Posts Tagged ‘Exodus’

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The Date of the Exodus (2/2)

February 19, 2015

This article is the second of two in a consideration of the date of the Exodus. Typically, only two dates are considered viable; c.1440 BCE (the ‘early date’), and c.1280 BCE (the ‘late date’). Arguments for these dates are reviewed and compared here.

Summary of Key Arguments

Here are the key arguments for the early date (c. 1440 BCE), together with criticisms.

Argument: The 480 years of 1 Kings 1:6 indicates an early date

  • This is only a relative chronology, and the number does not agree with the years recorded in the Judges[1] [2]
  • The number may be symbolic for 12 generations[3]
  • This disagrees with the date for Abraham[4]

Argument: Some destruction layers in Canaan support an early date[5]

  • Destruction and occupation layers provide more support for a late date[6]
  • No evidence for Edom and Moab existing at an early date[7]

Argument: Reference to the Habiru in the 14th century Armana letters[8]

  • Extensive study has revealed no direct correspondence between the Habiru and the Hebrews, thus the Armana letters do not support the early date[9] [10]
  • Armarna correspondence contradicts early date destruction of Hazor[11]

Argument: No evidence for 13th century occupation or destruction of Jericho, Ai, or Hazor[12]

  • Hazor was occupied and destroyed in the 13th century,[13] reliable excavation of 13th century Jericho is challenged by extensive erosion,[14] and the archaeological data for Ai is difficult to reconcile with both early and late dates;[15] these are insignificant archaeological challenges for the late date

Here are the key arguments for the late date (c. 1280 BCE), together with criticisms.

Argument: Destruction of Hazor in 13th century[16]

  • The archaeological evidence may indicate the destruction in Judges 4:24[17]

Argument: Pithom and Rameses in Exodus 1:11 are evidence for events under Pharaoh Rameses II (1279-1213 BCE)[18] [19]

  • This requires Rameses to be built before Rameses II even began to rule[20]
  • Unlike the pharaoh of the Exodus, Rameses II did not die in the Red Sea[21]
  • The sites were built earlier; one was later renamed ‘Rameses’, and an editor of the book of Exodus updated the text with this name[22]

Argument: Covenant formulas in the Law of Moses closely match those from 1400-1200 BCE[23]

  • There is an insufficient match to date the Biblical covenants precisely[24]

Argument: The Merneptah Stele (13th century), is the earliest reference to Israel in Canaan[25]

  • Egyptologist Manfred Görg has suggested an Egyptian inscription he dates to the 13th century, contains a reference to Israel which may have been copied from an 18th Dynasty record (16th-13th centuries BCE), implying Israel was in Canaan before the 13th century[26]

Argument: Egypt occupied Canaan until the 12th century[27]

  • This remains unaddressed by key proponents of the early date;[28] this contradicts completely a late date for the Exodus

Argument: A very large population entered Canaan in the late 13th century[29]

  • This remains unaddressed by key proponents of the early date; [30] there is no evidence for such a population entering Canaan in the 15th century

Review of Arguments

The early date is highly vulnerable to a range of criticisms, and has the least archaeological support. In particular, the occupation and control of Canaan by Egypt until the end of the 13th century, the lack of any evidence for a new population entering Canaan in the 15th century, the Armana correspondence, the non-existence of Edom and Moab in the 15th century, and the evidence for destruction of Canaanite sites matching a 13th century conquest rather than a 15th century conquest, are  formidable challenges to the traditional late date.

Objects to the late date are less substantial. There is no evidence that Rameses as a place name in Exodus 1 is a later editorial gloss.[31] Görg’s suggestion of an Egyptian reference to Israel earlier than the Merneptah Stele is problematic. [32] [33] Wood’s attribution of the 13th century Hazor destruction level to Deborah and Barak fails to provide evidence.[34] [35] His dating of Pithom and Rameses on the basis of the birth of Moses being described later in Exodus 1, assumes an unnecessarily strict chronological sequence for the narrative.

