Exodus: A Jewish Viewpoint

This article was published in the Spring 1995 issue of Jewish Action (e-mail from rabbi’s at JewishAnswers.org)

The Exodus and Ancient Egyptian Records

“And Moses said unto the people: Do not fear! Stand and see the deliverance of Hashem which he shall do for you this day. For as you have seen Egypt this day, never will you see it again.” (Exodus 14:13)

When was the Exodus? The Exodus from Egypt was not only the seminal event in the history of the Jewish People, but was an unprecedented and unequaled catastrophe for Egypt. In the course of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let us leave and the resultant plagues sent by Hashem, Egypt was devastated. Hail, disease and infestations obliterated Egypt’s produce and livestock, while the plague of the first born stripped the land of its elite, leaving inexperienced second sons to cope with the economic disaster. The drowning of the Egyptian armed forces in the Red Sea left Egypt open and vulnerable to foreign invasions.

From the days of Flavius Josephus (c.70 CE) until the present, historians have tried to find some trace of this event in the ancient records of Egypt. They have had little luck.According to biblical chronology, the Exodus took place in the 890th year before the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 421 BCE (g.a.d. 587 BCE) [1]. This was 1310 BCE (g.a.d. 1476 BCE). In this year, the greatest warlord Egypt ever knew, Thutmose III, deposed his aunt Hatshepsut and embarked on a series of conquests, extending the Egyptian sphere of influence and tribute over Israel and Syria and crossing the Euphrates into Mesopotamia itself. While it is interesting that this date actually saw the death of an Egyptian ruler – and there have been those who tried to identify Queen Hatshepsut as the Pharaoh of the Exodus – the power and prosperity of Egypt at this time is hard to square with the biblical account of the Exodus.

Some historians have been attracted by the name of the store-city Raamses built by the Israelites before the Exodus. They have drawn connections to the best known Pharaoh of that name, Ramses II, or Ramses the Great, and set the Exodus around his time, roughly 1134 BCE (g.a.d. 1300 BCE [2]). In order to do this, they had to reduce the time between the Exodus and the destruction of the Temple by 180 years, which they did by reinterpreting the 480 years between the Exodus and the building of the Temple (I Kings 6:1) as 12 generations of 40 years. By “correcting” the Bible and setting a generation equal to 25 years, these imaginary 12 generations become 300 years.

Aside from the fact that such “adjustments” of the biblical text imply that the Bible cannot be trusted, in which case there is no reason to accept that there ever was an Exodus, Ramses II was a conqueror second only to Thutmose III. And as in the case of Thutmose III, the Egyptian records make it clear that nothing even remotely resembling the Exodus happened anywhere near his time of history.

We appear to be at a standstill. The only options are to relegate the Exodus to the status of myth, or to conclude that there is something seriously wrong with the generally accepted dates for Egyptian history.

In 1952, Immanuel Velikovsky published Ages in Chaos, the first of a series of books in which he proposed a radical redating of Egyptian history in order to bring the histories of Egypt and Israel into synchronization. Velikovsky’s work sparked a wave of new research into ancient history. And while the bulk of Velikovsky’s conclusions have not been borne out by this research, his main the-sis has. This is that the apparent conflict between ancient records and the Bible is due to a misdating of those ancient records, and that when these records are dated correctly, all such “conflicts” disappear.

Both Thutmose III and Ramses II date to a period called the Late Bronze Age, which ended with the onset of the Iron Age. Since the Iron Age has been thought to be the time when Israel first arrived in Canaan, the Late Bronze Age has been called “The Canaanite Period,” and historians have limited their search for the Exodus to this time. When we break free of this artificial restraint, the picture changes drastically.

According to the midrash [3], the Pharaoh of the Exodus was named Adikam. He had a short reign of 4 years before drowning in the Red Sea. The Pharaoh who preceded him, whose death prompted Moses’s return to Egypt (Exodus 2:23, 4:19), was named Malul. Malul, we are told, reigned from the age of 6 to the age of 100. Such a long reign – 94 years! – sounds fantastic, and many people would hesitate to take this midrash literally. As it happens, though, Egyptian records mention a Pharaoh who reigned for 94 years. And not only 94 years, but from the age of 6 to the age of 100! This Pharaoh was known in inscriptions as Pepi (or Phiops) II [4]. The information regarding his reign is known both from the Egyptian historian-priest Manetho, writing in the 3rd century BCE, and from an ancient Egyptian papyrus called the Turin Royal Canon, which was only discovered in the last century.

Egyptologists, unaware of the midrash, have wrestled with the historicity of Pepi II’s long reign. One historian wrote: [5]Pepi II…appears to have had the longest reign in Egyptian history and perhaps in all history. The Turin Royal Canon credits him with upwards of 90 years. One version of the Epitome of Manetho indicates that he “began to rule at the age of 6 and continued to a 100.” Although modern scholars have questioned this, it remains to be disproved.

