Did the Biblical Exodus Actually Happen

Satellite Photo of Northeast Egypt and the Levant: The Eastern Nile Delta Is Visible in the Top Left, the Sinai Peninsula Is in the Middle, and the Southern Levant Is in the Top Right of the Photo

The Old Testament Book of Exodus has played an essential role in world history. It represents one of the most fundamental aspects of Jewish religion and early history and is also recognized as an important event by Christians and Muslims. Beyond the religious connotations of the story, the Exodus has taken on its own life in modern times and has been used extensively as a metaphor in a variety of different contexts. For example, moving to a new location or taking a new job is often referred to as an “exodus,” which is usually complete with overtones of slavery and colonialism that are just as telling about modern sensibilities than anything about the relationship of the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians. The Exodus has also influenced modern pop culture, being the inspiration for numerous books, television shows, and movies, namely the 1956 hit, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, or more recently, Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The world today is very different than the one when the Bible was written and portrayed in the Book of Exodus. People are generally more cynical and skeptical of legends and religious stories, so most would probably shrug off any suggestion that the biblical Exodus happened, but that would be a mistake. After a careful and objective examination of the Book of Exodus and archaeological and textual sources from Egypt, some of the most respected and renowned biblical archaeologists and Egyptologists are convinced that something significant happened in the Egyptian Delta during the Late Bronze Age that inspired the story of the Exodus.

The Ancient Hebrews

The term “Hebrew” will be used here because it is more anthropologically and historically accurate as it refers to the language spoken by a specific group of people from the Levant (the area roughly congruous with the modern-day nation-states of Israel, Palestine, and southwestern Syria). Although the Hebrews would later establish the Kingdom of Israel and become known as Jews, during the period of the biblical Exodus they were without a kingdom.

During the period when they were in Egypt, the Hebrews were just another Semitic speaking people from the Levant who were closely related to other Canaanites and for the most part indistinguishable from them in the eyes of the Egyptians.[1] The Old Testament heavily documents the history of the Hebrews’ sojourn in and exodus from Egypt, which although historically based, was “ideologically motivated . . . to drive home particular lessons of the past.” [2] With that in mind, it is critical to consider some of the more important biblical passages that relate the early Egyptian-Hebrew relationship.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrews’ first major encounters with the Egyptians take place in the Book of Genesis. The book describes Abraham’s descent into Egypt (Gen. 12:10-19), which some modern scholars believe took place around 2116, or during Egypt’s Tenth Dynasty of the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2125-1975 BC). [3] After Abraham, Joseph was the next major Hebrew figure to spend considerable time in Egypt, which was followed by a large migration of Hebrews into the Nile Delta.

Genesis 47:11 describes how Joseph gave his family land in the “land of Rameses” and later, in Exodus 1:11, the Hebrews are described as having “built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Rameses.” The references have helped modern scholars narrow down the chronology of the Exodus somewhat – there were eleven kings named Ramesses who ruled in the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties over a more than 200 year period. Of course, the movies portray the Exodus as taking place during the rule of Egypt’s most famous Ramesses, Ramesses II or Ramesses “the Great” (ruled ca. 1279-1213 BC), which seems to be supported by the Egyptian textual and archaeological evidence as will be discussed more below.

The area of the Hebrews’ settlement within Egypt was referred to as Goshen (Gen. 47:27). The Bible never relates many details about Goshen’s location or its topography, but based on evidence that will be discussed more later, it was almost certainly in the northeast Nile River Delta.

The Exodus and the Egyptian Sources

Ramesses II’s Temple at Abu Simbel

Egyptian sources never mention Joseph or refer to any Canaanite peoples as Hebrews. The Egyptians’ failure to specifically designate the Hebrews, though, does not preclude that a significant Hebrew population resided in Egypt before the Exodus. When it came to foreign peoples, the Egyptians were generally arrogant and somewhat xenophobic, especially if they were not from one of the major Near Eastern Kingdoms. The Egyptians generally referred to all peoples from the Levant as “Asiatics,” often with the pejorative adjective “vile” added on for good measure.

