top of page

     Bible-lovers will love my latest book!

 "The Struggle for Utopia - A History of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Messianism."  Great reviews. Available on Amazon and at US bookstores. Check it out!

The Egyptian Exodus and Canaanite conquest – facts or fiction?

 

Summary:

This article argues that a literal interpretation of the Bible indicates that the Exodus from Egypt occurred in about 1446 BCE, and that a timeline for the Egyptian exile based upon this date fits in well with Egyptian history.  In particular, many of the key events described in the Book of Exodus occurred during times of transition in ancient Egypt.

 

.A verse from the Book of Kings states that there were 480 years between the Exodus from Egypt and the beginning of building of Solomon’s Temple which dates the Exodus to 1446 BCE. This period of 480 years is internally consistent with the rest of the Bible. The story of the Exodus told in the Torah fits in well with the pharaohs of Israelite slavery belonging to the 18th Dynasty. It is likely that Ahmenhotep II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus in that his military expeditions and Temple building activity were much less than his predecessors, indications that he lost his slaves at the Exodus and his chariots at the Reed Sea. It is speculated on the basis of Egyptian archeology that Ahmenhotep II’s stepmother Hatsheput was the foster mother of Moses. The commonly held time of the conquest of Canaan as the end of the 13th century BCE and beginning of the Iron Age fits poorly into the archeological record. A conquest during the Late Bronze Age in about 1400 BCE fits archeological findings at Jericho and inscriptions found in Egypt. 

Introduction

 

The Exodus from Egypt was the seminal event in Jewish history. This was when the Israelites became a people, when they achieved their freedom, and exchanged the mastership of Pharaoh for the mastership of God. The Exodus paved the way for their eventual entry into the Promised Land. This was also the first and only time that God overtly manifested His presence in history. In so doing, He permanently attached Himself to the Jewish people and the Jewish people became enduring witnesses to His involvement in human history. 

Jewish tradition has ensured that this event remains engraved in Jewish memory. The months of the Jewish year are based on the Exodus, with Nisan, when the Exodus occurred, becoming the first month of the year. On the Passover festival, Jews relate the Passover narrative while eating bitter herbs and unleavened bread to immortalize their time in slavery and commemorate their release from servitude. In Sanctuary and Temple times, participation in the Paschal sacrifice was obligatory for all members of the covenant. Important Jewish precepts also revolve around the memory of the Exodus, such as redeeming the firstborn son of the family, the use of phylacteries, and putting fringes on the sides of garments (Exodus 13:9). Even the Sabbath is linked not only to the Creation of the universe but also to the Exodus (ibid 13:12-13). 

 

If the Exodus did not occur, or even if the Bible describes a highly exaggerated account, then the veracity of the rest of the Torah becomes suspect, including the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The notion that Jewish slaves were taken from Egypt to become a nation under God also becomes meaningless, and the role of the Jewish people as demonstrating God’s involvement in history becomes highly questionable. 

 

Then let it be said at the outset that there is no definitive proof that the Israelites ever lived in Egypt and then left during an Exodus. There is also no unassailable proof that Joshua conquered the land of Canaan 40 years afterwards. 

 

However, there is no reason that there should be proof of the Egyptian exile. Slaves do not build monuments. The water level in the Nile Delta area has risen, making archeology in this area difficult. In any case, Israelite homes would be impossible to differentiate from Egyptian homes, since the Israelites in Egypt were highly assimilated. The buildings they constructed as slaves were also Egyptian temples and not Jewish constructions. It is only their being enslaved that kept the Israelites distinct as a people.1

 

Since it is unlikely that definitive proof of the Exodus will ever be obtained and the date of the conquest is difficult to establish, these issues have to be approached from a different perspective. The question that can be asked instead is what is the possibility that these two events occurred? This can be investigated by looking at the history of ancient Egypt and by examining archeology in Israel from the time of the conquest. If these are compatible with the Torah, then we can say that these events present no challenge to faith. Moreover, the more suggestive is this evidence, the stronger is the possibility that the Biblical story is authentic. This is not the type of proof that would be acceptable in a scientific experiment. But this is not a scientific experiment. 

 

Dating the Exodus from Biblical sources

 

A helpful first step in examining these issues is to attempt to date the Exodus. The places to start this search are Biblical sources. 

 

The Book of Kings relates: 

 

In the 480th year after the Children of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt – in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month – he built the Temple for God” (Kings I 6:1). 

 

The destruction of the First Temple has been reliably dated to 587 BCE on the basis of Greek historians and Babylonian and Persian records. From knowledge of the reigns of the kings of Judah and Israel as described in the Bible, Solomon’s ascension to the throne can be dated to 970 BCE.  Solomon began constructing his temple 4 years into his reign, in 966 BCE. Thus, the date of the Exodus was 480 years before this - in 1446 BCE.

 

To what extent can this figure of 480 years from the Exodus to Solomon’s Temple be relied upon? 

Is it possible that this number has symbolic meaning, since assigning symbolic meaning to numbers was common practice in the Torah. This question has been discussed in scholarly circles and to date no symbolism related to this number has been suggested. 

