The Quantum Thomist

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Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 13: The Israelites in Egypt

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 14: The Exodus
Last modified on Sun Dec 12 15:17:56 2021


This is the fourteenth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation, Professor Stenger made a brief mention of Biblical archaeology, making the (rather common) claim that not only is there is no evidence for most of the Old Testament, but some parts of the Old Testament are directly contradicted by the archaeological evidence. My intention is to answer this criticism, or at least give hints as to how it might be answered.

The first post in this mini-series gave a general introduction to the topic of Old Testament archaeology as a whole. The subsequent posts discuss individual periods and topics. This post will discuss the Exodus. My goal is not to prove the Biblical account from archaeology, but to ask if Professor Stenger is successful in saying that there are contradictions between the Biblical account and the archaeological record.

Professor Stenger's method is hypothesis testing. That is to say to assume that a conservative account is correct, and to then try to find discrepancies that disprove it (or perhaps facts that support it). That is the approach I am taking. We are specifically looking for contradictions. "There is no evidence for Moses" is not a contradiction with the Biblical account. Evidence that Moses didn't exist, or that there were no Semitic slaves in Egypt at the time, or that no candidate for the city of Ramesses was occupied at the time of the Exodus, would be a contradiction. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, particularly in a field like ancient history where there are huge gaps in our knowledge. Now someone might object that absence of evidence could be significant if we had reasonable grounds for expecting to find that evidence. But then you have to ask what such reasonable grounds would be. I should state up front that there are no known Egyptian inscriptions describing a large scale exodus of slaves from the country which can be definitively tied to the Biblical Exodus. Should we expect there to be? The surviving Egyptian inscriptions we have are mainly temple inscriptions which basically describe how the Pharaoh smited all his enemies and maintained order in the land (defeats are never mentioned unless they were the prelude to an even greater victory); tomb inscriptions describing the lives of individuals, and a few religious and literary texts. None of these are good candidates to contain records of the Exodus.

What about indirect evidence? It might be thought that the ten plagues would have been devastating for the Egyptian economy. The loss of a years' worth of crops; the destruction of much of the livestock; death of the first born; the Egyptian chariot force largely destroyed. The loss of confidence in the Egyptian Gods. A large slave population disappearing. Surely all of that would have made an impact? Yes, but the question is how much, and would it be enough to make a dent in the powerful economy of New Kingdom Egypt. The crops would return next year. New slaves can be kidnapped (and there is no indication that all the slaves in Egypt left with Moses). The army rebuilt. It would have been a shock, to be sure, but probably no worse than a year of severe famine: the sort of thing that Egypt bounced back from throughout its history. So we might expect to see some evidence of hard times, but perhaps not as much as people might expect, and there were many natural events which caused a few years of hardship. So we are almost certainly going to find some indirect evidence of economic downturns in the New Kingdom, but it is not going to be decisive one way or the other. It's bound to happen, because economies always have been and always will be fragile, but we wouldn't be able to pin it directly to the Exodus.

But it is still worth searching for indirect hints like this.

What of scholarly and expert opinion? Isn't that firmly against the historicity of the Exodus and conquest? Yes, but less so today than it was twenty or thirty years ago. You have always had a few voices in support of some historical kernel to the Exodus narrative. These days that number is increasing. It's still a minority, but not as much of a minority as it was. New evidence is coming in all the time, albeit very slowly. But one of the exciting things about Biblical archaeology is that when the evidence comes in, it almost invariably undermines the minimalist (or Biblical sceptic) position. The reason for that is that the minimalist position is largely based on the absence of evidence rather than positive evidence against the Biblical account. So, as more evidence comes in, it is diminished.


The next thing to discuss is chronology. In my previous posts on the Patriarchs and Joseph, I looked at two different chronologies, both related to the story of the Mesopotamian Kings attacking Sodom. There were two times during the relevant time period when the Mesopotamians were powerful enough to do this: firstly, during the time of the Ur III Empire, which would place the birth of Isaac in the decades before 2000BC; and secondly during the reign of Hammurabi, which would place the birth of Isaac around 1740BC(give or take a decade). Both of these chronologies had points for and against them. In particular, both place Israel's entry into Egypt at a time when there was a large settlement of Semites in the Eastern Delta where the Biblical text places Jacob's family. The early chronology ties in with the establishment of that settlement; the late chronology would have the Israelites arrive at a time when the settlement was at its height.

This chronological disparity is even more contested when it comes to the date of the Exodus. There are two main views; the first argues for a 15th century BC or 18th dynasty Exodus; the second argues for a 13th century BC or nineteenth century Exodus. I have seen a few other opinions, such as a 16th century BC Exodus (15th dynasty, or even 13th dynasty) or 12th century BC (20th dynasty), but the 18th and 19th dynasty Exodus' are the most commonly held views, and I will focus on them, although I do think that a Hyksos period or very early 18th dynasty Exodus deserves some consideration, since there are some notable claims that the archaeology of Canaan at the very start of LB1 provides good correlations with the Conquest narrative. Of course, there are also numerous people who deny that any Exodus took place, or that it was a cultural memory of a smaller event, and so on. Most of these tend to work from the late date; a few will investigate both. Finkelstein and Silberman, who are serving as my main source for minimalist arguments, since they were Professor Stenger's source, only consider the thirteenth century date.

The chronological question is important, because if we search for evidence at the wrong time, then we are not likely to find it just as much as if we look for evidence in the wrong place.

The length of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt is also disputed, due to a textual variation in one of the key verses (Exodus 12:40). The Masoretic text, which is the main Hebrew Text used by our translators, states that the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt. This corresponds nicely with a late date for Abraham and a late Exodus, or an early date for Abraham and an early Exodus. However, various Greek manuscripts and the Samaritan text imply that those 430 years were spent in Egypt and Canaan, which would place the sojourn at a bit over 200 years. This is just about consistent with an early Exodus and late Abraham. Most scholars adopt the longer sojourn, as they see it as being more consistent with other texts such as Genesis 15:13, but the shorter time period can't be completely ruled out on the basis of the textual evidence.

But the main reason that people date the Exodus as they do is not to extrapolate from Abraham, but either to work from the other direction or rely on external evidence.

The external evidence gives us a clear cut-off date for the Exodus. Pharaoh Merneptah, at about 1210BC, inscribed at Karnak temple about a military campaign to the North where he defeated Canaan, Gaza, Ashkelon, and Israel. This campaign is not mentioned in the Bible, but there were a lot of things that happened that were not mentioned in the Bible. It need only have been a minor skirmish, which would have been inflated and exaggerated by the Pharaoh. Nonetheless, this shows that the Israelites were in Canaan at 1210BC, which, leaving a decade for the Conquest narrative and forty years for wilderness wanderings, leaves a latest possible date of 1260BC, or a couple of decades into the reign of the great Ramesses II. The usual interpretation of this (and there are, as usual, a minority of dissenters who argue for an exodus in the 12th century BC) is that if the Exodus happened more-or-less as described in the Old Testament, it had to have happened during the reign of Ramesses II or earlier.

The early date of the Exodus is supported by a number of Biblical texts.

  1. 1 Kings 6:1 states, in the Masoretic text, that Solomon's temple was built in the 480th year after the Exodus. The 4th year of Solomon is usually dated to 967BC based on correlating the internal Biblical chronology with data from Egypt and Assyria, which gives a date of 1446BC for the Exodus. There is again a textual variation here, with the Greek translation saying the 440th year, which leads to a 1406BC date for the Exodus. There is also a few years uncertainty in the dates for Solomon. But, in any case, taking this passage literally leads to a 15th century Exodus.
  2. This data is backed up by Judges 11:26, which states that the conquest was about 300 years before the time of Jephthah. With Jephthah generally dated to around 1100 BC (albeit with considerable uncertainty), this again places the conquest at about 1400BC and the Exodus at about 1440BC.
  3. The third clue is a little more subtle. The Hebrew text of Ezekiel 40:1 implies that Ezekiel's vision in 574BC was during a Jubilee year, the last year of a Jubilee cycle (see Leviticus 25). Later Jewish texts (in the Talmud) state that this was at the end of the seventeenth Jubilee cycle. The Jubilee cycles last 49 years, so the start of the first cycle would thus be around 1406 BC, corresponding to the first year of the conquest, and an Exodus in 1446BC. This agrees precisely with the date calculated from 1 Kings 6:1.
  4. The first piece of external evidence is related to the Berlin Pedestal, the base of a broken statue. Although discovered in the 19th Century, it rested in the basement of the Berlin museum until it was brought to the attention of the academic community in the early 21st century. Because the situation of the pedestal is unknown, its date is uncertain, but handwriting and spelling analysis suggests from it is around the end of the 18th dynasty. The Pedestal mentions three place names, Ashkelon, Canaan, and &hellips;. The third name ring is damaged, and only about 60% present. But enough remains that the letters can be read, and the only possible reading that fits the context is claimed to be Israel. If this reading and dating is correct, then it would rule out a 19th dynasty Exodus. It is consistent with a date in the fifteenth century.
  5. There are various inscriptions where the Egyptians cursed their enemies. The one of interest is from Soleb in modern Sudan, where Pharaoh Amenhotep III listed among his enemies the Shasu of Yahweh. Shasu in this case is a generic term for a nomadic or Bedouin tribe; Yahweh the name of the Israelite God supposedly first revealed to Moses. If this is a reference to the Israelites, then it would mean that the Exodus would have to take place in the 18th dynasty or earlier. It is consistent with a 1446 date.
  6. The campaign lists of Seti I mention an encounter with a people whose name is consistent with the Israelite tribe of Asher. The tribe is placed in the right geographical region, North West Israel between Jezreel and Phoenicia. As Seti was Ramesses II's predecessor, if this reading is correct it would rule out a 19th dynasty exodus under Ramesses II, unless Asher departed Egypt before the other tribes or was always present in Israel.

