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The Exodus Cycle




Here is something that I have been working on for a while. I have tried to be as unbiased and objective as I can (some say that isn’t very much) and I hope you enjoy it. I apologize for the length, but it is a rather hefty subject - Mako

After a century and a half or more of archaeological excavations in both the Near East and Palestine (in particular), there has not been one single tiny shred of evidence to support the Exodus or the Conquest. This fact was instrumental in the statement made by the Syrio-Palestian archaeologist and biblical scholar William Dever (Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Arizona) that the Exodus was a “Dead Issue” (Encyclopaedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Vol IV (1997) pp 391-2.) The fact has become very evident to anyone with any expertise in the field that it is not possible to harmonize the Judea-Christian bible with the archaeological date (actually with the lack thereof) in regard to the Exodus event.

In an attempt to determine if the Exodus was an actual historical event, scholars use literary and archaeological sources. In establishing the historicity of the Exodus, the first thing to determine when it was said to have happened. 1 Kings 6:1 gives the date of the Exodus as follows: “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the LORD.”

By synchronizing the characters mentioned in the bible that are known from external sources and by using the biblical genealogies, we can work out the date of Solomon’s reign. By the aforementioned method, we arrive at the date of 967 BCE for the 4th year of Solomon’s reign, giving us a date of 1447 BCE for the Exodus. It needs to be mentioned now that King Solomon is mentioned only in the Bible, nowhere outside the Bible in any inscriptions or texts, nor has a signle stone of this “Temple” been found anywhere either.

The bible portrays the enslavement, Exodus, and Conquest as huge events. Events that involved millions of people and many different nations. Abundant literary sources from that time period are available to scholars


The enslavement, Exodus, and the Military Conquest of Palestine as portrayed in the Bible are described as huge events involving millions of people and many different nations. Scholars now have at their fingertips an abundant amount of literary sources from the very time that the Bible claims that the Exodus, the desert wanderings, and the Conquest of Palestine happened.

Regarding the Literary sources, the Hebrew Bible is the only text that mentions the Enslavement in Egypt, the Israelite Exodus, and the Military Conquest of Palestine. However, the Hebrew Bible is not the sole source we have for reconstructing the background of Syria-Palestine in the early 2nd millennium BCE onwards. The Egyptian Execration texts, c. 1800 BCE, written on potsherds and describing many different enemies of Egypt (including Palestine and Phoenica) are the earliest important texts. As North points out in his “The History of Israel” p. 113, it is through these texts that we learn divers information, such as the names of princes and places, and by studying these names and how they are formed, we arrive at clues of their ethnic origins and the ethnic structure of the population. Assuming that the bible’s dating is correct, then 1800 BCE is not much later than the tme Joseph rose to a high position within the Pharaoh’s court.

Probably contemporary with the Execration Texts, or nearly so, are the Mari Texts. These are the extensive archives of the Kings of Mari, containing legal, economic and political correspondence of the Kings of Mari and provide extensive information about contemporaneous Syria. The Amarna Letters, written mainly in Akkadian, were found in the ruins of a site built by Akhenaton in the first part of the 14th century BCE and describes the political situation in the Egyptian sphere of influence during the Late Bronze II period. Of the 382 known tablets, 350 are letters of correspondence between various kings and vassals to the Pharaoh. Although some of these letters are from nations independent of Egypt (Babylon, Mittani, Alasia (Cypus?), Assyria, Arzawa and Hatti (Hittites mentioned in the bible), most are from vassal living in Syria-Palestine. Some 150 of the letters come from Palestine proper and only a small minority originated in Egypt. (John C.H. Laughlin, Archaeology and the Bible, pp84-86) Even though they are, by biblical chronology, contemporary with the Exodus and Conquest, the Amarna letters are strangely silent, not only of those matters, but of anything that the Hebrew bible claims happened in this area.