The pharaoh under whom Pithom and Rameses were built died while Moses was in the wilderness before the Exodus[36] (matching Rameses II and a late date Exodus). Additionally, Hoffmeier argues Exodus does not represent the pharaoh of the Exodus as dying in the Red Sea,[37] whereas an early date pharaoh would have to be Thutmose III or Amenhotep II, neither of whom died by drowning.[38]

Conclusion

Although vigorous debate over date of the Exodus is ongoing, the 13th century date continues to be held widely among those scholars who accept the historicity of the Exodus.[39] As early as 1999 Hoffmeier observed ‘Dating the period of the oppression and exodus to the fifteenth century B.C. has largely been replaced in favor of a thirteenth-century date’.[40]


[1] The years of the judges, if added sequentially, result in 633-650 years between the exodus and the reign of Solomon, compelling supporters of the early date to read the years in Judges less literally, in order to read the years in 1 Kings 6:1 more literally; ‘To get around the dilemma caused by the difference between 480 and 633-650 years, advocates of the 15th-century (and the later date) exodus date are forced to harmonize the conflicting data by proposing some overlap between judgeships to bring the 480-year figure into alignment with the 633–650 year total.12  By doing this, one abandons a straightforward, literal reading of the Judges through Exodus narratives.’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 228.

[2] ‘When one seeks to reconstruct the numbers given in the biblical accounts, consistently and literally, they do not add up to the number 480 given in 1 Kgs 6:1.’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 35.

[3] ‘It has long been thought that the 480-year figure of 1 Kgs 6:1 might be a symbolic figure that derives from 12 times 40-40 years being a symbolic number for a generation—thus signifying that 12 generations had elapsed between the exodus and Solomon’s 4th year. Since men were usually married and had children by age 20–25, 60  a period closer to 300 years would be more accurate. When one adds 300 to 967 BC, an Exodus date around 1267 BC (20 years into the reign of Ramesses II) results.’, ibid., p. 236.

[4] ‘A 15th-century B.C. date presents problems for the chronology of Abram. Archaeological evidence relating to the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to date Abram’s arrival in Canaan around 1900 B.C. The Genesis narratives place Jacob’s migration to Egypt about 215 years later. On the basis of the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 it would seem that Abram came to Canaan about 2086 B.C., some 645 years before the exodus. That would date his birth (cf. 12:4) about 2161 B.C. If the Sodom and Gomorrah evidence is correct, Abram’s arrival in Canaan would harmonize with a 13th-century B.C. date.’, Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 743-744.

[5]According to Wood, some archaeological findings—such as destruction layers from Jericho, Ai and Hazor—support a 15th-century exodus (Wood, “The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory,” 488–89; Wood, “From Ramesses to Shiloh,” 256–82).’, Thornhill, ‘Exodus’, in Barry & Wentz (eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (2012).

[6] ‘The destruction and occupation layers of many conquest cities (e.g., Lachish, Debir, Hazor, Bethel, etc.) favor the 13th-century dating.’, ibid.

[7] ‘Excavation findings seem to indicate that Edom and Moab (compare Exod 13:15; Num 20:14–21) were not yet established peoples during the mid-14th century.’, ibid.

[8] ‘Wood also cites the mention of the ‘ (‘)apiru in the Canaanite Amarna letters of the mid-14th century, as well as an inscription dating to the 18th Dynasty. This inscription appears to mention Ashkelon, Canaan, and Israel (Wood, “The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory,” 489).’, Thornhill, ‘Exodus’, in Barry & Wentz (eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (2012).

[9] ‘The relationship between the “Habiru” of the Amarna letters, the “Apiru” in 13th-century B.C. Egypt, and the biblical Hebrews has been examined minutely by scholars. Widely differing opinions have been offered. Some believe that the three are variations of the name of one people. To others, however, it seems far from clear that there was any significant relationship between the names. Such disagreement also tends to intensify the problem.’, Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 744.

[10] ‘The ʿapiru (sometimes ḫapiru or ḫabiru) are considered to be warlords, brigands and disenfranchised peoples on the outskirts of society. Rainey has demonstrated that the term cannot be etymologically related to “Hebrew,” and the range of use of the term makes it clear that the ʿapiru cannot be equated with Israelites. Nevertheless, some would contend that it does not entirely rule out the possibility that Israelites, along with other peoples, could have been designated by the term.’, Walton, ‘Exodus, Date of’, in Alexander & Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (2003), 263.

[11]According to the Wood, the marauding Habiru of the Amarna Letters could be the Hebrews.113  Abi-Milku, however, makes clear that Hazor was an ally of the Habiru rather than being the destroyers of Hazor. This information from the Amarna correspondences demonstrates that Hazor during the LB IIA was a major player in the region and does not sound like a city that had just been demolished and burnt by Joshua and his forces.’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 245.

[12] ‘Only three cities are recorded as having been destroyed by fire by the Israelites: Jericho (Josh 6:24); Ai (Josh 8:28); and Hazor (Josh 11:11).14  All three pose problems for a late 13th-century conquest. At Jericho and Ai, no evidence has been found for occupation in the late 13th century, let alone for a destruction at that time.’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 477.

