Thrown into the Sea: Recovering the Exodus

horse-and-the-riderThe song about “the horse and the rider thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21) was a Sunday school favorite when I was growing up. It’s ridiculously cheesy but gave me thrills to imagine a pissed-off deity raining destruction down on slavers and despots. Even at that age I had the bloodthirsty streak that would find its outlet in horror and war genres. Today my interest in the exodus is more secular and esoteric. I have believed there is little historical basis to the biblical origin of Israel, because archaeology has nothing to show for it. But it depends on when, as much as where, you look for the evidence.

Until recently I had looked in the time of Ramesses II, as most scholars do. Let’s review the options.

Option (a): Ramesses II (c. 1250 BC)

The common view is based on Exodus 1:11 and 12:37, a literal reading of which places the exodus in the time of Egypt’s 19th dynasty under Ramessess II. Because there is zero archaeological confirmation of an exodus and military invasion of Canaan during Ramesses’ reign, the following alternative theories have been offered to explain Israelite origins in the 1250-1100 period.

  • Peaceful Infiltration. In The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine (1925), Albrecht Alt proposed that instead of the conquest out of Egypt described in Joshua 1-11, there was a gradual influx of nomads with their flocks from the eastern deserts into the central hill country. The infiltrators searched for pasturage and eventually settled the sparsely populated areas between urban centers. In other words, the stories of Joshua 1-11 are myths.
  • Peasant Revolt. In “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine” (1962) and The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (1973), George Mendenhall argued that the origin of Israel was neither the result of a military invasion nor peaceful settlement, but a peasant revolt. Self-identified Israelites grew out of the indigenous shepherds, peasants and farmers rebelling against their Canaanite overlords. A small group of Semitic slaves may have escaped from Egypt and provided the catalyst to all of this, which would be the kernel of truth behind the war stories of Joshua 1-11.
  • Agricultural Resettlement. In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein (with coauthor Neil Asher Silberman) maintained there was no military invasion, peaceful infiltration, or peasant revolution. Israel emerged directly from within the Canaanite society of the lowlands, when it came into conflict with the Canaanite centers of the hill country. The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not its cause, coming mostly from within. In other words, the early Israelites were Canaanites themselves.

It’s worth noting that Alt was a pacifist, Mendenhall a hard leftist who wrote in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1953-59), and Finkelstein has gained voice in a time of increased sensitivity for modern Palestinians (=”ancient Israelites”) who are deemed to have as much claim to the land as Jews (=”Canaanites”). Which isn’t to say that biases rule out the theories, only that these readings cut against the grain of the text and carry meanings in an age where ideas about military conquests and national invasions are increasingly out of favor.

For years I accepted Mendenhall’s view. I was taught it in my Old Testament class back in 1989, and it seemed a reasonable alternative. True, I was aware of the artificiality of a “peasant Israel”, since in antiquity blood ties were everything and trumped social-class bonds. (For the latter-day Jesus to base his religious family on social kin at the expense of biology is one thing; for an entire nation to emerge on the premise of social-class kinship is quite another.) But unlike the other two theories, it at least takes the text of Joshua with some seriousness. The point is that all of these theories exist because there is literally not a shred of archaeological confirmation for an exodus or military invasion in the period of Ramesses II.

What’s surprising is how popular this option remains when the text never refers to the person of Ramesses. Exodus 1:11 refers to the city of Ramesses, in the same way that Genesis 47:11 speaks of the land of Ramesses. No biblical scholar believes that Gen 47:11 refers to the actual time of Ramesses, but when it comes to Exodus 1:11 they suddenly do. One is just as much an anachronism as the other. For clarity, the biblical writer of Genesis and Exodus used the current name of the city for the benefit of people living in his time (the seventh century BC). They would have known the location by the name of Ramesses but probably not the older name of Goshen or Avaris. It’s no different from Americans saying that Dutch colonists founded the city of New York, even though they founded it as the city of New Amsterdam (in 1625), which later became New York (in 1664).

