The dramatic story of the Israelite escape from slavery in ancient Egypt makes riveting reading from the book of Exodus, but when we look into Egyptian history for some record of the event, we find next to nothing. So, is there any reason to really think that those events occurred, or does it all just amount to Israelite myth?
The first thing to consider here is that ancient peoples tended to record their victories rather than their defeats. And when they did face defeats, they usually tried to spin them in their own favor—not all that differently from what we do in our own time. The classic example of this sort of political-military propaganda is the competing accounts of the Battle of Kadesh fought in 1274 BC by the Hittites and the Egyptians. Remarkably, archaeologists have found written records of the battle from both Hittite and Egyptian sources, but the two sides disagree about what happened during the battle as well as who won. Unsurprising. So, the fact that a slave uprising and escape during the New Kingdom of Egypt somehow didn’t find its way into the hieroglyphic texts of the great Temple of Karnak is likewise not at all shocking.
But we cannot argue from the negative, that from the fact that we do not find evidence of the Israelite escape in Egyptian sources that that somehow makes the story’s veracity plausible. No, we need something better to go on if we are to take the account at all seriously historically. So, let’s consider first the way in which Israelite worship is clearly impacted by Egyptian religious modes. If the Israelites had never been in Egypt, how would they have picked up these distinctive Egyptian elements?
One of the first and most noticeable Israelite religious elements that arises directly from Egyptian influence is the Ark of the Covenant. In the centermost shrine of every Egyptian temple, the Egyptian god lived, his golden image located on an “ark” or a barque that sat on a raised pedestal. The barque contained a series of rings on both sides that permitted the Egyptian priests to move the barque via two long poles, just like the Ark of the Covenant. Each year, the priests would take the barque down to the Nile River and sail it to the temple of the god’s consort goddess so that the various religious and divine sexual rites could be performed that Egyptian religion thought essential to their cosmology. Since the Israelite God has no female consort goddess, his Ark is not a boat but instead is a holy box. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian placement of a golden statue of their god on top of their arks, the Israelite God is pure spirit and so cannot be replicated by an image in the Israelite system. The result is that while the top of the Ark of the Covenant is surrounded by two cherubim, there is no image of God but just a blank spot reflecting his invisibility. So, we discover clear evidence of Egyptian influence—that the Israelites have an ark at all, carried by priests in just the way the Egyptian priests carried theirs—while at the same time key differences that reflect Israelite monotheistic theology.
Another example of Israelite worship modes arising from Egyptian influence lies in the structure of the Israelite tabernacle and then temple. Egyptian temples were built along an axis of larger open spaces moving into smaller closed spaces, usually four to five all the way to the innermost space called the Holy of Holies where the barque of the god was kept. Increasing holiness and sacred separation accompanied each space as it grew closer to the abode of the god. Because Egypt’s main god during the time of the Israelite enslavement was Amun whose name means the “hidden one,” the Egyptian temples shrouded their gods in secrecy and mystical isolation. Similarly, first the Israelite tabernacle and then the temple were built along an axis of larger and more open, less-holy spaces moving toward closed, smaller and holier spaces. The Jewish spaces numbered three with the holiest also called the “Holy of Holies” just like its Egyptian counterpart. Like the Egyptian system, the Israelite holy places increasingly excluded people based on their intimate connection to God, so that the Jewish congregation could enter the outer space, only the priests the middle space, but only the High Priest the Holy of Holies—and then, only one day of the entire year. How did the Israelites adopt so similar an architectural religious imagery if they had never been in Egypt?
The second positive reason to think that the Israelites escaped Egyptian enslavement is that Israel’s entire tradition and history is centered on her deliverance from Egypt. From the chronicles of Israelite history, through to her songs and poetry, and all through the myriad of prophetic oracles who emerge to call the people back to God, you find constant references to the mighty deliverance that God effected back in the days of their Egyptian captivity. Origin myths with historical locations usually find their beginning points in genuine events, just as modern scholars were chagrined to admit when the city of Troy was discovered just as the Greek myths indicate. Ancient history was embedded in the ancient people’s cultures far more than their written records, because the vast majority of people could not read. So, each generation passed down all that had befallen their people in songs, poetry, dances, art, festivals, and rituals. The primary Israelite festival was the Passover Feast, an event commemorating the frenetic escape from Egypt, all the way down to having the participants at the table dressed in traveling clothes and holding walking sticks! This kind of ritualistic festival is classic evidence of how history was transmitted down through cultural traditions of ancient peoples, meaning, that the Israelite account of their slavery and escape from Egypt is credible.
Since Israel had been in Egypt and did escape, we have to wonder how an unarmed, non-military, Israelite slave population could have escaped from ancient Egypt during the powerful New Kingdom late 18th or early 19th dynasties. We have no records of Egyptians ever releasing slaves en masse. It seems obvious that the Egyptians would not have released all these essential workers unless something compelled them, so what was it?