Why Does There Appear to be No Egyptian Record of the Exodus?
One of the objections to the entirety of the Exodus account is that there appears to be no written record of the Exodus in the annals of Egyptian history. One would think that such a massive event would be noted in the historical record, yet it is the Biblical accounts and Jewish tradition almost exclusively that account for it. However, a closer examination of certain extra-Biblical accounts and the nature of Egyptian record-keeping may offer an explanation.
Jewish historian Josephus explains in Book II, chapter 16 of The Antiquities of the Jews that when Pharaoh's army chased after the Israelites into the Red Sea, the waters overcame them and not even one remained to tell of what happened.
As soon, therefore, as ever the whole Egyptian army was within it, the sea flowed to its own place, and came down with a torrent raised by storms of wind, and encompassed the Egyptians. Showers of rain also came down from the sky, and dreadful thunders and lightning, with flashes of fire. Thunderbolts also were darted upon them. Nor was there any thing which used to be sent by God upon men, as indications of his wrath, which did not happen at this time, for a dark and dismal night oppressed them. And thus did all these men perish, so that there was not one man left to be a messenger of this calamity to the rest of the Egyptians. [Emphasis added]
If there was not one soldier to survive, it becomes more clear why there may not be an official account of the event. As Dr. Glen Fritz notes in The Lost Sea of the Exodus, this mass disappearance of a 250,000 man army was probably not understood by the Egyptian people (24).
Another factor to consider is that in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh was seen as a deity. An event such as the one described in Exodus and The Antiquities of the Jews is hardly something that reflects well on someone who was purported to be one of the gods.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History describes Pharaoh's position:
As supreme ruler of the people, the pharaoh was considered a god on earth, the intermediary between the gods and the people. When the pharaoh came to the throne he was instantly associated with Horus - the god who had defeated the forces of chaos and restored order - and when he died, he was associated with Osiris, the god of the dead.
Pharaoh was seen as an all-powerful and invincible god on earth. One of his primary roles was also to maintain Ma'at, or harmony, in the kingdom, sometimes by war if necessary. When Pharaoh took his 250,000-strong to bring the Israelites back, he went out as a warrior with the intention of bringing back his slave laborers (Exodus 14).
The idea that he and his army could be defeated by a collection of slaves would not reflect well at all on the allegedly divine Egyptian ruler. As historian James Robinson wrote in his 1932 book A History of Israel,
[The Exodus]... was not a great success for the Egyptian power, and the historians of that country seldom recorded facts on the monuments unless they could be turned to the honor of the king and of the people. And even so, our knowledge of Egyptian history is not so complete that we can venture to state dogmatically that an incident was never recorded simply because we have not discovered the narrative.
Further reinforcing this point, Alan Schulam writes in a 1987 article in The Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, that
The recording of historical facts was only incidental to the purpose of the royal documents...we should understand that the royal historical document was a piece of controlled government propaganda, intended mainly, if not solely, to propagate the royal myth.
The book of Joshua indicates that word of the Israelites' deeds spread after some time, so presumably, the Egyptians eventually figured out what happened. However, given the propagandist nature of Egyptian records, it becomes apparent why such a cataclysmic destruction of the Egyptian army would not have been written, hence why there is no record of the Exodus in Egypt.
Another possibility to consider is that there may have once been some record of the event, but this record has since been lost. The remnants of ancient Egypt that we are able to see today are only a fraction of what this people group actually produced. If any mention of it was made, especially if the writer used papyrus, it would be very difficult to find such a record nearly 3,500 years later.
The Ipuwer Papyrus
There is one record, referred to as the Ipuwer Papyrus, that describes a rather chaotic scene in Egypt. The document, estimated to be written in the 19th Dynasty, refers to troubles that to some degree reflect the plagues sent by God on the Egyptians.
Indeed, [hearts] are violent, pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere, death is not lacking, and the mummy-cloth speaks even before one comes near it.
Indeed, many dead are buried in the river; the stream is a sepulcher and the place of embalmment has become a stream.
Indeed, the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water.
Indeed, gold and lapis lazuli, silver and turquoise, carnelian and amethyst, Ibhet-stone and [. . .] are strung on the necks of maidservants.
At first glance, some of the Ipuwer Papyrus appears to be a possible account of the plagues, and the references to servants suddenly possessing great riches seems to be in line with Exodus 12:35-36:
Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.
However, other facts regarding the Papyrus cast at least some doubt on these assertions.
As the Encyclopedia of Ancient History notes, this document is accurately known as the "Admonitions of Ipuwer," and is written in a similar fashion as the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. What the author may be doing is providing a hypothetical example of what happens without a strong central authority figure, which would implicate the need for such a leader in the Pharaoh.
Toby Wilkinson, in his book The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, claims that this literary work may have been composed during the reign of Pharaoh Senusret III, who was well known for his use of propaganda. Unfortunately, the last part of the papyrus has been lost to history, so we don't know the conclusion of this writing.
