I sometimes hear or read that the exodus never happened, even that there is not a shred of evidence for it in the Egyptian records. People who say this are probably rejecting a theological or sensational Hollywood version of the event. But, just as it would be a mistake to say the Trojan War never happened because you find the story of the cyclops to be fantastic, so with the exodus.
There are quite a lot of Egyptian records to suggest that people who may have been ancestors of those who later made up Israel came out of Egypt. So, in this post, I am going to go into some detail. It looks to me like–if you don’t make ridiculous requirements of event-for-event matches–the Egyptian records, far from never mentioning an exodus, actually record an abundance of exodoi (yeah, really, that is the plural).
First, there is the Hyksos expulsion in the 16th century. The Thebian Pharaoh, Ahmose I, forced the Semitic rulers (much evidence now points to the Hyksos being Western Semites, another way of saying, Amorites) of Lower Egypt to surrender their capitol at Avaris and leave Egypt entirely. We have a couple contemporary accounts of this.
One of them is by Ahmose (I know, confusing because the same name as the Pharoah) son of Abana. He was a soldier, and he had his own lengthy and self-promoting obituary inscribed on his tomb. There is an interesting interlinear translation with the original pictographs here. Apparently he fought on land during the approach to Avaris and then got a promotion and was assigned to a naval vessel.
Then there is the very brief diary notation that has survived on the back of the famous Rhind Mathematical Papyrys. It was written by another soldier who participated in the war against the Hyksos. See this article:
The Rhind Papyrus illustrates some of Ahmose’s military strategy when attacking the delta. Entering Heliopolis in July, he moved down the eastern delta to take Tjaru, the major border fortification on the Horus Road, the road from Egypt to Canaan, in October, totally avoiding Avaris. In taking Tjaru he cut off all traffic between Canaan and Avaris. This indicates he was planning a blockade of Avaris, isolating the Hyksos from help or supplies coming from Canaan.
That leads us to the most problematic source, Josephus’s quotations from the Egyptian chronicler, Manetho. Manetho wrote more than a thousand years after the event. And he had an ax to grind against Israel. About the Hyksos expulsion he says that rather than engage in a long siege of Avaris, Ahmose concluded a treaty of safe passage for the Hyksos:
“After the conclusion of the treaty they left with their families and chattels, not fewer than two hundred and forty thousand people, and crossed the desert into Syria. Fearing the Assyrians, who dominated over Asia at that time, they built a city in the country which we now call Judea. It was large enough to contain this great number of men and was called Jerusalem.”
–Josephus, Against Apion 1.73.7, quoting Manetho’s Aegyptiaca
Manetho’s account has all kinds of problems. The Assyrians were not a power until much later. Jewish control of Jerusalem came several hundred years after Ahmose’s time. So events are telescoped.
Yet Manetho shows in this king lists, for instance, that he has access to old material. The statement about the Hyksos being allowed to leave peacefully squares with archeology. We have found no evidence that there was a battle for Avaris itself.
So this is the first exodus-like event. Thousands of Semitic people, probably the elite chariot cavalry and other soldiers, the officials, the priests, and the scribes left Egypt. In the main, they are probably not the later Israelites. The Hyksos had ruled Egypt so it is hard to figure how they would tell their story as that of slaves who had been liberated. However, Josephus and many Church Fathers, especially those from Alexandria, claimed that this was the Jewish exodus.
A polity called the Kingdom of Amurru soon arose in Syria. Syria, in the above quote, is where they were said to have gone.
There are good archeological reasons to believe that most of the Semitic common people remained in Egypt after the elites were expelled. All of the Amorites did not leave after the siege of Avaris.
However, about three generations later, Queen Hatsheput had an inscription made stating her agenda to make Egypt great again. See here for a translation of her whole Speos Artemidos Inscription. In it she blames the Hyksos, including those left behind, for the poor state of Egyptian religion, priesthood, and temples. She says:
I am set on the Sun’s thrones, having been foretold from ages of years as one born to take possession. I am come as Horus, the sole uraeus spitting fire at my enemies. I have banished the gods’ abomination, the earth removing their footprints.
