Chapter 5  The Biblical Exodus: A Historic, Non-fundamentalist View

A historic, literal exodus of Israel from Egypt is a defining feature of Israel’s religion in the Old Testament and also a foundational doctrine for the New Testament Christian religion.  It almost certainly didn’t happen as understood from a fundamentalist point of view.  Altering the fundamentalist “facts” allows much more secure evidence for that exodus.  Jesus is defined as the Passover lamb.  Over a thousand years later His crucifixion occurred on the actual Passover of the Jews, He died about the time the Passover lamb was being killed… A remarkable “coincidence!”  Certainly, the Jews did not plan it to be that way.  Nor did the disciples who were oblivious to what was really going on at the time.

Jesus ate His last Passover meal with His disciples on the night before He was killed.  At this meal He instituted the most sacred Christian custom of the year, that of eating unleavened bread and drinking wine as symbols of His body and blood in remembrance of what He had done and is doing for those who believe that He really was who He said He was, God in human flesh.  So this important Christian custom is tied directly back to that first Passover in Egypt.  It is important to get as true a picture of the exodus as possible and to upgrade that understanding as new material is discovered.

The Passover and exodus from Egypt is an important event for both Jews and Christians.  It is important to verify its historic occurrence as much as possible.  As with some other things in the Bible the story the exodus story has picked up additional textual baggage over the years that make aspects of it incompatible with reality.  Sorting out that reality is important.  A fundamentalistic approach misdirects and is not helpful.  There are confusing dates and numbers in the biblical record to figure out.

Let’s attempt to sort out a few of the major questions as best we can.

How long was Israel in Egypt?   

In an earlier chapter we examined the problem of how long Israel was in Egypt.  The Masoretic text states 430 years.  Paul, in the New Testament cuts that time in about one half because he was using the Septuagint text which states that Israel lived in Egypt and the land of Canaan 430 years (Exodus 12:40).   The Masoretic text omits “and the land of Canaan” seeming to indicate that Israel was in Egypt for 430 years, rather than about half that time.

 Paul stated that from Abraham to the making of the covenant at Sinai was 430 years (Galatians 3:16-17).  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived a long time outside of Egypt.  There are four generations in the sequence from Abraham to the sons of Jacob who went into Egypt.  It is also stated that after four generations Israel would leave Egypt (Genesis 15:16).  If we divide the time evenly between Canaan and Egypt, four generations each, that would put Israel in Egypt about 215 years, give or take some years either way.  The four generations in Egypt are listed in Exodus 6:16-20… Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses (Which generation would include Aaron & Miriam).  This is certainly much less than 430 years.

Where did Israel live in Egypt and what does that tell us about the timing of their stay?

The most common administrative centers for Egypt’s pharaohs were the areas of Memphis in the north and Thebes in the south.  When the sons of Jacob came to Egypt they settled in the land of Goshen (Genesis 47:1).  Goshen is about 70 miles from Memphis where Joseph would probably have been living.  Joseph was given the daughter of the priest of On (Heliopolis) for a wife.  Heliopolis is very near Memphis.

Goshen is near the site of the capital (Avaris) of the much earlier Hyksos invasion.  A group of Asiatic invaders who conquered much of northern Egypt, took on many Egyptian customs, and has generally become known as the 15th Dynasty of Egypt.  They even dominated Memphis, but had their capital to the east near Goshen at a place that now goes by the name of Tell el-Dab’a (which is ancient Avaris).  They ruled Egypt about 108 years (c.1664-1555) (Redford 2001, vol. 2, p. 136). At the time of the Hyksos the Egyptian Pharaohs ruled from Thebes in southern or Upper Egypt.  The Hyksos were finally driven out of Egypt by the first Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. This would probably have resulted in a greatly reduced population in the Goshen area.  Memphis could now again become an administrative capital and trade center for unified Egypt. 

At the beginning of the 19th Dynasty a new line of pharaohs developed.  It developed from a blood line of military leaders, not from the royal pharaoh blood line. A troop commander by the name of Seti had a son Ramesses.  Their family came from the northeastern Delta area of Avaris (Tell el-Dab’a) (Clayton 2006:140).  He became pharaoh Ramesses I.  After a very short two year reign, his son Seti I became pharaoh.  After a 12 year reign he was followed by his son, the famous, Ramesses II who reigned for 67 years.

