Did pharaoh’s daughter find baby Moses in an ark of bulrushes in the reeds by the bank of the river and raise him as her son? Did Moses become the leader of the slave nation of Israel? Did Moses lead Israel out of Egypt in a great exodus after humiliating the pharaoh through miracles of God?
During my investigation into the claims of theism more than 40 years ago, specifically Christianity, I had learned that many archaeological discoveries during the 19th and 20th centuries AD supported a variety of truth claims in the Bible from the 19th and 20th centuries BC. However, no truth claim of the Old Testament may have been more of a challenge than the supposed exodus of Israel from Egypt. Anyone who had any knowledge of ancient civilizations knew there was not a shred of evidence that the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt was true – including no archaeological discovery.
Or so I thought.
I was helped to a great degree during my investigation by two men, Dr. Edward Hindson and Rev. Terry Lytle. I had interviewed Terry on my radio talk show and he introduced me to Ed Hindson. They worked together in the same office and I visited them as often as I could with the kinds of questions an atheist would ask Christians.
Both Terry and Ed were a great help to me as I researched the truth claims of the New Testament, but Ed was especially helpful as I looked at the Old Testament evidences. He was a young scholar at the time having just published The Philistines and the Old Testament as part of the Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology. Ed told me he was indebted to a Professor Charles Shaw who first introduced him to the serious study of the Old Testament and archaeology. I am also indebted to Professor Shaw because of what I learned from his student.
Dr. Hindson introduced me to the archaeological expeditions of people like Dr. John Garstang, Dame Kathleen Kenyon, E.A. Wallis Budge, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, William F. Albright, R. A. Stewart Macalister, Howard F. Vos, Joseph P. Free, Henri Édouard Naville, James Henry Breasted, Auguste Mariette and Nelson Glueck.
However, could any of these or other archaeologists shine any light on the Israelite exodus story in the Bible? Let’s begin with the death of Joseph and a pharaoh who did not know him
“And Joseph died, all his brothers, and all that generation. But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel. So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage—in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.” Exodus 1:6-14
Could this be true? If Joseph had done all the Bible claims he did for the Egyptian people, how could any pharaoh not know about him? Why would the new pharaoh fear the children of Israel? Why would he want to make them slaves of Egypt?
I was introduced to a group of pharaohs known as the Hyksos. Egyptologists like John Garstang, Percy E. Newberry and others dated the reign of the Hyksos pharaohs to Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (between Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom). Date estimates for that period are early 18th century to middle 16th century BC. That’s the same period estimated for Joseph and his family moving to Egypt and settling into the northern Delta region.
Egyptologists believe the Hyksos were an ethnic mix of Semitic-Asiatics who immigrated to the Delta region of Egypt and settled there during the Middle Kingdom period. The Egyptian word heqa-khase meant “rulers of foreign lands.” Egyptologists believe the first Hyksos pharaoh was able to gain control of Lower Egypt (northern part) because of weak rulers toward the end of the Middle Kingdom.
Salitis is believed to have been the first Hyksos pharaoh – beginning the 15th Egyptian Dynasty from his capital in Avaris. Native Egyptian pharaohs continued to rule Upper Egypt (southern part) at the same time from Thebes and battle with the Hyksos to the north. The Egyptian 16th and 17th Dynasties run concurrently with the Hyksos 15th Dynasty. Successful military campaigns at the end of the 17th century played a vital role in the Egyptians defeating the Hyksos. Ahmose 1 finished the fight against the Hyksos and was able to reunite Upper and Lower Egypt in what became known as the 18th Egyptian Dynasty and beginning of the New Kingdom.
Understanding the history of Egypt during the 2nd Intermediate period could explain why Ahmose I did not know Joseph and would have been concerned about a large group of Semitic-Asiatics (Hebrews) living in the Delta region formerly ruled by the Hyksos. There would have been more Hebrews in the Delta region than Egyptians since the Hyksos would have known Joseph and approved of the Hebrews living there. Ahmose I may have viewed the Hebrews as a risk in case the Hyksos would try to return and fight again. He may have viewed the Hebrews as having more loyalty to the Hyksos than to him and Egyptians from the south. What might have made the most sense to Ahmose I for the security of the reunification of Upper and Lower Egypt was to force the Hebrews into rigorous service. However, it did not accomplish all that the pharaoh wanted.
“But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel.” Exodus 1:12
The pharaoh made the lives of the Israelites “bitter with hard bondage,” but even that was not enough to control the population growth of the Hebrews. So, the pharaoh introduced a new plan for population control (or eventual extermination).
“Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah; and he said, ‘When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.” Exodus 1:15-17
Archaeologists found evidence of midwives and special birthing areas, including birthing stools, to at least the New Kingdom period. Children were important to the ancient Egyptians and were called “the staff of old age” because they would help their aging parents at the end of their lives. Killing the baby boys would certainly impact the future of the people of Israel in many ways.
Exodus 2 is the story of a Hebrew woman who gave birth to a boy. She hid the child for three months, then placed the boy in an “ark of bulrushes, daubed it with asphalt and pitch, put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank.” The sister of the baby boy watch from a distance to see what would happen.
“Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Exodus 2:5-6
According to the story, pharaoh’s daughter kept the child as her son and called his name Moses. Is there any archaeological evidence that anything about this story is true?
Egyptologists discovered that the name “Moses” or “Mose” was not unusual for the 18th Dynasty. The names of pharaohs of that dynasty included Ahmose (I) and Thutmose ( I – IV). In fact, the name was known in earlier dynasties. Two of the Egyptian pharaohs from the 16th Dynasty were named Dedumose (I & II) and two from the 17th Dynasty were Ahmose and Kamose. Also, using asphalt (Hebrew chemar – bitumin) and pitch (Hebrew zepheth) to make something waterproof was well known in the New Kingdom and had been used for centuries before that. It was plentiful as were the bulrushes (Hebrew cuph – reeds) that grew in the shallow water at the edge of a river.
Archaeologists discovered that Ahmose I married his sister, Ahmose-Nefertiri. They had many sons and daughters. One of their daughters may have been the woman who adopted Moses and brought him into the palace – maybe.
In our next post, we’ll look at the life of Moses to see if there’s any reason to believe any of it is true.
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”