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Bible Q

Why is there so little evidence for both the Exodus and the events described in the Book of Joshua?

Absence of direct evidence for the Exodus is not surprising. Egyptian records are not well preserved, and there are serious gaps in the records due to physical loss or destruction, including an almost complete lack of records during the Exodus era. Egyptians did not differentiate between Semitic groups living in Egypt (and there were many), so all foreign Semitic groups were simply called ‘Habiru’ (this is not the word ‘Hebrew’), meaning that the Hebrews cannot be identified as a distinct ethnic group from among the many foreign ethnic groups which resided in Egypt and around its borders.

It’s true that there is no direct physical evidence in Egypt of the Exodus account.  But this is not unique among Ancient Near East events and historical records. The Battle of Kadesh is another example.  It took place around 1274 BC, and involved 70,000 men (20,000 on the Egyptian side, 50,000 on the Hittite side).  Yet despite knowing when it took place, and the location of the battle, not a scrap of direct archaeological evidence has ever been discovered to verify that it happened, not a single chariot wheel, not a broken sword or spear, not a single skeleton or handful of bones, nor any evidence which might have been expected to have been left by massive troop movements involving tens of thousands of men traveling between Egypt and Syria.

It isn’t unreasonable to expect that a two day battle involving around 60,000 men and around 5,000 chariots would leave some physical evidence, especially since we know exactly where it took place and when, and especially since smaller battles have left abundant remains (the famous last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae is demonstrated by dozens of arrowheads at the place where the Greek records claim they were finally cut down by a shower of enemy arrows). But for the Battle of Kadesh, the only evidence for the battle is indirect, consisting of an Egyptian record and a Hittite record.

The Egyptian record is recognized by historians as a propaganda piece, and the Hittite record consists only of a treaty between the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittites (the Hattusili III treaty), which contains no details of the actual battle.  Scholarly assessments of the Egyptian record as scathing.[1] Archaeologists have been unable to verify independently any of the events recounted in the Egyptian and Hittite records of the Battle of Kadesh.  Knowledge of the battle is inferred entirely from the accounts of Hittite and Egyptian records, both of which disagree with each other (each side claiming victory).  The Egyptian record is the most lengthy and detailed, but contains factual errors, propaganda, references to supernatural events, and hyperbole.

There is however a convergence of indirect evidence supporting the historicity of the Exodus record. Adoption of low born foreigners by high ranking ruling class (as Moses was), ‘is typical enough of the New Kingdom, especially in the Nineteenth (Ramesside) Dynasty of the thirteenth century’ ,[2] with some of these individuals eventually serving at court as cupbearers, royal heralds, scribes, or even high stewards and generals. Foreign corvee labour starts in the New Kingdom, with Nubians and Asiatics specifically mentioned, brick making is the main task, there is a tiered labour management system and brick tallie, all as recorded in Exodus. However, after the New Kingdom, Levantine corvee labourers are used much less, and not for brick building or cultivation, a fact which would have been known only to eyewitnesses of the era.

Work registers record requests for time off to celebrate religious festivals, which are granted, individuals or crews sometimes absent for days at a time, as the Hebrews requested from Pharaoh in the Exodus account. Archaeology has shown that Pi-Ramesses was a city of store houses (as the Exodus account says), but was abandoned by the 12th century and its stonework recycled. Hebrews living later than the Exodus would know nothing of this city’s history; even modern archaeologists confused it with Tanis due to the stones being reused there.

Portable dismountable tabernacles made from skins, with frames in socketed bases (such as the Hebrew Tabernacle was), are known in Egypt from the 3rd to the late 2nd millennium, but ‘Mesopotamia proper (Assyria and Babylonia) shows almost no use at all of such divine tents/tabernacles, at any period’.[3] Kitchen notes ‘only a four-pillared canopy’ from the late 13th century in Ashtur. Metal ritual trumpets are characteristic of the New Kingdom religious practices, used (as with the Hebrews), to assemble people, summon the army to war or announce cultic rituals, just as they are in the Law of Moses.

As for the entry of Israel into Canaan, and the destruction of the inhabitants by Joshua’s armies, this is a topic concerning which much has been written, and over which many archaeologists are still arguing. Most critical scholars believe that there is insufficient evidence to support the traditional reading of Joshua as a lightning conquest of the entire land by Israelite armies.