[13] ‘In Canaan, the drastic destruction of Hazor (level 13) in the later 13th century B.C. (despite misconceptions to the contrary) may well reflect Joshua’s exploit.’,  Kitchen, ‘Exodus, The,’, in Freedman (ed.), Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1992), 702.

[14] ‘at Jericho, nearly half a millennium of erosion has long since removed virtually all pertinent evidence.’, ibid., p. 702.

[15] ‘Ai remains an enigma on any view;’, ibid., p. 702.

[16] ‘In Canaan, the drastic destruction of Hazor (level 13) in the later 13th century B.C. (despite misconceptions to the contrary) may well reflect Joshua’s exploit.’,  Kitchen, ‘Exodus, The,’, in Freedman (ed.), Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (1992), 702.

[17]Following the 1230 bc destruction, there was no urban center there until the time of Solomon in the 10th century bc (1 Kgs 9:15).16  The defeat of Jabin, king of Hazor, by a coalition of Hebrew tribes under the leadership of Deborah and Barak is recorded in Judges 4–5. Judges 4:24 indicates that the Israelites destroyed Hazor at this time: “And the hand of the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin, the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him.”17  If Joshua destroyed Hazor in 1230 bc, then there would be no city for the Jabin of Judges 4 to rule.’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 477.

[18] ‘Egyptologists have long understood the reference to Rameses to refer to Pi-Ramesses, the delta metropolis built by Ramesses II, the 19th Dynasty monarch who reigned from 1279–1213 BC.’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 231.

[19] ‘The archaeological data is now unequivocal: Pi-Ramesses is located at modern-day Qantir, near Faqus, and was built by Ramesses II beginning around 1270 BC;’, ibid., pp. 232-233.

[20] ‘Since Moses was 80 years of age at the time of the exodus (Exod 7:7), the building of Rameses would have taken place well before Moses’ birth in 1340 bc (according to the 13th-century theory), long before Rameses came to the throne.’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 478.

[21] ‘Obviously, Rameses II did not drown in the yam sup, [commonly translated ‘Red Sea’] as he died of natural causes some 47 years after the presumed exodus date of 1260 bc.’, ibid., p. 478.

[22] ‘It is clear, then, that the name Rameses used in Exod 1:11 is an editorial updating of an earlier name that went out of use.’, ibid., p. 478.

[23] ‘Scholars have understood for some time, since the work of Mendenhall, Kline, and Kitchen, that the book of Deuteronomy has the literary and legal form that characterized late second millennium BC Hittite international treaties.’,  Niehaus, ‘Covenant and Narrative, God and Time’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53/3 (2010), 550.

[24] ‘The format of the biblical material is varied and complex and cannot be dated to a particular time period based on ANE treaty documents’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 480-481.

[25] ‘The Merneptah stela is also cited as evidence for this date, since Israel is referenced as a people group rather than a nation.’, Thornhill, ‘Exodus’, in Barry & Wentz (eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (2012).

[26] ‘Due to the similarity of these names to the names on the Merenptah stela, Gorg suggests the name list may derive from the time of Rameses II, but adopting an older name sequence from the 18th Dynasty. This evidence, if it holds up to further scrutiny, would also support a 15th-century bc exodus-conquest rather than a 13th-century bc timeframe.’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 489.

[27] ‘In trying to work out an evangelical understanding of the emergence of Israel, Mark Chavalas and Murray Adamthwaite have recently noted that certain conditions in the archaeology of Palestine appear to mitigate against the traditional early date positioning of the Exodus/Conquest.12  They note that, at a series of sites all over Palestine, “the clear picture is that Egyptian occupation continued until the end of the Late Bronze Age (1200 BC).”’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 34.

[28] For example, it is never mentioned by Bryant Wood (foremost proponent of the early date), in his key articles ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 475-489, and ‘The Biblical Date For The Exodus Is 1446 BC:  A Response To James Hoffmeier’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2005), 249-258.

[29] ‘The implication seemed clear that a new population group had arrived in the Central Hill-Country during the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age I.’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 34.

[30] ‘While this material has seemed to point toward a late date for Israel’s emergence in Canaan,9  it has largely gone unnoticed by evangelical scholars writing histories of Israel10  or commentaries on Joshua.’, ibid., p. 34.

