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.

Since Israel and Judah split off into two separate kingdoms upon the death of Solomon, whatever date that may be, the biblical chronology would branch off into two separate chronological trails for the Hebrew kings. The northern kingdom of Israel, according to Assyrian records, ended in 722. The southern kingdom of Judah, based on Babylonian data, ended in 587, at which time the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. These are some of the parameters historians use.

Based on the synchronizations between some of the biblical kings and mentions of their names in nonbiblical inscriptions from other nations, a number of historians place Solomon’s death date at about 931. (See The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings by Edwin R. Thiele, one of the leading studies on the king-list chronologies.) If Solomon died in 931 and he ruled forty years as claimed by the bible (1 Kings 11:42), then the fourth year of his reign would fall in 967. Consequently, David’s reign of forty years (1 Kings 2:10) would begin in 1010.

Another branch of historians prefers to date David’s ascent to the throne at about the year 1000 (see Albright). If we accept the David starting date of 1000, and accept the biblical claim that he ruled for forty years, then Solomon came to the throne at about 960. This would make 957 the fourth year of his reign.

The two proposed historical dates for the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. 967 and 957 are reasonably close and allow a bit of wiggle room up or down for analytic purposes. If we accept the 480-year claim for the Exodus, we have a date somewhere around 1437 to 1447. What’s going on in Egypt at that time?

Egyptian dating presents a few problems. Egyptologists can be divided into advocates for either a High Chronology or Low Chronology, although the differences between them aren’t very large. Both schools acknowledge the same three possible dates for the start of the reign of the pharaoh Thutmose III. He came to the throne at either 1504, 1490 or 1479 and ruled for 54 years, although Egyptologists disagree amongst themselves as to which of the three dates is most preferable. This pharaoh is widely recognized as one of the greatest if not the greatest military leader in Egyptian history.

This gives us three approximate timelines for the years of his reign. He served from either 1504–1451, 1490–1437, or 1479–1426. Our two indicated Exodus dates, 1448 and 1438, both fall just after the earliest set of dates, placing the Exodus in the early years of Amenhotep II, who succeeded Thutmose III. The middle set of dates places the Exodus either towards the end of Thutmose III’s lengthy reign or in the first year of the reign of Amenhotep II. (This latter possibility would be consistent with the claim that the Exodus occurred just after the death of the previous pharaoh.) The low range of dates places the Exodus smack in the middle of Thutmose III’s reign. In all three cases, Egypt was at the height of its political and military power, which influence extended across Canaan.

Biblical historians generally don’t like these dates. Matthew observes, “Archaeological difficulties and the strength of the Egyptian hold on Syro-Palestine during the fifteenth century B.C. have brought this date into question.” Egypt was too powerful during this period for the Exodus to have occurred, historians believe, and no archaeological evidence exists for such an occurrence in that time period.

Historians also believe the 480-year period is much too long a time period in which, but for the Merneptah stele (see Part 2), there is an absence of an Israeli presence in the archaeological record. The Merneptah stele doesn’t appear until about two hundred years after the two proposed dates of 1448 and 1438. Such dates put the origins of the Israelites even further into the historical mists.

Based on 1 Chronicles 2, scholars have pieced together a sequence of twelve generations from the Exodus to Solomon. Matthews, in his commentary on 1 Kings 6.1, cited above, writes, “[M]any now see 480 as a stylized number, symbolic of forty years (a typical round number) for each of twelve judges or indicating twelve generations (40 x 12 = 480).” If the number is symbolic rather than literal, then it can’t be used to date the Exodus.

Some historians, however, have gone further, and arbitrarily posit a 25-year period per generation, placing the Exodus just 300 years before Solomon’s fourth year on the throne. This places the Exodus somewhere in the 66-year reign of Ramesses II, the predecessor and father of Merneptah, exactly where they would like it to fall. This appears to be the most popular theory among biblical scholars. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the scribes meant twelve generations rather than 480 years, or that a generation equaled twenty-five years.