Note that the strength of the Biblical argument is not so much based on the three sources, which it is agreed can be questioned, but on the coincidence that all three seemingly independent sources when read literally point to precisely (or in the case of Jephthah a little bit imprecisely) the same date.

The 15th century date is also supported by considering the archaeological evidence, particularly for the conquest of Canaan, but I will discuss that in the next post.

So the first question is whether the Israelites could have maintained a precise chronology over half a millennium. Could the 480 years be accurate, or is it just a guess based on incomplete or incorrect records? We have to acknowledge that they were not idiots. They, and in particular the Levantine priesthood, were literate and capable of keeping records. While we don't have that much surviving writing from Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Israel, we have enough written on various shards of pottery to be sure that there were more than a few literate people living among the Israelites. The style of writing, an alphabetic script derived from Egyptian, was not suitable for the clay tablets that were used as a writing medium in Mesopotamia, suggesting that most of their records would have been written on Papyrus or parchment, which would have long since rotted away. In particular, the requirement to mark off sabbath and then Jubilee years would require maintaining a strict chronology. The records in the book of Judges also (if genuine) seem to imply some decent levels of record-keeping. They had both the capability to do so, and the motivation. Did they in practice? We know that the Israelites were often unfaithful; perhaps the priests lapsed, and then tried to recover later. We don't know. But we should not assume for the arguments that the Israelites were incapable of keeping chronological records. There is no evidence for that.

A second minor objection is that there is another "Biblical" date for the Exodus, which is obtained by simply adding up the length of times for the judges. What this gives you is uncertain, since there are a few numbers missing, but on anyone's reckoning it is considerably longer than the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1. The response to this is that several of the Judges probably overlapped, shortening the period. And this is quite reasonable, and mirrors what we see in other cultures of the time where parallel rulers are listed sequentially in the King lists. This explanation has to be adopted whether you accept the 18th or 19th dynasty date. But the judges chronology does undermine the argument that the three independent Biblical sources for the date of Exodus in the most natural interpretation converge on the same date. Instead, you have three of the four dates converging, and the fourth is wildly off.

There are also direct challenges to each of the pieces of evidence.

  1. In ancient cultures, large numbers were often used with a certain amount of flexibility. There was certainly rounding to the nearest multiple of ten or twenty. More than that, certain numbers, in particular 40 in Hebrew and related cultures, was a synonym for "a long time." Multiples of 40 were used to denote "a very long time." As such, it is often argued that the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 shouldn't be taken literally. It wouldn't necessarily have been understood that way in the culture of the time, and as such we shouldn't interpret so. This response is usually raised by the advocates for a 19th dynasty Exodus (since they need a span of about 300 years between Solomon and the Exodus), and there is some merit in it. This verse is not in itself decisive. One other thing I should say is that the 480 (or 440 if we accept the textual variation) years might not be exact but rounded to the nearest 10, 20 or perhaps 40 years (which also is consistent with ancient practice), so even if we accept the general time frame, it is a mistake to get too insistent on the date 1446BC (or 1406BC). It is better to just look for evidence in the general time period. If that evidence lines up precisely with 1446, so much the better. But if not, the Biblical inerrantist won't lose much sleep over it.
  2. I have seen the 300 years of Judges 11 (when a late date advocate would need this to be around 160 years, give or take a decade or so) interpreted in two different ways by late date advocates. The first is to say that it should be interpreted as "in the third century". This has never made sense to me. People in the ancient world did not have the same absolute dating system as we do, and not the same concept of the "15th century" or "14th century". More reasonable is to note that the text doesn't actually say that 300 years elapsed between Jephthah's day and the conquest, but it says that Jephthah claimed that there was a 300 year span. And Jephthah is portrayed as being a bit of an idiot. He is not the most reliable source.
  3. The calculation from Ezekiel 40:1 is based on a late source, and in particular relies on data from the Talmud which is a very late source, based on oral tradition from the second temple period. And I agree with this analysis; this particular argument has never seemed strong to me, and by itself it is not worth much at all. Perhaps it is a little better (due to the otherwise unlikely coincidence of it arriving at the same date) as a support from the natural interpretation of 1 Kings 6:1, but there are questions about its independence from that source: the authors of the Talmud might have used the internal Biblical chronology to estimate how many Jubilee cycles there were until Ezekiel's time.
  4. The evidence from the Berlin Pedestal is heavily disputed, firstly because it is not clear precisely when it was written, but mostly because the crucial name ring is damaged and its reading as Israel disputed. It is not the same spelling as on the Merneptah inscription. For example, James Hoffheimer, suggests possible readings of "Ilshalir", "Ilsharil,", "Irshalir", "Isharil", or "Irshalil," but not "Israel". The problem of these alternate readings is that the context of the inscription lists the disputed place alongside Canaan and Ashkelon, so in that general geographical area. The only known place or people in that area with a name even vaguely similar to the inscription is Israel. Even if the name was mis-spelt on the pedestal, there are no other credible alternatives except to identify it with an emerging Israel.
  5. The reference to the Shashu of Yahweh is also disputed. Firstly, some people question whether the inscription refers to "Yahweh". The letters are consistent with the divine name, but maybe they refer to something else otherwise unknown with a similar spelling. Secondly, it is claimed that maybe Yahweh was worshipped by some Midianite or other tribes in the region of what is now Southern Israel or North West Arabia. Again, this inscription is not seen as clear evidence that there were Yahweh-worshipping Israelites in the desert cursed by Amenhotep III.

So what evidence is raised for the late date of the Exodus? The Key Biblical reference is Exodus 1:11:

They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.

Pithom refers to Egyptian Per-Atum, which was a fortress in the North Eastern desert, referred to in various 19th dynasty texts. The precise location of Per-Atum is not certain, but one of the leading candidates was built by Ramesses II. Raamses is somewhat easier to identify. It refers to the great capital of Pi-Ramesse, the capital of Ramesses II. The city was largely built by Ramesses (with the earliest remains perhaps dating from the time of his predecessor Seti). There is now little dispute that this vast city was located close to the modern village of Qantir.

In both cases, there is a link to Pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned for 66 years (1279-1213, give or take a few years). Given that Ramesses's successor Merneptah encountered the Israelites in Canaan, this, it is claimed by advocates of the late date, conclusively dates the exodus to the second or third decade of Ramesses' rule (not the first, since they needed time to build the city and Ramesses needed his chariots to battle the Hittites). Other place names in the narrative also support this date, as I will discuss below.

An array of archaeological and linguistic evidence is brought in to support this date, but I will discuss that later.

The main response to this by early date advocates is that the names could have been updated to a later scribe copying the manuscript. This practice is not unknown in the ancient (and not so ancient) worlds. The Biblical example is Genesis 14:14 which mentions the city Dan, even though Laish wasn't renamed Dan until well into the Judges period, well after the time of Moses (if Moses was the original author of the Genesis text). Instead we should be looking for an older city on or near the same site. There are alternate archaeological sites in the Wadi Tumilat which could be the Per-Atum of the oppression Pharoahs. For example, Tel El Maskhuta had a Hyksos fortress. In the early date proposal, the Israelites were in Egypt throughout the Hyksos period, and could well have been involved in their building projects. All we know about the Israelite oppression is that it started some time before the birth of Moses.

Pi-Ramesses was built just across the river from Avaris (Tell el-Daba). Quantir is just two miles from Tell el-Daba, centred on an island in the river, and like most large towns of a similar population the Ramesside city extended over a large distance. The suburbs of the 19th dynasty city have been found at Avaris, and Avaris (under the name of Peru-Nefer) served as Pi-Ramesses' main harbour. As seen in the previous post, Avaris was the main settlement of the Israelites. Early date exodus proponents thus claim that Exodus 1:11 is not referring to the construction of Pi-Ramesses and Tell El Retabeh, but the earlier cities of Avaris (which would become a suburb of Pi-Ramesses) and somewhere else (perhaps Tel El Maskhuta, which was also known during its height as Per-Atum) during the 13th dynasty, Hyksos period and early 18th dynasty. The places would originally have been recorded with the names they were known as in the 18th dynasty, but later updated by an over-eager copyist contemporary with the 19th or twentieth dynasty, and then left unchanged by subsequent generations of priests as they copied the manuscripts of the Torah. How likely this scenario is depends on which scholar you ask, but it is certainly plausible. Thus Exodus 1:11 is not again not a definitive text for dating the exodus. We need to also look at the extra-Biblical data.

A further argument against the late date is the order of events in Exodus 1. First of all we have a Pharaoh rising who did not know Joseph. Then he enslaves them. Then they build the cities of Ramesses and Pithom. Then they multiply, and Pharaoh starts killing all the newborns. Moses is born during this period, and we have to wait another eighty years before Exodus. However, in the 19th dynasty theory, the cities would have been built within a few decades of the Exodus. Again, this objection is easily answered: ancient sources often played a little loose with the chronological ordering in order to tell their story. Just because the text mentions the cities being built at the start of the oppression just means that they were built sometime during the oppression, which could have been the very end of it. So this equally is not decisive.

The numbers of Israelites

The final preliminary I need to discuss is the size of the Exodus. How many people left Egypt? The book of numbers details two census conducted by Moses, one at the start of the wilderness wanderings, and the other at the end. The first of these totals to about 600 000 men, which, when including women and children, would imply a population of about two million. This number has often seen as being unreasonably large; for example it is almost as big as the estimated population of Egypt in the New Kingdom, and rather than being the difficult fight portrayed in Joshua and Judges, the conquest of Canaan would have been a walk-over over a Canaanite population maybe a tenth of the size.