 

Another way of assessing the historicity of this date is to see whether it is internally consistent chronologically with other accounts in the Bible.   

 

During the time of the Judges, the tribe of Manasseh was experiencing military pressure from the Ammonites on the eastern side of the Jordan, and an individual named Yiftah was called upon to save his tribe. Yiftah had been previously thrown out of his tribal home by his siblings because he was the son of a concubine or harlot. Now, at this time of need, his military prowess was needed. The Book of Judges records a speech he made to the Ammonites before engaging with them militarily. In this speech he asks why it had taken them so long to make the claim that the Israelites had stolen their land.2 Part of his speech reads as follows: 

While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its towns, and in Aror and its towns, and in all the cities that are along by the side of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?” (Judges 11:26)

 

It could be argued that Yiftah was a non-erudite military leader who was unlikely to have had access to reliable historic data. Nevertheless, this was a diplomatic message and it is unlikely that he conjured up this number, although he could have done some rounding off. 

 

There are good reasons why reliable chronological records would have been kept during the time of the Judges and monarchy. The Exodus was the event that preceded the conquest of Canaan that led to the establishment of an independent and eventually united Jewish kingdom. From a political perspective, therefore, it was an important date. 

 

Also according to the Bible there was adequate time to accommodate 180 years from the time of Yiftah to the time of King Solomon, accepting that there may have been overlap of some of the judges, that the Book of Judges may not have accounted for all the years in its account of the judges, and that 40 years needs to be added for the Israelite wanderings in the desert following the Exodus. Hence, from the time of Yiftah to the beginning of the reign of Solomon, the following judges, prophets and kings are yet to come – the judges Ibzan (7 years), Elon (10 years), Abdon, and Samson (years unknown), the prophet Eli (40 years) and Samuel (years unknown), and the kings Saul (2 years) and David (40 years).  

In addition, the Book of Chronicles records that there were eighteen generations from Korach (who perished in the wilderness after the Exodus) until Heman who sang in Solomon’s Temple (Chronicles I 6:18-22), which would lead to a realistic figure of twenty-seven years per generation. This same paragraph also records that there were ten generations of priests from Pinhas (the zealous priest in the desert with Moses) until Azariah, who served in Solomon’s temple, which is 48 years per generation (ibid I 6:30-35).

 

Problematic, however, is a statement in this same chapter of Chronicles that there were seven generations of Levites from Gershom (the son of Levi) to Jeathrai, who served as a Levite in Solomon’s Temple (ibid I 6:1-6). The end of the Book of Ruth also relates that David was the fifth generation from Nachshon, a leader of the tribe of Judah who was alive at the time of Exodus (Ruth 4:20-21). Boaz was old when he married Ruth (ibid 3:10). Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how five generations could be accommodated into the 440 years from the time of the Exodus to the birth of David. There is no explanation for these difficult passages, although it is conceivable that individuals were left out in these particular genealogical lines. 

 

Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

 

Also helpful is to see how the date of 1446 BCE fits into Egyptian history. For example, we can ascertain who would likely have been Pharaoh at this date and then ascertain whether his history is compatible with his being the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

 

Firstly, some information about dating in ancient Egyptian. Two dating systems are used by scholars to determine the reigns of the Pharaoh’s – a low chronology and high chronology. An astronomic observation, the heliacal rising of Sothis, was recorded on papyrus in the 9th year of the reign of Amenhotep I, an early Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. Astronomers are able to pinpoint precisely the year in which this event occurred by charting the positions of stars in antiquity. However, the precision of this calculation depends very much on the latitude at which this observation was made. Therein lies the problem. The papyrus was found in Thebes, but the observation could have been made in Thebes, Memphis, Heliopolis, or any other Egyptian city, leading to an uncertainty of 25 years. The earlier dating (assuming the rising was observed at Memphis) constitutes the “low chronology” and the later dating (with the observation being made at Thebes) is the “high chronology.” 

 

Which of these two systems is most accurate has been a matter of debate for many years. However, a recent study using radiocarbon dating of biological specimens obtained from museums favors the low chronology for the Middle Kingdom and the high chronology for the later New Kingdom, which includes the 18th Dynasty, the dynasty of most interest to us.3 Having said this, this essay finds the low chronology somewhat more helpful for fitting ancient Egyptian history into Biblical dating. In any case, the dates in Table 1 below should not be regarded as being highly precise, particularly when one goes back earlier than the reign of Amenhotep I.

 

Accepting 1446 BCE as the date of the Exodus, and depending on whether one uses the low or high chronology, this would be either towards the end of the approximately 54-year rule of Thutmose III or the beginning of the 26-year reign of his son Amenhotep II. The ascension of Amenhotep II is usually dated to 1453 BCE using the low chronology or 1427 BCE by the high chronology (see table 1). 

From the wording of the Bible, it seems more likely that the Exodus happened towards the beginning of the reign of Ahmenhotep II rather during the reign of Thutmose III, in that the Torah tells us:

 

During those many days, it happened that the king of Egypt died and the Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to God. And God heard their moaning …..” (Exodus 2:23-24). 

