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.

For a number of biblical scholars, the event recedes into the mists of fiction. Others consider it a vastly over-exaggerated happening. Increasingly, faith in the occurrence of an Exodus is limited to the more religious biblical scholars. The closest we come to any sort of agreement is an argument by some scholars for placing the event in the middle of the reign of Ramesses II in the middle of the thirteenth century B.C.E., an argument that I will show later on to be without any historical context or biblical credibility.

In this and subsequent posts I am going to take a detailed look at the various claims biblical and historical for the date of the Exodus. The issue is not necessarily whether the Exodus ever happened, but rather can we set a chronological context for when it could have or would have occurred. In the course of this series I am going to look at the following issues and explain the problems each presents.

  • The date of Creation
  • The Merneptah Stele: the earliest archaeological artifact mentioning Israel
  • The 300 years from the Exodus to the time of Jephthah in the period of Judges (Judges 11:26)
  • Israel’s 400 years of bondage (Genesis 15:12–16)
  • Israel’s 430-year Egyptian sojourn (Exodus 12:40)
  • The Jewish date of 1311 for the Exodus
  • The 480-year period from Exodus to the fourth year of King Solomon’s reign ( 1 Kings 6:1) and the date of Solomon’s reign
  • The twelve generations of Levi to the time of Solomon’s Temple (1 Chronicles 6)
  • The 430-year prophecy of Ezekiel concerning the fall of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 1 4–8)
  • Assorted genealogies

The evidence will show that there is no easy way to thread the chronological needle in a way that harmonizes the various data points. One will simply have to choose a particular path that one finds most appealing and reject many of the contradictory biblical claims. In order to make such a case, it will be necessary to explain why a particular solution is preferable to all the other options. At the conclusion, I will present my own take on when the Exodus occurred and what historical setting most reasonably agrees with the biblical context. For an in-depth study of my Exodus theories see my book, The Moses Mystery: The Egyptian Origins of the Jewish People.

Let me start off with some structural problems presented by biblical chronology. The Book of Genesis presents a genealogical history of contiguous births and deaths from the birth of Adam to the death of Joseph. We are told how long each of these patriarchs lived and how old they were when they fathered the next patriarch in sequence. This period encompasses everything from the Creation to the arrival of the Hebrew people in Egypt. If one had a date for Creation or could link any specific birth or death to a precise year in history, one could establish dates for each of the births and deaths and that would give us some biblical context for when Israel was in Egypt. Unfortunately, the first problem we face is establishing a biblical date for Creation.

According to Jewish tradition, the Creation happened in 3761 B.C.E. Implicitly, this should be the defining point for the Genesis chronology. But there are three major problems. First, the Jewish text never explicitly establishes that this was the date of creation. Second, the Septuagint translation of the Jewish bible from Hebrew to Greek places the Creation several centuries earlier than the Masoretic Hebrew text does.

For early Christians, the Septuagint was the preferred text of the bible and this has led to calculations about the date of Creation that depart from Jewish tradition. In the Byzantine era of Constantine, based in large part on the Septuagint, a date equivalent to 5509 B.C.E. was accepted as the date of Creation. One popular Christian tradition proposed by Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), based on theology, holds that the world was created in 4,004 B.C.E., exactly 4000 years before the birth of Jesus, who was actually born no later than 4 B.C.E. (the death date of Herod the Great) as opposed to A.D. 1, although you’ll get arguments about the birth date of Jesus also. Various ancient and modern Christians have proposed a variety of dates for Creation. While biblical scholars tend to consider the Masoretic text to be the more dependable than the Septuagint, neither version of the bible has an explicit anchor date to Creation.

Third, there is a chronological break in continuity between the death of Joseph at the end of Genesis and the birth of Moses at the beginning of Exodus. Establishing a link between the two books is one of the problems that arise from biblical data. After the Exodus, there are some further chronological gaps between the departure from Egypt and the start of King David’s reign. These issues will also have to be addressed. How one addresses these gaps could affect the date of Creation. The longer the gap, the earlier the possible biblical date of Creation.

TO BE CONTINUED

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