Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History Israel’s Sojourn in Egypt

n two previous articles, we looked at how archaeology can aid our understanding and interpretation of God’s Word. The first article presented the topic methodologically. It sketched out big-picture questions related to archaeology and the Bible so that readers might have necessary categories. In the second article, we applied that methodology to some specific examples from the book of Genesis and witnessed how archaeology can illustrate, contextualize, and even support the biblical portrait of the past. In this next installment, we move forward in history to the time of Joseph, asking what archaeology can illuminate from his life and career. Afterwards, we consider the birth and education of Moses. Much like the previous article, archaeology will provide a context into which the stories of Joseph and Moses fit very naturally. Before we begin, we need to take note of the nature of the evidence archaeology provides for this time period.

Types of Evidence: Direct and Indirect

Historical minimalists are quick to aver that there is no direct evidence for Israel’s sojourn in Egypt or for the historicity of Joseph or Moses. This is, of course, true: we have uncovered no artifact or text that attests to either of these biblical figures by name. But this comes as no surprise. Though many Egyptian texts have survived, including king lists, wisdom literature, epics, treaties, and the like, far fewer run-of-the-mill administrative texts have been preserved. In a culture where scribes focused on passing along a set of cultural texts with an almost canonical status, it is to be expected that the great founding stories of Egyptian civilization would be recopied and passed along through the ages. But Egypt’s scribal culture was famous for ink writing on papyrus. (As a note, the Hebrew words for “ink,” dyw and “papyrus,” gm’ are borrowed from the Egyptian language.) And unlike the clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform in Mesopotamia, or even the broken potsherds inscribed with ink at locations in ancient Israel (e.g., Lachish, Arad), papyrus letters and receipts are very perishable and have only in rare occasions been preserved for the past three thousand years.1

It is unlikely that Joseph or Moses would occur by name in anything other than an archival or administrative text; thus the fact that their names have not yet been attested outside of Scripture is of no concern. Furthermore, it is uncertain how Egyptian scribes would have even recorded their names. In the case of Moses, for example, there is debate about whether his name reflects the Egyptian root msi or the Hebrew root mšh. Thus, even if existing administrative texts do mention Joseph or Moses, we have not been able to recognize them by those particular names. In light of this, Kenneth Kitchen has wryly remarked: “We do not actually need firsthand namings of the patriarchs in ancient records; plenty of other historical characters are in the same case. The tombs of Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Canaan have yielded countless bodies of nameless citizens of Canaan; but their anonymity (no texts!) does not render them nonexistent.”2 Thus this article will (along with nearly all serious scholars of the ancient world) be content with—and take seriously—the indirect evidence for Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.

Semites in Egypt

A major piece of indirect evidence for the historicity of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt is the well-attested existence of Semitic peoples, often referred to disparagingly as “vile Asiatics,” living in the Nile delta. This negative reputation was born especially from the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt (ca. 1700–1550 b.c.) wherein a group of Semitic peoples called the Hyksos conquered Egypt and began reigning from a new capitol in Avaris, located at modern-day Tell el-Dab‘a. There was a time when biblical scholars looked to the Hyksos dynasty as the historical period of Joseph, suggesting that his rise to power was in part due to his shared Semitic ancestry with the pharaoh. As Joseph’s death is generally accepted as occurring a century prior to the Hyksos dynasty, however, this is an unlikely correlation. Instead, Joseph seems to fit earlier, in a time when Semitic peoples were regularly entering the Nile delta, sometimes due to the lush grazing land in Egypt, sometimes due to trade between the regions, and other times due to famine in Canaan which drove residents south into Egypt (as was the case with both Abraham [Gen. 12:10ff.] and Jacob ([Gen. 42ff.]).

