For more than 1700 years, Christians have been looking for Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the 10 Commandments. Constantine’s mother, Helena was probably the first Christian in search of Christian artifacts in the 4th century. When Christians came across a strange-looking bush at the base of a mountain on the Sinai Peninsula, they erected a monastery claiming that they had found Mount Sinai. The monastery still exists today, and you can walk the steps that these early Christians have claimed as the real Mount Sinai.
During Passover celebrations in 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe created international headlines in Israel by proclaiming to his Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Some have stated this even more strongly. Prof Philip Davies, University of Sheffield, “When it comes to the Exodus, we have no evidence that it happened, and a good deal of evidence that it didn’t. They made it up.”
Since that famous (infamous) sermon in 2001, Wolpe has gone on to soften his words a bit. In March 2010, he said it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites. Even skeptics admit there could be something to the story.
I’ve combined three different videos to look for scientific explanations for the Exodus. I’ll color code these quotes so you know which videos these quotes come from. The videos are Science of the Exodus, by National Geographic; Exodus Decoded, by Simcha Jacobovici; and Exodus Revealed, by Discovery Media Group. What I found interesting was the fact that there were many similarities among the 3 videos. The same experts and evidence often appeared in multiple videos, yet often different conclusions were provided. It reminds me of the debate concerning Book of Mormon evidence.
So, let’s talk about some of the biggest questions concerning the Exodus.
The Burning Bush.
The Bible says that God spoke to Moses in the form of a burning bush that was not consumed. As mentioned previously, a strange bush was found at the base of the traditional Mount Sinai. Is there another explanation for this burning bush? Colin Humphreys has an explanation for a burning bush, involving real fire. As we all know, oil and natural gas are prevalent in the Middle East. Humphreys believes the Acacia Bush is an ideal candidate for the Burning Bush.
“The most common bush in the desert is the acacia bush, and we know that if you burn an acacia bush you get charcoal.”
The Acacia Bush maintains it’s shape and turns to charcoal. He gives a demonstration using a natural gas barbecue grill and an acacia bush. The bush maintains it’s shape, even though flames shoot through the bush.
When did the Exodus Happen?
There are two main theories: the Early Exodus Period, and the Late Exodus Period. Supporters of the Early Period point to 1 Kings 6:1, “Now it came about in the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel…that he began to build the house of the Lord.” Most historians put the Temple of Solomon at 965 BC. This would put the Exodus at approximately 1445 BC.
Pharoah Thutmoses I reigned from 1525-1512 BC. Scholars have speculated that his daughter Hatshepsut may have rescued Moses from the Nile. She served as Pharoah from 1503-1482 BC, and battled with her stepson Thutmoses III (1504-1450 BC) for control of Egypt. Thutmoses III eventually removed nearly all traces of Hatshepsut’s monuments. Thutmoses III death in 1450 coincides well with the date of this Early Exodus time period.
Supporters of the late period refer to Exodus 1:11, “And they built for Pharoah store cities, Pithom and Ramses.” Ramses II seems to be the most likely Pharaoh. He lived 1290-1224 BC. He moved the capital from Thebes to the Nile Delta, and built a new city called Pi-Ramses. Some archaeologists have linked this city built on top of an ancient Israelite city.
Simcha Jacobovici believes the date of Exodus may be earlier. He believes the eruption of the Santorini Volcano in 1500 BC may explain many of the Biblical plagues. The Egyptian name Ahmose means “brother of Moses” in Hebrew—an interesting play on words. At this time, Egypt was ruled by a Semitic people called the Hyksos, people who were hated by the Egyptians. Since Joseph was of Semitic origins, this may have helped him join the ranks of the Hyksos ruling class. The Bible refers to a pharaoh that “knew not Joseph.”
Egyptians have recorded and event called “the Hyksos Expulsion” around 1500 BC. Could it be the Israelites were expelled, rather than left freely? Perhaps it depends on who writes the history.
Is there an Israelite presence in Egypt?
