What evidence exists outside the Bible that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt?
The Bible reports that after the Midianites took Joseph to Egypt, the patriarch Jacob and his family moved from Canaan to Egypt. They settled in the region of Egypt called Goshen, in the Nile Delta. (Gen. 47:1, 6) The Israelites “kept on multiplying and growing mightier.” So the Egyptians grew fearful of the Israelites and forced them into slavery.—Ex. 1:7-14.
Some modern critics have mocked the above Bible account, calling it a myth. Still, evidence does exist that Semites* lived as slaves in ancient Egypt.
For instance, archaeologists have unearthed ancient settlements in northern Egypt. Dr. John Bimson reports that there is evidence of 20 or more Semitic settlements in that area of northern Egypt. Moreover, Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier says: “For a period roughly from 1800 to 1540 B.C., Egypt was an attractive place for the Semitic-speaking people of western Asia to migrate.” He adds: “This span of time coincides with the traditional ‘Patriarchal Period’ and therefore fits the period and circumstances described in Genesis.”
There is additional evidence from southern Egypt. A papyrus dated to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–c. 1600 B.C.E.) contains names of slaves who worked in a household in southern Egypt. More than 40 of those names are Semitic. These slaves, or servants, worked as cooks, weavers, and laborers. Hoffmeier observes: “Since over forty Semites were attached to this single estate in the Thebaid [southern Egypt], the number across Egypt, especially in the Delta, was likely considerable.”
Archaeologist David Rohl writes that some of the names of the slaves on the list “leap straight out of the pages of the Bible.” For instance, the fragments contain names that are similar to such names as Issachar, Asher, and Shiphrah. (Ex. 1:3, 4, 15) “This is real evidence for the time when the Israelites were in Egypt as slaves,” concludes Rohl.
Dr. Bimson states: “The biblical traditions of the bondage in Egypt and of the Exodus have a firm historical basis.”
The name Semite comes from Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. The descendants of Shem likely included the Elamites, the Assyrians, the early Chaldeans, the Hebrews, the Syrians, and various Arabian tribes.