However, it is generally agreed that Canaan experienced a massive increase in population during this time,[4] and that the Israelites are distinguishable within the historical record. The fact that the new settlement distribution pattern is congruent with the Joshua/Judges records of Israel’s entry into Canaan is significant, and Kitchen points to pottery evidence which likewise follows the distribution pattern contained in the new settlement data and the Judges/Joshua records.

The archaeological evidence is widely understood as distinctively identifying the Israelites through a combination of foodways,[5] [6] [7] [8] architecture, [9] [10] religious practices,[11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] and material culture such as ceramics and large water ‘pithoi’ (storage jars).[17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]


[1] ‘This romanticized record of the Battle of Qadesh cannot be treated as a truthful account of what happened, and I doubt whether many ancient Egyptians would have accepted it wholly as an historical record.’, James, ‘Pharaoh’s People: Scenes from Life in Imperial Egypt’, p. 26 (2007).

[2] Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 297 (2003).

[3] Ibid., pp. 276-277.

[4] ‘Population estimates, based on a well-developed ethnographic parallels and site size, indicate a central hill-country population of only about 12 thousand at the end of the Late Bronze Age (13th century), which then grew rapidly to about 55 thousand by the 12th century) [Early Iron I], then to about 75 thousand by the 11th century.  Such a dramatic “population explosion” cannot be accounted for by natural increase alone, much less by positing small groups of pastoral nomads settling down. Large numbers of people migrated here from somewhere else, strongly motivated to colonize and underpopulated fringe area of urban Canaan, [b]now in decline at the end of the Late Bronze Age.’, Dever, ‘What Did the Biblical Writers Known & When Did They Know It?’, p. 110 (2002); Dever does not personally believe in the Exodus story, and does not attribute this population increase to the Israelites of the Exodus (though he does believe Exodus may contain a valid tradition of ex-corvee Semites who left Egypt and entered Canaan).

[5] Dever, ‘Who Were The Early Israelites And Where Did They Come From?’ (2003).

[6] Finkelstein, ‘Pots and People Revisited: Ethnic Boundaries in the Iron Age I’, in N. A. Silberman & D. Small (eds.), ‘The archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present’ (1997).

[7] King & Stager (eds.), ‘Life In Biblical Israel’ (2001).

[8] Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ (2003).

[9] Bunimovitz & Faust, ‘Building Identity: The Four-Room House and the Israelite Mind’, in Dever & Gitin, ‘Symbiosis, symbolism, and the power of the past: Canaan, Ancient Israel, and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age Through Roman Palaestina: Proceedings of the Centennial Symposium’ (2003).

[10] Dever, ‘Philology, Theology, and Archaeology: What Kind of History of Israel Do We Want, and What Is Possible?’, in N. A. Silberman & D. Small (eds.), ‘The archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present’ (1997).

[11] Ben Tor, ‘The Sad Fate of Statues and the Mutilated Statues of Hazor’, in ‘Confronting the Past’ (1997).

[12] Ben-Tor, ‘Excavating Hazor, Part Two: Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City?’, BAR (May/Jun 1999).

[13] Dever, ‘Who Were The Early Israelites And Where Did They Come From?’ (2003).

[14] Hendel, ‘The Social Origins of the Aniconic Tradition in Early Israel’, CBQ 50 (1988).

[15] Evans, ‘Cult Images, Royal Policies and the Origins of Aniconism’, in S. W. Holloway & L. K. Handy (eds.), ‘The Pitcher is Broken: Memorial Essays for Gösta W. Ahlström’ (1995).

[16] Biran, ‘The High Places of Biblical Dan’, in Mazar (Ed.), ‘Studies in the archaeology of the Iron Age in Israel and Jordan’ (2001).

[17] Dever, ‘Ceramics, Ethnicity, and the Question of Israel’s Origin’, BA 58.4.200–13 (1995).

[18] Zertal, ‘Israel Enters Canaan—Following the Pottery Trail’, BAR 17:05 (Sep/Oct 1991).

[19] Dever, ‘What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?’ (2001).

[20] King & Stager (Eds.), ‘Life In Biblical Israel’ (2001).

[21] Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ (2003).

[22] Fritz, ‘Israelites and Canaanites: You can tell them apart’, BAR 28:04 (July/Aug 2002).

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