In 2013 Rabbi David Wolpe asserted in print and at the pulpit that the historical Exodus was a fiction. He based this conclusion on what he believed was (lack of) archaeological evidence. A common mistake. This lead biblical historian Richard Elliot Friedman (someone who's conclusions I generally have significant issues with) to respond in the following way:
After reading those articles, your readers may have concluded that scholarship shows that the Exodus is fictional, when, in fact, that is not so. There is archaeological evidence and especially textual evidence for the Exodus.
I respect Professor Sperling and Rabbi Wolpe. They were understandably following the claims of some of our archaeologists. Those archaeologists’ claims that the Exodus never happened are not based on evidence, but largely on its absence. They assert that we’ve combed the Sinai and not found any evidence of the mass of millions of people whom the Bible says were there for 40 years. That assertion is just not true. There have not been many major excavations in the Sinai, and we most certainly have not combed it. Moreover, uncovering objects buried 3,200 years ago is a daunting endeavor. An Israeli colleague laughingly told me that a vehicle that had been lost in the 1973 Yom Kippur War was recently uncovered under 16 meters—that’s 52 feet—of sand. Fifty-two feet in 40 years!
Ok, so that helps us to understand that our inability to locate the "Moses was here" plaque is not as conclusive a matter as some would have us believe. But what about positive evidence? What "archaeological and textual evidence" is professor Friedman referring to?
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University, recently wrote a piece for Mosaic Magazine entitled "Was There an Exodus?" in which he claimed to be revealing evidence "for the first time" for the historicity of the Exodus account. What follows is a summation of some of that evidence:
- There is rich evidence that West-Semitic populations lived in the eastern Nile delta—what the Bible calls Goshen—for most of the second millennium. Some were slaves, some were raised in Pharaoh’s court, and some, like Moses, bore Egyptian names.
- We know today that the great pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE, built a huge administrative center out of mudbrick in an area where large Semitic populations had lived for centuries. It was called Pi-Ramesses. Exodus (1:11) specifies that the Hebrew slaves built the cities of Pithom and Ramesses, a possible reference to Pi-Ramesses. The site was abandoned by the pharaohs two centuries later.
- In the exodus account, pharaohs are simply called “Pharaoh,” whereas in later biblical passages, Egyptian monarchs are referred to by their proper name, as in “Pharaoh Necho” (2 Kings 23:29). This, too, echoes usage in Egypt itself, where, from the middle of the second millennium until the tenth century BCE, the title “Pharaoh” was used alone.
- The names of various national entities mentioned in the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18)—Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, et al.—are all found in Egyptian sources shortly before 1200 BCE; about this, the book of Exodus is again correct for the period.
- The stories of the exodus and the Israelites’ subsequent wanderings in the wilderness reflect sound acquaintance with the geography and natural conditions of the eastern Nile delta, the Sinai peninsula, the Negev, and Transjordan.
- The book of Exodus (13:17) notes that the Israelites chose not to traverse the Sinai peninsula along the northern, coastal route toward modern-day Gaza because that would have entailed military engagement. The discovery of extensive Egyptian fortifications all along that route from the period in question confirms the accuracy of this observation.
- Archaeologists have documented hundreds of new settlements in the land of Israel from the late-13th and 12th centuries BCE, congruent with the biblically attested arrival there of the liberated slaves; strikingly, these settlements feature an absence of the pig bones normally found in such places. Major destruction is found at Bethel, Yokne’am, and Hatzor—cities taken by Israel according to the book of Joshua. At Hatzor, archaeologists found mutilated cultic statues, suggesting that they were repugnant to the invaders.
- The earliest written mention of an entity called “Israel” is found in the victory inscription of the pharaoh Merneptah from 1206 BCE. In it the pharaoh lists the nations defeated by him in the course of a campaign to the southern Levant; among them, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more.” “Israel” is written in such a way as to connote a group of people, not an established city or region, the implication being that it was not yet a fully settled entity with contiguous control over an entire region. This jibes with the Bible’s description in Joshua and Judges of a gradual conquest of the land.
- Professor Berman gives a good deal of background for the remainder of his piece on the similarities between the structures of the Tabernacle and the battle compound of Ramesses II as well as the Book of Exodus's "Song of the Sea" and an Egyptian battle hymn known as the "Kadesh Poem." He explains that Maimonides held that the Torah makes liberal use of the material of other nations as a kind of "cultural appropriation." But in this case, how could the Torah's author have known about the details of these highly specific Egyptian references had they not been privy to them - as part of that culture? As Rabbi Berman explains:
The evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate.
Like many events that occurred in the past and are explored through sciences such as forensics, evolutionary biology and archaeology, researchers are working with only limited and fragmentary information as R Berman says, "Proofs exist in geometry, and sometimes in law, but rarely within the fields of biblical studies and archaeology. As is so often the case, the record at our disposal is highly incomplete, and speculation about cultural transmission must remain contingent." Ultimately, the "mesorah" - the Judaic chain of transmission from one generation to the next - speaks to me more than whatever biblical scholarship and archaeology "dig up," but for those who need an official scientific stamp of approval before taking something seriously, this is real grist for the mill.
For further reference, please check out http://www.patternsofevidence.com/en/ and read Professor Ken Kitchen's "On the Reliability of the Old Testament."