a
tribal society which fights over pasture land and wells. One battle is similar
to the story of David and Goiath.In his old age Sinuhe is allowed to return
to Egypt. He leaves his eldest son in charge of his tribe and all his possessions
of serfs, herds, fruit, and trees. Finally, Sinuhe receives a proper burial
in a pyramid tomb. This story gives helpful background information, but there
is no mention of Israel. There is a Movie called The Egyptian (1954) that tells the story
of Sinuhe.

The Hyksos


Hyksos princess crown

??????????????? Tell el-Yahudiyeh ware

It seems most likely that Joseph rose to power during the time of the Hyksos,
or just before in the 12th Dynasty when many Asiatics came into Egypt. It also
seems most likely that the Exodus from Egypt should be equated with the expulsion
of the Hyksos. Not all the Hyksos were Israelites. It says in Exodus that a great
mixed multitude came out of Egypt with Moses (Exodus 12:38). The Greek name
"Hyksos" was coined by Manetho to identify his fifteenth Dynasty of Asiatic
rulers of northern Egypt. The word comes from the Egyptian Hk3(w) h3swt, which
means "ruler(s) of foreign countries" (Meyers 1997, 3:133) which Manetho mistranslated
as "Shepherd Kings". The Hyksos were of West Semitic background probably from
southern Palestine who migrated down into northern Egypt during the 12th and 13th
dynasties. At first they lived peacefully with the Egyptians until the deterioration
of Egypt’s power when in 1648 BC they captured the Egyptian capital at Memphis.

The Hyksos made Avaris their capital which is modern Tell ed-Dab’a, which was later
known as Piramesse (Exodus 1:11). "Avaris" is the Greek term for the Egyptian
Hwt-w’rt meaning "mansion of the desert plateau" (Meyers 1997 3:134). Other
important Hyksos cities were Tell el-Yahudiyeh (meaning "mound of the Jews") known
for its distinctive black and white ware, and Tell el-Maskhuta (probably Succoth in Exodus
12:37 NIV note, 13:20).

Store Cities of Pithom and Rameses

Exodus 1:11 states, "So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with
forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh"

Professor Hans Goedicke believes that the Biblical city of Ra’amezez is incorrectly
equated with Pi-Ramesses. Hershel Shanks writing about Goedicke’s view states,
"But the fact is that the store city of Ra’amezez cannot be identified with
Pi-Ramesses, the Residence of the Ramessides. This identification is impossible
phonetically, as has been demonstrated conclusively more than 15 years ago (D.B.Redford,
"Exodus I, II", Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 13, pp. 408-413, 1963). Moreover, the Residence
of the Ramessides is never denoted in Egyptian sources by the use of the royal
name Ramesses alone. When the Residence of the Ramessides is referred to, the
royal name is always connected with the Egyptian word pr, meaning house or residence:
the reference is always in the form "Per Ramesses" (BAR, September/October 1981,
p. 44).

Long before Per Ramesses, in the same area was Avaris the capital of the Hyksos
kings and a border town when written in hieroglyphic transliteration is R3-mtny
(Khatana) which is today called Tell ed-Dab’a and is being excavated by Manfred
Bietak, Director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo. The hieroglyphic
R3-mtny can be projected back into Semitic transcription as Ramesen. Therefore
Shanks concludes, "Biblical Ra’amezez can therefore almost certainly be identified
with Tell el-Daba (Ibid.).

Pithom is most likely to be identified with Tell el-Rataba according to Goedicke


??????????????? Yakobher seal from Metro Museum of Art

According to the Turin king list there were six Hyksos kings who ruled for 108
years. One important ruler was named "Y’qbhr" or "Jacob-hr" (Albright 1934,
11). There have been several different translations of this name. Early scholars
purposed the meaning of "Jacob-El" as "Jacob is my god", but Albright observed that
the name is a name-pattern verb plus theophorous element (1935, 191, n.59; Ward
1976, 358). In Phoenician and Akkadian hr means "mountain". Ward states:Here
hr, ‘mountain,’ appears as a synonym for ‘ilu, ‘god, much as Hebrew sur, ‘rock,’
and similar words were used, e.g., Suri-‘el, ‘El is my rock.’ I would thus render
Y’qb-hr as ‘(My) mountain (i.e. god) protects,’ which would be identical in
meaning to Yahqub-‘il (1976, 359).Hr meaning "mountain" or "rock" is identical to
the word El or "god". In the Old Testament Zobel proposes:The name (Jacob) is
a hyocoristic form of what was originally a theophorous name belonging to the
class of statement-names made up of a divine name and the imperfect of a verb. Its full
form, not found in the OT, was ‘Jacob-El'(1990, 188-9; Shanks 1988, 24-25).

