The Exodus: A New Thought on an Old Story

With the possible exception of the Amarna Period, the time of the pharaoh Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti, I do not think there is a topic more worked over in Egyptology than the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.  Did this happen under the pharaoh Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great), or under his son and successor Merenptah, both of 19th Dynasty date or perhaps at some other time, if it happened at all?  In this essay—based upon a series of lectures I delivered in 2008 dealing with the Bible and some recent archaeology—I will attempt to show some of the inherent problems faced when considering this topic.  Through philological, archaeological, biblical, and artistic depictions we can hope to get some new perspectives on the Exodus.

Among the problems we initially encounter are the following. Not one piece of direct archaeological evidence is found for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or the claimed four hundred years in Egypt. The same problem holds true for the Exodus. Also, what about the city of Jericho as described in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The overthrow of this city has direct implications for our belief and understanding of the archaeological problem since the supposed incident happened in direct relation to the Exodus. If the Exodus from Egypt did not happen as described in the Book of Exodus and the three following books of Moses, then what does it tell us about the veracity of the record and indeed the entire Books of Joshua and Judges in which it is also mentioned?

Libyan Stela in Cairo Museum

Abraham, if he existed, probably lived between 1900 and 1650 BCE depending upon which chronology one accepts. Joseph lived at a period when surviving documents of any type are scarce, but what might be accepted from what little there is would  place him in the Delta area in the Middle Kingdom at the time of Amenemhet II (1865 BCE).  The book of Genesis tells us that Joseph, through the deceit of his brothers, was sold to traders and eventually made his way into Egypt and into the hands of a captain of the guard called Potiphar (Gen. 39:1).  Through this man he becomes introduced to the kings court and so the well known story found in Genesis 41. There is reason to believe these events took place during the reign of Senwoseret II (1878 BCE) due to the famine that is reported in Genesis 41:43 ff.  Joseph probably dies in the days of Amenemhet III (1797 BCE) (Gen. 50 ff).

From Egyptian literature we learn that there were a number of Asiatics in the Delta region from about 2200 to 2000— as The Instructions Addressed to King Merykare bear witness. Merykare’s father, who is the supposed writer of this Instruction, carries the nomen Khety, as do several kings of the 9th/10th Dynasty, who are otherwise known as the Heracleopolitan kings.  We know from some fragmentary inscriptions that the  most likely candidate for the particular king in question here was one Nebka(u)re.

A translation of the Instructions, gives good insight into the Asiatics' presence in the Delta at this time:


  I breeched their strongholds,

  I made Lower Egypt attack them,

  I captured their inhabitants,

  I seized their cattle,  

  Until the Asiatics abhorred Egypt.

  Do not concern yourself with him,

  The Asiatic is a crocodile on its shore,

  It snatches from a lonely road,

  It cannot seize from a populous town.”

                (M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. I. Berkeley 1975, pg. 104)

The Asiatics actually ruled Egypt from the Delta for about 200 years until around 1550 BCE. The text from Ahmose son of Abana (in his tomb at El Kab), refers to the wars that drove out most of their leaders but many Asiatics, in fact, may have stayed and could have become slaves.  The people referred to in Exodus 1:8 and forward may be these same people seen at the transition to the 18th Dynasty in Egypt about 1550 BCE.

The Exodus: Biblical and Historical

The biblical account going forward from here refers to such things as the ten plagues, certain miracles, numerous slaves and so forth.  A major concern for most people is the almost complete lack of records indicating any of this from Egyptian sources.  I would put forward the idea that at least one of the reasons for the absence of records would be the location of these occurrences: the Delta from where no papyrus records could have survived down to us. Indeed, archaeologically we have virtually nothing of this nature from the Delta.  The fact is that the entire area is simply too wet for material of this sort to survive.  Anyone familiar with the problems of excavation in the Delta will immediately understand.  The ancient ground level is now some twenty feet or more below the modern surface and the water table is so high in the area that most current excavations must employ the constant use of pumps to keep the diggings dry.  In any case there are very few surviving day-to-day records of the 3000-plus years of Egyptian history.  Surviving documents tend to be from the much more arid desert areas.

