Ancient Egyptian texts, changing climates and archaeological finds reveal a surprising consensus on chronology



Emmanuel ANATI


(to be published in: Walter Baricchi, Har Karkom, a guide to major sites, Capo di Ponte [Edizioni del Centro], 2005).




For over a century, archaeologists and exegetics have debated the question of the age during which the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt towards the “Promised Land” took place.  Some of them question the historical reliability of the biblical text.  There were and are those who consider that the story of exodus is an historical document, others claim that the event concerned a small group of slaves fleeing from Egypt, presumably only a small part of the Hebrews there are people who believe that there have been several exoduses; and there are those who value the narration as the fruit of a myth without any historical base.


The problem of the chronology of exodus can exist only if one accepts that an exodus might indeed have taken place. There is however a question on the age of the myth or of the various elements included in the narration. Some of them may be late, some may be early. The earliest possible date of reference is obviously relevant for any historical reconstruction. Of course if one could demonstrate that nothing of the story of exodus could be earlier than the Iron age, this could have an impact in the historical reconstruction. Likewise, if it could be demonstrated that some elements of the story are consistently older, another base of historical reconstruction would become possible.


The itinerary of the biblical narration follows a geographical logic.  Having ascertained this, in our view, it is possible to deduce that the exodus’ itinerary, as described in the Bible, in the books of Exodus, of Numbers, and of Deuteronomy, was geographically comprehensible, at the time it was compiled, for whoever knew the territory.


In theory the geographical coherence only indicates the topographical knowledge of the compilator. It does not demonstrate that the narrated events really happened.  Comparison with some Egyptian texts shows the presence of similarities. This limits the possible periods in which certain passages of the biblical narration may have been produced. Again, this does not demonstrate that the events in the narration really happened.  Nevertheless, if it is possible to establish the age in which the narration, or part of it, was conceived, this would already be a fundamental chronological gain.


For at least four generations exegesis’s have included several schools of thinking that locate the event of exodus, or the epoch of the conception of the story, from the late third millennium to the beginning of the first millennium BC.  Several exegesis’s rely on the dating proposed by the Bible itself:  “And it came to pass in the 480th year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel…that he began to build the house of the Lord.” (I Kings 6, 1).  Although under fire in recent criticism, Solomon is an historical figure and started his long reign around 970 BC. Accordingly, the departure from Egypt is could be hypothesised around 1450 BC. Another calculation is that which relies on the succession of Judges, according to the book of Judges, which goes back at least 100 years earlier, therefore, as a minimal date, around 1550 BC. Other evolution may hint for both earlier and later dates.   However the most diffused theory in recent years has proposed that the exodus took place in the XIII century BC (H. Cazelles, 1954; 1955; Kallai, 1983; Mazar, 1986).


The first indication that we have so far of the presence of Israel as a political entity in Canaan to the west of the Jordan, is found on a stele erected at Thebes in Egypt by the Pharaoh Mer-ne-Ptah, around 1220 BC.  Israel appears there as one of the political entities submitted or destroyed. It is a political entity which occupies only part of the country. According to the archaeological evidence and the biblical narration, Mer-ne-Ptah should be contemporary with the dawn of the period of Judges, and the context is plausible. If there was an exodus from Egypt, this should have taken place before the erection of the stele. There is not, however, a unanimous opinion on the length of time from the departure from Egypt to the settling of Israel west of the Jordan River.


At the beginning of the book of Exodus the advent of a pharaoh who did not recognise the rights of the Hebrews is indicated:  “…there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph…” (Ex. 1, 8).  “Therefore, they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.  And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses…” (Ex. 1, 11-12).  According to the narration, the towns of Raamses and Pithom appear to have been constructed in the period in which the children of Israel were in Egypt.