In 1967 Professor Manfred Bietak, Chair of Egyptology at the University of Vienna, discovered the ancient Egyptian capital of Avaris. It was the home to many ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Some believe the architecture of this city bears resemblance to later Israelite/Canaanite architecture, but others, such as Simcha Jacobovici attribute Avaris to the Hyksos. Avaris seems to be the oldest site in Egypt with non-Egyptian architecture.
How can we explain the Plagues?
The first plague, turning the Nile to blood has a few different explanations. Jacobovici believes an underground natural gas into the Nile may have caused caused the waters to turn red and kill all the fish. Two lakes in Cameroon turned blood red in 1984 and 1986. Epidemiologist John Marr believes microscopic algae may have turned the Nile blood red. In 1995, a coastal river in North Carolina turned bright red due to an algae bloom.
Marr, “Wisteria was labeled the cell from hell because it killed millions if not billions of fish. If that occurred in North Carolina in the 1990’s, why couldn’t it have occurred in Egypt 3000 years ago?”
Plagues 2-6 deal with frogs, and insect plagues, and all 3 videos have similar explanations. I presented Jacobovici’s position on the plagues in my previous post . National Geographic (NG) had similar explanations for plagues 2-6 dealing with insects and frogs. NG even interviewed several entomologists and epidemiologists to further pin down the actual types of bugs most likely in these infestations.
How were the Firstborn killed?
The last plague has some interesting interpretations too. Moses prophesied that the firstborn of Egypt would all die, and the Israelites would be spared if they put lamb’s blood on their doorposts. The Destroying Angel would “pass over” homes with lamb’s blood. So, how can scientists explain such a selective mode of death? Some believe the Firstborn is metaphorical.
Epidemiologist Martin Blaser of NYU, “There is no disease that we know of that just affects the firstborns, so I take that it’s a metaphor for a disease that kills one out of every 3 or 4 people.” Blaser thinks bubonic plague may have been the culprit, because it affects both animals and humans. Eric Cline of George Washington believes the plagues could refer to a “Sea People” that attacked Egypt.
Cline, “The attack of the Sea Peoples was probably the Egyptians worst nightmare. They are the fiercest warriors that the Egyptians have faced, and the Egyptians tell us that everybody went down in the face of these sea peoples. Only the Egyptians were able to stand, and even that was a Pyrrhic victory because the Egyptians were so weakened that they were never the same again.”
Others believe the death of the firstborn may have been more literal. Epidemiologist John Marr recently investigated the mysterious death of children that was due to a mold. He postulated that following the plagues of locusts and hail, much of the grain in Egypt would have been moist and in short supply.
Jacobovici has another theory for the selective deaths during this final plague. He points to a volcanic eruption that killed thousands in “1986 at Lake Nyos, Cameroon. On the fateful night of August 21, the villagers at Nyos went to sleep. They couldn’t have known that the carbon dioxide gas which had turned the lake blood red, was now reaching a critical point. As the people of Lake Nyos slept, the top of the lake was keeping the carbon down like a cap in a pop bottle. But then the earth rumbled, and a landslide took place sending rock into the water, disturbing the surface pressure and releasing the gas. The gas then rose to the surface, and like some alien monster, emerged from the water, droplets forming on it, turning the invisible gas into a visible fog. The fog then rolled across the water, and across the land, suffocating everything in its path. And as suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared, dissolving harmlessly into the atmosphere.
The next day those who had been sleeping on higher ground woke up to find some 1800 people dead, hundreds of cattle and small animals also dead, all around there was deadly silence.
How many people participated in the Exodus?
The Bible says that 600,000 men left Egypt. Adding women and children would have increased the total number to 2.5 million people, the size of modern-day Brooklyn, NY. If the group were that large, there should be some evidence somewhere in the wilderness.
Cline, “if the Biblical numbers are correct, and you’ve got two and a half million people wandering around for 40 years, I would want to find entire landscapes denuded. I’d want to find hundreds of sheep and goat carcasses, the bones. Even if they didn’t ask for directions wandering for 40 years, there would be something.”
However, archaeologist Jim Hoffmeier of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says the number is probably far fewer, due to a mistranslation dating thousands of years. The original Hebrew says there were 600 elith.