Additionally, there is the Egyptian concept of ma’at to be considered.  In brief, this concept relates to the notion that once anything is written down or spoken it may have the ability to be perpetuated and perhaps repeated, something that is part of the nature of Egyptian religious beliefs.  We see examples in the Egyptian’s desire to have their names spoken after death in order to maintain their existence in the afterlife, and so the idea that writing an event down will also make it possible for the event to continue, perhaps recurring at some future point. Surely so catastrophic an event as so many slaves being let go at once would not be something the Egyptians would wish to commemorate.  The notion of all of these people being let go from Egypt at one time is a topic that we will examine later in this article from another point of view. 

Having said this, we must now entertain the idea that there is indeed some circumstantial evidence from the time of Ramesses II in certain surviving documents. One such document is known as the Leiden Papyrus 348 and the Ramesside period inscriptions.  The Leiden Papyrus states that food be given “to the Apiru who transport stones to the great pylon of Ramesses.” Not a few scholars believe that Apiru is in fact the origin of the word HebrewApiru (‘pr) in ancient Egyptian refers to a “stateless people” (see A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, R. Faulkner, Griffith Institute, 1981 pg 42), as the Asiatics living in Egypt at this time surely were.  Further, we may be reminded of the passage in Exodus 1:11, which states that the Hebrews “built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Ramesses.” 

Egyptian Border Policies

In the 13th century BCE, the Egyptians maintained tight border controls and no one was allowed to pass without a permit.  This was an attempt to control the inflow of outsiders into the Nile valley in order to avoid the problems of earlier times.  It is clear from the annals of Ramesses that the goal was not always achieved.  There is the mention of continuing problems with people such as the Bedouin tribes, who even today show little respect in their migratory patterns for international borders.  A Ramesside text speaks of a father upbraiding his son saying “You are now on the journey of a swallow with her young, you have reached the Delta on a long circuit, and you have consorted with the Asiatics, having eaten bread (mixed) with your own blood!  You have lost your wits!”   (J. Cerny, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 14 (1955), 161-63). 

Again, we read from the Papyrus Anastasi I, 20:2-4: “The (band of thieves) was come into the camp and the horses were looted…in the night, and your clothes were stolen.  Your groom was awakened and when he realized what he had done, (i.e. let them in) he took the rest.  (Now) he has wholly gone over to the life of evil: he mixes with the tribes of the Shasu, having adopted the guise of an Asiatic.”  Since the beginning of the New Kingdom, the Egyptians had little respect or sympathy for these people who had, at least in their eyes, so defiled Egypt. 

A passage in Exodus 12:37 leads to another problem: what was the real number of Apiru, or perhaps Israelites, in Egypt at the time of the Exodus? This problem is interpretive in nature. The biblical passage would have us believe that there were “about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children.” This was a time when according to Egyptian records there were probably only about twenty thousand in the entire Egyptian army!  I would posit that a literal reading of Exodus 12:37 may be way off.

Libyan Stela

Most scholars now agree that the Israelites were in Canaan by about 1208 BCE.  There is a very good reason to accept this premise as is indicated by the now famous Libyan Stela of Pharaoh Merenptah, son of Ramesses II.  This stela, which contains a long prose account of Merenptah’s victory over the Libyans in year five of his reign, has also become to be known as the “Israelite Stela” due to the last few lines of the text.  Here we see the only mention of Israel anywhere in Egyptian records.  The last few lines read:

“Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti is at peace,

Canaan is captive with all woe.

Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,

Yanoam made nonexistent;

Israel is wasted, bare of seed,

Khor is become a widow for Egypt.

All who roamed have been subdued

By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Baenre-meramun,

Son of Re, Merenptah, Content with Ma’at,

Given life like Re every day.”

(Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, volume II, pg.77, Berkeley, 1976.)

A great deal has been made of this inscription found at Karnak temple in the court of the Seventh pylon, but perhaps the real truth is just a bit more difficult to ascertain and so now we will have a look at another theory recently proposed that has some evidence to back it up.

A Reconsideration of Evidence

Excavations at the site of Medinet Habu on the west bank of the Nile, under excavation since the Nineteenth century, have identified a classic Israelite four-room house. If this is so, then a proto-Israelite population existed in Egypt in the second half of the 12th century, around 1150 and forward— more than half a century later than previously thought (see Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 29 no. 5, Sept/Oct. 2003, pg 40 ff).  This came to light in the 1930’s during the University of Chicago’s excavations (see U. Holscher, The Excavations of Medinet Habu II, Oriental Institute Publications 41, 1939, pp. 68-72.).  Adjacent to the remains of the Ramesses III (1184-53, Dynasty XX) memorial temple are the remains of a temple built by the pharaoh Ay and later taken over by the pharaoh Horemheb (1327- 1293B.C.E.).  The diggings have uncovered remains of rude huts showing narrow trenches cut out of bedrock.  In these trenches postholes and the remains of wooden poles were also found. 