[31] ‘The toponym Rameses (רַעַמְס) occurs five times in the OT, in Gen 47:11; 53  Exod 1:11; 12:37; and Num 33:3, 5. In none of these cases is the formula “old name +הוא+ new name” used, nor does a longer explanatory gloss with the word לָרִאשֹׁנה—“at the first” occur with any of the five citations. In other words, there is no evidence within these five passages to suspect that “Rameses” is an editorial gloss.’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 234.

[32] ‘Görg’s reading of this name as “Israel” is plagued by serious linguistic and orthographic problems that preclude it from being Israel.’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 241.

[33] ‘Especially given the absence of Israel from the Armana evidence, this seems intrinsically unlikely, given the early date and lacking a full reading.’, Fleming, The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Tradition (2012), 241.

[34] ‘A close reading of the text indicates that God gave Israel victory over her oppressors in a major battle 25 miles away from Hazor, but the text is absolutely silent regarding any military action against Hazor itself. Furthermore, the terminology used in 4:23–24 is not found in Joshua or Judges to indicate attacks on cities. Consequently, there is no basis to believe that the destruction of the final LB IIB (late 13th century) city was caused by Deborah and Barak’s triumph over Jabin and Sisera’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 244.

[35] ‘From the Amarna letters, written to the pharaohs Amernhotep III and Akhenaten between 1390–1340 BC, we learn that Hazor was thriving during this period.’, ibid., p. 245.

[36] Exodus 2:23 During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of their slave labor. They cried out, and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God.

[37] ‘Psalm 136:15 may be the closest to suggest that pharaoh drowned in the seas, but that may be due to misleading English translations, e.g. JB: “Drowned Pharaoh and his army”; NIV: “swept pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea”; KJV and NAS: “He overthrew Pharaoh. .. into the Red Sea.” The key word here is נאר, which is the word used in Exod 14:27. נאר, means to “shake off” (Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [Leiden: Brill, 2001] 707). Nothing in this term suggests that pharaoh drowned in the sea. In fact, there is nothing to suggest in the various texts, especially in Exodus, that pharaoh led the chariot corps in pursuit of the escaping Hebrews. Perhaps people have been influenced by Cecil B. DeMille’s portrait of angry Ramesses (Yul Brynner) leading the attack at the sea. But even in The Ten Commandments, Ramesses does not follow the Israelites into the sea!’, Hoffmeier, ‘What is the Biblical Date For the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/2 (2007), 239.

[38] ‘The second problem for Wood’s exodus pharaoh drowning in the sea is that the mummy of Thutmose III was found in the Deir el-Bahri cache, while Amenhotep IIs was actually discovered in his tomb, one of only a few royal mummies discovered intact.81  In fact, all the mummies of the 15th century are accounted for.82  According to the X-rays and investigations of these mummies, none indicate a death by drowning.’, ibid., p. 240.

[39] ‘The need for discussing the latter premise is that many biblical scholars who affirm the historicity of the exodus now date it to the thirteenth century B.C., questioning concrete numbers in the Bible that taken literally would place the exodus in the fifteenth century B.C.’, Petrovich, ‘Amenhotep II And The Historicity Of The Exodus-Pharaoh’, The Master’s Seminary Journal, 17/1 (2006), 83.

[40] ‘Dating the period of the oppression and exodus to the fifteenth century B.C. has largely been replaced in favor of a thirteenth-century date, although a few adherents to the earlier date have followed Jack’s thesis.’, Hoffmeier, Israel In Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (1999), 125.

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The Date of the Exodus (1/2)

February 19, 2015

Despite over a century of detailed investigation, the date of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt remains a topic of extensive debate within scholarship.[1] Scholarly discussion focuses on exegetical concerns such as the interpretation of chronological data in the Old Testament, the correct identification of toponyms (place names), and the relationship between textual and archaeological data. This initial article summarizes the emergence of the two most commonly proposed dates.

History of Interpretation

Throughout the 19th century, Rameses II was considered the pharaoh under whom the Hebrews were enslaved, and his son Merneptah the pharaoh of the exodus.[2]  However, discovery of the Merneptah Stele, referring to Israel as a recognized people settled in Canaan by the 14th century, invalidated this view.

‘This new data appeared to require that Israel had already been settled there by the end of the 13th century BC. Placing Israel in Canaan this early in the reign of Merneptah raised obstacles for his having been the pharaoh of the Exodus. Israel obviously could not have left Egypt in the first year of Merneptah’s reign, wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and then appeared in Canaan as a settled ethnic group in his fifth year.’[3]

A revised interpretation identified Ramases II as the pharaoh of the exodus, a view which remained dominant throughout the rest of the 19th century, up to the 1920s.[4] [5] In 1925 a 15th century date was proposed.