 

The ruler proceeding Thutmose III was a woman named Hatshepsut. If Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, the Bible should have referred to Hatsheput as the “Pharaoh” or “queen” that died rather than “king of Egypt.” Hatsheput did often regard herself as king rather than queen of Egypt, and many of her statues show her with the false beard typical of the Pharaohs. However, her own view of the matter would not have changed the emphasis of the Bible. 

 

Moreover, there is no record of any large gaps in Thutmose III’s history suggesting a decrease in military or construction projects as a result of his losing his chariot force and slaves at the Reed Sea.     

The Pharaohs did not engage in colonizing activities, but had periodic campaigns outside of Egypt to collect tribute, and this tribute was brought to the temples as gifts for the gods. Egypt was a rich country and could afford a large standing army and the chariot force was a critical component of this. If Pharaoh’s chariots had been destroyed, the army would have been rendered impotent for a number of years and this would be reflected in less military campaigns. The Pharaohs also engaged in extensive temple building, and these building projects were recorded on the walls of their temples. Loss of a large number of slaves would be reflected in a decrease in recorded state building activity. 

 

All of this makes it difficult to fit the Exodus into the reign of Thutmose III, in that we know that Thutmose III was an extremely powerful and successful Pharaoh. He engaged in sixteen foreign military campaigns and built up the most formidable army in the Middle East. We also know (because he tells us) that he was a great builder, constructing over fifty temples, including massive additions to Egypt's chief temple in Karnak. The Egyptian construction industry reached its pinnacle in design and style at this time, never again to be equaled. 

 

Moreover, if Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, an Exodus of 1446 BCE would have been towards the end of his rule and well after the death of Hatshepsut. However, the Torah verse previously quoted implies that the Exodus took place shortly after the death of the new Pharaoh’s father. Israelite crying out and God’s listening could have extended over many years, but it is more within the sense of the verse that the crying and listening occurred within a relatively short time. Rabbinic exegesis picks up on this. A Midrash points out that unlike false gods who have no ability to listen, when God listens, He answers quickly.4  

 

All this points to his son Ahmenhotep II as being the most likely candidate for the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

Amenhotep II was 18 years old when he became Pharaoh. For the first two years of his reign he ruled as a co-regent with his father and the Israelites would have been familiar with Amenhotep’s policies even before his father died. Amenhotep would almost certainly have wished to continue the building endeavors of his father and for this he needed slaves. For the Israelites, the future portended harsh labor without respite, and there would have been good reason that they “cried out” when Amenhotep II took over the full reins of power. Amenhotep II’s wish to emulate the building accomplishments of his father could also account for his stubbornness in his dealings with Moses.    

 

Unlike his father, Amenhotep II led only two or three campaigns during his more than 29-year rule, with his last campaign being in the 9th year of his rule.5 This is surprising, since in theory his father should have bequeathed him a large standing army. According to scholars, cracks were beginning to appear in the power of the Egyptian empire during his reign.6  

 

Amenhotep II did engage in building, but never on the scale of his father, and his building projects largely focused on “enlarging smaller temples all over Egypt.”7 This also is surprising since a large body of Israelite workers should have been available to him from the time of his father – unless, of course, many of them had left Egypt early in his reign.    

 

One author has this to say about the reign of Amenhotep II:

 

“It seems possible to consider this reign as unsuccessful, a time of decline; a few exploits abroad, a few preserved memorials, an almost complete absence of [self-documented] sources after the ninth year of the reign.”85

 

It is also noteworthy that Amenhotep’s successor, Thutmose IV, was his son but not his firstborn or heir apparent. This also fits well into the Biblical story, since Amenhotep II’s firstborn would have died during the plague of the firstborn.

 

One further issue needs clarifying. The kings of the 18th dynasty were mummified and their mummies placed in tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. This includes that of Amenhotep II whose mummy was discovered in 1898 in the Valley of the Kings in its original sarcophagus. According to the Bible, however, the Pharaoh of the Exodus drowned in the Sea of Reeds. 

 

Or did he? 

 

Jewish tradition is inconclusive on the matter. The author of Psalm 136 was clearly of the opinion that he did:  

But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Reed Sea, for His mercy endures forever” (Psalms 136:15).

 

Nevertheless, although Pharaoh’s army was totally destroyed by drowning in the Reed Sea, there is no verse in Exodus stating explicitly that the Pharaoh died at that time:  

 

He [Pharaoh] harnessed his chariot and took his people with him.  He took six hundred elite chariots and all the chariots of Egypt with officers on them all” …. “The water came back and covered the chariots and the horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh who were coming behind them in the sea – not one of them remained (literally: there did not remain of them up to one)” ….  Pharaoh’s chariots and army He cast in the sea and the select of his officers were sunk in the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 14:6-7, 14:28, 15:4). 

 

There are also midrashim concluding that Pharaoh remained alive after this debacle as a witness to this story.9

 

The Egyptian oppression

 

Having dated the Exodus to 1446 BCE and to the reign of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep II, it is now possible to examine the beginning of the Israelite exile in Egypt as related by the Torah to see if this also fits into Egyptian history. 