Option (b): Thutmose III (1446 BC)

If we forget Ramesses II and take I Kings 6:1 at face value, then the exodus happened in 1446 BC — the favored theory of evangelical scholars. The Pharaoh in 1446 was Thutmose III and he was basically the Napoleon of ancient Egypt, mightier than even Ramesses II (though less of a megalomaniac), who prosecuted countless military campaigns and made Egypt into a true empire under the 18th dynasty. Historians call his reign the strongest epoch in Egypt’s history. That doesn’t sound like an era in which a prophet and his Yahweh-god brought Egypt to its knees. (Though who am I kidding: to an evangelical, the humbling of the mightiest pharaoh would resound to God’s glory all the more.)

Those who like this option tend to manufacture questionable evidence. Consider Thutmose’s campaign to destroy all images of his stepmother Hatshepsut, who had not only reigned as a female pharaoh but as his own co-regent in his youth. Most Egyptologists ascribe his crusade to sexist pride: this Napoleon king would not have wanted to be recorded for posterity as the man who ruled for an entire 20 years under the thumb of a woman. He rewrote Egyptian history to liberate his own, and to portray a smooth succession of male rulers. The evangelical scholars, however, suggest a different reason. They claim that Hatshepsut was Moses’ Egyptian stepmother — the bold young queen who supposedly drew Moses from the Nile (Exod 2:5-10). If that’s true, and she raised Moses as her own son in the royal court (Acts 7:21), then after the Reed Sea calamity, Thutmose would have returned to Egypt on a vicious crusade to erase her foul memory from every corner of Egypt and remove all possibility of her spirit ascending to the afterlife.

It’s a rather silly theory. For one, I doubt there is any historical basis to the legend of the baby Moses rescued from the Nile. No one knew or cared who Moses was when he was a baby. Like the infancy narratives of Jesus, it’s a story ascribing honor to a prophet-nobody who became somebody. Thutmose’s crusade to wipe out Hatshepsut’s images is perfectly understandable for the reason Egyptologists tell us, and is no different from other efforts in Egypt’s history to obliterate memories of objectionable pharaohs (like the heretic Akhenaten, kings with questionable lineage, etc.).

The most relevant piece for this dating option is the battle of Jericho. Evangelicals feel confident dating it to around 1400 BC — in other words, to about 40 years after the exodus (on the 1446 option) as the bible implies. In her archaeological dig in the 1950s, Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of Jericho to around the 1550s BC. But in his article, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence” (1990), Bryant Wood re-dated the destruction of Jericho from 1550 to 1400, primarily on the basis of pottery analysis (Kenyon also based part of her analysis on pottery, so go figure). Wood has not gained support for his view outside the wishful-thinking of evangelical circles. All the pottery experts have dismissed his claim, and later analyses in the ’90s confirmed that Jericho was destroyed during the late 1600s or 1500s, basically as Kenyon said. Which takes us to the next option.

Option (c): Dudimose (c. 1650 BC)

Either of the above two options — the skeptical (a) or the evangelical (b) — puts the exodus in the New Kingdom period (1539-1069 BC), for which there is no evidence (Wood’s protest about Jericho notwithstanding). There is however a string of evidence that spans the Middle Kingdom (2060-1649 BC) and Second Intermediate Period (1649-1539) which is widely ignored in scholarship. David Rohl is the lead proponent of this view. Among the evidence he considers, there is:

First, the archaeological record of Semitic/Asiatic populations found at Avaris (the name of the city before it became Ramesses) in the 1800s-1600s. Based on the Ramesses theory, scholars had looked for evidence of the Israelite sojourn in either the 1400s-1200s (assuming a 215-year sojourn), or the 1600s-1200s period (assuming a 430-year sojourn), and never found anything. But everything that archaeologists have unearthed at the earlier site of Avaris indicates the people came from Canaan. They were shepherds and traders who began settling in the delta around the mid-1800s.

