Dating the Exodus: A Historical Conundrum
When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go. Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, let my people go.
(Lyrics from the 19th-century African-American spiritual ‘Go Down Moses’)
The story of the Exodus is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. It starts with the ancient Israelites moving to Egypt to escape the famine and drought that would often blight the lives of those living in Canaan. The ancient Israelites eventually became so numerous that the Pharaoh feared rebellion, so he ordered that all Israelite baby boys be killed. In order to evade this decree, a woman called Jochebed hid her new son in a basket among the rushes of the River Nile. After being discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Jochebed’s son went on to be raised as a prince named Moses. When he ultimately learned of his origins, he led his people out of Egypt following ten plagues meant to provoke the Pharaoh into releasing them. However, the Pharaoh then changed his mind and pursued them to the frontiers of Egypt. Moses then parted the Red Sea (or more accurately the ‘Sea of Reeds’—’Red Sea’ is a mistranslation), and the Israelites passed safely through, with the waters then drowning the Egyptian army who were in hot pursuit. Thus began a forty-year migration (Numbers 32:13) out of Egypt, across the Sinai desert involving some 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37), as well as their wives and children, placing the total number of people wandering through the wilderness (along with their livestock, per Exodus 10:26) in the range of over 2 million.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 presented humanity with the opportunity to understand ancient Egyptian documents for the first time in over a thousand years. (The ability to do so had been lost in the first few centuries of the first millennium.) The Rosetta Stone is a tablet containing the same text in Greek, Latin, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which allowed for its translation in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion. Since then, many thousands of texts written in hieroglyphics have been translated and meticulously analyzed by Egyptologists. None have mentioned the disappearance from Egypt of some 600,000 manual workers. Such an event would have inevitably caused turmoil, and there would have had to have been a significant period of readjustment to the demographic upheaval afterward. Similarly, the area that the Israelites were said to have wandered through for forty years has been explored thoroughly, especially after the annexation by the Israeli government of the Sinai Peninsula (through which the Israelites were said to have traversed before entering the Promised Land). However, no credible evidence has come to light that supports the historicity of a huge multitude of people wandering for years through it. (The discovery of the Rosetta Stone also weakened the case for Mormonism’s Book of Abraham—which was said to have been translated from ancient Egyptian papyri—being Abraham’s autobiographical account of his life in Egypt as described in Genesis 12 and 13. The papyri used by Joseph Smith were subsequently found to be standard ‘funerary texts’ that were buried with the dead to provide them guidance on how to prosper in the afterlife.)
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down!
(Lyrics of a 19th-century African-American spiritual)
Following their forty-year sojourn in the desert, the Bible describes how the Israelites launched a series of lightning strikes to reclaim the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor. The first city that was overrun was famously the city of Jericho. Initially, the biblical account appeared to be supported by 20th-century archeological findings at Jericho by archeologists John Garstang and Kathleen Kenyon. The town was found to have been destroyed by fire, just as the book of Joshua had described (Joshua 6:24), and the remains of a collapsed city wall were also found. But the Israelites were impelled not to inhabit the new city, with Joshua declaring to the Israelites “cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho” (Joshua 6:26). While the 21st chapter of the Book of Joshua details the many territories said to have been conquered by the Israelites, Jericho did indeed remain uninhabited for a very long time after the Israelites are said to have reestablished themselves in Canaan.
Although the migration of over a million people is unsupported in the historical and archaeological record, there is some good evidence of more modest movement between Canaan and Egypt in the late Bronze Age. Egyptian papyri, such as the so-called Anastasi papyri kept in the British Museum, describe the resettlement of Canaanites in the deltas of Egypt, particularly during times of famine when the annual bursting of the Nile’s banks would offer opportunities for itinerant farmers to grow more crops. It is also clear that Semitic groups gained great influence in Egypt. One group of Semites, the Hyksos, went as far as to wield great political power.
Invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land.