Hoffmeier, “The word elith can be translated 3 different ways: it can be translated thousand. Elith can also be translated to the clan. The third option is that it’s a military unit, which I think is a more plausible scenario.”
According to Hoffmeier’s interpretation, instead of 600,000 men and their families, there were as few as 5000.
How did the Red Sea part? Where did the Israelites cross?
There are 4 main theories for the crossing of the Red Sea: an Eastern Egyptian sea, a northern, central, and southern route. Those supporting a northern route point to volcanic activity to explain the parting of the Red Sea. Geo-archaeologist Floyd McCoy researches tsunamis at the University of Hawaii. He says a tsunami might have created a land passage for the Israelites across a lagoon.
(1) In addition to the Biblical mistranslation of elith, Hoffmeier believes the Red Sea is a mistranslation, and the parting of the sea may have occurred closer to home.
Hoffmeier, “The Hebrew Yam Suf literally means sea of reeds. When the Greek translators took the Hebrew Yam Suf and translated it into Greek, they translated it as Red Sea instead of Reed Sea. So we’ve been stuck with a faulty translation for over 2000 years.”
Hoffmeier has been working with Prof Stephen O. Moshier, Geologist of Wheaton College. Together they have pieces together satellite photos and ancient maps to identify a sea of reeds. They’ve come up with Lake El Balah, on the eastern border of Egypt. Jacobovici paints another picture of this scenario.
Hoffmeier, “It’s an ancient lake that survived until the 1850’s. When the Suez Canal was put in, this ancient lake finally died. Professor Manfred Biatek after conducting a thorough study of this area, proposed that this lake was known to the Egyptians as Ha Tufi, meaning the marshland, the marshy sea. And the word tuf, the Egyptian word for reeds is the same word as suf in Hebrew. So Yam Suf, he suggested, was a name derived from this body of water. Now it is called the El Balah Lake.” [In Hebrew it means the lake where God devoured.]
(2) Northern route proponents say that the Israelites would have crossed on the northern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. However, several Egyptian military outposts have been found along a northern route into Israel dating to the Exodus period. Many believe the Israelites would have avoided these military outposts when trying to leave Egypt.
(3) Those who support a central route believe Moses and his followers crossed an ancient frankincense trail across the central Sinai Peninsula. In his younger days, Moses killed an Egyptian while defending a Hebrew slave. The Bible says he fled to the land of Midian, in Modern Day Saudi Arabia. It is likely that Moses would have followed the frankincense trail to Midian. It is the shortest, most direct route to Midian. If Moses had made the trek before, it is likely he would have followed it again. Dr Lennart Moller of the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden refers to the Book of First Kings to support this theory.
(4) Stephen J. O’Meara, a Volcanologist with Volcano Watch International believes a southern route may be the best candidate. Volcanoes are known to have erupted near the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba.
“Imagine the Jews, reaching this massive land bridge, formed by lava. Here we have earth being created before our eyes. You can see the lava flow going into the ocean on a new bench of land. This is a very highly unstable platform of land. The bench will not last for long. This whole area can fall in just a matter of minutes. Massive collapses have occurred here in Hawaii almost in the blink of an eye.”
The Red Sea forms part of the Great African Rift System. The entire region has an explosive volcanic history.
Where is Mount Sinai?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are several proposed locations for Mount Sinai. The traditional location is at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Tradition for this site goes back to the 4th Century. After Moses escaped to Midian, he found the Burning Bush.
Many scholars believe that Mount Sinai is in the Land of Midian in modern day Saudi Arabia. Many European scholars believe Jabal al Lawz is the best candidate for Mt Sinai.
Several Jewish documents, some written several hundred years before Christian traditions, locate the mountain of God in Midianite territory. In 250 BC, a council of 70 Hebrew scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the first time. Their translation of the Exodus account presupposed that Mount Sinai stood in the Arabian Peninsula. Three centuries later, the Jewish philosopher Philo placed the mountain “east of the Sinai Peninsula” and south of Palestine. At the same time, the apostle Paul, who was educated under the Rabbi Gamaliel, also located Mount Sinai in Arabia (Galatians 4:25).