‘This approach seems to have been pioneered initially by James Jack, who challenged the 13th-century BC date in his 1925 book, The Date of the Exodus in the Light of External Evidence. Jack argued that both biblical and extrabiblical evidence pointed to a mid-15th century BC date.’[6]

Textual Evidence

The early date rests principally on an application of the chronology given in 1 Kings 6:1, which appears to date the exodus 480 years before the reign of Solomon.[7] Since there is considerable agreement that Solomon’s reign started at around 960-960 BCE, counting 480 years back from this date places the exodus at c.1440 BCE. A second text seen as corroborating the early date is Judges 11:26, in which Jephthah’s claim that Israel had already been in Canaan for at least three hundred years[8] would appear to suggest an early date for the exodus.[9]

The late date receives textual support from Exodus 1:11, which refers specifically to the Hebrews building Pithom and Rameses for the Pharaoh.[10] Unlike 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26, this text rests on an absolute rather than a relative date; the construction of buildings at Pithom and Rameses.

‘Late-date theorists argue that, since the Exodus account used the name by which the city was known for about two centuries only (c. 1300–1100 B.C.), the Hebrew tradition of the exodus must also date from that period. In such an event Rameses II would have been the pharaoh of the oppression, and his son Merneptah (1224?–1214 B.C.) the pharaoh of the exodus.’[11]

Archaeological Evidence for the Conquest

In the absence of direct archaeological evidence for the Hebrew settlement in Goshen, and the lack of Egyptian records describing the Hebrews as an enslaved ethnic group, or the plagues, or subsequent exodus, attempts to date the exodus using archaeological evidence focused on dating the Hebrew entry into Canaan, searching for evidence of conquest.

Attempts have been made by proponents for both dates, and interpretation of the archaeological record has been much contested. In the 1930s, archaeologist John Garstang’s excavations of Tell es-Sultan led him to conclude there was strong evidence for a Hebrew destruction of Jericho before 1400 BCE, lending weight to an early date exodus.[12]

However, Kathleen Kenyon’s subsequent investigation of the site re-dated the destruction to around 1500 BCE, too early for the Hebrews.[13] Efforts by Bryant Wood to defend Garstang’s dating and attribute the destruction of Jericho to an early date Hebrew conquest,[14] [15] have not gained any significant scholarly acceptance outside evangelical circles. Contemporary with Garstang, archaeologist Wiliam Albright arrived at a late date for the exodus, on the basis of his investigations of Canaanite archaeological sites.[16]

In response to acknowledged difficulties harmonizing an early date with the archaeological record, in the 1970s John Bimson proposed a Hebrew conquest during the end of the Middle Bronze Age, which seemed to fit the Biblical record more closely.[17] However, Bimson’s interpretation was critiqued strongly by many scholars.

‘The critique of Bimson’s proposal came from numerous quarters. Bietak objected that his suggested alteration was only fifty years, therefore still in the sixteenth century, and could not be stretched as far as Bimson needed it to be. B. Halpern objected that the changes suggested by Bimson would leave a reduced time span for LB I that could not possibly accommodate the archaeological data.’ [18]

Archaeological evidence for destruction and occupation layers supporting a late date exodus, was considered more abundant.

‘Archaeological evidence from Canaanite sites such as Bethel, Debir, Lachish, and Hazor indicates destruction at 13th-century B.C. levels, a fact generally regarded as relating to the Hebrew occupation under Joshua.’[19]

Evidence from Philistine sites tends to favor a late rather than an early date for the exodus. Against that, however, must be set the fact that the major Philistine occupation of the southern Palestinian coastlands only occurred around 1175 B.C., in the time of Rameses III.’[20]

The Ongoing Dispute

By the 1970s the date of the exodus had ceased to become a significant concern within critical scholarship, as many commentators no longer believed in the essential historicity of the event. However, the issue continued to be debated hotly among evangelical and other faith professing scholars, as well as among a minority report of critical scholars and those professional archaeologists who considered the Biblical exodus account to preserve an essentially accurate historical core.

The second article in this series will compare and contrast the evidence and arguments advanced for each date, together with their respective counter-arguments.


[1]The date of the Exodus is one of the most debated topics in OT studies because of the ambiguous nature of the evidence.’, Shea, ‘Exodus, Date of the’, in Bromiley et al. (eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, volume 2 (1979–1988), 230.

