Let My People Know: the historical reality of the Exodus

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

This aforementioned moral obligation, influenced by the events of Exodus, has arguably had one of the most positive effects on humans in history. No longer was God reserved for only the rich and those of the top caste system; He was a being who cared deeply about the underdogs—those at the bottom of the socioeconomic chain. The Bible makes it clear that God’s chosen people, Israel, came from a background of slavery and poverty. The idea that God would care enough to save a nation of slaves and orphans was seen less as an interesting historical story, and more as a moral obligation for every human being, who were after all created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Thus, the events of Exodus has given inspiration to vastly different societies all throughout history. From the later prophets haranguing the Jews for their lack of compassion, all the way to Martin Luther King, Jr., in his many famous speeches, the Exodus has been used to teach, inspire and create social change on a macroscale.

The Bible tells a magnificent story of God rescuing the Jewish nation (about two million people at the time) from ancient Egypt, leading them to Mount Sinai, and finally taking them into the promised land of Israel—via a myriad of miracles such as the sea splitting in half and food falling from heaven. If one were to go back a few hundred years and ask questions doubting the historicity of the Exodus, chances are one would be regarded as a fool at best and branded a heretic (and dealt with accordingly) at worst. The historicity of the Exodus was viewed in the same way we view World War II: an event that no one would even think about denying.

This all changed in the beginning of the 19th century, when team after team of archaeologists scanned the entire area of Egypt, the Sinai and Israel for artifacts to validate the history in the Bible. Needless to say, these archaeological teams searched for over 100 years, to no avail. From the 1970’s and onward, the archaeological community gave up on any hope of finding archaeological proof regarding the Exodus, the Jews at Sinai, or the story of the Jews entering the present-day State of Israel land. Since then, the academic world has basically come to the conclusion that the Bible is not meant to be viewed as a history of Israel and Jews, but rather as a foundational myth composed by the ancient Israelites hundreds of years after the proposed stories supposedly took place.

At this point in this article, I find it necessary to make a crucial, but often overlooked, point clear. A common belief, often argued by religious fundamentalists and apologists, is that every time an archaeologist, Bible critic, or scientist says something that contradicts classical religious belief it is because they must be anti-Semitic or anti-religious. It is important to note that many, if not most, Biblical archaeologists and critics are themselves from very religious backgrounds and many are still deeply religious Christians and Jews. These people are not arguing and critiquing the Bible because they have some bias against religion or hatred of a certain group of people—they are doing so because they believe that it is important to search for tangible truth, even at the risk of offending dogma.

Returning to the Exodus story, we have to wonder: is it still reasonable to believe in this narrative? After all, if there were really about two million Jews leaving ancient Egypt (a number actually larger than the entire regional population at the supposed time of the Exodus), someone would have found something by now. William Dever, a famous Biblical archaeologist, wrote that the history of the Exodus is “dead,” while the prominent Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog writes unequivocally that the “Israelites were never in Egypt.” As Jews who look to the Exodus for inspiration every day in our actions and prayers, how do we deal with the academic world and its conclusions?

When it comes to analyzing scripture such as the Torah, as modern Jews, we have a very difficult task. Our way of thinking and reasoning is heavily influenced and often times biased by our societal and communal norms. When we read a verse in the Torah, we are analyzing it through modern lens, when really, we need to understand the historical and literary context in which the Torah was written. Many times the Torah gives extremely large numbers, such as ages of people or lengths of time, not to represent a historical truth, but rather to hammer home a crucial point.

The Torah writes that 600,000 adult males (or about two million individuals total, including the rest of the population) left Egypt (Exodus 11:37). For those familiar with Talmudic and Halachic law, they will know that the number 60 is a very important—a representative number. All throughout Jewish writing, the number 60 is a number that represents a very large amount. For instance, if one drops an ounce of milk into a 60-ounce pot of meat then the milk is said to have completely disappeared because when something is less than one-sixtieth of something else, it is regarded as completely negligible. There are more than 25 statements in the Talmud alone where the number 60 is used as an idea rather than an exact measurement, and hundreds more when including all the post-Talmudic literature. When the Torah writes that 600,000 males were taken out of Egypt, there is almost no chance that it was meant as a literal number—and a careful reading of the Torah itself seems to prove it.

According to the classical understanding, the Jews only spent 210 years in Egypt. The growth rate that Jacob’s family would have to undergo is nothing short of miraculous to end up with two million descendants after 210 years. Of course, miraculous is how many classical commentators, including Rashi, explain this growth rate. So let us examine some more verses. When the Israelites finally escape from Egypt and Pharoah chases after them, the Torah says he brought 600 of his best chariots which sent the Israelites into a fearful frenzy (Exodus 14:7). One has to wonder why a few hundred chariots would scare a population of millions. Turning to the next chapter, the Israelites spend the night at the beautiful oasis of Elim where there were 12 water springs and 70 palm trees for shade (Exodus 15:27)—about 30,000 people per palm tree, a number so huge it’s almost humorous.

Moving onwards, Exodus 23:29 reveals that God told the Jews that their nation was too small to naturally stand a chance against the population of both humans and animals in Canaan. If the nation of Israelites was a group of two million people, there is no reason for them to have been afraid of the wild animals in Canaan. Furthermore, the mainstream archaeological consensus, is that the population of ancient Israel/Canaan was all together less than 100,000 inhabitants, child’s play for an army of over half a million.

Moving away from examining particular verses, just a quick glance at the numbers should let any reader know that the claim of 600,000, or two million, Jews exiting Egypt is highly unrealistic. The Torah says many times that Moses was able to speak to the many Israelites, seemingly without any problem—and you thought it was hard to hear the professor in the back of your 400-person chemistry class! Not only was Moshe presumably able to talk to the entire people at once, but Exodus 18:13 says that for a while, he was the sole judge for the entire nation. The Jews seemingly traveled as a unit, but if we take the number literally, the Jewish encampment would stretch across the entire desert, with some Jews still in Egypt by the time the first group entered Israel. Let us not even mention the water needs for a population of that size, which the Torah says was taken from a single rock (Exodus 17:6)!

Rather than bore you with more examples, I feel the need, at this point, to conclude. It is no wonder why there are no archaeological artifacts or historical records of the Israelites in Egypt, because chances are the group would have been a few thousand at most. This seems much more reasonable than to posit that the hundreds of verses, songs, and poems throughout the Hebrew Bible regarding the Exodus were all a later fabrication. The numbers were exaggerated, not as a deceptive lie, but because the Torah was giving a hyperbolic story to make sure that people understand the crucial message and idea that the Torah was trying to teach. God cares enough to intervene and save a nation of slaves, orphans, and poor people, and therefore, as humans created in his image, we must act accordingly.


6 thoughts on “Let My People Know: the historical reality of the Exodus

  1. Does not the Bible mention censuses of the Israelites in the desert? How can you reconcile the censuses with your thesis that the whole nation numbered only a few thousand?


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