The foundations of interest here were found situated in the temenous (a wall whose purpose was to demarcate the sacred area and was usually constructed of mud brick.) of the temple, parallel to the temple wall.  The archaeology of the site would suggest that the earlier period temple (18th Dynasty) was still there when the huts were built and that these huts are themselves later than the Medinet Habu Ramesses III temple.  The question then arises as to just when was the Ay-Horemheb temple demolished?  We know from the shape of the temenous wall around the Ramesses III temple that the Ay- Horemheb temple was still standing at the time of Ramesses III.  The marked deviation of the northwestern temenous wall of Ramesses’ temple bears evidence to this.  In fact, it was this deflection from the wall's original line that tipped the excavators off to the presence of this earlier temple of Ay-Horemheb, leading them to suspect that it made this jog to avoid another temple complex! 

At this point we can safely say that the temple of Ay and Horemheb was demolished no earlier than the time of Ramesses III’s successor, Ramesses IV (1153-47).  This fellow, Ramesses IV, is the most likely one to have begun the demolition of the earlier temple since he erected a new temple just to the north and would have found it necessary to move some of the temenous wall from the Ay-Horemheb temple.  He also demolished several other temples in the area.  We know because reused material from these temples is found in his work in the area known as the Asasif, also located on the West Bank of the Nile at modern day Luxor.

Temenous at Medinet Habu

Now, the plan of the workmen’s hut discovered at this site has no known parallel in Egyptian house architecture.  However this type of architecture is well known from Palestine and is referred to as the “Israelite four-room house.”  The Semitic Museum at Harvard University has a full-sized model of one on display.  What is seen is a structure that contains three parallel long rooms and a broad room across one end.  The long rooms are separated by either walls or columns, and the central room is thought to have been an open courtyard, usually divided from one of the adjoining rooms by a row of columns.  Recent excavations in Israel confirm that this was the predominant style of domestic architecture in Palestine during the entirety of the Iron Age (1200-586 B.C.E.).  It made its first appearance when the Israelites began to settle perceptibly in Canaan in Iron I and did not disappear until after the Babylonian destruction of 586 BCE.  There are other examples of this style of house in southwestern Asia as far back as the 4th millennium BCE in such places as Syria and Iraq (see Ebla to Damascus, Harvey Weiss ed., Smithsonian, 1985, pg 85 ff.).  The variation of note is the pillar separation of the center room from one side room that makes the style so easily identifiable and that it first appears in Palestine at just this time, i.e. 12th century BCE.

It is possible to suggest, therefore, that the workmen, slaves, working on the demolition of the Ay-Horemheb temple in the late 12th century BCE could have been early Israelites.  Many scholars have identified a faction of the Shosu Bedouin, which we mentioned earlier, as early Israelites.  In any case they most likely came out of this pool of early wanderers (see P. Harris, first section. Also, R. Giveon, Les Bedouin Shosou des documents egyptiens, Leiden, 1971).  These people were growing quickly in the 12th century.  Recently, archaeologists have found many ancient settlements with the four-room house in the highlands of central Canaan. Prisoners from the campaigns of Ramesses III are very likely some of these people.  The workmen who lived in these houses were probably descended from these prisoners of war.  This all would have taken place in the Twentieth Dynasty. Ramesses tells us as much on the walls of his mortuary temple of Medinet Habu (see Ancient Records of Egypt, J.H. Breasted, vol. IV, reprinted London, 1988, pp. 68-80).  These people probably were in fairly close proximity to Egypt prior to this time.  In all likelihood, they were already settled in Canaan and then deported to Egypt following Ramesses III’s Syrian campaign either by force or perhaps for the necessity of moving their flocks to better locations.