(Egyptian writer and historian Manetho describing the Hyksos)
The Hyksos were a Canaanite group that migrated to Egypt around 1800 BCE. In addition to incorporating unskilled workers, they also included skilled professionals, such as doctors and scribes, among their ranks. They are credited with bringing many technological and cultural advances to Egypt, too, such as new musical instruments and the introduction of the horse into warfare. They grew in number, eventually taking over the northern part of Egypt with a series of kings ruling from a capital city Avaris, while the Egyptian pharaohs ruled the southern part from their own capital Thebes. Ahmose I, founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, was determined to recapture northern Egypt, and around 1550 BCE an Egyptian army pursued the Hyksos across the Sinai desert and they returned to Canaan. The story of a group from Canaan moving to Egypt and leaving with the Egyptian army in pursuit has clear parallels with the biblical account of the Exodus.
Josephus, the great Jewish historian and chronicler, equated the Hyksos with the Israelites of the Exodus in his magnum opus Antiquities of the Jews. However, this identification cannot be correct since the Hyksos were masters, not slaves. Even their name suggests this, coming as it does from the Egyptian “hekau khasut,” meaning “rulers from foreign lands.” And while Josephus is an authoritative and hugely useful author when it comes to understanding the geopolitical landscape of the Levant and the Jewish sectarianism during his own lifetime, he becomes less dependable when it comes to earlier stages in the lives of the ancient Israelites. Josephus was committed to the Torah as an infallible historical source, for example, and treated Adam and Eve as literal historical figures.
Josephus’ challenges in charting the early life of the Jews are unsurprising, however, given the vagueness of the Old Testament on this period. Regarding to the Exodus, one challenge is presented by the fact that the pharaohs responsible for the oppression and liberation of the Israelites are not mentioned by name at all in the biblical account. And ever since there have been attempts to align the Exodus narrative with what we know about Egyptian history, there have been as many as 8 names put forward as the identity of the pharaoh responsible for liberating the Israelites.
Rameses, your stubbornness is bringing this misery upon Egypt.
(Moses to the Pharaoh in the DreamWorks film Prince of Egypt)
Rameses the Great, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE, initially attracted the most support for the pharaoh that eventually liberated the Israelites, and this identification was supported by Hollywood in films like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, the animated Prince of Egypt, and the more recent Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale. One can easily reach this conclusion by a straightforward reading of a verse in the first chapter of Exodus, which states that the enslaved Israelites “built the cities of Pithom and Rameses” (Exodus 1:11). While the whereabouts of Pithom continue to be debated, the ‘city of Rameses’ can be easily identified as the capital city built for Rameses in the early 13th century BCE, near the old Hyksos capital of Avaris. This would place the Exodus in the 1200s BCE or later.
This so-called ‘late’ dating of the Exodus was supported by a number of prominent 20th-century biblical scholars, such as John Bright in his book A History of Israel. Such a dating causes a big problem, however. The latest possible date for the destruction of Jericho given by Garstang and Kenyon was 1400 BCE. If the biblical Exodus happened during the 13th century BCE, then the Israelites would have essentially ran into an uninhabited and deserted Jericho. There would be none of the “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” for them to destroy (Joshua 6:21).
In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the LORD. (1 Kings 6:1)
Another major problem is presented by other Bible verses that seem at odds with such a late dating for Moses’ and Joshua’s exploits. For example, King Solomon is said to have reigned Israel in the 900s BCE. The quotation above explains that he built his famous temple 480 years after the Exodus; but this simply does not allow for an Exodus in the 1200s BCE. A ‘late’ date also does not leave enough time to allow for the rule of the Judges—leaders such as Samson, Jephthah, and Gideon, whom the Bible suggests reigned for at least 300 years (see Judges 11:26), and who bridged the gap between resettlement in Canaan and the establishment of a monarchy under Kings Saul and David.
These issues have led some Bible commentators to reject such a ‘late’ dating and hold that the Exodus happened much earlier, and much sooner after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt. Perhaps, so the theory goes, the Egyptians retained some of the Hyksos to help them with building projects, and these manual workers grew exponentially in number over the course of the following century or so. This would seem to solve some of the issues. However, this dating is similarly fraught with problems. For example, it is not consistent with the Israelites building the ‘city of Rameses,’ which could only have been started following the accession of Rameses the Great in the 1279 BCE.