[2] ‘With the identification of Ramesses II as the pharaoh of the oppression, his son Merneptah, who succeeded him on the throne, naturally became the pharaoh of the Exodus. Based on this reasoning, the biblical Exodus was securely located by scholars within the 19th Dynasty of Egypt (1293–1185 BC) throughout the nineteenth century.’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 31-32.

[3] Ibid., p. 32.

[4] ‘Up until about 1925, this position was widely held by scholars, both evangelical and otherwise.’, ibid., p. 32.

[5]At the beginning of the 20th century many scholars, both liberal and conservative, placed the date toward the end of the 13th century B.C.’, Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 742.

[6] Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 33.

[7] 1 Kings 6:1 In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, during the month Ziv (the second month), he began building the LORD’s temple.

[8] Judges 11:26 Israel has been living in Heshbon and its nearby towns, in Aroer and its nearby towns, and in all the cities along the Arnon for three hundred years! Why did you not reclaim them during that time?

[9] ‘If 1100 BC is taken as an approximate date for Jephthah’s activities, this would place the taking of the Transjordan under Moses (Numbers 21) around 1400 BC, about 40 years after the departure from Egypt.’, Hawkins, ‘Propositions For Evangelical Acceptance Of A Late-Date Exodus-Conquest:  Biblical Data And The Royal Scarabs From Mt. Ebal’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 50/1 (2007), 33.

[10] Exodus 1:11 So they put foremen over the Israelites to oppress them with hard labor. As a result they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.

[11] Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 743.

[12] ‘Garstang identified several levels of debris there, indicating that the city had been rebuilt a number of times. He concluded that the one built about 1500 B.C. was the Jericho overthrown by Joshua’s forces (Jos 6). Garstang’s statement that Jericho had fallen before 1400 appeared to support the time frame of 1 Kings 6:1, and was received enthusiastically by supporters of the 15th-century B.C. date.’, ibid., p. 743.

[13] ‘Garstang’s discoveries at Jericho have been modified seriously by the subsequent work of another archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon. She found no trace of Late Bronze Age walls, which indicates that the city Garstang thought to have been conquered by Joshua was considerably earlier than his time. Unfortunately, the mound has been so ravaged by erosion and human pillaging that it reveals almost nothing about the Jericho of Joshua’s day, and thus does not help to simplify matters.’, ibid., p. 744.

[14] Wood, ‘Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence’, Biblical Archaeology Review, 16/2 (March/April 1990), 44-58.

[15] Wood, ‘The Walls of Jericho’, Bible and Spade 12/2 (1999).

[16] ‘The 13th-century exodus-conquest theory was formulated by William F. Albright in the 1930s, based largely on Palestinian archaeological evidence, and promoted by him throughout his career.’, Wood, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48/3 (2005), 473.

[17] ‘The Late Bronze Age (LB) was characterized by a problematic lack of fortified cities. The MB in Canaan, in sharp contrast, featured the massive and numerous walled cities that the books of Numbers and Joshua seem to suggest, and many of them were destroyed at the end of the period.’, Walton, ‘Exodus, Date of’, in Alexander & Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (2003), 259.

[18] Ibid., p. 259.

[19] Harrison, ‘Exodus, The’, in Elwell & Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (1988), 744.

[20] Ibid., p. 744.

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The Merneptah Stele: Earliest evidence for Israel in Canaan?

April 21, 2011

Israel In Canaan

The Merneptah Stele is a pillar erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, recording his conquests in 13th century BCE Canaan.[1]  Among them, Merneptah records the Israelites, proving they were established in Canaan by then.[2]

Challenges

A minority of Biblical scholars have challenged the reading of the Merneptah Stele,[3] suggesting that it does not refer to the Israelites; representatives of this view include Gösta Werner Ahlström and Diana Edelman, [4] Thomas Thompson, [5] and Niels Peter Lemche.[6]

Scholarly Consensus

Rainey[7] has dismissed Ahlstrom and Edelman’s re-interpretation, and objected that they do not have the relevant training to read the inscription reliably.[8] Dever insists that the Stele ‘proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that there was a distinct ethnic group in Palestine before 1200, one that not only called itself “Israelite” but was known to the Egyptians as “Israelite.”’[9]

Whitelam acknowledges ‘It is well known that the Merneptah stela represents the earliest reference to Israel outside of the biblical texts’.[10] Oblath notes the stele ‘provides direct archaeological support for the early presence of Israelites in Canaan’.[11] Miller (II), states ‘The Israelite community may have been in Palestine before 1200 – the Merneptah Stele is evidence that it clearly was’.[12] [13]