Despite having a general distaste toward the people of the Levant, large numbers of Canaanites began settling in Egypt, especially in the Delta, during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2050-1710 BC), which would possibly coincide with the establishment of Goshen described in the Book of Genesis. Among the Canaanites who settled in Egypt, some were brought as slaves taken in war, while others arrived as merchants and tradesmen.

During the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1800-1550 BC) a well-armed group from the Levant known as the Hyksos also made the Delta their home. [4] By the time of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1075 BC) the Hebrews were just one of many Canaanite peoples who lived apart from the native Egyptians but within their land and subject to their rulers.

The process of settling entire populations of foreign peoples in the Delta became more common and well-documented in the New Kingdom. Captured Canaanites continued to be settled in the eastern Delta, while the western Delta became the home of Libyan refugees and prisoners of war. Ramesses II is also known to have settled the mercenary Sea Peoples group, the Shardana, in the Delta. [5] So the idea that a large population of Hebrews resided in the Delta during the late New Kingdom is quite possible and more than likely probable.

After some time had passed, it is likely that the Egyptians would have turned to some of the foreigners for assistance in various political and economic matters, as was the case with Joseph in the Bible. The Late Bronze Age/Egyptian New Kingdom was a period when the most powerful kingdoms of the Near East were engaging each other in diplomacy, trade, and sometimes war in what was the world’s first global system. The Egyptian kings probably soon learned that their xenophobic attitudes were fine domestically, but when they dealt with the kings from other lands it was useful to know their language and cultural mores. It is this type of situation where a Hebrew like Joseph or Moses would have been exceptionally handy, and there is a historical precedent for these arrangements. During the late Nineteenth Dynasty, which would have been near the time when most scholars believe the biblical Exodus took place, an Asiatic/Canaanite named Bey rose to the position of chancellor and is thought of by many modern Egyptologists as a “king maker.” [6]

The Exodus According to the Bible

Map Depicting the Possible Route of the Biblical Exodus: The Black Line Is the Primary Route

The most obvious problem that one runs into when using the Bible to reconstruct the historical validity of the Exodus is that it is a religious text. While that may be true, it is also a historical text that although different than the modern narrative history, it was nonetheless a historiographical tradition that contained “many ideas of history.” [7]

Since the Hebrews’ deliverance from Egypt was the most defining and decisive event in their early history and the primary influence on their historiographical tradition, [8] so the account is probably reasonably accurate, at least regarding the significant points. With that said, there are no mentions of any Egyptian kings by name in the Book of Exodus, and no Egyptian or other Near Eastern sources mention the mass Exodus.

As mentioned earlier, the Book of Exodus states that the Hebrews helped build Pithom and “Raamses” and worked in “bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field” (Exod. 1:14), which very well could have been the case if the Hebrews were brought to Egypt from the Levant as war booty. The fact that the Hebrews dwelled in Egypt in great numbers appears quite likely, and few biblical archaeologists or Egyptologists would doubt the possibility, but many consider the fabled “biblical plagues” to be the primary problem with the Book of Exodus’ historicity.

According to the Book of Exodus, God punished the Egyptians with ten plagues when the pharaoh refused to release the Hebrews from their captivity. The plagues were as follows: the Nile turned to blood (Exod. 7:14-24); swarms of frogs inundated the land (Exod. 7:25-8:11); a lice infestation (Exod. 8:20-32); disease killed the Egyptian livestock (Exod. 9:1-7); the Egyptian were inflicted with boils and lesions (Exod. 9:8-12); hail destroyed much of the crops (Exod. 9:13-35); locusts destroyed what was left (Exod. 10:1-20); darkness enveloped the land (Exod. 10:21-23); and the deaths of the firstborn (Exod. 11:4-7). All of these plagues seem pretty incredible, but when synthesized with the Egyptian sources and examined with scientific knowledge of Egypt’s climate and geography, the plagues specifically and the Exodus in general seem very plausible.