As I pointed out previously in Part 2, according to the biblical data, the period of the Judges lasted 391 years plus an extension for the unknown time that Samuel judged Israel before the reign of Saul. Additionally, the length of Saul’s reign is not clear. Extra-biblical evidence indicates either thirty or forty years. To this, add forty years for David’s reign. The minimalist sum, without Samuel and ten of Saul’s years, reaches 461 years. We can add four more years for Solomon’s first four years, giving us a sum total of 465 years. Even without the additional ten years for Saul, assuming fifteen years for Samuel would be quite a reasonable estimate, and bring us to 480 years.

This strongly suggests that the 480-years indicated by 1 Kings 6:1, reflects the author’s use of that figure because he knew the chronology in the Book of Judges pointed to a total of 480 years from the Exodus down to Solomon’s fourth year. It is likely the earlier author had access to the time for Samuel’s judgeship and Saul’s full length of reign. Where the biblical author (or authors) of Judges got any of that book’s chronological data from we don’t know.

This means that the argument from historians that the 480 years was just a symbolic number signifying twelve generations is clearly wrong, and the further idea that the generation would only be 25 years is way out of line with the Judges chronology. The 1 Kings author meant 480 years on the basis of the existing biblical data. So, that leaves the argument for an Exodus under Ramesses II relying, for all practical purposes, on assumptions based on the Merneptah stele. But the Merneptah stele doesn’t tell us how far into the period of the Judges the stele appeared.

Here’s another problem. If we want to calculate a date for the Exodus based on the biblical data, do we count from the historically calculated date for the start of Solomon’s reign, as determined above, or do we substitute the date for Solomon’s reign derived from biblical data?

For the biblical date for Solomon’s reign, we first add up the lengths of reign for all the kings of Judah following after Solomon down to the Babylonian conquest in the year 587, a sum total of 394 years. To this we add forty years for Solomon’s reign. This brings the total to 434 years. This means that the period following his fourth year lasted 430 years. Note the chronological symmetry between the sojourn in Egypt for 430 years (ending in good times) and the period from Temple construction to Temple destruction in the chronology of kings (ending in bad times.) (Coincidence? Or is it the result of manipulating the numbers for a few reigns?)

Counting back from the capture of Jerusalem in 587, the start of Solomon’s reign would fall in 1020, and the fourth year would occur in 1017, seventy to eighty years earlier than the historical record suggests. This indicates an Exodus date of 1496, falling during either the reign of Thutmose III or his predecessors, Thutmose II or Thutmose I, all of whom were powerful rulers whose military influence extended throughout Canaan.

Whether we use the 1438–1448 date range based on the historical date for Solomon’s fourth year or the 1496 date based on biblical data, we run into a potential conflict with Genesis chronology. If we use the traditional date for Jewish creation, 3761, and follow the birth-death chronology established in the book of Genesis, Joseph died in 1454.

The Exodus occurred after the death of Joseph. Before there can be an Exodus, there has to be at least a moderately extensive period of oppression following his death. Since Joseph died in 1454 under this particular calculation, then 1496, which is almost forty years before Joseph died, is inconsistent with the 480-year calculation based on the Judges-Samuel-Kings biblical data. Additionally, the historically calculated dates of 1438–1448 are also too close in time to Joseph’s death date to allow for a period of oppression.

What we have here is a clash between two separate streams of biblical chronology. One trail starts with the Genesis chronology, beginning with the birth of Adam and ending with the death of Joseph. (I’ll discuss that stream in a later post.) The other is built up from the chronology in Judges and the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. In between, we have a chronological gap of undetermined length between the death of Joseph and the start of Judges.

In order to accept the 480-year period as either an historically or biblically calculated date for the Exodus, it is necessary to move Joseph’s death earlier in time, moving the date of Creation earlier than the traditional Jewish date. The only way to do this is to increase the gap between Joseph’s death and the Judges era by extending the time period between the two frameworks.