She speaks picturesquely in mythic language. The “uraesus” is the staff with a cobra head that the pharaohs carried. She is acting as a god, which the pharaohs were supposed to be. The image is of the sun as a divine cobra striking at Egypt’s enemies.
It seems to me she is forcefully claiming to have acted herself, not just associating herself with Ahmose’s previous expulsion.
She has just been talking about “Asiatics” still in the Nile Delta. Here she says that she “banished” them or, as some translations have it, allowed them to leave.
Although this passage is subject to interpretation, it seems to me that she takes credit for the departure of people, probably from the non-elite among the Amorites, whom she calls “vagrants”. I would envision the situation as being that once the leaders had left Egypt, the Egyptians did not know what to do with the remainder. They became scapegoats for Egypt’s problems.
So this would have been a second exodus, maybe eighty years after the fall of Avaris .
Then, much later, at the beginning of the 12th century, there came the Elephantine inscription of Sethnakte. He was the father of Ramses III and only ruled a few years during which he had to overcome civil unrest to found a new dynasty. His inscription says that he “flexed his arm” to rid Egypt of some people who were leading it astray:
Fear of him has seized the hearts of opponents before him: they flee like [flocks] of sparrows with a falcon after them. They left silver and gold…which they had given to these Asiatics in order for them to bring reinforcements ….Their plans failed and their plans were futile…(translation from Aiden Dodson’s Poisoned Legacy)
To many, including Igor Lipovsky and Abraham Malamat, this has sounded like a view of the exodus from the Egyptian side. That the fleeing Asiatics had taken Egyptian silver and gold matches the biblical story. Both of those scholars (Lipovsky in his Early Israelites: my post here), and Malamat in his Biblical Archaeology Review Article, “Let My People Go and Go and Go and Go” (available as part of an Ebook here), although they think parts of Israel left Egypt at other times, feel that this is the “Moses exodus”.
These are just the records we accidentally have. There may have been other times when such departures happened.
I have always wondered what is behind the claim of Manetho that the exodus included many diseased people .
There are several references in both Egyptian and Hittite records that point to a plague, perhaps bubonic plague, during and right after the Amarna period. A likely theory about this is that, during inundations of the Nile, rats from the marshes came up into the shanty towns of the pharaoh’s workers and infected them via fleas.
Possibly as the plague worsened, Egyptians (who did not know that rats and fleas were making them sick) sought to protect themselves by sending the unclean workers into the desert. What seemed like an expulsion to the Egyptians might have seemed like a liberation to some of these workers. So I suspect there was another exodus-like event after the Amarna period in the 14th century.
Now it is pretty clear that Manetho’s account telescopes some of these events. The original Hyksos expulsion gets features added to it from later departures of Asiatics. So I wonder if the Bible also combines events that happened centuries apart?
One of several things that makes me suspect that this is the case is the account of the quail falling exhausted into the Hebrew camp (Exodus 16:13 ff.). This kind of quail windfall is not unnatural and still happens, but it happens along the Mediterranean coast (see here)–precisely the route the Israelites did not take (Exodus 13:17 ff.). But some of those who left during earlier departures almost certainly did go that way. So does the incident of the quail reflect a memory from one of the other exodus-like events?
It seems to me that you do not get very satisfactory answers if you ask whether there is an Egyptian account that matches the biblical account in all its details. Lots of Semitic people lived in Egypt during the middle to late Bronze Age. Many of them left in large numbers on various occasions.
A more satisfactory discussion might begin with the question: What events that we know about in Egypt account for the memory of the Israelites that they had come out of Egypt? Not all of the tribes came out at one time. But most of the tribes might have had a genuine connection to people who came out of Egypt at some time.