Scholars say Bible may have passed over veracity of Exodus
By Teresa Watanabe
Los Angeles Times
Posted April 13 2001
It's one of the greatest stories ever told: A baby is found in a basket adrift in the
Egyptian Nile and is adopted into the Pharaoh's household. He grows up as Moses,
rediscovers his roots, and leads his enslaved Israelite brethren to freedom after God
sends down 10 plagues against Egypt and parts the Red Sea to allow them to escape. They
wander for 40 years in the wilderness and, under the leadership of Joshua, conquer the
land of Canaan to enter their promised land.
For centuries, the biblical account of the Exodus has been revered as the founding story
of the Jewish people, sacred scripture for three world religions and a universal symbol of
freedom that has inspired liberation movements around the globe.
But did the Exodus ever actually occur?
On Passover Sunday this week, Rabbi David Wolpe raised that provocative question before
2,200 faithful at Sinai Temple on the west side of Los Angeles. He minced no words.
``The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of
the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus
is not the way it happened, if it happened at all,'' Wolpe told his congregants.
Wolpe's startling sermon may have seemed blasphemy to some. In fact, however, the rabbi
was merely telling his flock what scholars have known for more than a decade.
Slowly and often outside wide public purview, archeologists are radically reshaping modern
understandings of the Bible. It was time for his people to know about it, Wolpe decided.
After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists
say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever
enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of
Canaan under Joshua's leadership.
To the contrary, the prevailing view is that most of Joshua's fabled military campaigns
never occurred _ archeologists have uncovered ash layers and other signs of destruction at
the relevant time at only one of the many battlegrounds mentioned in the Bible.
Today, the prevailing theory is that Israel probably emerged peacefully out of Canaan --
modern-day Lebanon, southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of Israel -- whose people are
portrayed in the Bible as wicked idolators.
Under this theory, the Canaanites who took on a new identity as Israelites were perhaps
joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt -- explaining a possible source of
the Exodus story, scholars say. As they expanded their settlement, they may have begun to
clash with neighbors over water rights and the like, perhaps providing the historical
nuggets for the conflicts recorded in Joshua and Judges.
``Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we've broken the news very
gently,'' said William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archeology and anthropology at
the University of Arizona and one of America's pre-eminent archeologists.
The modern archeological consensus over the Exodus is just beginning to reach the general
In 1999, an Israeli archeologist, Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, set off a furor in
Israel by writing in a popular magazine that stories of the patriarchs were myths and that
neither the Exodus nor Joshua's conquests ever occurred.
In the hottest controversy today, Herzog also argued that the united monarchy of David and
Solomon, described as grand and glorious in the Bible, was at best a small tribal kingdom.
In a new book this year, ``The Bible Unearthed,'' Israeli archeologist Israel Finklestein
of Tel Aviv University and archeological journalist Neil Asher Silberman raised similar
doubts and offered a new theory about the roots of the Exodus story.
The authors argue that the story was written during the time of King Josia of Judah in the
seventh century B.C. -- 600 years after the Exodus supposedly occurred in 1250 B.C. -- as
a political manifesto to unite Israelites against the rival Egyptian empire as both states
sought to expand their territory. The young Israeli king's growing conflict with the newly
crowned Pharaoh Necho, the book argues, was metaphorically portrayed through the momentous
and probably mythical struggle between Moses and the pharaoh.
Dever argued that the Exodus story was produced for theological reasons: to give an origin
and history to a people and distinguish them from others by claiming a divine destiny.
Some scholars, of course, still maintain that the Exodus story is basically factual.
Bryant Wood, director of The Associates for Biblical Research in Maryland, argued that the
evidence falls into place if the story is dated back to 1450 B.C. He said that indications
of destruction around that time at Hazor, Jericho and a site he is excavating that he
believes is the biblical city of Ai support accounts of Joshua's conquests. He also cited
the documented presence of ``Asiatic'' slaves in Egypt who could have been Israelites and
said they wouldn't have left evidence of their wanderings since they were nomads with no
material culture. But Wood said he can't get his research published in serious
``There's a definite anti-Bible bias,'' Wood said.
The revisionist view, however, is not necessarily publicly popular.
Herzog, Finklestein and others have been attacked for everything from faulty logic to
pro-Palestinian political agendas that undermine Israel's land claims.