 

The Bible begins the story of the Israelite oppression with the following verses:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold! The people, the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come let us deal wisely to it lest it become numerous and it may be that if a war will occur, it, too, may join our enemies and wage war against us and go up from the land” (Exodus 1:8-10). 

 

These verses seem to indicate that this succession was different from previous successions. This was a king who not only did not know of Joseph but who was a “new king”. But do not all successions bring a “new” king? 

 

Egyptian history provides an answer to this question.  

 

The Pharaoh in question is likely Ahmose I who was from the southern kingdom of Egypt and who succeeded in uniting northern and southern Egypt and expelling the Hyksos from the Nile Delta. This struggle was begun by his grandfather, who likely lost his life in the attempt, was continued unsuccessfully by Ahmose I’s father, and finally completed by Ahmose I. The rule of Ahmose I over a united Egyptian kingdom began somewhere between 1570 BCE to 1551 BCE. (see Table 1) 

The unification of Egypt by Ahmose I was a highly significant event in Egyptian history and his 18th dynasty would become one of the most successful and powerful in Egyptian history. This unification would also have serious implications for the Israelite people. 

 

Scholars still debate who the Hyksos were that Ahmose I defeated. The most accepted theory is that they were a Semitic people who invaded northern Egypt during a period of political instability in Egypt. The beginning of their 15th dynasty is usually dated to between 1663 to 1648 BCE and they ruled during what is called the Second Intermediate Period of the Middle Kingdom. They established themselves in the Nile Delta and Middle Egypt, and also ruled over southern Egypt for a time. 

 

The Jewish Roman historian Josephus, quoting from the work of Manetho, describes the Hyksos invasion of Egypt as follows: 

 

By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow; and having overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of gods… Finally, they appointed as king one of their number whose name was Salitis.”10   

 

Some scholars question this description and suggest that the Hyksos could have infiltrated into Egypt more peacefully before seizing power, although this seems a less likely scenario. The Hyksos are credited with bringing chariots and improved bows and maces into Egypt, and this new technology would have given them an advantage in warfare. Chariots would subsequently become the “tanks” of the ancient world.

 

The Hyksos established their administrative capital in Avaris in the northeast region of the Nile delta.11 They also adopted Egyptian ways to make themselves accepted by their Egyptian subjects. Nevertheless, they were always regarded by the Egyptians as foreigners. The name Hyksos comes from two Egyptian words hekau khasut meaning foreign rulers.

 

An interesting question is whether the Pharaoh who related his dreams to Joseph was a Hyksos king. The answer to this depends on how long the Egyptian exile lasted and when Joseph brought his family to Egypt. If Joseph did indeed work for the Hyksos, it is not surprising that Ahmose I “did not know of Joseph” and had no interest even in finding out what Joseph had done for Egypt.  

Unfortunately, there is very little archeological evidence from the Hyksos period. The high water table has made archeology in this area difficult. In addition, when the Egyptians succeeded in expelling the Hyksos from Egypt, they erased all traces of their occupation, since this was not a period they were particularly proud of. It is not surprising, therefore, that no mention of Joseph has been found in Egyptian historic records.  

 

Whether or not Joseph and the Hyksos were contemporaries, the Israelites and Hyksos probably lived closely together, since the Israelites also settled in the Nile Delta. 

 

The children of Jacob were herdsmen rather than farmers. The Nile River overflows its banks during the summer months and deposits silt on the sides of the river. This increases the fertility of the fields and makes them suitable for growing grains and vegetable gardens. However, these fields are surrounded by desert, so that Middle and Lower Egypt would have been unsuitable for herdsmen. The Nile Delta area, on the other hand, would have been excellent terrain for sheep and cattle grazing, and the land of Goshen in the Nile Delta was where they were allowed to settle. 

 

If Joseph worked for the Hyksos, it is likely that the Israelites had a very close relationship with them. The Israelites may even have been a favored population in the Delta area. However, when Ahmose I took over the country, the Israelites would suddenly find themselves in a very different situation. Like the Hyksos who had just been expelled, they were a foreign people. They may have also been too numerous, powerful and entrenched in the country to be evicted. Nevertheless, in Ahmose’s eyes they were a potential threat. If they were to join a counter-coup, they could have reversed the gains he had made for the Egyptian people. It needed the cunning of a person like Ahmose I to figure out how this problem could be resolved. His solution was persecution and enforced labor:  

 

“So they appointed tax collectors over it in order to afflict it with their burdens; they built storehouses (miskenot) for Pharaoh, Pithom and Ra’amses …….. They embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and with bricks and with every labor of the field, all their labors that they performed with them was crushing labor” (Exodus 1:11-14).

 

The Hebrew word Pithom probably comes from the words ‘Pi-Atum’ which means ‘the house of Athum’ and “Ramases” means ‘born to Ra.’ Both Athum and Ra were gods of the Nile Delta. It is very possible, therefore, that the Israelites were building administrative and storage facilities for temples of worship for the sun gods and not storage cities to benefit the populace. This building of temples is very typical of the activities of the 18th dynasty Pharaohs. 

