Times and Seasons

Part 6. Historical background of the Exodus

The date of the Exodus is stated in 1 Kings 6:1 as being in the four hundred and eightieth year before the commencement of building Solomon's Temple in the fourth year of his reign, which is sufficient to afford a close approximation to the date but did nevertheless in earlier days provide a subject for dispute and argument on the part of some scholars and commentators. Some disputed the veracity of the text itself whilst others found reasons for avoiding its implication and propounded other dates divergent by several centuries. All of this has been nullified by discoveries at ancient Jericho which indicate beyond doubt exactly when Joshua destroyed that city, and in consequence fixes the date of the Exodus.

The site of Jericho was thoroughly excavated during the 1930s by Prof. John Garstang, who found the remains of the city destroyed by Joshua precisely as described in the Bible. Within its ruins there remained indisputable evidence of the date. In and around what had been the royal palace or the governor's residence, and in the tombs of various notabilities, there were found nearly two hundred scarabs (a kind of medallion) bearing the "cartouches", or royal insignia of the Pharaohs who reigned in Egypt over a period of more than three centuries, covering the time that Egypt wielded political domination over Canaan. These Pharaohs were those of the 14th to 18th dynasties and ended with Pharaoh Amenhotep III, ninth ruler of the 18th. That, together with other evidences, establishes the fact that Jericho fell to Joshua at some time during the reign of that Pharaoh. A little latitude has to be allowed as to the precise commencement of his thirty‑six year reign, but even so the event must have happened at some point between 1430 and 1377 B.C.

The building of Solomon's Temple is fairly reliably placed in the springtime of 974 B.C., in the second month. If this was the 480th year as stated in 1 Kings 6:1 then the Passover of the first month when Joshua invaded the land was that of 1413 B.C. (An authoritative elucidation of this point is to be found in the "Bible Chronology" of Dr. Adam Rutherford, the Egyptologist and Pyramidologist.)

There is independent confirmation of this point. In 1884 an Egyptian peasant woman found a buried collection of inscribed tablets which proved to be letters from the petty kings and provincial governors of Canaan to Amenhotep III and his successor Akhenaton, reporting the invasion of the Israelites under Joshua and pleading for military help to resist the invaders. (Canaan was under Egyptian political domination at this time.) There is no indication that help was ever sent; the Egyptians probably remembered the plagues of forty years previously, and were in no mood to try issues with the God of Israel again. The letters grow more despairing as time went on and city after city fell to the Israelites. A notable fact is that although many towns of Canaan sent their pleas there are none from Jericho; Joshua had already destroyed that town before the alarm was raised. The course of the invading Israelites past Edom and through Moab is reported, confirmatory of the Old Testament account, and Joshua's name mentioned. These tablets constitute reasonable confirmation that the invasion of Canaan occurred in the early part of the reign of Amenhotep III.

If the date of Joshua's invasion is established as 1413 BC, the date of the Exodus, forty years earlier, is 1453 BC. This comes in the middle of the reign of Amenhotep II. It is significant that this very warlike Pharaoh led several military invasions of other lands in the early part of his reign but none at all after his ninth year. It is even more significant that the son who succeeded him, Thutmose IV, was not his eldest son as would normally have been the case, although no explanation of the reason is given in any inscription. The eldest, of course, would be the firstborn who died with all other firstborns on the night of the Exodus.

Eighty years previously Moses was born. The ruling Pharaoh was Thutmose I, about 1540‑1520 BC, from his history a very likely Pharaoh to fill the role of Exod.1:15‑22. He boasted that when he invaded the Sudan he left none of their male children alive, which illustrates his similar command in Exod.1:16. Moses was born 1533 BC, roughly in the middle of his reign.

The only daughter of Thutmose I was the famous Hatshepsut, who afterwards ruled the land for some thirty‑five years. She would have been about twenty‑one at the time she found the babe Moses at the river side. On the basis of the precise dates above suggested Moses' flight to Midian at forty years of age coincided with her death, and the Pharaoh who "sought to slay Moses" on account of the slaying of the Egyptian overseer (Exod.2:15) was her successor, the redoubtable warrior Thutmose III. This Pharaoh died about eight years before Moses returned from Midian, which is what is stated in Exod.2:23. There is no other Pharaoh in Egyptian history of the period which can fit the recorded incidents in the life of Moses; no others reigned or lived long enough.

The new king that knew not Joseph of Exod.1:8 was most likely Aahmes I, founder of the 18th dynasty and the great‑grandfather of Princess Hatshepsut who took Moses out of the water. He reigned some thirty years before Moses' birth and from his reign the slavery of Israel most likely began. Aahmes had fought and expelled the Asiatic invaders, the Hyksos, who had occupied and dominated Egypt for over two centuries; the Hyksos were Semitic Bedouin, racially akin to the Israelites, and would have treated them with tolerance. Exod.1:10,20 indicates the new Pharaoh's fear that Israel might become a menace to the native Egyptians and must therefore be repressed.

The Bible leaves a gap between the death of Joseph and the emergence of this "new king that knew not Joseph". In the meantime the children of Israel had multiplied so abundantly that Pharaoh became apprehensive that they might become more powerful than his own subjects. During the four hundred years of the sojourn in Egypt the fifty‑one grandsons of Jacob, some born in Canaan and some in Egypt, grew into a nation of nearly three million men, women and children. This is deducted from the census figures and other data given in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. In the normal process of population growth, it is possible that the nation numbered three quarters of a million when the "new king" introduced his measures to limit further growth and considerably more when Moses was born thirty years or so later. The language of Exodus is definite; "the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew" (Exod.1:12). Two and a half centuries elapsed between the death of Joseph seventy years after Jacob came into Egypt (Gen.50:26) and the birth of Moses. (Exod.2:2). The Israelite community could hardly have exceeded a thousand in number when Joseph died. Soon after his death the friendly Pharaohs of the 12th dynasty who had befriended Joseph and his fellows had given place to the invading Hyksos and nothing whatever is known of Israel's fortunes during this period. When the veil is lifted nearly three hundred years of the four hundred of the Sojourn had passed and the period of the oppression had begun. When that period ended Moses led three million descendants of Jacob towards the Promised Land.

