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.

The stele describes Egypt’s successful battles against the Libyans and their allies (who were the Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Lukka, and Teresh, Greek peoples who had recently moved into the levant, soon to be joined by the Greek Philistines), Hittites, Hurrians, Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel. With the possible exception of Yanoam, a name of questionable origin, the non-Israelites represented significant military and political forces. The Hittites fought Merneptah’s father, Ramesses II, to a standstill in a major battle, although some scholars think the Hittites had won the conflict. Most of these opponents occupied or had interests in Canaan.

As to Israel, the stele says, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The inclusion of Israel in the list of defeated enemies suggests that it was already a large political presence worthy of notice. But how Israel is described at a grammatical level is especially important. With the exception of Israel, the stele grammatically describes all the other defeated nations as occupying specific territories, that is, bounded nations. Israel, on the other hand, is described only as a people, without any specific land connection.

This description of Israel raises some questions about what sort of political entity Israel formed such that they would be worthy of mention. One possibility is that they were a nomadic confederation of tribes without a fixed location, not uncommon for regions in the middle east. This might be corroborated by 1 Kings 12:16, which is part of the narrative about Israel’s split from Judah after the death of Solomon. It suggests that Israel was still a tent-based nation and implies a nomadic culture.

“When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What share do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, O David.” So Israel went away to their tents (emphasis added).”

Another possibility is that it had been a large group of recent arrivals, which would be consistent with the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and/or crossing from the Trans-Jordan. This was a common view when the stele had first been discovered and Merneptah was thought to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. That interpretation has fallen by the wayside, with his father becoming the leading candidate for that role.

Nevertheless, we find from the archaeological evidence that not long after Merneptah’s reign, a number of new population settlements arose in formerly uninhabited areas of Canaan’s central highlands and, of great significance, there are no pig bones among the archaeological remains. This suggests that a wave of settlers who didn’t eat pig moved from an unidentified location into Canaan’s central highlands, a development consistent with the Israelites crossing from the trans-Jordan. It also suggests a peaceful entry rather than a military conquest.

This brings us to the biblical aspect of our present study. The Merneptah stele falls into what would have to be considered the period of the Judges, from the entry into Canaan to the reign of King Saul and mostly discussed in the biblical book of that name. The portrayal of Israel at that time is described as one in which “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes [Judges 17:6 NRSV].” Instead, Israel was guided by charismatic leaders, usually with military skills and achievements that suggested they were favored by God. There is, however, little evidence that the Judges did much judging. The most famous of them, Samson, seems to have spent most of his time hanging out with the Philistine enemies of Israel and lusting after Philistine women.

Chronologically, our focus is on Jephthah, one of the judges in this period. Jephthah, despite a previously rocky relationship with the Israelites, was asked to lead Israel’s defenses against the Ammonites. The dispute was over a large territory that Israel allegedly seized from the Ammonites during the Exodus wanderings in Sinai. Jephthah challenged the Ammonite claims, arguing that

“While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time [Judges 11:26 NRSV]?”

The implication here is that if the Ammonite claim had merit, the Hebrew or Ammonite gods would have helped the Ammonites regain custody of the land. Without regard to the merits of the dispute, the important element here is that the bible claims at least 300 years passed from the Exodus to Jephthah, and he wasn’t the last of the judges.

Jephthah judged for 6 years (Judges 12:7). Since he had not become a Judge until he was asked to defend against the Ammonites, we should probably add the six years to the 300 years. After him, Izban judged for 7 years (Judges 12:9), Elon judged for 10 years (Judges 12:11), Abdon judged 8 years (Judges 12:14), and Samson judged for 20 years (Judges 16:31). These additions  extend the 300 years by 51years.

After the book of Judges, in 1 Samuel, we have two more judges to contend with, Eli and Samuel. Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). This extends the Judges era to at least 391 years. How long Samuel judged isn’t stated. He lived to an old age (1 Samuel 12:2).

We can probably terminate the era of the Judges with the enthronement of Saul, who received his appointment from Samuel (who protested to God against making Saul king) but we don’t know how long he judged before that appointment. So we have to allow for some additional time for Samuel’s rule, probably at least twenty or thirty years. However, I’ll ignore any specific number here and just allow for some number of extra years.

With the rise of Saul, we have a chronological issue. How long did he reign? The biblical text appears to have been damaged in transmission. The NRSV  indicates the presence of a “2” (1 Samuel 13:1) but most scholars believe this number is incomplete. The Septuagint indicates a reign of 30 years. Josephus, who knew the Septuagint, indicates Saul ruled for 18 years while Samuel lived and an additional 22 years after Samuel died, for a total of 40 years (Antiquities, 6:14:9/378). This would suggest that several words relating to the reign of Saul and the death of Samuel dropped out before the Masoretic “2” appears, the latter being the “2” at the end of the “22” years after Samuel died. Luke, in Acts 13:21, possibly relying on Josephus, also says Saul ruled for forty years. Given the uncertainty surrounding Saul’s reign, I’ll leave the number of years as indeterminate.

Following Saul, David ruled for 40 years, although it is possible that he ruled solely in Judah for as much as seven of those years prior to becoming King over Israel. (See 2 Samuel 2:8–11.) If so, this would shorten his post-Saul reign to 33 years.

To summarize where we stand. The Book of Judges indicates that 351 years passed between the Exodus and the end of the Book of Judges. To this we have to add 40 years for Eli and 40 years for David, indicating a minimum biblical chronology of 431 years. In addition, we have an indeterminate number of years for Samuel and Saul, which could account for another 50 or 60 years, but the actual amount is uncertain but substantial. This brings us to the reign of Solomon, which I take up in the next segment.

COMING UP NEXT: The Problem of Solomon’s Chronology

  1. Josie

    Have you considered Seti as the Pharoah during Exodus. His monuments were incomplete and were finished by Ramses II. There is confusion as to whether he reigned 11 or 15 years.

    • Gary Greenberg

      In “The Moses Mystery” I identify Ramesses I as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, with a possible spillover into Seti due to a coregency. The trigger event was the death of Horemheb and a struggle for succession.

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