However, this interpretation of the census figure depends on a translation of the Hebrew term 'elep. This could mean thousand, but also clan, or military unit. Since the purpose of the census was to count the military strength of the Israelites, this last possibility is very plausible. If it does refer to a military unit, then the Israelites would have numbered in the tens of thousands, rather than the millions, which is fully consistent with the population sizes of the era.

The route of the Exodus

Although some people have tried to claim that the "Red Sea" crossing was the gulf of Aqaba (from the Sinai into modern day Saudi Arabia), this is not supported by the data from the books of Exodus and Numbers. Numbers 33 list the campsites on the Exodus route, but after the first few, which are known from New Kingdom Egyptian sources, the others are not referenced from ancient sources. So, with a few exceptions, to a large extent we are just guessing where the campsites were. The names would have meant something to people at the time, but far too much time has elapsed and the places they represented have been long forgotten. After leaving Ramesses the Israelites stopped at Succoth, Etham, and Hahiroth (near Midgol). These places are known from New Kingdom Egypt, and imply that the sea crossing was actually at the bitter lakes (now absorbed into the Suez Canal). The term "Red Sea" is a traditional mistranslation of the Hebrew Yam Suph (reed sea). It is impossible to cross the Sinai peninsula in just three marches, as the gulf of Aqaba hypothesis would demand. After that, things are less clear until the Israelites reached Kadesh.

There is a traditional association of Mount Sinai with Jabal Musa, the highest mountain in the peninsula, and the site of St Catherine's Monastery. If true, this would suggest an exodus route down one side of the Sinai peninsula and up the other. However, this tradition only dates back to the early Byzantine period, and should thus be open to question.

The Biblical references to Mount Sinai (otherwise known as Mount Horeb or the Mountain of God) in the Torah suggest:

  1. It was visited by Moses while tending to the flocks of Jethro of Midian (North West Saudi Arabia) in Exodus 3.
  2. In Exodus 4:27, Moses set out from Midian to return to Egypt. He met his brother Aaron, coming the other way, at Mount Sinai.
  3. The Israelites passed through the wilderness of Sin to reach Mount Sinai (Exodus 17:1).
  4. After reaching Sinai, Moses was joined by his father in law Jethro, who travelled there from his own country, and left to return to his own country (Exodus 18:27). This suggests that Mount Sinai is not in Midian, or at least that part of Midian which Jethro called home.
  5. Deuteronomy 1:2 states that it is eleven days journey from Sinai to Kadesh-barnea.

The clearest marker is Deuteronomy 1:2, but the question is who was making that journey. A good rule of thumb is that a healthy adult on foot can travel a bit over 30 kilometers per day, although possibly the harsh desert environment of the Sinai would slow them down a bit. That would place Mount Sinai in the Sourthern part of the peninsula. The difference from St Catherine's monastery to Kadesh Barnea is about 330km (at least by modern routes; I am assuming that the ancient route wouldn't be too different).

However, if it is referring to the speed the whole group of Israelites, including animals, children and the elderly, then progress would have been much slower. They would have to travel from water source to water source, and avoid the hottest parts of the day. Twelve or thirteen kilometres per day would be more reasonable. This would place 11 days journey from Kadesh somewhere in North East Sinai, closer to Aqaba and Eliat.

The other information we have is that Moses met Aaron by Mount Sinai on his way from Midian to Egypt. To understand the significance of this, we can also consider the routes used by ancient travellers across the Sinai. These can be determined firstly from the need to pass water sources, and from various remains indicating campsites.

The most natural route to take from Midian to Egypt would be the road from the tip of the gulf of Aqaba to the tip of the gulf of Suez. This suggests that Mount Sinai would have been along or near to this road. It needs to be within range of Midian (but outside Midian, given that Jethro needed to return to his country after leaving Moses at Mount Sinai), and away from Egypt, which suggests that a location towards the Eastern side of the road is more likely. It should also be noted that it took the Israelites two marches to get from Sinai to Hazeroth, and it is implied that one more march took them into the wilderness of Paran, from which they sent out spies into Canaan and later attacked Hormah on the Southern borders of Canaan, which again suggests a more Northern location for Mount Sinai. But these are only suggestions. The truth is we don't know where the mountain was. We don't know which route they took after leaving Egypt. We don't know where we should look for Israelite encampments (if we had any chance of finding them).

It should be noted that the Egyptians did not have much interest in most of the Sinai peninsula, except the coastal road into Canaan and the various mines, the most important of which were in the Southwest of the peninsula. As long as the Israelites stayed clear of these areas, they would not have encountered Egyptians. The rest of the peninsula was a barren wilderness with nothing of value in it.

The sceptic's case

Once again, before discussing the evidence in depth, I will discuss what Professor Stenger has to say on the topic. Firstly, he states that some archaeological trace of the six hundred thousand Jews wandering through the wilderness should have been found, yet we have no evidence of even a campsite. He, citing Finkelstein and Silberman, states that archaeology can track far smaller and more ancient bands of nomads. He also notes that nothing has been found at Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites are recorded of staying for a large proportion of their sojourn.

Once again, since this is little more than an argument from authority, I need to turn to his source to see if any actual evidence is presented.

The Bible Unearthed, by Professors Finkelstein and Silberman, devotes a chapter to the Exodus. After summarising the story, they note that the basic situation of immigrants settling in the Eastern Nile delta is well abundantly verified. Egypt was a fertile land, and always attractive to immigrants; in the Iron Age as well as the Bronze Age.

They discuss the story of the Hyksos as told by Manetho, an important if not always reliable classical historian of ancient Egypt. Manetho (as interpreted by Josephus; we don't possesses the original, but only citations in other writers) describes how the Hyksos were brought to an end by a virtuous King. The remnants escaped into Judea, where they founded the city of Jerusalem. Contemporary Egyptian sources tell a slightly different story -- no mention of Jerusalem, as Ahmose's campaigns only went as far as Sharuhen. Professor Finkelstein dismisses this possibility as it is at both the wrong date and a very different event.

He next mentions the 1440BC date for the Exodus, but rejects it in favour of the later date -- stating that most scholars saw the oppression account as a cultural memory of the building of Ramesses. He presents a similar case to the one I discussed above for Ramesses II as pharaoh of the Exodus. His dismissal of the Israelites in Egypt is based solely on the absence of the name "Israel," which I discussed in my previous post. When he states that there is no archaeological evidence for Israelite presence in Egypt before the time of Ramesses II he is being disingenuous. There is plenty of evidence for Semitic presence in Egypt during the Egyptian New Kingdom, and some evidence that at least some of these Semites were Hebrews. Biblical maximalists thus can easily link these Semites with the Hebrews described in the opening chapter of the book of Exodus.

Professor Finkelstein goes on to question whether an Exodus in the time of Ramesses II was possible. He notes that after expelling the Hyksos, the Egyptians more stringently controlled immigration, building a series of forts along the Egyptian border. These forts are the same as those named in the book of Exodus. There are records concerning small bands of Edomites as they tried to pass into Egypt through these forts; why then would there be no records of the much larger number of Israelites as they tried to escape? Yet despite the abundant evidence in the New Kingdom, there is no evidence of this.

He also notes that Egypt under Ramesses II was the dominant power in the world, with a firm grip on Canaan. Is it plausible that the Israelites could wander through the wilderness and settle in Canaan without facing these Egyptians? In the Armana letters of the late 18th dynasty, we are told that just 50 Egyptian soldiers would be enough to quell the unrest. The coastal road was most strongly defended.

Any group escaping Egypt against the will of the Pharaoh would have been easily tracked down not only by an Egyptian army chasing it from the delta but also by the Egyptian soldiers in the forts in Northern Sinai and in Canaan.

Professor Finkelstein next turns to the wandering in the desert, and makes the claim that some evidence for them should be apparent. However, except for the Egyptian forts in the North, and the Egyptian mines in the South West, there have been no campsites identified in Sinai from the time period. This includes in the area around Jebel Musa (which he identifies with Sinai), Kadesh-barnea and Ezion-geber, where the Israelites are reported to have stayed for some time.

Not even a single shard, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment. One may argue that a small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archaeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even meagre remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium BCE and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the exodus in the thirteenth century BCE.

Finkelstein and Silberman also mention Arad, whose King is recorded as attacking the Israelites in numbers 21. Tel Arad, usually associated with Arad, has remains from the Iron Age and Early Bronze Age, but not the late Bronze Age. The same is true for the entire local area.

Tel Heshbon, which is the site usually identified with Biblical Heshbon, is similar. Moses fought a battle against the King of Heshbon at the end of the wandering periods on his way to the Jordan river, and the Israelites took his cities and land. Yet was there a city at Heshbon for the Israelites to take?

The Israelites also encountered the Moabites and Edomites on their wanderings. Yet most parts of this region were not, according to Finkelstein, inhabited by a sedentary population at this time.


So that's the case made by one of the leading minimalist scholars, and it is (I think) very typical. So what might a response to it look like.

Firstly, with regards to the Egyptian evidence, it is abundantly clear that Egypt had a large population of Semitic slaves for most of the New Kingdom. True, the Egyptians did not refer to these slaves as Israelites. But neither did the Egyptians generally refer to Moses' people as Israelites in the book of Exodus (Exodus 14:5, 12:31 and 1:9 are exceptions). The narrator, Moses and God all frequently refer to the Israelites as Israel, but the Egyptians in general only right at the end in response to Moses. (Exodus 1:9 is the obvious counter-example). Instead, early in the account, the term Hebrew is used (Exodus 1:16, 1:19, 1:22, 2:6, 2:7, 2:11, 2:13), and only by the Egyptians, the midwifes, or the narrator, and once (5:3) by Moses and Aaron when first addressing Pharaoh. The term Hebrew is very rarely used in the text outside the context of the oppression in Egypt. The only other reference I can find in the Torah is in Exodus 21:2 and its repeat in Deuteronomy 15:12. Every other time the Israelites refer to themselves as Israel. So the term Hebrew was not how the Israelites thought of themselves; but it is used early in the story because it is how the Egyptians referred to the Israelites. So we should not expect to find references to Israel in the Egyptian records. Instead we should expect to find the generic Asiatic and the term Apiru, which is equivalent to the Semitic Habiru, which is in turn equivalent to the Hebrew Hebrew. And both of these words were used by the New Kingdom Egyptians to refer to some of their slaves. The Egyptians in their paintings distinguished between different people by their skin pigmentation, and pictures of slaves in New Kingdom tombs used the standard pigmentation used to depict Semites. So ProfessorFinkelstein is being misleading when he says that there is no evidence for Israelite slaves in Egypt. There is evidence for a large number of Semitic slaves, at least some of whom were Hebrews, and no evidence that these did not include the Israelites.