Synthesizing the Egyptian and Biblical Sources

Since Pithom and “Raamses” are the primary references to Egyptian names made in the Book of Exodus, identifying them is a good place to start. Pithom is a Hebrew translation of an Egyptian name, but Raamses is a reference to one of eleven Egyptian kings named Ramesses. After careful examination of both the Egyptian sources and the Bible, Kenneth Kitchen concluded that the Raamses referred to in Exodus 1:14 is the city of Per-Ramesses Aa-Nekhet (translated into English as “House of Ramesses, Great in Strength”) or simply known today as “Per-Ramesses” or “Pi-Ramesses.” [9] Per-Ramesses was a capital city built from scratch in the Nile Delta by Ramesses II, which would place Goshen in the Delta and the period of the Exodus during the reign of Ramesses the Great. The other important city mentioned in Exodus, Pithom, is believed to have been the city of Per-Atum (“House of Atum”), which was located to the southeast of Per-Ramesses, also in the Nile Delta. [10]

Skeptics have argued against the historicity of the biblical Exodus because the event is never mentioned in any Egyptian texts. They argue that a literate people such as the Egyptians would have recorded a such a significant event. Kitchen counters that there is no reason for the Hebrews to make up such a humiliating origin story, and d there is no example of the Egyptians ever memorializing a defeat. Furthermore, the reason why more archaeological evidence has not been recovered from the Delta is due to the high water table and reuse of ancient monument bricks in modern times. [11]

When presented with the above evidence, most will agree that a large number of Hebrews probably lived in the Egyptian Delta, but skeptics often continue to point to the biblical plagues as an a-historical passage in the Book of Exodus. During the 1950s, biblical scholar Greta Hort presented a thoughtful study where she argued that all of the plagues were common throughout history.

More recently, Kitchen updated Hort’s arguments. The scholars argued that the plagues began in July or August around the time of the annual inundation of the Nile Valley and ended about nine months later, with each of the events happening in a logical succession. The Nile River turning to blood was the result of oxygen fluctuations, which killed much of the fish population, forcing the frogs to flee and die, bringing infection to the valley, The excessive water would have attracted more insects, such as lice, and the livestock would have then been infected with anthrax. Locusts then arrived from the southeast, as they often did in ancient times in the region, and the darkness took hold of Egypt in March or April when seasonal winds create dust storms that block out the sun.

As the Egyptian people were infected with various maladies caused by the perfect storm of weather and disease, the children would have been the most susceptible and prone to death. [12] Of course not all of Egypt would have been affected uniformly, and the Hebrews would also have suffered, which would have been another reason for their Exodus.


The historicity of the Old Testament Book of Exodus has been debated for generations. Followers of the Jewish and Christian religions believe that the book accurately tells the story of how the Hebrews escaped enslavement in Egypt, while skeptics have written the account as purely a religious story.

After a careful examination of the Book of Exodus, along with evidence from Egypt, many modern biblical scholars and Egyptologists have determined that a sizable migration of people from Egypt probably did take place in the Late Bronze Age. The event was quickly forgotten by the Egyptians, who never wrote about defeats of any kind, but became the primary historical origin story for the people who would create the Kingdom of Israel approximately 200 years later.


  1. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 417
  2. Kuhrt, p. 417
  3. Redford, Donald. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pgs. 258-9
  4. Kitchen, Kenneth A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 247
  5. Redford, p. 225
  6. Redford, p. 225
  7. Burrows, Millar. “Ancient Israel.” In The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Robert C. Denton. Second Reissue. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1983), p. 102
  8. Millar, p. 111
  9. Kitchen, p. 255
  10. Kitchen, p. 257
  11. Kitchen, pgs. 245-6
  12. Kitchen, p. 251
Biblical History