“Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.’ Then Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the rod of God in his hand. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn.So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.” Exodus 4:19-23
The Bible story about Moses is about to get extremely supernatural. So far, except for the burning bush incident, the story about Moses seemed plausible, but now God is sending Moses back to Egypt to do “wonders before Pharaoh”.
As an atheist, I saw this part of the story as myth/legend/fairytale. The rest of Exodus seemed false because it was a supernatural being commanding human beings how to live, where to go, what to do, what to believe.
How in the world could I investigate something like the ten plagues and parting of the sea so the children of Israel could escape from Egyptian soldiers? How could I investigate the people of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years with supernatural provisions, protection and discipline from God? How could I investigate a man named Joshua leading the wandering Israelites from the desert into Canaan to fight against foreign peoples and capture cities and land for themselves? How as an atheist who vehemently denied the existence of God and the supernatural could I possibly investigate this subject honestly and objectively?
I turned to history and archaeology to see what answers might lie there.
I had spent enough time investigating the Bible to see that the writing style was more historical than allegorical or fanciful. Even though I seriously doubted that the stories in the Bible were true, I could see that whoever wrote the Bible presented the information as historical fact. It was as if the author of Exodus actually believed that what he wrote was true.
The story of Moses and Israel as told in the Book of Exodus did not paint Moses and Israel in bright, fancy colors. Some of what was recorded about them was dark and ugly. Even though I didn’t believe the story was true, I had to admit that the author did not try to sugarcoat the story. Moses looked weak and unsure of himself at times and the people of Israel looked to me like a bunch of losers at times. Why would someone make up a story about God and His people that made the people of God look so bad?
Journalism is a discipline of verification. Evidence is found, tested and weighed for reliability. Truth is the objective and true objectivity is the goal. It’s a discipline because every journalist has personal biases, which is natural for being human. The discipline is to follow the journalistic method to the best of one’s ability and commitment so that truth is discovered, verified and reported with objectivity and fairness. A journalist’s first obligation is to the truth.
Journalists who follow the discipline of verification want to talk with eyewitnesses, walk “the scene” of the story and pick apart every aspect of it, look at all the available evidence, research every possible way to look at the story, cover it from all sides. However, the task of personally interviewing eyewitnesses becomes impossible when those witnesses died hundreds or thousands of years ago. Verifying available evidence is also a challenge for journalists when the evidence is centuries old.
The Bible’s version of Israel and Moses is one side of the story. What about other sides, like Egypt and Canaan? Did those sides have anything to say about Israel and Moses? For that historical information and verification we must turn to archaeology.
Archaeology is “a science that deals with past human life and activities by studying the bones, tools, etc., of ancient people” (Merriam-Webster.com). The person who specializes in the study of the science of archaeology is known as an archaeologist. As with other scientists, archaeologists follow a scientific method that is continually evaluated and fashioned to improve the science and ensure the reliability of their findings. The archeological findings I studied in 1971 came from archaeological digs done in the 19th and 20th centuries. The scientific methods saw great improvement during the 20th century, giving journalists a better and more verifiable view inside the history of the ancient past.
The Bible’s story about Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery presents God as the victor and Egypt as the defeated. In fact, the Bible presents the defeat of the Egyptian pharaoh as “destruction.” The Bible quotes the servants of the pharaoh pleading with him after the seventh of ten plagues in Egypt.
“Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” Exodus 10:7
How did Egyptian historians record the great destruction described in the Bible? I looked, but didn’t find much written about it. However, that wasn’t necessarily proof the events didn’t happen. Here is one perspective available to my investigation in 1971.