Ramesses II developed a major palace at Avaris, what had been the capital of the Hyksos about 400 years earlier.  It now became the “capital” of Egypt rather than Memphis or Thebes which would have been many miles away from where the Israelites settled.  It is in the general area of this capital that Ramesses II built the storage cities Raamses and Pithom using Israelites as slave labor (Exodus 1:11).  Genesis 47:11 calls Goshen, where Israel was settled, “the land of Rameses.”  This name was probably added to the text later as Joseph would not have known a “Rameses.”

In the exodus story Moses was in close proximity to both the Pharaoh and the Israelites.  This would only have happened in the reign of Ramesses II when the capital of Egypt was moved to Avaris, close to Goshen.  Ramesses II reigned from 1279-1212 (Clayton 2006:146).  During this time period would have been the most probable time for the exodus to have occurred, given the context of the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus.

I would conclude from these factors that the exodus of Israel from Egypt most likely occurred during the reign of Ramesses II.

When was Israel in Egypt?

We could roughly guess that they left in the middle of the reign of Rameses II which would be about 1246 BCE.  This guess should be modified because of 40 years wandering in the wilderness and of the Egyptian historical information from the Merneptah stele that states that a people by the name of Israel was settled in the land of Canaan by year 1207 BCE.  A better guess for their time of leaving would be around 1260.  If they were in Egypt for 215 years they would have entered about 1475 BCE.  If they were in Egypt 430 years they would have entered about 1690 BCE.  Keep in mind these are very round figure estimates, not actual dates.

My choice based on the previous contextual material and logic would have them in Egypt from about 1475 to about 1260 BCE.  This would have them arriving in Egypt about the time of the powerful Tuthmosis III (1504-1450) or his son Amenhotep II (1453-1419) (Clayton 2006:98).

If they really had been in Egypt 430 years they probably would have entered about the time the Hyksos were being established in the delta area.  By my understanding this does not fit the biblical material at all.

All these conclusions have implications for how we understand and interpret other statements in the Bible…  More on that later.

The Passover and setup for leaving

I conclude that the Israelites kept the Passover the night before they started their journey the next day.   They were to eat the Passover lamb in haste… “with their loins girded (fully clothed), sandals on their feet, and their staff in hand…Ready to go at daylight. (Ex. 12:11)  But they were not to “jumpstart” the exodus or go out of their homes until morning (Ex 12:22).

Numbers 33:3-8 (NKJV)

3 They departed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; (on the day after the Passover had been eaten during the night before) the children of Israel went out with boldness in the sight of all the Egyptians. 4 For the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had killed among them…

The Passover is a ceremonial meal, it is not festival “day.”  It occurs on the evening that starts the “Holy Day” of the 15th the First Day of Unleavened Bread.  It is a night “of solemn observance” (Exodus 12:42). The Passover lamb was to be killed in preparation “Between the evenings” on the 14th of the month.  This is just as the Atonement fast (on the 10th of the month) is to start “Between the evenings” on the 9th of the month (Leviticus 23:32).

Deuteronomy 16:1 says that God “brought them out by night.”  This may simply be referring to the general fact that God brought them out of Egypt by killing the firstborn males, which He did in the middle of the night.  I do not think that they marched out of Egypt in the middle of the night, after being up all the night before, eating the Passover lamb, and up all through the next day getting ready to go… One night and two days without sleep.  This is not a good way to start an exodus trip for such a large group.

The trip out and the miracle at the Reed Sea

 The book of Numbers gives a summary of the Exodus journey….

  Numbers 33:5-8 (NKJV)

5 Then the children of Israel moved from Rameses and camped at Succoth. 6 They departed from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. 7 They moved from Etham and turned back to Pi Hahiroth, which is east of Baal Zephon; and they camped near Migdol. 8 They departed from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, went three days’ journey in the Wilderness of Etham, and camped at Marah.

In many of the Exodus verses the Hebrew word for sea is simply a word that means “sea” or large body of water.  Where the term “Red” has been added as a descriptor to “sea” in Exodus, the Hebrew is not the Hebrew word for the color red, but rather the Hebrew word for “reed or rushes.”  So the translation should actually be Reed Sea or Rush Sea, not Red Sea.  This is talking about two vastly different bodies of water.  A reed sea is vastly different than the Red Sea.  The Red Sea is deep like an ocean.  A reed sea is a different type of body of water.  It is shallow enough for reeds to grow in it. 