Gottwald views the Merneptah Stele as part of the archaeological evidence demonstrating the authenticity of the Biblical description of the early Israelite population.[14] Long says ‘The text of the Merneptah stele portrays Israel as strong and associated with other powers and with major city-states of Canaan’. [15]

Miller and Hayes say the inscription ‘testifies to the existence of a population group, bearing the name “Israel”’. [16] Finkelstein and Silberman understand the Merneptah Stele as indicating ‘indicate that some group known as Israel was already in Canaan by that time’.[17]

Schley says ‘the Merneptah stele definitely identifies a non-settled group in Palestine as ‘Israel’ during the last decades of the thirteenth century’.[18] Long cites Edelman’s reference to acceptance of the Merneptah Stele as a reference to ‘some entity called Israel somewhere in Palestine in the late 13th century’, as part of a growing consensus on early Israelite history.[19]


[1] ‘The Merneptah Stele, also known as the Israel Stele, bears the oldest known written reference to Israel. Engraved with its current text in 1207 B.C.E., the 7.5-foot-high, black granite monolith was discovered in the ruins of Merneptah’s funerary temple in western Thebes in 1896. Most of its hieroglyphic text celebrates Merneptah’s defeat of the Libyans and their Sea Peoples allies in his fifth regnal year. The text’s last three lines, however, briefly mention a campaign into Canaan against the background of a pacified eastern Mediterranean political situation: “The rulers lie prostrate saying ‘Peace’; none raises his head among the Nine Bows [Egypt’s traditional enemies, by now a literary convention]. Plundering is for Tehenu [Libya]. Hatti is at peace. Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe. Ashkelon has been overcome. Gezer has been captured. Yano’am was made non-existent. Israel is laid waste, (and) his seed is not. Hurru [Canaan] is become a widow for Egypt. All lands are united in peace.” The mention of Israel appears slightly to the left of center in the second line from the bottom. The glyphs include determinatives—signs indicating a word’s category—that classify Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano’am as city-states; but the determinative attached to Israel identifies it as a people, apparently not yet possessing a distinct city.’, Shanks, ‘Questions & Comments’, Biblical Archaeology Review (17.06), November/December 1991.

[2]Merneptah stele (ca 1225 B.C.) obviously establishes the people of Israel in Palestine and shows that they were known by that name in the 13th century. (Though some see here instead a reference to Jezreel, rather than Israel, the reading ya-si-r-˒i-ra seems clearly to indicate Israel; see W. F. Albright, Vocalization of the Egyptian Syllabic Orthography [1934], p. 34.)’, Lee,

Israel’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised’, pp. 907-908 (1992).

[3] ‘Revisionist scholars who do not accept the traditional reconstruction of the early history of Israel attempt to dismiss the reference to Israel in this text.’, Mazar, ‘The Israelite Settlement’, in Schmidt (ed.), ‘The Quest for the Historical Israel’, p. 93 (2007).

[4] ‘Sadly, one must make passing mention here of an attempt by G. W. Ahlstrom and Diana Edelman† to interpret “Israel” on the Merneptah Stele as a geographical entity (namely the central hill country of Canaan), despite the hieroglyphic determinative indicating that it denotes a people or tribe, an ethnic entity. In addition, Ahlstrom wants to abandon the correct reading, “Israel is desolated, his seed is not” for his own concoction: “Israel is laid waste, his grain is destroyed.”’, Rainey, ‘Scholars Disagree: Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (17.06), November/December 1991.

[5] ‘ Hjelm and Thompson stress the poetic nature of the inscription, and suggest alternative identifications for ‘Israel’.’, Satterthwaite, P., & McConville, G. (2007). Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 2: The Histories (188–196).

[6] ‘He contends that Merneptah’s Israel may be simply a geographical designation or a political designation of an ethnic designation.’, Shanks, ‘Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: from Solomon to the golden Dome’, p. 154 (2007).

[7] Professor Emeritus of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and expert in Semitic.

[8]The phrase concerning the destruction of seed is a well-known Egyptian idiom in which “seed” means progeny, just as in the various Biblical passages about the “seed” of Abraham. Sometimes the determinative in Egyptian hieroglyphics for “seed” is the male genitals. Even though that determinative is missing from “seed” in the Merneptah Stele, the idiom always refers to progeny. Ahlstrom and Edelman have simply demonstrated that Biblical scholars untrained in Egyptian epigraphy should not make amateurish attempts at interpretation. A final qualification: By this demonstration, I do not mean to say that the “Israel” of the Merneptah Stele necessarily includes or is the equivalent of the 12-tribe nation depicted in the Bible. Some of the later tribes arrived in Canaan from different directions and perhaps at different times. However, the Merneptah Stele leaves no doubt that an ethnic group called “Israel” did exist in 1207 B.C.E.’, Rainey, ‘Scholars Disagree: Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (17.06), November/December 1991.