 

Their building of these temples would have had a significant consequence for the Israelites. The role of religion was extremely pervasive in Egyptian society. If the Egyptians had invited the Israelites to their pagan worship, they may well have been attracted to idol worship. However, building pagan temples in conditions of forced labor was another matter entirely and would have given the Israelites a very different perspective on pagan worship. This could explain why despite a sojourn of hundreds of years, the Hebrews brought nothing of Egyptian mythology and very little of Egyptian culture with them into the desert and into their new country.

 

Who was the Pharaoh who issued the directive that all male Israelite children be killed? From the wording of the Bible it could have been the same “new Pharaoh” who initially enslaved the Israelites. A later Pharaoh is also possible and would not contradict the words of the Torah. This leader initiated a n.ew policy when he realized that forced labor had been unsuccessful in achieving Israelite population control.  

A useful date for determining the identity of this Pharaoh is that of Moses’ birth, since Moses’ family was directly affected by this decree.  

 

The Book of Exodus relates that “Moses was eighty years old and Aaron was eighty-three years old when they spoke to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:7). The period of the ten plagues would have been quite brief and probably lasted less than a year. This is evident from the fact that Moses first spoke to Pharaoh when he was 80, that he led the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness, and died when he was 120  (Exodus 1:11). One can conclude, therefore, that Moses was born in about 1527 BCE.

 

Depending on whether one uses the high or low chronology, the date of 1527 BCE is compatible with either Ahmose I, Ahmenhotep I or Thutmose I being the Pharaoh who initiated this cruel decree. As explained previously, the low chronology seems to be more helpful in fitting the story of the Exodus into the events of the Egyptian exile, and Thutmose I may well be the Pharaoh responsible.  

There is another good reason for focusing on Thutmose I. Until the time of Thutmose I, Thebes was the main administrative center for the Egyptian kingdom. However, Thutmose I moved his center north to Memphis together with his army. Memphis is on the Nile and close to the Nile Delta. From now on the Israelites and the Pharaoh’s will be in close proximity to each other – and this will not be a happy relationship.

The fact that Thutmose I moved close to the Delta would also explain how Pharaoh could so easily have spoken to the Hebrew midwives. If the Pharaohs had been living in Thebes, this would be a 1½-week journey by donkey to relay a message. It could also explain how Moses could be rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh when he was sent down the Nile in a reed basket.

 

Who was this “daughter of Pharaoh” who rescued Moses from the Nile? This might seem an impossible question to answer since Pharaoh likely had a number of wives. He would have had a primary wife who was his queen and also secondary wives. However, an intriguing suggestion is that the stepmother of Moses was the daughter of his primary wife. Her name was Hatcheput.

 

Thutmose I ‘s primary wife was Ahmes and she had only a single child, a daughter, Hatsheput. Hatsheput married a stepbrother from a secondary wife Mutneferet to solidify the succession. This husband was Thutmose II. Thutmose II might have been young when he ascended to the throne and he died young after being Pharaoh for 13 years. Hatsheput now found herself a regent for a very young stepson. Hatsheput had no sons, only a daughter, and her stepson was born to a secondary wife of Thutmose II.  Although initially a regent, it is generally agreed that she assumed the position of Pharaoh, and was quite successful at it too. So successful, in fact, that she began thinking of herself in a rather manly way and as mentioned some of her monuments show her with the typical beard used by the Pharaohs. She did all the things that a Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty was supposed to do. She built temples throughout the country and engaged in military campaigns and recorded her triumphs with statues and other monuments. When she passed away, she was succeeded by her stepson Thutmose III.

 

And then something strange happened. Decades after her death many of her cartouches and monuments were smashed. The damage is too extensive to have been carried out randomly by vandals and must have been officially sanctioned. It could have been sanctioned by her stepson, or the Pharaoh after him Ahmenhotep II. Historians are at a loss to explain why it happened. One suggestion is that Hatsheput was an affront to the Pharaoh’s masculinity – but this is a rather lame reason and does not explain why the damage was perpetrated years after her death. If Thutmose III had wanted to be nasty to his stepmother, he had plenty of opportunity to do so soon after she died.

 

However, there is another suggestion that fits into the Exodus story. Hatsheput was the daughter of Thutmose I. Could she have been the foster mother of Moses? She had only one daughter and may already have been scheming to avoid just the type of succession problem that did in fact transpire. If Moses had kept to the script, he could have been directed to marry Hatsheput’s daughter and become Pharaoh of Egypt! 

This may be taking speculation too far. Nevertheless, it is very possible that Hatsheput was recognized by the Egyptians as the person who had saved Moses and brought him into the royal palace. When Moses destroyed the agriculture of Egypt, destroyed the Egyptian army, and released Pharaoh’s slaves, there was only one way for the Pharaoh of the Exodus, Amenhotep II, to get back at his stepmother - and this was to destroy her image. This was more than symbolic. These images were intended to help her descend into the underworld.

There are clearly no proofs her. Nevertheless, Biblical and Egyptian history do seem to fit together very nicely. 

The archeology of the conquest

 

The Exodus from Egypt and Joshua’s conquest of Canaan are, of course, two sides of the same coin. If the Exodus took place in 1446 BCE and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, then the conquest should have begun in about 1406 BCE. 

