2017 YAMAUCHI LECTURE

 


 

EVIDENCE FOR THE EXODUS

 

by Doug Ward



OXFORD, OHIO-Some people seem destined from birth to follow a certain path in life.1 Professor James K. Hoffmeier of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School may be one of them.

 

Hoffmeier, the son of Christian missionaries, grew up in Egypt, where he was surrounded by the relics of a great ancient civilization. Not surprisingly, he became interested in learning more about that civilization and its connections with the Bible.

 

In addition, around the time Hoffmeier was born, a British university student came to faith in Jesus Christ. Along with other Christian students, this young man began to pray on a regular schedule for a group of missionaries. In particular, every month there was a day on which he prayed for Hoffmeier.

 

That young man, it turns out, was Kenneth Kitchen, who went on to become one of the world's foremost Egyptologists and a formidable advocate for the historical validity of the Bible.2 When Hoffmeier met Kitchen years later, he found out that Kitchen had been praying for him throughout his life. Therefore it seems entirely fitting that Hoffmeier would follow in Kitchen's footsteps as an Egyptologist and defender of the faith.

 

Slaves in Egypt



Egypt is the setting for some of the key events in the biblical narrative-the migration of Jacob's family from Canaan to Egypt, followed by centuries of slavery and a dramatic exodus. Some skeptics doubt that these events ever occurred, citing the lack of direct historical evidence of Israel's presence in Egypt.3 Other scholars, including Kitchen and Hoffmeier, counter that the biblical account is consistent with what we know of Egyptian history. Hoffmeier has compiled historical evidence of this consistency in two meticulously researched volumes, Israel in Egypt (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Ancient Israel in Sinai (Oxford University Press, 2005). On March 4, 2017, he gave an overview of the evidence in a lecture at Miami University entitled "New Evidence from Egypt for the Exodus."

 

Hoffmeier began by considering the biblical account of the enslavement of the Israelites in Exodus 1:11, which states that the Egyptians "put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh" (NIV). Verse 14 adds that the Egyptians "made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields." This description of slave labor is consistent with wall paintings found at the tomb of Rekhmire, an Egyptian vizier from the early fifteenth century B.C. One painting shows foreign workers, including Nubians and Syrians, making bricks under the supervision of taskmasters. The Egyptians often brought back slaves from their military campaigns and set them to work. Hoffmeier mentioned that most vintners in Egypt in those days were from Canaan.

 

Hoffmeier explained that archaeologists have found examples of "store cities" like those mentioned in Exodus 1:11. These storage facilities were attached to palaces and temples. He showed a picture of some vaulted arch mud brick storage facilities from a funerary temple for Rameses II built 3300 years ago. This store city survives because it was built in a dry region of southern Egypt. The area of Goshen, where the Israelites settled (Gen 46-47), was much wetter, which is likely one reason we have not found direct evidence of the Israelite presence in Egypt.

 

A work roster from the Egyptian village of Deir el-Medina mentions that workers could be excused for religious holidays, the kind of thing requested by Moses in Exod 5:1. (Perhaps the God of Israel was not on their list of approved deities-Exod 5:2). Supervisors did impose quotas on workers-even Egyptians ones-as mentioned in Exod 5:13.

 

Egyptian Names



One strong line of evidence that Israel was once in Egypt comes from the presence of many Egyptian names among the Israelites, starting with Moses and Aaron. Hoffmeier presented a list of several of these names.4 Aaron's grandson Phineas, for instance, had an Egyptian name meaning "the Nubian." Hophni, the brother of a later Phineas (1 Sam 1:3), had a name meaning "tadpole." The names Merari and Miriam probably come from an Egyptian name meaning "love" or "beloved."

 

Several names of Israelites are related to Egyptian deities. The names Hori (Num 13:5) and Hur (Exod 17:10, 12; 24:14), for example, come from the name of the sky god Horus, as does Harnepher (1 Chron 7:36), which means "Horus is good" or "Horus is beautiful." Assir (Exod 6:24) could come from the name of the god Osiris or from an Egyptian word for a tamarisk tree. Ahira (Num 1:15) could mean "brother of Re," the Egyptian sun god. Hoffmeier has suggested that Jeremoth (1 Chron 7:7-8) means "begotten of Mut," an Egyptian goddess. Such names would not have been invented by Israelite writers centuries later. Israelite theophoric names (names containing the name of a deity) from the time of David and later used "el" (for God) or "yah" (for Yahweh).