Evangelicals who advocate the Thutmose theory can fudge here by accepting this 1800s-1600s evidence and extending it down to the 1400s, on the assumption of a 430-year sojourn. But the dig at Avaris doesn’t show Semitics/Asiatics that late, and the idea of a 430-year sojourn has always been a problematic reading of the bible. The textual evidence for a 215-year sojourn outweighs it. Most sources (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, Josephus) are unanimous in stating that the 430 years began only with Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt marking the start of a 215-year sojourn. The archaeological record supports this.

By the reign of Sobekhotep III (26th ruler of the 13th dynasty, 1755-1751), the size of the Semitic population had grown. The archaeology shows a huge expansion of Avaris and more than twenty other sites containing Canaanite pottery. Around this time also comes evidence for slavery, with graves of skeletons showing signs of malnutrition and stress, and also an increase in infant graves, from a typical 25 percent rate to 50 percent — and on top of that, an increase in the remains of females who made it into adulthood as compared to male remains. This would align with the biblical account of male infants being put to death. There are also papyrus documents of the time which show that about half the domestic and estate slaves were Semitic, and it was probably even more than half since many of the Asiatic settlers had married native Egyptians and given their children Egyptian names.

Second, the account from a third century BC Egyptian chronicler, Manetho, who describes God (in the singular) “smiting” the Egyptians in the reign of Pharaoh Tutimaos (Greek for Dudimose). God smote the Egyptians in some way, which left them powerless so that foreigners could take over Egypt without bloodshed. The only time that happened was with the Hyksos, who brought the Middle Kingdom to and end and took over Egypt in the Second Intermediate period of 1649-1539. Manetho evidently understands the exodus (in which God wiped out the Egyptian forces at the Reed Sea) to have preceded the Hyksos takeover, which would be in the reign of Dudimose (c. 1653-1649).

Some Egyptologists say there were two pharaohs by this name, Djedhetepre Dudimose and Djedneferre Dudimose (Dudimose I and Dudimose II), while others say it was the same king who changed his prenomen mid-reign. If the former is true, then the exodus pharaoh is Dudimose II. Whichever is true, the evidence from excavations at Avaris indicate that the eastern delta suffered a calamity in Dudimose’s time, and the Asiatics picked up and left. Pits were found with bodies tossed in on top of each other, many face down. They apparently died from plague, and perhaps it was this mystery plague that was turned into God’s act in the tenth plague of Egypt. Which takes us to the next piece of evidence.

Third, the 13th-century Ipuwer Papyrus, containing the incomplete literary work called The Admonitions of Ipuwer which has been difficult to date. At first it was thought to be written around 2181-2060 BC, during the First Intermediate period and the time of civil war. But in 1966 John Van Seters made a strong case for dating it to the end of the Middle Kingdom on the eve of the Hyksos takeover. Of interest are the remarkable similarities between the catastrophes described in the Admonitions and the ten plagues of the bible. The parallels are usually dismissed since a 1600s date of composition precedes the date of the exodus by centuries. But if the exodus didn’t happen in either 1250 or 1446, but around 1650, then it’s right on the nose with Ipuwer. Here are the parallels.

Ipuwer Papyrus Exodus
Plague sweeps the land. Blood is everywhere with no shortage of the dead.

Egypt has fallen to the pouring water. And he who poured water on the ground seizes the mighty in misery.

The river is blood. As you drink of it, you lose your humanity and thirst for water.

There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. (Exod 2:6)

Yahweh said, “Take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. The water you have taken from the river will turn to blood on the dry land.” (Exod 4:9)

All the water in the Nile turned to blood. The fish in the river died and the river stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink from it. (Exod 7:20-21)

Gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. Lower Egypt weeps.

Gone is the grain of abundance. Food supplies are running short. The nobles hunger and suffer. Upper Egypt has become a wasteland. Grain is lacking on every side. The storehouse is bare. Women say, “Oh that we had something to eat!”

All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan and are left to stray, and there is none to gather them together.

Fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field. (Exod 9:23-25)

The flax and the barley were ruined. All the livestock of the Egyptians died. The locusts covered the surface of the ground until the land was devastated. And they devoured whatever was growing in the fields and all the fruit of the trees. (Exod 9:31, 9:6, 10:15)

“The hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, and there shall be a very grievous sickness. Gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field.” And he that did not fear the word of the Lord left his servants and cattle in the field. (Exod 9:3,19,21)

What can we do about it? All is ruin.