Raamses, the capital of Egypt in the north of the Delta from the time of the Pharaoh Raamses II (ca. 1292-1237 BC) to the XXII dynasty (935-730 BC), acquired this name under Raamses II.  The exegetical conventional dating assumes that, if the city of Raamses was constructed after 1300 BC and if the Hebrews built it, exodus must have taken place after that date.  This is retained as the main fixed point of the conventional chronology of an exegetical school.


But Raamses, as a geographical area, is mentioned also in the book of Genesis, with reference to an epoch that all the exegetics would agree must have been well before the XIII century BC.  The name of Raamses, in the book of Exodus and in that of Genesis, emerges as a geographical indication: it indicates the site where, according to tradition, the Hebrews were in Egypt.  It is not necessarily the same name that the site must have had at the epoch of the Patriarchs or at the time of Moses.  This is true also for the other names that the Bible uses in an anachronistic way.  For example, “The way of the Country of the Philistines” could hardly have had this name before the Philistines arrived, while, at the epoch in which the text was put into writing, it undoubtedly had that name.  It is a normal narrative process, as if we say: “the Neolithic people settled in the area of Tel Aviv”.  This does not signify that the site was called “Tel Aviv” in the Neolithic period.


As a consequence of the preceding assumption, this exegetical chronology had fixed the limits between which the exodus should have taken place, between the building of the town of Raamses and the age of the stele of Mer-ne-Ptah, that is between 1292 and 1220 BC, in any case in the XIII century BC. In almost all the urban centres, the tells excavated in the Delta area, there are archaeological layers in the New Kingdom which overlap older levels. This is also the case in the suggested locations of the towns of Raamses and Pitom which may be identified with the archaeological sites of Kantir and of Tell el-Maskhuta, where there are also earlier archaeological levels. But the archaeological elements that accumulated in recent years, together with the comparative literature of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, create even more difficulties for the solution of this complex problem.


Table (fig. 3) provides a summarised view of archaeological finds in the Sinai and Negev area and points out that the entire territory of the peninsula reveals no archaeological documentation of living sites for most of the II millennium BC  The few archaeological sites were mines or military structures.  If the populations mentioned in the biblical narrations, such as Midianites and Amalekites, Amorites, Horites and Edomites, really existed in a tribal context in this territory before the stele of Mer-ne-Ptah, it is unlikely that this could have taken place after the XX century BC. The existence of a very dry period in which the Sinai peninsula could hardly be inhabited by tribal groups has recently been confirmed by both geological research on the stalagmite formations of a cave in the Sorek Valley and by the fluctuation of the shore levels of the Dead Sea.


Exodus starts with the departure from Egypt, then describes a period of nomadism in the desert, during which there were long lasting stops at the foot of Mount Sinai and at Kadesh Barnea. It illustrates a period of adventures, wars and conquests in Trans-Jordan, against the people of Edom, Moab and Ammon, in the course of which a part of the Hebrew confederation passed from a state of nomadism to that of a sedentary, agricultural and pastoral community. This is followed by the narration of the raids of Joshua in the land of Canaan. Finally there is, in the book of Judges, the gradual settlement of the tribes and their final sedentarisation.


The story tells of different epochs in the course of which there are several phases of formation and transformation of a people; the confederation is growing socially and politically, demographically and technologically.  The biblical text describes indirectly but rather clearly the economic changes, the development of the social structure and the changes in the way of life, the passage from the tent to the hut and from the hut to the house.


The evolution which is described follows a logic which, as a succession of cultural processes, reflects what has been learned by modern archaeology and anthropology.  From nomadism to an increasingly sedentary life and agricultural colonisation, to the formation of an urban society, is not necessarily a universal trend, but it seems to fit the geographical area in question. The biblical narration provides a coherent succession which can be synchronised with the archaeological documentation, and, with climatic changes.  No doubt it will be clear, at least to the archaeologists, what interest there is in a synchronic concordance between the various phases of the  biblical narration and the archaeological periods to which they can be attributed (fig. 4).  Figure 4 is not proposing a solution to the query but it is providing the frame for a structural analysis.


