Beginning tonight, we celebrate our miraculous deliverance from the slavery of Egypt. Yet supposedly there is nothing in Egyptian records to support the Exodus.
Absent any evidence that the story is even remotely true, why should we take any of it seriously?
And why did we go through all the painstaking work of preparing to celebrate what so many biblical scholars and others insist was a fictional event? Why do we even need a special ritual — the seder — to mark a made-up story?
Why is it so important that the Exodus really happened?
It is because everything we are supposed to be is built around it.
At Mount Sinai, we were told: “I, the Lord, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Because of that, the Torah tells us over and again in almost those exact words that we have to follow God’s laws. That is true even if a specific law does not directly reference the Exodus. Says Leviticus 19:36-37, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall observe all My laws and all My rules to do them: I am the Lord.”
Because God brought us out of Egypt, we may not defraud anyone or steal from anyone, mislead anyone, or lie about anyone. We must treat everyone as our equals. We must feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. We must protect the environment, and we must protect the health and well-being of all living creatures, great and small.
If the Exodus did not happen, however, then these laws—especially the Torah’s moral and ethical code—are nothing more than the whims of anonymous authors, just as the naysayer scholars insist.
The Exodus, though, did happen, although not necessarily exactly the way the Torah describes it. The text was not written by an ordinary historian, who reports on events as they are seen to occur. It was written by a sacred historian who views events through a special God-centered lens. If it is cloudy outside, the historian reports that moisture in the air formed those clouds. The sacred historian, on the other hand, reports that God covered the sun.
That Egyptian records never mention the Exodus is meaningless because Egypt’s rulers turned obliterating any evidence of anything that reflected negatively on them into an art form. Those records, though, do provide circumstantial proof to support the probability that the Exodus happened.
So we do have to take the Torah’s laws, especially its code of ethics and morality, seriously.
Here, in much too brief form, is some of that circumstantial evidence that supports the Exodus story.
The story rises or falls on the existence of Joseph at its beginning and Moses at its end. We have to find a 430-year period in Egyptian history in which this story could have occurred—including events during that time that could explain the events the Torah relates.
The end date would seem easiest because the Torah tells us the Israelites were forced to build two cities, Pithom and Rameses, which we know were built in the 13th century B.C.E. by Rameses II. He even bragged on a stele that foreign slaves, including “Asiatics” (how Egyptians referred to Semites from Canaan), built these cities. That would seem to be where we would find the end date.
Geography plays a role, as well. Egypt’s seat of government at both ends of the story had to be hundreds of miles to the north of Thebes and Memphis, Egypt’s traditional capitals. That is because both Joseph and Moses had to travel back and forth easily from pharaoh’s palace to where the Israelites lived, in Goshen, in the Nile Delta region.
The Nile Delta, in fact, is where the Ramesside pharaohs set their capital in Moses’ day, and they did so on virtually the same spot that served as Egypt’s capital in Joseph’s day, when a portion of the country was ruled by people coming from Canaan — the people commonly (but erroneously) known as Hyksos, all of whom had Semitic names.
Dating almost anything in ancient Egypt is problematic. Joseph likely arrived in Egypt at the start of the reign of the Hyksos Pharaoh Salitis, which was in 1674 B.C.E. according to some Egyptologists. That is 451 years before the death in 1223 B.C.E. of Merneptah, the most likely pharaoh of the Exodus. Israel lived in Egypt for 430 years. Joseph’s family does not arrive there until 22 years after he does. If we subtract 22 from 451, we get 429 years from Israel’s arrival until Merneptah’s death.
In between these dates, something dramatic happened to explain how Israel went from being protected minority landholders to being Egypt’s slaves. That something may well have been the rise of the 18th Dynasty king Akhenaten and his unsuccessful religious revolution. Although Akhenaten was not a monotheist, monotheism would have been the logical result of his reforms had they been allowed to survive and evolve.
The Egyptian elite, however, did not want his reforms to survive. They did everything they could to obliterate any memory of those reforms, which likely included terrorizing a large group of people with its own monotheistic tradition.
At both ends, we find matters deserving of much more investigation than scholars are inclined to make—including learning more about Salitis’ successor as pharaoh, whose name archaeology confirms was Jacob, and why Egypt and its economy totally collapsed on Merneptah’s death in Moses’ day. In the middle of all this we have the Akhenaten episode.
We also have a series of annoying coincidences that the Exodus deniers simply ignore or make up facts to explain, such as that the Israelites turned the Pharaoh Jacob (according to some scholars, he ruled Egypt for 17 years and died in his 18th) into the Patriarch Jacob (he lived in Egypt for 17 years and died in his 18th). That “Jacob” is Coincidence No. 1.
Coincidence No. 2: The modern name of the out-of-the-way area Akhenaten chose for his new capital is Amarna, because at the time it was discovered there was a tribe living there known as the Bene Amran. It had supposedly migrated there around 200 years earlier. Bene Amran means the Children of Amran in Arabic, and it translates in Hebrew as the B’nai Amram, the Children of Amram. We know three B’nai Amram from the Exodus story — Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—yet who the Bene Amran might have been goes uninvestigated.
Coincidence No. 3: Across the Nile from Akhenaten’s capital there is the city of Malawi. Mal in Arabic could mean property, estate, or capital. Lawi is Arabic for the name Levi. So Malawi could mean the property of Levi, or the estate of Levi, or the capital of Levi. (The naysayers claim that Malawi is Coptic for City of Textiles.) Did Akhenaten locate his capital in what was the middle of nowhere because the Levites living nearby had influenced him somehow?
Coincidence No. 4: According to some Egyptologists, Rameses II’s reign lasted 67 years. Merneptah’s reign, they say, lasted 13 years. Add 67 years to 13 years and we get 80 years—precisely the age the Torah claims Moses was when he led Israel out of Egypt.
Coincidence No. 5: Under Rameses II “the Great,” Egypt reportedly was in the sunshine of its life. Merneptah reportedly did nothing during the next 13 years to diminish any of his father’s accomplishments. And yet, when Merneptah died, Egypt was plunged suddenly into a darkness from which it never again fully emerged. There was civil unrest that went unchecked, a usurped throne, an army in such disarray that foreign invaders from Lebanon could grab territory with impunity, a slave-driven economy in such collapse that it would take 75 years to recover. Egyptian records confirm that these things happened but are silent about why they happened. The Torah, on the other hand, does tell us: God and Moses had brought Egypt to its knees.
Supposedly, the name Moses appears nowhere in Egyptian records. That is untrue. “Moses” is an Egyptian surname signifying birth. Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty bore that surname, as did two 19th Dynasty kings—Rameses I and II. (Rameses, or Ramoses, means Ra is born.) The man who usurped the throne on Merneptah’s death was named Amenmose. He is sometimes referred to in Egyptian records simply as Moses.
We may not know our Moses’ full name, but the name does appear in Egyptian records.
These facts and coincidences (there are more of both, but space is limited) fit the biblical account into the historical one. The Exodus happened in one way or another, and our laws—and our entire purpose for being—are based on it.
“I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall observe all My laws and all My rules to do them: I am the Lord.”
May you all have meaningful sedarim, and a kosher and happy Pesach.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.