For You Were (Not) Slaves in Egypt: The Ancient Memories Behind the Exodus Myth

From the expulsion of the Hyksos to Armageddon, the epic Passover saga does not reflect a specific event, but seems to contain distant memories that may give us clues to the real history of the ancient Israelites

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Imagining the Exodus, Edward Poynter
Imagining the Exodus, Edward PoynterCredit: Guidhall Art Gallery, London
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

The Passover narrative is one of the greatest stories ever told. More than any other biblical account, the escape of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt is the foundational story of the Jewish faith and identity, one that all Jews are commanded to pass on from generation to generation.

Also, it never happened.

For decades now, most researchers have agreed that there is no evidence to suggest that the Exodus narrative reflects a specific historical event. Rather, it is an origin myth for the Jewish people that has been constructed, redacted, written and rewritten over centuries to include multiple layers of traditions, experiences and memories from a host of different sources and periods.

Peeling back those layers and attempting to interpret them with the help of archaeology and biblical scholarship can reveal a lot about the actual history of the early Israelites, probably more than a literal reading of the Passover story.

“It’s not a historical event, but it’s also not totally invented by someone sitting behind a desk,” explains Thomas Romer, a renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. “These are different traditions that are brought together to construct a foundation myth, which can be, in a way, related to some historical events,” he says.

Before digging for these kernels of historical truth, you might be wondering whence the assertion that the story of a large group of Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land is a myth.

There are multiple points where the Passover story doesn’t square with archaeological findings, but the broader issue is that the Bible simply gets the chronology and the geopolitics of the Levant wrong.

Egypt was here

Scholars have long been arguing about the date of the Exodus, but for the biblical chronology to hold any water, Moses must have led the Israelites out of Egypt sometime in the Late Bronze Age, between the 15th and 13th century B.C.E. – depending on whom you ask.

The problem is that this was the golden age of Egypt’s New Kingdom, when the power of the pharaohs extended over vast territories, including the Promised Land. During this period, Egypt’s control over Canaan was total, as evidenced for example by the Amarna letters, an archive that includes correspondence between the pharaoh and his colonial empire during the 14th century B.C.E. Also, Israel is littered with remains from the Egyptian occupation, from a mighty fortress in Jaffa to a bit of sphinx discovered at Hazor in 2013.

So, even if a large group of people had managed to flee the Nile Delta and reach Sinai, they would still have had to face the full might of Egypt on the rest of their journey and upon reaching the Promised Land.

“The Exodus story in the Bible doesn’t reflect the basic fact that Canaan was dominated by Egypt, it was a province with Egyptian administrators,” says Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein, one of the top biblical archaeologists in Israel.

This is probably because the Exodus story was written centuries after its purported events and reflects the realities of the Iron Age, when Egypt’s empire in Canaan had long collapsed and had been forgotten.

The fact that the biblical account is anachronistic, not historical, is also suggested by archaeological exploration of identifiable sites mentioned in the Bible. No trace of the passage of a large group of people – 600,000 families according to Exodus 12:37 – has been found by archaeologists. Places like Kadesh Barnea, ostensibly the main campsite of the Hebrews during their 40 years wandering the desert, or another supposed Hebrew campsite of Ezion-Geber at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba were in fact uninhabited during the Late Bronze Age (15th-13th centuries B.C.E.), which was when the Exodus would have happened, Finkelstein says. These locations only begin to be populated between the 9th and 7th centuries B.C.E., the heyday of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Most scholars believe the earliest versions of the Exodus myth may have been written during this later time: the biblical authors were evidently unaware that the places they were describing did not exist in the period they were setting the story in.

But even Finkelstein cautions that this does not mean we should callously dismiss the Passover narrative as mere fiction. “Exodus is a beautiful tradition that shows the stratified nature of the biblical text,” he says. “It is like an archaeological site. You can dig it layer after layer.”

The Hyksos expulsion

Most scholars agree that, at its deepest level, the Exodus story reflects the long-term relationship between Egypt and the Levant. For millennia, people from Canaan periodically found refuge in Egypt especially in times of strife, drought or famine – just like Jacob and his family do in the Book of Genesis.

Some of these immigrants were indeed conscripted as laborers, but others were soldiers, shepherds, farmers or traders. Especially during the Late Bronze Age, a few of these people with Levantine roots even achieved high office, serving as chancellors or viziers to the pharaohs and appearing prominently in Egyptian texts.