One of the recurring themes in the studies concerning exodus is the embarrassment caused by the lack of other literary sources, on events that appear to be so important in the Bible.  Let us view here some of the fundamental points that are suggested by the literary sources which are external to the Bible.


During the XVIII and XIX dynasty, in the Egyptian period of the New Kingdom (1550-1200 BC) the court of the Pharaoh was full of bureaucrats and intellectuals, and the state archives were worth every respect.  If the episode of the flight from Egypt and the passage of the “Red Sea” referred to the New Kingdom, some traces should have been found in the Egyptian text, perhaps proposing a more brilliant version for the Egyptians.  The lack of any reference has convinced some scholars that the biblical narration is pure mythology without any historical base.


The biblical episodes narrated in Egypt, the presence of notable groups of Asiatic people in the zone of the Delta, and the political changes that modified their social position, are subjects suitable for consideration in the Egyptian literature.  And in our view they have been considered; however the pertinent texts do not belong to the New Kingdom but to the Old Kingdom. In other words they do not go back to the XIII century, but to the III millennium BC, one millennium before the contexts on which the biblical scholars have concentrated their research. The reader should not be scandalised now, but after reading and meditating this article to the end and after considering the proposed data.

During the VI dynasty, especially under the reign of Pepi I (2375-2350), the Egyptians conducted several punitive campaigns.  A commander by the name of Uni immortalised the actions against the Asiatics “that live in the territory of sand” and describes situations comparable to those in the book of Exodus.  From the accounts we get a picture of a world conceptually and contextually very near that described in the biblical narrations.  The army of Uni devastated the animal enclosures, destroyed the huts, chopped down the figs and grape trees and safely came back to Egypt.  The description could refer to one of the tribes of the pastoralists and incipient cultivators in the semi desert zone, like the Midianites or the Amelekites.  It could also be a “war report” of an event in which, as usual, each one of the sides claimed success.


The biblical narration of the ten plagues finds a series of analogies in the Ipuwer Ammonitions,  an Egyptian text going back to the VI dynasty (2345-2181 BC).  Similarities concern also a system of allegories and a way of evaluating natural phenomena and giving them specific significance.  This text has numerous other hints worthy of consideration. “The delta marshes carry shields (are in turmoil)…foreigners have become landlords…”  Just like the biblical story of the clan of Jacob in the land of Goshen.  “…we do not know what may happen throughout the land… poor men have become possessors of treasures. He who could not make a pair of sandals is  the possessor of riches…”  This is a clear reference to foreigners who settled down in the Delta region, “in the best of the land” (Genesis 7:11)  Barbarians from outside have come into Egypt… foreigners are skilled in the work of the Delta...”  The land was kept by foreigners.  “…the asiatics have become landlords…” seems to reflect a version of the biblical story.   “…the storehouse is stripped bare.”  The royal stores are mentioned also in Genesis in the story of Joseph.  The text, which is very long for its period, seems to describe an era of wealth for the Asiatics who arrived in the zone of the Delta, and a deep sense of bitterness on the part of the Egyptians that were put aside by the adventurous strangers.  It seems to be the other side of a story.  Analogies with the narration of the plagues in Exodus include among other things “Women are dried up, and none can conceive  many dead are buried in the river…  the river is blood…” (Pritchard, 1969, pp.441-444). The biblical accounts have strong conceptual similarities but can they reflect a tradition as early as that?


The conception of the divinity as “time”, finds its highest expression in the narration of the revelation of Mount Sinai, where Yahweh revealed himself to Moses saying:  “I will be what I am” (Exodus 3, 14).  The God that comes down to the Mountain, has in his name the three tenses, present, past and future. There is a conceptual analogy with the myth of origin of the god Atum, or Atom, which is set upon the primordial mountain (or hill), and who reveals himself saying: “I am the great God that created himself ... who created his own names .. I am yesterday but I know tomorrow”.  The dedicatory text is found in the pyramid of Pharaoh Pepi II, of the VI dynasty, who reigned in the XXIII century BC, between about 2278 and 2184 BC (Pritchard, 1969, p. 3). Similar parallels to the biblical concepts seem to concentrate on texts going back to the 3rd millennium BC.


