Shortly before Passover 2013, the magazine Reform Judaism headlined an article with the title “We Were Not Slaves in Egypt.” The Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman writes that, upon seeing it, he “was troubled that this was informing an audience of about a million Reform Jews that the exodus was not real.” Furthermore, writes Friedman, although by now a wide range of archaeologists had agreed that little evidence existed to support the exodus story, or even that it was highly unlikely to have happened, there were also prominent dissenters; more importantly, there were problems with the arguments of those who claimed the event was unhistorical:
Some archaeologists had said, “We’ve combed the Sinai and didn’t find [any evidence of the Israelites’ wanderings].” But [they had conducted] a survey, not an excavation of the whole Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, even if they had excavated the whole Sinai, what could they find that people traveling from Egypt to Israel around 3,300 years ago would have left that they would dig up now? A piece of petrified wood with “Moses loves Zipporah” carved in it? An Israeli archaeologist told me that a vehicle that was lost in Sinai in the 1973 war was found recently under sixteen meters of sand. Sixteen meters down in 40 years! Finding objects 3,300 years down presents a rather harder challenge.
And, above all, our archaeological work did not turn up evidence to show that an exodus did not happen. What it turned up was nothing, an absence of evidence. And some archaeologists then interpreted this nothing to be proof that the event did not happen. On the other side, people who challenged such interpretations were fond of quoting the old principle: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
In his forthcoming book, excerpted here, Friedman attempts to explain what historical, archaeological, and textual scholarship can say about the exodus.