For decades, if not centuries, Biblical scholars have searched for and discussed the evidence that proves the Israelites actually resided in Egypt for the four hundred years the Bible records.
James Hoffmeier, in his book, “Israel in Egypt,” has this to say on Pg. 55:
For many, the underlying reason for rejecting the history of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus tradition is the absence of corroborating historical or archaeological evidence in Egypt. Recently, Niels Peter Lemche has noted that, “the silence in the Egyptian sources as to the presence of Israel in the country” is “an obstacle to the notion of Israel’s four hundred year sojourn.” Thus, scholars are faced with a dilemma not unlike that encountered in Canaan with the absence of evidence for an invasion by Israel and have arrived at similar conclusions; the lack of evidence means the events described in Genesis and Exodus are retrojections of a later period and do not reflect historical reality. Indeed, no one has been able to identify any unimpeachable evidence in Egypt, either historical or archaeological to support the biblical accounts of the sojourn and exodus events. To draw any conclusions from the current state of knowledge (or ignorance) would be to succumb to the fallacy of negative proof.”
But is this correct? Another examination of the Biblical record must be conducted as it is the only ancient document we have that records the events that led up to and include the sojourn. There is a reason why this is so and why we need to re-examine the only eyewitness account (the Bible) again to see why we cannot uncover some evidence for this event and then answer the question, What evidence are we looking for?
First, let’s look at where Abraham originated from. In chapter 11 verse 31 of Genesis we read:
“And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s
son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they
went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land
Of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.”
Abraham came from a non-Hebrew speaking country and moved into the land of Canaan. Thus, the culture that Abraham and his descendant’s used would not have been Jewish, but either a Western Semitic one or Sumerian or Babylonian, depending on where you place the location of Ur. The language, unless a dialect of a Semitic version, would also be non-Hebrew in origin. Since, we do not know exactly when the Israelites began speaking and writing Hebrew, it is safe to say that it is possible that during their sojourn in Egypt they would not have used the language to communicate in ways that would have left written record.
So, we have Abraham moving to Canaan which indicates that his life style would have reflected not only his original upbringing but also be influenced by the Canaanite (among others) culture of the time. We see this evidenced by Abraham’s purchase of the cave in which to bury his wife Sarah. (Ch. 23)
Throughout Abraham’s life, we see little or no departure of his originating culture save for the pre-mosaic practice of circumcision (Gen. 21-4). We do see God’s direct interaction with Abraham and we see his obedience to God’s directives; yet nothing that would change the cultural practice of Abraham to the extent that takes place at Mt. Sinai, hundreds of years later.
Thus, from Abraham’s time down to the changes God made at Sinai; we do not see a distinct people with a distinct or separate culture from those nations they live amongst. There may have been different moral and religious practices but the normal day to day lifestyle, which would leave the most evidence, would not be discernable from their neighbors.
Second, what language would be spoken at that time? We see by the whole account that Abraham had no real problem communicating with the Canaanites or the
Egyptians, yet there is no mention of how Abraham, was able to communicate so freely with so many different nationals. We are left to assume that his language was spoken broadly or that he had translators, or the people then, were multi-lingual and spoken communication was not a problem.
Plus, after four hundred years of residing in Egypt, the Israelites would have known Egyptian as well as their own language. Especially, when, as slaves, the restrictions placed upon them would have forced the people to communicate only in the Egyptian tongue. So, if we are looking for distinct Israelite written records; that would be an idealistic pursuit, as the common language used by the Israelites would be Egyptian and not any other. They may have preserved their own language but out of fear it is highly unlikely that its use would be to the extent of a free society.
Third, let’s skip ahead till the time of Joseph and look at another key piece of evidence that the Biblical record gives as a clue as to why there is a little physical evidence preserved that records the Israelite entrance into Egypt’s lands. In Genesis chapter 25 we find the reason why:
“45:17 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Say unto thy brethren, this do ye;
lade your beasts, and go, get you unto the land of Canaan;
45:18 and take your father and your households, and come unto me: and
I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the
fat of the land.
45:19 Now thou art commanded, this do ye; take you wagons out of the
land of Egypt for your little ones, and for your wives, and bring
your father, and come.
45:20 Also regard not your stuff; for the good of all the land of Egypt is
45:21 And the children of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons,
according to the commandment of Pharaoh, and gave them
provision for the way.”
For the loyal and faithful service of Joseph, the Pharaoh of that time invited the Israelites to come and live in the land. This was not a conquest, this was not a capturing of slaves, and it was a personal invitation by the Pharaoh. Thus, there would be no reason to record such an event for posterity or for the Pharaoh’s exploits. It was a simple invitation that anyone who wants to reward a servant would extend.
To try and look for some evidence of entrance in the normal manner, would be futile especially since they were not known as the nation of Israel at that time. According to the biblical record, they were known as the “House of Jacob,” (or even as “the family of Joseph).
“46:27 And the sons of Joseph, which were born him in Egypt, were two
souls: all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt,
were threescore and ten.”
With a peaceful and nameless entrance into the land of Egypt it is no wonder that solid evidence cannot be found to corroborate such an event. Now we must turn to the later stage of the Israelite sojourn and examine the situation at that time. We see that throughout the Israeli time in Egypt, they used Egyptian methods and practices, not their own. We can come to this conclusion because of Genesis 50:2:
“50:2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his
father: and the physicians embalmed Israel.”
Israel had no distinct culture of its own at this time. They had no Mosaic law to guide them. Thus, they adopted practices that their host culture performed for their own people. There is no mention of the Israelites forming their own businesses or producing their own products. Thus, it stands to reason, that physical evidence for a distinct society developing in Egypt would be minimal at best.
The alternative would be the House of Jacob would be producing what they knew, not only from the Canaanite influence upon their Chaldean heritage but also the Egyptian culture they learned. There is nothing to suggest that this group produced anything that could be called Israeli in nature. Thus, again, to look for Israeli evidence would be looking in the wrong direction and for the wrong evidence.
Finally, when the Pharaoh, “who knew not Joseph”, came to power, the Israelite status changed. Their freedom was removed from them and they were turned into forced labor (E. 1:8-11) and instead of producing anything material evidence for their own people, they were required to produce Egyptian buildings for their Egyptian masters.
Showing that there was no time for the Israelites to spend in manufacturing their own cultural properties, thus, leaving no physical evidence of their existence behind, when they departed the country. When they left on the exodus, they did not take with them Israeli made items but they took, Egyptian:
“12:35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and
they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of
gold and raiment:”
Thus, any evidence the Israelites would have discarded during their wandering would have been Egyptian items made in Egypt according to Egyptian culture not Israeli. This fact needs to extend to the conquest as well. For here you have a group of people, who were not set apart as a nation, until Sinai. They had no real identity as Israelites until they settled in the land they were promised. They would have practiced the culture of the lands they lived in. They would have produced buildings according to those cultures and they adopted many of the practices of those whom lived around them.
When they were made into slaves, they lost all freedom to produce anything other than what there overlords required of them and if they did produce their own product, it could not have been done on a scale that would indicate of a distinct culture was at work.
They would not get another chance to do so till after they had conquered and settled the land God had given them. Why? They were not stable enough to have the time to develop and manufacturing processes that would provide their own cultural wares until that time.
Wandering and fighting leaves little room for producing. Thus, if any evidence is to be searched for, it must be that evidence which points to the history of the Israelite people, and not their culture identity of modern thinking.