Kerkeslager, “So Paul and Philo, when they used the word Arabia, they’re not thinking of the Sinai Peninsula. Once again, I think that point needs to be emphasized very clearly. In terminology, Arabia in the 1st century, Greek geographers usually had in mind the Arabian Peninsula. That’s how that term is used.”
Others believe Mount Sinai is somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula. Jacobovici discusses another possible location discovered by Prof Uzi Avner.
Holy mountains in the desert are marked by ancient, open-air, rock sanctuaries. In this area there is only 1 mountain surrounded by sanctuaries. Today that mountain is called Jebel-Hashem el-Tarif.
…Prof. Uzi Avner, Arava Environmental Institute, Israel, “The Mountain is not very high, only about 200 meters above the plateau, but it is very conspicuous. You can see it from a distance. The unique point is that it is surrounded by actually the largest concentration of open air sanctuaries that we now today in the desert.”
So, do we need to believe that any of these scenarios? Both skeptics and believers seem to agree that faith and science are two different animals.
Hoffmeier, “For people that have religious convictions, they don’t need proof.”
Cornuke, “it all boils down to, this is a supernatural event, and you can’t explain it in any other way.”
Ultimately, the power of Exodus lies more in faith than in science.
Cooney, “There’s no real scientific proof that the Exodus took place, but as a Christian or as a Jew, you shouldn’t need scientific proof to be a person of faith. Faith doesn’t need to be scientifically proven, nor should it be; it’s faith.”
Rabbi David Wolpe believes that the historicity of the events in the Bible should not matter; faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth. (If you’re interested further, I posted a longer version at my blog.)
So, what do you think? Does any of this convince you of the historicity of the Exodus? Do you think the Exodus is myth?
Interesting stuff. I wanted to pull this up during gospel doctrine which is how I found that mormonmatters, which was available last week over the wireless network at the chapel, is now blocked.
Very interesting post. I personally doubt that the Exodus story is entirely myth. There’s probably both truth and error in the record.
I do think it’s interesting that people concern themselves with coming up with scientific explanations for things like a burning bush or the plagues. If you don’t want to believe God was involved, why create such unlikely explanations as the ones above? How about simply dismiss the record as fictional? Or, what would cause somebody to see a burning bush in the desert? Gee, I don’t know, how about dehydration?
Thanks Martin and Steve. I think the post was too long for most people to wade through.
Martin, I cut quite a bit from my 6000 word version. I think you might be interested in a few quotes that I left in my longer version of this post.
So, I think that explains why we don’t want to dismiss it as fictional, but rather that the God of the Bible manipulates nature in ways that can be explained scientifically. This seems very much in line with Joseph Smith’s concept that God obeys natural laws. So, I don’t consider them “unlikely explanations”, but rather “likely explanations.” Do you see this point of view that could appeal to both skeptics and believers?
I probe into the mechanisms of how God works for the same reason I’d continue to probe into the mechanisms of nature if I was an atheist. It’s the same reason my wife yearns for her music. It’s who we are when we are most authentically ourselves. Others are authentically themselves without ever caring whether Biblical events were actual or not.
It is interesting that the accounts of the Exodus in the Bible are not all consistent with each other. When God says he will drive out the people of the land before them, but not all at once since there are not enough of the Children of Israel and the land would be overrun with wilderness if it occurred all at once, that is a dramatically different picture than one with 2.5 million people rolling in out of the hills.
It is helpful to remember or to frame Israel in terms of the DFW Metroplex or Los Angeles County or Salt Lake County.
It is a very small area, all in all, compared to how people tend to think of it.
steve, you’re right. I think the number of people problem amounts to a mistranslation, as well as the recent emphasis by conservative christians that the bible is literal and inerrant. such a position is untenable, and backs biblical literalists into a corner, especially because protestants that hold the bible to be literal and inerrant so they can’t fall back on ‘as far as it is translated correctly.