The very fact that none of the other texts we have, the Nuzi tablets and the Ugarit texts (which contains many of the Psalms and Proverbs found in the Hebrew bible, 300 years before the existence of the Israelite people), are aware of an Israelite people, even though these cultures left tens of thousands of records from the very place and time that the Hebrew bible says all sorts of wonderful epic events happened. In all of the extant texts of the Near East of that time period, we have no mention of anything at all about Israel, the characters of the Bible or even one single event reported in the bible! Therefore it is very evident that contemporary literary sources do not support the Hebrew bible’s dating of the Exodus, etc.

Since it can’t be shown by contemporary literary sources that the Exodus, Conquest or even Israel existed during period, the next logical step would be to look for the earliest mention of “Israel” outside of the bible. On the victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah (ca 1207 BCE) is the first known mention of “Israel” but whether this is the Israel of the Hebrews is questionable. In the list of enemies vanquished in Merneptah’s campaign in Palestine, the mention of “Israel” does indeed occur, but it is the only name that is preceded by the Egyptian determinative that represents a people and not a land. The other names are all acknowledged as lands, this suggests that the “Israel” mentioned on the stele has not yet settled in Palestine. Attempts by such scholars as F.J. Yurko and Roland de Vaux to show that the “Israel” mentioned on the stele was the people that were once in Egypt were absolute failures. Problematic for these scholars is that the battle with Merneptah is not mentioned in the bible at all! An honest conclusion is that all that can be said for certain about the Israel in the Merneptah stele is that at the end of the 13th century BCE an Egyptian scribe listed a group of people living in Canaan that were collectively known as “Israel”. (J Maxwell Millar and John J Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah SCM Press, London 1986, p68) Also, it is reasonable to say that there is no way to link the “Israel” in the stele to any form of religious worship or even if this “Israel” is related to the “Israel” that supposedly emerged under David and Solomon some 200 - 300 years later (Niels Peter Lemche Hebrew, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992 vol 3 p95). In conclusion, if the Merneptah Stele actually referred to the biblical Israel, it would evidentially be referring to a relatively new group in the Palestinian scene, not yet a nation. If the Exodus has taken place in the 15th century BCE, Israel would have surely been a settled nation in Palestine for 250 years or more later and would have been mentioned in many external texts prior to the Merneptah Stele. So all that we can really say is that we have a huge amount of texts that illustrate the political and social background of the ancient Near East, yet the Israel of the bible and the events associated with her entry onto the world stage are totally ignored by recorded history

Facing the dearth of literary evidence of both the Exodus and Conquest, we need to look for any archaeological evidence to support such historical events. Remember that the “Conquest” cannot be separated from the Exodus; it is, according to the Hebrew bible, the last of a three part redemptive action by Jehovah – Exodus/wanderings/Conquest. (Dillard and Longman, “An Introduction to the Old Testament”, 1978) . Therefore, 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, after wanderings in the desert (Sinai), there should be evidence of at least two things at the end of the 15th century BCE:


First, evidence of widespread conflict and destruction in those cities mentioned in the bible. Those cities that were supposedly conquered by the Israelites under Joshua.

Second, such signs as new settlements, a new material culture (such as a culture with strong Egyptian influences, such as the Israelites would have had after 400 years of enslavement), and finally the sudden cessation of the conquered peoples material culture would be indicative of the entrance of a new population into Palestine.

Close scrutiny of the archaeological record finds no support for either of these two claims at the end of the 15th century BCE, the period we would expect to find an Exodus and Conquest by the chronology offered by the bible. Nor is there any archaeological evidence to support any Hebrews being in Egypt in that century or any of the preceding or subsequent centuries. There is no archaeological evidence of a large body of peoples wandering the Sinai for 40 years. Consequently, nothing exists to support the Exodus, the Wandering nor the military Conquest of Palestine during the 15th century BCE.