Therefore the name "Jacob" found in the Bible would be the same as the name
"Jacob-El" which is found on a number of Hyksos Scarabs. Although this name
was common among the Arameans, but uncommon among the Canaanites and Phoenicians
(Zobel 1990, 189), R. Weil was the first to connect the Hyksos princes with
the Biblical story of Jacob (Kempinski 1985, 134). In 1969 a scarab of Jacob-El
was found in the Middle Bronze II tomb at Shiqmona, a suburb of Haifa, that
was from a mid-18th century deposit 100-80 years before the Hyksos (Kempinski
1985, 132-3). The Jacob-El of Shiqmona must have been a local Palestinian ruler,
possibly the same Jacob of the Bible. According to Genesis 32:23-33 Jacob’s
name was changed to Israel. Steuernagel was the first to propose the idea of
the "Jacob tribe" or "proto-Israelite Jacob group" (Zobel 1990, 194). It may
be that the name "Israel" was not officially used until after the conquest of
Canaan when a league of 12 tribes was formed. This would help explain the absence
of the name "Israel" from early sources. Joseph Austrian Manfred Beitak excavating
Tell ed Dab’a, the ancient capital of the Hyksos, between 1984 to 1987 discovered
a palace and garden dating back to the 12th Dynasty with a tomb containing a
statue of an Asiatic with a mushroom hairstyle that some scholars think might be Joseph
(Aling 1995, 33; 1981; Rohl 1995, 327-367). Much more evidence is needed to
claim for certain that this is Joseph’s tomb (Redford 1970). There is an interesting
study done by Barbara Bell on the records of the Nile’s water levels. She concluded
that in the middle of the 12th Dynasty there were erratic Nile water levels
that caused crop failure (Bell 1975, 223-269). Could this be Joseph’s famine?
There is "The Tradition of Seven Lean Years in Egypt" written during the Ptolemaic
period about the reign of Djoser that states: To let thee know. I was in distress
on the Great Throne, and those who are in the palace were in heart’s affliction
from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of
seven years. Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they
eat was short. Every man robbed his companion (ANET 1969, 31).

The Story of Two Brothers is an Egyptian text that dates to about 1225 BC that
is very similar to the story of Joseph. This tale tells how a young man was
falsely accused of a proposal of adultery by the wife of his older brother after
he had rejected her advances (ANET 1969, 23-25; Lichtheim 1976, 2:203-211). In
the 12th Dynasty Egyptian tomb of Khunum-hotep (1890 BC) at Beni Hasan is pictured
a caravan of 37 Asiatics arriving in Egypt trading black eye paint (stibium)
from the land of Shutu (ANEP 1969, fig. 3). The leader is named Ibsha and bears
the title "ruler of foreign lands" from which the name "Hyksos" is derived (ANET
1969, 229). The land of Shutu is probably an ancient term for Gilead (Aharoni
1979, 146). The Ishmaelites who took Joseph down to Egypt came from Gilead through
Dothan (Genesis 37:25). In the 13th Dynasty there were a number of Asiatics
serving in Egyptian households. One text lists 95 servants from one Theban household
with 37 of the names being Asiatics, and at least 28 females (ANET 1969, 553-4;
Albright 1955, 222-233). There is a Asiatic women named Sekratu (line 13) which
is related to "Issachar." In line 23 an Asiatic woman is called "Asher," and
in line 37 another woman is called Aqaba which is related to "Jacob." This may
indicate that some of the tribes of Israel were in Egypt at this time. In the
Book of Sothis which Syncellus believed was the genuine Manetho it gives the
specific time when Joseph rose to power under Hyksos king, Aphophis who ruled
61 years. It says: Some say that this king (Aphophis) was at first called Pharaoh,
and that in the 4th year of his kingship Joseph came as a slave into Egypt.
He appointed Joseph lord of Egypt and all his kingdom in the 17th year of his
rule, having learned from him the interpretation of the dreams and having thus proved
his divine wisdom (Manetho 1940, 239). Halpern has concluded, "Overall, the
Joseph story is a reinterpretation of the Hyksos period from an Israelite perspective"
(1992, 98).


