Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 9, My Take: The Parameters

Editorial note: I originally intended to wrap up this series with the present post, but it was becoming far longer than I expected. So, I am publishing it in at least three parts. The present essay is “My Take: the Parameters.The follow-up post will be My Take: a Proposed Date for the Exodus. The final post, I hope, will be My Take: the Exodus in its Historical Context.

The Egyptian god Thoth, watching over a scribe

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

For Part 5, The 400 years of slavery go here

For Part 6, The Hyksos Theory go here

For Part 7, The Osarseph Theory, go here

For Part 8, The Chaeremon Theory, go here

To establish a plausible date for the Exodus, we need to find a balance among four different parameters. (1) Do we date biblical events using the traditional Jewish date of Creation at 3761 BCE, or do we have to move the Creation date back to an earlier time? (2) Do we use biblical dating or historical dating? (3) Do we date events in Egypt based on the High Chronology or the Low Chronology? (4) Does the chosen Exodus date show a parallel relationship between the events in the biblical account and events in Egypt?

Because of potential plausibility issues in the biblical story, such as miracles, conflicts within the biblical chronological data, and conflicts over the Egyptian chronology, there may not be a perfect solution that precisely aligns all four factors. However, whatever date presents the best balance among these four parameters is likely to be the best solution.

In my book, Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-Lists: The Egyptian Origins of Genesis Chronology, Volume I, Egypt’s Dynastic Period, I examined the relationship between Genesis Chronology and Egyptian Chronology. Genesis has a chronology that provides a continuous record of Patriarchal birth and death dates running through twenty-three generations, beginning with the birth of Adam and ending with the death of Joseph. If one had a fixed date for any of these births or deaths, one could establish a set of dates for each birth and death in the sequence. Using the traditional Jewish date of Creation, I calculated each of these birth and death dates.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 8, the Chaeremon Theory

Emperor Nero, who was tutored by Chaeremon

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

For Part 5, The 400 years of slavery go here

For Part 6, The Hyksos Theory go here

For Part 7, The Osarseph Theory, go here

Chaeremon, an Egyptian priest who tutored Emperor Nero, wrote a version of the Exodus story that had a number of similarities to Manetho’s Osarseph story but had enough differences to suggest that he worked from a different source than Manetho did. If so, then there would have been multiple versions of Egyptian Exodus accounts in the Egyptian libraries. You may want to first reread the Osarseph theory in Part 7 to refresh your recollection as there will be some references to that installment.

Chaeremon wrote in the first century and was a contemporary of Josephus. The latter was responsible for preserving Chaeremon’s account. (See Against Apion 1.32–33. You can read Josephus’s account and his comments here.) Here is what he says.

Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 6, the Hyksos Theory

Yakub-HR seal, name in the center, 18th-century B.C.E.
BAR Jul-Aug 1996

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

For Part 5,  The 400 years of slavery go here

Sometime around the 1770s B.C.E., a group of Semite-speaking Canaanites obtained control over a small part of Egyptian territory. Sometime later, around 1680 to 1650 B.C.E. depending upon whether you use the High or Low Egyptian chronology, a larger and more powerful group of Semite-speaking Canaanites seized control over a vast swath of Egyptian territory, and may have even ruled all of Egypt for a period of time.

Egyptologists assign the first group of foreigners to the Fourteenth Dynasty and the second to the Fifteenth Dynasty. It is not known if the Fourteenth Dynasty ended when the Fifteenth Dynasty began or if it ruled concurrently for some portion of the time. It is the Fifteenth Dynasty with which we are concerned.

According to one Egyptian source, the Turin Canon of Kings, the Fifteenth Dynasty lasted 108 years, until Ahmose, the Theban founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty drove them out of the country, but the fighting continued outside of Egypt for another eleven years or so before the final defeat of these foreign rulers.

Egyptologists commonly refer to these two groups as the Hyksos kings but the first person to use that term was Manetho, the third century B.C.E. Egyptian priest who wrote a history of his country. We only know about that name because Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, in his Contra Apion, quoted Manetho’s references.

According to Josephus, Manetho gave two different definitions of Hyksos, “Shepherd Kings” in one copy of the history and “captive Kings” in another. This latter interpretation led Josephus to identify the Hyksos with the children of Israel.

The term Hyksos derives from the Egyptian phrase “Heqau-khasut,” meaning “Chieftains of a foreign land.” Alan Gardiner translated the term as “Chieftains of a foreign hill-country” and says that in the Middle Kingdom (early third-millennium B.C.E.) Egyptians applied that term to designate Bedouin sheiks (Egypt of the Pharaohs, 156)” Manetho, writing in Greek, transliterated the phrase as Hyksos, and it is highly unlikely that this educated Egyptian priest would not have known the meaning of the Egyptian term. Interestingly, the Egyptian literature referencing the Hyksos era, both contemporaneous to the Hyksos rule and in writings about the aftermath, never used that term for the invaders. The Egyptians referred to them as Aamu, which was probably the name they were known by in Canaan.

