Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, William H.C. Propp (editors), Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, Text, Archaeology, Culture and Geoscience, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2015, 584 pages
Between May 31 and June 3, 2013, a conference “Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text, Memory and Imagination” was held at the University of California, San Diego. 44 papers were presented by contributors from the United States, Canada, Israel and Europe. They were published in 2015 as Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture and Geoscience, edited by Thomas Levy, Thomas Schneider and William Propp.
I approached this collection of papers wanting to see what mainstream scholarship believed about the historicity of the Exodus and the subsequent Conquest of Canaan.
I was disappointed there was no contribution by Kenneth Kitchen, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, an expert Egyptologist and an evangelical Christian. The only evangelical contributor appears to have been James K. Hoffmeier, Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology at Trinity International University. In his paper “Egyptologists and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt”, Hoffmeier explains that, although they did not necessarily believe the supernatural elements, Egyptologists used to believe that the Bible’s account of the Exodus and Conquest was basically accurate. It was not until the rise of the minimalist school of archaeology in the 1970s and 80s that archaeologists came to believe that there was no evidence for the Exodus and Conquest (pp. 197-198).
Hoffmeier also describes how he conducted an informal survey of 25 Egyptologists and their views on the Exodus. While most of them had no interest or expertise in the subject, 19 of the 25 still believed there had been some sort of Exodus, even if it did happen as the Old Testament describes. Only one thought it was unlikely. The rest were unsure (p. 205). Hoffmeier concluded,
“Thus, I see a kind of disconnect. Egyptologists, on the one hand, seem to accept the historicity of the biblical sojourn and exodus narrative, but on the other hand either have no interest in investigating it using their discipline, or feel that it is a subject to be investigated by people with a religious agenda.” (p. 206)
“Egyptian Texts relating to the Exodus: Discussion of Exodus Parallels in Egyptology Literature” by Brad C. Sparks was arguably the most interesting paper. Sparks wrote that over 90 parallels in Egyptian literature with the Exodus have been found. The Admonitions of Ipuwer, which is dated to either the First or Second Intermediate Period (p. 246), appears to describe the Exodus plagues (p. 262). The Tale of two Brothers, which first appeared around 1200 BC, describes an incident similar to Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph (p. 262). The Destruction of Mankind, which is found on the wall of Seti I’s tomb (KV 17) in the Valley of the Kings, describes a “primeval revolt” of non-Egyptians in the Eastern Nile Delta. Sparks writes,
“The “primeval revolt” proceeds thorough a series of Exodus-like events that parallel the sequence of events in the Book of Exodus, in the same general order presented in the Biblical text, thus making it difficult to dismiss as am accidental assemblage of unrelated, merely illusory Exodus-like motifs. The general course of these texts in composite is as follows: the Blood Plague, a skin plague that nearly kills pharaoh, an abnormal darkness that traps the army with the pharaoh in the royal palace, armed pursuit of escaping foreign population in the Heliopolis area (Eastern Delta) headed east to return to the enemy god Apophis in the mountains east of sunrise (Sinai), army failure to slaughter the escapees, and the implied death of the firstborn and the army (in the celestial sea) and the pharaoh (by water serpent owing to negligence of Nun, the god of the ocean).” (p. 267)
It sounds like memories of the Exodus have been passed down by the Egyptians, however, mainstream scholarship does not believe the Exodus, as it is described in the Bible, happened. As Lawrence T. Geraty explains in his paper “Exodus Dates and Theories”, the Bible says the Exodus took place around 1450 BC, 480 years before Solomon began to build the Temple in Jerusalem around 970 BC (I Kings 6:1). According to Egyptian chronology, this would place the Exodus in the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom, during the reign of either Thutmose III or Amenhotep II (p. 56). However, mainstream archaeologists say there is no evidence for the Exodus at this time or the Conquest of Canaan 40 years later. Instead, the consensus among mainstream scholars is that, if they believe the Exodus happened at all, it took place during the thirteenth century BC during the Nineteenth Dynasty. They argue that the 480 years should not be taken literally. It means 12 generations of 40 years. They argue that a generation is only 25 years so the Exodus took place 300 (12 x 25) years before 970 BC, around 1270 BC. Thus, they look for evidence of the Exodus during the reign of Ramses II (1270-1224 BC) (pp.56-58).
However, Geraty also acknowledges that Judges 11:26 says that Israel had occupied the land for 300 years, which is not divisible by 40, so it would suggest a literal 300 years and supports the traditional 1450 BC date (p. 56).
