The Exodus and Egypt
Posted by foryourfaith on August 4, 2010
The story of the Exodus is filled with problems and questions similar to some of those concerning the Patriarchs. After Sarah died at the age of 127, Abraham remarried and had additional offspring by his second wife and by several concubines. These became the ancestors of various Arabic tribes. Before Abraham died, he chose a wife for his son Isaac from their kinsmen. Isaac married Rebecca and settled near Beersheba, in the southern part of the territory, and Isaac and Rebecca gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.
Out of Egypt
Esau became the ancestor of the Edomites, while Jacob fathered twelve sons by his Aramean wives and concubines, and these twelve sons became the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was sold as a slave by his brothers and was carried off into Egypt. While he was in prison there, Joseph displayed his ability to interpret dreams, gained his freedom, and eventually became the chief administrative officer over Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Meanwhile, there was a famine in Canaan that forced Jacob and his family to emigrate to Egypt in search of food. Joseph arranged for them to settle in a place called Goshen, and in Egypt, the families of the twelve brothers multiplied into the Twelve Tribes.
Eventually, a Pharaoh came into power who knew not Joseph, and he reduced the Hebrews to slavery. God commanded Moses (who, although Hebrew, had grown up in the Pharaoh’s court after being rescued as a baby from the Nile) to lead the people out of Egypt and back to the land that God had promised Abraham.
The escape from Egypt by Moses and the Hebrews is surrounded by spectacular miracles, including the Ten Plagues that God sent upon Egypt. After each of the plagues, the Pharaoh agreed to allow the Hebrews to leave, but then God would harden the Pharaoh’s heart so that he’d change his mind and thus invite another plague upon his land. These plagues included blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn.
When the Hebrews did finally manage to leave Egypt, the Pharaoh, his heart having been hardened once again, assembled his army and chased the people as far as the Red Sea. God parted the waters and allowed the Hebrews to cross on dry land, but when the Pharaoh and his army followed, God caused the waters to return and destroyed the Egyptian army. The story in the Hebrew Bible is told in a number of different ways. A couple of different sources seem to have been combined in antiquity within the account of Exodus. Scholars today refer to the strands within the Hebrew Bible as the Yawist, the Elohist,m and the Priestly sources. These refer to the characters in the stories or the people who wrote them down.
Forty Years in the Desert
The Hebrews made their journey to Canaan in stages. God sent a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of ire by night to indicate when they should move their camp and where they should pitch their tents. Along the way, he fed them with quail and manna in the wilderness. After three months, the people reached a mountain in the wilderness of Sinai. They remained encamped at the foot of the mountain, while Moses climbed the mountain several times and spoke to god directly. Up there, along with seeing a burning bush, he received from God extensive legal and cultic instructions and regulations. These laws, instructions, and regulations were put into practice with the understanding that they were to be followed by the people from that time on. And indeed, these are the laws that have governed the Jewish people ever since, and even had an impact upon Christianity and Islam. These are not only the famous Ten Commandments, which are unique in history, but also more than six hundred other laws found in the Hebrew Bible, which determine, among other things, how one remains kosher and which are still followed by the people today. The Hebrews were still encamped at the mountain when they celebrated the first Passover, that is, the anniversary of the escape from Egypt.
On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud that God had sent was taken up, and it was time for the people to move on. They set out again and eventually came to a place called Kadesh in the southwest of the Negev. From there, they sent out twelve spies to explore the Promised Land. The spies returned with glowing reports about the land’s fertility and its produce (the land of milk and honey), but they also warned that the cities were too strong to be conquered and that the land was inhabited by giants. While they were still wandering around, Moses died in the region now called Transjordan, east of Israel, and Joshua assumed leadership of the people. He began preparations for an invasion of the western part of Canaan. The crossing of the Jordan River and the conquest of Jericho were essentially ritual operations surrounded by miracles – and at the same time were quite good military operations.