These immigrant success stories have often been seized upon by defenders of the Bible’s historicity for their parallels with the tale of Joseph’s rise to prominence at pharaoh’s court or Moses’ upbringing as an Egyptian prince.

“They do look a bit like Moses or Joseph but none of them would be really fitting as the historical Moses or Joseph,” cautions Romer.

One group of particularly successful immigrants that has often been linked to the Exodus story were the Hyksos, a Semitic people that gradually moved to the Nile Delta region and grew so numerous and powerful that they ruled over northern Egypt from the 17th to the 16th century B.C.E. Eventually, the indigenous Egyptians, led by Pharaoh Ahmose I, expelled the Hyksos in a violent conflict. Already in the 1980s, Egyptologist Donald Redford suggested that the memory of this traumatic expulsion may have formed the basis for a Canaanite origin myth that later evolved into the Exodus story.

While this is possible, it is not clear what the connection was between the Hyksos, who disappeared from history in the 16th century B.C.E. and the Israelites, who emerged in Canaan only at the end of the 13th century B.C.E. It is then, around 1209 B.C.E., that a people named “Israel” are first mentioned in a victory stele of the pharaoh Merneptah.

And in this text, “there is no allusion to any Exodus or that this group may have come from elsewhere,” notes Romer. “It’s just an autochthonous group at the end of the 13th century sitting there somewhere in the highlands [of Canaan].”

Yahweh and the Exodus

So if the Israelites were just a native offshoot of the local Canaanite population, how did they come up with the idea of being slaves in Egypt? One theory, proposed by Tel Aviv University historian Nadav Na’aman, posits that the original Exodus tradition was set in Canaan, inspired by the hardships of Egypt’s occupation of the region and its subsequent liberation from the pharaoh’s yoke at the end of the Bronze Age.

A similar theory, supported by Romer, is that the early Israelites came in contact with a group that had been directly subjected to Egyptian domination and absorbed from them the early tale of their enslavement and liberation. The best candidate for this role would be the nomadic tribes that inhabited the deserts of the southern Levant and were collectively known to the Egyptians as the Shasu.

One of these tribes is listed in Egyptian documents from the Late Bronze Age as the “Shasu of YHWH” – possibly the first reference to the deity who that would later become the God of the Jews.

These Shasu nomads were often in conflict with the Egyptians and if captured, were pressed into service at locations like the copper mines in Timna – near today’s port town of Eilat, Romer says. The idea that a group of Shasu may have merged with the early Israelites is also considered one of the more plausible explanations for how the Hebrews adopted YHWH as their tutelary deity.

As its very name suggests, Israel initially worshipped El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, and only later switched allegiance to the deity known only by the four letters YHWH.

“There may have been groups of Shasu who escaped somehow from Egyptian control and went north into the highlands to this group called Israel, bringing with them this god whom they considered had delivered them from the Egyptians,” Romer says.

This may be why, in the Bible, YHWH is constantly described as the god who brought his people out of Egypt – because the worship of this deity and the story of liberation from slavery came to the Israelites already fused into a theological package deal.

The north remembers

It does seem, however, that as the Israelites went from being a collection of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes to forming their own cities and states, they did not all adopt the Exodus story at the same time.

The tradition of an Exodus seems to have first taken hold in the northern Kingdom of Israel – as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judah, which was centered on Jerusalem. Scholars suspect this because the oldest biblical texts that mention the Exodus are the books of Hosea and Amos, two prophets who operated in the northern kingdom, Finkelstein explains.

Conversely, the Exodus begins to be referenced in Judahite texts that can be dated only to after the end of the 8th century B.C.E, when the Assyrian empire conquered the Kingdom of Israel and many refugees from the north flooded into Jerusalem, possibly bringing with them the ancient tradition of a flight from Egypt.

Although geographically Israel was farther from Egypt than Judah, there are a few reasons why this northern polity would have been the first to import a story about salvation from pharaoh as a foundation myth, Finkelstein says.

Firstly, the Tel Aviv archaeologist has recently theorized that there is some evidence suggesting that the Kingdom of Israel formed as a result of the military campaign in Canaan of Pharaoh Sheshonq I in the mid 10th century B.C.E. This campaign was meant to restore the empire Egypt had lost at the end of the Bronze Age, in the 12th century B.C.E., and Sheshonq (aka Shishak) may have installed the first rulers of Israel as petty kings of what was meant to be a vassal state, Finkelstein says.