All this implies that Jacob and his sons came into Egypt in 1853 BC during the reign of Senusert (Senusret III) of the 12th dynasty so far as can be determined. Egyptian dates at these remote times become increasingly approximate. It does appear certain, however, that the four hundred year sojourn of Israel in Egypt is well supported by external historical evidence allied with Bible allusions as occupying the period near enough to 1853‑1453 BC.

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A word as to the alternative dates propounded on other bases may be appropriate here. Before the Jericho discoveries, archaeologists and historians in general—most of whom have pursued their labours without much consideration of Bible evidences—usually propounded the view that the Exodus took place in the reign of Merneptah of the 19th dynasty, and that his father Rameses II was the Pharaoh of the Oppression, about the year 1350 BC. The principal argument was the statement in Exod.1:11 that Israel built the cities of Raamses and Pithom and it was usually thought that these were built by Rameses II. In addition stress was laid on Psa.78:12 (RSV) which says that Israel in Egypt lived "in the fields of Zo'an" which was another name for the Hyksos capital Tanis in Lower Egypt. Tanis was destroyed .when the Hyksos were expelled, lay desolate throughout the 18th Dynasty and was rebuilt by Rameses II. The definite statement of 1 Kings 6:1 was ignored and the fact that Egyptian records of much later times told of Hebrew slaves still in Egypt was taken as evidence that the Exodus had not yet taken place. Later investigators have found that much of these arguments are invalid; Rameses as a place name existed long before there were Pharaohs of that name. According to Gen.47:11 Joseph installed his father and his brethren in the land of Rameses several centuries before the Oppression. The "field of Zoan" of Psa.78 was what is now called Lower Egypt, a territory which even today is the best agricultural land in the country, as is said in Gen.47:11, and this was Israel's habitat for the entire four hundred years of their sojourn. It is also an unfounded assumption that there were never any Hebrews in Egypt after the Exodus; there were frequent Egyptian invasions during the course of later history and the taking of Hebrew prisoners to be slaves in Egypt was a frequent occurrence. Because this widespread belief that the Exodus took place in the reign of Merneptah a century later has appeared for generations in all the text‑books and histories it is still a widely held misconception; but the verdict of modern archaeological research allied with the Bible evidence demonstrates its inaccuracy.

A completely different approach characterised the work of many early Bible chronologists of the early 19th Century and earlier, such as Usher, Clinton and Bowen. Archaeology had not appeared in their day and their method was to add together all the time periods of the Bible in the endeavour to establish the date of the creation of man. The period between the Exodus and David was determined by adding the judgeships and periods of servitude as though they were consecutive, thus giving a span of some 560 years which is nearly a century too long and placing the Exodus at an impossible time in Egyptian history. (They did not realise this since Egyptian history was only sketchily known in their day.) What they did not know was that the judgeships and oppressions were not consecutive; many of them overlapped so that a judge might be ruling in one part of the country while oppression was in progress in another. (Strangely enough, exactly the same thing happened when records of ancient Sumer and Babylon and Egypt came to light. The recorded reigns of the kings were all strung together and extremely ancient dates for these nations arrived at in consequence. Today it is known that many of these kings reigned contemporaneously and the time scale of the ancient nations has been drastically deflated and brought much more in line with Bible chronology.) These chronologies giving a date for the Exodus a century too early are therefore now quite out‑of‑date.

A variant on this hypothesis was introduced in the middle 19th century by Benjamin Wilson, translator of the Greek‑English "Emphatic Diaglott", who suggested that confusion between the Hebrew letter‑numerals daleth—4, and heh—5, had led to 480th in 1 Kings 6:1 being corrupted from an original 580th, so bringing that text into line with the arguments for the then received ultra‑early date. Unfortunately for Wilson, his Hebrew was not up to his Greek; he did not know that numbers in the O.T. are invariably expressed in words (as in the English versions) so that his suggested corruption would not have been possible. There is therefore today, even without the Jericho evidences, no foundation for any scheme of dating which ignores the accuracy of 1 Kings 6:1.

A much more modern school of thought as to the fate of Jericho is that propounded by the eminent archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon, who included Jericho in her Palestinian researches in 1952‑58. Dame Kenyon held to the view, now being increasingly discredited, that the early historical books of the O.T. are 9th Cent. B.C. compilations of old traditions and folklore, and not to be taken as serious narratives of actual historical events. She did not believe that there was ever a historical Exodus but rather that the story came from several migrations of Israel at different times and in fact one section of Israel never went into Egypt at all. Relying upon the now notoriously unreliable Carbon 14 test for the age of ancient organic substances, and the (currently) fashionable science of dating ancient sites by the apparent age of pottery found there, she draws a picture of a Jericho existing from about 9,000 years before Christ and with no clear‑cut catastrophic end such as is depicted in the Book of Joshua. If the O.T. is to be ignored this may be as good a theory as any, but with the progressive closer correlation of sacred and secular history due to the labours of other serious and qualified archaeologists the destruction of Jericho by Joshua cannot be denied. Although the high reputation of Kathleen Kenyon has exalted her findings to a leading position in purely academic circles it is difficult to dispute that Garstang was correct in his conclusions and the date of Jericho's fall was accurately placed by him against the background of Egyptian history.