Those that had shelter are now in the dark of the storm. The whole of the delta cannot be seen.

Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “Let the people go, that they may worship Yahweh their god. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is on the brink of ruin?” (Exod 10:7)

For three days there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt. (Exod 10:22)

Children are dashed against the walls. The funeral shroud calls out to you before you come near. He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere. Wailing is throughout the land mingled with lamentations.

The slave takes what he finds. What belongs to the palace has been stripped. Gold, lapis, lazuli, silver, and turquoise are strung on the necks of female slaves. See how the poor of the land have become rich while the man of property is a pauper.

At midnight the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt. And there was a great wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without its dead. The Egyptians were burying those of their own people whom Yahweh had struck down. (Exod 12:29,30, Num 33:4)

The Israelites did as Moses had told them, and they asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewellery and for clothing. Yahweh had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians that they let them have what they asked. So they plundered the Egyptians. (Exod 12:35-36)

And fourth, the destruction of Jericho, which as we saw was dated by Kenyon and her later supporters between the late 1600s and mid 1500s. If the exodus was c. 1650, then the battle of Jericho would be c. 1610, which fits the time frame. But that’s not all. Kenyon’s findings were rather amazing: (1) Jericho was apparently destroyed by an earthquake, which matches the biblical legend of the walls falling down flat (Joshua 6:20); (2) Jericho was also destroyed by a massive conflagration, leaving ash several layers thick, which supports the account of Israelites burning Jericho to the ground (Joshua 6:24); (3) cave tombs at Jericho show multiple and simultaneous burials, which Kenyon had suggested as some kind of catastrophe or plague being responsible for, and which could be the same plague that the Israelites carried from weeks before (Numbers 25:1-9); (4) abundant supplies of unused grain were found in home storage jars, which supports the biblical testimony that the siege wasn’t long at all, only seven days (Joshua 6:15); (5) there could even be evidence for Rahab’s house — in a poor part of the town Kenyon found the only excavated part of the wall that did not collapse, with houses built into the wall just like Rahab’s (Joshua 2:15). The archaeological pattern of Jericho fits the biblical stories to a tee. But it’s where scholars refuse to look — in Egypt’s 2nd Intermediate Period, not the New Kingdom of the 18th or 19th dynasties.

New Chronology: The Work of David Rohl

But it’s not that simple, because this string of evidence — for the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — creates as many problems as it solves when pushed back to the 1800s-1600s. It would mean that a lot of other biblical events (the Philistines, the period of the judges, David’s reign, the consecration of Solomon’s temple, etc.) need be pushed back too, and there is no justification for such a massive realignment of biblical chronology. On the other hand, there are good reasons to revise Egyptian chronology, and this is what scholars like David Rohl have been doing since the 1990s. In his revision, the Middle Kingdom and 2nd Intermediate Period get reassigned from the 1800s-1600s to the 1600s-1400s, which means that the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — which, per the evidence above, align with those Egyptian periods — don’t end up getting pushed so far back after all.

To list all the reasons for Rohl’s revisionist project would demand multiple blogposts, but for now here’s a significant one: the problem of equating the biblical Shishak (925 BC) with Pharaoh Shoshenk I (the first pharaoh of the 22nd dynasty). The equation was made back in the 1820s by Jean-Francois Champollion, and it has become a thrice-damned unmovable mountain in our chronology of the ancient world. They are very doubtfully the same pharaoh. The biblical Shishak conquered Judah and plundered Jerusalem (I Kings 14:25-26; II Chronicles 12:1-12). Shoshenk did not. In the 1880s, it was found that Champollion was wrong in translating the hieroglyphics in Shoshenk’s campaign relief as “Judah the Kingdom”. It actually reads “Hand of the King”, has nothing to do with Judah, and in fact the campaign relief indicates that Shoshenk avoided Judah on his military campaign in (northern) Israel. Of the fifteen fortresses strengthened by Rehoboam to resist attack from the direction of Egypt, only one (Ajalon) appears on Shoshenk’s campaign list, and it’s the one directly on the route crossing the hill country north of the Judean border. Shoshenk was going to battle the armies of Aram-Damascus, who were plundering northern Israel and encroaching on his sphere of influence — not to attack the people of Judah. But since the 1880s everyone has kept assuming that he was Shishak. Virtually all of our Egyptian chronology, and thus of the ancient world, hangs on this biblical date of 925 BC connected to the probably wrong pharaoh. (As far as the real identity of Shishak, Rohl argues that he was a king of the 19th dynasty, not the 22nd; that’s three centuries off right there.)