Since our search for a 15th century Exodus was futile, is there anything, any clue to suggest that the Exodus occurred, but not when the bible says it did? Exodus 1:11 does provide a small clue directing us towards another date. It mentions the store cities of Pithom and Rameses and suggests that the Exodus must have happened some time after the commencement of work on these cities. The building of the “Estate of Rameses” cannot have been before 1304 BCE, as no pharaoh before that was ever called Rameses. The date of Rameses II’s reign in the High Chronology is 1304-1238 BCE, Middle 1290-1224 and the Low 1279-1213. (Baruch Halpern The Rise of Ancient Israel Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington 1992 p.90) There is no doubt that the “Estate of Rameses” was named after Pharaoh Rameses II, the inscriptions found at the site itself are evidence of this. (I believe that a thread named “there’s more evidence for Rameses II than there is for Jesus” might be an interesting addition to this forum, one that might generate good debate.)

Originally called Avaris and the capital of the Hyksos, the city of Rameses was rebuilt by Sethos I and then by Rameses II, and called “the House of Rameses” by the latter, this tradition continued only until the 11th century BCE, after which it was called Tanis (John Bright, A History of Israel p.119). Scholars has suggested that the references to Pithom and Rameses in Exodus could be anachronistic; in my opinion it definitely s an anachronism! Even if the reference to Rameses is accurate (highly unlikely), the mention of Pithom is still anachronistic. According to the passage in Exodus, Pithom is seen as a city comparable to Rameses. An impossibility, since the name Pithom was only used as the name of a city in the Saite period (ca 7th century BCE) onwards (strangely enough the OT wasn’t put to parchment until 2 centuries or more later). The meaning of Pithom is “the house of Atun” and was only used for temples and temple estates of that god and was never connected with cities prior to the 7th century BCE (Niels Peter Lemche, Is It Still Possible to Write a History of Ancient Israel? in V Phillips Long, Israel?s Past in Present Research, p.398). Besides this, archaeologists working at Tell el-Maskhuta in north-eastern Egypt have found clear evidence that this was the ancient city of Pithom and that it was founded by Pharaoh Necho II between 609-606 BCE, a good survey of this can be found in J.S. Holladay?s The Wadi Tunrilat Project. The Excavations of Tell el-Maskhuta. Malibu CA 1982. The two cities mentioned in Exodus can not be supported by archaeology as having existed or been occupied at the same time, one part of the reference seems to be from the 2nd millennium BCE and the other from the 1st millennium BCE. (Millar and Hayes, page 69)

This is not the single anachronism in the Exodus myth if a mid 15th century BCE date demanded by the Hebrew bible is adhered to. According to the 20th and 21st chapters of Numbers, the Exodus group wander around Edom and Moab (incidentally this month’s Biblical Archaeology Review has an article on Edom and copper mining, I unfortunately have not had time to read it yet), two kingdoms that were unknown before the 13th century BCE (Bright, p121).

Taking the Rameses reference as being a memory of an authentic event, there would be a much better case for the Exodus, Wandering, Conquest as occurring in the 13th century BCE. The Israelites left Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the desert and entered Palestine by means of a military conquest, at least that is what the Bible (written about 700 years later) tells us. The Merneptah Stele tells us that there was a group (not a nation) in Palestine know as “Israel” by the time of Pharaoh Merneptah’s campaigns (late 13th century BCE) and archaeology does offer some slight evidence to this. As pointed out by Dr. Israel Finklestein in his recent book, there was a sudden appearance of hundreds of new settlements in the central hill country of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age. As he also pointed out, the material culture was identical to that of the Canaanites, with the possible exception of the absence of swine bones. However, since the biblical narratives do associate the Israelite tribes specifically with the central hill country, it is at least plausible that they are somehow connected to these settlements. But the archaeological record indicates that they are

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the sudden appearance of hundreds of new settlements in the central hill country of Palestine at the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age transition. However, there is nothing that has been discovered so far that has identified the new settlers by name. But if we take into account the evidence of the Merneptah Stele, which places an ?Israel? in Palestine at the end of the 13th century, and also the biblical narratives that associate the Israelite tribes specifically with the central hill country, it is at least plausible that the Israelites were connected in some way with the sudden appearance of these new settlements. However, it should be emphasized that scholars only promote a 13th century Exodus, not for good evidence for it, but only at that time would it be plausible! As a historical reference for reconstruction Israel’s origin, the bible is simply to unreliable to use!

