The Historicity of the Exodus from Egypt
As with the ancestral narratives in Genesis, there is no direct connection between bibli‐ cal traditions in Exodus and other ancient sources. Egyptian records contain no mention of the major individuals and events of the narrative in Exod. chs 1–15 : Moses, Aaron, the plagues, and the defeat of the Egyptian army at the sea are completely absent from the extensive documentation we have for ancient Egypt. Again, the biblical sources are frustratingly unspecific and at places contradictory. Neither the pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1.8 ) nor the pharaoh of the exodus itself (Exod. chs 5–15 ) is named. The only precise detail in the narrative is the store cities named in Exod. 1.11 , but both their precise location and the dates when they were founded and occupied are uncertain, and their inclusion could also be anachronistic. As with the ancestral narratives in Gen. chs 12–50 , the exodus narrative has been shaped by centuries of transmission and redaction, and should not be taken at face value as a historical record, although it is clearly central to the self‐identity of Israel.
The first fixed datum, one of great importance, is a victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203). In it he claims to have defeated various enemies in Canaan, including the identifiable cities of Gezer, Yanoam, and Ashkelon, and in the same geographical region, a group identified as Israel. Though it is doubtful that the victory celebrated on the stela is as complete as claimed, it is clear that by the end of the 13th century BCE the Egyptians knew of the existence of a geopolitical entity called Israel in the land of Canaan.
That some type of exodus took place may be a reasonable inference, given the persistence of the exodus tradition in the Bible and its presence in the earliest biblical poetry (notably Exod. ch 15 ), and some smaller details, such as the Egyptian names of Moses, Aaron, and Phinehas. The event must have involved fewer people than the exaggerated biblical numbers (see Exod. 12.37 ) indicate, and may have constituted little more than the escape of a relatively small group of Hebrews from forced labor in the eastern Nile delta, most likely in the 13th century. Given the lack of historical data, it is impossible to say more.
That group, whatever its size, interpreted its escape as the direct intervention of its god YHVH on its behalf, to be celebrated in hymns and magnified in importance as it was told and retold. When the group eventually entered Canaan, at a time when there was no centralized power to oppose it, it joined with others and eventually became the twelve‐tribe confederation of Israel.