One big obstacle for this document's alleged relation to the Exodus is its dating. Egyptologist Harco Willems notes that there is a fairly strong consensus that this document was originally written several hundred years prior, though no earlier than the 12th Dynasty. This dynasty ended in approximately 1800 B.C. according to current historical knowledge, nearly 350 years before the Exodus. The document that survived to the present day is not an original, but a copy.
One of the biggest claims regarding this document is that the line saying "the river is blood" is solid proof of Moses striking the Nile and turning it to blood. The papyrus notes, however, that the Egyptians still drank from the water. Exodus 7:20-21, in contrast, states that the Egyptians could not drink the water.
So Moses and Aaron did even as the Lord had commanded. And he lifted up the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile, in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, and all the water that was in the Nile was turned to blood. The fish that were in the Nile died, and the Nile became foul, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. And the blood was through all the land of Egypt.
Future archaeological finds may unearth some record of the Exodus, but given the nature of Egyptian records, such a find would be incredibly difficult. We will re-examine whatever new archaeological finds are dug up in the future, and will analyze how these records may or may not relate to the Exodus accounts.
Did the Egyptians Try to Destroy Their Records of Moses?
The Bible indicates that after being pulled from the river by Pharaoh's daughter, Moses was raised as a member of the Egyptian royalty and ascended high into the ranks of Egyptian society. However, he gave this life up and returned to his people before he led them out of Egypt.
Given Moses' position in Egyptian society, some have questioned how there could be no record of his service or place. Given the fact that Moses led a substantive portion of the Egyptian labor force out of captivity, and also led more than 250,000 Egyptian soldiers to their deaths in the Red Sea, it is understandable that his records may have been destroyed given the aforementioned propagandist nature of Egyptian records.
However, there may be some leftover records of a man who may have been Moses which ancient Egyptians did not completely destroy. A high-ranking Egyptian named Senenmut may line up with the Biblical account of Moses' life.
Historical author Anne Duckworth believes that Senenmut, who was Pharaoh Hatshepsut's adopted son, fits the criteria well. Senenmut, literally translated, means "mother's brother." Hatshepsut was the first female Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, and was co-regent with her son Thutmose III for over two decades until her death.
She was likely buried in KV 20, a double burial chamber, but several decades after she died, her records came under attack for an unknown reason. As Duckworth explains:
... 30 years after her death, all records of Hatshepsut came under attack. Her statues were removed from the temples, smashed and buried in a pit, and her reliefs were excised from the walls of the temples. In subsequent years, Hatshepsut’s name was omitted from the King Lists , a thing done to no other pharaoh except the great heretic pharaoh Akenaten but not to the one previous female pharaoh Sobekneferu who reigned briefly at the end of the 12th Dynasty.
She was forgotten for nearly 1,000 years until Greek Manetho rediscovered her in approximately 300 B.C. He allegedly found references to a female Pharaoh named Amensis, whom Egyptologists later identified as Hatshepsut. Little was known of her until scholars translated hieroglyphs at Deir el-Bahri.
Her mummy was discovered in 2007 and is now housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Duckworth believes that Hatshepsut is Moses' adopted mother for several reasons. When records of her were erased and destroyed, there were also many statues buried in a pit. Near this pit, more statues of Senenmut were also found buried; over 20 were found in this pit, and to date there are 26 known statues of Senenmut.
Senenmut is sometimes depicted as a young boy in these statues affectionately holding Hatshepsut's older daughter, Princess Neferure. This is an anomaly in Egyptian art, as non-royals were not allowed to touch royalty. In spite of Senenmut's known humble origins, including the fact that in one of his tombs his parents have no title (a sign of lower class status), he was still treated as a member of the Egyptian royalty.
Senenmut built a tomb for himself, TT 353, but he was not buried in it. In another tomb, TT 71, scholars have found a sarcophagus belonging to Senenmut, which was made with materials specifically reserved for royalty.
Both his and Hatshepsut's tombs were heavily vandalized after their creation, likely as a part of the broader effort to erase Hatshepsut from the record. Senenmut's record may have also been ordered erased, which may evoke the image of a scene from The Ten Commandments film in which all mentions of Moses are ordered stricken.
One interesting fact about Senenmut's tomb is the fact that he is portrayed as a bachelor, with no wife or children, in the tomb. Christine Meyer noted this in her 1982 study of Senenmut. The Bible records that Moses did not marry until he fled to Midian, where he joined Jethro's family and married his eldest daughter Zipporah.
Duckworth concludes that Senenmut was Moses.
Senemut’s high standing in the court during the reign of Hatshepsut, coupled with him being wiped from the Egyptian historical narrative, and the correlation between the biblical and Egyptian dating, would suggest therefore that he was the person we know from the Bible as Moses.
Duckworth has published her theory in the form of an historical novel, The King and Her Children, in 2018.
Based on the timeline of the Exodus, the parallel attributes between Senenmut and Moses, we believe that Senenmut is a very strong candidate for Biblical Moses in Egyptian history.
Last updated July 17, 2019.