Professor Stenger is quite correct to say that the Egyptians were powerful at the time of the Exodus, whether we place it in the 18th or 19th dynasty. They would not let a large group of slaves escape easily. And that is exactly what the Biblical text states (Exodus 14). The direct Northern road to Canaan was indeed well fortified. And again, that is precisely what the Biblical text implies (Exodus 13:17).

Would we expect to find a written record of the Israelite departure? Not on the monuments, because the Egyptians never recorded defeats. Not in the Sinai forts, because the Israelites did not stop there to fill in the ancient Egyptian equivalent of customs forms. Not in the delta, because virtually no administrative records survive from Avaris or Pi-Ramesses. Kitchen (preferring the 19th century date) mentions that the only surviving record from the time of Ramesses II are a few dockets describing the contents of somebody's wine cellar. We should not expect to find administrative accounts of the Exodus in the Egyptian delta because there are (for all practical purposes) no surviving administrative documents of any sort.

With regards to finding the remains of the Israelites in Sinai, Professor Finkelstein again severely overstates his case. Firstly, the tells at Kadash and Ezion-geber have been excavated, and indeed no occupation from the Late Bronze age has been found there. This is again implied by the Biblical text; because in these places the Israelites did not encounter any people already living in towns or villages in those places, and competing for the water. But the water supply for those towns would still have been there, and that was obviously important for the Israelites. The Israelites would not have encamped on the Tell, but probably on the flat land around the Oasis. So what would they leave behind for archaeologists to discover? Certainly not houses or stone structures, since the Israelites lived in tents. An encampment would not leave any permanent traces. Pottery? There might be some, but it is unlikely that the Israelites carried that much pottery with them (simply to avoid having to carry around heavy and fragile jars), and they wouldn't have been able to replace any that they did have when they set out; what they did have they would carefully have looked after, and the few shards they did leave behind would either be buried under sand or eroded away. Similarly animal or human bones would either be buried or eroded. Professor Finkelstein is wrong to imply that the Sinai has been extensively excavated. There have been very few excavations in the Sinai. Some surface surveys, but these also have been limited. There is thus no obvious reason why we would expect to find archaeological remains from the Israelites in the Sinai Peninsula. For example, there were extensive Late Bronze Age mining activities in the Sinai at Serabit el-Khadim during much of the New Kingdom. The miners would have needed to travel back to Egypt either by land or sea, which implies (since it was more than a day's march) that there must have been encampments in use for centuries on the way. No evidence for these encampments has been found. Why, then, should we expect to find evidence for the more briefly occupied Israelite encampments?

With regards to Edom and Moab, Professor Stenger again relies on an argument from silence. The idea of an occupation gap in Edom and Moab during the Middle Bronze II and Late Bronze Age arises from an old surface survey by Nelson Glueck in the 1930s and 1940s. However, things have moved on since that time. For example a subsequent surface survey by Thompson found evidence of evidence for Late Bronze Age pottery; further surveys by Miller and Pinkleton, MacDonald and other excavations at various sites have shown late Middle Bronze Age or early late Bronze Age occupation. The population was almost certainly smaller than it was in the Early Bronze Age or MBI periods, or in the Iron Age, but these hints show that it was still large enough to form a recognisable political entity. Nonetheless, there have not been extensive excavations in the lands once occupied by Moab and Edom. Some recent excavations at the Timma valley mines suggest a more centralised kingdom in the region during the Late Bronze II period. Places in Edom are mentioned in campaign lists of both Ramesses III and Ramesses II, during the alleged pottery gap, so the country was certainly inhabited at the time of the Exodus, whether one adopts a nineteenth or eighteenth dynasty date. Moab is mentioned in Ramesses II's campaign lists. The two Kingdoms might not have had large populations, and the people might have lived in tents, but the Biblical text does not require any more than that. It is not unknown for Kings in the ancient near East to have dwelt in tents. For example, the first few Kings of the Assyrian King List are described as tent-dwellers. Ramesses II's campaign lists show that Edom and Moab existed as political entities at the time of the 19th dynasty Exodus. For the 18th dynasty exodus there is less direct evidence (although Thutmose III also campaigned and fought battles in the area), but nothing to say that the two Kingdoms didn't exist then either.

The argument concerning Arad and Heshbon is (in my view) somewhat stronger. I will discuss the case of Arad in more detail below, and Heshbon in the next post.

What evidence might we expect to find?

The primary source for the Exodus is always going to be the Biblical text. The reason for this is simple. To most powers of the time (those which left us with enough written records) the Exodus was something which happened to other people. They might well have heard about (and laughed at) Pharaoh's misfortune, or trembled at the thought of the oncoming Hebrew horde, but they would not be likely to record it in their own records, as it wasn't their own achievement. The Egyptians were obviously strongly affected by the Exodus, but again wouldn't directly record the event in the monumental inscriptions, since they tended not to record defeats and failures. We might find indirect evidence for the Exodus, and I will list that below, but we should not expect to find something that says that "There was this bloke called Moses who freed all our slaves." There was significant economic damage, but in the long history of Egypt that was just a blip. New Kingdom Egypt was strong enough to recover from it.

But for the Israelites, the Exodus was the definitive national origin story. It was central to their national identity, in the same way that the revolution of 1776 is to my cousins on the wrong side of the Atlantic, or Magna Carta is to us Englishmen. The Law in the Torah was central to the Israelite religion, even if the Israelites were not always perfectly faithful to that religion. The main accounts of the Exodus are obviously from the books of Exodus through to Deuteronomy, but it is referenced by and assumed by almost the rest of the Old Testament. The story is deeply embedded in pre-exilic Israelite culture. Some explanation is needed for how the Israelites adopted this rather unique national origin story, and the natural explanation is that it has its roots in history (although perhaps exaggerated and embellished if the Torah we have today was written sometime later).

Something which is so central to one's identity is very difficult to invent wholesale at a later date, and persuade people that it is true. After all, saying "We are the descendants of slaves in Egypt led out by the hand of God, and all our ancestors have known that since the event" is not going to be persuasive to people who have never heard anything similar to the story before. Later writers can certainly embellish and exaggerate the story (as, for example, Homer did when taking the historical kernel of the siege of Troy and turning it into the Iliad), but it is very difficult to invent out of nothing and expect people to treat it as history. And if an ancient writer did invent a national origin story, this isn't the sort of story that people of the ancient world would invent. Generally speaking, origin myths are not tied to particular places, times or people to the extent of the Biblical text. So the very fact that this tradition exists, and was embedded in the culture of Iron Age Israel, suggests that something happened in the Late Bronze Age (or earlier) to trigger it. You need to have a strong case to argue otherwise.

But what of the evidence contemporary to the Exodus? I will focus on the evidence in Egypt and Sinai, leaving the discussion of the conquest to the next post.

  1. Firstly, the text of the book of Exodus should reflect contemporary Egyptian and near-Eastern language and customs, and show knowledge of New Kingdom Egypt as opposed to Third Intermediate Period Egypt (as would be the case if the story was invented during Israel's monarchy).
  2. We know that there was a large Semitic population in Egypt at Avaris and other sites during the Egyptian New Kingdom. We would expect to see at least some evidence that at least some of this population departed from their city.
  3. There should be a royal palace near to the main Israelite community. There is the strong suggestion (e.g Exodus 12:31) that Pharaoh was based no more than a few hours away from the main Israelite settlement.
  4. Equally, Pharaoh's daughter lived close to the Israelites some 80 years before the Exodus when Moses was born (if we accept the Biblical account of Moses' age at the time of the Exodus). Moses remained in favour in the royal court for most of those 80 years; the implication of Exodus 4:20 is that his children were quite young when he returned from Midian, so he could not have been there for that much more than a decade or so.
  5. Pharaoh's first born son should have died. (Of course, first born children died frequently in that culture; but if we don't find this, we can rule out that Pharaoh.)
  6. Egypt should suffer an economic and military set-back, and perhaps some social disruption. We should expect a period where Egypt withdrew from large military campaigns as they rebuilt their economy and military.
  7. The King of Arad had to have some city and kingdom to reign over. The Amelekites also dwelt in the Negev region, although these could have been nomads who left little trace behind.

The case for an 18th dynasty Exodus

The 18th dynasty Exodus finds its primary support from archaeologists who work in Israel and Jordan, who tie the archaeology of LB1 Canaan with with Joshua's conquest. Neglecting the arguments from Biblical Chronology, that archaeology, I think, remains the strongest evidence for this date, but I will discuss it in the next post.