While the existence of a 2 kings who reigned a) 94 years, b) in Egypt, and c) from the age of 6, is hard enough to swallow as a coincidence, that is not all. Like Malul, Pepi II was the second to last king of his dynasty. Like Malul, his successor had a short reign of 3-4 four years, after which Egypt fell apart. Pepi II’s dynasty was called the 6th Dynasty, and was the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Following his successor’s death, Egypt collapsed, both economically and under foreign invasion. Egypt, which had been so powerful and wealthy only decades before, suddenly could not defend itself against tribes of invading bedouin. No one knows what happened. Some historians have suggested that the long reign of Pepi II resulted in stagnation, and that when he died, it was like pulling the support out from under a rickety building. But there is no evidence to support such a theory.

A papyrus dating from the end of the Old Kingdom was found in the early 19th century in Egypt [6]. It seems to be an eyewitness account of the events preceding the dissolution of the Old Kingdom. Its author, an Egyptian named Ipuwer, writes:
*Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere.
*The river is blood.
*That is our water! That is our happiness! What shall we do in respect thereof? All is ruin!
*Trees are destroyed.
*No fruit or herbs are found…
*Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire.
*Forsooth, grain has perished on every side.
* The land is not light [dark].

Velikovsky recognized this as an eyewitness account of the 10 plagues. Since modern men are not supposed to believe in such things, it has been interpreted figuratively by most historians. The destruction of crops and livestock means an economic depression. The river being blood indicates a breakdown of law an order and a proliferation of violent crime. The lack of light stands for the lack of enlightened leadership. Of course, that’s not what it says, but it is more palatable than the alternative, which is that the phenomena described by Ipuwer were literally true.

When the Bible tells us that Egypt would never be the same after the Exodus, it was no exaggeration. With invasions from all directions, virtually all subsequent kings of Egypt were of Ethiopian, Libyan or Asiatic descent. When Chazal tell us that King Solomon was able to marry Pharaoh’s daughter despite the ban on marrying Egyptian converts until they have been Jewish for 3 generations because she was not of the original Egyptian nation, there is no reason to be surprised.

In the Wake of the Exodus: It was not only Egypt which felt the birth pangs of the Jewish People. The end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt preceded only slightly the end of the Early Bronze age in the Land of Israel. The end of this period, dated by archeologists to c.2200 BCE (in order to conform to the Egyptian chronology), has long puzzled archeologists. The people living in the Land of Israel during Early Bronze were the first urban dwellers there. They were, by all available evidence, primitive, illiterate and brutal. They built large but crude fortress cities and were constantly at war. At the end of the Early Bronze Age, they were obliterated.

Who destroyed Early Bronze Age Canaan? Some early archeologists, before the vast amount of information we have today had been more than hinted at, suggested that they were Amorites. The time, they thought, was more or less right for Abraham. So why not postulate a great disaster in Mesopotamia, which resulted in people migrated from there to Canaan? Abraham would have been thus one in a great crowd of immigrants (scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries often felt compelled to debunk the idea of divine commands).

Today, the picture is different. The invaders of the Early Bronze/Middle Bronze Interchange seem to have appeared out of nowhere in the Sinai and the Negev. Initially, they moved up into the transjordan, and then crossed over north of the Dead Sea, conquering Canaan and wiping out the inhabitants. Of course, since we are dealing with cultural remnants and not written records, we don’t know that the previous inhabitants were all killed. Some of them may have remained, but if so, they adopted enough of the newcomers’ culture to “disappear” from the archeological record.

2 archeologists have already gone on record identifying the invaders as the Israelites. In an article published in Biblical Archeology Review [7], Israeli archeologist Rudolph Cohen demonstrated that the two invasions match in every detail. Faced with the problem that the 2 are separated in time by some 8 centuries, Cohen backed down a bit: “I do not necessarily mean to equate the MBI people with the Israelites, although an ethnic identification should not be automatically ruled out. But I am suggesting that at the very least the traditions incorporated into the Exodus account may have a very ancient inspiration reaching back to the MBI period.”

The Italian archeologist Immanuel Anati has come to similar conclusions [8]. He added other pieces of evidence, such as the fact that Ai, Arad and other cities destroyed by Israel in the invasion of Canaan were destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze Age, but remained uninhabited until the Iron Age. Since the Iron Age is when Israel supposedly invaded Canaan, we have been in the embarrassing position of having the Bible describe the destructions of these cities at the very time that they were being resettled for the first time in almost a millennium. When the conquest is redated to the end of the Early Bronze, history (the Bible) and physical evidence (archeology) are in harmony. Anati goes further than Cohen in that he claims the invaders really were the Israelites. How does he get around the 800 year gap? By inventing a “missing book of the Bible” between Joshua and Judges that originally covered this period.