One other major issue is also presented by an Exodus before the start of the 13th century BCE. Up until 1180 BCE, the lands of Canaan were essentially an Egyptian province, used as a buffer zone to keep entities like the Kingdom of Mitanni and the Hittite Empire at bay. In the 1400s BCE, under the leadership of Thutmose III (1479 to 1426 BCE) and Amenhotep II (1427 to 1400 BCE), garrisons were placed throughout Egypt that ruled Canaan with an iron fist. Rather than escaping the pursuit of the Egyptian army, the Israelites crossing the ‘Sea of Reeds’ would have instead encountered more of its divisions on the other side.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country… (Exodus 13:17)
Various other anachronisms and historical anomalies present themselves with such an ‘early’ date for the Exodus. One problem is caused by the verse above, which explains that the Israelites took a route out of Egypt so as to avoid Philistine settlements on Canaan’s Mediterranean coast. It has now been established that the Philistines did not appear in the area until the 1200s BCE; there would have been no Philistines to circumvent at this time. Ultimately, the Exodus story is a jigsaw piece that won’t fit neatly at all into the jigsaw of the history of Egypt as it has been uncovered by archaeologists, historians, and Egyptologists. A later Exodus poses the problem of the Israelites running rampage through deserted cities; an earlier Exodus poses the problem of the Israelites fleeing one Egyptian province just to enter another.
All of the issues presented by an Exodus narrative that aligns awkwardly with established historical realities can be explained by the late date of its composition. The very first books of the Bible to be written seem to know little about the story. There are some vague passing references to movement from Egypt to the Promised Land in the early Psalms (see Psalm 80:8), but no reports of Jews commemorating the events of the Exodus with a ‘Seder’ meal until Jesus’ time. Many scholars see the fleshing out of the story as taking place as late as the 500s BCE—some 700 years after the event—during the so-called Babylonian exile, when the Israelites were living in Babylon. This would be akin to someone today undertaking to write the story of Columbus’ trip to the Americas without recourse to any sources.
The Exodus story may contain many legends etched into the collective consciousness and folk memory of the ancient Israelites. The commonplace movement of groups of Semites from Canaan to Egypt and back again, and the wide-scale collapse of Canaanite society following the so-called Bronze Age Collapse and consequent unrest, were perhaps brought together and housed under the roof of a singular narrative. Some have also plausibly linked the Minoan eruption on the Aegean island of Thera, which took place circa 1600 BCE, to the so-called ten plagues. The eruption may have caused the pollution of the Nile River, which rendered it blood red. This could have caused dying frogs to leave the water, whose decaying bodies then attracted flies. Such flies might have thereafter transmitted disease to cattle and humans alike, causing boils. The book of Exodus attributes these occurrences to miraculous acts of a god forcing the hand of an unnamed Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery (see Exodus 7-11).
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… (Psalm 137:1)
If the Exodus story has at best a tenuous relationship with historical realities, we might ask what constituted the purpose for such a story to be crafted. It is plausible that the story had a theological purpose, written after the Israelites had not only been conquered multiple times, but had been exiled far away from their homeland following the Babylonian exile. Perhaps the messages encoded in the story offered hope for those exiles pining for their former homeland, and conveyed something like this:
We need not worry. God is ultimately on our side. He will always come through for us in the end, even if sometimes we might be tempted to lose hope. It could take hundreds of years, but we will be free again. It also doesn’t matter who our captors are; God even helped us overcome the mighty Egyptian pharaoh to lead us back home.
Some prominent Jews are beginning to desert the notion of a historical Exodus. Although he attracted much criticism for doing so, David Wolpe, Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, commented that “virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” David Rastein, a prominent member of the Californian Jewish community, comments that “we all have our own Egypts—we are prisoners of something, either alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, overeating.” Rastein prefers to see the story as offering hope of potential escape from negative influences in our lives, as opposed to reporting historical realities—an interpretation that may align very well indeed with the original intentions of its writers.
 Bryant G. Wood, “The Biblical Date for the Exodus is 1446 BC: A Response to James Hoffmeier.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 50, No. 2 (June 2007): 249-258.
 Olivia B. Waxman, “Did the 10 Plagues of Egypt Really Happen? Here Are 3 Theories.” Time Magazine (April 19, 2019). <https://time.com/5561441/passover-10-plagues-real-history/>.
 Teresa Watanbe, “Doubting the Story of Exodus.” Los Angeles Times (April 13, 2001). <https://www.latimes.com/Archives/la-xpm-2001-apr-13-mn-50481-story.html>.
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