Manfred Bietak’s paper “On the Historicity of the Exodus: What Egyptology Today Can Contribute to Assessing the Biblical Account of the Sojourn in Egypt” does find evidence of Smites on the Egyptian Delta during this period, but that does not mean they were the Israelites (pp. 17-37). As James Hoffmeier points out, there “were large numbers of Semites in Egypt at various times during the second millennium BC and it would be impossible to distinguish one group from another” (p. 206)
While many Egyptologists believe that the Exodus in some form was possible, the problem is more on the other end, when the Israelites arrived in Canaan. Mainstream scholars accept that “Israel” was in Canaan by the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah who described defeating Israel in the Merneptah Stele (c. 1220 BC) (pp. 59, 478-480, 517). However, they do not believe they have found any evidence for the Conquest of Canaan and the destruction of its cities as described in the Bible either in the fifteenth century BC (the traditional date) or the thirteenth century BC (the mainstream consensus date) (pp. 58, 518-519). William Dever writes, “To make a long story short, today not a single scholar or archaeologist any longer upholds “biblical archaeology’s” conquest model. (…) To put it succinctly, if there was no invasion of Canaan by an “Exodus group”, then there was no Exodus”. (p. 404)
Having rejected the “Conquest model”, which the Bible describes, several alternative models or theories for the origin of Israel have been proposed. There is the peaceful infiltration theory which proposes that migrants from the Transjordan settled peacefully in Canaan over a long period. There are also several overlapping theories that the Israelites were originally Canaanites. The social revolt model proposes that poor Canaanites overthrew the Canaanite elite and became the Israelites. A similar theory is that the Israelites had originally been Canaanite pastoralists who settled in villages in the highlands. The dissolution theory proposes that after the New Kingdom Egyptian empire in Canaan broke up, their memory of being liberated evolved into the Exodus story. Some of these theories also believe that there was a small group of escapees from Egypt who merged with the Canaanites and became Israel (pp. 469-470, 519-522).
In his paper “The Emergence of Israel: On Origins and Habitus”, Avraham Faust writes that the social revolt theory has been disproved. He also says that the material differences between the Late Bronze Age culture of the Canaanites and the Iron Age culture of the Israelites suggest they were not the same people group. Furthermore, there has been no explanation as to how the Canaanite supposedly morphed into the Israelites (pp. 470-473). While mainstream scholars do not believe the archaeological evidence supports the Bible’s Conquest account, the good news is that the archaeological evidence does not conclusively support any of the alternative models. Nevertheless, Faust writes that “the consensus today is that all previous suggestions have some truth regarding the origins of the ancient Israelites.” (p. 470)
Three papers discuss the eruption of Thera in the Aegean Sea which was originally dated to around 1450 BC, the traditional date of the Exodus (p. 61). They suggest there was a connection between the effects of the eruption and the plagues of Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea which they argue was really the Sea of Reeds on the Mediterranean coast. If the events were connected, it would raise the issue of whether the events of Exodus were supernatural divine intervention or whether God worked through a natural phenomenon to afflict the Egyptians. Problems with the dating of the Theran eruption are apparent in these papers. Early radiocarbon dating placed it around 1450 BC. More recent radiocarbon and tree-ring dating places it around 1650-1600 BC which does not match with traditional archaeological methods which still give a date around 1500 BC (pp. 61, 92).
Some scholars, such as David Rohl, author of A Test of Time, Peter James, author of Centuries of Darkness, Timothy Mahoney, author of Patterns of Evidence, and Immanuel Velikovsky, author of Ages in Chaos, have argued that the apparent lack of evidence for the Exodus and Conquest is because the reconstruction of ancient Egyptian chronology, on which the chronology of the Ancient Near East is based, is flawed. (The discrepancy over the dating of the Theran eruption would suggest something is wrong.) They argue that the Exodus took place at the end of the Middle Kingdom period which conventional Egyptian chronology incorrectly dates to around 1700 BC. If this is correct, it means archaeologists have been looking for evidence of the Israelites in Egypt, the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan in the wrong period. They should be looking 250-300 years earlier. It would also mean that any evidence or lack of evidence from the thirteenth century BC is irrelevant.
I do not believe the reluctance of mainstream scholars to accept the Bible’s account of the Exodus and Conquest can be blamed on their non-Christian, anti-supernatural worldviews. After all, non-Christian mainstream historians still accept that Jesus of Nazareth existed and that the historical background of the New Testament is reliable. They do not believe it because they do not believe the evidence is there according to the established chronological framework. There seems to be little hope of finding archaeological evidence for the Exodus and Conquest in the fifteenth century BC as the Bible literally describes, using conventional chronology. The only option for demonstrating the historicity of the Exodus appears to be to embrace alternative chronological theories.
However, Geraty’s paper on the date of the Exodus lists 11 theories about the date among mainstream scholars ranging from 2100 BC to 650 BC (p. 60). Even though David Rohl is a qualified Egyptologist, he is not mentioned, nor are any others who have challenged conventional Egyptian chronology. This suggests that the impact of alternative chronology theories on mainstream Egyptology has been negligible. Clearly, more work needs to be done.