 

The biblical Exodus account also makes frequent reference to Egyptian place names. One of the most important is Rameses (Exod 12:37; Num 33:2-5), the starting point of the Exodus. This city was known as Pi-Ramesses ("house of Rameses") and was built by Pharaoh Rameses II in the northeastern Nile delta region. It was a capital city that flourished for about two centuries starting in 1270 BC. Its location (at a place now called Qantir) was identified by archaeologist Labib Habachi in the 1950s, and German archaeologists have been excavating there since the 1980s. The royal stables in that ancient city could have held up to 500 horses or outfitted 250 chariots. Based on magnetometer surveys, the area of Pi-Ramesses has been estimated at ten square kilometers, giving it the largest area of any known city in the ancient world.

 

This capital city fell into disuse when the course of the Nile shifted, and it was replaced by a city known as Tanis or Zoan, which was located twelve miles from Pi-Ramesses. Zoan was occupied from 1070 BC until Roman times, and it is mentioned in the Bible in several places (Ps 78:12, 43; Isa 19:11, 13; 30:4; Ezek 30:14). The mention of the city of Pi-Ramesses in the books of Exodus and Numbers shows that the authors of the Torah had knowledge of Egypt going back to the time when that city still existed.

 

Locating the Route of the Exodus



The Bible reports when the Israelites departed from Egypt, they did not take "the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter." (Exod 13:17) Instead they went by the safer but more indirect "desert road" (v. 18).

 

Hoffmeier explained that "the road through the Philistine country" was a road along the Mediterranean coast. We know something about it from a relief on the outer wall of the Great Karnak Temple in southern Egypt. The relief depicts Seti I (the father of Rameses II), Pharaoh from 1294 to 1279 B.C., returning from battle on this road, which the Egyptians called the way of Horus. Including in the relief are pictures of a series of forts stretching from Egypt to Gaza. On the Egyptian border is the Fortress Tjaru (pronounced "Charoo"), which Hoffmeier jokingly referred to as "Checkpoint Tjaru." After that come the "Dwelling of the Lion" and "Migdol of Seti I."

 

Using satellite images of the region, archaeologists know the location of the ancient Mediterranean coast and the coastal road. The road was paved with crushed limestone, Hoffmeier noted, because chariots cannot be driven over sand. They have also found the Fortress Tjaru, a large structure that measured 800 meters by 400 meters. (Two inscriptions at the site, found in 1999 and 2005, identify it as Tjaru.) More forts have also been found, and Hoffmeier believes that he has identified the locations of the Dwelling of the Lion (at a site called Tell el Borg) and the Migdol of Seti I. The excavations at Tell el Borg have found evidence of chariots.

 

Based on this information, we can see why the Israelites did not take the coastal road. To the north of this road was the sea, and to the south a branch of the Nile and a marshy wetland. On the road were massive forts that travelers could not avoid. And so the Israelites, instead of going northwest on the coastal road, went southwest to Succoth (Exod 12:37; Num 33:5), a place known today as Maskhuta.

 

After that, however, God directed Israel to "encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea" (Exod 14:2). Hoffmeier noted that the name Migdol was not common in Egypt, and so the Migdol in Exodus 14 is probably the site of the third Egyptian fort, the Migdol of Seti I. Migdol was located in the region of the Ballah Lakes, and Hoffmeier believes that these lakes could have been the famous Yam Suf ("Sea of Reeds") where the Israelites were saved and the Egyptian army drowned. Geologists estimate that the water there was 18 feet deep, deep enough to swallow up Egypt's chariots.

 

Archaeological evidence from Egypt continues to accumulate and also to corroborate the biblical account, as Hoffmeier's fascinating lecture demonstrated.


Footnotes:

1Think, for instance, of Jeremiah, whom God consecrated as a prophet before he was born (Jer 1:5).

 

2See On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003.

 

3For example, Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has referred to the narrative of Genesis and Exodus as "a brilliant product of the human imagination" (The Bible Unearthed, Free Press, 2001, pp. 7-8.)

 

4Hoffmeier discusses this topic in Chapter 10 of Israel in Sinai.

Issue 33

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