 

Most archeologists do not agree with this and they postulate that the Israelites arrived in Canaan at the end of the 13th century BCE, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. However, this produces a host of problems trying to fit archeological findings with the Biblical story. For example, there is no evidence of destruction in Jericho during this period. Nevertheless, there are scholars who support a conquest at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 14th century. 12 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(This table is taken from The Conquest of the Land of Israel in Excavating the Bible. New Archeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture by Ytizhak Meitlis)  

 

There are ideological overtones to this debate. The early days of archeology in Palestine in the late 19th century were directed at verifying the historicity of the Bible. This was how archaeologists obtained their funding and this was what people were interested in. However, many archeologists in Israel in the modern era have attempted to break loose from this association with the Bible, and they regard the Bible as having no more importance than any another Near Eastern text (and some would quip having even less significance than other Near Eastern texts).13 Some Biblical minimalists even question whether there was an Israelite conquest at all, especially as evidence for a 13th century conquest is non-existent. They suggest rather that mountain ridge settlement in Canaan came not from the east but from disgruntled breakaway Canaanites from the west. 

 

Nevertheless, most archeologists are in agreement that by the 12th century, in Iron Age I, there was a substantial Israelite population in the central mountain range that differed from the Canaanite population in a number of ways. Their pottery was different (and archeological identification is very much about pottery) in that Israelite vessels were roughly-made vessels whereas the Canaanite population used typical Iron Age collared-rim storage jars (i.e. jars with a slightly inset collar close to the rim of the vessel) and cooking pots, and also imported vessels typical of the Middle Bronze Age. The Israelites built four-room homes. These were typically rectangular with three rooms parallel to the longitudinal axis and a fourth space parallel to its short axis of the same width as the other rooms. This enclosed courtyard provided space for a cistern, cooking, and storage, and may even have been an Israelite innovation. Stone pillars or walls served as room dividers and provided support for a second story.14 Israelites settlements had agricultural stepping on the hillsides. Evidence of literacy with use of a proto-Canaanite script has been found in a few Israelite villages. (The name “proto-Canaanite” is a misnomer since this writing had nothing to do with the Canaanites and may even have been invented by the Israelites). They also contain no pig bones because of Jewish dietary laws, but these are typically found in Canaanite and Philistine settlements.

 

The Book of Joshua describes short-lived, blitzkrieg-type campaigns against the major Canaanite cities that would have eliminated any subsequent resistance to an Israelite presence in the country. This was followed by a second stage of settlement. However, the Israelites were unable to remove the Canaanite presence in the plains and valleys and were forced to settle in the more sparsely populated central mountain range.15 This means that for a certain time period there were two cultures present in the country. The big question is when this began.

 

The archeologists Yitzhak Meitlis provides considerable evidence that two cultures existed in Canaan from the close of the Middle Bronze Age (which he conveniently brings up to 1400 BCE), with features of an Iron Age culture being present in Canaan from as early as the Middle Bronze Age.16

Meitlis is a Biblical maximalist. However, the beauty of his approach is that everything now fits perfectly together. The archeological findings at Jericho, for example, have always been problematic to those suggesting an Iron Age conquest, since it was mainly unoccupied during the Iron Age. (For a maximalist this could be anticipated, as Joshua placed a ban on anyone settling in the city (Joshua 6:26)).

Archeological excavations at Tel es-Sultan, the ancient fortified city of Jericho, have revealed a 15 feet high stone wall at the base of an embankment that surrounded the tel. The embankment itself was plastered over and on its top was a mudbrick double-layered wall surrounding the city preserved to a height of 8 feet. The red bricks from this wall were heaped up beyond the stone wall at the base of the embankment such that an enemy would have been able to climb over the wall via this new ramp (Joshua 6:20). The double wall on top of the tel has been dated to the Early Bronze Age. The destruction and conflagration in the city dates to the Late Bronze Age. Based on the Canaanite pottery in the city reported by previous excavations, Bryant Wood has dated the destruction of Jericho to about 1400 BCE.17 Interestingly, many full grain storage jars were found in the city ruins compatible with a sudden conquest during the spring rather than a prolonged siege during which the grain would have been consumed.18 All this is compatible with the Biblical story. 

 

Two extra-Biblical sources also support a Late Bronze Age arrival of the Israelites in Canaan. One is the Merneptah Stele. This is a victory stele found in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes commemorating a successful military campaign by Merneptah, the son and successor of Rameses II, against Lybia and Canaan in the fifth year of his reign in about 1209 BCE. This stele mentions his victory against “Israel:” 

 

“The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!”

Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.

Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;

Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;

Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;

Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;

Israel is laid waste; his seed is not;

Harru is become a widow of Egypt!

All lands together, they are pacified”.

 

Reliefs of the Canaanite battles in the Karnack temple show the Canaanite city-states Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam, while the Israelites are pictured as trampled. If indeed the words “Israel is laid waste” are describing a conflict with the Israelite people this would be difficult to fit into an early 13th century BCE Exodus, since the Israelites would barely have arrived in the country.19 Supporters of a late Exodus suggest that the “Israel” mentioned here is not the Israelite people, although it is difficult to imagine who else it could be. No Canaanite tribe has a name resembling this. More logical is to assume that the Israelite people had been in Canaan for several hundred years and that they were established in the hill country throughout Judea and Samaria. These villages would have been difficult to conquer in their entirety since they were so spread out, and this stele inscription may have been more bluster than reality. Whatever the reason, this military action did not even merit mention in the Book of Judges. 