One way to do this would be to argue that the biblical claim of four hundred years of slavery after the death of Joseph requires that some large number of years has to be inserted between the Exodus and the death of Joseph, possible pushing the date of Creation as much as four hundred years earlier than the traditional Jewish date.

Alternatively, one could argue that the 430-year sojourn of Israel in Egypt also requires some hundreds of years to be placed between Joseph’s death and the Exodus. (I’ll discuss the four hundred and four hundred and thirty-year periods in later posts. There are issues with these periods also.) That would give us a Creation date somewhere between 4161 and 3761, depending on how one calculates the size of the insertion and its impact on narrative context. Some Christian theorists, ancient and modern, have argued for an array of Creation dates in that earlier range. The most notable might be Bishop Ussher’s date of 4004.

One problem with moving Joseph’s death date earlier in order to validate the 480-year time period is that it still leaves the Exodus in the Thutmose era, in which Egypt was at the height of its military power and dominant over the Canaanite territories. Historians consider the likelihood of an Exodus at this time to be implausible. We have, therefore, a standoff between one particular stream of biblical chronology (out of several alternatives) and the historical and archaeological record (or absence of records) that suggests the 1496 date for the Exodus is unlikely.

Conclusions: Using the 480-year period preceding Solomon’s fourth year of rule to calculate the date of the Exodus encounters several problems.

  • There is a conflict between historical evidence and biblical data as to the date of Solomon’s reign, leading to different proposed dates for the Exodus.
  • Historical data suggests that Solomon’s fourth year probably occurred somewhere between about 967 and 957.
  • Biblical data suggests that Solomon’s fourth year fell in 1017.
  • This leads to a historically calculated Exodus date of 1448 or 1438 or a biblically calculated date of 1496.
  • Both the historical and biblical calculations place the Exodus under the reigns of either Thutmose III or his immediate predecessors (Thutmose I, II) or successor (Amenhotep II).
  • The Thutmosid era saw Egypt at the height of its military power and influence under these kings, including domination over much of the Canaanite territory.
  • Historians don’t like this conclusion. The Thutmose kings were too powerful for an Exodus to have occurred. Such an early date also leaves too long a period of time where the archaeological record contains no reference to Israel.
  • One historical approach treats the 480-year period as a symbolic figure signifying twelve generations of forty years each rather than a specific numerical time period, forty being a frequently used number for biblical time periods. This means that the 480-year period is unreliable as a guide. There is no indication in the bible that this number is merely symbolic.
  • Some historians go further, arguing that a generation represented 25 years. This placed the Exodus 300 years before Solomon’s fourth year, during the reign of Ramesses II. There is no evidence in the biblical text for the idea that a generation meant twenty-five years and the chronology of Judges seems to clearly disprove this proposal.
  • The biblically determined date for the Exodus, based on the 480-year figure, dates the event to 1496. If we use the traditional Jewish date for Creation, 3761, then Joseph died in 1454. But the Exodus has to occur well after Joseph died. Therefore, if we use the Jewish date of Creation, all of the calculated dates contradict the Genesis chronology.
  • In order to get around this problem, It has been proposed that, based on the four hundred years of slavery or the four hundred and thirty year sojourn, as much as four hundred years might have to be inserted between Joseph’s death and the Exodus, moving Joseph’s death date earlier in time. This has the effect of moving the date of Creation earlier than the traditional Jewish date of 3761. One of the more notable applications of this view is that of Bishop Ussher who proposed a Creation date of 4004.
  • Pushing Joseph’s death date earlier and moving the Creation date earlier than the traditional Jewish date still leaves the Exodus in the Thutmosid period and historians find that date implausible.
  • If, the Jewish date of Creation is valid (as the intended date meant by the biblical scribes,) as I will propose later in this series, then the 480-year period from the Exodus to Solomon’s fourth year will have to be discarded as unreliable.

Coming up next: Part 4: Problems with Israel’s 430-Year Sojourn in Egypt

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