A number of ancient Egyptian texts have been discovered that speak of this influx of Semitic peoples. The Instructions for Merikare describes conditions in the delta in the late third millennium B.C.., depicting attacks against Semitic nomads wherein they were scattered and divested of their cattle. The text even describes the establishment of garrisons to ward off settling Semites. The early second millennium B.C. Prophecy of Neferti likewise describes the presence of Semites as a threat and recounts an increase in Egyptian defenses.3

Archaeological excavations at a number of sites have revealed material evidence of Semites in Egypt. The ancient city of Avaris was established around the time of Merikare and gives evidence of the Egyptian response to the invading Canaanites. Even before the Hyksos pharaohs began reigning from Avaris, Semitic material culture was making its mark at the site. Equid burials (i.e., burying horses and/or donkeys alongside their owners), stylized bronze decorative pieces found in tombs, and idiosyncratic housing styles all attested to the presence of Canaanites. Excavations at a number of other sites have found similar connections to Semitic peoples.4

In sum, the early second millennium B.C., the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, was marked by the emigration of Semitic-speaking peoples. Indeed, some of them even rose to high office in Egypt and, in the case of the Hyksos dynasty, even to the role of Pharaoh. And so the idea of Joseph, a Hebrew (and thus a Semite), being sold as a slave in Egypt and rising through the ranks to the role of a second-tier ruler in Egypt fits well within what we know of the period from archaeology.

The Price of a Slave

In Genesis 37:28, we learn that Joseph’s brothers sold him to a group of Midianite/Ishmaelite merchantmen. This group, accustomed to Egyptian trade, offered a specific amount in exchange for Joseph: twenty shekels. Many critical scholars have dismissed the historicity of the Joseph story, claiming instead that the story originates from the early first millennium B.C., a time in Judah’s royal court when it is claimed that the ideal of a wise vizier was especially popular. But it is at this very point (the price paid for Joseph) that critical claims stumble.

James Hoffmeier explains that twenty shekels “is the average price for slaves during the first half of the second millennium B.C. whereas in the second half of that millennium, owing to inflation, the price was up to thirty shekels.” The relevance to the Joseph story thus becomes evident: “By the first millennium, when many believe the Genesis stories originated, the price had risen to fifty or sixty shekels.”5 Kitchen notes that by the sixth century B.C., slave prices were up to 120 shekels.6 Keep in mind that critics often claim that the Joseph story reflects only general ideas of Semites in Egypt but feel that details of the story have been anachronistically inserted from later times. But the twenty-shekel slave price needs to be explained. Is this mere coincidence? Perhaps a lucky guess by the supposed first-millennium–B.C. fiction writer? Or isn’t it more convincing to view this as a genuine historical memory of Joseph’s sale from the early second millennium when slaves did, in fact, cost twenty shekels? Again, while this evidence is indirect, it does lend credibility to the historicity of the Joseph story.

The Search for the Historical Moses

The story of Moses’ rescue from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter at just the time when her father had ordered the killing of infant Hebrew boys strikes some as the stuff of legend. And yet this was a fairly common theme in ancient texts known as the “motif of the exposed child.”7 A famous parallel has been invoked between the birth of Moses and the birth of King Sargon of Akkad. In both stories a mother placed her child in a basket and floated him downstream where he was subsequently plucked out by a nurturing figure and then rose to prominence and leadership later in life.8 This motif, however, is not due to fictional literary conventions but due to a reality in the ancient world: the river was a likely place to find safety for an unwanted child (or in Moses’ case, a wanted but endangered child). Whereas some parents would expose children in hopes they would die from the elements, others “exposed” their children (i.e., placed them in a basket in the river) to save their lives.9 Hoffmeier explains: “A modern parallel would be leaving a baby on the steps of an orphanage or at the door of a church.”10 For some ancients, entrusting their child to the river was due to belief in a river god; it was thus an act of divine trust. But for others, placing a child in the river was due simply to the reality that rivers were magnets for people who might have sympathy for the child and take him or her in. This was the case with Moses.

In addition to a birth story with historical precedent, Moses’s royal education is also is attested in Egyptian history. Again, some critics feel that Moses’ upbringing in Pharaoh’s court is too convenient for his role throughout the Pentateuch as a leader, a negotiator permitted in Pharaoh’s presence, and a writer of biblical texts. This portion of Exodus is thereby viewed as suspect. But is this such a surprising situation?