 

Another important piece of evidence for an early conquest are the Tel el-Amarna Letters. These letters date from the middle of the 14th century and originate from the royal archives of Akhetaten, the capital city of Egypt at the time of Amenhotep IV. There are 380 tablets and 300 of them include correspondence between Egypt and its vassal cities in Canaan and Syria. Canaan at this time was loosely controlled by the Egyptians. Eighteen of these letters contain complaints to the Pharaoh about the social disorder in the country as a result of the activities of the “Habiru.” The meaning of this term is uncertain and it could be referring derogatively to bandits, brigands or mercenaries, but it could also be referring to the Israelites. 

Of considerable interest is that all the Canaanite cities writing letters of complaint are those specifically mentioned in the book of Judges as not being conquered by Joshua. Meitlis comments “In short, the list of major city-states found in the El-Amarna letters matches almost exactly the cities that the Bible regards as cities that survived as Canaanite cities during the period of the Judges”20 Meitlis also quotes the Israeli archeologist Amihai Mazar who writes “The list of unconquered cities (Judges 1:15-35) is corroborated by archeological research. In many of the cities mentioned, especially in the Jezreel and Bet-Shean Valleys, we find continuity in the survival of Canaanite culture up until the close of the 11th century BCE.”20,21

Consider the city of Shechem. This city receives no mention in the book of Joshua, which is surprising since it was a large Canaanite city-state in the central highlands. The Armana Letters could indicate why. We read in these letters that the king of Shechem is accused by his rivals of maintaining good relationships with the Habiru and had even given some of them land.22 The king of Shechem wrote several letters to Amenhotep IV that he was Pharaoh’s loyal vassal and in one letter he wrote that he was handing over his son who had been collaborating with the Habiru. The king of Megiddo also complains that he is facing an attack of a coalition of Habiru and Shechemites. Interestingly, the city of Jericho receives no mention in any of the letters, presumably because it was no longer Canaanite controlled.

 

A 13th century conquest and Rameses II as the Pharaoh of the Exodus 

 

Many of the scholars who suggest a conquest in the 1200’s BCE focus on Rameses II as the possible Pharaoh of the Exodus. His father Seti I would therefore be the Pharaoh who initiated the oppression.23

Rameses II ruled from 1279 to 1213 BCE based on the low chronology and 1304 to 1237 BCE based on the high chronology. The name Rameses II means the “son of Ra,” and Rameses II was the grandson of Rameses I who was of non-royal birth and came from a noble family from the Nile Delta region. He established the city of Pi–Rameses (meaning the House of Rameses) as his new capital and residence in the Nile Delta on the ruins of the Hyksos capital of Avaris. Assuming the Israelites were still in Egypt, this new, or more accurately rebuilt city, would have been close to Israelite settlement. 

 

That Rameses II was born in the Nile Delta accounts for the fact that he worshipped the sun god Ra rather than Amun or Amun-Ra, the gods of the 18th dynasty Pharaohs living in Thebes. The gods of Egypt were sometimes associated with specific locales and Ra was a state deity in northern Egypt from the time of the 5th dynasty. 

 

The following verse describing the Israelite’s path from Egypt during the Exodus is often taken as supporting evidence for Rameses II being the Pharaoh of the Exodus:

The children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot, the men, aside from the children” (Exodus 12:37).

 

However, it is unlikely that this particular “Rameses” was named after either Rameses II or his capital city Pi-Rameses. The Israelites settled in “the land of Rameses” when they arrived in Egypt and this was many years before the Exodus (Genesis 47:11). The Israelites are also recorded as building storage facilities or a temple of “Ra’amses” during the Egyptian oppression and this could have been in Heliopolis or anywhere else in the Nile Delta. 

 

Moreover, the history of Rameses II does not accommodate loss of his army or loss of a large body of slaves. In fact, Rameses II is often regarded as Egypt’s greatest and most powerful leader. The early part of his reign was focused on building cities, temples and monuments, and he engaged in numerous military campaigns in Syria, Nubia and Libya. 

 

Conclusions

 

Many academicians consider the Exodus to have taken place in the 1200’s BCE, if it took place at all. However, this date fits in poorly with Egyptian history, and the Pharaoh at that time, Rameses II, is an unlikely candidate for the Pharaoh of the Exodus based on descriptions of his temple building and his numerous military campaigns. On the other hand, the history of the Egyptian 18thdynasty fits in nicely with a Biblically derived date for the Exodus of 1446 BCE

 

Archeologists may well find evidence in the future that will enable them to date the conquest of Canaan more definitively. In the meantime, believers in the Exodus and conquest of Canaan as described in the Bible can keep on believing and be assured that no hard evidence exists that contradicts their beliefs.  