Israel was brought through a reed sea, not the Red Sea.  Still a miracle, but not as dramatic as in the film, The Ten Commandments.  I would interpret the statement about Israel walking through the sea with walls of water on both sides of them (Ex 14:22) as a later poetic gloss of the true reality.  For some reason the Septuagint translators used Red, rather than reed.  Hence the NT references to these events as occurring in the Red Sea (Acts 7:36 and Heb. 11:29) rather than in a “reed sea.”  The translators of the Latin Vulgate picked up the Septuagint translation and hence Red Sea is found in most of our modern translations. 

So with this conclusion in mind, let’s take a look at the evidence, much of which is based on the results from the work of Egyptologist and archaeologist James Hoffmeier.  Most of this is taken from his books, Ancient Israel in Sinai and Excavations in North Sinai Tell el-Borg I (Hoffmeier 2005, 2014)

Let’s pick up a step by step story from the book of Exodus and compare it to the geography of the area at that time.

First, a lesson in the geology and geography of the area of Avaris in 1260 BCE.  As impossible as it looks today, Avaris was a port city.  It had ready access to sea trade of the eastern Mediterranean Sea via the Nile distributary called the Pelusiac Branch.  This branch has long since become silted up and no longer carries water.  The area where it used to enter the Mediterranean is also covered by wide ridges of sand and silt.  That sand and silt was carried down the Nile and distributed by currents and wind along the coast.  The modern coast of this region has a vastly different geography than that of 3,000+ years ago.  It is not a surprise that it is difficult to piece together Israel’s exodus from Egypt through this area.

Exodus 12:37 (NKJV)
37 Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth….

It is very likely that some of Israelites were living and working in this area to the southeast and needed to be “picked up” for the Exodus.  The Israelites than continued their journey toward the desert.

Exodus 13:20 (NKJV)
20 So they took their journey from Succoth and camped in Etham at the edge of the wilderness.

 There is some evidence that this short direct way to the wilderness areas may have been blocked by lakes or canals.  In any event, in the text they were told to turn around and go back.  They were to go back toward the north or northwest toward the Mediterranean Sea.  This switch in exit direction made it look to Pharaoh like they were confused about how to get out of Egypt.  It also gave him a better chance to go after them.

Exodus 14:1-2 (NKJV)

1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea.

These local names were obviously known to Moses and the Israelites, but are not a clear to us today.  Migdol can be located with some certainty, Pi Hahiroth and Baal Zephan with a bit less certainty.  They are near the Mediterranean Sea coast, not the Red Sea coast!  This area would have been near the military route that lead from Egypt to Canaan and thus near to Egyptian forts with military forces.  This would have put them in easy reach of pharaoh’s army.

Exodus 14:3 (NKJV)
3 For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.’

By this time the immediate trauma of the death of the firstborn had worn off and the loss of all that slave labor began to sink into Pharaoh’s mind.  By what seemed to be Israel’s illogical movements he considered they really didn’t know where they were going.  They were thus “sitting ducks” for recapture and return to slavery.

A very key statement to understanding the Reed Sea crossing is made in…

Exodus 14:21-27 (NKJV)

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land…

This could not apply to the Red Sea.  It could only apply to a shallower Reed Sea with some place for the water to be blown to the west.  A geologist, Stephen Moshier working with Hoffmeier in the area, described a large paleolagoon in this area that would have emptied into the Mediterranean at the time of the exodus. This paleolagoon was most likely a shallower, “reed sea” type of place.  Something like this discovered paleolagoon would fit quite well.  In this case the water could be driven into the Mediterranean with a more than adequate source of water for the reverse flow to trap the Egyptian army once Israel was across.  This wind blown water would also witnesses against a situation where the water is said to be “standing as a wall” on both sides of a dry escape route (Exodus 14:22).

This paleolagoon, or some other “reed sea” similar to it, could have functioned in a similar way.  This part of Egypt had a number of such “reed seas.”

 How many Israelites left Egypt?

Exodus 12:37 (NKJV)
Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children.

This number is repeated in…

Numbers 1:45-46 (NKJV)

So all who were numbered of the children of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war in Israel—all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. 

Something has to be amiss with these numbers.

If we add in conservative estimates of family members…

Males       603,550

Wives       600,000

Children (under 20) 1,200,000

Total 2,403,550

Should we consider these literal, God inspired figures?  I think not.  They do not make sense realistically, historically, or archaeologically. 