In the standard low chronology of Egypt, The 1446 date that is favoured by these scholars would place the Exodus in the reign of Thutmose III. The 1406 date from the textual variation would place it in the reign of Amenhotep II. If we treat the 480 years as an approximate figure (so only accurate to within about 20 years), then again these are the primary options for the Pharaoh of the Exodus, although Thutmose IV might be a contender if we accept the 440 year textual variation and allow this to be an approximate figure. The most prominent early date advocates tend to favour the now disfavoured High Egyptian Chronology and a 1446BC date within the reign of Amenhotep II. I am not going to worry about this date too much, but instead look at the evidence surrounding the various Pharaohs. I will call evidence for an exodus within this general time period as a win for the 18th dynasty exodus theory. The favoured Pharaoh of the Exodus among early date advocates is Amenhotep II rather than Thutmose III, so I will present the case for this ruler being Moses' adversary. (I have also seen an argument suggesting Thutmose II as the Pharaoh of the exodus, with the evidence being various skin lesions on his mummy, and also those of others of the time period including his successors. Scars left over from the plague of boils? The problem with this proposal is that it places Joshua's conquest at the same time as when Thutmose III was campaigning in Canaan.)

First of all, the city of Ramesses (under that name) was not built in the 18th dynasty. Advocates of the early date thus suppose that the city referenced by the Biblical writer was actually the older and neighbouring site of Avaris (or Peru-nefer), which was incorporated into Pi-Ramesses as the Ramesside capital expanded (or at least there was overlap between the two cities). This site was the capital of Hyksos Egypt, and it was thought, until the excavations, that the population was largely banished when the 18th dynasty drove out the Hyksos and came to power. That the site was abandoned following Ahmose's victory over the Hyksos for the entirety of the eighteenth dynasty is still claimed by various sceptical accounts.

In practice, however, while there was unquestionably a significant drop in the town's population when the Hyksos were defeated, various areas of the city continued to be settled by a mixed Egyptian/Asiatic culture. To directly cite the excavators:

Avaris was abandoned, but archaeological evidence has shown no signs of destruction besides the looting of tombs. This would be entirely in keeping with the Josephus story. In several areas, however, settlement activity continued into the Eighteenth Dynasty, albeit on a restricted scale. In area H at the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, the Eighteenth Dynasty took possession of the site and constructed magazines and silos, soon followed by a military camp. This was a new settlement, showing no relationship with the Hyksos city underneath. Only in area H/VI there may be signs of uninterrupted settlement, but the surface is so denuded that no firm evidence could be obtained thus far.

In area A/V there is some evidence of settlement activity in the Eighteenth Dynasty, which might have been related to the military and naval site H mentioned above, or be explained as squatting activity. At the site of the temple of Seth, however, nothing suggests that there was an interruption of occupation. On the contrary, one can observe such settlement activities as waste deposition and the creation of vineyards inside the early Eighteenth Dynasty enclosure wall. It was only in the Amarna Period that the temple was aban-doned or destroyed, and it was rebuilt under Tutankh-amun and Horemheb, as demonstrated by a lintel of Seth, "great of power", with the prenomen of Horemheb cut into an older cartouche, most likely of Tutankhamun. This could be taken as evidence for a continued cult of Seth as of the Syrian storm god Baal-zephon, which stretched at Avaris from the late Middle Kingdom to the Ramesside Period.

After the abandonment of Avaris, which comprised c. 680 acres, the site was resettled during the Eighteenth Dynasty, though on a smaller terrain of c. 50 acres on the east bank of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. Magazines and numerous silos (stratum e/1.2, phase D/1.2) now occupied the site of the citadel of the Hyksos Period (stratum e/2, phase D/2). Part of a palatial building was also found. Everything was enclosed by a thick mud-brick wall that was to remain intact through four strata, probably for more than a century. The numerous silos look like a large-scale storage facility that had been created so that large numbers of military personnel could be concentrated at this place. That part of the people assembled here were survivors of the Hyksos Period can be shown from the continuity of pottery types (see below) and from the ongoing use of circular offering pits in which, after ritual meals, were buried such remnants as animal bones and broken pottery. It seems at present that south of this complex, a settlement of the Second Intermediate Period continued to be occupied without a break, as already indicated above.

Also the material culture attested at Tell el-Daba and Tell Hebwa from the early Eighteenth Dynasty to the Thutmoside period shows uninterrupted continuity. The specific eastern Delta blend of an Egyptian pottery tradition with Near Eastern Middle Bronze Age forms exhibits no rupture. Red-slipped burnished carinated bowls and shouldered pots continued to be used, and it is especially clear that all forms connected with wine production, such as Canaanite amphorae, the red-slipped burnished dipper juglets and the polished wine sieves were still produced according to the late Middle Bronze Age tradition of the late Hyksos period.

As we find in Tell-el-Daba strong evidence of an unbroken tradition of the hybrid Middle Bronze Age culture of the late Hyksos Period to at least the time of Thutmose III, we may conclude that at least part of the Western Asiatic population that had brought Hyksos rule in the eastern Delta was resettled there after Avaris was conquered by Ahmose. These people were useful to the pharaohs of the new dynasty, including craftsmen, metal workers, wine farmers, horse grooms, possibly soldiers, charioteers, and most likely also sailors and shipbuilders, who are indeed attested for Thutmoside times in Papyrus Hermitage 1116 B (16.30.37). In all likelihood these were the people behind the continuity of Canaanite cults from Avaris to Peru-nefer and finally to Pi-Ramesses. Outside Avaris, they also settled at Memphis.

It should be noted that despite the extensive excavations over the past decades, there are still areas of ancient Avaris which have not yet been uncovered. Our knowledge is still limited. But even from what is known, we can say that while the population of the city decreased dramatically with the expulsion of the Hyksos, small pockets of Asiatic settlement remained. The city was not completely abandoned. The reference to the material culture continuing until the time of Thutmose III is of particular interest to advocates of the early Exodus is particularly interesting, because this is roughly when they would propose that the Exodus took place. The implication is that either the town was abandoned or there was a break in the material culture suggesting a population substitution. It is not, however, correct that the whole town was abandoned at this time. Settlement around the temple of Seth continued until the time of Ramesses II (aside from a break during Akhenaten's religious revolution), and possibly a few other areas as well, so it seems that the Semitic population did not completely abandon the town at the time of Thutmose III or his successor Amenhotep II. It is also possible that late 18th dynasty remains were damaged by more recent agricultural activities.

If we were to correlate the exodus with a reduction in the Semitic population of Avaris, then there are essentially three options. The first is at the start of the eighteenth dynasty and end of the Hyksos, where Avaris decreased from a very large city to a small town. This can be associated with the military campaign to expel the Hyksos and reunify Egypt; one does not need to propose an Exodus to explain the data. During the eighteenth dynasty Avaris again increased in population and importance, until another partial abandonment of the city around the end of Thutmose III's reign, or during the reign of Amenhotep II, or possibly early Thutmose IV. A few pockets of Semitic habitation remained, and these continued until the time of Ramesses II. At this point, the Northern parts of the city and harbour were absorbed into the new capital of Pi-Ramesses, while the rest of the city seems to have been abandoned. Finally Pi-Ramesses itself was abandoned in the twentieth dynasty (as the branch of the Nile it was located on silted up), but by then it was almost entirely an Egyptian rather than Semitic city. So Semites left Avaris at the start of the 18th dynasty, in the middle of the 18th dynasty, and during the 19th dynasty. Each of these events could be the expected archaeological signature of an exodus type event (albeit that a start of the 18th dynasty exodus would have to be cloaked by the larger event of the Hyksos defeat).

Avaris in the 18th dynasty was a very cosmopolitan place, occupied by Egyptians, Nubuians, Mediterranean peoples, as well as the Asiatics. It became important as the main port of the 18th dynasty, Peru-Nefer, which is attested in Egyptian sources up until the time of Amenhotep II and then again in the 19th dynasty.

But of most interest to the early Exodus advocates is the palace district of Avaris. A large residence was built against the Nile around the time of Thutmose I. This was considerably expanded by Thutmose III, and made into what the excavators insist had to be a royal residence (I am not sure that this is proved, but it is a reasonable interpretation), and it continued to be used until the time of Amenhotep II. After that the palace was abandoned. There was later building on the site by Amenhotep III and Horemheb, but this seems to be more of a warehouse than a palace. Thus while the 18th dynasty's main residence was in Memphis (which, until the discovery of this palace complex, was cited as conclusive evidence against the 18th dynasty Exodus since Pharaoh wouldn't have lived close enough to the Israelites), this palace does provide a suitable setting for the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses. The palace's abandonment means that the, on the basis of this archaeological evidence irrespective of the Biblical considerations, Exodus could not have occurred after the time of Amenhotep II until the royal residence at Qantir was established in the 19th dynasty. Thutmose III and Amenhotep II would be the most likely Pharaohs of the Exodus if it occurred during the 18th dynasty as the palace district was then at its most developed.

What about Pharaoh's daughter, and her discovery of Moses? If the Exodus occurred during the reign of Amenhotep II, and Moses really was a vigorous 80 years old when it happened, then this would place his birth around the time of Thutmose I. The first question is would Pharaoh's daughter (who might have been a relatively young child at the time) have been bathing near to the Israelite settlement? The palace complex at Avaris was not established in the first days of the 18th dynasty (stata e), where the site seems to have just been used as a grain silo. The first palace was constructed in the next archaeological phase (strata d), which begins around the time of Thutmose I. (Note that the linked chart seems to be out of date, and doesn't include the continuity of settlement in a few areas referenced above. But it does show the link between the archaeological strata and the Pharaohs). This was remodelled and expanded by Thutmose III in the next phase of the city. It is thus possible that Pharaoh's daughter could have been the daughter of Thutmose I, dwelling in that initial palace close to the main Israelite settlement at Avaris. Or, alternatively, Moses' parents might have been living in or near Memphis rather than Avaris (the quote from Bietak above mentions a Semitic community in Memphis in the early part of the 18th dynasty).

