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I heard a verbal account of a historic source called the Mari documents that appear to be letters written from Egypt to Vassal Kings warning of the Habiru people—unreliable wandering gypsies who are a problem in the desert. Supposedly we have few contemporary sources in part because the Egyptians "lost" documents that didn't paint them in a good light but these documents survived elsewhere.

Barry Webb also refers to these documents in his commentary on Judges.

What are these documents, are they reliable extra-Biblical sources, and do they substantiate the account found in Exodus of the Israelites wandering in the desert? Do they contain any background information not included in the Biblical account that could be useful in interpreting it?

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You conflate two different findings, neither which you seem to understand – user1985 Feb 6 '14 at 14:26

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The question as posed appears to be confusing the Mari documents (which are of several kinds) with the Amarna letters. As one can see from the Mari link provided, it is clear that this is a site in what is now Syria - so, then, not a source of letters sent from Egypt.

The letters sent from Egypt (also referred to in Webb's commentary, linked by OP) are the Amarna letters which are a rich and fascinating resource. The standard treatment in English is by William Moran. (There is also an electronic "edition" available for those who know Akkadian.) They contain a wealth of valuable (and "reliable") extra-biblical information about their times (14th C. BCE), but nothing to shed light on any wilderness wanderings, I'm afraid.

The closest that extra-biblical records can possibly get is with the Merneptah Stele which dates to c. 1205-ish BCE, and makes reference to "Israel" - the oldest known occurrence of the name.1


This is the evidence which provides a date when "Israel" needs to be in Canaan, but it offers no direct evidence (again) for any wilderness wanderings.

1 Has this really not been mentioned on BH.SE up to this point? It seems not.

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As suggested by David, the Mari documents are of no help in substantiating the wanderings of the Exodus period. The Amarna letters, found in the Egyptian city of Amarna, are helpful because they provide valuable information about conditions in the Egyptian empire during the middle of the 14th century BCE. 1 Kings 6:1 places the Exodus from Egypt approximately 1440 BCE, because this verse dates the Exodus 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon's reign, and the Bible implicitly dates this year of Solomon's reign at 960 BCE. The existence of the Amarna letters, in which the Canaanite kings are preoccupied with petty squabbles amongst themselves, shows that any Israelite military conquest of the Canaanite cities must have occurred much later than, say, 1350 BCE.

They are a reliable extra-Biblical sources, because of their existence in an abandoned Egyptian city where their contents were not subject to forgery or alteration. The letters do not tell us anything about the account found in Exodus of the Israelites wandering in the desert, apart from demonstrating that the Exodus must be dated much later than previously supposed. They contain background information not included in the biblical account and which could be useful in interpreting it, in that the continuing Egyptian presence in Canaan is contrary from what we would expect from reading the Bible, and because the Canaanites of that time relied on the Egyptian army for defence rather than on high city walls.

As for the Egyptians losing documents that didn't paint them in a good light, it is true that most Near Eastern kingdoms did tend to gloss over their failures. However, the Egyptians could not have hidden the economic impact of a series of plagues, the loss of a very substantial slave population or the destruction of an entire army in the Red Sea. Substantial numbers of documents, including routine commercial documents and contracts show that Egyptian society continued unaffected by the biblical events reported in the Book of Exodus.

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Thutmose III went out with his army 17 consecutive years, but suddenly stops in the 18th. Hatshepsut's memory is suddenly smeared by him when he apparently fine with co-reigning with her, and she trusted him with the army before then. These are facts archeologists still can't harmonize. That doesn't seem unaffected. It actually seems more like the Bible can explain something better, as always is the case. Have we forgotten the mistakes of "modern" scholars who labelled the Hittites and king Cyrus as biblical myths? ...until they were humbled by new findings that confirmed the Bible. – Joshua Bigbee Jul 19 at 17:04

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