Moses and the Hebrews, soon to be named the Israelites, wandered around the region for forty years. Did they go on a northern route, up near the coast? Did they go on a middle route across the Sinai, or did they go far down south? These routes are all possible, and yet the northern route is most likely out of the picture, because the Egyptians had a series of forts across this route. The middle route is probably out too, going across the middle of the Sinai, because it is in the middle of the desert. It’s really only the very southern route, going almost all the way to Sharm El Sheikh, that makes the most sense for where the Hebrews, or Israelites, could have been for forty years. So most archaeologists and historians assume that Moses and the Hebrews wandered around the very southern part of the Sinai for much of these forty years.
Holes in the Desert
How much of this biblical story can be believed, and how much has been corroborated by archaeology or other sources? In brief, there is the biblical narrative and little else. It may be a matter of faith to believe that the Exodus and everything else took place as the Bible describes it. On the other hand, even if the Israelites camped in the desert for forty years, little can be expected to be found in the desert through archaeology.
If they were camping, they would have used tents with post holes, rather than permanent structures, and so an archaeologist is not going to find houses and walls and remains of permanent structures, but rather simply holes in the ground in which the tent pegs had once been placed, and those are almost impossible to find. But again, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
However, there are other difficulties with using the biblical narrative for historical reconstruction: the number forty and multiples of forty are in evidence throughout the Book of Genesis through 2 Kings. Forty is a sacred number, but it also may simply represent a generation.
There was forty years of wandering in the desert. The interval from the Exodus down to Solomon’s building of the Temple is recorded as 480 years, which is simply forty times twelve, so that could just be twelve generations. The time from the building of Solomon’s Temple until the time that the exiles returned from Babylon in 539 is given as another 480 years. In other words, Solomon’s Temple was built at the midpoint between the Exodus and the return from Babylon, with 480 years, or twelve generations, on either side of Solomon’s Temple. This is enough to make one a little suspicious.
Some of the other difficulties with using the biblical narrative also deal with numbers. Exodus 12:37-38 says that the people of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Succoth. The biblical account states that there were six hundred thousand men on foot, plus women and children. A mixed multitude also went with them, as did many cattle. This means that altogether there would have been about two and a half million people, for most of the men would have had wives, and most of the couples would have had two children, which makes 2.4 million people. The mixed multitude would probably add another hundred thousand people, which explains how the figure of at least 2.5 million people leaving Egypt was calculated. However, there is no way the Egyptians would have had that many slaves. And if they had, there would have been a revolt even earlier.
Moreover, if 2.5 million people did leave Egypt, and they marched ten across, those numbers would have formed a line about 150 miles long. If Moses did part the Red Sea, it would have had to have been held apart for eight or nine days before all the Hebrews managed to get through. Then there are the logistics of organizing such a group and sustaining it for forty years of wandering in the wilderness, as well as the fact that the Bible says there were only two midwives to care for the women.
All of this raises enormous questions for any historian who wants to use this information as it is recorded. But perhaps there are simply a few too many zeroes. If, rather than having six hundred thousand Hebrews of fighting age leave Egypt, there were only sixty thousand, or six thousand, or perhaps even six hundred, it would make a great deal more sense, and the wandering and the two midwives would be resolved a bit more.
However, there are additional questions raised by the biblical narrative. Did the Hebrews flee Egypt without the Pharaoh’s knowledge, in great haste and without preparation, or was the departure deliberate, with the Hebrews organized as an armed military force? How exactly were they able to leave Egypt, and who was the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph? What was happening on the international political scene at the time of the Exodus, and when did the Exodus actually take place? Also, what were the social and political circumstances among the Canaanites at the time of Joshua that allowed him to conquer Canaan?
These sort of questions are basic to modern historians’ interest, but are incidental to the theological message that the people compiling Genesis through 2 Kings wished to convey. The ancient writers, mostly because it wasn’t central to their interests or concerns, often failed to report precisely the type of information considered crucial by modern historians.
There are other, perhaps even more crucial, problems. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua are not mentioned in any non-biblical records. Nor is there any reference to an Israelite stay in Egypt, the Exodus, or the conquest of Canaan in any ancient source contemporary with the time these events occurred. Furthermore, with one exception, there is no mention of Israel or the Israelites in extra-biblical sources before the ninth century BCE, well after the time of David and Solomon. This mention of Israel is in the so-called Merneptah stele, which dates to 1207 BCE, the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah of Egypt. So the Exodus had to have taken place by this time, but how much earlier did it take place?