When Egypt’s imperial ambitions floundered, the northern Israelite polity emerged as a strong regional power, and may have adopted the Exodus story as a charter myth for its own foundation, as a nation once beholden to Egypt but then freed from the pharaoh’s grip, Finkelstein says.

Secondly, as the Kingdom of Israel grew in power, it expanded southward into the Sinai and Negev deserts in the early 8th century B.C.E. The northern Israelites became involved in trade with nearby Egypt, and came into contact with the places and sceneries described in the biblical wandering of the wilderness, Finkelstein says.

At Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite site in Sinai, archaeologists have found a treasure trove of texts and inscriptions from this period that give us some clues about the belief system of the northern kingdom.

One of these inscriptions has been tentatively identified by Na’aman as an early version of the Exodus myth.

While the text is fragmentary, it is possible to discern some of the familiar elements of the story, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, but also snippets that contradict the narrative as we know it. For example, the story’s hero, whose name has not survived, is described as a “poor and oppressed son,” which doesn’t jive with the biblical description of Moses’ gilded upbringing as a prince of Egypt.

Exodus sans Moses?

This brings us to the protagonist of the Passover story and the question of his historicity. Scholars have long pointed out that Moses’ origin story is a suspiciously common trope.

From the Mesopotamian ruler Sargon of Akkad to the founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus – the ancient world seems to have been awash in boys who were birthed in secret, saved from mortal danger by a river and adopted, only to grow up to discover their true identity and triumphantly return to lead their people.

It is in fact possible that Moses, at least as we know him, was a fairly late addition to the Exodus story, because he does not appear in northern biblical texts such as Hosea and Amos, says Romer.

The oldest text that mentions him is the story of the late 8th century B.C.E. Judahite King Hezekiah, who, as part of a religious reform, destroyed a bronze serpent purportedly made by Moses that was being worshipped by the Israelites (2 Kings 18:4).

This leads Romer to posit that the Moses tradition originated in Jerusalem and that there may have been an older Exodus story that didn’t include him as a hero.

Some traces of this tale may have survived in the Bible, Romer says. For example, in the fifth chapter of Exodus, there is an entire chunk of text in which Moses and his brother Aaron disappear from the plot, and unnamed “Israelite overseers” appear in charge of the negotiations with the pharaoh and the protestations over the conditions of the Hebrew slaves (Ex. 5:6-18).

“Some think that here we have traces of a divergent tradition in which it was God directly who brought the people out of Egypt, that it was just the people who cried out and Yahweh delivered them,” Romer says.

Josiah heads for Armageddon

Whether or not Moses was in it from the start, the Exodus tradition must have undergone some serious redactions after it was absorbed by Judah in the late 8th and 7th century B.C.E. As mentioned earlier, many of the locations mentioned in the desert wandering narrative were only inhabited during this later period, which in and of itself indicates that much of the text as we know it was written down during this period.

This time, around 2,700 years ago, was a key moment in the history of the ancient Hebrews. By the late 7th century B.C.E., the Assyrian empire, which had conquered the Kingdom of Israel, was itself on the wane. In Jerusalem, King Josiah led a reform to centralize the cult around the Temple, while his scribes compiled early biblical texts using a combination of sources from the northern kingdom and Judah.

The ambitious Judahite ruler was hoping to unite all the Israelites under a single cult and a shared history. He also coveted the former territories of Israel, which were now being vacated by the Assyrians. But this expansionism put him in conflict with none other than Egypt, which was again eyeing a restoration of its empire in Canaan, Finkelstein explains.

So, once again, the saga of the Exodus was put to political use, providing Josiah with a story that would unite his people against an old adversary, an epic tale that promised deliverance from the oppressor and the conquest of a Promised Land.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned for Josiah. The competing policies of expansionism led to a clash with Pharaoh Necho II, who faced Josiah at Megiddo around 609 B.C.E. and killed the Judahite king (2 Kings 23:29).

Ever since, Megiddo – also known as Armageddon – has become the symbol of an apocalyptic end to a messianic dream, ultimately translating into the Christian tradition that locates there the final battle between good and evil at the end of times, Finkelstein says.

But while Megiddo marked the end of Judah’s political ambitions, it was not the end of the line for the Exodus tradition. This beautifully complex story, which is not the record of a single event in time but an echo of a centuries-long confrontation between two ancient civilizations, has continued to evolve and take on different meanings.

Generation after generation, it has inspired Jews – and non-Jews – to resist in the face of overwhelming odds, to value freedom above all and to hope against all hope that the Promised Land is always just around the corner.



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