Dever, a former Protestant minister who converted to Judaism 12 years ago, says he gets
``hissed and booed'' when he speaks about the lack of evidence for the Exodus, and
regularly receives letters and calls offering prayers or telling him he's headed for hell.
Many of Wolpe's congregants said the story of the Exodus has been personally true for them
even if the details are not factual: when they fled the Nazis during World War II, for
instance, or, more recently, the Islamic revolution in Iran. Daniel Navid Rastein, a Los
Angeles medical professional, said he has always regarded the story as a metaphor for a
greater truth: ``We all have our own Egypts -- we are prisoners of something, either
alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, overeating. We have to use (the story) as a way to free
ourselves from difficulty and make ourselves a better person.''
Judaism has also traditionally been more open to non-literal interpretations of the text
than, say, some conservative Christian traditions.
``Among Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews, there is a much greater
willingness to see the Torah as an extended metaphor in which truth comes through story
and law,'' said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic
Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Among scholars, the case against the Exodus began crystallizing about 13 years ago. That's
when Finklestein, director of Tel Aviv University's archeology institute, published the
first English-language book detailing the results of intensive archeological surveys of
what is believed to be the first Israelite settlements in the hilly regions of the West
The surveys, conducted during the 1970s and 1980s while Israel possessed what are now
Palestinian territories, documented a lack of evidence for Joshua's conquests in the 13th
century B.C. and the indistinguishable nature of pottery, architecture, literary
conventions and other cultural details between the Canaanites and the new settlers.
If there was no conquest, no evidence of a massive new settlement of an ethnically
distinct people, scholars argue, then the case for a literal reading of Exodus all but
collapses. The surveys' final results were published three years ago.
The settlement research marked the ``turning point'' in archeological consensus on the
issue, Dever said. It added to previous research that showed Egypt's voluminous ancient
records contained not one mention of Israelites in the country, although one 1210 B.C.
inscription did mention them in Canaan.
Kadesh Barnea in the east Sinai desert, where the Bible says the fleeing Israelites
sojourned, was excavated twice in the 1950s and 1960s and produced no sign of settlement
until three centuries after the Exodus was supposed to have occurred. The famous city of
Jericho has been excavated several times and was found to have been abandoned during the
13th and 14th centuries B.C.
Moreover, specialists in the Hebrew Bible say that the Exodus story is riddled with
internal contradictions stemming from the fact that it was spliced together from two or
three different texts written at different times.
One passage in Exodus, for instance, says that the bodies of pharoah's charioteers were
found on the shore, while the next verse says they sunk to the bottom of the sea.
And some of the story's features are mythic motifs found in other Near Eastern legends,
said Ron Hendel, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley.
Stories of babies found in baskets in the water by gods or royalty are common, he said,
and half of the 10 plagues fall into a ``formulaic genre of catastrophe'' found in other
Near Eastern texts.
One ancient treaty between an Assyrian and Aramaic king, for instance, noted that
violations would be punished by gods sending down locusts and hail.
Carol Meyers, a professor specializing in biblical studies and archeology at Duke
University, said the ancients never intended their texts to be read literally.
``People who try to find scientific explanations for the splitting of the Red Sea are
missing the boat in understanding how ancient literature often mixed mythic ideas with
historical recollections,'' she said. ``That wasn't considered lying or deceit; it was a
way to get ideas across.''
Virtually no scholar, for instance, accepts the biblical figure of 600,000 men fleeing
Egypt, which would amount to a few million people, including women and children. The
ancient desert at the time could not support so many nomads, scholars say, and the
powerful Egyptian state kept tight security over the area, fortified with fortresses along
Even Orthodox Jewish scholar Lawrence Schiffman said ``you'd have to be a bit crazy'' to
accept that figure. He believes that the account in Joshua of a blitzkrieg military
campaign is less accurate than the Judges account of a gradual takeover of Canaan. But
Schiffman, chairman of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, still maintains
that a significant number of Israelite slaves fled Egypt for Canaan.
Wood argued that the 600,000 figure was mistranslated and the real number amounted to a
more plausible 20,000. He also said the early Israelite settlements and their similarity
to Canaanite culture could be explained by pastoralists with no material culture moving
into a settled farming life and absorbing their neighbors' pottery styles and other