Archaeology and the Book of Exodus—Exit From Egypt

Archaeologists have made many significant discoveries that make the book of Exodus and the Israelistes' time in Egypt come alive.

In earlier issues, The Good News examined several archaeological finds that illuminate portions of the book of Genesis. In this issue we continue our exploration of discoveries that illuminate the biblical accounts, focusing on Exodus, the second book of the Bible.

Exodus in English derives from the Latin and means simply "to exit." The book of Exodus describes the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, an event distinguished by a mighty struggle between two unequal opponents. On the one hand was an oppressed nation of slaves and on the other the most powerful nation in the Middle East, if not the world. Viewed strictly physically, the odds in this struggle between Israel and Egypt were stacked against the Israelites.

What has archaeology found that pertains to the Exodus and the Israelites' time in Egypt? Scientists have made several significant discoveries that make this part of the Bible come alive.

Egyptian brick-making

In the book of Exodus we see the Egyptians forcing the Israelites to build great cities for Pharaoh: "Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses" (Exodus 1:11).

Most of us know a little about the Egyptian pyramids, which were built of stone. But not all Egyptian pyramids were made of stone; brick was the principal building material used in the country. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that "throughout Egyptian history sun-dried brick was the chief building material. Stone was reserved for temples and other monumental constructions" (Vol. 1, p. 546).

Therefore the Egyptians needed millions of bricks, and the Israelites labored long and hard to supply the demand. The Egyptians "made their lives bitter with hard bondage-in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field" (Exodus 1:14, emphasis added throughout).

When Moses and Aaron told Pharaoh that God wanted His people, the Israelites, to stop working and observe a religious festival in the wilderness, Pharaoh was incensed. Instead of yielding, he increased the work load: "So the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their officers, saying, 'You shall no longer give the people straw to make brick as before. Let them go and gather straw for themselves'" (Exodus 5:6-7).

This cruel measure added to the Israelites' already arduous tasks. The Israelite slaves had to head for the fields to gather straw to mix with the mud.

The biblical detail about using straw in brick-making is puzzling to some. How, they ask, could the addition of straw as an ingredient make bricks stronger?

In Egypt the mud-straw combination was commonly used to strengthen building blocks. It also prevented the bricks from cracking or losing shape. Modern investigators have run tests that show that when straw is mixed with mud the resulting bricks are three times as strong as those made without straw. Fluids in the straw release humic acid and harden the bricks (Gerald Vardaman, Archaeology and the Living Word , 1966, p. 37). To this day, after thousands of years, mud-brick monuments still stand in Egypt.

The 10 plagues

Egyptology has illuminated our understanding of the Bible's description of the plagues that struck Egypt and led to the Israelites' departure from that land.

The Egyptians were religious people. They had gods for everything and scrupulously tried to please them. They had 39 principal gods, many of them depicted in Egyptian art with animal bodies or heads. In Egyptian temples, priests cared for many types of sacred animals that represented deities.

In one respect the Israelites' exodus out of Egypt was a confrontation between the true God, Yahweh, and the false gods of that land. It would remove any doubt in the Israelites' minds as to who was the true God and which was the true religion. God had in mind not only to take His people from Egypt, but to discourage worship of the supposedly powerful Egyptian gods. He made this clear when He told Moses: "For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord" (Exodus 12:12).

Later, in Numbers 33:4, we read that "on their gods the Lord had executed judgments." God directed each of the 10 plagues against Egyptian gods that ostensibly held sway over an aspect of nature. The plagues represented, collectively, a dramatic demonstration to Israelite and Egyptian alike that the gods were false; they were powerless to come to the aid of anyone who implored them.

An ancient Egyptian calendar reveals numerous holidays dedicated to the gods-so many that it appears that not many working days remained in the year. When Moses told Pharaoh that Israel would leave for several days to celebrate a feast to God, Pharaoh was indignant: "Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go . . . Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people from their work? Get back to your labor" (Exodus 5:2, 4).

Pharaoh apparently thought that the Israelites enjoyed plenty of free time, so he refused the petition. Observing Pharaoh's recalcitrance, God acted.

Plagues against the deities

The first plague was aimed at the most venerable and valuable resource of Egyptian civilization, the powerful Nile River, along with the gods the Egyptians associated with it. Egypt's food supply depended on the flooding of the Nile, as well as its annual deposits of silt to replenish the fertility of the soil. Sometimes, as in Joseph's day, failure of the Nile to overflow its banks would result in a famine. So the Egyptians prayed regularly to their gods for abundant water. The first plague made the water undrinkable and rancid. The fish, a valuable source of food, perished.