??????????????? Coffin of Ahmos at Metro Museum of Art

Expulsion of the Hyksos

The earliest document that describes the time of the Hyksos is from the Temple
of Hat-shepsut (1486-1469 BC) At Speos Artemidos which says: Hear ye, all people
and the folk as many as they may be, I have done these things through the counsel
of my heart. I have not slept forgetfully, (but) I have restored that which
had been ruined. I have raised up that which had gone to pieces formerly, since
the Asiatics were in the midst of Avaris of the Northland, and vagabonds were
in the midst of them, overthrowing that which had been made. They ruled without Re, and
he did not act by divide command down to (the reign of) my majesty (ANET 1969,
231; Breasted 1988, 122-26; Shanks 1981, 49).The Hyksos worshipped Baal which
was associated with the Egyptian god Seth. This led to the neglect of other gods
and temples which upset the Egyptians. There is debate over the exact period
of time that The Admonitions of Ipuwer describes. The text itself is from the
19th-20th Dynasty. John Van Seters strongly argues for the time of the Hyksos (1966,
103-120). It states: Foreigners have become people everywhere….the Nile is
in flood….poor men have become the possessors of treasures….many dead are
buried in the river….let us banish many from us….the River is blood (ANET 196
9, 441; Lichtheim 1975, 1:151). This sounds similar to the event of the first
plague against Egypt (Exodus 7:14-24). The river is not actually blood, but
looks blood red because the Nile is flooding. Some speculate that the rest of
the plagues are a result of the Nile flooding. The expulsion of the Hyksos was
a series of campaigns which started with Kamose who was king in Thebes, and
rebelled against the Hyksos. His son Ahmose was finally successful in pushing
the Hyksos out. A commander named Ah-mose records in his tomb the victory over
the Hyksos. He says: When the town of Avaris was besieged, then I showed valor
on foot in the presence of his majesty. Thereupon I was appointed to the ship,
‘Appearing in Memphis.’ Then there was fighting on the water in the canal Pa-Djedku
of Avaris. Thereupon I made a capture, and I carried away a hand. It was reported
to the king’s herald. Then the Gold of Valor was given to me. Thereupon there
was fighting again in this place….Then Avaris was despoiled. Then I carrie
d off spoil from there: one man, three woman, a total of four persons. Then
his majesty gave them to me to be slaves. Then Sharuhen was besieged for three
years. Then his majesty despoiled it (ANET 1969, 233). Note that Avaris was
besieged, there is no mention of how Avaris was taken, and there is no burning
of Avaris stated which still fits Josephus’ account. Bietak who has been excavating
ancient Avaris says that there is no evidence for a violent destruction of Avaris.
He states: The archaeological material stops abruptly with the early 18th Dynasty. There
are no scarabs of the 18th Dynasty type in Stratum D/2. The most likely interpretation
is that Avaris was abandoned. No conflagration layer or corpses of slain soldiers
have been found so far in the large and widely separated excavation areas A/II
and A/V (Bietak 1988). The end of Avaris may have involved a surrender, or as
Josephus has stated, an arranged retreat to Palestine (Against Apion 1.14.88,
Bietak 1991, 47).

This exit from Egypt by the Hyksos probably included the Israelites as well.
The story of the Exodus is most likely bases on the expulsion of the Hyksos
from Egypt, for there is no other record of any mass exit from Egypt (Robertson
1990, 36; Halpern 1994, 89-96; Redford 1897, 150). The evidence seems to fit well
with Josephus’ account. Although the Egyptians saw the expulsion of the Hyksos
as a great military victory, the Israelites viewed this as a great salvation
victory for them. This seems similar to other events recorded in ancient history
where both sides claim a great victory. Ramses II battled with the Hittites
and almost lost his life, yet he calls this a great victory, but so do the Hittites.
In reality it was a stalemate, so they both signed a treaty (ANET 1969, 201;
Soggin 1993, 213) Ahab is seen as a powerful king (ANET 1969, 279). Sennacherib
claims a great victory over the Jews by taking 46 cities and surrounding Jerusalem.
Hezekiah is said to be "like a bird in a cage" (ANET 1969, 288), yet he claims
a great victory because Jerusalem is not captured. In the Mesha or Moabite stone
(ANET 1969, 320) the king of Moab, Mesha claims a great victory over Israel,
yet Israel claims a great victory over Moab (II kings 3:4-27). So it seems that
what the Egyptians saw as a great victory over the expulsion of the Hyksos, the
Israelites saw as a great exodus victory of salvation.

