A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there any historical basis for the events of the Jewish Exodus?

March 3, 1981

Dear Cecil:

I don't want to get your column embroiled in biblical debates, but I must know the answer to a question that has been bothering me for some time. I need to know if the Egyptians record the Jewish Exodus in their ancient historical documents. If so, does it differ from the historical accounts? Do they record a "Moses" raised as a pharoah's son? Did they notice that they were hit with ten plagues? Finally, do they record the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea?

Dear Rufino:

If you're hoping for a clipping from the Egyptian News-Gazette reporting a spate of unusual weather--e.g., partly sunny with occasional torrents of fire--I have to disappoint you. Apart from the Old Testament and related sources, there are only a few surviving records of any sort from the Mosaic era, mostly in the form of inscribed stone slabs called stelae.

There's a large body of Hellenic literature dealing with Moses, but all of it was written long after the fact and was considerably embroidered in the process. One stela from the reign of Merneptah (1235-1227 BC, thought to be roughly the time of Exodus) does refer to the nomad tribe of Israel, but claims to have destroyed it. Plainly the war correspondence of the time was no more reliable than that of the present era.

Despite the lack of primary source material, there have been many efforts over the years to relate biblical places and events to their historical counterparts, with mixed success. To this day there remains wide disagreement as to the precise identity of such basic landmarks as the Sea of Reeds (it certainly wasn't the Red Sea) and Mount Sinai.

One school of thought holds that Moses cunningly led his people across the Gulf of Suez at ebb tide, then watched as the water rose to its customary six and a half feet and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. This hypothesis fails to account for the mighty wind that supposedly parted the waters to begin with.

Another theory has it that the Israelites crossed Lake Subonis, which is (or was) separated from the Mediterranean by a narrow isthmus. The surrounding land is swampy and treacherous and the isthmus itself is frequently submerged during storms; it's easy to imagine an appropriate scenario.

Of course, the fact that there is no historical evidence for the existence of Moses or the ten plagues doesn't necessarily mean they were purely mythical. There's little historical evidence to establish the existence of anybody from the period, except for those who happened to be head honcho at some point. 

On the other hand, it seems likely that much of the detail of the biblical account was borrowed from Egyptian sources. The name "Moses" apparently derives from the common Egyptian suffix -mose, "born of," as in Thut-mose, "born of the god Thut." The Old Testament claim that the name comes from the Hebrew mashah is thought to be wishful thinking. The story of the infant Moses's rescue from the canebrake, interestingly, parallels the Egyptian legend of the goddess Isis, who hid her son Horus in a delta papyrus thicket to protect him from some nasty fate.

The ten plagues described in the biblical account--lice, pestilence, locusts, boils, and so on--are all commonplace features of Egyptian life. The first plague, for instance, when Moses turns the waters of the Nile to blood, most likely recalls the fact that the Nile turns red during the spring floods due to floating microorganisms.  A simple explanation of the plagues, then, is Moses' willingness to take credit for the routine disasters of the day. No wonder the Israelites wanted out.

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