Josephus equated the expulsion of the Hyksos with the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. This claim influenced scholars until well into the twentieth century, and the Hyksos were commonly known throughout this entire era as the “Shepherd kings.” But Josephus’s definitions of the Hyksos were wrong. Whether it was his error or that of an intervening redactor who passed on Manetho’s history we can’t say.

In Part 5 of this series, discussing the 400-year prophecy to Abraham, it was noted that period would end when the iniquity of the Amorites ended. What this “iniquity of the Amorites” meant is not known. While the meaning of the term “Amorite” in the Genesis prophesy is debatable, in the biblical account of the Exodus, we are told that “the Amorites live in the hill country (Numbers 13:29).” This description is consistent with, though not necessarily proof of, a connection between the Aamu/Hyksos and the Amorites.

Fueling the idea that there is a connection between the Israelites and the Hyksos comes from an archaeological find. Scarabs from this era show many of the Hyksos chieftains with Semitic names, two of whom were Jacob-Her and Anat-Her. (See the illustration at the beginning of the article.) Linguists do not know what the “her” element stands for, but Anat is a well-known Canaanite goddess.

A  number of scholars have been quick to see the name Jacob on the other scarab, speculating about its connection to the biblical Jacob. That the names are similar is true, but by analogy to the Anat-her inscription, Jacob could have been the name of a Canaanite god. At most, it only proves that the name Jacob existed in ancient times. No evidence connects this Jacob-her in any way to the biblical Jacob.

If the expulsion of the Hyksos constituted the Exodus, then it can be dated to somewhere between 1576 and 1550, depending upon whether we use the High or Low Chronology. This would make King Ahmose the Pharaoh of the Exodus. That makes his predecessor, Kamose, the Pharaoh who died just before Moses returned to Egypt. I suppose one could equate the long war between the Hyksos and the Thebans as a metaphor for the plagues sent by God.

Dating the Exodus to the expulsion of the Hyksos closely tracks the claim in the book of Judges that the Exodus happened about 300 years before the time of Jephthah. The Merneptah stele places Israel in Canaan in the last third of the 13th century B.C.E. The Hyksos expulsion occurred in the middle of the sixteenth century B.C.E., a period about 325 to 350 years before the Merneptah stele. Given a couple of uncertain factors such as how long Samuel judged Israel, how long Saul ruled, and how long after the Exodus the 300 years start, there could be some slight wiggle room to make this work.

Also, the Hyksos era starts in the 1770s B.C.E. and the expulsion occurred about 200-250 years later. This is somewhat consistent with the interpretation that says that Jacob and his family were in Egypt for 215 years before the Exodus. The Hyksos theory, therefore, seems to have some chronological parallels with biblical evidence. But there are also some problems.

First, we’d have to jettison the claim that the Exodus occurred 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. If we date that year to the historical evidence, the king’s fourth year was in 967 or so. That would date the Exodus to 1447, about a century after the Hyksos expulsion. If we count from the earlier date based on biblical data for the reigns of the kings, Solomon’s fourth year would be 1017. That indicates a date of 1497, still a half-century after the Hyksos expulsion.

We are also missing the 400 years of affliction since the Hyksos were rulers during all their time in Egypt. The only affliction is their expulsion and the continuing war for another eleven years. It should also be noted that the Hyksos, while in Egypt, worshipped the Egyptian god Set, whom they identified with the Canaanite god Baal, not the Hebrew god.

If we use the traditional Jewish date of Creation and count down to the birth of Joseph, he was born in 1564 and didn’t die until 1454. Since the bible says that the slavery didn’t begin until after Joseph died, there would be more than a century after the Hyksos expulsion before an Exodus could occur. Once again, we need to move Joseph to a substantially earlier time to make the numbers work, pushing Creation much earlier than the Jewish date.

Today, not many scholars equate the Hyksos expulsion with the Exodus. Instead, an alternative theory has been proposed. Acknowledging that the Hyksos were not the Israelites, the argument goes that the Israelites drew on traditions about the Hyksos expulsion to frame their own Exodus narrative. This theory does not necessarily say that there was or wasn’t an Exodus. It only says, whether there was or not, the basis of the biblical account derives from traditions about the Hyksos expulsion.

Coming up next: Manetho’s theory of the Exodus

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.

Manetho’s Chronology and the Septuagint Version of Genesis 5

Genesis 5 presents a chronological record of Patriarchal births and deaths from Adam to Noah’s Flood. The chronology is presented in such a way that if you had a starting date for Adam, you could set a date for each of the births and deaths. Genesis 11 continues the chronology from the end of the Flood to the birth of Abraham. (For a detailed study of Genesis 5 and 11 see my “Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-Lists.”

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The almost universally accepted consensus is that the work was begun in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the reign of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II (283–246 B.C.E.) and was completed sometime in the second century B.C.E. Alexandria was a major center of intellectual activity. The Septuagint was the bible used by the authors of the Gospels.

While the Septuagint is based on some versions of the Hebrew books of the bible (there was no single official canonical version of any of the books of the bible at that time), there are many differences between it and the standard Masoretic text used by Jews and modern scholars. One significant difference is in the chronological record of Genesis 5.