“Unfortunately for us, the Egyptians never preserved in their inscriptions anything uncomplimentary to themselves; therefore we gain no help from such sources as to when the Exodus occurred or even whether or not there was such an event. So, when seeking to solve problems of this nature, we must turn to other avenues of information.” (Dr. Howard F. Vos, An Introduction to Bible Archaeology, Moody Press, 1956, p. 59)
How did ancient civilizations “report” their news? They didn’t have radio, television, magazines or newspapers. We didn’t even have the Internet and social media in 1971! The methods of “mass” communication thousands of years ago included fires, smoke signals, drums, horns, cave drawings, petroglyphs, pictograms, ideograms, writing (e.g. logograms, cuneiform, alphabet), carvings, art work and, of course, speeches and theatrical productions. The important thing was that people wanted to communicate and found lots of creative ways to do it.
The famous British Egyptologist Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner translated an ancient document in 1909 that had been in the Leiden Museum in Holland since the early part of the 19th century. The Ipuwer Papyrus (Papyrus Leiden 344) became known as The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage from a Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden.
The following graphic comparison of the Ipuwer Papyrus and events recorded in Exodus is courtesy of Ohr Somayach Institutions www.ohr.edu.
|IPUWER PAPYRUS – LEIDEN 344||TORAH – EXODUS|
|2:5-6 Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere.2:10 The river is blood.2:10 Men shrink from tasting – human beings, and thirst after water3:10-13 That is our water! That is our happiness! What shall we do in respect thereof?
All is ruin.
|7:20 …all the waters of the river were turned to blood.7:21 …there was
blood thoughout all the land of Egypt …and the river stank.7:24 And all the Egyptians dug around the river for water to drink; for they could not
drink of the water of the river.
|2:10 Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire.10:3-6 Lower Egypt
weeps… The entire palace is without its revenues. To it belong [by right] wheat and
barley, geese and fish6:3 Forsooth, grain has perished on every side.5:12 Forsooth, that has perished which was yesterday seen. The land is left over to its
weariness like the cutting of flax.
|9:23-24 …and the fire ran along the ground… there was hail, and fire mingled with
the hail, very grievous.9:25 …and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke
every tree of the field.9:31-32 …and the flax and the barley was smitten; for the barley was in season, and
flax was ripe.But the wheat and the rye were not smitten; for they were not grown up.10:15 …there remained no green things in the trees, or in the herbs of the fields,
through all the land of Egypt.
|5:5 All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan…9:2-3 Behold, cattle are left to
stray, and there is none to gather them together.
|9:3 …the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field… and there
shall be a very grievous sickness.9:19 …gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in
the field…9:21 And he that did not fear the word of the Lord left his servants and cattle in the
|9:11 The land is without light||10:22 And there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt.|
|4:3 (5:6) Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.6:12
Forsooth, the children of princes are cast out in the streets.6:3 The prison is ruined.2:13 He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.3:14 It is groaning throughout the land, mingled with lamentations
|12:29 And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the
land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of
the captive that was in the prison.12:30 …there was not a house where there was not
one dead.12:30 …there was a great cry in Egypt.
|7:1 Behold, the fire has mounted up on high. Its burning goes forth against the
enemies of the land.
|13:21 … by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar
of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.
|3:2 Gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze… are fastened
on the neck of female slaves.
|12:35-36 …and they requested from the Egyptians, silver and gold articles and
clothing. And God made the Egyptians favour them and they granted their request. [The
Israelites] thus drained Egypt of its wealth.
While there are similarities between the two documents, there are also disagreements among archaeologists about which document was written first. Ipuwer has been dated between the 19th and 17th centuries B.C. (approximately), while Exodus has been dated between the 15th centuries and 14th centuries B.C.(approximately). If Exodus was written before or about the same time as the Ipuwer Papyrus, then there is the possibility of a connection between the two. However, if Ipuwer was written first, especially if by centuries, the connection seems improbable. While not a slam dunk to my investigation, I did find the evidence interesting and worthy of notation.
The next question on my mind at the time was whether a nation of slaves could have escaped from captivity and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before conquering established city-states in Canaan. Be sure to join me for the next chapter of Convince Me There’s A God.