In the first four generations from Abraham until they entered Egypt, they had grown to 70 or 75 people (Depending upon whether you use the figures from the Masoretic or Septuagint text ).  In the next 4 generations in Egypt had they grown to 2½ million people?  Something is grossly amiss with these figures! 

The counting of the firstborn in the book of Numbers is also unreasonable and inconsistent with the 600,000 figure.

Numbers 3:42-43 (NKJV)

 So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the children of Israel, as the Lord commanded him.  And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names from a month old and above, of those who were numbered of them, were twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three.

When all the men of fighting age were counted and divided by the firstborn (In very rounded figures, but adequate to show the total absurdity of the figures.)…

603,550 men ÷ 22,273 firstborn = 27.1 Every firstborn would have had 26 brothers, and on average 27 sisters, not to mention those brothers and sisters under 20 years of age!  This would mean that each average family would have had well over 53 children.

 We don’t know how many people left Egypt in the exodus.  It is clear the numbers listed in Exodus and Numbers are grossly over stated for reasons we do not now understand.  This is yet another reason to not consider the Bible to be infallible and every word directly inspired by God.

The Merneptah Stele and Israel established in the Land

The first non-biblical reference to Israel as a nation in secular history is the Egyptian Merneptah Stele that is dated by Egyptologists to 1207 BCE.  This stele is a victory stele to commemorate Merneptah’s military campaign in the Canaan area.  He says of Israel…

“Israel is devastated, her seed is no more”

Merneptah is Ramesses II’s 13th son.  His firstborn and older sons had died before this son took the throne after his father’s very long reign.

What this stele verifies is that there was a nation recognized as Israel established in the land of Canaan by the year 1207 BCE.  The timing of this settlement is in harmony with the archaeological evidence of the settlement pattern discovered by Israel Finkelstein who published the results of an archaeology survey of the population the Ephraim area of Israel (Finkelstein, 1988).

Let me suggest that Merneptah added this line about Israel to the stele because he knew they had outwitted and escaped from his father’s servitude sixty or so years before.  He wanted to tell history that he had settled the score by wiping them out.  History has, of course, proved that he did not wipe them out.  Such boasting is apparently common in Egypt’s bragging on its monuments.

Another biblical problem… When did Israel come out of Egypt?

1 Kings 6:1 (NKJV) And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.

The fourth year of Solomon’s reign is commonly agreed upon by many scholars to be about 966 BCE, this would make the exodus from Egypt about 1446 BCE.  This would put it in the 18th Dynasty, about the reign of Amenhotep II 1453-1419.  He probably ruled from the general area of Thebes and/or Memphis, but certainly not from Avaris in the eastern delta, which is the setting of the Exodus as described in the Bible.  This seems totally out of context with both the history of Egypt and other descriptions in the Bible.


The exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt is an issue that has caused continual controversy among scholars.  On one hand the belief is so thoroughly integrated into the definition of Israel itself it is unreasonable to conclude that it didn’t happen.  Yet, to figure out its precise timing and historicity has been baffling to scholars.  Strong opinions currently rage on both sides.

Some see it as a folk story that never happened.  Others reason that there had to be a historic core event that has triggered the belief.  Some scholars have written it off as a non-event that was settled long ago.  However, as recently as 2013 a large group of scholars from a multitude of different disciplines from around the world gathered at the University of California, San Diego to discuss the question.  There were strong opinions on both sides of the issue.  That conference produced a summary book of nearly 600 pages with some 43 individual articles (Levy, et al 2013).

I present this simple summary of what I think is most reasonable from my current understanding of the Bible, the associated history, geology, archaeology, and geography.


References for Chapter 5

Bietak, Manfred
1996  Avaris The Capital of the Hyksos.  British Museum Press.

Clayton, Peter A.
2006  Chronicle of the Pharaohs.  Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Finkelstein, Israel
1988  The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement.  Israel Exploration Society, Jerusalem.

Frerichs, Ernest S. and Leonard H. Lesko, editors
1997  Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence.  Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Hoffmeir, James K.
2005  Ancient Israel in Sinai.  Oxford University Press.
2014  Excavations in North Sinai Tell el-Borg I.  Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Levy, Thomas E., Thomas Schneider, and William H. C. Propp, editors
2013  Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective.  Springer.

Redford, Donald B., editor
2001  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt.  Oxford University Press