Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 5: The 400 years of slavery

For Part 1, Introduction go here

For Part 2, Merneptah and the Book of Judges go here

For Part 3, The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology go here

For Part 4, The 430-year Sojourn go here

Genesis 15:13–16 is the source of the biblical claim that Israel suffered 400 years of bondage in Egypt. The passage, as I‘ll reiterate below, is inconsistent with the claim that Israel sojourned in Egypt for 430 years. There are also several problems with the internal content. The verse reads as follows.

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Genesis 15:13–16 NSRV)”

This passage has several parts. (1) Abraham’s offspring will be slaves in a land where they are “aliens” (per the NRSV) or “strangers (per the KJV). (2) the oppression will last 400 years. (3) “They” shall return “here” in the fourth generation. (4) They won’t return to “here” until the iniquity of the Amorites has ended.

The passage generates many interpretive problems, at least for me. Implicitly, “here” is in Canaan, which is where the narrative context places Abraham. Just about all scholars accept that the “strange land” that afflicted Israel is Egypt and the return is to Canaan. This interpretation strikes me as wrong because, in all other biblical passages referring to the patriarchs as strangers in a land, it is Canaan that is the strange land. I’ll discuss that point further below. Let’s look at some of the chronological problems first.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 4: The 430-Year Sojourn

Joseph greets his brothers in Egypt

For Part 1, Introduction go here

For Part 2, Merneptah and the Book of Judges go here

For Part 3, The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology go here

According to Exodus 12:40-41, “The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt (NRSV) [emphasis added].” The KJV translates the emphasized phrase as “children of Israel” and the underlying Hebrew says “ben Yisrael,” which seems to support the KJV translation. In either event, you can’t have Israelites until you have an Israel and the first Israelite is Jacob, who God renamed Israel.

I mention this point because it becomes a significant issue later on in this discussion. Contextually, the only group of Hebrews living for a long time in Egypt would be Jacob, his son Joseph, and their descendants, and this generates lots of problems. However, for the reasons explained below, Jews from at least the third century B.C.E measured the duration by starting from Abraham, who, by definition, is not an Israelite and did not, according to the bible, live in Egypt except for a brief visit in his 75th year.

Where does the 430-year period begin? I’ll start with the arrivals in Egypt of Jacob and his son Joseph. Chronologically, Joseph came to Egypt before Jacob. So do we start with Jacob or Joseph? There is no obvious answer as Joseph is a child of Israel? This gives us two possible time frames for the sojourn, one from Joseph and one from Jacob, but they are not very far apart.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 3: The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology

A rendering of what Solomon’s Temple would have looked like

For Part 1 go here

For Part 2 go here

According to 1 Kings 6.1, “In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of 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 began to build the house of the Lord [emphasis added].” Because Solomon’s reign can be closely connected to the chronological sequence of Jewish kings, some of whom are anchored to particular years in the archaeological record, this passage is probably the most influential source on the historical school of biblical studies. As one scholar observes, “This chronological note attached to Solomon’s construction of the Jerusalem temple is at the heart of the discussion of the date of the exodus and conquest periods. . .(Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed., 1 Ki 6:1). InterVarsity Press.)

It seems easy enough. Date Solomon’s reign based on the archaeological record, check off Year 4, and count back 480 years and you have the date of the Exodus. As you have probably guessed by now, nothing regarding Exodus dating is easy. Not even the majority of biblical historians accept this formula.

Putting aside the issue that there is no contemporaneous archaeological evidence indicating that either Solomon and /or his large and grand kingdom existed, the historical school relies primarily on a synchronization of archaeological events to create anchor dates for the sequence of Jewish kings. However, the biblical chronology of Hebrew kings is inconsistent with the historical alignments and most historians accept that some of the kings (must have) had overlapping coregencies, which shortens the time period to Solomon’s reign. The biblical chronological data, as I’ll show below, moves Solomon’s starting date back much further than historians would agree to. Nor does the bible mention any coregencies. So we will have to look at multiple chronological paths.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 2: Merneptah and the Book of Judges

Go here for Part 1: Introduction

In 1896, the archaeologist and Egyptologist Flinders Petrie made a remarkable discovery in the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, a stele with historically important inscriptions. Erected in the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah (somewhere in the last third of the 13th millennium B.C.E., the precise date depending upon whether you use the High or Low Egyptian chronology), son and successor to Ramesses II. This ten-foot tall monument records the Pharaoh’s alleged defeat of several opponents. Some Egyptologists question whether the victories were real or just braggadocio.