[9] ‘First of all, we have not only the biblical tradition that calls them Israelites, but we also have the Merneptah Stele that proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that there was a distinct ethnic group in Palestine before 1200, one that not only called itself “Israelite” but was known to the Egyptians as “Israelite.” That need not be the same as later biblical Israel; but the label “Israelite,” which I want to apply to these early Iron I sites, is not one that I invented. It’s attested in the literary tradition, both biblical and non-biblical.’, Dever, ‘How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite’, in Shanks (ed.), ‘The Rise of Ancient Israel’, p. 54 (1992).

[10]Whitelam, ‘The Identity of Early Israel: The Realignment and Transformation of Late Palestine’, in Exum,. Vol. 40: ‘The Historical Books’, The Biblical Seminar, volume 40, p. (1997).

[11] ‘Erected in the late 13th century B.C.E., the stele provides direct archaeological support for the early presence of Israelites in Canaan. It is also the earliest extrabiblical text to mention Israel.’, Oblath, ‘The Exodus Itinerary Sites: Their Locations From the Perspective of the Biblical Sources’, Studies in Biblical Literature, volume 55,  p. 10 (2004).

[12] ‘The Israelite community may have been in Palestine before 1200 – the Merneptah Stele is evidence that it clearly was. Perhaps it was present quite some time before 1200, in fact.’, Miller (II), ‘Chieftains of the Highland Clans: A History of Israel in the Twelfth and Eleventh Centuries B.C.’, The Bible in Its World, p. xiv (2005).

[13] ‘The Merneptah Stele is direct positive evidence that the term “Israel” was used for some entity in the highlands of Palestine in the parlance of Late Bronze IIb sources’, ibid., p. 2.

[14] ‘What does appear to be established by the Merneptah stela and the archaeology of the highlands is that a population of cultivators and herders, at least some of whom bore the name Israel, lived in the regions of Canaan where the state of Israel subsequently arose, and furthermore that the biblical characterization of this population as politically decentralized and socially linked in village and kin arrangements is authentic’, Gottwald, ‘The Politics of Ancient Israel’, p. 164 (2001).

[15] Long, ‘Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography’, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study Old Testament Series p. 505 (1999).

[16]Thus the inscription testifies to the existence of a population group, bearing the name “Israel” and possibly tribal in structure, living in Canaan about 1230 B.C.E.’, Miller & Hayes, ‘A History of Ancient Israel and Judah’, p. 68 (1986).

[17] ‘Second, and perhaps most important, the earliest mention of Israel in an extrabiblical text was found in Egypt in the stele describing the campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah – the son of Ramesses II – in Canaan at the very end of the thirteenth century BCE. The inscription tells of a destructive Egyptian campaign into Canaan, in the course of which a people named Israel were decimated to the extent that the pharaoh boasted that Israel’s “seed is not!” The boast was clearly an empty one, but it did indicate that some group known as Israel was already in Canaan by that time. In fact, dozens of settlements that were linked with the early Israelites appeared in the hill country around that time.’, Finkelstein & Silberman, ‘The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts’, p. 57 (2001).

[18] ‘And contrary to Finkelstein’s assertion that ‘there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence that the Israelite settlement began as early as the 13th century B.C.’, the Merneptah stele definitely identifies a non-settled group in Palestine as ‘Israel’ during the last decades of the thirteenth century.’, Schley, ‘Shiloh: A Biblical City in Tradition and History’, p. 79 (1989).

[19] ‘In a recent volume of the Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament dedicated to the question of the emergence of Israel in Canaan, the volume’s editor, Diana Edelman, points to four areas of growing consensus: (1) that beginning in the Late Bronze Age and continuing through the Iron I period “population shifts and displacements” were taking place in Canaan, the net result of which was “the growth of new settlements in the Cisjordanian highlands”; (2) that “the Merneptah Stele indicates the existence of some entity called Israel somewhere in Palestine in the late 13th century”; (3) that “Israel is somehow to be related to the surge in small settlements in the highlands during the end of the Late Bronze – Iron I periods,” though “how this relationship is to be understood remains problematic”; (4) that “the biblical texts must be used with great caution in reconstructing the history of Israel’s origins and prestate conditions.”’, Long, ‘The Art of Biblical History’, p. 164 (1994).