While on the subject of Pharaoh's daughter, there is one particularly interesting possibility. One of Thutmose I's daughters is known, Hatshepsut, who later became regent to the young Thutmose III. Could she have been the lady who adopted Moses? It makes some sense: it would explain why Moses remained associated with the Egyptian royal court even after the daughter had been married off. Also Hatshepsut's images were defaced after her death for a reason which is completely unknown. In Egyptian culture, this was probably the worst thing you could do to someone, since it would ruin their chances of a good afterlife. This defacement was probably done during the time of Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, or Thutmose IV. Revenge for her link with the now hated Moses? It has been suggested. But this is obviously little more than speculation, with no proof or evidence for it beyond the correspondence of dates with the early Exodus.

Amenhotep II was also probably not the first born son of his father. He had an older brother called Amenemhet. Thus Amenhotep II would have survived the 10th plague. Thutmose IV, who succeeded him, was also not the eldest son, as indicated by his "dream stele" where he required divine confirmation that he would become King. Of course, infant and child mortality was high at that time, even for royalty, so for an eldest child to die was not uncommon, and many Pharaohs would not have been the first born.

Thutmose III and Amenhotep II launched a number of military campaigns into the Levant. Their predecessors in the 18th dynasty were less active, but still active. Thutmose III in particular is credited with establishing an Egyptian Empire. The term "Empire" might be a bit misleading to modern ears, since it was not a centrally controlled super-state. There were a few Egyptian garrisons scattered across the land, but mostly the cities were controlled by semi-independent rulers, who were forced to send tribute and slaves to Egypt, and acknowledge the superiority of Egypt's kings, but were otherwise largely left to rule their own territory and squabble among themselves. Thutmose III's main concern seemed to be partly to prevent any new Hyksos invasion from a dominant power rising in the Levant, partly to keep a buffer zone between the rising Mitanni Empire (in what is now Northern Syria) and Egypt, but mainly to bring in money and slaves. At the start of his reign, Amenhotep II continued this policy. It is unclear whether he conducted two or three campaigns into the Levant, but his last campaign was in his ninth year of an at least 30 year long reign. His successor, Thutmose IV, conducted one small raid; Amenhotep III and Akhenaten were also fairly quiet. Egypt's military was still strong in this period, and they did campaign into the Sudan from time to time, but not so much to the North. There was a change in priorities. The Canaanite cities remained loyal to Egypt (or at least they pretended to be loyal), as revealed in their preserved correspondence to Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. They continued to send tribute to Egypt. But they didn't receive military support in return, even though they needed it.

Amenhotep II's final campaign also deserves a bit of mention, because it was different from his earlier campaign(s) and those of his father. Firstly, it was conducted in winter, which was very unusual for that time period. Secondly, whereas Thutmose III's campaigns were either to put down rebellions or push back Mitanni incursions, Amenhotep II's campaign was to gather slaves and other equipment. For example, Thutmose III would usually list the capture of a few thousand slaves at most, as did Amenhotep in his first (or first two if he had three in total) campaigns. The year nine campaign returned over a hundred thousand slaves, including, among a list of ethnic or other groups, 3600 Hebrews. It also brought back numerous captured chariots. While the total numbers of slaves could well have been exaggerated, clearly something unusual happened here. The claim of the eighteenth dynasty exodus advocates was that this campaign was conducted in the aftermath of the Exodus, partly to restore Egyptian prestige, but mostly to rebuild Egypt's slave population and military. With regards to the military aspect of this, it is commented that it wouldn't take long for a country as economically powerful as ancient Egypt to build a new force of chariots; although horses might be a different matter.

There was also religious turmoil during this period. A "new" religion arose in Egypt at about this time, the cult of Aten. While derived from the standard religion, it differed from it in various respects, most importantly that it was strictly monotheistic and sought to destroy all Egyptian gods except for Aten. The religion came to prominence during the reign of Akhenaten, when Pharaoh converted to it, and it briefly became the state religion. However, it began earlier than this, and is attested to early in the reign of Amenhotep III, with Aten's separation from Re attested during the reign of Thutmose IV. Of course, these are the earliest surviving records, which do not necessarily indicate the formation of the religion. The exodus was not just a confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, it was a confrontation between the Israelite God and the Egyptian gods. The Egyptian gods lost. While the elite -- Pharaoh and the priests -- had a vested interest in the continuation of the traditional system, it is not so surprising that there was a breakdown of confidence in the traditional gods after the exodus, and the rise of a new cult. So the exodus (according to the 18th dynasty advocates) provides an explanation for the religious turmoil of the late 18th dynasty.

As noted above, we should not expect to see much evidence of the Israelites in Sinai -- they wouldn't have left anything behind. We are not even sure where to look, as the route (after leaving Egypt) and the location of Mount Sinai are uncertain. But the Israelites are recorded as encountering various peoples in their wanderings. The Amelekites were probably also a nomadic people living in either the Negev or Northern Sinai. They wouldn't leave much of a trace behind them. But Israelites also fought a battle against the King of Arad. This King seems to have been in charge of a settled population in the very South of Canaan. We might find evidence for his city or cities.

In the Biblical text, Arad is only mentioned in the Exodus and conquest narratives. The city is also mentioned in the Egyptian campaign of Shoshenq I. The city is usually identified with Tel Arad, which shows signs of occupation in the Early Bronze Age and the Iron Age. A number of inscriptions, in Hebrew and Aramaic, were found at the Iron Age fortress, including a mention of the Jerusalem temple, and also naming the city of Arad. The Iron Age city at Tel Arad was a outlying fortress of Israel and Judah, and is almost certainly the city which Shoshenq I encountered.

But there are no Late Bronze Age remains at Tel Arad, which presents a problem for both the 18th dynasty and 19th dynasty exodus dates, if we are to take the story of the conflict with the King of Arad as history. A number of options present themselves:

  1. Tel Arad was occupied in the Late Bronze Age, but the remains were missed by the excavators. It is possible that all remains of a Late Bronze Age city were removed as the site was prepared for the Iron Age construction -- this is known to have happened at other sites, such as (to a lesser extent, since some Late Bronze Age remains were still there) Jericho, where recent excavations have shown that the Late Bronze Age occupation was considerably more extensive than the earlier excavators had realised, precisely because of this phenomena. Or perhaps the Late Bronze Age settlement was relatively small, and on a part of the Tell which hasn't yet been excavated. However, you would expect some evidence of Late Bronze Age settlement even if most of it had been removed, so this isn't a particularly satisfying excuse.
  2. Secondly, one can suppose that the Arad encountered by Moses and Joshua was at a different, nearby, site. The Iron Age fortress would have been named "Arad" with the Israelites mistakenly confusing the Early Bronze Age remains with the city encountered by Moses. There are a few possibilities. Kitchen (an advocate of the 19th dynasty date) suggests either Tel Halif and Tel Masos. Tel Halif was occupied throughout the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. However, it's location is wrong -- it is to the North of Beersheba -- and it is unlikely that the name would shift to Tell Arad while the site was still occupied. Tel Masos was inhabited from the end of the Late Bronze Age, and reached its peak in the early phase of the Iron Age. It seems to have been abandoned at about the same time that Tel Arad was settled. The two sites probably existed side by side for a few decades, but not much more than that. This seems to just about be a possible match for a 19th dynasty Exodus, though the Kingdom of Arad would either be semi-nomadic or only just established when Moses encountered it. This is not a possibility for an 18th dynasty Exodus.

    The other possibility is Tel Malhata. This was a relatively large (for the region) city which during the Middle Bronze Age. It was abandoned during the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I, and resettled in Iron Age II. The location is reasonable, being close to Tel Arad. The issue is the date of the sites destruction, right at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. There was a destruction layer at the site towards at the end of the Middle Bronze Age; the city was then resettled, but abandoned shortly afterwards seemingly right at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. The transition between the Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age is traditionally dated to the time of Pharoah Ahmose, so about 1550-1530BC. This is clearly much too early for an Exodus during the reign of Amenhotep II. However, there have been suggestions, most notably by Bietak based on findings at Tell el-Daba (Avaris), that the transition should be dated to the time of Thutmose III, which is closer to the time needed but still not quite there. I don't think that these suggestions have been widely accepted, but they are still on the table. An advocate for the 18th dynasty exodus would have to accept this late date for the Middle/Late Bronze Age transition, and suppose (despite the lack of Late Bronze Age finds) that the city continued into early LBI so Joshua could defeat its King. This possibility is not very appetising, but at the moment it looks like the best option for an 18th dynasty exodus supporter. (But we have to remember this in the next post -- the 18th dynasty supporter needs to be consistent with the date of the transition when it comes to the evidence in Canaan.)

  3. The third possibility is that the King of Arad ruled over what was primarily a nomadic Kingdom, with his inhabitants leaving little archaeological trace. This sits a little uncomfortably with the Biblical text, but might serve as a last resort.

I will discuss the cultural links between the Torah and New Kingdom Egypt below when discussing the 19th dynasty date for the Exodus.

So the case for the 18th dynasty date for the exodus is relatively weak, at least from the Egyptian standpoint. There is evidence, but it is circumstantial. With regards to the list of evidence we might expect to see I presented above, I note that all of those items are there, but with nothing to definitively tie them to an Exodus event. There are other possible explanations. Those things which we would expect to be visible to archaeology, such as the palace at Avaris and the large Semitic slave population, are present. There also seems to be a partial abandonment of the city at this time. But all of this can be explained without recourse to an exodus. So there is some consistency, but not, perhaps, enough. This is not wholly surprising. Advocates for this date usually come from two angles: 1) taking the data of 1 Kings 6 literally; and 2) by relating the archaeology of Canaan to the account in the book of Joshua.

So we cannot prove the eighteenth dynasty exodus account. But that was not my question. My question was whether we can disprove it. And there various predictions made from a literal reading of the Biblical text which could have been disproved when the archaeological artefacts were uncovered, but generally speaking, the archaeology has been consistent with the predictions. There is nothing which disproves the text.