Dating the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt is difficult. A variety of biblical, historical, and archaeological data needs to be taken into account. Most scholars argue for either an early date, about the year 1450 BCE, or a later date, about the year 1250 BCE. The early date tends to be held by scholars who rely heavily on the Bible. The later date tends to be held by scholars who give more weight to the archaeological evidence. Arguments for the early date point to Kings 6:1, which says that the Exodus took place 480 years before Solomon began to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon began to build the Temple in Jerusalem in the fourth year of his reign. Because Solomon’s reign is about 970 to 930 BCE, this would then place the Exodus about 1450 BCE, that is, during the reign of King Thutmose III.
There are a number of letters from Egypt that date to about a hundred years after this, about 1350 BCE, which document a period of social chaos in Canaan that is caused by a group called the Habiru. The name sounds suspiciously similar to the name Hebrews, and if this is the case, then this would represent extra-biblical evidence and an approximate date for an Israelite invasion of Canaan sometime before 1350 BCE.
However, Thutmose III was the greatest conqueror that Egypt ever had, and under him the Egyptians were in firm control of both Egypt and Canaan. There is little archaeological evidence that he would have allowed the Hebrews to leave Egypt during his reign, and in fact, there is little archaeological data anywhere to support a date for the Exodus about 1450 BCE. Moreover, it is now doubted by scholars that the Habiru are the Hebrews, or at least that they are not the invading Israelites led by Moses and Joshua. Basically, they seem to have been a social class on the outskirts of society rather than a given set of people.
A Later Date for the Exodus
As for the arguments for a later date for the Exodus, the people following this line of argument say that the 480 years mentioned in 1 Kings is simply a symbolic number (that is, twelve generations of forty years each) and can be safely ignored. They also point to the fact that the cities of Pithom and Ramses in the Nile Delta region of Egypt, which were supposedly built by the Hebrews, were in fact founded by the Egyptian King Seti I in about the year 1304 and were completed by Ramses II, who ruled from 1290 to 1224. So if the Hebrew slaves built the cities of Pithom and Ramses, they would still be in Egypt until about 1250 BCE.
Moreover, archaeological evidence from various sites in Canaan may support a thirteenth-century date for the conquest, because a number of these cities were destroyed sometime during the thirteenth century, which would fit quite well with the coming of Joshua and the Israelites. Additional arguments for the later date of 1250 BCE for the Exodus point to the Merneptah stele, which mentions Israel, in the year 1207 BCE. Historians and archaeologists say that if the Israelites had entered Canaan around 1450 BCE, there should be other mentions of Israel before the year 1207 BCE, but there are not. Therefore, there would be more than two hundred years when Israel is not mentioned. If, however, the Exodus took place at 1250 BCE and the Israelites wandered for forty years, then having Israel mentioned by Merneptah in the year 1207 is actually perfect.
If the Exodus took place at 1250 BCE, one could count back 430 years, which is what Exodus 12 says was the length of time that the Hebrews were in Egypt during their period of servitude. Counting back from 1250 BCE would put the Hebrews in Egypt during the so-called Hyksos period, from about 1720 to 1550 BCE, when Egypt was ruled by foreigners from the region of Canaan for nearly two hundred years. This fit well with the time of Jacob and Joseph’s experiences in Egypt.
This is not to say that the later date of 1250 BCE is completely convincing, because it’s not clear from the archaeological record that the cities of Lachish and Hazor were destroyed simultaneously or even by a common enemy. Indeed, it can’t be established that those cities were destroyed by military action as opposed to acts of Nature.
There is, however, a third possibility. Perhaps the Exodus was a process rather than an event. It might have taken place over several centuries, from 1450 BCE until 1250 BCE. It is, of course, eminently possible that there were people leaving Egypt and heading for Canaan over the course of two hundred years, in a series of small groups rather than in one large group, but even this cannot be proven one way or the other.
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