Internal evidence gives us good reason to reject the bible as a reliable source of history. For example, the number of the people making up the Exodus group, a totally ludicrous number, verging on the absurd. If taken literally, the claim is that a group of 70 people (Exodus 1:5) multiplied into a nation of 2-3 million in around 430 years verges on the impossible! We know that this is impossible to achieve in 430 years, it is even more absurd to expect this population growth in four generations (Genesis 15:16). John Bright in his A History of Israel states in a footnote on p.130 that “The reader can figure that two and a half million people marching in an old fashioned column of fours would extend for some 350 miles!? We know that this would stretch all the way across the Sinai Desert and back again, the numbers involved in the Exodus, if the event happened at all, must be smaller. Indeed, the word used for “thousand” (‘elef) can be translated as a tribal subunit, which would drastically reduce the numbers involved. A. Lucas in “Palestinian Archaeology Quarterly 1944, pp 164-166, has a much more realistic figure. He estimates on the basis of the modern industrialized rate of population growth in Egypt, that 70 men could produce 10,363 offspring in 430 years. It must be realized that such a rate of population growth can to be only as a result of industrialization, urbanization, technological and medical advances.

There are further conflicts in the biblical Exodus myth concerning the length of enslavement in Egypt. In Exodus 12:40 – 41 we are told 430 years, in Genesis 15:13 we see a round 400 years and then in Genesis 15:16 it is stated they were in Egypt for four generations (M. Noth, “The History of Israel: p114), 75 people multiply to 2 million in four generations is just a little bit far fetched!

Contrary to what some websites promote, archaeology makes a mocker of a great deal of the bible. When Yigael Yadin excavated Hazor, he believed he had found evidence that the Israelites had destroyed the city, which he believed this to be evidence that confirmed Joshua 11:10-11

10 At that time Joshua turned back and captured Hazor and put its king to the sword. (Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms.)

11 Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anything that breathed, and he burned up Hazor itself.

Most archaeologists today date the destruction of Hazor to 1250 BCE, which appears to be a bit early to have involved Joshua (Dever in Shanks p.31). The reason for this is that at the site of Lachish a destruction level was dated to 1220 BCE, this would fit the Joshua account. But recently, scarabs of the later Ramesside pharaohs have been found which means that this particular destruction level has now been dated to 1150 BCE or later. It is impossible that Joshua could have led both these campaigns, which were over 100 years apart; in fact, neither of these destructions can be linked with any confidence to the Israelites (Dever in Shanks p32).

I truly believe that we will never find any evidence for the Exodus myth cycle through archaeological sources and unless more literary material is found, it is not possible to show any evidence through the written word (other than the bible) of the cycle. It is, however, looking more and more like these events (enslavement, exodus, wanderings and conquest) are pure inventions of a later period of Israelite history. It seems to be little more than a myth created to advocate the Israelite’s right to the land at a time that this right was challenged. So both the myth of the promise by God of the land (Genesis 12:1) and the conquest were merely creations to support the Israelite claim to the right to live in Palestine.

While apologetic sites make the claim that the events of the bible have been confirmed time and again by archaeology. This basically untrue, archaeology cannot explicitly tell us anything about any Bible event it can only imply that things were possible, Binford calls this inference justification, we can justify the inference that these events happened by using archaeological data, but you really have trouble proving anything with certainty. For example, you could find dozens of trumpets beside the walls at Jericho, that doesn’t mean that the trumpets had anything to do with the walls tumbling down. Because the Bible is a product of faith, its main aim is not to report and record historical facts, this is why the biblical texts cannot be always be harmonized with archaeological remains.

In conclusion, this is just a very brief outline of some scholars’ opinions regarding the Exodus and other events. This is a massive area of research, and none of the leading scholars support the Bible as being totally accurate, the best they do is promote the Bible as having “kernels” of history within it. Every single book I have read on this subject has massive problems to overcome as soon as the author attempts to harmonize the Bible accounts with the archaeological data



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