In the late 1800s (A.D.), a cache of some four hundred letters was found in el-Amarna, Egypt, where the famous King Akhenaten had his royal seat. These letters were written in Akkadian cuneiform and recorded correspondence between the king of Egypt and other great kings (e.g., Burra-Buriyash of Babylon, Ashur Ubalit of Assyria, Shuppiluliumash of Hatti). It also contained letters from various vassals in Syria and Palestine (of note is Abdi-Hepa, who was the Canaanite king of Jerusalem long before its conquest by David). These Amarna letters reflect language and customs of the late Bronze Age (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), including the existence of a royal education system for non-Egyptian boys. These youth would be sent to Egypt and trained in Egyptian diplomacy and administration in order to serve as vassal kings when they grew older. For example, King Aziru of Amurru (an ancient Amorite city located in modern-day Syria), wrote to Pharaoh: “I herewith give my sons as 2 attendants, and they are to do what the king, my lord, orders.”11 The same practice is attested in a thirteenth-century B.C. papyrus: “Useful is my Lord’s action in sending me people to be taught and trained to perform this important task. . . . For those here are grown-up children, people like those my Lord sent, able to act, able to receive my training. They are foreigners like those brought to us under Ramesses II your good [fore] father.”12 These foreign youths were given a rigorous education and were well equipped for administration in the service of Egypt. Thus one can see that the situation of Moses is not surprising at all; there is nothing in his upbringing that is historically suspect.


Again, this is indirect evidence, but it presents us with a portrait of ancient Egypt quite in harmony with what we find in the book of Exodus.

Could Moses Write? In Hebrew?

Critical biblical studies have long embraced the view that the books of the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) are not the work of Moses but are a late combination of several sources (J, E, D, and P), all of which stem from long after the time of Moses. The history of Pentateuchal criticism is a long and tortured journey that we will not rehearse here.13 But one feature of the critical case against Moses is the claim that he could not have been literate or that if he was it was unlikely that he could have written in an alphabetic Hebrew similar to what we have in our most accurate manuscripts.

Archaeology has, however, uncovered the existence of alphabetic writing at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt dating to the early second millennium (although the alphabet originates in Egypt even earlier than this). Famous finds at Serabit el-Khadem attest to a simplified alphabet called the Proto-Sinaitic script (which is related to the Wadi el-Hol alphabet) in use among common turquoise miners. This script was used to record standard Canaanite words like “mistress” (b‘lt), leading some scholars to speculate that the alphabet may have even been invented by Canaanites.14 (This is, however, a minority position.) What this demonstrates is that Moses was educated in Pharaoh’s court at a time when alphabetic writing had been well established. Thus the idea of him penning the books attributed to him in an early Hebrew dialect is not very difficult to imagine.


In our next article, we will consider what light archaeology can shed on the exodus and wilderness wanderings. As we progress through Old Testament history, we continue to see archaeology providing an illuminating role. And again, though unbelievers will find such indirect evidence as we have considered above inconclusive at best, this is not because they have uncovered positive archaeological evidence that contradicts the Bible. As with the patriarchal period, in our consideration of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, we find archaeology providing a context within which the biblical events comfortably fit.

1. This is persuasively described in James K. Hoffmeier, “‘These Things Happened’: Why a Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 108–9.

2. Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 372.

3. English translations of these texts can be read in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1, The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 97–109, 139–45.

4. James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 63, 65–68.

5. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 83–84.

6. Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament, 345.

7. For a catalogue of examples, see Donald Redford, “The Literary Motif of the Exposed Child (cf. Exod. ii.1–10),” Numen 14, no. 3 (1967): 209–28.

8. See The Context of Scripture, vol. 1, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 461.

9. Redford, “Literary Motif of the Exposed Child,” 217–18.

10. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 138.

11. EA156.9–14, cited in The Amarna Letters, ed. and trans. William L. Moran (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 242.

12. Cited in Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament, 297 (emphasis in original).

13. For a brief description see Mark S. Gignilliat, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 57–77.

14. E.g., Orly Goldwasser, “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphics,” Biblical Archaeology Review 36, no. 2 (2010): 36–50, 74.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is assistant professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a contributor to The Outlook.