 

References

1.   According to the Mechilta, the Jews remained distinctive from the Egyptians in their language and names, in there not adopting Egyptian immorality, and not harboring informers in their midst. Others add that they also were distinct in their attire.

2.   Shortly before the Exodus, the Amorites west of the River Jordan, under King Sihon, invaded and occupied a large portion of the territory of Moab and Ammon. The Ammonites were driven from their rich lands near the River Jordan by the Israelites and they retreated to the mountains and valleys to the east. The former territories of the Amorites remained in Israelite hands. 

3. Ramsey CB et al. Radiocarbon-based chronology for dynastic Egypt. Science 2010;328:1554-1557.

4. Yalkut Shemoni, Parshat Shemot 169.

5. D. Petrovich D in an essay entitled “Amenhotep II and the historicity of the Exodus-Pharaoh”, TMSJ 17/1 (Spring 2006) pp 81-110, writes that Amenhotep II’s last campaign in the 9th year of his rule was quite atypical.  It went no further than Palestine and brought back 101,128 slaves and 1,032 wooden chariots. This author suggests that his capture of so many slaves and chariots was needed to fill the void left by the evacuation of his Hebrew slaves and loss of his chariots.

6. The Macmillan Bible Atlas by Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, New York, Macmillan, 1977. 

7.  Amenhotep II in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amenhotep_II  

8.  Vandersleyen, L’Egypte 2:341 

9. The Midrashic literature is divided on the matter. The Midrashic work Yalkut Shimoni (Yalkut Shemoni 238) states the following: “The water came back and covered the chariots and the horsemen….”  – this includes even Pharaoh; this is the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who quotes the verse “Pharaoh’s chariots and army …”  Rabbi Gamliel says: except for Pharaoh, about whom it says: On account of this I have left you standing [in order to show you My power and so that My name may be declared throughout the world] (Exodus 9:16). The point bothering Rabbi Gamliel is that according to the Bible, Pharaoh’s role was to be a living witness to God’s power, “so that My name may be declared throughout the world,” a role he obviously could not fulfill if he perished.  Another Midrash (Midrash Aggadah Shemos 14:28) picks up on the Bible’s words that “there did not remain of them up to one.” The expression “up to one” is a Biblical idiom that usually means no one. However, the Midrash concludes that there was indeed up to one person who survived the splitting of the Reed Sea, and this was Pharaoh himself.  

10. Quoted in History of Egypt from the Earliest Time to the Persian Conquest, James Henry Breasted, p. 216, republished 2003. 

11. Avaris was located near the modern Tell el-Dab'a. It was then a busy port, trade and administrative center on the eastern-most branch of the Nile. It was abandoned during the 18th dynasty, but the area was rebuilt by Ramses II as his administrative capital, Pi Ramesses.   

12. For a list of scholars who accept this approach see Classical Models for the Appearance of Israel in Palestine by Paul J. Ray Jr. in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J Ray, Jr. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 3, p79, Winona lake, Indiana. 2008.

13. Agendas on the Right and Agendas on the Left in Ani Maamin. Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Joshua Berman, p72, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2020.

14. The Appearance of Israel in Canaan in Recent Scholarship by Patrick Mazani in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J Ray, Jr. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 3, p101, Winona lake, Indiana. 2008.

15. See Judges 1:19 “and YHVH was with Judah, and they drove out the inhabitants of the mountains; but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, for they had iron chariots.”

16. The Conquest of the Land of Israel in Excavating the Bible. New Archeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture by Ytizhak Meitlis, p53-118, Eshel Books, Maryland, USA,.2012.

17. Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archeological Evidence by Bryant G. Wood in Biblical Archeology Review March/April 1990. I have summarized this article but without adding the proceeding archeological excavations done by others with which Wood disagrees. Wood’s assessment from their excavations is very much based on the Canaanite pottery found within the city, including locally manufactured and imported pottery typical for the Late Bronze Age and which he feels was incorrectly evaluated by Kathleen Kenyon. Radiocarbon data is not quite consistent with Wood’s theory, but there may be reasons for this. An article which focuses more on the disputes and that includes radiocarbon dating data is Jericho chronology dispute in Conservapedia. (https://www.conservapedia.com/Jericho_chronology_dispute).

18. That the conquest of Jericho occurred in the early spring is evident from Joshua 2:6, 3:15, 4:9 and 5:10.

19. The Appearance of Israel in Canaan in Recent Scholarship by Patrick Mazani in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J Ray, Jr. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 3, p108, Winona lake, Indiana. 2008.

20. The Conquest of the Land of Israel in Excavating the Bible. New Archeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture by Ytizhak Meitlis, p93, Eshel Books, Maryland, USA,.2012.

21. The Relationship between Archeology and Historical Research by Amihai Mazar in Lee Levine and Amihai Mazars eds. The Controversy over the Historical Validity of the Bible (Heb), Jerusalem, 2001, p107. 

22. The Appearance of Israel in Canaan in Recent Scholarship by Patrick Mazani in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil nad Paul J Ray, Jr. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 3, p106, Winona lake, Indiana. 2008.

23. What is the Biblical date for the Exodus? A response to Bryant Wood. JETS 50/2 (June 2007) 225-24721.  

bottom of page