Merneptah Stele

What makes the stele particularly interesting is that it contains history’s first mention by name of Israel, and its grammatical and historical context make it especially important. The Egyptians never again mentioned Israel by name, and the name “Israel” doesn’t appear again in the historical record for about another 400 years, skipping over the entirety of the reigns of David and Solomon.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part I: Introduction

Belief in the Exodus, as described in the Jewish scriptures, is arguably the single most important event in Jewish culture and plays a significant role in Christian religion. Even though the Bible contains numerous chronological data points for the year in which this event would have happened, establishing a reliable scholarly and religious consensus and appropriate chronological context based on biblical and historical data for such a date remains one of the most difficult problems in biblical scholarship. There are many reasons for this, chief among them being the lack of any archaeological evidence for the existence of such a massive occurrence and the inconsistencies and contradictions among the biblical chronologies.

Is Noah’s Flood original to the bible’s primeval history?

Sorry for the long delay in substantive posting. I’ve been busy on several projects that have tied me up, including the preparation and presentation of papers at conferences and, most importantly, my follow up to Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-Lists: The Egyptian Origins of Genesis History,  Volume I: Egypt’s Dynastic Period. In Volume II, I take on Egypt’s mythic god-king lists and Genesis 1–11, what is routinely referred to as the bible’s primeval history. The latter encompasses the stories of creation, Adam and Eve and their offspring, the story of Noah and the Flood, and several genealogies and chronologies. I’m trying to finish it up and get it into print by the spring of 2022.It will have lots of surprising revelations.

One of the areas that I devote a good deal of time to is the story of Noah’s Flood and whether its current narrative location is original to the earlier biblical sources. This is a question that a number of biblical scholars ask. The general consensus, I believe, is that the flood is a late addition to the narrative and based on either the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic (mid first millennium B.C.E.)  or a common source shared by both. I, as you might expect, take an entirely different tack. Removing the flood story from its present location has some interesting ramifications for some of my genealogical and chronological arguments.

Here I want to link you to a recent article, The Original Primeval History of the Hebrews, that appeared on The Torah.Com, that argues that the original sources for Genesis 1–11 lacked the flood story. It cites some of the arguments I make against the present narrative location. I disagree, however, with most of the literary analysis concerning the remaining portions of the primeval history, although much of that literary analysis is consistent with mainstream biblical scholarship.

It will be the argument in the second volume of Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-Lists that the story of Noah’s flood originally derived from an Egyptian creation myth associated with the city of Hermopolis, and that narrative appeared in the account of the first day of creation (which belongs to the “P” source). In that story, four males and their four wives appear in the primeval deep and animate Re, the Hermopolitan creator deity, who raises a mountain out of the waters so that he would have a place to stand. As he emerges from the deep, the [benben/phoenix] bird of light flies off. The second day of creation (also “P”) featured the Egyptian creation myth from the city of Heliopolis. Separate from P’s days of creation narrative, the J source gives us a different creation story somewhat inconsistent with the P version. That narrative includes the stories of Adam and Eve and their offspring. I argue that the J narrative is part of the Heliopolitan source that takes placed on P’s account of the second and third days of creation.

Long after, during the Babylonian exile and Persian periods, the Hebrews became heavily influenced by the Mesopotamian cultures and began to modify some of their earlier Egyptian-based stories in order to harmonize Hebrew history with Mesopotamian history. It is in that era when the original Flood story was moved from the first day of creation to the Tenth generation of humanity, consistent with some Mesopotamian flood sources. The one piece of the story that remained in place was the light created on the first day.

NTA Note on “The Case for a Proto-Gospel”

I’m pleased to see that New Testament Abstracts, a leading research tool in New Testament studies, has included an abstract for my The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John in its most recent issue, (65/2 2021). It is serendipitously located on a page featuring a book by Bart Ehrman, Craig A. Evans and Robert Stewart. Here’s the listing.

New Testament Abstracts 65/2 • 2021

Gary Greenberg, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source behind Mark and John, Studies in Biblical Literature 172 (New York—Bern: Lang, 2020, $114.95/€95.80) xvii and 719 pp., 22 tables. Bibliographies. Indexed. LCN: 2019029929. ISBN: 978-1-4331-6605-1.

