THE TIME OF EXODUS IN THE LIGHT OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL TESTIMONY, EPIGRAPHY AND PALAEOCLIMATE
Ancient Egyptian texts, changing climates and archaeological finds reveal a surprising consensus on chronology
(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
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
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.
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
Raamses, the capital of
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
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
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
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
The biblical episodes narrated in
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
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
The conception of the divinity as “time”, finds
its highest expression in the narration of the revelation of
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
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
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
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
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,
When no traces of the Late Bronze Age were
basis of the archaeological finds in
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
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.
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