Digging out the truth of Exodus
Egyptologist Manfred Bietak was reading a 60-year-old report of a dig near Luxor in Egypt when a surprising find caught his eye. Near a mortuary temple from the 12th century B.C., archaeologists had uncovered a grid of shallow trenches, which they guessed was the base of a workers' hut. Bietak, head of the Institute of Egyptology at Vienna University, recognized the floor plan as that of the four-room houses used by almost all Israelites from the 12th to the sixth century B.C. What was it doing in Egypt? If Bietak is right, the trenches could be the first physical evidence for the Bible story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.
The literal truth of the Exodus narrative is hotly disputed among archaeologists and Bible scholars. According to the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus, the patriarch Jacob moved with his large family to Egypt to join his son Joseph, who had risen to Pharaoh's right hand. The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied, but a later Pharaoh, unsure of their loyalty, forced them into slavery. Moses told Pharaoh to let his people go; only after God sent nastier and nastier plagues did the ruler give in. The slaves fled Egypt through the Sinai--the Exodus. After 40 years in the wilderness, they emerged to settle in Canaan, the ancient territory that is now Israel, the occupied territories, and Lebanon.
The problem has been that in a century of digging, archaeologists had found no physical evidence that Israelites were in Egypt in the second millennium B.C.--said to be the time of Exodus. Recognizing the house was a stroke of luck, says archaeologist Larry Stager, the director of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University. "It's a wonderful discovery, to see very probably an Israelite house in Egypt."
House proud. The structure had three long parallel rooms, with a wide room across one end. The Israelites weren't the only people to build such houses--a few have also been found in what is now Jordan, where Israelites generally did not live. But the distinctive houses dominated Canaan's hill country, now the West Bank. Families lived on a second floor and kept animals in the rooms below. With strong stone foundations and thick walls, the houses lasted for decades.
The house in Egypt was of flimsier construction. It "would have been considered a bit of a shack compared to how they were built in ancient Israel," Stager says. The narrow trenches of the foundation probably supported only thin reed and mud walls. Yet the light construction makes sense if it were a workers' or slaves' hut. The hut was built in the courtyard of the temple of Ay and Horemheb, probably by laborers who were taking that older temple apart to erect a 12th-century B.C. Pharaoh's mortuary temple, Bietak writes in the latest Biblical Archaeology Review.
But one house doesn't prove the Exodus. When droughts hit in Canaan, people often wandered southwest into well-irrigated Egypt. Some could have stayed and become laborers, says Stager, who adds that he's still "agnostic" on whether the Exodus actually happened. Archaeologist Larry Herr of Canadian University College speculates that someone with no connection to the Israelites could have, by coincidence, built a hut with the familiar floor plan. "Give me a slave city where all of the houses are like this," he says. "Then I'll see some sort of connection."
Building a history. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University also points out that there's no physical evidence that thousands of people wandered for decades in the desert. Besides, Jericho and other Canaanite cities described in the Bible didn't exist when the Israelites were supposed to be conquering them. Finkelstein says the Bible isn't just fantasy, though. He thinks the first books of the Bible were written in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., long after the Exodus might have happened. The writers drew on a pool of folk tales, of myths, of shreds of evidence to build a history for Israel, he says.
Maybe, suggests historian Baruch Halpern at Pennsylvania State University, the Exodus actually happened over and over. Everyone knew someone who'd gone to Egypt and come back complaining. "That's basically what the story is about," Halpern says. "God, you know how much taxes they make us pay in Egypt?" Maybe through years of retelling, he says, their grousing became an epic of enslavement and escape.
This story appears in the October 20, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.