Noting that NT scholars believe with near unanimity that substantial differences in style, content, and verbal description between John and the Synoptics preclude any literary relationship between them, Greenberg, author of Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John (2018), proposes that Mark, John, and Luke all knew a now-lost written proto-Gospel. After a 35-page introduction, he discusses Mark 6 and 8 and John 6, the paralytic on the mat (Mk 2:1-12; Jn 5), true kindred and the devil (Mk 3:20-35; Jn 8:31-59), you can’t go home again (Mk 6:1-6, Jn 4:44; 6:42; 7:15), the mission begins (Mk 1; Jn 1–4), Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem, the plot to kill Jesus, the Jewish trial of Jesus, the Lazarus conundrum (Jn 11:1-44; Lk 16:19-31; Mk 1:40-45; 5:22-24, 35-43), the Roman proceedings, the crucifixion, the day of Preparation, and the resurrection. Then he presents a proposed reconstructed proto-Gospel with brief commentary. He concludes that Mark and John most probably have a literary relationship based on a shared written source, since almost every non-speech episode in John has a literary parallel in Mark, the two Gospels agree on sequential order in approximately two-thirds of such stories, and in several stories outside the sequential order several details also follow a common sequential order.

Who or what are the “Generations of the Heavens and the Earth in Genesis 2:4a?

It is widely accepted among scholars of the Jewish scriptures, that the book of Genesis has two separate Creation stories, one following after the other. The first story deals with the seven days of Creation and source-critical scholars assign this to the P (Priestly) source. The second begins immediately after with the story of the Garden of Eden and is assigned to the J (Jahwist) source. The stories are inconsistent in several ways and differ on the order and substance of Creation. The problem I want to discuss today is the issue of where the P source ends and the J source begins.

The critical passage is Genesis 2:4a, which reads,  “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” For context, I will list this verse with the preceding verse and the following verse. I’ll place the key verse in italics.

  • So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Genesis 2:3)
  • These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. (Genesis 2:4a)
  • In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; (Genesis 2:4b–5)

The majority of scholars, I am told, see Genesis 2:4a as the end of the P source. But a minority see it as the beginning of the J source that follows immediately after. If we look solely at the text at face value, you can make a case for either side.

On the one hand, it could be a concluding statement for what preceded it. On the other, it could be an introduction for what follows. However, the term “these are the generations of “is a literary formula that appears at least ten times in Genesis and an additional time in Ruth. The KJV uses the translation “These are the generations of…” The NRSV substitutes “descendants” for “generations” in all the KJV instances except for Gen 2:4a, clearly attempting to disassociate Genesis 2:4a from the rest of the occasions in which the same phrase is used. Here is the list of the other occasions. For consistency, I’ll use the KJV translation.

  • Genesis 2:4: These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
  • Genesis 6:9–10: These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
  • Genesis 10.1: Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.
  • Genesis 11:10: These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:
  • Genesis 11:27: Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot.
  • Genesis 25:12: Now these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s handmaid, bare unto Abraham:
  • Genesis 25:19: And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat Isaac:
  • Genesis 36:1–2: Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom. Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite;
  • Genesis 36:9: And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in mount Seir:
  • Genesis 37:2: These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.
  • Ruth 4:18: Now these are the generations of Pharez: Pharez begat Hezron,

In each case after Genesis 2:4a, “these are the generations of” serves to introduce a family, members of a family, and/or stories about a family. Why should Genesis 2:4a be treated any differently? The reason is that to treat Genesis 2:4a in the same way creates a major theological embarrassment.

If we treat Genesis 2:4a in the same way that we treat the key phrase on the other occasions, then “heavens and earth” would have to be parents of someone, and the story that follows would be about the parents and their children. But “heavens and earth” can only be parents if they are beings that bear children. The phrase implies that we are talking about deities associated with Heaven and/or Earth and who have had children (more deities). This is highly problematic for a religion that teaches some form of monotheism.

A redactor appears to have accidentally left in a clue that the J Creation stories about Adam and Eve and their families were originally stories about deities and their children. More specifically, the implication is that Adam and Eve were originally deities associated with Heaven and Earth, and their children were also deities.

So, which deities were they? In the Babylonian Creation story known as Enuma Elish, heaven and earth are the severed portions of a water dragon’s corpse. That doesn’t sound anything like the Garden of Eden couple. Babylonian sources are overly relied upon anyway. So where else should we look?

In my forthcoming book, Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-lists Vol. II, the Mythic Period, I argue that the two deities are the Egyptian gods Geb, a male who is the Earth, and Nut, a female who is the Heavens. That would make Adam a stand-in for Geb, and Eve a stand-in for Nut. Both sets of parents had three children. Adam and Eve were the parents of Cain, Abel, and Seth. Geb and Nut were the parents of Osiris, Horus, and Set, three of Egypt’s most important deities. In each family, one of the brothers killed one of the others.

I’m not going to go into all the arguments here. I hope to have the book out and available in the early portion of 2022. Hope you’ll be curious enough to buy it.