Were there Asiatic and Hebrew slaves in Egypt at the time of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II? Yes. Is there evidence that these slaves left Egypt during the reign of Amenhotep II? There seems to have been a partial, but not complete, abandonment of the Semitic city of Avaris, which all those who don't dismiss the Biblical text as a fable agree was the main Israelite settlement in Egypt. Was there a suitable palace for the Moses/Pharaoh confrontation to take place? Yes. Could Pharaoh's daughter have lived close to the Israelite settlement? Yes. Is the date consistent with the external testimony of the Israelites/Hebrews in Egypt, such as the Merneptah stele, the Berlin, and the Soleb inscription? Yes, although the reference to Amenhotep II capturing Hebrew slaves during his year 9 campaign into Canaan would have to refer either to some non-Israelite Hebrews in Canaan, or to some people who got separated from Moses in the wilderness; an encounter that is not mentioned in the Torah. Were Edom and Moab occupied at the start of the Late Bronze Age? It now looks likely, contrary to the earliest surveys. The 18th dynasty exodus can also explain various anomalies in Egyptian history, such as why the inscriptions of Hatesephut were disfigured, the change in foreign policy during the time of Amenhotep II and provide a motivation for his unusual year 9 campaign, and the rise of the Aten cult in Egypt.

The problem is a lot of this evidence is fairly indirect and circumstantial. You can explain various puzzles, but there are other possible explanations. Certain things match with the Exodus account, but not perfectly and not as well as the nineteenth dynasty date. The evidence discussed so far might allow for an 18th dynasty exodus, but it doesn't make a compelling case that it happened then and only could happen then. The arguments also rely on a few controversial texts (such as the Berlin pedestal) and controversial interpretations of texts.

There are two main arguments against the 18th dynasty exodus. The first is the geographical names. I have discussed Ramesses above; I will discuss others below. If Moses wrote the book of exodus at around 1400BC, then these are anachronisms a couple of centuries out of time. The advocate for the early date exodus has to suppose that a later scribe updated these names while copying the manuscript. This is possible, but still a weakness in the case for an exodus at this time.

The second problem is that of Pithom. The only real candidate for the site consistent with the early exodus date was a Hyksos citadel. This could be the Biblical Pithom, but we would have to trace the start of the Israelite oppression to the Hyksos period rather than the (perhaps more natural) rise of the eighteenth dynasty.

The third problem is that of Arad. The only resolution I can find is that the Arad encountered by Moses and Joshua was located at Tell Malhata. But this requires a significant redating of the Middle Bronze Age/Late Bronze Age transition, when Tell Malhata was abandoned, to the time of Joshua. The transition is traditionally dated to 1550BC, but the traditional arguments for this date are quite weak. There are no clear ties to Egyptian Pharaohs; it was merely assumed that the destruction layers found at this time were caused by an undocumented campaign by Ahmose I into Canaan. There are also numerous Hyksos scarabs in MBIII layers, suggesting that the last phase of the Middle Bronze Age overlapped with the Hyksos dynasty, or followed soon afterwards.

This date has been challenged by two sources: firstly radiocarbon dating, which would push it back a bit earlier (in the "wrong" direction), and secondly the archaeology at Tell el Daba, where Canaanite pottery is found in an Egyptian context, which implies a transition nearly 100 years later than the traditional date. Associating the end of the Middle Bronze Age with Joshua would require pushing the date of the transition a further half century beyond Bietak's already controversial dating, or suppose an overlap between the MBIII and LBI archaeological phases by a similar amount; or a re-examination and redating of the pottery at Tell Malhata to early LBI rather than late MBIII. Not completely impossible -- the differences between LBI and MBIII pottery are very subtle aside from the presence of imported Bi-chrome pottery in LBI (which might not reach the outlying desert fort of Tell Malhata). Not impossible, but the 18th dynasty Exodus people will have significant work to do to overturn the general scholarly consensus of the date of the transition or the archaeology of Tell Malhata.

So an 18th dynasty exodus can be reconciled with the evidence at a pinch. The situation, since the discoveries at Tell el-Daba and updated surveys of Trans-Jordan , is not as bad as it seemed in the 1950s-1980s, with the major problems highlighted then resolved. But there are clear tensions.

19th Dynasty Exodus

Still the most popular theory of the Exodus, among those scholars who take the account seriously, is that it took place during the reign of Ramesses II. This is constrained by the Merneptah stele, stating that the Israelites were established in Canaan during the time of Ramesses' successor, and the construction of the city of Pi-Ramesses, which began with Ramesses II's predecessor Seti I, although the city didn't come into prominence (and wasn't named) until the first few years of Ramesses II's reign. Ramesses II was militarily active for the first twenty or so years of his long 66 year reign, but after this was quieter, and he just spent the time building a vast number of monuments across Egypt proclaiming to everyone who read them how great he was. Thus the best window for the Exodus during his reign is from about his 20th to 30th year, roughly 1260-1250BC.

The story would be that the Israelites would still be based at Avaris. They would have settled during the Hyksos period, and enslaved by the 18th dynasty Pharaohs. Seti and Ramesses used their labour to build the new capital city. The Exodus would correspond to the final abandonment of Semitic Avaris (except for the harbour area) during the reign of Ramesses II.

Was there a large Semitic slave population in Egypt at the time? We have references to Asiatic and Hebrew slaves in Egypt during the 19th dynasty. For example, Leiden Papyrus 348, written during the time of Ramesses II, discusses grain distribution to Apiru or Hebrews involved in building work. While the Semitic population of Avaris was not as high as during the Hyksos period or even the 18th dynasty, there were still large numbers of Semites living there. As discussed above, Semitic Avaris seems to have been finally abandoned during the 19th dynasty.

There was also a royal palace near to the Semitic settlement: Ramesses II's main palace across the river at Qantir. Merneptah was not Ramesses II's oldest child. While there is little sign of an economic collapse during Ramesses' reign, he did reduce his military campaigns after his treaty with the Hittites dating to his twenty first year.

But the most important evidence to support a 19th dynasty exodus date is from the language and geography described in the Torah.

I'll start with the language. The Old Testament is primarily written in Hebrew, with a few passages in the final few books in Aramaic. However, it contains a number of loan words from other languages, most importantly Egyptian and the Mesopotamian and Persian tongues. This is not so surprising, since these were the two main powers in the ancient world. Egypt in particular dominated the Levant up until the twelfth century BC, and was still influential later, while the Mesopotamian Empires dominated the Levant in the first millennium BC until the Greek conquest under Alexander. On anyone's understanding of the text, these were the times when the Old Testament was written.

However, it is notable that the Egyptian loanwords appear only in the first six books of the Old Testament, while the influence from Mesopotamian vocabulary is only important in the later books of the Old Testament: the prophets, and books of Kings and Chronicles. To those who hold to the traditional Biblical authorship, this makes perfect sense. Genesis through to Joshua would have been written during the time of Egyptian domination; and in particular we would expect to see a clear Egyptian literary influence in the first five books, which would have been written by people whose families had recently been living in Egypt. Mesopotamian influence occurred from the time the Assyrians started to flex their muscles and dominate the Ancient Near East, which corresponds to the times of the prophets. However, if we were to propose a late composition of the Exodus story, as many contemporary scholars would propose (including those who support the documentary hypothesis), this makes less sense. The books with a distinctive Egyptian influence on their vocabulary would have been composed at about the same time as those with a Mesopotamian influence during the time of Mesopotamian dominance over the Levant. So you would naturally expect them to have a similar proportion of loan-words from each language.

Many of the names of the Exodus generation are unique to that period in Biblical history, and are similar to New Kingdom Egyptian names. Examples include Moses, Merari, Miriam, Phineas, Putiel, Assir, Ahira (which incorporates the name of Ra), while Hur, Hori and Harnepher contain the name of Horus. The design of the tabernacle and ark of the covenant mirror New Kingdom cultic objects and places. Many technical terms used to describe the construction of the tabernacle and its utensils are Egyptian rather than Semitic, or the usual Hebrew words used in later texts. These include words used for Acacia wood; the word used for overlaying with gold (another practice borrowed from Egypt); the word for the linen used in the tabernacle and priest's garments; the cups of the lamp are described by an Egyptian word and follow an Egyptian design; the firepans; the sash of the priest's uniform and turban; underwear; the priest's breastplate and the gems within it (in particular the word for turquoise is based on an Egyptian term which almost entirely fell out of use after the Sinai turquoise mines were closed during the twentieth dynasty); and many others. Exodus 2:3 alone contains six words borrowed from Egyptian.

This literary and cultural influence suggests that the Torah was written at the very latest at the end of the period of Egyptian domination of Canaan, the twelfth century or twentieth dynasty (or if it was compiled in its final form later, it was compiled from sources dating from the time of the New Kingdom by a light-touch editor).

Then we have the literary structure of the Torah. As Kenneth Kitchen has argued, the two covenants (Exodus through to Numbers, and then Deuteronomy) follow the established forms of Ancient Near Eastern treaties. In particular, the format of those treaties changed over the century. The closest parallels to the Biblical covenants are from the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom, the fifteenth through to thirteenth centuries. They bear little relation to the first millennium texts.

Next we have the places. I have already discussed the clear reference to the city of Ramesses, which was built in the nineteenth dynasty and abandoned in the twentieth, when the capital was moved to Tanis (or Hebrew Zoan). Pithom is a corruption of Per-Atum, or house of Atum. There are two places in the correct region of Egypt associated with a temple of Atum. Both sites are within the region of the Wadi Tumilat. The temple at Tell El Maskhut was active during the time of the Hyksos (and is one of two sites, alongside Avaris, which show a clear Hyksos occupation). The temple at Tell el-Retaba was established by Ramesses II (or possibly Seti I), and the city was at its peak during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, although it continued to be inhabited until the Persian period. The city of On (Heliopolis) was also associated with worship of Atum, but this was never called Per-Atum by the Egyptians.