The Instructions of Merikare is an Egyptian text from the XXII century BC compiled for the education of a prince, and in it some commandments are proposed.  Among those are “Copy thy father and thy ancestors… Do not distinguish the son of a man from a poor man… Revere the god…”.  There are similar precepts that, according to the biblical texts, were given with the Ten Commandments of Mount Sinai.  Another Egyptian document, known as the Neferrohu Prophecies may be of some interest. It goes back to the XX century BC (XII dynasty) and among other things it says: “…the Asiatics will not be permitted to come into Egypt that they might beg for water in the customary manner, in order to let their beasts drink...” (Pritchard, 1969, pp.444-446). All these are documents belonging to the Early Bronze Age.


The biblical accounts, according to which Moses lived in Midian for many years and there formed a family, are an exceptional ethnological document for the amount of its cultural information and for what it tells us about the habits of the desert population.  The remains of the villages at the foot of Har Karkom and in the Uvda Valley constitute an impressive archaeological testimony of this way of life that the Bible describes. But their dates have nothing to do with the age of Raamses! They belong to the 3rd millennium BC.


The Midianite episode of Moses shows numerous analogies with an Egyptian account, which in the form in which it reached us, refers to the XX century BC (ca. 1960 BC)  Sinuhe, an official of the Pharaoh Amen-em-het I, lived in the royal harem and served the hereditary princess. He committed some infraction and when the Pharaoh dies, he fears the successor.  He flees to Asia “in the land of Yaa where figs and grapes are grown and wine is more abundant than water” where he is welcomed in by a local chief. He gets the elder daughter as a wife, and creates a family, and from his father-in-law he receives animals and pastural land and finally he is called back to Egypt to cover an important task.  The narration of Sinuhe has so many elements in common with the biblical story of Moses who flees to Midian and of his father-in-law Jethro, that we may hypothesise a common matrix of the two accounts.  Obviously this matrix can only be of the same age or earlier than the oldest of the two versions and therefore, it cannot be later than the XX century BC The term “Land of Yaa” would be worth a dissertation but it would lead us away from the main point of this text.


There are also comparative points with the Mesopotamian literature, and in this context it will be enough to mention one.  Sargon of Akkad, charismatic leader of the Semites, led his people from the arid periphery to the conquest of the green, fertile land of Mesopotamia, around 2300 BC.  The myth of the origin of Sargon is almost identical to that of Moses: “My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me” (Pritchard, 1969, p.119). Both conducted their respective people toward the conquest of the “Promised Land”.  The myth of origin of the two characters at the roots of the Semitic world, Moses and Sargon, appear to have been inspired by a common narrative matrix, which necessarily is contemporary or prior to the first of the two narrations that reached us, that is, earlier than the XXIII century BC.


Descriptions of the construction of megalithic monuments are repeated on various occasions in the course of the biblical narration: an altar and twelve pillars at the foot of Mount Sinai, a circle of twelve stones at Gilgal, the construction of funerary tumuli in several occasions, testimonial tumuli (in Hebrew gal-ed) and other sacred stones.  Pillars or menhirs and other megalithic structures are part of the biblical landscape. For the archaeologists these elements have a chronological value.  They can be attributed to the III millennium BC  They are types of monuments found in the territory in the Early Bronze Age and at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age and they were never constructed again after 2000 BC.