The Sinai

Archaeological surveys and excavations show that there was very little occupation
during the Late Bronze Age (Anati 1986). This seems most likely due to Ahmose’s
campaign against the Hyksos, and to the Israelites migration to Canaan. The
Israelites could not have come out of Egypt in the 14th century because of the
lack of archaeological evidence in the Sinai. Two of the most influential German
scholars von Rad and Noth argued, "The Exodus and Sinai traditions and the events
behind them were originally unrelated to one another" (Nicholson 1973, 1). Von
Rad saw the Sitz im Leben of the Sinai covenant in the feast of Tabernacles
celebrated at Shechem while the settlement tradition was celebrated at Gilgal
with the feast of Weeks. Von Rad also saw Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) strikingly
silent about Sinai events (Deut. 26:5b-9). Noth put forth the idea that "early
Israel took the form of a tribal league on the analogy of the city-state confederations
later attested in Greece and Italy and known to the Greeks as "amphictyonies" (Nicholson
1973, 12-13). On the other hand Weiser vigorously debated the view that the
Sinai and Exodus traditions were independent of one another (Nicholson 1973,
33). In 1954 Mendenhall put forth the idea that the Sinai covenant is similar to the
Hittite suzerainty treaties (1954, 50-76). Nicholson concludes that one is at
an "impasse" since none of these views are convincing (1973, 53). There does
seem to be clear parallels between the Sinai covenant and ancient suzerainty
treaties, and ancient tribal leagues did exist (Chambers 1983, 39-59). There are
various suggestions as to were Mt. Sinai is. De Vaux believes that the theophany
of Sinai was a description of a volcanic eruption in northern Arabia (1978,
432-8). Exodus 19:18 describes the mountain like a furnace of smoke. From a distance
it would look like a pillar of cloud in the day, and a pillar of fire at night.
Following this cloud of smoke would lead them right to the volcano. There are
no volcanoes in Sinai, but there are several in northern Arabia (Lee 1996, 20).
The only known large eruption around this time is Santorini on the Greek island
of Thera (Simkin et al. 1981, 111). Professor Goedicke thinks a giant tidal-like
wave called a tsunami caused by the eruption of Santorini, destroyed the Egyptian
army, and the eruption formed the pillar of cloud and fire in Exodus (Shanks
1981, 42-50; Oren 1981, 46-53). Note that at the time of Ogyges there occurred
the first great deluge in Greece. Ogyges "lived at the same time of the Exodus
from Egypt" (Eusebius 1981, 524). Maybe a tsunami caused this deluge in Greece?
Jewish tradition seems to place Mt. Sinai in Arabia. Demetrius stated that Dedan
was Jethro’s ancestor which is identified with the oasis of el-‘Ela, and when Mo
ses went to Midian he stayed in Arabia (De Vaux 1978, 435). In Josephus’ book
Antiquities of the Jews he placed Sinai where the city of Madiane was (Antiquities,
II.264; III.76). In the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 5a) R. Huna and R. Hisda say,
"the Holy One, blessed be He, ignored all the mountains and heights and caused
His Shechinah to abide upon Mount Sinai" (Freedman and Simon 1935, 18-19). According
to Old Testament passages Mt. Sinai is identified with Seir and Mt. Paran. Deuteronomy
33:2 says, "The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined
forth from mount Paran" (KJV, see also Judges 5:4-5, Hab. 3:3,7; Axelsson, 1987;
Simons 1959). It seems that the itinerary that was followed in Numbers 33:18-36
locates Sinai in northern Arabia. Midian was also located here (I Kings 11:18)
where Moses lived with Jethro, priest of Midian, for forty years (Exodus 2:15,

Archaeological Finds in Sinai*

Period & Date

??????????????? Kadesh Barnea
??????????????????????????????? Central Negev
??????????????????????????????????????????????? South  Negev
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Northeast Sinai
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Southern Sinai

Early Bronze  3200-2200

??????????????? Dense
??????????????????????????????? Dense
??????????????????????????????????????????????? High Density
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Dense
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Egyptian mines

Middle Bronze 2200-1550

??????????????? Dense
??????????????????????????????? Sporadic
??????????????????????????????????????????????? High Density
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Dense
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Egyptian mines

Late Bronze 1550-1200

??????????????? Sparse
??????????????????????????????? Sparse
??????????????????????????????????????????????? Copper mines
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Sparse
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Egyptian mines

Iron I  1200-1000

??????????????? Sparse
??????????????????????????????? Israelite forts & colonies
??????????????????????????????????????????????? Copper mines
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Sparse
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Mining is sparse

*Based on Emmanuel Anati’s book Har Karkom: The Mountain of God in 1986.

Comments are closed.