Biblical Tradition Reexamined

We have reached a point now where we can ask if the tradition found in the Bible should perhaps be revised to indicate that the Israelites or their predecessors were first settled in Canaan, where they seem always to want to return.  Following this early settlement, and after the wars of Ramesses III, they then had their time in Egypt and finally an Exodus from Egypt in the last quarter of the 12th century BCE.  The most recent archaeology shows that the spread of settlements began no earlier than the 12th century.  Archaeology also shows the arrival of a new population, evidenced by the finds of a new material culture.  There are destruction levels seen at this time and the assumption would be that these new people, sometimes called the proto-Israelites, and perhaps also the much talked about Sea Peoples, are the main cause.  Another source for documentation regarding the existence of these people in the region at this time is the above referenced Libyan Stela (also called the Merenptah Stela and Israelite Stela) to which we will now again turn our attention.

Philological Considerations

The Libyan Stela mentions Israel in Canaan as a people. They are in a progression of places starting from the coast and moving to the interior of the country.  The order given on the stela is Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, Israel, and Khor.  The stela indicates that the people in question were still east of the Jordan River and did not possess land of their own.  We can deduce this on philological grounds from the nature of the hieroglyphs used to indicate the Israelites.  The determinative glyphs used for all the other places mentioned are those of a city or some definite place.  The determinative glyph used following the name of Israel however, points to a people and not to a city, which would indicate that these mentioned people were of a wandering, probably nomadic, type of group with no definite central city.  The evidence supports settlement in Canaan no earlier than the Twentieth Dynasty or the 12th century BCE.  Dating it closer to this time period brings it much closer to the composition of the biblical writings that incorporate the Exodus tradition. Additionally, this later date would be more consistent with the description of the “way of the Philistines” in Exodus (Way of Horus) as not being the route.

One last piece of evidence is to be found on the outer wall of the court of the already mentioned Seventh pylon at Karnak.  Here the pharaoh Merenptah has inscribed battle reliefs from the campaign mentioned in the last lines of the Libyan stela.  We can clearly see in these reliefs the towns being attacked by the Egyptian army and the fortifications being used by the defenders.  The hieroglyphs clearly identify the names of these towns as the ones mentioned in the stela.  However, on the remains of the top register of the inscription we can clearly make out a group of people seemingly fighting in open fields and chariots moving among them.  This scene is identified as Israel (Ysr3r/l) and it is here that we see the tell-tale glyph for “people” but, in any case, a people without a specific city state following the name.  We can contrast this with Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam all showing the correct determinative glyph designating a specific Asiatic place.         

Historically we know that the Philistines were already in their five cities by this time. They had been driven back by the earlier war with Ramesses III and they had settled along the costal areas of Canaan, their cities being Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, Ekron and Gaza.  It would make very good sense for the Israelites, upon leaving Egypt, to avoid this route (Ex. 13:17).  The earliest biblical texts that incorporate the exodus traditions are found in Judges 5 (Song of Deborah) and the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15),  The ascribed dates of these texts are indeed very close to this time, between 1100 and 1050 BCE (see Biblical Archaeology Review, B. Halpern, Sept/Oct. 2003, vol.29 no.5, pg50).  It is quite possible that some individuals who actually lived in Egypt and participated in the Exodus were still alive when these sections were written.  The time frame is agreed upon by many well-known scholars in this field including Frank M. Cross, J. C. De Moor, and D. A. Robertson.  These poems could very well have a core of historical accuracy.

As the pharaoh Ramesses IV completed his work, and so his need for these people, it is not beyond possibility that they were let go to return to their homeland, which most likely occurred in stages over a period of several years. Postulating the time frame of the Exodus to be that of Ramesses IV (12th century BCE) brings us much closer to the agreed-upon composition of writings that incorporate the Exodus tradition.

If the new time frame is true, then all of these destructions of cities as seen in Joshua could not have happened at the time they were supposed to happen, the supposed time of the writing of the Book of Joshua.  In fact, there is no archaeological evidence for any of this happening at a time which would fit archaeologically with the supposed period of Joshua.  Recent archaeology in Israel has shown this conclusively. Many conservative scholars would agree that the Exodus would have or should have occurred between the 15th and 13th centuries and this would line up with a particular destruction period at Jericho according to K. Kenyon.  However, others have shown that this destruction was most likely not from the hands of the Israelites as they moved into Canaan (see B. Halpern cited above).  What we are proposing here is an Exodus that happened in the 12th century or some 100 years later at least.   

Thomas F. Mudloff                     




                                                     (To be Continued)