The Egyptians counted on the Nile goddess Hapi and the powerful Osiris to protect the Nile. Nothing resulted from the clamor and prayers of the Egyptians that their gods would purify the Nile. Only when Moses and Aaron prayed to the true God were the waters refreshed. Yet Pharaoh remained proud. He believed a host of powerful gods were waiting to do his bidding; indeed Pharaoh himself was considered a god by most Egyptians.

The second plague targeted one of the creatures the Egyptians associated with the Nile. Egyptians worshiped the frog in the form of Heqt, whose statue bore the head of a frog. This god was symbolic of good crops and blessings in the afterlife. Egyptians noticed that, when the Nile reached a certain level and overflowed, frogs abounded. Their presence was an omen of bountiful crops and control of the insect population. A low Nile with few frogs meant a lack of silt, poor crops and many insects.

Heqt, god of the frogs, supposedly controlled the frog population. When the second plague produced too many frogs, it appeared to the Egyptians that the god who governed them had lost control. No amount of prayers and incense altered the situation. Only when the true God intervened did the frogs die and the crisis end.

The third and fourth plagues featured another favorite god of the Egyptians, Kheper, the scarab deity represented by beetles and other insects. The image of the scarab god appeared frequently on amulets. "The cult to flies, and especially of the beetles, was an important part of the ancient Egyptian religion" (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Exegetical Commentary of the Bible , Vol. 1, p. 67). "Various types of beetles were venerated in Egypt; among them the dung beetle [which] became the emblem of resurrection and continual existence . . ." (The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4, p. 258).

When a swarm of lice or gnats (or possibly mosquitoes) and horseflies stung the populace, the court magicians asked the insect god to control them, but to no avail. Only when Pharaoh pleaded with Moses to ask the God of Israel to remove the pests did the plague abate.

Sacred bull

The next plague affected cattle, which the Egyptians considered to be under the control of Apis, the bull god, and Hathor, the cowlike mother goddess. The bull was considered sacred. When the bull in a temple died, it was mummified and buried with great pomp. The fifth plague struck at this mode of worship. "So the Lord did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the children of Israel, not one of them died" (Exodus 9:6). No amount of pagan prayer could alter the outcome.

Next came a plague of boils, which the Egyptians thought they could cure by resorting to their god of medicine, Imhotep, a legendary Egyptian physician who came to be worshiped. They also revered Thoth, the god of magic and healing. But again in this case the boils did not go away. Even worse, the court magicians who besought these entities were themselves covered with the pestilence: "And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians" (verse 11).

Again, Pharaoh and other Egyptians pleaded with Moses that God would take away the problem. God's power to remove this plague served as a witness not only to the Egyptians and the Israelites, but to the rest of the world. God told Pharaoh: "But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth" (verse 16). This witness remains with us today through the Bible account.

The seventh and eighth plagues struck Egypt's crops. First, a horrible hailstorm hit the harvest, then a swarm of locusts completed the destruction. The crops were supposed to be guarded by Seth, the harvest god, and it was up to Nut, the sky goddess, to prevent weather disasters. Yet the pleas of the Egyptians fell on deaf ears. Pharaoh was running out of gods to protect his people.

God strikes the mightiest

The final two plagues were directed at the two mightiest gods of the Egyptians, Ra the chief god, represented by the sun, and Pharaoh himself.

Egyptians believed Ra to be the source of life, bringing light and heat to the earth. The ninth plague brought three days of no sunlight. The darkness was so "thick," says Scripture, that even lamps could not dispel the blackness. "So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another; nor did anyone rise from his place for three days. But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings" (Exodus 10:22-23).

In spite of the prayers and supplications the Egyptians must have offered up to Ra, the sun god did nothing.

The final god in dire need of humbling was Pharaoh himself, who supposedly descended from the god Ra. Pharaoh's patron gods were Osiris, the judge of the dead, and Horus, the god of light. Egyptian worship of the Pharaohs found expression in the construction for their leaders of great pyramids as tombs. The 10th plague struck even the offspring of the Egyptians' man-god.

Pharaoh himself was powerless to stop the death of his firstborn son, who was next in line to sit worthy of Egyptians' worship. "And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock" (Exodus 12:29). With his gods impotent and humiliated, mighty Pharaoh finally relented, and the Exodus of the children of Israel began.

Future issues of The Good News will present more archaeological evidence that illuminates the historical account of the book of Exodus.

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