In Rohl’s revised chronology, historical events get adjusted by on average 2-3 centuries by a massive re-evaluation of all the data. Here’s a snapshot of his revised timeline of the Middle to New Kingdoms of Egypt, from our conventional (C) dates to his new (N) ones.

Middle Kingdom
12th dynasty: 1938-1802 (C) –> 1803-1632 (N)
13th dynasty: 1802-1649 (C) –> 1632-1439 (N)

2nd Intermediate Period
14th-17th dynasties (Hyksos and rival Thebans): 1649-1539 (C) –> 1439-1202 (N)

New Kingdom
18th dynasty: 1539-1292 (C) –> 1202-962 (N)
19th dynasty: 1292-1190 (C) –> 962-866 (N)

So the pharaoh of the oppression, whom Rohl believes to be Sobekhotep III, reigned c. 1755 in our conventional chronology, and c. 1545 in the revised chronology. Dudimose, the pharaoh of the exodus, reigned 1653-1649, which translates to 1450-1446. This means that the exodus actually did happen in 1446, as the evangelicals claim (I Kings 6:1 is correct after all), but not in the time of the New Kingdom’s 18th dynasty, rather two centuries before, at the end of the Middle Kingdom’s 13th dynasty. The conquest of Canaan moves from c. 1610 to c. 1410, which again makes the evangelicals technically right, but profoundly wrong in how they align biblical events with the rest of the world.


I’m not urging overnight conversions to the new chronology or the acceptance of every new dating period fixed by Rohl (of which there are hundreds). But the project does deserve to be taken seriously. In a documentary called Patterns of Evidence (2014), Israel Finkelstein is interviewed and scorns revisionist efforts, saying that the margin of error for our conventional dating is surely no more than ten years. But that’s not true. All you have to do is pick up a book written by an Egyptian specialist, for example Toby Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2010), which in the first pages provides a timeline of all the dynasties from 2950 to 30 BC. The timeline is prefaced by a warning that the margin of error for the dates is “within a century or so” for the period of 2950-1300 BC. In other words, for at least the period we’re concerned with (prior to 1300 BC), this historian acknowledges the margin of error to be at least a century. That’s a revealing admission, and I suspect Wilkinson is low-balling the figure, considering some of the flimsy foundations on which our chronology rests. David Rohl’s shifts of two to three centuries don’t seem so radical in this light.

At the very least, I’m persuaded to abandon the peasant-revolt theory in favor of a traditional conquest. Not in a maximalist way, to be sure. The bible is full of legendary embellishment. But if I’m skeptical of the bible, I’m just as skeptical of hyper-skepticism.


4 thoughts on “Thrown into the Sea: Recovering the Exodus

  1. Yes, Kenyon and her supporters dated the fall of Jericho to the 2nd Intermediate Period, based heavily on pottery analysis, and Rohl thinks this is correct (against Wood who dated it to the 18th dynasty). The 2nd I.P. has been conventionally dated from the mid-17th to mid-16th centuries, which Rohl says is wrong. So the fall of Jericho gets pushed from c. 1610 to c. 1410. In other words, according to Rohl, Kenyon and her followers are substantively right (associating biblical events with the right Egyptian period), even if Wood ends up technically right (by the actual dating).

  2. OK. I’m not aware of how Jericho was dated. No real radiocarbon or other means independent of the standard chronology?

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