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.

I then cross-referenced the Genesis dates with events in Egyptian history and demonstrated that if we follow the High Egyptian chronology, we can match specific birth and death dates with the starting dates for each of Egypt’s dynasties from Dynasty 1 to the middle of Dynasty 18 and several significant kings. In effect, then, this Genesis chronology corresponds to an Egyptian king-list.

Such a coincidence can only be reasonably and logically explained by the Genesis author making use of a detailed chronological record of Egyptian history using records in an Egyptian library or archive. This means that the traditional Jewish date of Creation is the one that was intended and that, when so understood, Genesis chronology is both an historically accurate sequence of dated Egyptian political events and can be aligned with Egypt’s High Chronology for historical events in Egyptian history. (You should understand that the Patriarchs listed weren’t real people. They just served as date pointers.) This has substantial consequences for our analysis of the biblical data for the dating of the Exodus. (For explanations of some of the below arguments, see the relevant posts in the above links.)

Any solution, therefore, that involves moving the date of Creation earlier than 3761 is invalid. Per the traditional Jewish Creation date, Joseph died in 1454 (High Chronology), towards the last year or two of Thutmose III’s reign as king of Egypt. This means that any dating scheme that dates the Exodus before the death of Joseph in 1454 is invalid.

This eliminates any Exodus date based on an Exodus occurring 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon, whether using biblical or historical dating. It also removes any Exodus date based on a sojourn of 430 years that began with the arrival of either Jacob or Joseph in Egypt. In addition, we can reject any Exodus date that assumes a 400-year period of bondage that started sometime after the death date of Joseph. (See the links above for the posts that discuss these issues.)

Falling between the cracks is some version of the Hyksos theory concerning the foreign rulers over Egypt expelled after a civil war. The Hyksos expulsion happened at about the time Joseph was born, so, chronologically, the date for the expulsion is unacceptable as an Exodus date. Furthermore, the Hyksos were the rulers at the time of their expulsion, and the bible story says the Hebrews were slaves of the Egyptian ruler.

However, another version of the Hyksos theory says that the Exodus story reflects a later Israelite memory about the departure of a Semitic military force from Egypt, and the Hebrews may have adopted the tradition as an origin myth. Still, the Hyksos episode doesn’t seem to fit the facts of the biblical story. Furthermore, the Egyptians tried hard to erase memories of the Hyksos rulers from the public record. So it is not clear where the Hebrew recollections would come from hundreds of years later and why they would so misrepresent the facts of the expulsion.

This leaves specific theories still in the running for consideration. While the 480-year Solomon date is defective, historians reject that date, relying on the idea that the 480-year period was a symbolic description of twelve generations of 25 years each. This placed the Exodus in the reign of Ramesses II, just where they wanted it. I debunked the generational theory in the post on Solomonic dating. Nevertheless, an historically plausible (but very weak) argument can be made in favor of Ramesses II as the pharaoh of the Exodus.

Ramesses II was the father of Merneptah. The Merneptah stele depicts Israel at a pre-monarchy stage consistent with the era of the Judges. So a potential argument could possibly be built up on this record, but it has some problems. First, we don’t know how long Israel was in its location at the time of the Merneptah stele. Second, there is not a shred of historical evidence that in any way connects events in the reign of Rameses II with the events depicted in the Exodus. Ramesses II was a militarily powerful ruler who exercised strong domination over most Canaanite territories. We know no circumstances explaining how or why a very large Egyptian population would confront Ramesses II, leave the country, and move into territories still under the domination of Ramesses II.

Another remaining theory is the Jewish exegetical argument that the 430-year sojourn began with Abraham’s arrival in Egypt, not the arrival of Jacob or Joseph. In this theory, Jacob arrived in Egypt 215 years after Abraham arrived in Egypt. The Genesis chronology supports that. The remaining 215 years begin with Jacob’s arrival and end with the Exodus. The Genesis chronology does not support that 215 years. It rests solely on the assumption that the 430 years is a valid chronological period for the sojourn. Still, it is a nice exegetical solution. Nevertheless, it still runs up against the problem of a 400-year period of slavery. In any event, this thesis places the Exodus in the year 1311, which is very close to my proposed date, but I arrived at my date by a very different method.

Remarkably, virtually no biblical or Egyptological scholars make any serious effort to examine whether this traditional Jewish Exodus date corresponds to events in Egypt. Although my date will be just a few years earlier than this exegetical date, much of the historical context is similar for both theories.

Lastly, two Egyptian stories draw links between Moses and the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten, although the stories suggest hostility between them. This is the direction in which I will be going. But first, I need to double back to the Genesis passage talking about four hundred years of slavery. For reference purposes, here is the text.

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)”

As noted in Part 5 (go here), this passage has several parts. (1) Abraham’s offspring will be in a land where they are “aliens” (per the NRSV) or “strangers (per the KJV). (2) The oppression will last 400 years. The term interpreted as “slaves,” as used in the passage, may just mean “to serve” an enemy overlord as subjects rather than slaves. (3) “They” shall return “here” in the fourth generation. (4) They won’t return to “here” until the iniquity of the Amorites has ended.

My thesis is that there are two separate events merged into a single incident. The one event concerns Abraham’s offspring being afflicted for 400 years in a land where they are aliens (or “strangers” per KJV). But where is that land? Just about all scholars accept that the “strange land” that afflicted Israel is Egypt, and the return is to Canaan. But that interpretation is problematic.

The second event is the return to “here” in the fourth generation. Scholars tend to treat this as an alternative way to refer to the period of 400 years. If that is the case, then the fourth generation should refer to Moses, but as I will show in the next post, that doesn’t work. I will argue that the reference is to Joseph, not Moses.

In the next post, Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 10, My Take: A  Proposed Date for the Exodus, I will analyze this prophecy to Abraham and use the passage to set a date for the Exodus. In the post after that, Why Can’t We Date the Exodus? Part 11, My Take: The Exodus in its Historical Context, I will examine events in Egypt concurrent with my proposed date and show how well the Egyptian context fits in with the biblical account of the Exodus events.

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