The archaeological excavations and survey have established the dating for Kadesh Barnea, Arad, Jericho, Ai, and other sites mentioned in the biblical accounts of Exodus and in the book of Joshua.  According to the archaeological findings, several of these localities developed in the III millennium BC and suffered devastation and destruction in the last third of this millennium.  Several scholars have gone out of their way to make their archaeological discoveries coincide with the conventional date attributed to the exodus, but none of these sites existed in the XIII century BC.


When no traces of the Late Bronze Age were found at Jericho, some biblical scholars asserted that biblical Jericho was not there.  When the archaeological excavations failed to find traces of the Late Bronze Age at Ai, Arad or Kadesh-Barnea, the same thing was said.  Could all these identifications be wrong? This is hardly possible.  Archaeological discoveries indicate that there were invasions of people from the periphery to the fortified cities of the fertile land in the late third millennium BC.  Today, we know that the process of desertification rendered life in the desert ever more difficult.  The peripheral tribes were compelled to their aggressions by thirst.  The narrations of the book of Joshua, with the attacks against the cities of Canaan, in our view, may well reflect this age and these circumstances.


On the basis of the archaeological finds in Moab and Edom in Jordan, the Bible could hardly have referred to an epoch after the XX century BC for the populations mentioned; the war fought and the cities conquered in the biblical narration concern traditions that imply the presence of a population. The territory which is said in the Bible to have been occupied and colonised by the Israelites was, according to the archaeological documentation, intensely populated in the III millennium BC and desert in the II millennium BC. In the II millennium BC they could not possibly have been colonised or cultivated.


“…And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying: Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards…” (Numbers 21, 21-22).  Fields and vineyards were possible in the zone before the XX century BC  Then the villages were abandoned and in the II millennium BC there was not a sedentary population in this area nor a climate that would allow fields and vineyards.  Subsequently the area was predominantly used for pasture.


Considering all these factors, it seems likely that the biblical accounts reflect what the archaeological investigations have revealed at Har Karkom, Beer Karkom and Kadesh-Barnea, as at Jericho, Ai, Edom, Moab and elsewhere. Recent paleo-climatological studies have confirmed that the areas concerned were not habitable during the period of intense aridity, which covered most of the II millennium BC (Issar, 1995; Issar et al., 1992).


The concordance with the climatic fluctuations, the comparison with the Egyptian literature, the archaeological documentation at Jericho and at Ai, and the finds of Har Karkom and of Ein Kudeirat, seem to confirm an historical basis to exodus and indicate that the age of the events in the biblical accounts of the departure from Egypt was in the period of the VI Egyptian dynasty (2345-2181 BC).


According to this view, the mythic history that includes the wanderings in the desert, the presence at the foot of Mount Sinai, the presence at Kadesh Barnea, the conquest of Transjordan, the period of incursions of Joshua and the subsequent “obscure period”, until the beginning of the epoch of Judges, would cover around 1000 years, from 2300 to 1200 BC


The ethical and moral messages, the universal values do not change.  What is changing is their historical context and also the synchronisation with the historical documents of the ancient Egyptian text, with climatic and environmental changes, and with the testimony of archaeology.





1993         Arad.  The Canaanite City, in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Holy Land, Jerusalem (Israel Exploration Soc.), vol. 1, pp. 75-82.


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1987b     Har Karkom e la cronologia dell’Esodo, BCN, vol 4/2, pp. 25-36

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1997        Esodo tra mito e storia, SC, vol. 18, Capo di Ponte (Edizioni del Centro), 1997, 300 pp., 130 ill.


1954        La date de l’Exode, La Bible et l’Orient, pp. 36-49


1981        Did I Excavate Kadesh-Barnea?  BAR, vol. 7/3, pp. 20-33.

1983        The Mysterious MBI People-Does the Exodus Tradition in the Bible Preserve the Memory of their Entry into Canaan?, BAR, vol. 9, pp. 16-29.


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1977         Climatic Fluctuations During the Holocene as Reflected by the Dead Sea Levels, Paper presented at the International Conference on Terminal Lakes, Ogden (Weber State College).