Both Cohen and Anati are in the unenviable position of having discovered truths which conflict with the accepted wisdom. Their “tricks” to avoid the problem are lame, but the only alternative would be to suggest a radical redating of the archeology of the Land of Israel. And there is good reason to do this. It is not only the period of the Exodus and Conquest which suddenly match the evidence of ancient records and archeology when the dates of the archeological periods are brought down:

1. The Middle Bronze Age invaders, after some centuries of rural settlement, expanded almost overnight into an empire, stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. This empire has been termed the “Hyksos Empire,” after a group of nomads that invaded Egypt, despite the fact that there is no historical evidence for such an identification. History knows of one such empire. Archeology knows of one such empire. The same adjustment which restores the Exodus and Conquest to history does the same to the United Kingdom of David and Solomon.

2. The Empire fell, bringing the Middle Bronze Age to an end. Archeologists and Egyptologists are currently involved in a great debate over whether it was civil war or Egyptian invasions which destroyed the “Hyksos” empire. The biblical accounts of the revolt of the ten northern tribes and the invasion of Shishak king of Egypt make the debate irrelevant.

3. The period following the end of the Empire was one of much unrest, but saw tremendous literary achievements. Since this period, the Late Bronze Age, was the last period before the Iron Age, and since the Iron Age was believed to have been the Israelite Period, the Late Bronze Age was called the Canaanite Period. Strangely, these Canaanites spoke and wrote in beautiful Biblical Hebrew. Semitic Canaanites? Did the Bible get it wrong again? But then, coming after the time of David and Solomon, they weren’t really Canaanites. The speakers and writers of Biblical Hebrew were, as might have been guessed – Biblical Hebrews.

4. Finally we get to the Iron Age. This is when Israel supposedly arrived in Canaan. But it has been obvious to archeologists for over a century that the archeology of the Iron Age bears little resemblance to the biblical account of the conquest of Canaan. There were invasions, but they were from the north, from Syria and Mesopotamia, and they came in several waves, unlike the lightning conquest under Joshua. The people who settled the land after the invasions also came from the north, though there is much evidence to suggest that they weren’t the invaders, and merely settled an empty land after it had been destroyed by others. The south remained in the hands of the Bronze Age inhabitants, albeit on a lower material level.

The conclusions drawn from this evidence have been devastating. The people in the south, who constituted the kingdom of Judah, from whence came the Jews, has been determined to be of Canaanite descent! If not biologically, then culturally. And the people in the north, the other 10 tribes of Israel, have been determined to have been no relation to the tribes of the south. The idea of 12 tribes descended from the sons of Jacob has been removed from the history books and recatalogued under “Mythology, Jewish.”

What is most strange is that multiple waves of invasion followed by northern tribes settling in the north of Israel is not an event which has gone unmentioned in the Bible. The invaders were the Assyrians. The settlers were the northern tribes who eventually became the Samaritans. And if the people in the south were descended from the Late Bronze Age inhabitants of the land, why, that merely means that the kingdom of Judah was a continuation of the kingdom of Judah. The only historical claims which are contradicted by the archeological record are those of the Samaritans, who claim to have been the descendants of the 10 tribes of Israel.

A simple redating of the archeological periods in the Land of Israel brings the entire scope of biblical history into synchronization with the ancient historical record. Only time will tell whether more archeologists will follow Cohen and Anati in their slowly dawning recognition of the historicity of the Bible.

[1] Contrary to the Jewish historical tradition, the generally accepted date (g.a.d.) is 166 years earlier, or 587 BCE (see “Fixing the History Books – Dr. Chaim Heifetz’s Revision of Persian History,” in the Spring 1991 issue of Jewish Action). This difference applies to all Mesopotamian and Egyptian history prior to the Persian period. The dates for Egyptian history given in the history books are therefore off by this amount. For our purposes, we will use the corrected date followed by the g.a.d. in parentheses. return to text
[2] Some people have been excited about the generally accepted date for Ramses II coming so close to the traditional date for the Exodus. This is a mistake, as Egyptian and Mesopotamian histories are linked. If Ramses II lived c. 1300 BCE, then the destruction of the Temple was in 587 BCE, and the Exodus was in 1476 BCE. return to text
[3] Sefer HaYashar and The Prayer of Asenath (an ancient pseudepigraphical work) contain this information, though Sefer HaYashar only gives the 94 year reign length without Malul’s age. return to text
[4] Egyptian kings had a vast titulary. They generally had at least five official throne names, not to mention their personal name or names, and whatever nicknames their subjects gave them. return to text
[5] William Kelly Simpson in The Ancient Near East: A History, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1971. return to text
[6] A.H. Gardiner, Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage from a hieratic papyrus in Leiden (1909). Historians are almost unanimous in dating this papyrus to the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom. The events it describes, consequently, deal with the end of the Old Kingdom. return to text
[7] Rudolph Cohen, “The Mysterious MB I People – Does the Exodus Tradition in the Bible Preserve the Memory of Their Entry into Canaan?” in Biblical Archeology Review IX:4 (1983), pp.16ff. return to text[8] Immanuel Anati, The Mountain of God, Rizzoli International Publications, New York 1986. return to text


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