After leaving Rameses, and before reaching the Yam Suph, the Israelites stopped at Sukkoth, Etham, and Pi Hahiroth, which is close to Migdol and opposite Baal Zephon. These places are known from Egyptian texts, and were an established route into and from Egypt, as recorded in New Kingdom Egyptian texts. Sukkoth is the equivalent to the Egyptian name for the Wadi Tumilat. Etham was a place heading into Sinai. At that point the Israelites turned North, towards the coastal road, and passing by the Ballah lakes. The Egyptian name for those lakes is equivalent to the Hebrew Yam Suph. Midgol was a name given to a number of border fortresses in the New Kingdom, but in particular there was a fortress called Migdol built by Seti I guarding the Northern road out of Egypt, which would have blocked any travel further North. Pi-Hahiroth is mentioned in Papyrus Anastasi III (as the Egyptian pr-hwt-hrt), and is described as being close to the Yam Suph and on a road to Pi-Ramesses. It is not known precisely where it was, but this mention makes it clear that it was a New Kingdom Egyptian village in the same region as implied by the Exodus itinerary. Baal-Zephon is a Semitic name. The Canaanite God Baal was associated (by the Hyksos in particular) with the Egyptian Seth, and there is a reference to Seth-Zephon in Papyrus Sallier IV in a context which seems to imply that it was a border outpost just inside the Sinai wilderness, although nothing further about its location can be deduced from the source.

All of these locations are attested to in Egyptian documents from the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties. Ramesses and Pithom were relatively large cities; the Yam Suph was a large marshy lake; the other sites were either small villages or forts. It seems that only Pithom (and the Yam Suph) continued in existence beyond the twentieth dynasty. Migdol and Rameses were certainly gone by 1100BC. Baal-Zephon and Pi-Hahiroth are less clear, since the sites haven't been identified excavated, but the only reference is from the New Kingdom, and, Baal-Zephon would have been abandoned with the other Sinai forts after the reign of Ramesses III. Sukkoth refers to a valley, but it is the name that valley was referred to in the New Kingdom. Ramesses was the capital city of Egypt and the most prosperous city in the region; perhaps it would have been remembered in later centuries (although Pharaoh's city is not named, though often alluded to, in the Old Testament after the book of Numbers, which perhaps suggests that the name wasn't widely discussed by the Hebrews after the twelfth century). But Midgol, Baal-Zephon and Pi-Hahiroth were at best small villages or fortresses. You would only know the names of them if you lived in that region or happened to pass through them. And you could only pass through them while the sites existed, which ended during the period of decline of the New Kingdom following the death of Ramesses III.

Fiction in the ancient world did not tend to be specific about geography. It might mention large cities or regions, but not in general the small villages and local landmarks. If a text does mention those, and describes them accurately, then that is an indication that it is either a historical source, or closely based on a historical source.

The Torah thus cannot have been written during the time of the Israelite monarchy, nor the century before it. The three clues of language, literary format, and geographical references strongly imply that its author was familiar with specifically New Kingdom Egypt. The strongest correlation is with the 19th or early 20th dynasties, and the internal evidence of the text implies that the books we have today were either written as an original work or as an update of an earlier source at this time. The Merneptah stele which states that the Israelites were in Canaan by the time of the late 19th dynasty decreases the feasibility of a 20th dynasty authorship: if the author was one of a group settled in Canaan, he wouldn't have known so much about Egypt.

What does this imply about the 18th dynasty exodus date? It clearly leaves it on shakier ground. The mentions of Pithom and Ramesses would have had to originally be references to the nearby Hyksos cities, and updated by an unknown scribe living during the judges period. Midgol was a generic name for fortress; perhaps it referred to a different site to the fortress built by Seti I. Maybe, despite the lack of attestation, the other villages also existed in the earlier part of the New-Kingdom. Perhaps the supposed later judges period scribe had a bigger hand in shaping the text than a biblical literalist would be comfortable accepting. We can't rule out the 18th dynasty exodus date without considering the totality of the evidence, including the evidence to support it. But this evidence by itself does strongly favour a 19th dynasty composition of the Torah and thus (by implication) a 19th dynasty exodus.

It is easy to explain the correspondences in the Torah with New Kingdom Egypt if the books were written by Israelite slaves escaping from Egypt, or their immediate descendants. It is much harder to explain if the books were written by Semites who had been living in Canaan for centuries, and had little contact with Egypt. This doesn't prove that the account is true. But it takes time for myths to develop and be accepted. That's why sceptics always so strongly defend ideas such as the documentary hypothesis which propose a very late composition of the texts. The Torah is clearly written as history. If the events it described never happened, it would be much harder to sell to people who would still have family memory of the time period in which it is set. Of course, we know that myths do develop, but they start from a small seed centuries after the event, and are gradually embellished over time. If the Torah was written only a century after the events it described, or less, then that does make it much harder to pass it off as a fable.

What is the evidence against a 19th dynasty Exodus (from Egypt and the Sinai; I will discuss the evidence from Canaan in the next post)? The Berlin Pedestal and Soleb inscription imply that the Israelites were already outside Egypt before the time of Ramesses II, although the reading of the Berlin Pedestal is disputed and the Soleb inscription might refer to some other group of Yahweh worshippers (perhaps Jethro's tribe). The mention of the tribe of Asher, located in the region assigned to that tribe by Joshua, in the campaign list of Seti I also suggests that at least one of the tribes was already in Canaan by the time that the supposed nineteenth dynasty Moses led them out of Egypt.

Pharaoh's daughter presents another problem. If there is a 1250BC exodus, and we accept the Biblical statement of Moses age, then Moses would have been born during the last years of the Amarna Pharaohs. Pharaoh's daughter would have been a member of Akhenaten's family; possibly the daughter of Smenkhkare since Tutenkhamen was too young when he came to the throne to have a daughter of the age implied by the Biblical text. There was no royal palace close to the Israelite settlement in Avaris at this time. Equally, if Moses was associated with the hated Amarna Pharaoh's, he would not have been raised in the royal palace as that family fell out of favour.

The conflict with Arad recorded in the book of numbers also poses a problem for the 19th dynasty Exodus. The city at Tell Arad was called Arad in the eighth century BC, and was not occupied in the Late Bronze Age (unless the evidence was completely removed from the site by later builders). The way around this for those who accept the Biblical account is to suppose that Moses encountered a city at a nearby Tell, and that the name Arad jumped from one site to another in the intervening centuries. But a transferal of a site name requires a break in occupation. The city encountered by Moses (and Joshua) would have to be abandoned. When the later Iron Age Israelites decided to build a city at Tell Arad, they knew that the old city of Arad was in that general region, and when they found the Early Bronze Age ruins at Tell Arad, they came to the wrong conclusion when naming their new town. But such a mistake is only possible if the actual city of Arad no longer existed. If there is a nearby village with that name, you would know that your new city wasn't on the site of ancient Arad. The only possible Late Bronze II candidate for the Arad encountered by Moses and Joshua is at Tell Masos. This isn't a great match; the earliest evidence we have for the settlement is at the start of Iron I which is a little bit too late for a Moses who was contemporary with Ramesses II. You could possibly stretch this back into the very end of the Late Bronze Age, but if so it would have been a very new city when Moses encountered it. This doesn't sit well with the mention that Moses devoted the city to destruction, implying that Moses's encounter with the city should have been at the end of its life rather than the beginning. The settlement at Tell Masos continued uninterrupted into the Iron Age. It still existed (albeit this was only just before it was abandoned) when the Israelites built the Arad at Tell Arad. In response to this, one could refer to the campaign list of Pharoah Shoshenq I, who listed Arad the Great and next to it Arad of the House of Yrhm. Perhaps Arad the Great was Tell Masos and Shoshenq's campaign inspired the abandonment of the site; the lesser Arad was at Tell Arad, and although the city was also destroyed by Shoshenq (as attested in a fire layer), it was this site that was rebuilt and later (when its larger sister was forgotten) referred to simply as Arad.


There is no direct evidence for the Exodus in Egyptian inscriptions. But, given the nature of the surviving inscriptions, it would be surprising if there was one. The only direct evidence we have is in the Hebrew scriptures. Many scholars dismiss that evidence, saying that the books are just myths written down centuries after the events they are purported to describe. But little details in language, structure, geography, culture and personal names provide correlations showing that the author of those writings was familiar with New Kingdom Egypt. The background situation in Egypt also matches well that of the Exodus account. There was a large population of Semitic, including Hebrew, slaves in Egypt during the New Kingdom, and there is evidence that the cities where those slaves lived were either partially or fully abandoned at the two most popular dates for the Exodus. The minor details concerning the Egyptian royal court also fit those two times, but not other periods in the New Kingdom.

Both the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasty dates for the exodus are feasible, although the Egyptian evidence is usually considered to favour the nineteenth dynasty date. As with the accounts of Abraham and Joseph, I would not claim that there are no outstanding questions. The question of whether the King of Arad had a city to rule during the Late Bronze Age is probably the hardest of those issues, with the proposed site of Arad for the nineteenth dynasty Exodus possibly settled a little too late, and the proposed site for the eighteenth dynasty Exodus abandoned a little too early (or requiring a rather radical redating of the Middle Bronze Age-Late Bronze Age transition in Canaan). But the question is whether there are any clear contradictions between the Biblical account and the archaeological evidence. There could have been -- there are places where we can test the Biblical account -- but it passes those tests. There are a few tensions, and the argument from silence so beloved of the sceptics is a concern. But the argument is not as strong as those sceptics like to claim, and there is evidence for the authenticity and early date of either the Old Testament text or its main source.

So next time, I will address the part of Biblical history which is traditionally seen as the central pillar of the sceptical argument. The conquest of Canaan.

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 15: The Conquest of Canaan

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